Part One: The Islands.
Merlin woke, as he often did, with a gasp upon his lips. The image of crushing water surrounded him, swayed behind his eyes, pulling him down with the current and dragging him to the thick sludge at the bottom of the ocean. He could feel the waves sliding over one another, calm, as if they hadn’t taken another one for their own. And then Merlin had been fighting, thrashing, to return to the surface.
He never reached it though. He always woke starved of oxygen, panting as if he’d really been dragged into the depths of the Great Ocean. The days he woke with the dream still pressed against the backs of his eyelids were never good days and Merlin knew, without venturing from his room, that the Great Ocean had stepped further to his door; crept up their pathway inch by inch while the island had slept.
Moving his arms above his head, Merlin stretched out his back, spine cracking as he sighed. It was a few more moments before he swung his legs out of bed, bare feet padding across the wooden floor as he moved to throw open the storm shutters. They gave an almighty screech as the hinges, battered from endless sea storms and countless attacks from the wind, swung open; sunlight streaming through to warm the cold wooden floors.
Merlin’s toes curled in delight as he rested his upper body against the window ledge, his head outside of the window and allowing a calm sea breeze to ruffle through his hair. He couldn’t remember the last time they’d seen the sun this strong and while the sky was far from clear (to the North you could see lighting clouds, hovering where Old Man Simmons had said great forests were, back in the Old World, and the South was shrouded in constant rain, blurring as far as they eye could see), it was peaceful around Ealdor.
A gull cried out and Merlin’s heart sung at the sound, one which he hadn’t heard for so long. There were legends that said the birds controlled the weather now, whispers that where their wings dipped and their feet settled would be a place of harmony. That was a lie though, Merlin knew, for the birds, like so many people, would move on when the wind changed, fleeing the rising tide and the loss of land.
“Merlin, breakfast’s ready,” a voice called from downstairs.
Leaving his perch at the window somewhat regretfully, Merlin exited his room and closed his eyes, walking through his house from memory rather than sight. He’d lived here his whole life, been through so many emotions while doing so, from fear as the seas raged outside to joy as his mother brought news of a neighbour giving birth. Children were rare in these times and it was usually up to the whole community to help the mother care for her child, to support her in a harsh and cruel world.
Despite having been unable to leave the house for days now that the sun was out Merlin no longer felt trapped. When the winds were howling like wolves of the Old World and the sea was stirring in fury, that was the time to feel trapped.
During the often week-long storms, when the stone walls of the home he shared with his mother closed in against them, that was the time that candles were snuffed out and people confined to their rooms. Merlin remembered wanting to see why the world was so angry, so hateful, itching to unclasp the bolts holding down the storm shutters, keeping the chilling winds and biting spray of rain and sea water at bay.
That was the most important thing, keeping the demons and waters out when the weather turned sour. It had happened once, lower down in the village, that someone had let the demons in and suffered, just like all the tales and cautions passed around.
The story, offered to little children who wanted to satisfy their curiosity of the storm, told of newcomers to the village. They hadn’t been in Ealdor long, climbing out of their ruined boats and onto the shores of the Island, pleading and begging for mercy that had been granted freely.
The Ocean had risen too high, as it always had, snapping at their heels and forcing them to flee their homes. Ealdor had welcomed them, given them shelter and food, but they’d opened their windows in a storm, letting the sea-devil himself in to claw at their skin and invade their bodies.
Two weeks later, when the storm let up, they were all dead. Merlin had been there, alongside his mother, as they tried the best they could to heal them. There was no medicine on the island of Ealdor, not even the oldest on their island, Old Man Simmons, had been alive in the time of medicines, and so it fell to the sparse plants of their island to try and heal, prayers and wishes mingling with poultices. None of it had been to avail and the chill had crept into their bones, claiming them one by one until all that was left was to pile them up in the ruins of the boat they came and set them sail to the sea, fire purging their voyage and their demons.
It was a harsh life, but in Ealdor and the last of the Lands, you lived by the sea. You were born from the sea and you died by the sea. There were no exceptions to this, it was a simple fact. The Lands followed no Gods, no martyrs, and no idols. All they knew was the sea, the decider, the harbinger of good and evil alike and the one constant the Lands knew. The Gods and hopes they carried had died when the tides had swelled and the land had been taken, claimed by the melting ice and pouring rains.
As he counted the number of creaks his foot made as he walked along the hall, Merlin placed his hand on the banister, a skill learnt from years of closing his eyes and mapping his house blindly. It had served its uses in the past, when the storms had raged for months and the energy the sun would have provided was used up and their homes were empty shells. Light was a commodity at night time, what with scarce electricity even when the solar panels had collected their maximum. There were the fire pits in each home, but they were to keep warm more than anything.
The last step Merlin placed his feet on gave a deep groan, as if it was about to collapse on itself, so he shifted the weight onto the balls of his feet, springing from the stairs and landing on the sole rug in the house placed in the hall between the door and the stairs. It was threadbare, as were all the materials on the island, but it had been at their threshold since before Merlin was born and he couldn’t imagine a home without it.
His mother was in the kitchen, a small annexe off of the hall. Merlin smiled to himself as he heard her humming away, no tune in particular that floated through the house. She had been beautiful once, but as with many of the people who remained on the Lands, there was a sharp hardness to the corners of her eyes; a lingering sense of sorrow clinging to her as a person who had lost too much already.
What person that lived on the Lands hadn’t lost anything? People were swept away by the seas, whole islands lost in one great wave far too often for no one to be affected. Merlin had lost his father before he was born to the waves, Ealdor had lost so many more and Merlin wondered how many more they were to lose in his lifetime.
“Oh, Merlin!” Hunith said, half-turned away from the stove where she was ladling out porridge. “About time too, have you seen the sun?”
She placed a bowl on the table, a spoon in her hand as she turned to face Merlin. “Get that under your belt before you even think about stepping out there.”
Merlin dug the spoon into the steaming porridge, stirring the oats around and blowing on them. The first mouthful burnt down his throat, but he didn’t lessen the speed at which he ate. The sun was out and there was no time to lose, but his mother wouldn’t let him pass out of the kitchen unless he’d eaten his fill.
It wasn’t that food was scarce on the island of Ealdor, but it wasn’t a good idea to go wasting it. With harsh, unpredictable weather, any crops cultivated were hardy and usually unpalatable unless stewed within an inch of their life or mashed down into something particularly unsavoury. There was always the fish from the sea and the small amount of livestock people kept in their homes (why waste space for animal shelters when they could live downstairs, giving you more heat and enclosed more safely?), but those resources had to be checked carefully and controlled firmly.
Either way, they had to survive. Trying out new seeds (seeds that had been stored from the Old World; preserved through many decades of water-borne lands) was all well and good, but they had never taken to the land. It had left the people (the Water people, not the Land people) with little option but to turn to lesser nutritional sources, foods that hardly scraped the barrel in terms of health.
It was just the way they lived, the way of all Islanders. The Great Ocean was a harsh ruler, but what else could they do?
As they so often did, Merlin’s thoughts drifted to the whispers of salvation, of massive sky-cities built when the waters first came rushing over the land. Great, prosperous places of harmony and peace, where they didn’t have to fight each day just to survive where there were people who had never known the hardships of the Great Ocean. Where they never had to know the sting of the wind on their cheeks or the biting cold of winter when the house was too beaten to stand against the cold any longer.
They were the sky-cities of dreams, imagined by every traveller who passed by and sought by others who had grown too weary of this life.
“And for pity’s sake, at least change out of your pyjamas!” Hunith said, snatching Merlin’s now-empty bowl from his hands and slapping his shoulders lightly. When the sun was out it was best to make haste to get out there.
Merlin took the stairs two at a time, grabbing a hold of the balcony at the top and pulling his weight round the corner of the stairs. The wooden structure groaned after years of Merlin perfecting the move, but he wasn’t there to hear it, having dashed into his room instead.
He dressed quickly, clothes flying onto the bed as Merlin stripped of his pyjamas. The sun was an oddity now, with the storm clouds covering the skies almost all the time and the rest spent battling biting winds and spray, so there was no time to lose. When the sunlight could vanish into the cold at a moment’s notice you had to be ready to go out and give it your all. That was the sort of people the Islands bred; hardy and opportunistic at a slight notice.
Before he set out, Merlin reached under his bed, feeling for the small wooden box. It was a nondescript object, plain and simple, but it held one of the most important objects in his life.
The lid of the box unlatched, the metal rusty on the clasp from where it had been damaged by the sea and the salt of the wind. Almost every object bore marks of the sea, but Merlin couldn’t afford to replace the clasp as metal was practically gold dust; people waging man-on-man wars for simple scraps.
The hinges gave a slight groan, but Merlin paid it no mind his attention turning instead to the object inside of the box. It was laid on rolled up scraps of fabric, a cushion against the wood of the box, and Merlin flipped back the scrap that covered the stone itself, brushing a finger against one of the smooth sides.
No matter how many times he’d seen the stone Merlin would never tire of the inky blackness and the hidden depths the lump of rock gave. Unlike any stone or crystal he’d seen, this one had been polished into an unnatural smoothness and it seemed to shine from the inside. It was the darkest of black, but gave no reflection of the person looking into it. Or at least of Merlin – he hadn’t shown the stone to anyone, not when he was unable to explain half of the things he saw in it.
The Great Ocean got to people, tales told. Even Ealdor who thought themselves to be different to other Islands, a little more accepting of the times, would fall back on superstition. If Merlin admitted to seeing things there was no doubt someone would say the Ocean spirits had entered him and he was lost to them. What happened after that, Merlin didn’t know, but he did know that no one had ever survived the ‘exorcism’ unharmed, and the faces of the ‘cured’ had been a tool to warn small children of the dangers of the Ocean.
This stone, though, was different. Merlin knew what was right and what was wrong and this stone didn’t feel wrong or evil. Instead he felt connected to the stone, as if there was a greater force that had brought it to the island, made Merlin find it on the shoreline and compelled him to take it home. Even buried under grit and mud, the stone had shone, not a scratch on its surface; though, there was plenty it should have been damaged on.
Carefully cupping the stone, Merlin laid it out on the windowsill to rest. It was, in essence, just a stone, but the weak warmth and light the sun gave to it had always led to the best ‘visions’, as if the stone was connected to the Old World, when the sun had governed the land and not the sea.
He turned to leave his room, glancing back at the stone once more. It gleamed against the rays flooding the window, a small rock that could fit in the palm of his hand easily. He’d return later to the stone, to navigate what it showed him, but now was the time to head outside.
Outside, Merlin saw people blinking, stepping out of their homes for the first time since winter had begun. When the sun came out, Ealdor came together; people talking to neighbours they might not have seen for months as if they’d simply been away for ten minutes. Families (or the remains of families) took walks and animals were let out to graze on the tough grass, not for nutrition, but because it was natural, right. The Ocean could steal a lot from them, but when the sun came, the people of Ealdor and other Islands came alive once more.
Hunith and Merlin lived on a slight hill, on a cobbled road leading to the main bulk of the Island. It was a short walk of about ten minutes before they hit the main town, where the shops and most Islanders lived, but Hunith refused to move closer to town. While most in the community preferred to stick together, the house on the hill had been in their family for generations and Hunith refused to move.
It was a house she had rebuilt from her mother and father with her husband, a house she had given birth to Merlin in. It was a house that Merlin had grown up in and was steeped in their family history. Despite the safety being around other people might bring, Merlin never wanted to move homes. He loved the rickety white-washed house they lived in with all his being and while he’d move if there was no other choice, it would always be their home.
The path into town was lined with relics of the past. They were oddities that had no place in the world of the Ocean and yet no one could bear to destroy them. A faded-red post box and telephone booth sat side-by-side, a lonely couple who would stay the land until the waters rose too high and consumed them. They had stayed the test of time - been loved in a strange way by the people around them and while the materials they were made from might have fetched a price, they were memories of Ealdor before the Ocean swelled up.
Set away from the main town, just on the outskirts, lay a church. It was derelict, crumbled in on itself and yet you could still see the stained glass windows that lay on the side, broken and dirtied yes, but still there.
No one on Ealdor believed in the gods of the past. They were stories now, another relic from the past. Many wanted to have such faith in a God (any god, any religion), but living out on an island, swamped by the sea and with the battering of waves only a constant reminder that you were on a sliding time scale gave you no faith. The Ocean was the only entity you could afford to believe in and there were no prayers for tomorrow, simply because life was too uncertain.
Like so many things, the old stories of religion had died out - forgotten and buried at the bottom of the ocean. For anyone who could remember details, it seemed so unlikely that there was any salvation from this that it was better not to hope, better not to think that things might get better. It was realistic, harsh, and Merlin often wished he could believe in some higher power, some helping hand.
They’d all learnt that lesson long ago; there were no hands coming out to help you, only your own feet planted firmly on the ground and the support of your community. If there had to be a god or a deity to believe in, Merlin could believe in the people of his village because that was all there was left. He didn’t know the outside world, didn’t know anything but the small scrap of land they called home.
There was one last obstacle to cross before Merlin could hit the main town, a humpbacked bridge. The tarmac was split and spotted by hardy weeds, but that hardly mattered. Cars were an invention of the past and, even if someone owned a car that could work, fuel had run out years ago.The only way around was to walk or sail, but no one ever chanced the sea.
The bridge once crossed a river that fast flowing and clear. The river was gone now, all that was left was a stagnant pond, tinted green and brown as it reached the muddy banks around it. When the floods had seen sure to take their village, they had built blockages and dams, trying to stem the flow of nature for as long as they could. It had worked, but time was running out and the Ocean was beginning to take the hand of the battle, tilting the odds in favour of the floods.
Ealdor’s time was coming to an end, but no one thought of it. Merlin had seen things, terrible images in the stone back in his room. Perhaps they fuelled his nightmares, but anyone living out on the seas had similar dreams. Merlin’s nightmares, though, held a different quality. They were almost real; as if Merlin really was drowning; as if he’d become the person he’d seen in the stone’s images.
But that was just all nonsense. Merlin shook his head as he stepped onto the rough stone of the village square. He was known as a bit of an odd ball, more of a dreamer than anyone else dared to be, and surely these things were just manifestations of his character. There were no visions, no glimpses into a bleak future. They’d all die by the sea eventually and it was that thought that gave Merlin the dreams.
He wasn’t, in any way, shape or form, special.
The first stop Merlin made was to a small cottage on the edge of the square tucked behind a few other houses. Once it might have had a lovely garden and picket fencing, but now it was almost derelict. The garden had been reduced to slabs of stone and grit; puddles of water dotted around – as it they were in everyone’s gardens. There was no beauty in the land of Ealdor, but the villagers took beauty in other things; the quiet of night when the storms paused, the sunlight when it filtered past the cloud; the hope that the sea might finally rest its campaign against the land.
