Arthur stood in a lake facing the shore.
The water lapped at his waist, cold and gentle.
Twilight gave way to the first rays of sunlight at his back and an early morning mist rose around him. It felt as though he had just come out of a dream – a sleepwalker who had awoken somewhere new.
He wore his chainmail, but he did not have his sword. His cape pulled at his shoulders, waterlogged and heavy.
He took a step towards the shore. The noise of his movement through the water echoed in the quiet and a bird took flight from a nearby tree. He stopped, but somewhere deep inside him there was a tug – and Arthur took another step, and then another, his eyes fixed on the shore. When the water lapped only at his knees, he saw a slim figure appear from the fog.
The man wore an oversized dark coat, his long silvery hair and beard blending into the fog. Arthur paused and the man did the same. They stared at each other over the distance between them. There was another tug deep inside Arthur, and at that same moment, Arthur realized that the man’s silvery hair wasn’t blending with the fog, it was disappearing into it – leaving behind smooth skin, raven black hair, and familiar blue eyes.
And then they were moving, Arthur almost slipping on the wet stones by the shore while Merlin slid down the grassy bank gracelessly.
Arthur’s heels were still in the water when they embraced.
Merlin clung to him even when Arthur tried to step away. He could feel Merlin shaking.
“Merlin,” Arthur said. His voice was strange to his own ears - the first words of morning.
Merlin finally stepped back, wiping at his face with the overlong sleeve of his jacket. Arthur kept a hand clasped to Merlin’s shoulder. Merlin mirrored the gesture; with his other hand, Merlin covered Arthur’s own and pressed it tighter against himself. It brought back the memory of Arthur lying on the cold ground, a wound in his side, and his truest friend crying as he admitted a decade of lies.
“Arthur,” Merlin whispered, fresh tears rolling down his cheeks.
“Shhh, it’s all right, Merlin,” Arthur said. “I’m here. It’s all right.”
Merlin smiled through his tears, and Arthur knew he had not lied. He reached up and ruffled Merlin’s hair, causing Merlin to duck out of the way. Merlin let out a laugh that sounded more like a sob – but when he turned to Arthur, he was still smiling.
“Come, My Lord,” Merlin said, placing his hand on Arthur’s forearm and tugging him forward, out of the water and onto dry land. “I’ve got dry clothes and a fire waiting...”
Arthur smiled and followed. Merlin’s hand never left his arm. Arthur allowed it. He could remember vividly his final moments; or, rather, what he had believed had been his final moments, and how he wanted only to have Merlin hold him. He had to admit that he did not want Merlin to let go anymore than Merlin seemed to want to.
Merlin led him up the grassy bank and across a wide flat stone road, and then down a stone footpath past a few old trees. As the morning mist rose and dissipated, Arthur saw a stone house that could only belong to a minor nobleman. Arthur tried to remember who lived near the lake Avalon, but to his knowledge, and recent experience, it had only been thick wilderness.
“Who lives here, Merlin?”
Merlin looked back towards Arthur, meeting Arthur’s eye for a long moment before he spoke.
“I do, Sire.”
Arthur’s heart lurched before the full weight of Merlin’s answer even hit him. The joy at seeing his friend again began to recede in the face of the cold realization that Arthur hadn’t cheated death after all – at least, not completely.
Merlin led him into the house, the door already ajar, as though Merlin had run out in a great hurry... probably because he had. For a moment Arthur wondered what it had felt like for Merlin – if he had experienced the same tug beneath his breastbone, calling him to the lake in the twilight hours.
Merlin pressed a white thing on the wall, and the hallways was illuminated as if by magic – though Arthur knew that it hadn’t been, because Merlin was looking at him and smiling, and his eyes remained bright blue. Merlin led him up a staircase, leaving Arthur only a quick glance at strange looking furniture and ornaments in the downstairs rooms.
Merlin pulled him into the first door on the right at the top of the stairs and, suddenly, Arthur was home.
The Pendragon shield hung on the wall in red and gold. His wardrobe stood in the corner. His bed dominated the room, its curtains pulled open. A table sat by a large window, an ornate chair behind it, and there was a fireplace along one wall with a hooked rug and two chairs placed in front of it.
