There were two strange men at her door.
One, she knew, from a passing glance here and there. Tall and old, but with a back so straight, Gwen always wondered how one who had enough years in him to have grown a beard so long managed it. She’d seen him in the neighborhood, entering the building two numbers down from her. When she offered to carry his bags, he’d touched a finger to his nose and said, ‘I can do more than you think.’
The other was younger – much, much younger. Tall, too, and blonde, with blue eyes and a beautiful, handsome face. He was also dressed in armor.
He stared at her with such a dazed look, such intensity, that she thought he must have mistaken her for someone else. But he broke into a grin, slow and wide, and said, “Guinevere.”
That wasn’t her name.
And she’d never met the man in her life.
So, all she could say in return was, “Who are you?”
That was three hours ago.
Since, she’d been told they were Merlin and Arthur – one, a sorcerer, the other, king of Camelot, risen again from Avalon. She’d asked if they were cosplayers.
Still, when the old man – when Merlin assured her they were telling the truth, she could almost believe it. When he said they’d known her as Guinevere over a thousand years ago, she nearly believed that, too. When Merlin turned on all of her appliances with only three muttered words and the ruckus made Arthur jump and draw an actual, golden sword, she believed it a little more.
So now, she stood to the side with Merlin, while Arthur spun in the middle of the living room, eyes full of curiosity for everything yet with comprehension for none. Such a man out of place. And time, evidently.
“A thousand and a half years I wait for him to return,” Merlin spoke. “I honestly don’t know what I expected.”
“A thousand years,” Gwen echoed. “That’s a long time.”
“Eh.” Merlin shrugged. “After the first few centuries, it all starts going by faster.”
“On earth this entire time? Oh, yeah. I’m immortal.”
She frowned, biting into her lip.
Merlin turned knowing eyes on her. “Sounds mad,” he said, “but you believe it, don’t you?”
Yes, she thought. And not only because she had seen him do – magic. But because for all that she had lived and learned, she had still always felt like she’d somehow come into this world fully formed, with thoughts and ideas that were always somehow there, and so different from her parents, so unlike anything two farmers’ daughter ought to be.
Still, it was completely mad.
“So, you’re immortal,” she said instead of answering, “he” – she nodded towards Arthur, who was inspecting her old Roman law textbook like it was demonic – “was somehow preserved this way for fifteen hundred years – ”
“Sidhe magic. Powerful thing.”
“Right. And now he’s woken up – ”
“And only knows about things up until – what, the sixth century – ”
“The time of Camelot.”
“And he’s walking around with a sword – ” When Merlin began to open his mouth, she warned, “Don’t say Excalibur.”
He pressed his lips together. Then smiled. “I’ll tell you a secret about it,” he said, leaning in like a conspirator. “He doesn’t even know.”
She raised her eyebrows expectantly.
“Your father made it.”
“My father’s a milkman.”
“Not that father,” Merlin said, almost dismissively. “The one you had in Camelot. Tom. Tom the blacksmith.”
“That’s – I don’t know that name.”
“I thought not,” Merlin agreed after a moment, perhaps with a twinge of disappointment.
Was he saying all these things, speaking all these names, just to – “Are you trying to get me to…remember something?”
“Still clever, then,” he muttered, then sighed. “Yeah,” he admitted, “but I suppose…if you didn’t know me when you saw me – if you didn’t remember Arthur at seeing him, what hope is there for anything else?”
She turned to the man in question – who was, currently, desperately trying to hide the fact that he had broken one of her pens.
Appalling guest, she thought, with fondness, even, and had no idea where it had come from.
“You’re immortal, he’s…risen,” she reiterated, “so what does that make me?”
Merlin scratched his head. “Reincarnated?”
She turned back to him. “You don’t know?”
“Well, excuse me if I don’t know everything,” he complained and for the first time, he truly painted the perfect picture of a grumpy, doddery old man. Gwen nearly laughed.
“This is all…new to me, too,” he went on. “I waited and waited, and didn’t know what I was really waiting for.” He chuckled. “Couldn’t believe it, first time I saw you here either. Thought I was seeing things.”
Gwen narrowed her eyes. “How did you recognize…me?”
Merlin raised an eyebrow. “Haven’t changed a bit, my lady.”
A strange jolt went through her. “Really?”
“Well, your hair’s just a tad shorter” – he tilted his head – “I like it.” Then, he shrugged. “Other than that, you’re exactly the same.”
That was – “You say you’ve been here all this time,” she said, slowly. “There’s legends about this. About…king Arthur and Camelot – about you.”
“And you,” Merlin returned.
“Right. And in none of them is Guinevere anything other than a white girl.”