He didn’t bother knocking on the door, instead pushing past the bolt he knew would be unlocked and stomping his feet on the threadbare doormat.
“Will?” His shout rang through the house as he walked towards the kitchen and peeked in. It was still early in the day and if Will wasn’t in the kitchen eating he’d be in bed.
The kitchen was empty so Merlin left the threshold and moved over to the room across from the kitchen. Will was there, still tucked in his sheets and curled up with a pillow over his head.
“Wake up you lazy sod,” Merlin called, wrenching the pillow from his friend’s face. Will blinked sheepishly before rolling over, burrowing under the covers.
“The sun’s out now, get up!” Instead of the hurried reaction that news had given Merlin, Will uttered something unintelligible, trying to push Merlin off of the bed so he could return to sleep.
Merlin and Will were the only two of their age on the island and while it made sense for them to be friends they were different people and it shouldn’t have worked. It did though and had worked ever since they’d grown old enough to be able to walk outside. They were best friends and Merlin had been there for Will when the worst had happened, while Will had been the one to listen to Merlin’s fears, his dreams and hopes. Their differences led to arguments, sure, but they’d never fought so badly that they couldn’t turn around and laugh.
Simply put; anger wasn’t a reaction you could keep on the Islands. Will would always be his best friend even if he’d prefer to sleep through the sun and try to rope Merlin in on ‘quests’ along the shoreline, up to old Simmons’ place to bother the man again and again.
“What the fuck Merlin?” Will eventually popped out from the covers, frowning. “You know I hate it when you’re just hovering around and I’m trying to sleep.”
“Maybe that’s why I did it,” Merlin retorted, raising an eyebrow.
“You’re a creepy, creepy man. Now get the hell out of my room and go make me breakfast.” Will smiled widely to the words, throwing the covers back and stretching. “And then we’ll go do whatever it is that caused you to wake me from my sleep, but it better be good. I was having a brilliant dream about some of the village girls. The things I’ve heard about that girl with the-“
“I’m going,” Merlin said hurriedly. He didn’t need to hear about Will’s wank dreams this early in the morning.
He did as Will asked him to, making a standard breakfast of porridge and water. He wondered when Will had gone to the well last as the large tank of water looked almost empty – it had to be at least a week.
The water supply had been tainted years ago and instead a new system, complete with purifier, brought salt water through the well and gave fresh water. How exactly it worked, no one really knew, but it was the last piece of technology from before the Flood that still worked.
“The offer still stands, you know,” Merlin said softly after Will had started eating.
Will’s spoon hovered over the bowl for a moment before he shook his head, digging into the porridge with enthusiasm.
“And my answer’s still the same,” he replied, tone even.
“Yeah, but you know what my mum’s like. She’ll keep asking,” Merlin added, looking out of the kitchen door to where the stairs lay, step boards missing and the railings split in places.
Will was five when his mother had died. There had been a sickness that claimed half the island and she, along with so many others, had perished. Hunith had taken him on, under her wing as he followed after Merlin, despite only having known him for a few months. When Will’s father would go out to work Will would come around their house to play.
It was a tradition that had kept long past infancy. Will had spent his spare time at Merlin’s and – when they’d been old enough – just in the company of Merlin. It had been the way they’d lived for years, but it had changed since last summer.
Will’s father was one of the few people on the island who owned a working boat and took to the seas when they could, fishing for the island. It was a dangerous task and only given to those who had impeccable talent with a boat. Even so, it wasn’t uncommon for a group to go out and return one man or boat down, setting Ealdor even further back.
Matthew, one of the other fishermen, had returned from the catch with a sombre look, heading to Hunith’s house. Merlin could remember the way Will had fallen to his knees, face blank as Matthew told him his father’s boat had tipped over, that the waves had come down too hard and too fast for anyone to do anything. Merlin had watched as Will sunk into Hunith’s embrace, clutching at her arms.
After that, Will had returned home, closed off the upstairs to his house and shut himself away for weeks. There was nothing Merlin could have done as the storms raged around that time of year, but he eventually barged inside of Will’s house, furious.
They’d argued, Will had thrown things and Merlin had left more than once, but they worked through. You couldn’t hold onto anger and live on an Island. You couldn’t let grief consume you or the Oceans would have won. All you could do was keep living, show the world that you weren’t going to give up, and keep going.
Turning down the offers of coming to live with Hunith and Merlin, Will had decided to stay in his family home. Though he was surrounded by the memories of his family – of what he’d lost – a day never passed that Merlin worried for his friend. Like all Islanders, Will was strong.
“There’s gossip the Ocean will settle this summer,” Will said after scraping the remains of his porridge from the bowl. He licked the spoon and set it back to rest in the bowl.
There was always gossip the seas would settle. Every year, people muttered about how this one would be different, how the tides would begin to recede.
Will stood and took his bowl over to the sink, slamming it down.
“Why can’t they just admit it’s pointless? We’re all going to die on this stinking piece of land and rot until the Ocean just buries us.” Will turned, practically snarling. “And that’s if we’re lucky! What if the water just keeps going and we have no other option but to just drown? None of us can swim, we’d drown in seconds!”
Merlin had had this conversation before, but Will had always been optimistic, never on the side of the people who had told them that life was useless and they’d just die.
There had been a time when Will had been adamant he’d learn to swim before the Ocean got them, but such a task was impossible. If you were able to get out far enough in the waters to be able to get the depth you needed, that was an achievement in itself. The currents were strong, the sea too unpredictable even on sunny days. Most of the people who had even tried to swim out had died right there and then and perhaps only one or two had survived the illness that had crept upon them once back on land.
The Ocean was wild, untameable, dangerous and a million other things. You couldn’t escape its jaws forever and if you fell in, you were unlikely ever to come back up. Will had realised this soon after he had planned to learn to swim and now it seemed like every hope he’d had had been sucked from him.
“Will-“ Merlin began, only to be cut off.
“No, I’m sick of it.” Will shook his head. “I just… I just want it to be over, you know?” He moved back to the kitchen chair sinking down slowly. “I’m sick of wondering whether I’ll have half my house ripped off in the night or whether the town will be flooded the next time I turn my back.”
“You can’t think like that,” Merlin said hurriedly. Everyone had these thoughts, but they didn’t do any good. What was the point of worrying that you were going to die when you just had to keep going?
But, a little voice said, what was the point in going on when inevitably all that lay before you was death? No matter what Merlin had seen in the inky black stone, it wasn’t real; couldn’t be. His visions, or whatever they were, were simply an imagination brought up on stories from the Old World.
“I know,” Will said miserably, resting his head on the table. “But the waters are rising again and I was there when Simmons gave his report, freaking half the village out. And guess who has to calm down some of the kids? Me!”
Merlin nodded sympathetically. All Will needed was to talk, like most people. How long had he sat alone, unable to talk while storms raged around him? At least Merlin had Hunith.
“They’re right though,” Will muttered, grabbing Merlin’s arm. “Do you remember the rocks we used to play on as kids? You used to be able to see them out of the window here.”
The shutters were thrown back and all Merlin could see was the water. The rocks and the scraggy beaches that had littered his childhood were gone now, swallowed up by the sea. Houses on the outskirts of the village had vanished too. They were shrinking now and it was far too late to be convinced otherwise.
“Simmons is holding a meeting soon. All he’ll say though,” and here Will’s voice was bitter, “Is how we need to stick together. A load of shit that’ll do, we need to think bigger.”
With wary eyes, Will turned to Merlin, voice low as if imparting a secret.
“We need to look to the ends of the Earth. The places where the waves are smooth and gentle, where there are huge utopias!” Will’s hands were clenched and Merlin wondered how long he’d be thinking of this plan. Did Will wish he’d thought of it last year? Back when his father was alive?
“There aren’t any miracles Merlin,” Will said, face stern and serious. “And those tides out there,” he continued, “Aren’t going to go down. The only thing they’ll do is rise and rise until we’re all dead.”
Merlin didn’t like the look on Will’s face. It was a look he hadn’t seen for years, not even after his father had died. There was only one time Will had looked like this and it had been when a gull he’d taken in after it had been injured died.
He’d turned to Merlin, back when they were on the cusp of adulthood, and said, “If the sea won’t care for her own, what will she do to us?”
Their future was bleak, always had been, but Will seemed so convinced in these tales of utopias and sky cities. So many people had been convinced only to land on Ealdor, exhausted and angry that they’d gone for so long without even sighting the illustrious cities. They were myths and left people bitter and haunted, their last hope stolen away with a wicked twist of the waves.
“But we can’t do anything,” Merlin said softly. It wasn’t that he wanted to die, but why risk your life chasing a dream when you had your feel planted on reality, the real word.
Will shook his head slightly.
"My dad kept a book, I saw it when I..." he trailed off, looking uncomfortable. Merlin assumed he'd been looking through possessions he'd never had the courage to recently and decided to say nothing. "Well I saw it. It's an old book, all in tatters."
Will paused again before holding a hand up, stilling Merlin and wandering off. He returned with a scrapbook in his hands and placed it on the table.
"Here. It's got pictures of news reports, from ages ago."
Merlin's hands shook a little as he took the book from Will, gently opening the front page. Newspapers, or any news for that matter, hadn't existed for decades, falling shortly when the Great Flood had risen up, cutting connections from mainland and splitting great countries into Islands. Technology had failed then too and electricity shortly after.
"But these are impossible," Merlin said, slightly awed.
Underneath his fingers were blotched images that must have been captured right before the Flood. They showed images of structures being built, massive iron wrought creations rising up on seas and lands. They were taller than anything Merlin had ever seen and, by the looks of it, hadn't even been finished.
"They're the sky cities. They have to be," Will said hurriedly, flipping the pages of the book to reveal more and more images of the structures being built, technology that hadn't existed for centuries finally being showcased in use, not just the archive pictures Merlin had seen in other books.
They couldn't hope though. Hoping wouldn't do them any good if there was only hardship at the end.
"Who's to say they lasted though?" Merlin didn't look at Will, didn't want to see his face either way. "What if they built them and then the Flood hit and they crumbled?"
He didn't want to know if Will agreed with him. What if Will realised that his hopes were futile? Could Merlin destroy his friend's hopes that easily? He certainly didn't want to, but what other option was there? Will couldn't leave the island, not without Merlin.
And the other option? To accept that the sky cities were real and, when the inevitable happened and Ealdor began to sink, head for them? Merlin didn't know if he could do that, could place so much faith in a hope.
He wanted to though. Secretly, deeply inside he wanted it all to be true. He wanted there to be glorious cities, but he couldn't dare hope. He was just a boy from a dying island, nothing more nothing less. Even though he'd seen things - wonderful, terrible things - in the stone, what good was that? He wouldn't leave Ealdor, there was too much of a risk and nothing to risk it for.
So no. Merlin wouldn't let himself believe in what Will wanted him to, simply because he'd never have it. In the darkness of night, when he'd woken panting from his dreams, that was the time he could think about what he wanted. Between waking and dreaming, he could think about the feel of clouds, the feeling of safety, but only then.
"So what? We have to try it Merlin!" Will's sigh was tired and he turned away, setting his bowl in the sink and resting his hands on the kitchen counter. "I'm sick of never having anything to hope for. If I can't have this one thing then what's the point? I don't have any family left except you and Hunith, but it's not the same."
Merlin waited. It hurt a little to hear that, but he knew his family could never compare to the family Will had had before the sea had taken them away.
A sudden howl of wind cut into Will's words and the pair of them turned to the window.
"Shit," Will whispered. "The sun's gone already."
He fixed a look at Merlin as if to question the reason Merlin had woken him up. Merlin shrugged in response and made for the door.
"I'm off then. A storm will probably close in again soon and I have things to do. You're welcome to come..." he trailed off as Will shook his head.
"Nah, I need to think some things over." Merlin was about to say something, worried for once, when Will continued. "I'll be over later, yeah? If it's not pissing it down that is!"
They shared a smile and after leaving Will's, Merlin headed for the centre-most house, situated directly in the town square. It was the main supply house and while Hunith hadn't mentioned anything, Merlin knew they were running low. In his pockets he'd stored the last of his childhood toys - little metallic cars. To make sure they got the most they deserved, Merlin had been selling off old, unwanted toys for reuse, to be melted down and pulled apart. Hunith had no idea and he wanted to keep it that way.
There was little else he could do. They didn't keep livestock anymore and their garden had failed to produce crops for the third year now. While no one on the Island would deny them food, they'd only receive morsels, not enough to make Merlin happy for his mother's health. She gave too much for him and he couldn't give anything back.
He bought the supplies and prepared his lie for Hunith. He'd simply say he helped fix someone's fence and they'd given him something, or Old Man Simmons had been willing to give them a little more on the promise that Merlin wouldn't come back for a while.
As he moved to walk back, wind whipped against Merlin's face, cutting into his cheeks. He grimaced and looked up the path he'd taken down to the village. It wasn't the only pathway to take that led from the village heart to his house, but it was the easiest - especially when the storms hit.
This time, though, with Will's hopes ringing in his ears, Merlin wanted to take a risk. So instead of taking the cobblestones back up to the house, he'd walk down by the shoreline, on the path that only the ocean knew now.
It wasn't difficult to get to and soon Merlin stepped onto the crooked pathways the waters had half-swallowed, crossing his arms as much as he could with the sack in his hand. He grimaced each time the sea winds hit his face, but he didn't ever consider turning back.
There was an old set of steps leading to nowhere (now at least and no one could remember what they used to belong to) and Merlin often sat on them, looking out at the never ending anger of the sea. Today, though he shouldn't, he sat on the middle step, supplies tucked at his feet and body curled up against the beginning of another storm.
Merlin's eyes took in the sight. There was no sandy beach or stony ground, but mud and sludge on either side of a beaten path. The waves rose and fell over the path, coating it continuously in mud and grit, beating down the slabs of concrete just like they were beating down the island.
Maybe Will was right. The tides were drawing ever closer, even a blind man would be able to see that. He wanted to hope, but looking out as far as he could see, all Merlin found was waves. There were no sky cities, not even on the horizon. None of the refugees to come to Ealdor had ever seen them either... so how could they exist?
He sighed, shaking his head. Too many thoughts, not a big enough head and too many ambitions for a simple Island boy. What would he ever achieve? Living maybe, but not much else.
Merlin's thoughts turned to the stone in his room and of its whispers. Of the visions he'd seen, the horrible things and the wonderful things. They showed sun, freedom and a life spent away from the horrors of the ocean. He wanted to believe in them so much, but what could a stone show? Magic and such things belonged in fairy tales, not the life of someone from the Ocean.
Slinging the sack over his shoulder, Merlin continued on, ignoring the angry crash of waves and the silence of everything else. It wasn't fair; how they had to live. How many days did they have left? Old Man Simmons had been whispering about a surge of water that would be coming for months now and the thought of a giant surge scared Merlin.