It wasn’t his room though, it was smaller. It wasn’t his bed, because it didn’t have that odd hole in the post that had appeared around the same time that Merlin had been injured and missing.
“How many years has it been?”
Merlin shifted on his feet and looked at him. His eyes were still red from crying.
“Hundreds,” Merlin whispered.
“Hundreds,” Arthur repeated, letting the knowledge sink into his skin.
Arthur felt... devastated. Everything and everyone he had ever known... Guinevere, Camelot...
“How is it that you still live?”
“You should get out of those wet clothes, My Lord,” Merlin said, dropping his gaze immediately. He reached for Arthur’s cape with shaking hands. Arthur allowed him to undo the buckle gently, and remove the sodden material, but caught Merlin’s hand before Merlin could reach for the buckle of his armour.
“Answer me, Merlin.”
Merlin took a breath, his eyes momentarily darting to the side, but then he met Arthur’s eyes, and Arthur could see the resolve there.
“I don’t know, Arthur... you died, everyone died... and I lived. I aged, but then would wake up young again - as young as I was when you left me. The druids, they’ve always called me Emrys. In the old tongue it means ‘immortal.’”
“Immortal...” Arthur repeated. “Are you a god?”
“No,” Merlin said adamantly. “I’m just a man. If I were a god... I could only wish to be a god, because then I could have gone to you.” Merlin continued, his eyes filling with new tears. “If I were a god I would not be bound to the earth as I am. I would not be trapped here... I would...”
“All right,” Arthur said as softly as he could. “I believe you.”
Merlin took a deep breath, “I was destined to serve you, Arthur, and you were destined to return...”
“You were waiting,” Arthur said, dumbfounded by the thought.
“Yes,” Merlin confirmed.
“You built a house.”
“Eventually, I had to.”
“I must say, your taste in decor is commendable.”
Merlin laughed and it was like the first bluebird of morning. Arthur smiled.
“I hope you remember how to perform your duties,” Arthur said, as Merlin reached once again to remove his armour.
Merlin smiled, a glint of mischief in his eye that sent a homesick pang through Arthur, even though the person he longed for was standing right in front of him.
Merlin gave Arthur more comfortable clothes to wear. The material was soft and luxurious. The clothes themselves were simple – supportive underpants, soft black trousers, and a white shirt that opened only at the collar. Arthur felt amazingly light and unburdened without his sodden cape and cold chainmail.
“Are you hungry, Sire?” Merlin asked. “I could go to the kitchen and prepare you something to eat. I didn’t... I didn’t expect you today, but I should have enough for eggs and toast.”
“That will be fine, Merlin, thank you,” Arthur answered. Merlin nodded and darted out of the room.
Arthur stayed standing in the middle of the room, unsure what to do while he waited. Ordinarily, there’d be a pile of papers on his desk that needed reading or speeches and letters to write. Instead, Arthur ran his hand over the bed post, felt the carving and noted where it was similar to what he remembered and where it differed. He inspected the wardrobe similarly, and then the desk. Each item was beautifully made and maintained. Finally, he came to the fireplace and the shield adorned with the Pendragon crest above it. Compared to everything else in the room, it was of crude craftsmanship, worn and too old to be of any real use.
The door opened and Merlin shouldered his way in carrying a large tray. Arthur glanced around the room, realizing that there was no dining table as there had been in the King’s chambers in Camelot. Arthur moved to the desk and was rewarded with a smile from Merlin. There were two identical meals on the tray.
“May I eat with you?” Merlin asked, as though they hadn’t eaten together the past three days as Merlin dragged him towards the lake... and then Arthur realized that they hadn’t. “It’s just... you probably have questions and there’s quite a lot... erm, that is, I wasn’t sure if I’d get a chance to eat otherwise and I may need the food for strength. I’m not as young as I used to be!” Merlin smiled, furrowed his brow and looked down at himself, and then barked a laugh, “or I suppose I am.”
“I see you’ve taken the opportunity to go mad over the years,” Arthur joked, but lost his smile when Merlin’s smile disappeared and he suddenly looked haunted. “I’m sorry... what I meant was that I’d be happy to have you eat with me, Merlin.”
