Immortality is a strange concept.
It is as the turning of the world to Merlin, constant and unthinking, keeping him a part of the fabric of the universe. Between the hands of men and the march of time, everyone dies. But not Merlin.
500 years after the death of Arthur, Merlin is sitting alone in a library in an unnamed village in England, thinking about the people in the pages of the books all around him. There is something so comforting in all these lives that have been lived, immortalised by those that wrote of them. It’s the closest he can get to finding something, anything, that equates to his longevity. To the way he is forced to watch the world pass him by while remains, unable to escape, as all the people he loved leave this life of his.
Why can’t they have immortality too? Why couldn’t Arthur?
He remembers setting Arthur adrift at Avalon like it was yesterday. He remembers the weight of Arthur in his arms on the shore, the beat of Kilgarrah’s wings as they’d been carried there, the sickening feeling as he’d passed a sword through Morgana.
Morgana had thought herself immortal, hadn’t she.
And Merlin thinks, maybe the best thing he can do for Arthur as he waits, is to immortalise him too.
Historia Regum Britannae is not the whole truth. Merlin finds, as he writes, that there are some things – Lancelot walking into the veil, finding Kilgarrah beneath Camelot Castle, the press of Arthur’s cold forehead against his by the shores of Avalon – that he just can’t bear to give to the world. Every name he writes weighs his heart a little more, and it eats away at him until he realises one afternoon that the reason he can’t read the word ‘Arthur’ on this page is because it’s been distorted by falling tears.
Soon after he finds himself at an impasse, unable to continue to take his memories and make them into something he can set apart from himself. So he lets his mind run wild, builds in plots and characters that never existed, and it eases the hurt, a little.
He remembers a historian that had worked in Camelot Castle, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and laughs a little as he pens that name onto the manuscripts. Immortality, indeed.
Merlin feels ever so slightly guilty, reading over the final product. It’s not the truth, not the half of it. But it’s all he can manage right now. Perhaps, given time, he can try again.
And time is really all he has these days.
Merlin often thinks about the other knights, and what became of them.
He had returned to Camelot once, just once. Five years after the death of Arthur, Merlin had felt a tug through the ripple of the earth that he recognised to be Gaius, calling him. He’d left his home in the forest, and made for the city. It had only taken a few days to return, but that journey could have been a lifetime for the weight it caused him to bear. Each step closer to the city was a knife in his gut, a reminder that he’d pass through the gates and across the courtyard and into the castle and there would be no Arthur there waiting. No Arthur to call out to him, to bandy words, to throw something.
But he made it, and he found Gaius on his deathbed. Somehow the older man had found it within his remaining magic to summon Merlin, and they had their last farewell as father and son.
Merlin didn’t want to stay long after that.
But he saw Gwen, went to check up on the knights. There were some new faces that were being trained by Leon: Gareth and Kay and Erec and Bors and a dark-haired young man with bright eyes named Galahad who looked the spitting image of an old friend Merlin once had. Merlin had stared and stared, until Galahad had come and introduced himself as Lancelot’s cousin.
Later, he came to watch a meeting at the round table, and it nearly killed him when he saw the one seat next to Gwen that was deliberately left empty. He thought of all the missing faces, not just Arthur, but Lancelot, Gwaine, Elyan. But then, there was Leon, smiling fondly at Gwen as she recounted the new trade deal Albion had built with a neighbouring kingdom, and there was Percival whispering with Galahad, the two of their heads close together. The table was surrounded by men of worth, who’d earned their places here by the strength of their spirit, not the size of their father’s wallets of the order of their birth. This was the world that Arthur had built. This here was his legacy.
Merlin had stayed for a month, getting to know the new knights, watching their deeds. And then one evening he decided that was it. He hadn’t wanted to say goodbye to any of them, and the castle guards were easy enough to slip past even without magic. Merlin remembers taking those steps away from the city, in the dark of the night, knowing in his heart that he would not be returning.
It is an odd thing, to think of them, so long gone from where Merlin is they might as well have never existed at all. It is an odd thing to try and remember the last moment that he saw each of them, and realise that such a thing isn’t possible.
And so, in 1182, Merlin decides to keep their memory alive too, in the only way he can think of. He pulls out quill and paper, and the words ‘Perceval, le Conte du Graal’ spill forth from it.
It’s a Tuesday morning in 1459 when Merlin wakes and finds he can’t remember Gwen’s face.
Her voice can be called up in his mind without question, and the little details are still there: the warmth of her tone, the way her brow would furrow when she asked a difficult question, her distant gaze and quiet smile when her thoughts were in far off places. She’s almost there, like a half-remembered dream that slips quickly and quietly away from the light of day. But Merlin can’t quite pull it all together.