What if his dreams - the images he'd seen in the stone too - were going to come true? He didn't want to think about it, but aside from sitting on the coastline, there was little else to do.
"I'm back!" Merlin called through the house as he entered, stomping his feet on the welcome mat and shaking his coat off.
He took the sack into the kitchen, where Hunith smiled softly.
"I'll be upstairs," Merlin said and she nodded wearily. Her eyes were pink, as if she'd been crying and Merlin wondered what aspect of their life had got to her this time - Will, the Ocean or the loss of his father.
The stone was cool in his hands and Merlin wasted no time on lying down in his bed, rolling onto his stomach with the black stone in front of him. Nothing happened for a moment, as always, and then Merlin could feel the tug in his belly, a call almost. Something shifted and flowed inside of him, as if the stone called to a primal sense within his blood.
And then he could See.
Colours exploded as Merlin looked into the stone, thousands of images crisscrossing each other, calling for his attention. There was no process of selection, rather the stone chose what it wanted to show him. He waited, eyes flickering over the moving shapes and colours, until he finally felt the tug once more, calling him and pulling him in.
He could see himself, a child’s raggedy doll on the water, floating. The sky above looked calm, but Merlin (the onlooker-Merlin) knew it would change in an instant. And true to form clouds began to draw closer, darkening as they gathered over his patch on the calm ocean. Waves began to build, rocking his body angrily, trying to push him from the waters.
It was the vision Merlin had seen countless times and he wanted to close his eyes, turn away from the stone so he no longer had to watch himself drown. It was futile though; should he manage to tear his gaze away, the stone would simply call him back to draw him in and make him sit, watch the vision all over again.
Now he was drowning, sinking like a stone to the bottom of the ocean floor. Merlin’s lip curled. He didn’t want to watch this now, not with what Will had said and his mother’s blotched eyes in his mind.
Focusing on the tug of the stone, Merlin felt the power inside of him, beating in time to his heart and wrapped around the stone. He couldn’t close his eyes, but he could tug, pull back and away from the visions. If he had to see visions, he didn’t have to see these ones at least. He didn’t have to watch himself die, only to repeat it later and feel himself die.
The stone seemed to heat in his hands, reacting to Merlin’s power and tug, refusing to let him go. But Merlin wouldn’t let this one go. The stone was the only thing he had that was different, it was the only thing he had connecting him to life outside the island. He’d seen the past through the stone, seen things no one else could even dream of and he wasn’t about to lose this fight. The stone was his, not the other way around.
There was a surge of power and Merlin felt it through his body, the stone shining with an unnatural light coming from inside. Almost as if it had its own power, Merlin could feel it curling around him, wrapping into his own power and mingling. It didn’t push, didn’t pull, but almost niggled, tempting him to look into the stone.
Merlin could see himself hitting the bottom of the ocean floor, as usual, but there was something else. As a stream of bubbles escaped the stone-Merlin’s throat, he could feel a familiar light headedness, fright crawling at his chest. The stone had connected him somehow to the vision and Merlin could feel the terror that haunted his dreams.
Instinctively he ripped his power away from the stone, trying desperately to untangle himself and his mind from that of the stone’s. Instead of being freed, however, the stone merely just seemed to pull him in tighter, wrapping him further in the vision and choking him, proving to him that he was only going to die alone and on the bottom of the ocean floor.
No, Merlin decided. He wouldn’t, and he pulled back with an almighty shove, pushing the stone’s ‘consciousness’ back. It went, but took Merlin with it, snatching his power and his heartbeat and his thoughts, wrapping them up into inky darkness.
Merlin closed his eyes as the last of the air left his lungs. He’d usually woken up by now.
Merlin opened his eyes. In the back of his head, Merlin was aware of the fact that he shouldn’t be here, but the thought didn’t worry him. The darkness around was comforting, familiar, and without understanding how he knew it, Merlin knew he was inside of the stone.
“What’s so important you needed to drag me here to show me?” he asked quietly, pushing himself up from where he’d been lying on the floor. Myths and legends of stones from the Old World ran through his mind, but Merlin couldn’t remember anything on Seeing Stones, let alone stones that could transport you to places.
It was like magic, but magic didn’t exist. Maybe the stone contained old power, fabled magic that had died long ago and been buried within the stone. That would make sense – the myths and stories had some truth, but it had died out long ago to be of any use anymore.
The land around was a wasteland, crumbled buildings that could have been grand and noble years ago. Instead there were remnants of pillars covered in moss and twisted weeds, ugly, yellow flowers poking up between crevices. Once this place must have been loved, such was the smooth of the dilapidated marble statues, but the person who must have loved it had fallen long ago.
Assuming of course that this place was real and not just some figment of the imagination.
Although it appeared to be night, there were a row of lanterns dotted around clear-cut pathways, overhanging the areas to walk and fanning light out to spread across the landscape, highlighting the ruins and the lost memories.
Merlin began walking, unsure exactly where he was going, but he half-stumbled up concealed stairs, grabbing uselessly at the crumbled banister. There was something wrapping around him, pulling and pushing him in a direction. The feeling - not unlike the tendrils of power that had curled around him when he'd held the stone in his hands - appeared to be leading him, wanting him to see something. Perhaps this was why Merlin had been brought inside of this world; there was something here he needed to see.
The only sound around him was the sound of his footsteps. Never before had Merlin felt such quiet. Even on the island there was the constant thrum of waves in the background to remind you who exactly watched over you. The Ocean was always there, but now there was an empty place in the back of Merlin's mind as he walked, finally free of the sea.
"Once upon a time," he muttered, thinking up an old fairy tale Hunith might have told him... or was it Will's dad? Or even Old Man Simmons, he always had liked a good old story after all.
"Once upon a time there was a young boy," Merlin continued. The stairs he'd been walking up had led to a wide platform, almost as if it had once been a grand room. There was a half-ruined chair in the centre, made of stone. It looked regal somehow, as if it had once belonged to a great king.
Maybe it had. Maybe this place had been a golden palace before the floods, but now was left to the wilderness and rot.
"And he was a stupid boy who never listened to what people told him," Merlin said hurriedly, turning to look back the way he'd come. This was ridiculous - there was nothing here. Maybe he was dreaming, that would make far more sense than the other option of being inside a stone or another world.
"And one day," Merlin said softly, eyes raking over the stairway and beyond, frowning as he noticed there wasn't a convenient portal or anything, just ruined pillars, weeds and darkness. "He decided to do a stupid thing and got himself stuck in a creepy place with no way out." Merlin sighed.
"Who are you?" a voice broke into his thoughts and Merlin span round to face the direction of the throne, face ashen and shoulders tensed.
Even in the shroud of darkness, it was clear no one was there. The voice had been hollow, surely not a real voice, and anyway, what was someone else doing here? It was Merlin's dream (or mistake, but he didn't believe in things like magic, not the Ocean boy from Ealdor), nothing else. No one could be here, it was impossible.
But that didn't mean he couldn't play along. Maybe it was the stone, embodied with a voice in his dream.
"Merlin. Who are you?" he replied, eyes scanning the land furiously, trying to spot movement in the shadows.
"I think the question should really be, Merlin," the voice drawled, "Is how you got a hold of one of the Obsidians."
Merlin frowned; what the hell was an Obsidian? Did he mean the stone? Why was a stone asking how it got there, surely the stone knew? Oh, but it was a dream, right. Dreams didn't make sense. He could humour a dream.
"You washed up on the Island shores. I found you and took you home." Merlin gave a bleak smile, spinning around in hopes the stone would see it.
"Do you always look like such an idiot?" the voice asked and Merlin's smile fell, turning to an angered frown. He spun around once more, peering through the lights until he finally caught a glimpse of movement.
It came from the throne, curled around the broken stone as if it had been there all this time. It wasn't a particularly big creature, but then again it looked more of a projection than a living being. Its tail was curled on the floor, the main bulk of its body curved around the back of the stone and its large head resting atop of the throne back, smoke curling from its nostrils.
A dragon. Or at least the projection of a dragon, but Merlin had read enough of the old books to know that projections had to be sustained by a living core nowadays. Electricity ran low and you had to connect the supply to a living object in order to get a projection as flawless and real as this one, which meant somewhere out there, across the oceans, further than Merlin had even dared to dream, was a dragon.
"Who are you?" the dragon asked again, shuffling forwards a little and releasing a stream of smoke with its words. Its lip curled at Merlin's silence, revealing sharp teeth.
Though it was a projection, Merlin knew it was more deadly than it let on. Especially as it was a dragon, who knows, maybe they could do magic from afar with only the barest of links to perform their incantations.
(And, okay, maybe Merlin was quick to jump the gun in agreeing about magic now, but meeting a dragon kind of blew things out of the water a little and you tended to accept things first and think about them later.)
"I told you," he replied to the dragon's question, "I'm Merlin."
The answer didn't satisfy the creature though for it snorted, shifting on the throne with a clatter of talons and a shift of wings.
"No, I mean how did you get here? It's not somewhere you can just... pop up in." There was an undercurrent to the words, but Merlin didn't fancy inspecting it just yet. All he wanted was to go home, maybe the dragon could help?
"I didn't mean to," he started, moving his hands so that they were widespread and clear for the dragon to see. He wasn't armed, but the dragon had no reason to believe that before now. He wanted to make friends (sort of) and get home, nothing more.
"I was looking at the stone... the black one." Merlin frowned, "The Obsidian? Is that what it's called?"
The dragon didn't even flutter an eyelid and so Merlin chose to carry on. "Well whatever it's called, I was looking into it.” Merlin took a slight step back.
He suddenly didn’t really care as to why he’d landed in this place. Maybe there was a hidden trap door or something and that was how he’d gotten in. Or, if it was a dream (though that was looking less likely, Merlin had never seen pictures of dragons and never been interested in them much before, so why his subconscious would choose to present him with one was beyond him) then he could find a way to wake himself up, surely.
The dragon pushed itself up more, snaking its head towards Merlin. The teeth were back under its lips, but there was a glint lingering in its eyes that Merlin didn’t particularly like.
“You said the Obsidian was washed up on the shore?” There was something behind the words, but Merlin couldn’t fathom what to name it. Desperation perhaps? Curiosity maybe?
“Yes,” he replied, his foot catching on a rogue piece of rubble that sent him sprawling backwards. The dragon moved then, sliding from the throne and onto the ground, taking a step towards him. It was longer than Merlin had imagined, sleek in the darkness around them.
"Where are you from?" the dragon said, sitting back on its haunches and staring at Merlin. Its eyes were golden, full of curiosity now and little else.
How could the stone not know where it was? It was the one that had washed up and if this dragon was connected to it or something (weren't there stories of dragons collecting vast amounts of jewels - maybe this one was attached to everything it had collected?)
"The Island of Ealdor." Merlin crossed his legs, regarding the dragon without fear now. If it was curious in him, maybe he could simply keep on talking until he was able to leave this place.
The dragon flared its nostrils, smoke spouting out. Okay, so maybe waiting wasn't the best thing. Trust Merlin to get the dragon-projection to hate him from answering a question.
"You can't be from an island," the dragon said, shaking its head at Merlin. "All of them were lost, years ago."
Merlin shook his head slowly. He'd never been a liar in his life and he didn't intend to start now, even if it cost him a few chargrilled limbs.
"Ealdor's one of the last islands left now, what with the floods." He paused, looking down to pull a clump of weeds out of the ground. "I don't think we have long left though," he admitted, finally caving into Will's fears and his mother's sobs.
Everyone on the island knew it; they were doomed. It was just a matter of time before they all drowned, the last of the islands finally succumbing to the pull of the Ocean.
"Why haven't you moved then?" the dragon asked, sliding down on the ground until it was on its belly, still eye-to-eye with Merlin. Its neck snaked out, head tilting to the side in contemplation.
Merlin gave a huff of laughter. "Moved? How can we when there's nothing but water around us? People try, but they die." He shook his head. "It might be easy for you to get up and move on, but not all of us are dragons."
For a moment, the creature looked taken aback, looking down at itself sharply. The moment was lost as its head jerked back to look at Merlin, eyes wide.
"You said your name was Merlin?" it asked, inching forwards.
"Yeah, Merlin of the Emrys family," he replied, frowning. Trust a dragon (one that might be able to help in some way) to focus on the unimportant things, such as a name.
"Emrys?" came the surprised answer, golden eyes widening. "Emrys of the Ocean?"
Merlin rolled his eyes. For a creature of such majesty, it was rather slow on the uptake. "Yeah, from Ealdor," he added, giving the dragon something else to fix on.
"How did you get here?" the dragon demanded, tone changing once again. The curiosity was still there, but it had a dangerous edge now and Merlin knew he had to be careful.
"As I said before," he began carefully, "I was looking into the Obsidian stone, as I always do. I could see myself drowning in the ocean and then, suddenly, I could feel something pulling me in."
He looked at the dragon, hoping it would tell him what the force was. He received no such gesture and so carried on.
"I tried to fight it, but I eventually ended up here." Merlin looked at the dragon and knew it didn't believe him. There was one last thing he had to know though, before he'd be satisfied to go home. "Where exactly is 'here'?" he ventured, hoping it wouldn't send the dragon into a rage.
Thankfully, the dragon merely raised an eyebrow, pushing itself up off of the ground.
"The personal gardens of Queen Ygraine," the dragon said. "Though they've been left to ruin since the queen died."
Merlin looked around, saddened to think that no one had cared enough to continue the queen's obvious love for the garden. Did the dragon live here now? If no one came to tend the garden then maybe it was a good place to stay.
And then a thought hit Merlin and he wondered why it hadn't been his instant reaction. A garden. A queen, left to ruin - not ruined by the sea.
"Where are you?" he rushed out, moving forwards until he was resting on his hands and knees, desperation clouding his voice. "Where is this garden, in the real world?"
The dragon tilted its head, fixing Merlin a look.
"You really don't know?" it asked.
Merlin shook his head.
"The garden's located at the base of the Tower, down by the caves." Merlin needed to know where this Tower was, hoping it wasn't just a dream now, desperately clinging to Will's hope and allowing himself, just this once, to believe.
"Where?" he breathed, heart drumming wildly.
"Camelot. The Sky City of Camelot," the dragon said, a curl of smoke escaping its jaw as it returned to the broken throne, curling its body around, almost protectively.
Merlin's heart soared in his chest. Will was right! There was hope for them all, hope for salvation and an escape from the waters. They'd be able to be free, to live in happiness, free from the tides and floods.
At last, there was hope.
And just as that thought blossomed, the darkness shattered and Merlin fell back, landing sprawled out on his bedroom floor, the shutters over his window rattling as he wind pounded against them. He stared at the ceiling for a beat before leaping up, swearing as he moved over to the stone – the Obsidian – on his bed, wrapping both hands around it firmly.