“It was Gwen who restored magic to Camelot, in your name,” Merlin explained, in between bites. “She was a just and good Queen and the people rightfully adored her. She ruled for many years alone, and then...” Merlin glanced at Arthur and then back down at his plate. “...she and Sir Leon wed. He was, at that time, her most trusted knight, and it came as very little surprise.”
“Leon became King?” Arthur asked, dumbfounded at the news. It was odd, to feel the sliver of betrayal enter his heart, even though he knew that he could hardly expect Guinevere to stay chaste and true when Arthur was dead and gone.
“No,” Merlin shook his head. “He... that is, the wedding came as no surprise, but Leon refused the name of King, and Gwen agreed. She insisted that she had but one King, and that was and would always be you, Sire. Leon was named as Consort and was never equal in standing to Gwen. It is a tradition that continues to this day. Only those of Gwen’s linage may rule.”
“She had one then... a linage?” Arthur asked, swallowing against a sudden dryness of the throat.
“Arthur Thomas was born a year and a half after Gwen and Leon wed,” Merlin smiled, a little sadly, either in sympathy for the swirling thoughts and emotions that flooded Arthur’s mind, or in some nostalgic memory of his own. “He had the curliest hair I’ve ever seen.”
An unexpected laugh escaped Arthur, and he found himself tearing up at the same time. He could only imagine... he could only imagine...
“He was given the throne in his thirty-fifth year,” Merlin stated, his smile fading. “I stopped visiting shortly after that. Gwen was the last... the last of those who understood. Without her...”
“No more,” Arthur said, looking away from his friend and wiping at his eyes.
Silence fell. Arthur stared up at the old Pendragon shield and tried to calm himself. Merlin stood and cleared the dishes, disappearing out the door that led into the rest of Merlin’s strange new home.
When Merlin returned a moment later, he was carrying a large leather-bound book.
“Perhaps this might be easier,” Merlin said. “I kept a record. You could read it. At your own pace... and then I wouldn’t have to...” Merlin took a deep breath, and then continued in a stronger voice. “I have some errands to run. I could leave this with you and you could read while I’m gone.”
“Very well,” Arthur nodded.
Merlin smiled, and placed the book on the desk in front of Arthur. “Good. I should be back by lunch. You’ve had breakfast, so you shouldn’t need anything before then.” Merlin paused in thought, and then added. “Before I go, let me show you where the toilet is.”
“What’s a toilet?”
Merlin’s record was a list by year of every event that Merlin had thought important - alliances, laws, wars, and the deaths of everyone Arthur had ever known.
Gwen’s death was the hardest to read, though it was peaceful and of old-age, happy in her kingdom, surrounded by the love of her family and the people of Camelot - it was everything Arthur would have wished for her, save only for the fact that he was not there to go with her to the next life.
It was after the account of Gwen’s death that Merlin had left his first personal note in the record. The final entry for that year read as:
- I miss you.
As the record continued, Merlin’s personal notes became more frequent, just as the events that he deemed noteworthy during the year became fewer.
- I’m getting old, Arthur, older than Gaius ever was. What will happen if I die before you return?
- Maybe this is my punishment for failing – to never see you again. Kilgarrah said you would return, but now that I think of it, he made no promises that I would still be here to see it. I hope you’ll forgive me, Arthur. I hope you find this record somehow. I hope you find a new servant. I regret so many things, but most of all, the fact that I will never set eyes on you again.
- I woke up young again. I think I am the same age I was when you left. I don’t understand why I still live. Were we really this young? I look like a child.
- I’ve started calling myself Gwaine when I travel to the market. No one recognizes me as ‘Old Man Merlin.’ I can’t use the name Emrys. It remains too well known, a legend now. I don’t think Gwaine would mind.
- I miss you.
- I regret using Gwaine’s name. It reopens the wound every time someone calls me by it. They joke that I hardly look like a legendary knight of the round table. I can hardly tell them that I once sat at it myself.