One by one, Merlin runs his mind over the others. Over Gaius, Gwaine, Percival, Lancelot, Leon, Elyan. Over Arthur.
The tightness in his stomach lessons a little when he finds they’re all still there, their faces and voices and mannerisms. It’s just Gwen, beautiful, kind, queenly Gwen, that has somehow managed to wrest herself from Merlin’s mind. The thought of her lost forever to the recesses of his mind makes him feel ill.
He’s been living in London for some time now, near two decades he thinks, though he loses track of time so easily these days. It has been a while since he wrote anything, and his prose is rusty when it starts. This time, he thinks, he will write the story for Gwen. He will paint her into the romantic heroine she deserves to be seen as.
The tale turns against him though. It does that, he finds, more and more these days. He had felt so selfish, the first time he had written as Chretian about Gwen and Lancelot and their doomed love. He’d thought maybe that the only way to keep them alive was to tell the truth, but Merlin had known that was a lie even as he told it to himself. And was this the truth anyway? In 500 years, some things had muddled themselves in his mind, and he wasn’t quite sure in what order the whole Gwen-Arthur-Lancelot thing had happened. Who had she loved, really? Merlin was not the person to say.
“But,” he had thought to himself as he’d bundled that manuscript up to send to his friend in publishing, “I’m the only one left to speak.”
And now here he was again, 300 years later, and still burying Gwen in her own mistakes.
Merlin tries to fight against himself by giving the writing a rest, focusing instead on collecting some of the stories that had been told in the last century. Only a few were his, there are so many variations now. He hunts them down, translates them into English, trims and adds and rewrites here and there. He adds in the tale of Tristan and Isolde on a particularly sentimental weekend, when his thoughts are with Arthur and the sword in the stone. He can’t help but wonder what happened to Tristan, after he disappeared from Arthur’s court just days after their victory.
The stories are becoming more and more of a tomb, he thinks, as he finishes the touches on Le Morte d’Arthur.
“Here lies everyone I ever knew and ever cared about,” he whispers to himself in the flickering candlelight, his ink-spattered fingers running carelessly over his hair. He will immortalise them all, and time will be ever-so-slightly slowed in its ceaseless quest to bury them in its void.
He can’t resist folding the Grail legend back in as well. It’s become something he’s rather fond of.
In 1865, Merlin convinces Tennyson to revive the Arthurian legends one night in a bar, when neither of them were as drunk as they’d set out to be. It took surprisingly little goading, what with the gothic revival going on all about them these days. Those Victorians and their monsters; it was a love Merlin would never quite understand.
They wake up on the floor of the Hanbury Arms the next day, and Alfie starts writing immediately, scratching something out on a table top. Merlin gets himself home, digs out his copy of Le Morte d’Arthur, and drops it round to his friend’s house.
Merlin has complete trust in his friend’s writing ability, honestly, he does. But he’s not above using a little magic to weave his own voice into the stories.
This time, Merlin makes sure he is much kinder to Gwen in her own narrative. It’s because of this he is so upset when he finally reads Lancelot and Elaine, after it’s been published. He’d left that one up to Alfie, and the guilt he feels at Gwen’s portrayal is hard to swallow.
The cycle is finished in 1885, and Merlin adds the work to his Arthurian library. It had stopped growing for a while, and he’d stopped visiting this room on a daily basis; had stopped taking one of the books up to bed at night to run over the words, lying there, waiting to feel the tug of his soul that meant it was Arthur’s time. He’d thought, perhaps, during the first few years of the industrial era, that something cataclysmic would occur. But the world had settled anew in this strange configuration without the need for its greatest king.
They were not so fond of kings these days.
There was that afternoon not so long ago, in Caerleon, when Merlin had sat on the shores of the River Usk listening to the gentle lap of waves. Merlin had looked out over the water and thought of a lake, miles away, where Arthur had sunk beneath the silky surface of the water. For so many centuries, he’d felt the pain of loss tempered by a spark of hope, of longing, of belief. But lately the spark had gone cold, the ember flickering and dying.
Merlin thumbs the book of poetry, flicks past the dedication Alfie had hand-written to him in this copy, opens it to a page he has earmarked. He skips over the context, finding the words that gnaw at him.
“I lived in hope that sometime you would come.”
Was that him now? Lived in hope, past tense?
The next day, he takes a coach to a little town, and walks from there to the lake. He stands on its shores, and stares into the water, and the longing inside him might have split open the world if he didn’t keep his magic in check.
“Wake up,” he whispers, staring at the waters.
But the waters say nothing back.