“Take me back,” he hissed at it, eyes searching the inky black furiously. “Take back now!”
The stone was unyielding, dark and cold. There was no hint of power – of magic – curling outwards towards Merlin and he wondered if it had all been a dream. It couldn’t exist, could it? It was just a product of his imagination and the words Will had planted there earlier.
Will was a realist. He knew they were likely to die sooner rather than later and so had done the realistic thing – look for an option. What he’d placed his hopes in, though, was a myth.
But, a voice whispered, if Will the realist could place his hopes in the Sky Cities, then why shouldn’t Merlin?
He shook his head. Dragons didn’t exist, magic was for stories and there was no hope or salvation. If there had been Sky Cities, why hadn’t they come for them? If they truly existed, Merlin didn’t want the answer to that question. Sure they might be their only hope (if they existed), but what hope was it to place trust in people who had left you and so many others to the fates of the Ocean?
Merlin let the stone fall from his hands and it rolled under the bed. He flopped onto the mattress, burrowing his face into his pillows as a storm raged up outside. This was his life and there was no escaping it. He’d spent his childhood with his head in the clouds, spinning tales and stories, but people of the Oceans had to grow up some time.
With a heavy heart, Merlin knew it was his time to finally let go of hopes and dreams and acknowledge the Ocean was all they had. No dragons, no magic, no salvation. Just the slowly rising waters and the people he loved, sitting on a ticking time bomb of an Island, simply waiting.
Weeks passed before Merlin thought back to the events in the Obsidian properly. He’d thought about it in snatches – how could he not have? – in the moments between waking and sleep, but once on his feet and up, there was too much to do to think about ridiculous notions such as magic and salvation.
The truth was, Merlin couldn’t hedge his bets when all he had for proof was a vision (from a stone and a dragon, possibly the most unlikely thing that could happen aside from the sea receding) and old newspaper cuttings. Maybe they had existed once, these sky cities, but who was to say they still stood, towering above the earth when the rest of the world had been laid to ruin by the sea?
There was also something else that prevented Merlin from thinking too hard about what had happened. A few houses had been swallowed by the tide and the villagers had moved into the central part of the town. It was a natural thing, but that didn’t make it any nicer.
That alone, though, wasn’t enough. It was life of Islanders, a cold, hard fact, and they always pulled through. No, there was a second issue that pushed through, an elderly woman sobbing on the shores of Ealdor surrounded by the wreckage of a small boat.
One of the village girls had tried to coax her into the hall, safe from the beginnings of another storm, but it had taken five men to forcibly drag her inside once the storm hit with fury. She had clutched a bag to her chest, thrashing in their grip as she screamed for a son lost to the ocean.
Her name was Mary Collins, she said once she’d calmed down a little; though perhaps calmed was the wrong word to use, shocked would be more appropriate. She and her son had been the last two survivors on a scrap of land that had once been the island of Helen, a smaller isle than Ealdor and lying almost directly south. They’d all thought the island completely lost years ago, but here was a woman, clinging onto life.
She’d built a boat with her son, fleeing the last of the land just before the floods had swelled over their banks. They’d been so hopeful that they could make it to Ealdor, anywhere safe really, but then the waves had raged and Mary’s son had been thrown overboard, the boat falling apart against the shores of Ealdor shortly after.
Somehow, even knowing deep inside as they all did that her son was dead, Mary still asked each and every one of the villagers whether they’d seen her son. When she’d asked Merlin, he’d simply shaken his head, turning away like countless other people had. What could he say? Confirm her nightmares and drive her into madness?
He didn’t have to be the driving force. As soon as she’d spoken to as many people as she could, Mary drew in on herself, moving to a corner of the hall and sitting on the ground, face blank and wrinkled skin pale. Old Man Simmons shook his head, a clear sign to leave her, and that was exactly what they did.
Gossip spread as she refused to eat, refused to sleep, screamed when she believed no one to be around, the howls of her pain echoing around the village like ghosts. Spirits, people began to whisper, drawing away from her when once they had approached with good intentions and curiosity.
If there was one thing the people of the Lands feared more than the Ocean, it was the spirits. They came from the lost souls it was said, from the people who had died in the waves and never been put to rest. They invaded the soul, stripped away your humanity into sorrow and pain, and took every inch of what made you human and good before killing you.
The whispers grew until it was a fact, not a suspicion, that Mary had been invaded by the Ocean Spirits. And of course, with a fact like that, people drew back and away, muttering behind hands about how she was cursed and lost to them all. People shared glances that drew strength from unsaid words, condemning a grieving woman.
Merlin didn’t know how the village reached the conclusion, but the older women of the village gathered in groups one morning, weak rain pattering down from storm-ridden clouds. It was a quiet day and the ocean was eerily steady, waves smoothing across the shores as opposed to pounding against Ealdor; beating it to submission.
“They’ve gone to collect her now,” Merlin overheard one of the women say, drawing the rest of the gathered to shake their heads.
“It’s a pity really,” someone else said, voice grave.
By Merlin’s side, Hunith moved to clutch his arm. Merlin looked to her and noticed her pale face, matching so many others out in the rain.
“Mum?” he asked softly, wondering what was wrong. Something was obviously happening and someone had mentioned they were collecting someone… had Mary Collins died?
They were out in the main square, having come to collect supplies while the weather had let up. No shops were open, but the square was bustling, with almost everyone in the village gathered, the only space completely devoid of villagers the centre.
Merlin watched as the crowd began to part at one end of the square, Old Man Simmons leading a procession of men, half-dragging Mary into the centre. Someone set down a wooden chair, laid it out wonky on the cobblestones before Mary was pushed down into it, her arms and legs then bound to the wooden frame.
Watching this woman, Merlin suddenly knew what was going to happen. Fear cultivated on small island communities and in a place that simply had to pick itself up and carry on. Grief had a time limit. This woman had mourned for too long and now superstition governed she was consumed by spirits of the ocean, that sea-devils had invaded her body when she’d fallen victim to the waves.
“My son!” The sob that wrenched from the woman’s chest was heart breaking and Merlin noticed Hunith turn away, looking to the ground. No one would meet Mary’s eyes, preferring to look away as she was strapped to the chair.
Merlin knew why that was. They felt guilty for being alive. It was a ridiculous notion, but nonetheless a true one. Every Islander that survived carried the weight of the dead around their ankles, holding them back and chaining them to the Ocean. Why did they get to live when so many (so, so many) had perished easily?
Was it some great plan of the Ocean spirits? Were they laughing at the pitiful humans as they clung to their scraps of earth, soon to be swallowed up or driven to madness?
The woman was still sobbing, her creased face wracked with misery as the men stepped back, their handiwork finished. She could barely move her hands and feet, wrists and ankles bound tight. Old Man Simmons stood before her, leading the proceedings, while a few of the other Island men ushered the crowd back and away.
It was harsh, cruel and disgusting, but it was all the Ocean had taught them. To be weak was to admit defeat and the woman here hadn’t been able to pull herself from her misery. It would be kinder, Merlin had heard whispered, to throw her back to the sea, give back the demons that had infested her in her grief and sorrow.
They were to perform an exorcism, drive the demons from her body and set the woman’s tortured mind free. It was said that these practices dated back centuries, but it had always been too barbaric for Hunith and so for Merlin too, that he didn’t know exactly what these ‘exorcisms’ contained.
Some people stayed, firm faced as they watched the woman’s blood taken from her, leeches set along her bare skin. They were to purify her body, draw out the infected blood that the spirits had claimed, sucking the very essence of the ocean from her.
And when the leeches had bled their amount, Old Man Simmons took out a set of thin needles, similar in a way to the acupuncture tools of old, except these had been blessed by the ocean, soaked in its water. They were said to draw the spirits out, attracting them to the source from which they came.
The needles were placed in the centre of the leech marks, pushed in deeply to the skin. While Mary hadn’t uttered anything but ‘my son’ over and over during the bleeding process, her gasps and pained sobs could be heard clearly around the now-silent square, some people covering their eyes and ducking their head.
Nobody left though. People clutched at each other, what seemed like the entire village leaning on each other for support, but no one dared to leave.
When you were trapped on an island with outsiders rarely coming to your shores, you drew in on old tales, twisting them until they became the truth. In the case of the Ocean Spirits, stories had been whipped up that the Spirits could take to the air and so when being drawn out into the needles they could enter the surrounding people.
You couldn’t get people to stay away from an exorcism. It was gruesome yet entertaining in a sick, twisted way. It was like the days of old, when people gathered to watch an execution. Humans, no matter what age, what history, were fascinated by violence and death.
A few minutes later, the needles were taken out slowly, blood dribbling from the wounds. Mary’s head was tilted back in the chair, eyes rolled upwards as she gasped in pain, trying to struggle free from the ties. She was unsuccessful, of course she was, Old Man Simmons had been leading exorcisms since he was young, well over fifty years ago and then men who had tied her had been tutored in this practice for years too, honing it over countless washed up, scared people.
Another of then men held out a dark pot, setting it on a stand one of the others had quickly assembled. The pot looked heavy, cast in grey stone, and the man holding it wore thick gloves to protect himself.
Old Man Simmons had finished with the needles, setting them down onto cloth someone held out, tying it and setting it on the floor. The needles would be cast out into the ocean later, back where the spirits belonged. The only thing left to do now was to seal the woman’s wounds and that was where the black pot came in.
Merlin watched as Simmons took the lid off the pot, putting on a pair of gloves before pulling what looked like a metal rod out. It was tinted red at one end and Merlin realised what the pot contained, why the need for the gloves. Inside were coals that had been heating the whole day through, coals that kept the rod pure and connected to the earth.
To stop the spirits re-entering the wounds, they were to cauterise them with the land and heat; two elements the ocean would never be.
Mary screamed as the hot iron hit her skin, burning over the flesh wounds, sealing her up with pain and terror. Old Man Simmons moved up her arms, dipping the rod back into the pot and pulling out another every now and again, making sure each and every needle-wound was covered. He then turned his attention to her hands, feet, legs; anywhere they’d touched.
And suddenly, amongst the wails of pain, they were done. The men gathered began to pack away things, shifting the coals away, taking the wrapped needles, moving the leeches in their jars, until it was only Simmons and Mary who was still strapped to her chair and slumped in misery.
Hunith was clutching at Merlin, tears in her eyes. A quick look around the square showed many others in the same condition, some shaking their heads or turned away, others with handkerchiefs to their eyes and some with glistening tears on their cheeks.
Simmons was looking around the group now, his eyes raking over them all, scanning as if he was searching for someone in particular.
“You, boy!” Old Man Simmons called, his finger pointing shakily at Merlin. Hunith’s grip tightened on his bicep, her head jerking to the side slightly as her eyes widened.
“Now!” Simmons called again, clucking his tongue against the roof of his mouth and looking through the crowd. Merlin had no choice but to obey and so he wrenched his arm from Hunith’s grip, looking back at her apologetically.
Heart beating wildly in his chest, Merlin came up to stand before the oldest man in the village, staring at him blankly. Whatever he wanted, Merlin would oblige, but he didn’t have to be polite about it. What he’d just done, what they’d all just witnessed, was barbaric, even if these spirits had been driven away.
Merlin had never been raised on stories of the Ocean Spirits. He’d been raised on old stories, lost stories now, and Hunith had never let him see an exorcism before. Now he’d seen it, he wished that he hadn’t, but wasn’t that the way with all terrible things?
“Untie her and take her back to the hall. Give her purified water and nothing else,” Simmons barked before he turned, ushering people away with his arms spread wide. “The deed has been done; we must leave her to heal. If her soul is untainted by the Spirits then she will live.”
Resisting the urge to say something, Merlin turned to the slumped woman, shakily moving to untie the knots. He could feel a few people watching him, but Simmons’ words had worked wonders and the majority of the crowd were moving away, crossing their fingers that Mary’s soul was pure and untouched by the Ocean.
Loosening the ties on her ankles first, Merlin moved to the side a little, expecting her to lash out. Instead her feet slumped along the ground and she groaned, eyes opening just a slit to see what was happening.
“I’m sorry,” Merlin whispered, bending down to work on her wrist ties. “For what they did, I’m so sorry.”
Her hands fell into her lap as he released her arms and Mary tried to open her eyes again. Her arms and legs, the parts that were still open to the world at least, were beginning to crust with her blood, dark pink and pale in equal measure, patches covering her whole body.
It was no wonder that Hunith had never let him go to one of these before. For a household that didn’t believe in Spirits, this was just torture on another person. Merlin couldn’t see how this would help anyone and it was no surprise that not many people survived the process. It wasn’t about the strength of their spirit, but the amount an already grieving person could take before they shut down.
Mary muttered something quietly, too quietly for Merlin to hear. She obviously couldn’t walk, so he moved an arm under her knees and the other around her shoulders, hoisting her up into his arms. She was surprisingly light, just skin and bones, and Merlin was able to carry her through the rain easily.
“You can’t clean her,” Hunith whispered in his ear, Merlin pausing by her. She was one of the last people left in the square, the last mingling villagers looking at Merlin with a shared sentiment of sorrow.
“Simmons will want to check she’s clean tomorrow and they need to see the colour of the blood. She has to stay dirty.”
Merlin nodded to the words, silent in fury. Mary was unlikely to last the night and he couldn’t even give her comfort of new clothes and a warm bath. She had to die in the cold depths of her grief, alone and un-human.
Because that was what this process was. It wasn’t to purify her soul or cleanse her of demons; it was to make her inhuman. To cause her pain and humiliation when all she’d done was lose her son; the only person she’d had left.
The Ocean had turned them to this. Living alone and isolated, the only people left in the entire world as far as they all knew, had turned them sour. Where they should have welcomed this sad, afraid woman, they’d cast her out; made her grief something they couldn’t relate to; belittled and dehumanised her.
And what had Merlin done? He’d stood there and watched, just like the rest of them.
The door to the village hall was opened already and Merlin was able to kick it shut. Most likely everyone had shut themselves away, hiding from the rain as it worsened, but he didn’t want to take any chances. Old Man Simmons had done enough damage and there was no telling how Mary would react if she saw him, and Merlin didn’t want to cause her any more harm.
“I’m going to put you down on the ground for a moment okay?” Mary didn’t say anything, staring blankly away, eyes filmed over and unresponsive. She was still breathing, but Merlin knew that she didn’t have much longer. Why stay gripping to a world that had caused you so much pain?
At the back of the hall, there was another room joined to a kitchen. In there Merlin found some ratty blankets, tucked at the back of a cupboard, but they would do. Just a little something to warm her, something to soften the ground.
“I’m going to stay with you, alright?” It was the least he could do. He couldn’t leave her alone, not after all she’d been through. She didn’t respond, but Merlin doubted she would again, too lost in memories as she was.