- Arthur Thomas has died. His daughter, Ygraine, now has the throne. I watched from the courtyard as she addressed the people. She has Gwen’s curly hair. I cried like a girl, Arthur, you would have been ashamed of me. I miss you.
- I’m too old again. Am I going to die this time? I don’t know if I can do it again, Arthur. I want to see you again, believe me, I do, but... the thought of another lifetime... how many more lifetimes will I be forced to live without you?
- I’ve decided to go by the name Daegal. That was the boy who saved you from Sarrum’s assassin, do you remember? It’s funny, how our feelings change over time. I had been in so much pain, and under a great deal of stress as I realized that Gwen was not herself – but I now feel as though it was all a happy memory. You lived then. Suddenly that’s all that matters. I suppose by that reasoning I only have one bad memory - one bad memory that has gone on an awfully long time.
- I miss you.
- I miss you.
- I miss you.
- I’m trying something new. Hopefully this spell works.
The record continued after that with events carefully noted down in an impersonal fashion. This time there was no note for when Merlin went from old to young again, the note on Ygraine’s death and successor was a simple statement of fact. Merlin didn’t appear to have returned to Camelot for the coronation. Even Merlin’s writing became uniform, the ink never changing as it had in the early pages. The entries became vague, less detailed, noting only times of war and time of peace, times of sickness and times of prosperity. As Arthur turned the pages, he realized the pages smelled like a thick dark forest. It brought back memories of hunting trips and long journeys. He wondered in what conditions Merlin had been living in his lifetime as Daegal and the life after that.
When the ink and writing finally altered slightly, it was with the note:
-A small village is being built next to the lake. My little holiday had to come to an end. I’m now going by the name Merlin Dragoon. I only hope I remember how to be human.
The entries continued for another lifetime, the writing becoming shaky in Merlin’s third, fourth, or possibly fifth old-age. Arthur realizes, with a sinking feeling, that he has lost count.
-Some scholars believe that the legends were recorded wrong. That it is Gwen who will rise again, because it was she who sat on the thrown during the time of peace, though it was you who died in a battle to achieve it. What if they’re right, Arthur? What if I’ve been doomed to wait an eternity for someone who is never to return. There have been wars, famines, and times of struggle when I’ve been certain that your kingdom needed you, and yet the lake remains still. If there is no hope to see you again, I should ask for the return of your sword, so that I may throw myself on it.
The next entry simply read “-Merlin Dragoon II”
Arthur closed the book. He had not read to the present day, but he felt too heartsick to read further.
He looked around the room. Merlin had not recorded when he had built his house, but Arthur guessed that it was probably when the village appeared. “I only hope I remember how to be human,” Merlin had said. What had he been before?
Arthur’s gaze fell on the door to the narrow hallway. Besides a tour of the bathroom and a short instruction on how a toilet functioned, Arthur had not explored any other part of Merlin’s house. He had the feeling that he was expected to wait in his chamber until Merlin returned – the chamber that Merlin had purposefully kept as familiar as possible. It was clever idea, Arthur realized, to try to lessen the shock of the passage of time.
With that thought, there was only one thing for Arthur to do.
He entered the hallway.
Besides the tiled bathroom, there were two other doors. Arthur opened the one closest to him and knew immediately that he had found Merlin’s bedroom. He smiled and then had to swallow against something in his throat. It was so undeniably Merlin’s bedroom that Arthur felt that Merlin could have just as easily led him into this room and Arthur would have felt at home.
It was a mess. There were books strewn and stacked here and there. An old writing desk sat in the window, a battered chair pulled out beside it. A single bed, unmade, was pushed against one wall, with a chipped nightstand beside it. One wall seemed to open up into a wardrobe, but it didn’t look as though Merlin bothered to hang up his own clothes, since they were draped around the room haphazardly and lying in piles on the floor.
There was something on the nightstand that Arthur didn’t recognize. It displayed numbers, crudely drawn. Arthur went over and peered at it, but didn’t touch. He could ask Merlin about it later. His gaze shifted to the bed, thinking of the old bed that Merlin slept on in Camelot. This bed was no bigger than that really, and Arthur wasn’t sure why it seemed strange to him that Merlin wouldn’t have gotten himself a larger one... it wasn’t, after all, as though Merlin needed the room, skinny as he was, and unwed.
