Since humanity developed language, tales of creation have been intertwined with what often is called magic. Magic provided understanding for who we are and where we came from. New Zealand's North Island was once a giant fish, caught by Maui with a hook made from the jaw of his mother. The Dogon people of Mali believe humanity was created through the birth of twin Nommos from the god Ama; eight thousand miles away, Navajo describe their own Hero Twins who rid the Fourth World of the monsters that plagued it so that humanity could thrive. The Abrahamic religions' creation story takes place over a week; physicists build large particle colliders to discover the secrets of the Big Bang. All of it is magic of a kind, and all of it had shaped these societies in ways that may never be fully explained. The mysteries are, in fact, a large part of the pull."
-Merlin Emrys, "Magic and Myth: How They Shape Civilizations." National Geographic, November 2010.
Life really was better after a toe-curling orgasm, Merlin Emrys thought to himself. He rolled onto his side, enjoying the feeling of sweat cooling against his overheated body.
The man next to him was tanned, and incredibly fit. A surfer, he'd said, when he introduced himself to Merlin at the pub the night before, although Merlin had already forgotten his name. He had had to stop himself from making a poor pun about riding some waves.
He'd bagged the man anyway. He was fair-haired and broad-chested, just Merlin's type. He was a bit too ripped, but whatever. Merlin now had a newfound appreciation for all the ways muscles could roll and clench and slide against his own skin.
He hadn't come to New Zealand to get laid, but it had turned out to be one hell of a fringe benefit.
The surfer arched his back into a long stretch, and Merlin couldn't help himself. He reached out a hand and ran it over his chest, his fingernails catching in the light smattering of hair, and grinned.
The surfer grinned back. "Mmmm," he said, then licked his tongue over his lips, as if daring Merlin to resist them. "Let's just stay in bed all day, what do you say?"
Merlin leaned in, and just as he was about to kiss him, he noticed the clock radio blinking the time.
Shit!" he shouted. "Holy motherfucking, buggering shit!"
His partner sat up, and Merlin cast a regretful look at the picture he made. There just wasn't enough time, and as nice as it had been to scratch an itch, Merlin knew he needed something—someone—else. If he could only find it. Him.
"Sorry," Merlin said. "I've got to run. Can't miss this meeting."
"Order some breakfast and put it on my room or something, yeah? Thanks again. I had a lovely time." Merlin rifled through his suitcase, trying to find something, anything, that would acceptable to show up for a meeting with the director of New Zealand's national museum. He found a shirt that wasn't too wrinkled, and trousers that miraculously still held a crease. "No Iron" in this case was truth in advertising. God bless Levis and their trousers. He ducked into the loo to wash. He couldn't show up smelling like sex, even if it was the best sex he'd had since that time in the luggage room on the ferry to Dublin.
The surfer didn't move, only pouted from where he sat. "When will you be back?"
Merlin looked up from where he was hurriedly running a razor over his face and trying not to cut himself. "Dunno. Long day ahead. Full of important meetings. Might not be back until after midnight."
"Ah." The surfer wasn't so dumb after all. "So, thanks for the shag and all; be seeing you?"
Merlin sighed. "It was brilliant mate, thanks. But, you know..." he gestured into the air. "Stuff."
"Hmm. Someone else at home then?"
Merlin snorted. If only. "What makes you say that?"
"Couple things. First, you have that look. The 'I'm wildly in love with someone else but can't be with them, so you'll have to do' look."
Merlin reddened. "I do not, and besides—"
"Second, my name's Paul."
"Okay?" Well, at least Merlin could say he knew his name.
"So who's Arthur?"
Merlin shrugged. "Beats me. I don't know anyone named Arthur." The only Arthur he knew about was a dead, mythical monarch, and while Merlin may have counted himself a bit of an Arthurian buff, it wasn't like he fantasised about a guy who'd been dead for a millennium or so. If he had existed at all.
The surfer threw off the covers, then, and Merlin let his eyes wander a last time. Lord, but this Paul bloke was fit. He wasn't exactly what Merlin longed for, but he was close. Maybe he should invite him back later after all.
"So why were you calling me Arthur the entire time you were fucking me into the mattress?" Paul asked, buttoning up his jeans.
...on second thought, Merlin thought, this guy was mental. Best to avoid him for the rest of the trip.
"I wasn't," Merlin said with a laugh. "How could I? I said I don't know any Arthurs."
"Right," Paul said, throwing on his tee-shirt. "Well, when you see him, tell him I said he's a lucky bloke, but to keep a better eye on you."
With that, Paul stomped out of the hotel room without a backward glance, leaving Merlin half-shaved, half-dressed, late for his first research meeting, and confused as all hell.
Merlin was indeed late to his meeting with Amiri Baker, curator of the Taonga Māori collection at Te Papa Tongarewa, but she was gracious enough to accept his profuse apologies referencing jetlag and getting lost in downtown Wellington.
"Don't worry," she said. "That's completely normal."
Merlin bobbed his head. "Completely normal, that's me," he said with false cheerfulness.
After their introduction, she began showing him around the collection. They exchanged small talk as they began their tour: Merlin's impressions of New Zealand, the weather when he left London, the long flight, previous articles Merlin had written that she'd obviously Googled.
Finally, as they admired a collection of intricate greenstone carvings, she turned to him. "So, Mr Emrys," she began.
"Please," Merlin said. "Just call me Merlin."
"Tell me a little more about your project then, Merlin. Your editor mentioned this was a piece on magic around the world, and while we would be the first to say Aotearoa is a magical place, I'm not quite sure what the connection is."
Merlin shut off his tape recorder. It would hardly do to document just how rubbish his preparation for this trip had been.
"Magic's not really the right word, is it?" Merlin asked. "It's more about the mysticism found in all the great myths, and how those myths have gone on to shape civilisations."
"An ambitious topic, I think, even for National Geographic."
"Well, it is a double length issue," Merlin replied with a crooked smile.
"Good thing, that." Amiri nodded, thoughtfully, as she guided them past a sculpture of a fishhook. "This one's made of whalebone," she pointed out. "The best are. What else did you read about New Zealand?"
Merlin leaned against one of the railings overlooking a collection of Maori ceremonial clothes. "Not as much as I should have done, Dr Baker."
"Call me Amiri," she said, pleasant. "Merlin."
"Well, Amiri. I, ah, watched all the extras on the Lord of the Rings DVDs? And I've seen the All-Blacks do a haka."
She let out a great, loud laugh at that, as Merlin had hoped she would.
"More than that, I promise," he added. "But still not enough."
"It's a good thing you're very charming, Merlin, or I might be more offended," she said. "New Zealand's stories are as magical as any you'll find, and my colleagues and I look forward to them being written about with justice."
Merlin gave a wry grin. "Is that a vote of confidence or a warning?"
"Yes," Amiri said and laughed at Merlin's confusion. "Come, our senior research team is here and looking forward to meeting with you."
He spent the better part of the day shadowing different members of the research team and wandering the exhibits when he had a moment. The museum's scope was vast: contemporary art, living history, children's exhibits, a giant squid and a section devoted to precious metal. What stood out most to Merlin, though, was the way the art, the music, even the layout of the museum itself showed the reverence held for the land itself. In many parts of the world, the land was synonymous with magic. He tucked the thought away; it might help shape his article when the time came.
At the end of the day, he said goodbye to the staff before Amiri escorted him to the entrance. Sunlight spilled across the atrium as they walked to the doors, past the great crystal ball, and paused just outside. Merlin could smell salt from the harbour. It was hot; much hotter than it should be in New Zealand, even for this time of year. The weathermen on telly had been going on about it on the news that morning. Global warming at work, they'd joked.
Amiri drew a leather pouch from her pocket. "Before you go, we'd like you to have this as a souvenir of your visit." She extended the pouch, and Merlin took it from her, feeling the weight of it in his hand as he undid the drawstring.
Merlin drew out a hei matau and watched as the fishhook swung from its fine cord.
"Keep it close," she said, "and it will keep you safe in your travels over water."
He touched a finger to the fine bone, felt the smoothness of it, and for a moment, Amiri, the museum, all of reality seemed to fade away.
The King is fallen and borne to Avalon. He heard the whispers in the trees; had heard them for an age of men already, an age of men spent keeping the kingdom ready for his return.
The King did not come back, and so Merlin went, instead. Over the sea, to the south, to the west, to the Holy Land and beyond, if that would be what it took for him to heal.
The King was gone, and Merlin wasn't permitted to follow.
The small boat was laden with supplies and a box that contained the very few things in this world that held any value for him. He felt the gravel and sand crunch beneath his boots, felt the saltwater of the sea and his own tears upon his face as he pushed the boat into the water. He did not look back at Albion, at the land that loved him and destroyed him. He didn't know if he'd ever return.
"Merlin," Amiri said. Merlin felt her hand on his shoulder, shaking him. "Are you all right?"
The scene faded away as if into mist, and Merlin blinked back into awareness. He was back outside the museum, the sunlight still blinding.
"Yes," he said, shaking his head. "Yes, I'm fine. Still a little jetlagged, I guess."
She offered an understanding smile. "Well, be sure to rest up, then, before the programme tomorrow night."
Merlin nodded. "I look forward to it. Thanks again."
He placed the fishhook back into the pouch, and the pouch into his rucksack. As he left, he glared at a dark-haired woman, probably a tourist, who seemed to be enjoying the spectacle he'd made.
Merlin Emrys lived an average, normal sort of life.
He lived in London, which was very normal for someone who, as far as he knew, was born and grew up in London.
He woke up in the morning and fed his cat. A freelance writer, he tended to work from home, but he still managed to get dressed most days.