Shifting the blankets around, Merlin laid two on the ground before picking Mary back up, placing her against the wall and on top of the blankets. He could hear the rain beating against the walls outside, but Merlin simply placed the remaining blankets over them, sitting by her side and offering what contact he could. It was going to be a long night, but he could sacrifice it for her.
What seemed like hours later and could have easily been minutes, Mary moved her hand shakily, clutching at Merlin’s wrist. Her head turned slowly to him, her breath rasping out between her lips, giving him an indication of how much effort these simple movements caused her.
“You…” she swallowed thickly, her eyes fluttering closed. “Power… you need…” Her hand gripped tighter and Merlin moved towards her.
“Don’t try to talk, it’s okay, I’ll stay here,” he said, his other hand coming to settle over hers, stroking the fragile skin.
“No, you…” her jaw tightened at the words, too much effort by now. Her other hand rose shakily until it pressed against Merlin’s face, her palm covering his eye.
‘Forgive me for the intrusion,’ a voice whispered, one he’d only ever heard wracked with pain and screams. He tried to pull back, dropping her other hand quickly.
“How are you doing that? What are you doing?” Merlin still had her fingers pressed to his forehead and so heard her reply.
‘It’s easier for me to use up my power than physically talk. Please Emrys, listen to me.’ Her voice was fading so Merlin listened, heart pounding in his ears.
‘Your only hope lies with the sky cities. My son and I… we’d planned for Camelot, but we didn’t have time to…’ she trailed off, words lost. It didn’t matter what they’d planned, no one ever had time for their plans anymore.
‘They are real,’ she persisted, eyes wide and clear, strong despite her frail body. ‘You must save them all; you’re the only one who can.’
Her hand slipped down until it rested on her cheek, Merlin’s hand stopping its fall.
‘Thank you for being with me. Not many people would have and that’s why I know…’
Merlin’s eyes widened as her fingers relaxed, curling on themselves. It was too late to find out what she’d meant, but the words… oh the words. So terrible and yet so full of hope. Just three words- sky, cities, Camelot - but they meant so much more.
Camelot was real, not just a product of his mind. Mary had sped up her death by using her power – no, not power, her magic, because it had to be magic – to tell him things that no one else would be able to, to give Merlin the chance to save so many people.
She wanted him to save the people who had caused her death. Not many people would be willing to do such a thing but Mary Collins...
He looked down to her face, eyes closed and at peace for the first time since she’d come to Ealdor. She was so small, frail and lonely, just how they all were in the end when the ocean had finally beaten them into submission. They all died alone, taunted by the spirits that had plagued their whole lives.
There was a way out now though; an escape for the last people of the lands, a future. The future before had always just been the next day, the next hour in the worst of storms. You couldn’t get used to safety on the Islands, knowing the cruelty of the sea.
“Thank you,” Merlin whispered as he cradled Mary’s head, setting her gently down on the ground.
He wished he could do more for her, but he knew Old Man Simmons wouldn’t have allowed him this time, let alone being there while she had died. Knowing the man he’d say that Merlin too was possessed by spirits and put him through the exorcism, something Merlin never wanted to see again, let alone experience for himself.
Even though he didn’t believe in the gods of the past Merlin hoped that Mary had found her peace and been reunited with her son. No one wanted to think they had to be alone for the rest of eternity, left alone as a rotting corpse as your life amounted to nothing.
Rain was beating down heavily outside, lightning forking across the sky. As Merlin ran from the hall, his feet slipped over wet cobblestones, his knees cracking as they hit the ground. He hissed in pain, hair plastered to his face as he struggled up again, heading for the road home. While it wasn’t a particularly long journey, the pathways had gathered streams of water, turning them into small, fast-flowing channels. It was hard work, especially when the rain didn’t let up against you, beating against every inch it could.
Hunith was waiting by the door as he drew closer, waving him in frantically. She was dressed in a long coat, a sign that she’d been waiting for him a while now, and she pulled him inside as soon as she could, wrapping her arms around him and bolting the door.
“Oh sweetheart,” she said, taking in his face as she pulled back. She pressed a kiss to his forehead before passing him a towel she’d hung on the banister. “Go get changed and I’ll make you some tea. If you’d like to talk about it we can or you can go to sleep, it’s up to you.”
There were times when Merlin hated Hunith, as any child could hate their mother, but she’d made it so hard to even dislike her that the times were few, even counting early puberty. She could read Merlin like a book, know how he was feeling (like tonight) with a simple hug and a look. It was her job, she said, but even so Merlin didn’t know anyone else he’d rather get comfort from or who understood him as deeply as she did.
Merlin moved upstairs with a mission. He changed quickly, throwing his wet clothing into a pile on the floor, discarding them for thick pyjamas. That done, he reached under the bed, feeling around for the stone he hadn’t touched for weeks.
It was as dark as he could remember, mysterious and compelling all at the same time. Looking into the surface, Merlin wished as hard as he could, trying to recall what the gardens he’d landed in before looked like, what they’d felt like, what the dragon had said even, simply clutching at anything he could.
The stone remained just a stone though and Merlin sighed, dropping it on to his pillow and running his hands through his hair. Despite what Mary had said maybe he wasn’t meant to save them all. Maybe he was just an average boy from Ealdor that she’d been confused about because of what she’d been through. He’d been the only one to be kind to her after all and surely she must have been confused after all she’d been through.
Merlin then remembered the pull that had caused him to go into the stone in the first place. The pull had come from him, he knew that much, and he’d felt it in a very small amount when Mary had pressed her fingers to his temple. That pull, that whisper of magic, might be the key to getting into the other-world.
Picking the stone up once again and sitting cross-legged on the bed, Merlin looked into the stone again. He couldn’t feel anything so he closed his eyes, gripping the stone tightly as he searched inside himself, looking for any sign that he contained a hint of magic. Surely it had to feel different to the rest of him, have a label or a sign on or something just to show it was there. No matter how far he dug, or whatever he thought, though, Merlin couldn’t find anything.
Flopping back on the bed so that his feet rested on his pillow, Merlin set the stone on his stomach. He sighed, closing his eyes again, and letting his thoughts drift.
He felt it. There, in the space between his rib cage and heart, curled into a ball and shining. It wasn’t a large ball, but it was warm and inviting, as if it was a safe haven he’d returned to time and time again. Strangely it didn’t send Merlin clutching at the stone, trying to get back into Camelot, but he took time to feel the magic, understand it and allow it to move out from a ball.
He didn’t know where it could have come from, whether it was a mutation or genetic, but that didn’t matter. It didn’t matter where the magic came from, but what he used if for. He was going to use it to free them all and that was all that mattered. He was going to use it to pave their way to Camelot; to save everyone on this wretched little island no matter the cost.
Of course, when Merlin opened his eyes to go and talk to his mother, he opened them to a dark, ruined garden, a few paces away from the broken throne and the dragon from before. Like before it was coiled around the throne, eyes staring unblinkingly at Merlin.
“Um… hello?” he began, wondering if the dragon remembered him. It lifted its head, sliding off of the back of the throne and onto the seat, eyes scanning over Merlin’s body.
“You came back then,” it said matter-of-factly, almost as if Merlin’s return was to be expected.
He nodded at the dragon, moving to sit on the floor. He needed answers before the connection ran out and he wasn’t going to be distracted by an overgrown lizard repeating itself over his family name.
“I need your help,” he said to the dragon, drawing a wide-eyed look in return.
“You need help?” The dragon left the throne, landing on its legs and curling its wings up, moving to sit in front of Merlin. He could almost see every scale, silver-lined and armour-like.
“I need to know how to get to Camelot.” The dragon peered into him, eyes narrowed.
“You really live on Ealdor?” it asked, ignoring what Merlin needed yet again.
Silence passed between the two of them for a moment, eerie in the absence of waves, but it somehow felt natural to Merlin, as if he’d been sky-born his whole life. What was it like to live with the roar of the wind in your ears rather than the drum of the sea? Merlin wanted to know, needed to know, if only the dragon could help.
“Yes and I need to know how to get to Camelot so I can save my people.”
The dragon looked as if it was struggling with itself for a moment before it moved back slowly, retreating to the throne.
“Your people,” it muttered, a strange undertone to its words, “your people need more than saving. One man can’t do it alone.”
Merlin could feel the connection thinning, his grip on his magic fading.
“What do you mean?” he said, standing.
“I mean that things aren’t always as they appear.” The dragon looked away, eyes downcast. “Your people need you Emrys and you need to come to Camelot before your time runs out.”
Merlin could practically feel the urgency in the words, how the dragon needed him to do this.
“Ask…” the connection was fading now, the Queen’s gardens falling into true darkness, the same inky black of the stone. “Find… dragon!”
The connection dropped and Merlin found himself looking up at the ceiling of his home, the sound of waves beating against his skull once again. The stone was in his hand, warm, and he tucked it under his pillow carefully, keeping it safe.
Before Merlin left the room to join Hunith, he knew two things. One; he was magical, had a special power, could do extraordinary things, take whatever definition you liked. Two; he needed to go to Camelot and find the dragon, show him the proof that he’d saved the last of the Islanders.
Though first, he needed to convince them that Camelot was real and that hope wasn’t just a myth. Sky cities existed and Merlin was going to take them there, whether they wanted it or not.
The storm raged harder and louder outside, lasting well over two weeks. While storms of that length weren’t uncommon, they often let up at some point. This one hadn’t, battering against Ealdor, and Merlin shared Hunith’s fears when she said that perhaps this time it was the end.
Desperate for answers, Merlin had entered Camelot through the stone again, growing with his magic and familiarising himself with the power. If he was correct, then he had been given the magic for a reason. He was to save them all, but how could he when he was stuck inside, the storms already laughing at his efforts. He needed help from Camelot, but upon returning – each and every time – he found it empty.
The dragon had gone, leaving the Queen’s gardens barren and dark. He was alone now, left with all this power and nothing to do. It seemed like a fool’s task, trying to save so many people, but they all had to try.
If the storm ever let up that was.
In the dark of night, the only sound the creaking of the house and the winds howling outside. Hunith stood in the kitchen, staring at the wall as Merlin sat down at the table, flipping through an old magazine, one of the ones that had been printed almost two millennia ago. It was a rare edition and maybe would have fetched a high price if the floods hadn’t come, but it was just a book of pictures now. Nice to look at and good for the memories, but useless otherwise.
“What are we going to do?” Hunith asked quietly, more to herself than Merlin.
He turned in his chair, taking in his mother’s tired features and the lines on her face. She’d been through so much in her life. Merlin couldn’t let her die, not when he had a means to save her.
“I can get us to the Sky Cities,” he said, looking in earnest into Hunith’s eyes as she turned her attention to him.
“Merlin, what do you mean?” Her eyebrows drew into a worried furrow and Merlin told her to wait a moment, bounding upstairs to fetch the Obsidian, feet pounding along the floor in time to the wind battering the side of the house.
“This,” he replied when he’d returned to the kitchen, setting the stone down on the table and looking back to his mum.
“It’s a rock,” she said, eyes darting between it and her son.
Merlin nodded, “I know that. But it’s not just any old rock… you can see things in it. There’s… this power and I know, I know I sound crazy, but it’s like magic or something.” Merlin swallowed, moving to his chair, crouching on it with his legs tucked beneath him.
“I have the power in me too and there must have been a connection.” It felt liberating to be able to talk to someone about his power, to admit there was something different about him. If Mary Collins hadn’t spoken to him, proved that this magic was beyond his imagination and a rock, Merlin would never have accepted it.
“Magic?” Hunith asked; her face pale. “A power?”
Merlin nodded again, “I know it sounds crazy, but you have to believe me. I saw a place that had no ocean. There weren’t any storms or waves or fear… I went to Camelot, one of the Sky Cities.” Merlin looked down at the Obsidian and didn’t hear the sharp intake of breath Hunith drew. “There was a dragon there and he told me that I needed to save my people.”
“Your people?” Hunith parroted, hands gripping the kitchen counter.
“The people of Ealdor. I know they’re not mine, but if I can save them then I will. It’s why I was born with this power, it’s the reason I have this magic.” Merlin took the stone in his hands, holding it out to Hunith.
“Look at it. It doesn’t cast a reflection so you can’t say it’s an ordinary stone. Magic exists, but the more important thing is-“
“I know it exists,” Hunith said quietly, not moving from her post and refusing to touch the stone.
For his part, Merlin’s eyes widened. In the lull of conversation, the wind picked up, howling through the house. A draught passed through the kitchen, sending a chill down Merlin’s spine.
“How do you know?” he asked innocently, though he almost feared the answer. It was easy to connect things together and it was obvious Hunith didn’t have magic herself.
“Merlin-“ she began, but was cut off.
“No, I want to know.” He stood, stone gripped tightly in his hand. “I need to know.”
For a moment, Hunith looked pained, turning away to face the shuttered window. Merlin was about to question her himself when she looked back, eyes slightly pink, but free of tears.
“Your father wasn’t born here.” Merlin nodded; that wasn’t exactly a secret. He’d heard stories of the place his father had come from, an island that had fallen fate to the sea, but had once held the last forest.
“He…” Hunith looked down, refusing to meet Merlin’s eye. “He fled Camelot.”
Even the wind seemed to drop at her words, giving way to the closest thing to silence Merlin had ever heard outside of the stone-world. His father, a man it seemed he had never known, had fled the Sky Cities? The very places that would save them?
“Wh…” he couldn’t finish the sentence, shaking his head lightly.
“I don’t know why,” Hunith continued, moving until she sat at the table, next to Merlin’s place. “He never told me, but… he’d get a look in his eye, as if he’d seen terrible things Merlin.”
Hunith reached for his hand, but Merlin moved his arms down to his side, sinking into his chair again. His eyes were drawn to the table, fixed on a knot of wood in the pattern, determinedly avoiding his mother.
All his life he’d been told lies. His father had died (oh but was he really dead? Maybe he’d just swanned off back to Camelot, seeing as it was his birthplace) when he was young, but Hunith had plied Merlin with stories, wonderful tales of the last human who had seen the forests. Was it all a joke? A big lie? Why not just tell the truth.
Maybe it showed on his face, for Hunith continued, “He couldn’t tell anyone, not even I knew until he was sure he could trust me.” She tucked her hands in front of her, fingers interlinked and pale where they clutched against each other. “Old Simmons would have rather exorcised him, the man who’d washed up with only a sack of books and the clothes on his back than believe he’d come from Camelot. You know what Simmons is like and…” Hunith drew in a breath.
While Merlin didn’t like seeing her like this – it was clear the memories were painful – he needed to know. He wasn’t just of the Lands anymore, but of the Sky, of Camelot of all places. Maybe that was why the Obsidian had chosen to show him the only hope they had, knowing he was kin, despite it being in a roundabout way.