The Once and Future King isn’t written by him.
Merlin is surprised when it appears in a bookshop near his flat in London, titled as if it were meant for him. He’d given up on trying to scribe Arthur into history’s constant mind.
With curiosity, he purchases it and takes it home, and can’t make it past the first chapter without flinging it across the room in irritation. At first, he thinks it’s the inaccuracies that have him so riled up. But that can’t be true, because it’s no more fanciful that half the stuff he’s written.
He walks around for days, angry at everything that crosses his path. After two weeks of pointedly ignoring its presence he storms home, slams the door, picks the book back up and reads.
And when he reaches the end, he wipes the tears from his eyes and acknowledges, in the quiet loneliness of his bedroom, that it is not the book that makes him angry. It’s that gods-be-damned title.
“Once, and future,” he whispers, tears spilling over now, running down his cheeks. “Well, it’s the future, Arthur.”
He lets the novel fall from his hands, and sinks down on his bed. Pale light slinks through the window, the frosty winter glow of the London city.
Merlin never finishes his last work.
It’s a script treatment for the BBC, a retelling of the Arthurian legend for the Saturday night audience. He’d heard whispers that they’d been casting about for something to fill the Doctor Who void, and thought, this is it. A chance to do it right.
For some reason, his conscious mind would not let him fib his way through this one. Perhaps it was because television was something new for him, something different. Or perhaps he’d just needed 1400 years to get to this point. That thought makes him laugh.
1400 years. Gods.
Yet here he still is, Merlin Emrys, screenwriter. Apparently.
And it’s…it’s true, what he’s written. Every detail, as far as he can remember. Which, he’ll admit, might not be cast iron. It has been the longest of times since he set foot on a street in Camelot, and met a prince who threatened to take his head off with a mace.
Writing it all out brings tears to his eyes so many times, makes his whole body ache and his heart revolt in his chest. But he gets it out. His journey to Camelot. Meeting Gaius, Uther, Gwen. Meeting Arthur.
That first episode nearly kills him. But he gets to the end of it, gets it all there, and sits back in his chair with the first smile he’s allowed in so so long.
It needs editing. But it’s late, just past midnight, and he’s bone weary. Merlin shuts down his computer and drags himself to bed.
He dreams of Arthur.
Merlin is standing knee-deep in water, and though he feels the haze of the dream constricting his senses, he knows that this is the lake. This is Avalon.
“Arthur?” He meant it as a shout, but what comes out is quiet, strained. He tries again. “Arthur?”
He can see only fog and shadow, no light but that of the stars above. And then-
“I’m here, Merlin.”
That voice. It cuts into his very bones.
Someone is coming through the mist towards him.
“Arthur!” he calls again, wading forwards into the icy water. He feels the mud under his boots try to slow him in his tracks, but he pushes on.
He’s dreamt of Arthur before, but not like this. Arthur is standing before him as if this were in life, in his chainmail and red cape that drapes itself over the lake’s surface. Everything about him comes rushing back to Merlin in an instant, the dull memories that he had clung to roaring to life as open flames. Merlin can’t believe it, can’t even move, just stands and drinks him in.
“I’m waking up, Merlin. I’m being summoned.” Arthur's voice is low, regal, his facial expression smooth, and in that moment he is pure king. And then his expression crumples, his brows furrows, and he mutters incredulously, “Do you have a beard?”
Merlin laughs, one hand flying to his face. He’d been wearing middle age of late, ageing himself like any other human so he wouldn’t have to give up his apartment. He closes his eyes and concentrates, and feels the years melt from him. When he opens them again, it’s in time to see Arthur’s expression change from confusion to something familiar, something warm. Something that makes Merlin feel whole again.
“What do you need me to do?” Merlin asks, his voice shaking. Arthur smiles.
“Come to the lake and step into the waters. I’ll return,” Arthur replies. “I’ll return to you.”
“It’s been so long, hasn’t it?” Arthur asks, his features softening. That look in his eyes takes Merlin right back to that day, when Arthur had lain in Merlin’s arms and gazed up at him with something so gentle, and so lost. When Merlin had watched the light go out in Arthur’s eyes.
“It has,” Merlin admits, unable to find anything to say. Eons, ages, an infinity. It has been so long, and his memories have dulled, and the people in his head that he had clung to long ago faded to the characters in his stories.
Merlin can’t stop himself then. He strides through the water, meets Arthur where he stands, pulls him forwards in embrace.
“You have no idea,” he mutters, his voice hoarse. He presses his chin into Arthur’s shoulder, feels his solid weight beneath his arms. Listens to the sound of Arthur breathing again.
“You have no idea what I have done to try and keep you with me.”