He played cricket on the weekend and hung out at his favourite coffeeshop. He ran in charity races, got shitfaced with his mates, had relationships that didn't work out, and killed houseplants with stunning regularity.
He was, in a word, completely normal.
"That's two words," his best friend Renuka pointed out during their weekly coffee/debriefing. "And I'm not sure they mean what you think they mean."
Merlin drained his coffee—black, no sugar, nothing but pure twitch—and set down his cup with a glare. "I'm a writer," he said. "I know what words mean, Renu."
He'd met Renuka at university; they'd formed an instant bond over an arrogant lecturer they'd both hated. Merlin could never explain it, but they just clicked, somehow.
These days, she made it her hobby to ensure Merlin found domestic bliss with one of her numerous gay friends. "Of course you do, darling. Which is why I got a series of exceedingly angry texts from Stampy after your blind date, all of which, by the way, included the phrase: 'not normal.'"
"In all capital letters, no less," Renu added. "Really. I'm not going to keep fixing you up if you keep creeping them out."
"How was I creeping them out? I was making conversation!"
"Merlin." Renu covered one of his hands with hers. "Not everyone shares your passion for old, dead monarchs, you know."
"They should," Merlin insisted. "It's our cultural heritage. How could they not want to know more about it?"
Renu rolled her eyes. "It's not everyone's cultural heritage. Besides, at the first date stage, I'd say worry more about attraction and less about if a bloke can distinguish between the Vulgate and Post-Vulgate cycles."
Merlin pointed his finger. "Ha. See, you know your Arthuriana. Stampy has no excuse."
"I only know it because it makes it so much easier to take the piss out of you, Merlin, and you know that's one of my life's great pleasures."
"Doesn't matter why. You still know it, thereby proving that you are better than him. If you had a cock I would date you and be done with it."
"If I had a cock, I'd fuck Karen Gillan and not worry about you."
"Seriously though, I just want you to find someone. You're too lonely. King Arthur isn't going to keep you warm at night, you know."
"You say that at least six times a year," Merlin said with a wan smile.
"We'll just tick Stampy off the list and try someone else, shall we?"
Just then his mobile went off. "I need to take this one. It's the bloke from National Geographic," he explained with an apologetic look at Renu, and accepted the call.
Two hours later, Merlin's head was still reeling.
The call had been from Tom Malleore, the features editor at National Geographic. Merlin had done a few pieces for them, the last about six months back. Tom was in London from Washington for a few days, and asked Merlin to meet him.
"Here's the thing, Merlin," Tom said when Merlin sat down in his third coffee shop of the morning. Really, any more and he was going to be awake for days. "You know Geoff? Geoff Trefynwy?"
Merlin nodded. Of course he knew Geoff Trefynwy. Anyone who did any sort of travel or cultural writing in Britain knew about Geoff Trefynwy.
"Geoff proposed a story to us a few months back, and Ellen loved it. Accepted it based on the outline; designed the whole November book around it," Tom said.
Merlin nodded, his mind racing. Did they want him to do a sidebar? Be be a contributing writer?
"He called yesterday from Armenia. Bastard broke both his legs in a skiing accident. He's in traction and everything. Needs surgery. So he's not going to be able to write the piece."
"Bad luck," Merlin commented. He couldn't imagine having to wake up in a strange hospital, listening to doctors you couldn't understand. "You need a back-up feature or two then? I've been working on a few concepts."
"No," Tom interrupted. "Ellen's really sold on this idea. She wants a story about magic, mysticism, creation mythologies and the like for the November book. It was Geoff's query, but he agreed to hand it off for a 25% fee and a shot at cover when he's better."
Merlin frowned. "So, what do you need from me?"
"We want you to write it."
"Me?" Merlin was stunned. He was hardly qualified to write about magic.
"Me?" Merlin repeated. "Shouldn't you find someone a little more knowledgeable? I'm hardly an expert."
"What about that stuff you wrote at university?"
"That was ten years ago!"
Tom continued as if he didn't hear him. "We'll send you a few places to do some research, and then you'll find a brilliant theme underpinning them all like you always do."
"I'm just not sure. Magic and myth around the world? That's a huge subject, man. I don't know if I could do it justice."
"Merlin," Tom pushed. "You didn't know anything about Vladivostok or corn before, either, and both of those were fantastic. You always have a fresh take on subjects like these."
"But—" Was a multiple-destination assignment really just going to fall into his lap like this?
"We'll send you Geoff's proposal. He had it pretty well sketched out. He'd already lined up some of his interviews and he had a ton of contacts."
Of course he did, Merlin thought. He was Geoff Trefynwy, superstar. "How long can I think about it?"
Tom drummed his fingers on the table. "Ellen is pretty edgy about this. Wants to know ASAP."
"Would it help if I suggested you include something about your namesake?"
"Merlin. You know, great sorcerer, King Arthur, all that jazz. If the piece is about magic and myths and how they shape civilisations, well, you have to get some Arthurian stuff in there. It's like, Britain's cultural history, isn't it?"
"Part of it, anyway," Merlin said absently. "Wait, what?"
A slow grin came over Merlin's face. He couldn't wait to quote that back to Renuka. "You know what, Tom? I don't need to think about it. Send the contracts over. I'll do it."
The market for freelancers was difficult at the best of times, and worse yet for those who still printed on antiquated things called paper. To be remembered and offered a cover story with National Geographic was a professional coup.
But really, magic? It wasn't like he was going to be embedded in a military convoy or sailing Antarctica on a steam vessel. Going up Everest on a hovercraft. Something truly out of this world.
Still, it was enough cause for some celebration. He rang up Renu and Sean to meet him at their local that night.
"They're sending you all over the world so you can write a story on magic?" Sean asked over his beer. Sean had been his flatmate when Merlin had first moved to London after uni, and they'd stayed in touch since. Merlin was a better friend than a flatmate, anyway.
"That's right. Magic, Mysticism and Myth: How They Tie Civilisations. Or some shite. I'll see how it goes."
"I assume the tie-ing is metaphorical, or will you get to interview Derren Brown?" Renu asked.
Merlin rolled his eyes. "So literal-minded. It's not that sort of magic. It's, you know, the earth I think. All the ways people connect to it, and call it magic."
Sean lifted his hand to call for another round. "Mate. I'm not even going to pretend to understand that shite. I just want to know how it can possibly be fair that you're being sent around the world to unleash your inner pagan, and meanwhile, I'm filing papers and playing empty bars for living."
Merlin supposed he was right. It wasn't his first location assignment by a long shot, but even still, it was something reserved only for the top few in his profession. Maybe he'd finally arrived.
It happened again three days later in Hong Kong.
"It wouldn't be my life," Merlin complained over his mobile to Renuka, "if things actually worked out the first time." He stuck a finger in his other ear so he could hear her better.
"Merlin, you've rung me at half five in the morning on a bloody Saturday to whinge about missing a connecting flight?"
Merlin glanced at his watch, did some mental arithmetic. It was difficult, seeing as he seemed to have found his way one of the eight million street celebrations. "Er, oops?"
"Yeah, oops. Look, I feel very sorry for you, being stuck in Hong fucking Kong. It's very tragic, especially for Chinese New Year and therefore probably really boring with the billion people out celebrating. But I've got someone over and did I mention it's half five on a Saturday morning?"
"I take it you don't want to hear about the surfer I fucked in Wellington then?" Merlin stepped into a shop off the street.
"Let me guess. He was blond, about your height, nice, broad chest? I don't need to hear the story. Ring me when you broaden your horizons."
"Fine then. I'll email you instead."
"You better, you twat. Have fun."
As Merlin disconnected the call, he found himself face to face with an aged woman; the shopkeeper, perhaps.
"Sorry," she said. "You must have this." She pressed a small charm, a keyfob, at Merlin. From it dangled a miniature version of the large paper dragons parading through the narrow streets. Its colours gleamed.
My dragon didn't look like this at all.
Merlin shook his head and looked down at the woman. She wore an expectant expression.
Merlin dug through his pocket for some notes he'd taken out at the airport, and handed a few to her before leaving the shop before he ended up with any more souvenirs he didn't need. Once back on the street, he looked down at the small dragon in his palm.
How small you are, for such a great destiny.
On a scale of one to ten, how alarming is it to hallucinate anytime someone hands you something?
Depends. Are they handing you drugs?
PS: Drugs are bad, Merlin.
PPS: Saw Sean at the pub. He says hello and wants you to leave a comment to his new track on his myspace.
It was three in the morning when Merlin arrived in New Delhi, his second official stop on his research tour. The day he'd spent in Hong Kong hadn't really counted.
After the incident with the dragon keyfob, he'd spent most of the evening trying to convince himself he wasn't actually going mad.
He'd had a period of time like this at university, too, when his mind had seemed too crowded and he'd concluded he didn't know himself very well.
He did know he was an orphan. He vaguely remembered how adults used to whisper among themselves and send him pitying glances. He knew he had parents, once. He held images in his mind of a pair of kind brown eyes, of hands rough from hard work and a proud smile. If he tried really hard, he could picture a bearded man, whittling toys from birch branches, but how could that be right? Toys came from shops.
It was one of many things that confused Merlin, where these stray memories came from.
He'd dealt with that in a typical university-student fashion, drinking too much and pretending nothing was wrong.
Oddly, the alcohol seemed to help most. Merlin found he actually thought more clearly with a couple of pints in him. He could concentrate then— on the billiards, on his friends who he felt he'd known much longer than he had, on the fresher he sucked off after the welcoming dinner (yes, every year. He made it a tradition).
Apparently, drinking the voices in your head into oblivion was alarming to flatmates and tutors, and so before finishing his degree Merlin was seeing a therapist regularly to find alcohol-free ways of concentrating. Eventually, he'd stopped noticing, and then they'd gone away all together.