“When you were a baby you could move things, do things…” Merlin jerked his head up to stare at her, eyes wide. “I was out of my mind with worry, thinking maybe Old Simmons was right after all and the Ocean Spirits had gotten to you, but Balinor just winked at me. He told me it was okay, that while he hadn’t shown his talents so early, it was a good sign.”
There weren’t any lies in her words this time and it would offer an explanation to the power he had, but it still didn’t account for what she’d done.
“Why didn’t you ever say anything?” Rain beat against the window and Hunith reached her hands out again, receiving yet another blunted dismissal.
“Things changed. You didn’t use your magic at all after Balinor died and I guess I hoped that that was the end of it, for your sake.”
Merlin shook his head. “It’s not good enough, though I suppose I should at least thank you for letting me know he’s actually dead. At least there was something you didn’t lie to me about!”
The words stung his own throat as they came out, but he was unable to stop them. Hunith looked as though she had been slapped across the cheek before she looked down, brows tightening as she clearly fought back tears.
Guilt wracked through Merlin and he reached for her hands.
“Mum,” he began softly, leaning forwards. “I’m sorry mum, I didn’t mean to get so-“
“It’s not your fault.” She looked up, unlocking her hands and moving to hold her son’s. “You’re right; I should have told you, and I’m sorry. I just… I didn’t want you hurt. Simmons would have done it even if you were a baby.”
Merlin shifted his chair, the bottom of the legs scraping noisily against the floor. He moved until he was next to her and Hunith wrapped an arm around him, holding him tightly and kissing his hair.
“I didn’t want to lie, but I thought it was gone. After your father died I just thought…” Merlin tucked his head against her, savouring the moment. Sometimes there wasn’t time for closeness in this way and sometimes you just needed to be held by someone who loved you.
“I didn’t mean to get so angry,” he muttered into her shoulder, but Hunith simply kissed the side of his head again and drew back.
“Let’s see that stone then. You said it showed you Camelot?” Merlin pressed the stone into her free hand, the other arm still wrapped around his shoulders.
“Your father mentioned the Seeing Stones. He said they were crafted out of the Old World stone obsidian, but bathed in magic by the High Priestesses and creatures of the Old Religion.” She turned the stone in her hand, running a thumb over the smooth surface. “They were said never to reflect, but to show and reveal instead.”
Merlin waited patiently, waiting to see if his father had disclosed anything else on the stones.
“He said that most of them had been lost in the Floods, but the last of the stones were preserved even though the Old Religion, along with all the others, had practically died out. The only known Obsidians in existence were placed under royal care.” Hunith set the stone on the table.
“The last person to take over their care was Queen Ygraine. I think your father knew her a little, perhaps worked for her, but he always spoke fondly of her. She was a just woman, he said, fair and willing to dirty her knees if her people needed it.” Hunith’s eyes crinkled at the corners, remembering the fond image of a queen.
“She died around the same time your father left Camelot I think. He never said anything, but I managed to piece enough together from his stories.” The rain filled in the pauses Hunith left, completing the tale. What was a story that was not surrounded by the Ocean? It wasn’t a proper story without the rain or the waves every Islander said.
“I suppose one of them was lost after she died. Unless… where did you get it?” Hunith let her arm drop as she turned; eyes warm.
No matter what lies she had told, what stories she had conjured, Merlin could never hate her. All anger seeped out of him when he thought of what she’d been through, terrified of having her son put through an exorcism. And he’d seen it now so he could imagine what the fear would feel like.
“It was washed up, about a year ago now,” Merlin said, trying to think of dates in his head.
Hunith nodded. “It’s funny how these things happen. Out of all the places that stone could have ended up and it ended up here.”
She rose from her chair, sighing deeply. “Do you think going to Camelot will save us?” she asked softly, catching Merlin’s eye.
“Yes,” he said, knowing that they had to. They couldn’t stay on Ealdor forever, especially with this latest storm.
“Then I’ll follow you. Whatever you saw, I trust in your judgement. I love you and your father loved you, but sometimes we have to trust you instead of acting like a parent.” Hunith sighed again. “I want you safe, I really do, but I don’t even know what safe is anymore. If Camelot can offer us safety then I’ll take it, and I know you can take us there.”
Responsibility folded itself like a cloak around Merlin, but it wasn’t a heavy burden. As Hunith made her way to bed, Merlin began his plans, one hand curled around the Obsidian and the other clenched into a fist. He could save them, he would save them, and he’d return the Emrys family to Camelot.
Maybe the dragon had heard of his family, perhaps there were cousins or grandparents stowed away with the royals and nobility of Camelot. It was a dream, yes, but if his father had come from the Sky City then who was to say there couldn’t be more of them? A proper family, free from the horrors of the sea and born only from the Sky, ready to welcome them into Camelot.
He fell asleep at the kitchen table and woke to a quieter world, the rain pattering against the house, almost lovingly. Merlin moved upstairs to change clothes quickly, planning to run into town to pick up supplies. Hunith was still asleep and so he left a brief note, taking hand-woven bags with him, knowing he’d need to pick up quite a few things.
The walk to the main town was calm, just light rain and the waves joining him. The calm was shattered, however, as Merlin moved into the town. People were gathered around the centre and, for a terrible moment, Merlin wondered if there was another exorcism going on, but the crowd shifted and Merlin recognised a familiar face.
“What’s going on?” Merlin asked as he slid next to Will, shifting the bags onto one side.
Will turned to him, a serious look on his face. “The whole lower segments of the island have gone,” he replied emotionlessly. “They’re the only people who managed to get out before…”
He didn’t need to say what had happened. Their small population had drawn ever smaller, lives destroyed in a few crushing waves, families and friends lost to the ocean, again.
“Old Man Simmons wants everyone to meet in the hall at midday, no matter the weather.” Will looked up to the sky and Merlin followed his gaze. The sky looked as if it would hold out with just a small amount of rain, but it was hard to predict weather, especially after a large storm like the one that had just passed over them.
“Who died and made him king,” Merlin muttered under his breath, drawing a smile from Will. They’d never subscribed to the policy that the eldest became the village leader (unofficial, because technically no villager had more power than another – just a crock of bull though really) and had made that point clear to Simmons a few times.
This was different though. If they were drawing a meeting for the whole village then Merlin could seize the chance and discuss travelling to Camelot. What other hope did they have? It was obvious the floods weren’t going to lessen and that their time was finally up. What else could they do but seek another home like everyone else who had come to Ealdor had been?
Ealdor was dying and it was time to move on. They either moved on or they died, that much was simple.
Merlin moved away from the sobbing people in the square and collecting supplies. Hunith had breakfast ready by the time he was home and she smiled sadly at the meagre supplies he had collected. He hadn’t the heart to tell her that more of Ealdor had been lost, so he waited until after breakfast, announcing it as he would that his hair was brown.
She gave no outward reaction, but Merlin knew how she felt inside. They all felt it, the despair and pain of loss, the hopelessness.
“You have to talk to them,” she said as she began washing up the dishes, back to Merlin but words ringing clear.
“I will,” Merlin promised, reaching into his trouser pocket and running a hand over the smooth stone of the Obsidian. He had to or else they’d all die, and he couldn’t let that happen. Not now he had a purpose and a way to help. What else was his magic for if not to save these people? Even a dragon (or a projection of a dragon, but that was delving into trivialities) had told him his purpose and now was the perfect time to prove he could do it.
Moving to help Hunith clean up, Merlin began forming how he’d brooch the subject.
In the end, Merlin didn’t need to use any of the plans he’d formulated. It was Old Man Simmons who brought the topic up, shoving an old newspaper print in peoples’ faces, gesticulating wildly.
“How do we know they exist?” someone called from the mass in the hall, pressed together as if they could save each other by being close.
“The alternative it to stay here,” Simmons replied, face stern. “I’m not saying we should leave, but it’s something to consider. William brought me his scrapbook and there is evidence that these Sky Cities exist.”
The crowd were still sceptical, but Merlin met Will’s eyes through the crowd and acknowledged him with a nod. He believed him now and he’d be able to convince more people than the others simply because he knew what it felt like to be in their position.
“He’s right,” Merlin said, pushing forwards until he stood next to Old Man Simmons, the man looking down at him with narrowed eyes. “We have to think about our future and it’s clear that we can’t stay here. These Sky Cities exist, they were built years back-“
“Bet they’re crumbling!” someone shouted and a murmur of agreements set up around the room, passing around like Chinese whispers.
“They’ll just be death traps!” another voice called out, again to a chorus of agreement.
“Or the Spirits will eat us before we even get there,” came a third objection and Merlin couldn’t stand anymore.
“So what? We just sit here and wait until the water hits our doorsteps? Sit miserably as the people we love drown?” Silence followed his words, but Merlin wasn’t done. “We’re the last of the Lands and we’re going to let ourselves be taken by the Great Ocean?”
As much as he’d love to say his words were met with cheers and nods, only one or two appeared to outwardly agree. The rest simply looked at Merlin, shaking their heads and muttering about his age, full of hope and delusional.
“The boy’s right,” Simmons stated, eyes raking over the villagers. The atmosphere changed, from the disbelief of Merlin’s words to a slight respect for Simmons.
Even though Merlin and Will didn’t think he was much of anything, his age held precedence over the rest of the villagers it seemed. He had to be wise to have lived that long perhaps, though Merlin didn’t subscribe to that one bit.
Still, if Simmons could convince them when Merlin could not… maybe he wasn’t supposed to save them in an obvious way. Magic wasn’t exactly a known subject so perhaps he was supposed to do things quietly, sneak around like a superhero from the Old World.
“I’m not asking you all to stay or all to leave; you need to make your choice. We can’t keep living here and the tides are rising. I say we have a year, year and a half if we’re lucky.” He took a shuddering breath, old bones creaking as he stood up straighter, addressing everyone.
“In three days, boats will set off in search of the Sky Cities. Whether or not you choose to be on those boats is up to you, but they will be leaving.” The hall broke out into private discussions as Simmons finished, but he didn’t silence them.
Instead, he looked at Merlin, watery eyes widening so he could look at him squarely.
“William’s going,” he said, looking Merlin up and down. “And I suppose you will be too?”
He’d never really spoken to Simmons before, instead simply built him up as a fear imposing figure, one of ultimate authority and control over the village. To children testing the waters of their society, Simmons had been just another rung on the ladder to annoy when they could, riling the man up in the name of fun.
Now though, Merlin could see the man for who he was. There was no awe-inspiring figure, no frightening leader. Instead, here was a man who had lost so many things and was tired. He could see a man who had tried his best to look after the remaining villagers even though it was a lost cause.
And while he was flawed (the exorcisms and his mannerisms to name just two things), he cared for his friends and family, the people who he’d seen grow and loved. He was accepting the fact that Ealdor had no future and making people choose, because that’s what they would have to do in the end. Everyone had to choose whether they would die here on Ealdor or whether they’d take a chance, but they’d all assumed they could make that decision later rather than now.
Too late, time was up. Simmons had seen it, Will had been seeing it for months and Merlin… Merlin (like so many others) had seen it, but refused to accept it. Now there wasn’t an alternative. He had to accept it because otherwise the choice would be taken from his hands and he’d die.
"I know our future can't rest here," he replied, hoping that Simmons could see his sincerity.
The old man stared at him a moment longer before he nodded.
"Good. The new world needs people like you, people who are strong enough to speak out. William's an example too, though he's still unable to let go of the past completely." Simmons looked over to the side where Will was talking to a group of people, his scrapbook in his hands and face earnest.
His words were true. There would always be a part of Will that resented the Oceans for taking his family. They had all lost people, but Will had never been able to accept that their deaths were simple tragedies, one of many. He didn't mourn them like others mourned their losses, but took it as a more personal offence, looking to blame instead of accepting they were gone. And as ridiculous as it was to say that Will blamed the sea itself, it was a fact. Even Simmons could see it.
"We will meet here again tomorrow noon. It is your choice whether you wish to stay or go, but if you stay, you know how everything will end. Leaving the island at least gives you a chance." Simmons looked over the crowd before shuffling off, into the light rain.
Conversation exploded through the hall, villagers discussing the news. Who was going to leave? Should they leave? Was anyone going to stay? Hundreds of questions were thrown into the air and the whole way through, Merlin focused on Will, making his way to his friend's side.
"You set this up?" Merlin asked and Will turned to him, shaking his head.
"Very funny. Nah, I would have been laughed at, you know what popular opinion of me is like." Merlin had to concede to that; Will was known as a troublemaker. "Simmons came over to mine after your mum talked to him. She must have been pretty persuasive for him to agree, what did she say?" Will looked to him, eyes wide with curiosity.
"She talked to him?" While it was true Hunith had collected their last set of supplies while Merlin had offered to mend one of the shutters, she hadn't mentioned even seeing Simmons, let alone talking to him.
"She didn't tell you?" Will asked, raising an eyebrow. To Merlin's shake of the head, he continued. "Simmons wouldn't tell me everything, but he said that he couldn't disagree with anything she said." He shrugged and added, "Whatever that means."
A few angered voices broke out and Merlin risked a glance over, noticing the way the room had split a little, most of the villagers on the more argumentative side. It was clear that not everyone was happy with the suggestion and it looked as though most people were happier to stay here rather than try to find Camelot.
"Come on," Will said, tugging at Merlin's sleeve and leading them out of the hall. There was no one to miss them; Hunith hadn't been at the meeting, but sent Merlin for their house.
Outside, the rain still pattered down, but it was gentle, calming. While it could still strike fear in his heart, Merlin loved the rain. He loved the ocean and the storms that raged overhead, though not many people would agree with him. There was just something beautiful about the fall of the rain and the rise of the waves, even though he knew first-hand how deadly they could turn.
Will led them down to the shore. It had crept closer, to the outskirts of town now. A few scrubby bushes half-hid an old, wooden bench, but the branches were easily swept back and they sat, staring out into the darkness.
The horizon stretched on forever, all around Ealdor without a hint of Camelot. Merlin wondered which way it was, wondered if Hunith maybe knew.
Doubts began to creep in; after all, he knew nothing about Camelot, not even the direction they needed to go. Had Merlin really just believed they could set sail and they'd have reached Camelot? Had he planned to use his magic to guide them somehow when all he could do was force a stone to show him things?
Even though Hunith had admitted that Merlin had moved objects and 'other things' when he was small, such inclinations of power hadn't risen up again, and Merlin was beginning to think he'd simply lost the ability somehow.
"It's going to be weird," Will began, eyes fixed out to the horizon. "I mean, this is all we have, isn't it?"
Merlin didn't say anything. There wasn't anything he could say, not really.
"I know staying here will just end with us dying, but I'm scared." Merlin nodded to that, even though Will couldn't see him.
A few clouds above shifted, throwing weak light from what moon they could see over the waves. The waters were calm today, content with the rain and their decision to leave.