Merlin had lived lifetimes, but in the record, there had been no mention of a wife or anyone – at least until the point that Arthur had read, which had been five lifetimes at least. Arthur closed his eyes and took a deep breath and tried not to think of it, tried not to think about the twist in his guts at the thought of Merlin alone for all that time. Maybe he just hadn’t written about it, Arthur thought. Merlin had, after all, always had his secrets. Arthur had never known him as well as he thought.
Arthur left Merlin’s room and opened the other closed door in the upstairs hallway. This one led to a library. The room lined with filled bookshelves, and in the centre of the room, a soft leather chair and a desk. This room, at least, was clean. Arthur closed the door again and then ventured downstairs.
The first room was obviously meant for entertaining, as it was filled with chairs and benches, all soft and made of fabric. There was a fireplace that dominated one wall, a window that dominated another. Beyond that room was a small dining area attached to the kitchen. Whatever Merlin had been doing in his numerous lives, it had obviously made him wealthy. His house was filled with fine furniture, rich fabrics, and soft carpeting. The kitchen, Arthur discovered, had a stove that didn’t appear to require wood to burn, and a cupboard that was both inexplicably always cold and had a torch that lit itself whenever the door opened.
There was another small room with a toilet off the kitchen, and yet another room meant for entertaining, this one with seating that faced a large flat black object. Arthur also found a broom cupboard and more food storage, and another door outside.
His stomach rumbled and he wondered how long it had been since Merlin had left on his errands. Arthur wandered back into the kitchen and opened the cold cupboard again, as that was where the majority of the food seemed to be kept. He was happy to discover some apples inside of a glass drawer.
Before he could take a bite, he heard a heavy door shut and then footsteps run up stairs, and then footsteps run immediately downstairs.
“Merlin?” Arthur called. Merlin hadn’t told him to be wary of intruders – nor did it appear that anyone but Merlin lived in the house.
Merlin all but barrelled into the kitchen, wide-eyed and panicked. Arthur immediately felt himself tense, glancing around for a weapon.
“You’re in the kitchen,” Merlin all but breathed out. “You.... you’re in the kitchen.”
“I gathered that from the pots and stove, yes,” Arthur said slowly. “Is everything all right?”
“Yes, sorry, I... uh, everything is fine, Sire,” Merlin nodded. “You have an apple.”
“I was hungry. I found it in the cold cupboard,” Arthur explained, gesturing with the apple.
“It’s called a refrigerator,” Merlin smiled.
“That’s a stupid name for it.”
Merlin laughed. “I’ve got groceries in the car, if you want something other than an apple for lunch.”
“I don’t know what that first bit means, but yes,” Arthur nodded.
Merlin laughed again. “Just... stay here. I’ll be right back.”
There was a stool next to the marble table in the middle of the room. Arthur sat, and watched Merlin carry in two large bags of food.
“Is that where you went this morning? To the market?” Arthur asked, watching Merlin dart around the kitchen putting things away in various different cupboards.
“Yes,” Merlin nodded, “and also the tavern.”
“Not like that,” Merlin rolled his eyes. “I had to start our cover story for the villagers. The last time anyone saw me, I was an old man. Usually I have more time to prepare, but I had to come up with an excuse to speed things along – as it appears that your return caused me to revert to my old appearance ahead of schedule.”
Arthur nodded. The record didn’t actually say how he explained his sudden youth to the villagers, but Arthur had learned, in his last few days, that Merlin was actually quite a skilled liar –the thought made Arthur’s stomach twist.
“What story have you spun then?” Arthur asked.
“Well, usually, I know when the end of one lifetime is coming –and so, I’ll start putting it ‘round that I’ve a nephew who is going to come out and look after me in my old age... a nephew who happens to have the same name as me, because it’s a family tradition. When I wake up young again, I go into town and introduce myself as my own nephew, then I wait a couple of weeks or so, and then I tell everyone that Old Merlin has died, and he’s going to be interned at a family plot someplace else, but we can have our own little get together at the tavern. It’s... “ Merlin paused. “Always makes me cry, that bit.”