In between emailing Renuka and Sean, Merlin had also done serious damage to his hotel minibar. He really didn't want to get back into that pattern again. For one thing, his tolerance for anything stronger than beer had all but disappeared. Hopefully India would help him calm his mind, once he was settled at the ashram.
He hated arriving in a new place when it was dark out. He felt a little like he was missing one of his senses, that there were things going on around him that he could hear but not see, and it freaked him out a little.
He wound his way through the throngs of people in the airport, past the long lines of passengers waiting to check in, a collection of women in sarees, businessmen in suits, tourists in cotton linen, families with carts of baggage. The muggy air from outside the terminal seeped in through the constantly opening doors, and armed officials checked the tickets of those trying to get in.
Renuka once told him that travelling in India was intense for many people. "You won't get to sit back and observe there," she warned him. "Participation is required."
Merlin had been a little indignant. "I've been loads of places, you know. How much different can it be?"
After changing some money, he booked a taxi to take him directly to the ashram he would be visiting first. He saw what Renuka meant the moment he stepped out into the street, as drivers approached him, promising better fares, smoother rides. He kept walking until he found his booked car, and after loading his bag into the boot, he was off into the night.
Even at this hour, the roads were full of vehicles, cars and carts and brightly painted lorries, honking their horns as they passed each other at terrifyingly tight angles. During the worst times, Merlin played with the hei matau around his neck, and hoped it offered safe passage over land as well.
When the taxi stopped once at a chokepoint, a mother holding a small child knocked on the car window, asking for money. It was still fairly dark outside, so Merlin couldn't see her well, but he had money and she didn't, so...
"Don't," the taxi driver said, when Merlin got out his wallet. The taxi started moving again, and Merlin made a mental note to find a local charity at some point during his time in India.
He'd seen poverty before; had gone on bloody organised tours of slums in other places he'd travelled. He wondered what it was like for those who lived here, who watched as tech money fueled skyscrapers and condomimiums but millions more scratched out a living from the increasingly hostile land.
The sun was up when they reached the town surrounding the ashram; Merlin could see several men bowing in the fajr prayer. Merlin paid the driver and walked to the front gates. He could hear the chanting from inside the main hall; dawn prayers of a different kind.
Geoff chose this ashram himself; it catered to Westerners with money and trendy spiritual hunger. He wondered if he should have gone more authentic; only what did that even mean? Merlin hadn't prayed since, well, he wasn't sure he could remember the last time he prayed. To anyone. Never mind the last time he meant it.
As he neared the gates, Merlin felt himself growing a little jittery. What was he thinking? Dammit, he liked meat. And he was pretty sure his gangly body wasn't made to press itself into complicated poses. And he was crap at meditation, and this ashram might not even be a real ashram and here he was, celebrating it in a magazine article.
Before he could get too carried away, though, he was greeted at the gates by a dark-haired woman. A Westerner, he assumed. She walked toward him in bare feet, barely making a sound against the cool, dusty tiles of the entryway. As she approached, he felt a flash of recognition, like he should know her.
"Namaste," she greeted him with a strange smile. "You must be Merlin."
Merlin switched his bag to his other hand so he could take her hand in his. "That's me," he said.
"I'm assigned to greeter duty this week," she said, but she didn't offer her name. Her accent sounded Cornish, perhaps, but muted as well, like she'd been away from home a long time. "Welcome to Śānti." She led him into the ashram, and told him to remove his shoes.
"They're already underway this morning," she told him, "but we know how the airport is. I'll show you to your room, and then you can join us."
Merlin's room was utilitarian, but comfortable, and it seemed they'd assigned him a room of his own. His guide gave him a few minutes to set his things aside and visit the loo, and soon they were on their way to the hall.
"Here we are," she said. "You can grab a cushion at the back, and then just follow along as best you can."
"But—" Merlin began.
"Don't worry. None of us had any idea what we were doing when we first got here." She smiled at him.
"Thanks. Sorry, I didn't catch your name?"
The woman's smile faded away, and she looked at Merlin so intensely that he had to fight the urge to look away.
"My name is Morgana," she said, watching him intently.
"Morgana," Merlin said, turning the name over on his tongue. "That's... an usual name. Parents a fan of King Arthur?"
Morgana smirked. "Something like that, yes. Yours too, I suppose?"
Merlin smiled weakly. "Something like that," he echoed.
In truth, Merlin had no idea why his parents had chosen his name. They'd died before Merlin was even old enough to remember them.
"Anyway, Merlin, I'm sure we'll speak again during your time here," Morgana said. "I hope you find what you're looking for."
"Wait," Merlin said, and Morgana turned around, expectantly.
"Do you think," and Merlin knew he was crazy, it was happening again. "I mean, is it possible—that we've met before?"
Morgana laughed, a musical, delighted sound. "Not in this life," she said. "But you never know. Perhaps in a previous one? I mean, consider where we are," she said lightly.
Bemused, Merlin watched her leave, then went to join the morning prayers.
Hinduism, Merlin found, was a complete gold mine when it came to magic and myth. In a fit of exuberance, he said as much to Ashok, the man who ran the ashram's office.
"Indeed," Ashok said. He wore short sleeves and a tie, and was busy filing registration forms when Merlin had stopped by to give his now-customary hello on the sixth day. "It was good of God to create this perfect religion, find a billion people to follow it, and create temples and roads and aeroplanes and magazines, all so that you could come here to learn about it."
"I, er, just meant," Merlin stammered, but he couldn't find anything to say.
"Not that we're not glad you're here, Merlin," Ashok added. "I'm a bit busy at the moment, though."
"You're going to miss your lecture if you spend all your time questioning me. I assure you, Swami has much more to offer your research than I do."
When Merlin wasn't participating in chants and prayers, he spent a lot of time in the ashram's library. He was particularly interested in the vedas, sacred texts that in addition to many other mysteries, spoke of different types of magic.
He struck up conversations with anyone who would speak with him and tolerate his endless questions. He also attended as many of the talks as he could. The most memorable was doubtlessly the one on Tantra, but not for any reason Merlin could include in his story.
It was a strange tableau, with so many people sat wide-eyed around Swami as he expounded on Tantra and the connection the rituals afforded between those who practised it.
I'm being paid to listen to a lecture on sex magic, Merlin thought. No way could Sean ever find out about this. Merlin would never hear the end of the Sting and Trudi jokes.
It was hot in the hall, and the air was close with incense and the body heat and breath of the hundred men and women sat cross-legged and rapt with attention.
Merlin felt his eyelids start to fall. All the four a.m. wake up bells were building up to a hell of a sleep debt.
"Tantrism is a quest for spiritual perfection and magical power. Its purpose is to achieve complete control of oneself, and of all the forces of nature, in order to attain union with the cosmos and with the divine."
Come on, Merlin. You can do it. Hold off a little longer.
He heard the voice as if it were across the hall, and only a whisper by the time it reached him.
"Although popularly equated with Tantra in its entirety in the West, sexual rites are not the focus," Swami Mandlik continued. "Tantra is far more than physical union between two people in pursuit of fleeting pleasure."
He would surely die if this kept up much longer.
It felt like they'd been fucking for hours, although Merlin knew that could not be true. The battle was barely over; the screams of the dying could still be heard from the encampment where they had returned, victorious and filthy and desperate to be sure each was still alive.
At first, they'd been forceful, slamming into each other, rolling this way and that on the furs that covered the King's bed. They were spattered with their enemies' blood, and the metallic taste of magic lay heavily in the air. New blood, their own, dotted up here and there, where a fingernail scratched in possessiveness, or where sharp teeth bit down in ownership.
Still they'd not come.
The bloodlust was short-lived, as it always was in the wake of a great battle. Soon, they were rocking against each other, breathless and exhausted, minute thrusts against each other and answering groans in the torchlight.
They moved together for an eternity, an eternity that only spanned a few candlemarks at most, but it might have been a thousand years for all the ways it spun out and back in.
Their desperation quieted, and just as Merlin thought he couldn't do it, he couldn't take anymore, he needed the slide, the friction, the emptiness following release, a hand reached down to stay his from where it moved against his own cock.
"Come on, Merlin. Just a little longer."
He drew his hand away, his moan of frustration nothing more than a parting of his lips. He opened his eyes to another set of eyes, fixed on his, unblinking, and he felt his limbs, unmoving paralysed. There was only these eyes, and this mouth, and this man, and as they lay together, unmoving now after hours of fight and push and pull, Merlin wondered that his body was able to contain it all, wondered if the shimmering he felt in his toes and his fingers and the tips of his ears meant that he was dissolving, turning into light, no physical form left that belonged only to him...
Merlin opened his eyes with a gasp and looked around him. The hall was nearly empty, now, and Morgana was leaning down with a hand on his shoulder.
"I, um, what?" Merlin said. He could feel sweat rolling down his back in beads beneath the cotton of his shirt.
"Where is everyone?"
Morgana stood, gesturing to the still empty room. She looked intrigued. "Talk finished twenty minutes ago."
Merlin felt his face flush with embarrassment. Had he just given the entire ashram a show?
Morgana offered him some water, her eyes still keen. "Relax. Most people will spend weeks or months here and not be able to reach the deeper meditative states. When it happens, we just leave you to it and try not to be too jealous."
"I, just, I mean..." Merlin couldn't manage to collect his thoughts. "It was so weird."
Morgana flopped down next to him on the floor. "Tell me about it," she said.
Merlin shook his head. "I'm not sure I could begin to explain it to a therapist, never mind a stranger." It had been so real, but he'd never been able to see the man's face clearly.
"Ah," she said. "But we're not strangers. We knew each other in a past life, remember?"
Merlin smiled. "Even still."