"I wonder what this city'll be like," Will said softly. At that point, Merlin knew that he had to tell Will about what he'd seen, regardless of Hunith asking him not to tell anyone, to keep his powers secret.
"It's beautiful," Merlin began and Will's head snapped round to face him. "I mean, I've only seen the ruined part, but that was beautiful. Marble and white, like all the pictures in those books and stuff." Refusing to look at his friend, Merlin's eyes tracked the light from the moon as it shimmered on the waves.
"I have this power." Merlin turned to Will now, wishing he had the stone on him so he could show it. "You know those old stories about magic and fairies?"
Will scoffed, "What, you're a fairy? I know you're not chasing the girls around and all, but 'fairy' is such a derogatory term-"
"Shut up," Merlin said with a smile, pushing against Will's shoulder. Somehow, no matter what happened, Will was always able to revert back to his basic snark and joke, something Merlin needed right now. "I meant that this power I have; it's magic. And I used it to look at Camelot, one of the Sky Cities."
He couldn't keep the hope from his voice, his wonder and amazement at what he'd seen bleeding through. He didn’t get a reply for a while, Will processing or thinking, or whatever it was he needed to do, eyes fixed once again out to the sea.
Eventually he spoke up. "I'll just about believe anything I think, but couldn't you have had a better power? Like, oh I don't know, something to stop the sea?"
While there was a grin to what he said, Merlin could hear the slight hope and pang of desperation.
Did he have the power to stop the seas? The dragon had told him he needed to come to Camelot, but if he could just stop the ocean churning, surely that was saving his people? And that, after all, was the main point of what the dragon had said.
"I don't know," he said, eyes raking over the ocean. He had to at least try, even though he didn't have the faintest idea how.
Somehow picking up on what Merlin was thinking, Will glanced between him and the waves, unsure for once.
For someone so full of hopes that it could happen, Will was strangely hesitant as Merlin stood, walking over the ragged line of rocks and broken tarmac until he reached the point where the tide rested. Toeing off his trainers, Merlin rolled his trousers up, stepping forwards and trying to reach for the ball of power in him.
"Merlin? What are you doing?" Will had a worried edge to his voice, but he remained at the edge of the water, trusting Merlin.
He could feel the ball of power now, resting in his chest. His feet slipped slightly on the rocks and Merlin wondered how far he'd have to travel before he'd find the sand that had been the shorelines of his childhood. It had to be quite far now, considering how much of Ealdor they'd lost over the years.
Merlin kept walking, ignoring how the sea water flowed past his rolled up trousers and through the material. He was knee-deep now and Will was calling for him, insulting him in a haggard tone. The ball of magic in his chest thrummed suddenly and Merlin stopped, knowing he was in one of the patches of moonlight.
There was a child's story that Hunith had recounted for Merlin again and again, of the moon goddess who took vengeance on the earth for stealing her lover. The details were lost, but it was a fanciful explanation for why the waters had risen, an explanation only a fairy tale could dream up.
Still, it was true that the moon controlled the waves and the oceans, though perhaps not to the extent of the amount of water. That was down to the melted ice, or so stories told. How could anyone know the truth when they were limited to an island? And maybe the truth wasn't so nice, best just to wrap it all up in a fanciful story and leave it there, for people to smile and dig around for how true it was; never really realising it was a story with almost no truth at all.
Standing under the curve of the moon now though, Merlin wondered if their earth had stolen away something precious from the moon. What had happened that they needed to be punished? So many people, so many lands, gone. It couldn't just be down to an excess of water, surely?
"Merlin!" Will shouted again, drawing Merlin's attention. The water around his thighs was cold, but not unbearably so. The current pulled at him a little, but the waves were mild tonight, pushing and pulling him gently. If the spirits existed, maybe they were welcoming him tonight, bathed in the light of the moon and full of magic.
There weren't any words he could say or incantations he could perform to stop the seas, but Merlin placed his hands in the water nonetheless. His magic rose up inside of him, flowing into his arms as he guided it, focusing on the sway of water under his palms.
For a moment, a glorious moment, Merlin thought he'd done it. Magic burned through his body and he could feel it in the water around him, a comforting glow. His eyes were shut, but he knew that the world had slowed, that the waves had ceased in their journey and calmed. He couldn't hear Will anymore, lost in the humming of his magic.
Then it dropped, suddenly and without warning. The waves resumed their movement, lapping around him and soaking through to his skin.
"Merlin you idiot!" Will's voice trailed over the water to Merlin and he turned, dropping the last tendrils of his magic as water sloshed around him.
Knowing that he hadn't stopped anything, that the waters would just keep on rising, Merlin started making his way back. Though he shouldn't be, he felt somewhat disappointed. He had felt something, and while he hadn't expected to stop the ocean itself, there should have been something more, a voice telling him what he was supposed to do if not stop the tides themselves.
"What the fuck were you doing!?" Will hissed as Merlin stepped onto land, shaking his feet. The rain had begun to fall heavier now, soaking through their clothes a little. Will's hair was flattened down over his frown and Merlin wondered what a sight he made, half-soaked from the sea and all parts damp.
"Trying to stop the sea," Merlin muttered, even though it was ridiculous.
"Giving me a heart attack is what you were doing, you complete wanker," Will growled, punching Merlin on the arm. "Who the hell just waltzes out into the Ocean - I don't care if it's not particularly strong tonight, it's still the bloody Ocean - and then says they were just trying to stop the sea!?"
Shrugging, Merlin shoved his socks and shoes back on, wincing as water soaked through the material of his socks, leaving his feet damp and unhappy. Will was still muttering about how crazy Merlin was, but he ignored him in favour of returning to the little bench.
"I mean it was impressive and all with the glowing, but couldn't you have waved around a stick here or something?" Merlin's attention turned back to Will.
"I glowed?" he asked. "And you're sure it wasn't the moon or anything?"
Will rolled his eyes. "I think I know what moonlight looks like and what glowing is. Seriously, you reflected off the water and everything. I bet someone from the village saw you and thought you were a spirit or something." He paused, considering what he'd just said. "Maybe we should get you to glow again, dress you up and pretend you are a spirit so you can convince everyone to leave?"
Giving a small snort of laughter, Merlin shifted on the bench until he leant against Will, closing his eyes for a moment.
"So you saw it?" Will asked quietly after a while, resting his head against Merlin's.
"Through a stone, yeah." Merlin opened his eyes slowly, wiggling his damp toes in his shoes with a grimace. "I couldn't hear the ocean at all."
"Is that really the first thing you thought?" was the slightly incredulous reply, as if Merlin was the only person in the world who would have thought something as 'terrible' as that. "Not, oh fuck I'm in a different world or anything?"
Shaking his head, Merlin was about to say he'd been a bit preoccupied when the dragon had arrived, but something stopped him. He hadn't even told his mother about the dragon and, for some reason, he just didn't want to talk about it with Will. It was a secret, a hidden treasure almost.
“Do you know what it’s like not to hear the Ocean? Not just covering your ears, but for it not to even be there?” Will was silent. “It’s amazing. Scary, but amazing. And the garden… I found out it was the garden belonging to the former queen. It was in ruins, but it would have been beautiful in its prime.”
Merlin could practically feel Will roll his eyes. “So while the rest of us are busy integrating with society, little Merlin’s going to be doing up this garden?”
Merlin lifted his head up, nudging Will in annoyance. “Yeah because they’d just let a refugee toy with the Queen’s garden.”
The word refugee came out easily enough, but it hadn’t made an impact until he’d said it. That was what they were going to be, homeless refugees, like so many of the people who had come to Ealdor. They were going to turn up on the shores of a tower hoping that they’d be accepted with open arms. It wasn’t hard to see why some people were against the idea, but what other choice did they have?
“We’ll all be together,” Will said and Merlin nodded slowly. “No matter what happens, at least we’ll all be together.” He gave a huff of laughter, “And a sorry bunch we’ll make!”
The rain began to pick up a little more and so they left, walking along the coast until they reached the part of the village where Will’s house was.
“I guess I’ll see you tomorrow then?” Will said.
“I can stay if you want, mum will know where I am,” Merlin offered. While Will had taken his news well, he wasn’t sure how he’d be in the morning. He was the kind of person who reacted quietly to big things, taking them away to digest.
But Will shook his head, waving Merlin off. “I’ll be fine. It hasn’t all sunk in, leaving Ealdor, you glowing and…” Will struggled for words, falling back on humour when he couldn’t find them. “And your new passion to become a gardener of course. I’d always pegged you as more the kind of person to cry over little animals though, but have fun with the roses and all.”
He clasped Merlin on the shoulder before moving off into the darkness, treading carefully along uneven paths to his house. Merlin watched him for a moment before looking towards the line of the sea and the pathway home. The coast would lead him to the bridge where he could climb up the bank and continue home directly, so he set off, trainers slopping into the water.
There was a flickering light in the windows of his house; Merlin noticed as he drew closer and when he entered, Hunith met him in the hallway.
“You spoke to Simmons?” he asked, shrugging off the jacket he’d worn.
“I told him about your father and what you’d seen.” Merlin wondered if he should have felt betrayed that she hadn’t discussed the revelation with him first, but he didn’t have the energy to care. At last they were going to move to safety and he had to protect his people. So what if Simmons knew what he could do? It would be easier than hiding his talents at least.
“Everyone’s meeting again at noon to decide. I don’t know if they’ll all go,” Merlin added on, moving into the kitchen and standing by the fire-heated oven for a moment. It was slightly warm from whatever Hunith had cooked for dinner and he rested against it, letting the heat seep through his wet clothes.
“You can’t force them, no matter what. Sometimes you have to just accept that people will always be people, even though you want to bash their heads in. Shift,” she said and Merlin scooted over, watching as Hunith pulled out a plate of meat stew from the oven.
“Your dinner.” She raked an eye over him before sighing. “Do you want to get changed?”
Merlin shook his head, reaching for the food instead. He hadn’t realised how hungry he was, but lunch had been a long time ago now.
“Some things never change,” Hunith muttered with a smile, placing cutlery down after the plate and kissing Merlin’s cheek.
“I’m off to bed, don’t stay up too late.” She moved off then, the stairs creaking as she walked up to her room.
Merlin ate in silence, eyes fixed on the window left bare of its shutters for once. While the rain was still pouring down the wind was gentle tonight and so Hunith had left of the storm shutters. It was a nice change, the night sky not something Merlin saw much of.
When he finished, Merlin washed up the plates and turned his attention away from the moon and the ocean, shuffling upstairs and getting into pyjamas. As he tucked himself in, his hand moved under his pillow, closing around the stone that he kept there. His magic hummed as it came into contact with the stone, calling out for him to descend into it, to fall through to Camelot, but he resisted, falling into dreams instead.
After bustling through the wind and the rain, Hunith and Merlin moved into the sombre mood of the hall, packed in with the rest of the village. Simmons was standing at one end of the hall, stern eye keeping watch over the group as time ticked on. There was a small commotion just to the side of Merlin as Will pushed past, grinning as he took his place beside them.
"Afternoon," he drawled, smile still well in place. And it had every right to be there; this was what Will had wished for months now, to be seen as more than a troublemaker and be listened to.
Hunith leant over Merlin a little to talk to Will, "Come round ours for dinner tonight, okay? I think it might end up a bit of a rough night so after this, take Merlin and go get your stuff to stay over."
There was no room for argument in her tone and they all knew why. It would likely be the last night Will could sleep round their house and even though they had their hopes and dreams, there was every possibility that they'd never make it to Camelot.
When Simmons was satisfied that everyone was here, or at least one person from each household, he raised a hand, the hall quietening down. Will looked to him expectantly and Merlin noticed he had his fingers crossed, falling back on old world traditions to try and coax his luck.
"As I said yesterday, the Island is dying. You can choose to find salvation in the Sky Cities or you can stay here with the waters." He paused, taking in a deep breath. "I can't make you choose, but a decision has to be made today so preparations can start."
Unlike yesterday, no whispers broke out. The hall was silent as Old Man Simmons shuffled to the side, picking up Will's scrapbook. Merlin realised that he was going to use the empty pages at the back, yellowed with age though they were, to document who would stay and who would go.
"If you wish to travel to the Sky Cities, please come forward to write your name. No one is to leave until everyone has signed." Simmons waved the book about before placing it on the table he'd moved to the front.
No one moved, eyes looking around the room to see who would be the first. Not even Will moved, rooted to the ground with stares fixed on him. Simmons waited at the front, a rare pen clutched in his gnarled hands as he looked down on them, eyes raking over them all.
That morning, Merlin had placed the Obsidian in his pocket before he'd set out, for no reason other than he needed the reassurance that Camelot existed. Despite everything that he'd seen and the urge to leave Ealdor from both Mary Collins and the dragon, it was still hard to imagine that a place existed out there that could save them all.
As he remembered the stone in his pocket, Merlin slipped his hand around it, curling around the surface. This was what they were aiming to, the origin of this stone, their safety. His magic responded to the touch lazily, too used to connecting with the stone now, and it was that tingle that pushed him onwards, causing Merlin to walk up to the front of the room and take the pen.
While they had no modern technology, Hunith had made sure Merlin (and, by extension, Will) could read and write. Almost everyone on the Island could read and write, but not that many could do it as well as Hunith had taught them to.
The pen - a biro from years ago, quite possibly the last one in the world - didn't work as Merlin made to write his name and so he scribbled in circles, trying to blot the ink down. Behind him, he could feel the whole of the village's stare, but the pen ran and he signed his name simply, a murky blue against an old page.
Hunith and Will came up after, followed by a small collection of determined villagers, each signing their names and their families to the new world. Simmons looked at each of them and nodded, as though his personal praise meant so much. In a way it did, but that couldn't be the only reason why they had to leave Ealdor.
The page slowly filled up, names and families inking themselves into the scrapbook. Simmons turned a page and more signed their names, only a few clusters remaining unyielding.
"Anyone else?" Simmons called out to the room, only to shuffles and silence. No one else stepped forwards and then it was all over. The scrapbook was snapped shut, passed over to Will, who had moved to stand beside the old man when he'd spoken.
"Those who are going, you will need to organise supplies. Take enough for a long journey." Will nodded briskly to the words, flipping his book open again and taking over from Simmons.
"The journey looks to be set at around three to five days by boat, providing the sailing is fair. Take what you need and nothing more. Simmons and I will be going around tomorrow letting you know what you need to do, but tonight is just to get to terms with your decision." Will paused, ducking his head as he looked down at his book.
In the short space of a few days, Will had gone from a troublemaker to someone who had helped organise their escape from the village. He'd been recognised, something he'd craved for years.
Will joined them as they left; the village oddly devoid of human chatter. No one was talking, instead looking around, taking in all they could. It would be one of the last days some would ever spend here and the ones that chose to be left behind would never quite be the same.