“You attend your own funerals,” Arthur stared at Merlin.
Merlin laughed, though it lacked any humour. “Not this time,” Merlin answered, hurrying around the kitchen once again, gathering food in order to prepare Arthur’s lunch. “This time, I disguised myself as the old man, and I told them that I was moving to the city, and that my nephew and his friend were going to be living in my house – like a trade. And... “ Merlin paused and looked a little guilty. “You must promise not to be angry with me, Arthur.”
“Merlin, what did you do?”
“You have to understand, there are things about the world... so much time has passed Arthur, and you don’t know... there’s so much that you don’t know. You don’t know what a car is, or telly, or who the prime minister is. There’s so much I need to teach you, and... I just thought... “
Arthur took a deep breath, suddenly feeling...slightly terrified... if he were to be honest. Because Merlin was right, Arthur couldn’t remember what Merlin had called the cold cupboard, he didn’t know what the contraption on Merlin’s bedside table had been, nor why there was a sitting area in Merlin’s house devoted to looking at a flat black piece of glass... he didn’t know what the world looked like outside of Merlin’s house, who ruled his kingdom, or even where the market was and what currency he would need for a loaf of bread.
“Did you tell them I was a simpleton again?” Arthur asked softly, because he wouldn’t blame Merlin if he had.
Merlin huffed a laugh and smiled at him, but his eyes were soft as though he knew exactly how Arthur was feeling. “No, Arthur... you’re not a simpleton.”
“I told them... it’s almost the truth really... that’s the trick with lying, I’ve found, it’s easiest if you actually tell the truth,” Merlin smiled. “I told them you had been in the army, off at war, and that you had been injured in an attack. I told them that you had fallen into a coma – a deep sleep – and you had only recently woken up.”
“All true,” Arthur realized.
“Except, that I told them that you had a head injury and that when you had woken up, you had lost parts of your memory,” Merlin explained. “My nephew – that is to say, myself – thought that it would be better if you made your recovery in a quiet village, rather than a large city, and so I asked my uncle – again, myself – who’s getting on in years, to trade houses with me. And so... here we are.”
Merlin placed a sandwich in front of Arthur, and then began to make one for himself.
“That... is a clever story, Merlin,” Arthur said.
“I just thought,” Merlin continued, “that this way you can ask people questions and they won’t think you’re strange for not knowing. At least, you can ask the bartender, anyway, his name is Rhys. He promised he’d look out for you. He’s a good man. I was good friends with his great grandfather. We used to be lamplighters. He’d have been proud.”
Arthur wasn’t quite sure how to respond, so he simply nodded and ate his sandwich. It felt freeing, to know that he could go to the tavern now, and on Merlin’s word alone, Arthur knew that he could trust this Rhys to welcome him at the very least.
“Thank you, Merlin,” Arthur said between bites, trying to get into the habit of showing Merlin his appreciation – he had promised himself, should he survive, that he would.
Merlin looked at him like a startled stoat. Arthur rolled his eyes, resisting the urge to make a sarcastic remark to undercut his words.
“How many lifetimes have you lived?” He asked instead.
“Ten, maybe,” Merlin answered. “They’re all in the record, I thought.”
“I haven’t finished it yet,” Arthur admitted. “Also, there’s that bit where you don’t say when a new life has started and all the writing looks the same. Did you enchant the book to write itself?”
“Oh,” Merlin said. “Yes, I... yes”
“Did you go away for a bit? Travel?” Arthur asked, hoping that the answer would be yes, that Merlin had used his immortality to see the world, rather than-
“No, I stayed by the lake,” Merlin said, not meeting Arthur’s eyes. “I... well, I was a little tired of... that is... I wanted time to go by quicker, if I was to wait for you... so... I... became a tree. Listen, I don’t really want to talk about this, that’s why I gave you the record. Can we.... ” Merlin sighed. “There’s a lot I have to teach you about the world now, we should get started on it.”
“Whatever you wish, Merlin,” Arthur said, because he couldn’t imagine - he couldn’t imagine waiting a thousand years to see Merlin’s face again.