"Fair enough. I understand you'll be leaving in the morning."
Merlin nodded. "It's been quite the experience, but I've several more stops to make."
"And more magic to discover."
"Yeah. More magic to learn about."
"Well. I look forward to reading your article. There is so much about magic that's been forgotten over time, isn't there?"
"I'm not sure I'm in a position to say, just yet. I'm just getting started."
"There is. The magic of the earth itself is the same wherever you go. It just manifests in different ways."
"You seem to know a lot about it."
"I've seen my share." She rose up from the floor, gracefully. "Good luck on your travels. Maybe we'll meet again."
Merlin didn't see Morgana before he left the ashram in the stillness of early morning, but later, when he sat in contemplation at the Lotus temple, or navigated narrow rows of homes in Moradabad, he'd thought he'd seen her from the corner of his eye.
The problem with long flights, Merlin thought, were those long moments in crowded terminals with a dead laptop battery, or the interminable taxi from gate to runway during which no electronic devices were permitted. Far too much time for questions to gnaw away at you.
Merlin wondered again at the strange woman. Morgana. Her name was familiar on his tongue. He was sure he recognised her, no matter what she said. There had been a woman at university she reminded him of; he'd never met her, but a few times he'd felt her watching him.
Strange that she should be called Morgana, and he Merlin. Merlin had no idea if his parents had been fascinated by Arthurian legends (surely they must have been?), but Merlin himself was, from the time he was very small. He'd done essays on them for school; studied medieval literature at university.
Even his first job with the British Tourist Authority had involved Arthurian legends. He'd helped write material for the brochures so much that eventually they started giving him little writing assignments as well. His "Brief Guide to Arthurian Britain" was their most-requested publication.
One night, not long after leaving the Tourist Authority for Time Out, Renuka took him out for dinner, ostensibly to congratulate him on his new job but more to rhapsodise about Love of Her Life Number Eight, who worked for a rival barrister. This apparently necessitated stealth meetings in hotel toilets or similar.
"Are you sure he's not, I don't know, mafia or something?" Merlin had asked.
Renu had rolled her eyes before draining her glass of cabernet. "If he were I am sure our tickets to U2 next weekend would be far superior."
"I'm just looking out for you, you know," he had said.
"I know. But it's so exciting, being secret like this. We're like Romeo and Juliet. Or Lancelot and Guinevere," she had enthused.
Merlin had been half out of his seat, ready to tell her off, when he had realised that "you didn't know them like I knew them!" made no sense, even to him.
Instead, he had remained in his seat and ordered an espresso.
Merlin didn't turn to drink as often after university, preferring to simply unload on his cat. Gaius was twice as helpful as any therapist he'd seen, for the cost of kibble and occasional visits to the vet's.
Sorry I missed you when you phoned. My blackberry didn't work at the ashram. I'm on my way to Tel Aviv. In-flight wifi is brilliant.
You were totally right about India. Intense. I'll tell you more later.
How's Gaius? I hope he's behaving himself. Did I leave enough food? I miss him.
I'm always right.
Gaius is fine. He misses you too. You alright? Laying off the drugs, I hope?
Seriously, though, if it's as bad as it was back at uni, you need to say something. I can have Dr. Beckett call in something for you.
I'm fine. Travel really messes up your sleep schedule, that's all.
Merlin stood before the Western Wall, the only part of ancient Jerusalem's temple still standing after it was pulled down by the Romans. Some called it the Wailing Wall, for those who came to lament for everything lost, to pray. Others called it Al-Burāq, for the winged horse that carried the prophet from Mecca to Jersusalem.
Merlin called it whatever the person he was with wanted it to be called. It wasn't his to name.
One of Merlin's least favourite things about his job was that he always felt like an intruder, albeit one met with varying levels of welcome. He asked stupid questions. He trod on toes. He went places he didn't belong; in exchange for the imposition, he paid attention, and told the story as well as he could. And he tried to tip well.
Still, he was a fraud stood before the wall. He did not believe in any of the religions whose followers had lived and lost and fought and died here, yet here he was in Jerusalem, trying to find a way to connect them all into his story about legend, magic, and belief.
Geoff's outline had been so glib, so simple.
The area was crowded, full of those making pilgrimage in the late afternoon sun. Some read from the Torah. Others sang. Merlin stood, watching them all, feeling like an invader.
Merlin started. Who could he possibly know in Jerusalem? He'd yet to have any of his interviews and meetings. He'd only just checked into his hotel. Adam, his photographer on this stop, was visiting with some of his cousins. Merlin should have been completely anonymous.
He turned around slowly to find Morgana standing with him.
"Morgana," he said, stunned. "What are you doing here?"
"Mourning," she said.
Merlin boggled. "Um. Seriously?"
"What?" Morgana looked at him with wide eyes.
Merlin didn't even know where to begin. Morgana was resplendent in a long, modest dress, and a scarf covering most of her hair, but...
"This is the men's side," he stammered. Merlin already knew he shouldn't be here at all, and what if they thought she was with him and they caused an international, interfaith incident?
"They don't seem to mind," Morgana said, gesturing to the men on Merlin's either side. Neither made any note of Morgana; they appeared deep in prayer or contemplation, hands and faces pressed to the large, worn stones.
"I don't understand," Merlin said. He kept his voice to a whisper, hoping it might pass for praying. He felt dizzy, like no part of his life made any more sense at all. "How can you be here?"
"I took a plane," Morgana said.
Merlin darted his eyes around. Of course, he wasn't praying, he was hallucinating, and he was pretty sure that pretending to pray whilst behaving inappropriately at this holiest of places was pretty high on the list of things a person could be smited for. Or at least arrested.
"You know what I mean. I remember, you know. You were at university with me but you never spoke to me. And then, you were at the museum in New Zealand. Then the ashram. Why are you following me? Who are you?"
"Let's not do this here," Morgana said.
"Oh, sure. Now you're the voice of respect. You're the one who approached me," Merlin said.
"Yes. You've been difficult to trace here. Too much interference."
"There's a lot going on here."
"What are you even talking about?"
"This is where the Old Religions made room for the first of the New, and the others that followed."
"What does that even mean?"
"If you haven't figured it out after a while, I'll tell you."
"Great. I take it that means I will have to see you again at some awkward and alarming point in the future?"
Morgana laughed out loud, which made Merlin look around, frantic that they were about to be discovered. He tried to pull at her elbow, to guide them away from the wall, when Morgana slid a carefully folded piece of paper into the stones.
"What are you doing?" Merlin asked. "I don't think you're supposed to be doing that."
"What? Seems to be the done thing here. Pretty sure that guy over there isn't Jewish, and he just put one in."
Merlin scowled. "You can't know that."
"The crucifix rather gives it away."
"So you're a Catholic who studies Hinduism and Buddhism and likes to pray at Jewish holy places?"
Morgana shrugged. "It's all part of a whole."
"The whole what?"
"Whatever you think the largest measure of humanity is. The world? The universe? Spacetime? No matter where you go or what you believe, it's all from the same place inside a person, isn't it?"
Merlin wanted to pull on his hair. "Congratulations. You've solved every human conflict ever! Why don't you go collect your Nobel and share your insight on high. I'm sure no one will think you're insane."
"Says the man seeing a person no one else can see."
"Last time. Who are you?"
"I told you before. My name is Morgana, and I knew you in another life."
Merlin threw up his hands. "What does that mean? This is it, isn't it? I'm gone mental. They'll be sectioning me before I even get to file my article."
"You're not losing your mind, Merlin."
"No. You're finding it."
"Finding it." Merlin had a mental image of his mind popping out from behind the wall, found at last. Of all the places for it to have been hiding. He suppressed hysterical laughter.
"And it's about time, too. He's back."
Merlin felt his gut clench. It felt like longing. "Who's back?"
Morgana only smiled. "What are you writing, there?" she said, nodding to Merlin's paper. "I thought we weren't supposed to be doing that."
"Who says I was going to leave it?" Merlin retorted. "And who's back?"
"Write your prayer, Merlin. The gods will hear it, whatever name you use for them."
"I don't believe in any gods."
"You should. They believe in you."
Merlin looked back down at his paper, bewildered. He didn't remember writing anything, but there, plain as day in his own hand, were carefully inked letters.
When he looked up to ask Morgana about it, she was gone. Only her paper, folded and pressed into the spaces in the limestone, told Merlin he hadn't imagined the whole thing.
Without thinking, he pulled her paper from the wall, ignoring the looks from the men around him. His fingers shaking, he unfolded it. He could hear Morgana's voice in his mind.
This is only the beginning.
Merlin rolled it back up and placed it back in the wall. He crossed himself for verisimilitude after, a motion that felt so wrong that he was sure he'd done it backward, and he was going to get struck by lightning any minute…
… he wasn't, though. He left the wall, the market, the centre and returned to his hotel. Once there, he found the paper still in his pocket.
If Merlin were to write a top ten list of least favourite airports, Charles de Gaulle would surely be near the top. It was confusing; he'd ended up going through passport control three times during his last layover simply because he'd had no idea where he was going.
The worst was connecting through Paris. You sat in the artificial light of the terminal, knowing that you could just hop on the RER-B and be within spitting distance of gastronomic delight, but instead you sat and ate airport food. Eating airport food in Paris was surely a circle of hell.
Going through Paris was rather a roundabout way to get to Mali from Israel, but Air France was one of the only airlines that flew there, so connecting in Paris it was. Merlin wished he'd had the foresight to ask the travel agency to book him a few days here; he'd have been willing to pay for it himself just to get a bit of a break from all the hurry up and wait he'd be through on his trip so far.
As fate would have it, Merlin got his wish when, three hours into his layover, the air traffic controllers went on strike.