"I need to go home and pack a few things up," Will said as they reached his turn off. "But I'll head up if the rain doesn't worsen for dinner, yeah?"
Hunith nodded. "I'm proud of you Will. You've done a great thing today."
With that, she left, leaving Merlin and Will alone. It was the first time since Merlin had revealed his magic that they'd been alone together and Merlin was slightly anxious.
"Please don't come up with something sappy to match your mum. She's wonderful and all, but it just wouldn't work for you." Will grinned, tucking his scrapbook under his arm more, trying to shield it against the rain.
"The most you'll ever get from me is a well done," Merlin muttered, narrowing his eyes as he looked up. "Will we even be able to sail? It looks like another storm's about to close in."
Will followed his eye line upwards, to the stony-grey clouds and the thick rain.
"Maybe," he said softly, sighing. "But I'd rather die out there than wait here and do nothing."
There was a silence between them, the rain pattering down and the waves sloshing against the shore, the music to their lives.
"Could you control it? With your magic, could you give us time to get there?" While he wasn't looking directly at Merlin, the words still carried a heavy weight, wrapping themselves around Merlin.
In all honesty, Merlin didn't know. He had done something last night, but what that actually was, he had no idea. Magic wasn't something he had learnt or read about, it was a carnal power inside of him. Hunith hadn't mentioned his magic other than a few discussions - mostly about what Merlin could do and what he'd been able to when he was younger - so there really was nothing for him to learn off the back from.
He could ask about his father, but Merlin had tried to bring the subject up a short while ago and hadn't been able to stand the sadness and guilt in Hunith's eyes. She still felt guilty about lying to him and even though he was still processing the news, still angry at her for keeping it from him, he didn't want her to blame herself. It wasn't what people did, not when you could die at any moment, as horrific and depressing as that sounded.
"I don't know," Merlin answered truthfully, looking behind them to the village square. "I don't know anything, not really."
What use was his magic when all it could do was connect with a stone to look at a crumbled garden? They knew Camelot existed thanks to Merlin's magic, but what use was it if they just died on the way there?
"I have all this power, I can feel it, but what good is it when I can't do anything?" He wasn't scared to admit these fears to Will. They shared almost everything (including the more unsavoury things such as Will's sex dreams) and this wasn't something Merlin could turn to Hunith about.
"I can't do anything, Will," Merlin said, his shoulders slumping. "I can't save us, either way."
Rain began to soak through to his skin as he waited for an answer.
"Merlin," Will began, turning his friend around until they faced each other. "We don't need you to save us. Whatever happens, whether we live or we die, where we choose to go... it's up to us. Your magic isn't supposed to guide every single one of us and it's already done so much."
Merlin met Will's eyes. He was smiling, open and honest.
"After all the stories we grew up on, you probably think you have this great destiny or something to save everyone, but we don't need it. You can't save everyone, but you've given us a way out." Will's voice was strong and Merlin wanted to believe him. He could have so easily too, except for the words of a dragon.
But Will didn't know about the dragon. No one knew about the dragon, the very same creature that had insisted he needed to save his people. Had he really done enough that it constituted as saving them?
"Go home, you're over thinking this. Just because you can glow in the dark doesn't give you supreme power over the world." Will laughed, but he meant everything in his words. "You're just an Islander and while we're fucking amazing, we're just normal people. I don't know why you have it in your head that you need to save us all, but we'll get by."
The words weren't kind, but they were said with good intent. Will cared for him, but he wouldn't buy into the fantasy that Merlin could save them all just because he had magic. To Will, Merlin was just his friend, just the Islander.
Will clasped him on the shoulder and nodded, telling him he'd be up later. Merlin watched his friend go before looking up, blinking through the rain, willing it to stop.
It didn't, even when Merlin reached for his ball of power.
There were celebrations the night before they left, a great feast held inside of the village hall. Not everyone made it, some preferring to spend the last of their island life alone in their family homes, but Merlin, Will and Hunith were all present, laughing to old stories and anecdotes.
They returned home in good spirits, Hunith smiling as she linked arms with Merlin. Even though it was raining, spirits remained high for the pair and they sat down in the kitchen, going through the possessions they no longer needed, telling stories of their own.
"Remember this ladle?" Hunith said with a soft smile, picking up a wooden ladle from the kitchen cupboard. "It belonged to your great-grandmother, carved by a friend."
"Really?" Merlin asked, looking up from where he'd been cradling an old toy horse.
Hunith shook her head, "Not really. It probably was just in a pile of junk somewhere and my mum picked it up. She was like that." She paused, in memory of the family she had lost. "It's just nicer to think that everything has a story and that I can remember them all. Even after we're gone, all of this will remain. This house will just stand here until the water finally breaks it apart, but when you think of all the memories..."
She broke off, shaking her head. "It doesn't matter though. What matters is you and Will and the rest of the island. I love you, Merlin, and I don't need a house to prove it."
They went to bed shortly after, but sleep evaded Merlin. He held the Obsidian in his hands, feeling the rush and the call to Camelot, but he couldn't see anything. The dark surface remained just a surface, no calling to enter the new world of Camelot, no pull of the magic inside of the stone.
He fell asleep with the stone pressed up against his cheek and woke uncomfortably, the stone half under his pillow and half under his cheek. For a moment nothing connected and Merlin lay still in bed, listening to the waves outside and the light pattering of rain against his window. It was a calm day, good.
It all fell into place suddenly, like a ball dropping from a great height. Today they were to leave Ealdor, run the seas to Camelot.
Bolting out of bed, Merlin changed his clothes, stuffing his pyjamas into the bag he was taking, slinging it onto his back. He charged down the stairs, breathless as he entered the kitchen to a sombre Hunith, a small book clutched in her hands. She turned as Merlin entered, smiling.
"Here," she said, holding out the book. It was bound in dark leather, the pages worn and well-loved. "Your father came to the Island with a bag full of books. None of them were soaked through; he used a spell to keep them dry, keep them safe."
Hunith moved around the kitchen, keeping herself busy as she prepared breakfast.
"He loved that one more than the others. Story books, all of them, not a hint of magic amongst them so it's not exactly helpful," Hunith bit her lip, moving forward suddenly with her hands reaching for the book. "It's silly, just a storybook about dragons. You can just leave it."
Tucking the book against his chest, Merlin shook his head. "No, no I want to keep it."
Relief settled over his mother's face before she broke into a smile, moving to Merlin's side and pressing him into a motherly cuddle. Her own bag sat on the kitchen table and, after tucking the book into his rucksack, Merlin put his bag next to hers.
"We have time for breakfast before we have to go down," Hunith said, and they ate the last of their porridge, soaking in the last of their life here, their history of past generations - all of whom had lived here since the great floods.
It was hard for Merlin to leave, but he knew a little of what Camelot held and knew he had someone waiting for him. Hunith didn't know what was waiting for them except that it was a place her husband had fled and never talked about. What did it feel like to leave a safe haven - a family home - not knowing what you were about to face?
They did it though; together they left the house and their pasts, Hunith reaching for her son's hand as they walked. They were soon joined by other villagers, all making their way down to the coast, to the point at the shore where the fishing boats set off from. It was the most southern part of the island, a little rocky shore jutting out into the ocean.
Some of the boats were loaded already, skippers paddling them out a little with expertise so that empty boats could be set into the water, more people filling them up.
Around them, the air was sad, but there were also laughs and smiles, villagers who were staying wishing those leaving well and vice versa. No one was crying - at least not yet anyway - but people were hugging, shaking hands, a village built from the scraps of the Old World parting for their futures happily, kindly.
"There you are!" Will approached them from the side, his own bag slung on his shoulders. "Ready to go?"
No. In all honesty, Merlin wasn't ready to go. He wasn't ready to leave the safety of his Island and put all his faith in the Ocean and a boat. How far away was Camelot? Too far?
"Come on," Hunith said softly and Merlin saw his fears magnified in her eyes.
This was it. All his life Merlin had dreamt of bigger, dreamt of finding something amazing and life changing, and now that he had, he was scared. Justifiably so, but in all the stories he'd made up, all the adventures he'd had, fear had never been there.
Real life was different. In real life you could die, you could get hurt and... and you could be happy, safe.
Old Man Simmons stood by the makeshift dock, shaking hands with everyone who was making their way to sit down in the boats. For a moment, Merlin wondered why he was stood so straight, back ramrod and face stern, until he realised that Simmons, for all his preach of the New World and their salvation, wouldn't be coming with them.
"You're staying," he said as he reached Simmons, hand clasped between two wrinkled ones. Hunith was already on the boat, settling their place and turning to neighbours, sharing nervous smiles.
"I am," Simmons said with a dip of his head. "Your world doesn't need people like me, even if I made the trip."
There wasn't a hint of regret in his tone and Merlin knew why. The seas were too harsh for anyone, let alone an old man. He would just waste resources that would be better spent on the younger villagers, the people who would grow in a place like Camelot.
"I'll gladly die with this land under me, even if we're covered in water." Simmons offered a gruff smile before he leant towards Merlin, lips close enough to his ear that only Merlin would hear the words.
"You have all the qualities a leader needs by his side. You're not blinded by greed, but you overlook the larger picture. Your father was similar, but your talent stretches far beyond that." Simmons' eyes were watery as he pulled back ever so slightly, resting a gnarled hand on Merlin's shoulder. "If I had to place my trust in anyone, you'd be the one I'd have chosen to save us."
Merlin didn't know Simmons well. They weren't friends or even very good acquaintances. Merlin had never asked after Simmons and Simmons probably had never asked after him, but that was fine. They ran in different circles, despite being confined to the same patch of land.
What he said, though, struck Merlin deeply. Here was a man - a leader, despite how small his people - telling him he'd trust Merlin with their salvation. Not Will, not Hunith, not Matthew or anyone with something important to say, but Merlin.
"Thank you," he whispered in reply, squeezing the man's hand.
He didn't agree with everything Simmons had done (it was easy to feel the loneliness and pain of Mary Collins though Simmons' wrinkled skin), but the man had done what he'd thought best for his people. His words meant a lot, even though they were practically from a stranger's mouth.
The boat rocked as Merlin stepped into it, holding his arms out to balance himself, steadily moving to sit by Hunith. She smiled, wrapping an arm around his shoulders and looking back to where Will was talking to Simmons.
"This is it," she said, turning her gaze out to the open ocean. "The start of our new lives."
So caught up in fearing they'd die before they got there, Merlin had forgotten to think of what they'd be going towards. They had their hope, but he'd never thought of what actually reaching Camelot would mean.
He smiled, glancing at Will as he shuffled on the boat, squeezing on the same row as Hunith and Merlin. More people settled on their boat too, until Simmons nodded and Matthew, their skipper, manoeuvred the boat along the shore, the waves sloshing against the side.
Some sea spray covered Merlin's shoes as the boat moved against the waves, but other than that there were no problems. Matthew steered the boat through the bigger waves expertly, keeping the boat in place while they waited for the remaining villagers, eyes fixed, like the rest of them, at the sad shape their Island made.
Then, without fuss or pomp, Matthew pushed away from the shores, curving through the waves on their little boat, joining the small fleet of people from Ealdor. Around him, the villagers were waving to those who had chosen to stay behind, cheers following them as they rode the waves. Merlin joined in, waving his arm back and forth to his home, his past and a world he'd never see again.
They sailed onwards, despite the light rain and the deep waves, slicing through the waters as if they were simply on a fishing trip. The other boats were still close, though they'd all drifted apart as the skippers navigated the waves, different styles, approaches and experiences. While Matthew was one of the few who cut through waves, younger skippers tended to try to steer away from the rougher waves, around them even though it may take longer.
For three days, the sailing was okay. There were times when they all gripped one another, but they made it through easily. The supplies that had been packed were rationed out sensibly and stored away, out of direct temptation.
Despite that though, the mood fell into irritation and tiredness. The children on board weren't happy, the adults around Merlin weren't happy. When the rain let up it was a welcome relief, until the sun glared down, hot and glinting off of the sea. They all smelt, were crusted with sea salt and constantly hungry and tired, after only three days.
Merlin didn't like to think about how many more they had to endure.
On the fourth day, everything changed.
It began with the darkening of the skies and Hunith pulling a blanket over them, shielding them from the main brunt of the rainfall. The waves around the boat became rougher, rocking the boat even as Matthew attempted to navigate. Merlin knew that this wasn't something that could be sailed through and gripped the wood underneath him, clinging to the seat.
The wind picked up, ripping their blankets down and carrying them away over the ocean. The boats they had set out were lost out in the storm, either too far away and lost or simply unable to be seen through the thick rain and the raging waves.
The storm didn't let up either and the wails of the villagers set in around Merlin, crowding around him as though he was the one who had caused this. It wasn't directed specifically at Merlin, but he felt it nonetheless, pushing him, whispering in his ear as the wind howled and pushed at them, trying to tear them apart.
Lightning flashed above them and mighty roars of thunder seemed to shake the very seas themselves, but Matthew stayed their course, muscles straining as he worked the boat, belting out orders for the men helping him.
Even a great skipper such as Matthew was no match for the second day of the storm. He was tired and all it took was his arm to slip once, muscles cramping, and the boat tilted slightly, front knocking against the very wave he'd been trying to steer out of, causing the boat to rock dangerously, throwing its passenger weight around.
Hunith's hand was slippery in Merlin's as the boat tilted, waves battering it as Matthew lost control, rain and sea spray covering them all. Screams filled the air, blocking out even the wind and the thunder.
They'd never make it. Everything Merlin had seen, the dragon and Mary pressing him to save them... all of it was lost as the boat rocked, waves throwing it around like a toy in a bath. Perhaps Spirits did exist and they'd finally caught some of the last Islanders, toying with them like rag dolls in a child's hand.
A giant wave rose up, dark and glittering with white horses. The world tilted, rolling over and over, Merlin unable to gather thoughts let alone his magic to right the world, and then suddenly Hunith's hand was slipping from his, Will was falling away from him and the people he knew, the Islanders he loved, were vanishing one by one.
The cold of the sea shocked Merlin as he hit the water, air rushing from his lungs, no matter how much Merlin knew he needed it. The waves raged above him, but he sunk downwards, eyes open despite the sting of salt.
He was alone. In the calm under the surface, in the darkness of the Ocean and the storm, Merlin was all alone, heading for the bottom of the sea. All of his dreams had told him about this moment - warning him? - and yet he'd believed in some vision, a holographic-dragon of all things.
Darkness began to crowd around Merlin, choking him and pushing him down. His body jerked, lungs burning from the lack of oxygen and he closed his eyes, head hitting the bottom of the sea, something that had never happened in his dreams because it had always signalled his death.
It had never been time before, but now, with light dancing before him in the sea, rippled by the waves, he'd sunk down as far as he could. There was nothing more, just the darkness, no family, no friends, so Merlin let go completely.