He fought his way through the disgruntled passengers in the terminal to queue at the Air France counter to find out his options. Air France only flew to Bamako twice per week; even if the strike were called off within a day; he'd have three days in France.
And as a bonus, he wouldn't have to pay for it himself.
The queue moved unbearably slowly, so Merlin passed the time on his BlackBerry, compiling thoughts for his article and not thinking at all about his increasingly alarming visions. He was just tired, that was all. Nothing that a pint, twelve hours of sleep, and decent fuck wouldn't cure.
Speaking of decent fucks, the guy in front of him in the queue had a gorgeous arse. He took a moment to type out a text to Renuka to that effect, which she quickly replied to with a text that read: pix or it didn't happen.
Merlin rolled his eyes. He wasn't that bored.
Then again, it was a magnificent arse. Slate grey trousers, perfectly pressed. Muscular, pert, but not too wide. Gorgeous, really. It would be a shame to not document it. If Merlin could just angle his BlackBerry like so, and casually press the button...
...and remember to turn off the sound, then he could go unnoticed.
The man in front of his turned around and glared. He was about Merlin's height, with golden blond hair, a bit of stubble around his jaw, and really blue eyes. Exactly Merlin's type, and he had to suppress the urge to document the front as well.
"Christ. I know I'm famous but could you at least pretend to respect my privacy?" the man said with a sneer.
"Uh...my finger slipped, mate. It's just a snap of the floor. Look."
Merlin thumbed through the photos stored in his memory, finding one of a blurry nothing that he had accidentally snapped ages ago. He never went through and deleted things, and for once his lack of organisational abilities was paying off.
The man looked at the photo, shot Merlin a suspicious look, and turned back to face forward.
One he had his back turned, Merlin quickly sent the photo of the guy's arse to Renuka.
very nice, she texted back. how's the front?
even better. Merlin thumbed in. except for the part where he thinks he's famous and is a raging dickhead.
always the way, innit?
It clearly was the way, when, a half an hour later, Merlin was finally next in the queue, but had to wait while the hot guy with the magnificent arse and questionable attitude spent fifteen minutes shouting at the airline representative, who was doing his best to placate the man.
"No. Coach class on Friday is not acceptable. I have to be in Copenhagen by tomorrow morning for a number of very important meetings."
"Please wait, sir," the frazzled attendant said, tapping at his keyboard.
The man huffed and drummed his fingers on the handle of his rollaboard suitcase.
"Sorry, sir. Could you spell the name for me again?"
Merlin raised an eyebrow. Now there was a name you didn't hear very often.
"Ah, yes, Monsieur Pendragon. First name Artur?"
"Arthur." Merlin shivered at the name.
"ARTHUR. With an "H", thank you!" By now, Arthur Pendragon was attracting stares from the other passengers.
Arthur Pendragon? Now there was a guy who was predestined to have a complex. Merlin leaned forward. "I think it's just his accent, my friend."
Arthur Pendragon whirled around. "What?"
Merlin gestured to the representative. "He's French. They don't have the "th" sound."
"I'm sorry, but...do I know you?"
"No. I'm Merlin," Merlin said, holding out his hand with a cheeky grin.
Arthur Pendragon wasn't sold, since he didn't accept the offered hand. "Right. So I don't know you."
"Yet you called me "friend," he stated.
"Yeah, well, it was either that or tell you off."
"Well, then you made a wise choice, Merlin, did you say your name was?"
"Excuse me, Mr Pendragon?" the representative started, hesitantly. "I have retrieved your reservation."
"Hang on a second," Arthur said, then turned his attention back to Merlin. "Now that we've established that I don't know you, and you don't want to tell me off, would you kindly fuck off back to your place in the queue?"
Merlin laughed in his face. "As your highness commands," he said, sketching a mocking bow.
Merlin returned to his place in the queue and exchanged looks with the passenger behind him. "Wanker," Merlin muttered, and the woman laughed. Apparently such terms transcended language barriers.
Even still, it wouldn't hurt to get another photo of Arthur Pendragon's arse. Merlin lifted up his BlackBerry and clicked.
The magazine put him up in the Charles de Gaulle Hilton, just in case the strike lifted and he could beat everyone else to the airport. Still, it didn't stop him from catching the RER-B into Paris after he checked in.
Merlin had been to Paris many times, on his own or with friends for the weekend, so he bypassed the usual sights and made his way to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, where the papers from the old science academies were kept. Once upon a time, alchemy had been considered a legitimate science, and Merlin thought he might be able to include it in his research.
After the library, Merlin walked through the Latin Quarter, stopping for a café crème and pain au chocolat along the way. In a used bookshop, he found battered copies of Estoire de Merlin and Mort Artu, editions that looked to be from the 1960s judging by the strange, Pompidou-esque illustrations on their covers. They would make amusing additions to his collection, he thought as he handed some euro to the bored-looking shopgirl.
As he went through his day, he pretended that he wasn't frequently looking over his shoulder for Morgana.
He ate dinner on his own, Moroccan near the Bastille. Full of couscous, almond pastry and wine, he splurged on a taxi to take him back to his hotel. As he sat against the leather seat of the taxi and listened to the French radio (he could make out about half of the discussion, which was no better or worse than the last time he'd been here), he realised he hadn't had a single strange vision or fit the entire day.
He decided against sending Renu a text to that effect. She'd surely take it the wrong way.
Merlin tried to work on his notes when he got back from dinner, but the silence of the room made it too easy for his thoughts to stray to strange visions and potential stalkers. He brought his laptop down to the hotel bar, instead, and co-opted a table for his notes, books, computer and BlackBerry.
He was well into his second Scotch, and starting to feel it, when he received an email from one of the contributing writers. Even with his many stops, there was no way Merlin could cover it all himself. He would rely heavily on local contributors from Scandanavia, Central Asia, the Middle East, the Caribbean, even America, to ensure his article was as encompassing as possible. Merlin had a stop of his own planned in the States; Sedona, it was called, but that wouldn't be until his second trip. After Mali, provided Air France ever cooperated, he'd be going back to London for a bit before setting off for the Americas.
He was just debating whether to have a third drink (after all, it was because it was a decent Scotch, not because he was having visions and encounters with strange mirages) when someone must have read his mind, because someone set a glass down on the only part of the table not covered with papers, notes, or electronica.
Merlin only saw the hand, at first; blunt fingernails, wide palms, well-manicured. The hand was attached to a forearm peeking out of rolled up sleeves, and the arm was attached to Arthur Pendragon, the dickhead from the airport. Whose arse was captured for posterity on Merlin's BlackBerry.
"Ardbeg. Much better than that swill you're having," Arthur said by way of greeting.
"Uh, thanks?" Merlin didn't move to take it.
"It's a fine Scotch. Islay, single malt," Arthur continued, smirking.
"Well, if you like it so much, perhaps you should be alone with it."
Arthur rolled his eyes. "Honestly, you try to make a nice gesture..." He shrugged. "I already have one," he said, gesturing with his other hand, which held a glass. "This one's for you."
"Yes. I...was in a bad mood earlier, at the airport."
"Okay?" Merlin said.
Arthur looked distinctly uncomfortable, like a small child being forced by his mother to apologise for shoplifting sweets. "It was unfair of me to go off on you like that. You don't even know who I am, do you?"
Merlin frowned. "Sorry, no."
"Once I realised that, I saw there was no way you'd be taking photos of my arse for the tabloids or something. I'm sorry I jumped on you."
Merlin's eyes ducked guiltily over to his BlackBerry. Arthur didn't seem to notice.
"So...mind if I join you?" Arthur said.
This was very strange, Merlin thought to himself. It wasn't lost on him that this bloke was called Arthur Pendragon, and he was very much Merlin's type, and for some reason, Arthurian references were following Merlin during this magical research trip. It was bizarre.
What the hell, Merlin decided. Nice arse, apparently given to occasional moments of reflection, and able to admit a mistake. He'd shared a drink with worse. He'd shared a drink with worse that week.
"Be my guest," Merlin said, sweeping aside some notes. Arthur swung out the chair and sat himself down in it like he owned the place. He was still in those slate grey trousers, and the rolled up sleeves of his tailored, French-cuffed shirt revealed strong, sinewy muscles. His shirt was unbuttoned at the throat, and a few hairs peeked out from the opening. He had the bearing of an aristocrat, or at least someone quite accustomed to be catered to.
"So, Merlin, was it?" Arthur said, taking a measured sip of his whisky. "What strange set of circumstances led you to Paris at precisely the perfect moment to get on my last nerve?"
"I have since regained several of my nerves, so feel free to be as interfering as you like, now."
Merlin had to laugh in spite of himself. This guy had balls, and Merlin hoped that if he played his cards right, he might see them for himself.
"You're the one interfering with me now, you know," Merlin pointed out, but offered his hand anyway. "Merlin Emrys," he said.
Arthur took his hand. His skin was soft, and his grip firm. Merlin had to suppress a shiver at the touch.
"Arthur Pendragon," Arthur said. "Although I suppose you know that from hearing me shout at the gate agent."
Merlin shrugged. "It's always nice to get it from the horse's mouth," he said. "Not that you're a horse, or resemble a horse in anyway, or..." His mental filter engaged just in time to prevent him from adding "hung like a horse" just in the hopes Arthur would want to prove him wrong.
"Uh, thanks? Anyway, here," Arthur said, passing the glass of Scotch to Merlin. Merlin accepted, and saluted Arthur with it before taking a sip.
He didn't want him to drink it. He was shouting, telling Merlin no. A different King was there, too, narrow-eyed distrust, and Bayard had his hand on the hilt of his sword, ready to run Merlin through for his temerity...
Merlin snapped back to reality, gasping and choking. Arthur was pounding him on the back, in between his shoulder blades.
"Hey, take it easy," Arthur said. "That's the good stuff, there. You can't just gulp it down."
Merlin wiped his face with his fingers. "Sorry. Down the wrong tube, as my mum used to say."
Arthur had stopped pounding, but not removed his hand. It pressed warmly through Merlin's tee-shirt, and for all that they were in a public place, Merlin half hoped Arthur's hand would drift lower, find the hem, slip up underneath to press warm skin to warm skin...
Merlin caught Arthur's eye then, and for a moment they stared at each other until Arthur slowly drew his hand back. He saw Arthur give a brief shake of his head.
"Sorry," Arthur said. "Just had a weird sense of déjà vu."
"It's okay," Merlin said, hoarsely.
"Right. So, as I was asking, Merlin. What brings you to Paris?"
"Ah, I'm on my way to Mali," Merlin said. "That's in West Africa."
"I know where Mali is," Arthur said, looking very put-upon.
"Sorry. Not everyone does. Anyway, yeah. I'm a writer. I'm on a research trip."
"What are you writing about?"
"Magic and myth around the world. It's for National Geographic."
Arthur looked moderately impressed. "Huh. So it's an assignment, this myth and magic stuff?"
"Er, yeah, what else would it be?"
"Dunno," Arthur said, leaning back in his seat. "Blog? Vanity press?"
"Tough to eat off what a blog pays, mate," Merlin said. "Not that I expect that's an issue for you." Merlin tempered that with a wink.
"Not really, no." Arthur looked slightly embarrassed. "Anyway, myth and magic. Sounds... interesting?"
"Is that a question?"
"Well, it explains the books at any rate," Arthur said, nodding down at the copies of Mort Artu and Estoire de Merlin sitting on his table. "I was wondering."
Merlin flushed. "Yes. Well, Arthurian Britain is one of the myths I'll cover. Not in too much depth, it's already sort of a dominating myth. Gotta give the other guys a chance, too."
"Still, it's kind of funny. Arthur and Merlin, and here we are...Arthur and Merlin. Funny little world."
"Yeah. Almost like destiny," Merlin said with a flirty grin, but he had to wonder. He still had a slip of paper in his wallet with this man's name on. Arthur was a common enough name, but it was still sort of odd.
"I don't believe in destiny, just coincidence," Arthur said. "I'm a man of science."
Arthur held Merlin's stare for a long moment, until Merlin had to look away.
"But coincidences can be fun, too," Arthur added.
Merlin couldn't think of anything to say, so he finally settled on the obvious. "So, Arthur, what brings you to Paris?"
"I'm on my way back from Beijing. Was supposed to be in Copenhagen by now, but Air France bollocksed that up."
"What's in Copenhagen?"
"Huh? Oh, just work. Meetings."
"What do you do?"
Arthur looked at him. "You really don't know?"
Merlin shook his head. "Nope. Sorry."
Arthur smiled at that. "Don't be. It's kind of nice. Anyway, I run a company that creates innovative solutions for climate change."
"Yeah, you know. Global warming. Fossil fuel dependence. Amsterdam flooding, Kilimanjaro's snows melting, March of the Penguins...impending global disaster?"
"Yeah, I know what climate change is. I buy my carbon offsets. Just...didn't know people could get famous off it."
Arthur shrugged. "I'd rather be effective than famous, but still, famous is a relative word."
"I wouldn't know." Merlin had written for some prestigious publications in the past few years, but no one was ever going to know him by a single name, or anything.
"Not a celebrated writer, then? No Pulitzers on your mantle?"
"No mantle. Just a cooker. I do okay, but travel and culture writing never won anyone any fame."
"What about Eric Newby?"
"You read Eric Newby?" Merlin must have sounded incredulous, because Arthur looked more than a little offended.
"I spend a lot of time on planes," Arthur said.
They drank together in companionable silence for a while, but Merlin's mind lingered on his strange vision when Arthur put the glass into his hand.
"What was in Beijing?" Merlin asked, finally, to break the silence.
"Pollution," Arthur said. "Lots and lots of pollution. Also, there was a wall, and some duck."
Merlin laughed, a little louder than he might have done had he not had that last drink, which was definitely stronger than beer. "Aren't we the unimpressed tourist?"
"Just making a joke, mate. I enjoyed Beijing very much."
"Yeah, so did I," Merlin said, without thinking. Only...he'd never actually been to Beijing. Had he?
"Yeah," Merlin said, and now that he thought about it, he could see the Forbidden City and its imperial court in his mind as if he had been right there, had been part of it. He drained the last of his drink in one gulp, and debated getting another. "Not recently," he improvised, "although I was just in Hong Kong."
"Hong Kong's different, but still cool."
"Anyway, it's getting late," Arthur said, with a stretch. "I should, you know, turn in."
"Yeah," Merlin said ruefully. "Me too." When he stood up, he swayed, and Arthur caught his arm to steady him.
"Easy there," Arthur said. "You must be quite the lightweight."
Merlin giggled, then covered his mouth in mortification. "I'm not very good with liquor," he said. "I can handle beer, but yeah, you know. Liquor. Huh."
Arthur rolled his eyes while Merlin tried to collect his stuff, mostly scattering it around the table even worse. He took over, gathering up Merlin's notes and books into his rucksack. He slung it over his own shoulder, shut Merlin's laptop with a click and clasped it to his chest. Finally, he slung his free arm under Merlin's. "All right then, you lush. Let's get you to your room."
"I can do it!" Merlin protested, before nearly braining himself on a brass rail.
"Obviously," Arthur said, leading him to the lifts. "Now, which floor?"
Arthur pressed the button while Merlin leaned in against him. He wasn't that drunk, and he probably could manage this on his own, but then, Arthur was warm and his muscles bunched so wonderfully under his thin shirt and vest, and he smelled like cologne and whisky and...
"Merlin!" Arthur said, shaking him. "Don't fall asleep. I need to know which is your room."
"You want to come to my room?"
Arthur arched a brow. "I bought you those last drinks. It's only right that I see you safely in your bed. Now, which is your room?"
"912," Merlin said, digging in his pockets for the key card. Arthur took it from him and led Merlin down the hall.
"So, here we are. Think you can manage to get into bed on your own?"
"I could manage, but I don't know if I want to. On my own I mean," Merlin looked at Arthur through his eyelashes, and let the tip of his tongue peek out of his mouth.
Arthur hesitated, his eyes flicking to the bed just past the open door. "Another time, maybe," he finally said.
Merlin pouted, and slid out from under Arthur's supporting arm. "Right. Well, thanks again for the drink. Hope you get to Denmark."
"Yeah. Have fun in Mali. Don't harass too many other passengers." Arthur looked back over his shoulder once toward Merlin, and Merlin had to bite his lip to keep from calling him back.
The strike was called off early in the morning; by the time Merlin asked for Arthur at the front desk, he'd already checked out.
Merlin shrugged. He was a little disappointed. Arthur was fit, and, really, his surname was Pendragon. That was fairly epic by itself. Still, there was work to do, and plenty of other fish in the sea.
He put Arthur out of his mind.
The Pays Dogon was split by a legendary escarpment that cut the region in half. From the far plateau, you could see as far as the hazy horizon would permit. From the other, a dead end in the form of a sheer cliffface, cut through with tunnels and caves where families had eluded slave traders and colonists both.
Merlin had looked forward to it since he first read the itinerary Geoff had sketched out. He'd never been to Mali before. His experience with the continent was limited to a holiday in Egypt and a conference in Durban, and comparing either of them to Mali was like comparing England to Greece.
Merlin was met by Amadou Ndiaye, an anthropology student from Senegal who was doing field research in the Dogon country. Amadou had contributed as a researcher on National Geographic Television's series on Africa and was quite eager to work with them again as a consultant on Merlin's article.
Merlin thought of his ex-boyfriend, a metallurgist who'd slaved over his dissertation for the entire time they'd been together. Merlin had done most of the paying in that relationship; he imagined a doctoral student in any country could use the extra income.
"We should speak in French sometimes, Merlin," Amadou had explained from the back of the bush taxi he'd hired to drive them from Bamako to the Dogon country. "Maybe you will improve somewhat before your departure."
Merlin's fumbled French introduction hadn't been that impressive, apparently.
In the first four days in Mali, Merlin was sure he'd learned more useful phrases than the entire time he'd studied it in school. Amadou had taught him a few words of Toro So, too; just enough to exchange greetings and well wishes. It was good, for very few people in Merlin met in Dogon country spoke French.
They travelled from village to village for a week, returning a few times to the town where Amadou made his base. His home, a baked-brick structure of two rooms, had a cement floor that stayed cooler than the ground and a generator from which they charged their laptops and phones. It was tucked away behind a concession fence, and had a pineapple growing incongruously near the door.
Merlin had planned on staying in Bandiagara and camping if necessary later. But after the first night, when they'd stayed up late playing poker and exchanging travel stories, Amadou had invited Merlin stay with him. Merlin had accepted on the spot; unexpected friendships were one of the best parts of travelling.
A few days into the trip, Merlin and Amadou returned early from their visit with a local sculpture artist called Amaguime. Dogon sculptures were made to be kept hidden, because they were so personal to the artist that made them. Amaguime spoke at length about his work, with Amadou translating, and finally allowed Merlin to see one of them. When Merlin raised his camera without thinking, Amaguime had raised his voice.
Merlin learned a new Toro So phrase that afternoon: "I apologise."
The sculptures had included references to Ama, God, and the nommos, his human/fish-like ancestral spirits that formed the basis of much of the Dogon beliefs. Merlin had read about the Dogon creation mythology before he arrived; some was long-held legend, other parts were said to be revealed only to two French anthropologists. That part held that the nommos descended from the star Sirius, who arrived to inhabit the earth until they were later driven out.
Legend held that the nommos would return, but none of the people, be they elders or farmers or merchants or mothers, that he had met had shared that story with him.
Maybe the anthropologists were having everyone on.
Amadou had shrugged. "They don't know you very well," had been his explanation.
On Merlin's last night in Amadou's house, the village hosted a wedding celebration for a woman called Janice, an American Peace Corps volunteer who'd served in their village several years ago and was back with her fiancé to visit her host family. The party had gone on until the small hours of the morning, dancing and singing and enough food to feed an army. The children had been released from school early, even, and the Hogon came to observe, though he sat apart as custom required.
Somewhere after his fifth plate of rice and sauce, Amadou pulled Merlin into the circle of dancers.
"Mate. I can't dance to Lady Gaga, never mind something as cool as this," Merlin said, raising his voice so he could be heard. The dance seemed quite intricate. "I'll just ruin it."
Amadou just laughed. "A guest doesn't sit by himself. Come."
Merlin eventually got over his reluctance and ended up one of the last to leave the circle. He took photos with all the village children when asked, and the dancers posed for him. He said goodbye with promises to send copies of the photographs when he returned to England.
When he took Janice's hand to bid her farewell and good luck, he looked down at her bright smile and suddenly, he was attending a very differing celebration.
When he knelt and kissed her hand, she had laughed him off.
"Honestly, Merlin. You don't show him any respect. Don't start treating me like some fine lady."
"You are a fine lady, your Highness," Merlin had insisted. "Look at your gown. It must have taken three seamstresses to manage it."
"Four," she corrected him. Her dimples flashed in her cheek. "I mean, if you count me."
"This is an important gown, Merlin. Of course I wasn't just going to sit back and let someone else do it."
"A Queen sewing her own wedding dress? It really is a new age, isn't it?"
"It is," the King said, coming up behind them from where he'd been dancing with a cousin of his mother's. "If she had her way, she would have prepared my new armour herself as well." He took the Queen's hand in his, and brought it to his lips.
"Your armour is my job," Merlin said.
"It hasn't been your job for some time, yet you persist in looking after it. You do know I need you doing more important things, now, right?"
"Your armour is very important to me, Sire." Merlin winked at the Queen, and the King took Merlin's hand in his free one, sheltered from the view of the court by his ermine-trimmed robe. Even still, sharp eyes were all around them. There were some still in the court who disapproved of the King's choice of bride, who thought it was a cynical choice and not the joining of two people with genuine affection for each other, if not raging passion.
It wouldn't do to fuel their suspicions.
"I wish you both every happiness," Merlin said, formally, and he felt them both stare.
"I have every happiness I could ever want," the King said, looking between the both of them.
Merlin shook himself. Janice and her fiancé looked at him like he was crazy.
He was crazy. There was no other possible explanation. Déjà vu was one thing. Seeing people at holy sites? Having memories of weddings he'd never attended? Visions of people he'd never met, whose features he couldn't seem to get close enough to make out? Calling blokes by other names in bed? And not just any old name, but one name, one name that had been following him since he'd learned to read.
Heathrow was usually also not on the list of Merlin's favourite airports. To be fair, he was hard-pressed to think of an airport he did like, but if such a place existed, it wasn't Heathrow.
On that occasion, though, Heathrow was a most welcome sight.
As Merlin pushed his luggage down the serpentine ramp that led to the Heathrow Express, all he could think about his how badly he wanted to lay down in his own bed and sleep for years. Sean was going to fetch him from Paddington, and he was even looking forward to seeing his daft face.
His luggage had doubled in size somewhere along the way, he realised as he tried to lift it into the boot of Sean's car. It always did.
Sean dropped him at home, thank God, so that Merlin could get a few hours' sleep before he was due at the pub for a formal welcome back. Which was ridiculous anyway since he was leaving again in ten days' time, but then, his friends never needed much reason for a party.
"So, darling," Renuka said as Merlin walked into the pub, laden with bags and parcels. "What did you bring us?"
He passed out the things he had brought back: shell jewelry and pagnes for Renu, saree fabric for Emma, her flatmate, and for Sean, a collection of percussion instruments he'd picked up in each place.
"Maybe you could use them on your next track," Merlin said. He was joking; these were more ornamental than functional, although the calabash was pretty solid.
"Oh, did he tell you?" Emma butted into the conversation. She looked a bit silly, having wrapped her saree around herself like a massive shawl, and Merlin could only pray she wouldn't spill on it.
"Tell me what?"
"He's got a meeting with Virgin!" she said, before Sean could even look away from the instruments.
"Oi! Let me tell my news. Anyway. Yeah. Meeting with Virgin. And I played The Underbelly whilst you were studying new worlds and new civilisations, boldly going where many people have already been…"
"Oi. Old worlds and old civilisations, thank you."
"But yeah. This could be it, mate."
"When's the meeting?"
"Later this month. I'm going to have a piss up either way, you'll be there, right?"
Merlin bit his lip. "Dunno. I'm heading to Brazil next week; have to do Arizona after."
Emma signalled the waiter for another round. "How is this even your life, Merlin? You're doing all six continents in, like, a month."
"There's seven continents," Renu muttered. Emma looked confused, and started counting them out on her fingers.
"Yeah, it's pretty insane, but it's been good, too. Hard to learn enough in any one place, but hopefully my supplementary research and contributing writers will help."
"Eh, don't fuss. You always seem to know more than you think you do. About everything. I'm sure magic's no different."
And what would you know about magic, Merlin?
"Nothing," Merlin said. All three looked at him in surprise.
"I mean, it's nothing…compared to the idea I have for my next piece. You'll love it, it's on independent music businesses around the EU…"
Merlin spent much of his week back in London trying to outline his story, but it was painfully slow going.
He tapped away on his laptop, deleting the same lines over and over.
He made tea.
Sean came over and tried to bully him into watching the footie.
He spent a half hour trying to coax Gaius into playing with his new mousie toys. Gaius was not impressed.
"Sorry, old man," Merlin said, stroking his hand over Gaius' ears. "I should have remembered you're too old for this foolishness." Gaius had been the neighbourhood cat as long as anyone could remember. He'd been in some scraps, judging from his wonky eye and stiff gait, but he was as proud as ever. On Merlin's first night in his flat, Gaius had jumped in through Merlin's window, and refused to leave.
Gaius just yawned and went back to licking his paws.
Despite picking up a fair share of myths and mysticism, rituals and spiritual beliefs, Merlin was stumped. He had a couple of contributors sending him things as well, from places he wouldn't get to visit. There was enough here for a story, no doubt, but what story?
It was all scattered about his kitchen table, a jumble of notebooks, photos, trinkets and souvenirs together with the books and articles he'd hastily torn from magazines he'd purchased. Some were in languages he didn't even understand, but the images were evocative.
It was difficult to concentrate, though, and in the end, he found that putting together thank-you parcels for the people he'd met, with handwritten notes, copies of photos he'd taken, and mementos from London was a far more productive use of his time before he had to leave again.
That, and trying not to Facebook stalk one Arthur Pendragon.
Merlin spent eight days in Brazil; longer than he should have done. But he was tired, so in the end, he ponied up the additional money to spend a few days on the beach in Salvador da Bahia.
He spent the first morning just walking around the city, running over his talks with Bernardo, the novelist he'd met in Recife. Bernardo's novels heavily incorporated themes of Quimbanda, an Afro-Brasilian spiritual practice that was often scorned publically even as it was practiced privately.
"Do you think we could meet someone who practices Quimbanda?" Merlin had asked.
The look he'd received from his photographer had not been encouraging. "Spiritual practices are very personal. Not even the neighbours will know about it. You think they will let you photograph them and write about it in your magazine?"
And now he was in Salvador, walking along the beach on a beautiful evening. He felt lighter, somehow, with the sand between his toes, and he noticed more than one beautiful man walk by and catch his gaze.
He almost considered approaching one of them, of digging out his Portuguese phrasebook and trying to construct a semi-plausible chat-up line, when a woman approached him. He looked down as she thrust a handful of colourful ribbons at him, and asked him a question in Portuguese.
"Sorry," Merlin said, hurriedly digging for his phrasebook. "I mean, desculpe. Não entendo Portugues."
She brandished the ribbons at him, again. "Dois reals, senhor." She selected a ribbon, red with gold writing, and began tying it on his wrist.
"Make a wish," she said, in careful English. She probably knew a dozen ways to say that phrase.
"No, that's okay. Não, obrigado," he continued to protest, but the woman only blinked up at him.
"Make a wish," she repeated.
Merlin huffed and made a wish. Please don't let me be going crazy.
He handed the woman her coins, and held out his arm to grudgingly admire the bracelet. Red was his colour.
The next morning, he met with Amalia, an old friend of Geoff's. She was going to take him to meet a Mai de Santo she knew from her childhood, which would be good, because as much fun as Merlin had had at the street festival, he was still really vague on the details of the various African-influenced religions practised in Brazil.
"I see you've made your entreaty to Senhor do Bonfim," she said, nodding at Merlin's wrist.
"Hmmm? Oh, this?" Merlin said, sipping the strong coffee she'd handed him the moment he arrived. Merlin had never drunk so much coffee in his life as he had here in Brazil. "Yeah, a woman on the beach last night wouldn't take no for an answer."
"Of course. It's her livelihood. You know you must wear that until it falls off, yes?"
"If you made a wish, you must wear it until the ribbon falls off on its own. Then your wish will come true."
"Really?" Merlin was sceptical.
"Really. It is one of our mystical practises, Merlin. It would only be correct of you to participate in it, would it not?" she teased him.
Merlin supposed she had a point. It seemed he'd be sporting red and gold for some time; the knot was fast and true.
It was hot in Arizona; as hot as it had been in Recife, but without the benefit of an ocean.
He was in a place called Sedona, as beautiful a spot as any he'd seen during the course of his research, with the red and orange rock formations striped against a brilliant blue sky.
He had a meeting later that afternoon with a spiritualist who was going to tell him all about the energy vortices said to be within the formations, but he wanted to see them on his own first, before anyone tainted his opinion of them. He'd head northeast, then, toward the Navajo Nation reservation, for which he'd been studying the etiquette for days.
He'd started at Cathedral Rock, outside of the city; parked his hired car in the gravel near an overlook and just stared at it, gleaming brick red and orange in the sun. He wasn't sure how long he stood and stared after he'd taken a few photos, but there was something about the place that just felt calming.
Maybe it was just knowing the world could randomly create things this beautiful, without any careful thought or planning or expensive art materials. Just water, earth, and time.
A crow flew overhead, in a graceful arc, and Merlin followed its path for a while. Merlin thought of the yee naaldlooshii he'd read about, how in some Navajo legends they could transform into animals at will. Eventually, the bird flew off, but not before he was nearly halfway around the path.
Merlin gazed up at the rock formation until he could feel his forearms start to prickle with sunburn, but he still didn't want to leave. He felt like he was waiting for something.
Strangely enough, it didn't startle him. Merlin didn't need to look back over his shoulder.
"You don't seem that surprised to see me," she said as she stepped over to him.
"I'm not." Very little could surprise him anymore.
"Have you remembered, then?"
"Remembered what?" Sometimes Merlin thought he was about to recall something huge, but when he tried, it just slipped away, like the faces in his visions.
"I suppose not, then. But you're close, aren't you?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
Morgana played with the hem of her cutoffs. "Don't play dumb."
Merlin whirled around. "I won't play dumb if you stop playing coy," he said.
Morgana walked away, ducking under a tree branch and stepping over a low chain barrier. "Walk with me," she said.
Merlin looked up the great rock before him, and shrugged. He felt too peaceful to argue.
They picked their way over rocks and shrubs until they reached the base of the rock formation, where the rocks began to break from the earth. Morgana sat down on one of them, tipped her sunglasses onto her head.
"Did you ever wonder?"
"You. Me. The name that keeps following you. The visions you keep having."
"I don't know what you're talking about." Merlin had kept himself from looking too closely at any of the details; it would have to keep until he was home. He had a job to do, right now, and his personal mental breakdowns couldn't get in the way. Not if he wanted to keep his career.
"Merlin. Morgana. Arthur. Memories of a different place, a different time. An article on myth and magic and spirituality around the world. Come on, Merlin. You used to be better at this."
"Like I've said before, I don't know what you're talking about," Merlin said more forcefully, but Morgana only reached out to grab his arm.
"I think you do. This isn't the first time, you know. You've done this before, and each time I've been there, had to take your scepticism and your insults and your dismissals, the same way I always did. When are you going to stop fucking around with our lives like this?"
Merlin had had enough. "Look. You're the one stalking me like some demented bunny boiler, spouting cryptic shite and acting like you know me. If I make things so difficult for you, why won't you just bugger off and stop chasing me around the globe?"
Morgana shook her head. "You don't even want to sort it out, do you? Just be Merlin, the writer with the cat and the average, faceless friends and the garden flat and the childhood he can't remember. Play your cricket, drink your beer. Fuck the rest of the world, right? Let them manage without you this time."
"You know what I think? I think I'm perfectly sane, and you're the mad one."
"Oh, is that right?" Morgana began pawing at the foliage peeking beneath the rocks, until she found a particular one. She pulled it out and tossed it, roots, soil, and all, in Merlin's face.
Merlin caught it, spat out dirt and sand. "What the fuck—" he started, but before he could continue, he looked down at the plant.
"This is hemlock," he said.
"And how would you know that?"
"It's not supposed to grow this far south," Merlin said, instead.
"Are you an herbalist, then?"
"I don't know how I know that," Merlin whispered. "How do I know that?" When he looked up at Morgana, perplexed, he felt the present moment shimmer away.
His hands curled around a small bottle. She stared at him, accusing. The King was devastated; a sister promised revenge.
Somewhere in the corner of his eye, Morgana sat in the Arizona sun, glaring at him.
She looked at him in horror as they battled on Camelot's parapets. "You. All this time, you were the same as me? I trusted you!"
"I didn't trust you. Guess I was right," Merlin said, nodding to the bodies of the knights strewn around them.
He knew Morgana was still there. Was she the one sending him these strange thoughts? How was she doing it?
"You've been many things these long years, but never a coward," she told him.
When Merlin opened his eyes again, Morgana was nearly nose to nose with him. They stared at each other for a minute, until Merlin shook himself from her grasp.
"Enjoy your trip to Wales, Merlin. I hope it brings you... clarity," Morgana said, and it sounded like a promise. Merlin had to close his eyes at the nauseating revelation that she seemed to know his entire life.
When he opened his eyes again, she was gone.
Arizona's been cool. The New Agers are a little batshite, but harmless. I don't care what anyone says; a mythology created in 1987 is not ancient enough for this article.
I learned a lot about original American myth and legend at the reservation. The photographer got some good shots, too. We need to run them by the Navajo Film Office before I can share them, though, or I'd attach them now.
I'm flying back through Birmingham, because I need to go to north Wales for my final stop. Arthurian stuff FTW. It's like my reward after spending nearly two months being invasive and accidentally insulting people everywhere I go.
See you soon. Hug Gaius for me.
Looking forward to it.
I hope you didn't make too much of an ass out of yourself. With either the Native Americans or the New Agers, although if you had to choose to offend one of the two, go with the New Agers.
Merlin had a Welsh name, so he supposed they must have been Welsh somewhere back in the day. He'd only ever known London, though, and had only been to Wales a handful of times, to Cardiff or Swansea, mostly, or to Holyhead to catch the ferry to Ireland.
Wales was pretty, and Merlin was more than happy to wear a red dragon when it came time for the Six Nations just to piss people off, but that was pretty much the extent of it.
He was back now, driving through the countryside, stopping here and there to pop into a shop or talk to a farmer. He didn't need to do much research on Arthurian legends, but Geoff's outline had specifically included Camlann, the place where King Arthur was reputed to have fallen and with him a golden age in unified Britain.
Not everyone agreed that was where it had happened, but Merlin knew that it was. As always, he tried not to think about the things he'd been seeing and hearing, but that first, frightening vision in New Zealand had been about a fallen king called Arthur, and this place? This place felt like he'd been there before.
Merlin arrived at Dinas Mawddwy, where the field of Camlann was in mid-afternoon. He'd never visited Camlan, any more than he'd visited Carmarthen, where a wizard who'd shared his name was said to have grown up. Until recently, Merlin was more interested in Arthur as legends than in Arthur as history, and here in Wales, they tended to treat Arthur like history and with a sense of propriety that he, being an Englishman, was told he wouldn't understand.
Maybe he'd understand better now.
He was greeted by a strange man by the name of Laurence. He had long white hair and wore improbably short trousers. Laurence showed him how to use the dowsing rods, explained to him why this method supposedly would show them where King Arthur had died.
Merlin listened politely, but inside he wanted to scream at the man to get on with it. Merlin felt stretched to the breaking point, his mind no longer his own, and if this excursion didn't bring the peace Morgana promised, Merlin wasn't sure what he would do.
The dowsing turned out to be a bit of a let-down, and he agreed with everything Laurence said just to get him to leave. He knew intuitively that he needed to do this alone.
"Do you mind if I keep the rods, though?" Merlin asked. "To, ah, photograph. For the article."
Laurence looked thrilled at this.
Merlin waited in his hired car long past sundown, until the night was pitch and quiet and overhead, the Dog Star seemed to wink at him as it had in the Dogon Country. Like the entire heavens knew something he didn't know, and they were all in on the joke.
As midnight approached, he got out of his car, the beeping of the alarm setting the only sound. The whole field felt like it was waiting, the same way Merlin increasingly felt, in his bones, that he was waiting for something to make sense.
A strange fog had settled about the field, white whorls of mist that seemed to skate the edges of the field, shrouding it from the rest of the world.
He took a deep breath, raised the dowsing rods, and walked.
He took one step, then another, then another still, feeling his heartbeat grow faster in his chest and he put one foot forward, then another, walking forward, tilting at his personal windmill.
When he reached the spot Laurence had pointed out earlier, he looked out at the horizon, and gasped as the fog parted like...like magic, and four women seemed to float toward him.
He fell to his knees with the shock of it.
His mother's eyes when, as an infant, Merlin floated the beaten old kettle across the room. His mother. He had a mother after all.
Mud squelched between his fingers, but Merlin didn't move.
Will's father was killed in battle, and suddenly, playing Knights and Bandits wasn't as much fun as it once was.
His knees were sinking into the mud now, but still Merlin paid to no attention.
Gaius (Gaius!) falling. Merlin moving furniture to catch him. A letter, a pair of eyeglasses, a slumped form at the base of an altar.
Merlin could only hold on, could only press his hands and knees into the ground, as the memories came, one after the other, a tireless assault.
Morgana, when the only power she knew how to wield was that of a well-cut frock. Gwen's sunny grin as she handed him a flower.
Arthur throwing knives at a hapless servant holding a target. Arthur laughing at him. Arthur shaking him, telling him he was an idiot, that he shouldn't have lied to him.
Arthur holding him like he was important.
Arthur pressed against him in the chill of an early winter sunrise.
Arthur, life draining out of his open eyes.
The women had nearly reached him when Merlin sank into unconsciousness. The last thing Merlin saw was Morgana bending over him.