For a moment, Merlin looked guilty. Then, he just sighed. “History has a way of getting everything wrong. No story told is the one that really happened. But,” he added, “what I’m telling you is the truth. You were queen of Camelot.”
That’s not right. The thought, again, came unbidden. That title’s not right.
She shook her head. “Well, then that would make me Arthur’s…”
“Wife, yeah,” Merlin said, like it was a normal thing to tell a girl. He cast a glance at Arthur. “Honestly, Gwen, from the moment he got his wits about him, all he’s talked about is seeing you.”
Slowly, she looked over to him. He was playing around with the stapler, like it was both the most wondrous and horrifying thing he’d ever seen. Despite herself, she smiled.
She thought, maybe, if she stared long enough, something would come to her, some memory of ever agreeing to marry this man, of ever actually doing so, but nothing did. Still, even without any of that, he seemed endearing just as he was. Gwen slowly led the way back to him.
He quickly dropped the stapler and stood straight, chest out, a hand coming to rest on his sword. Gwen had the oddest thought that she ought to put him in a museum. He certainly belonged there more than he did in her home.
“Do you remember me yet?” he asked.
“No.” She shook her head, and his face fell. “I’m sorry,” she felt compelled to add.
He schooled his features. “That’s alright,” he assured, then slipped some kind of meaningful glance towards Merlin.
“Oh, don’t look at me,” Merlin grumbled. “I’ve no idea why she doesn’t remember you.”
In return, Arthur gave him a look that could probably kill.
It softened when it returned to her, though. She held his gaze, for the longest time. Never would she think to share it with a stranger for so long, but this one, she could hold forever. Such pretty eyes.
“We need to get him clothes,” Merlin was the first to speak. “Can’t have him walking around in armor and a knight’s cloak forever. Cosplay only gets you so far.”
From the corner of her eye, Gwen saw Arthur mouth, ‘what’s this cosplay?’
“We need to take him shopping,” Merlin declared.
“We?” Gwen parroted in a high pitch, then felt bad when Arthur’s face fell again. In the moment, it dawned on her how terrible this must be for him. To wake up in a completely different world, changed beyond recognition, with only one friend to give him answers and a wife who didn’t remember him.
The strangest urge came over her, to go to him and let him lay his head in the crook of her neck.
She cleared her throat. “Well, he can’t go to any store dressed like this,” she said. “Um – Merlin could go out and buy you something.” She turned to Arthur. “There’s a shop right nearby, it’ll only take a few minutes.”
Arthur’s eyes widened. “How quickly do seamstresses work in this time?” he asked in wonder.
She blinked at him. Merlin ran a hand over his face. “There’s no seamstresses, Arthur, the clothes are already made,” he said.
Arthur was still uncomprehending. “But how do they know my measurements?”
Merlin looked like he was regretting all of his centuries worth of life and choices as he grumbled, “I’ll just go with large.”
With that, he was heading for the door, abnormally quick for a man his age, muttering something about things never changing and damned clotpoles all the while.
And then there were two.
Gwen didn’t think she’d ever felt more awkward in her life.
Just standing there, three feet across a legendary dead king who was her husband from another life she didn’t remember, neither of them saying a word in the silence Merlin left behind.
“Would you like something?” she fired out, too suddenly. Arthur jumped a little. “Um, water, tea? Coffee?”
“Uh, I – yes, of course, thank you,” Arthur said, then cocked his head. “What’s coffee?”
“Why don’t I make you some,” she suggested, “and then you can decide if you like it?”
When he nodded, she fled across the room, and slipped behind the divider into her kitchen. It was still not a long distance away to flee to, in a flat this small. Once she set the water to boil, she turned to look at him over her shoulder, through the arch that gave into the living room.
He was right where she’d left him, standing by her desk, taking up the entire room with his presence. He was too big for her home.
She worked in silence, while he seemingly busied himself with examining her highlighters, until it was time to ask, “Sugar? Milk?”
He looked nonplussed. “Yes?”
With a smile, she added some of both, then took the mug to him. He accepted it with a nod and a ‘thank you’; she was careful not to let their fingers brush.
He inspected the mug, eyes wide, gave it a whiff, then took a sip. He froze for a second, before his face went carefully blank. He swallowed. “It’s good.”
She bit back a smile. “Are you trying not to offend me?”
He pressed his lips together. “Perhaps.”
She laughed. “It’s fine, coffee’s an acquired taste,” she said, holding her hands out to take the mug back and set it on the desk. When she looked up, Arthur was staring at her with such fondness, such love, that goosebumps broke out along her arms. She had to take a step back.
Arthur did the same. “I’m sorry,” he spoke, a little stiffly, like he was making a formal apology. “I don’t mean to overwhelm you, Guinevere.”
“That’s not my name,” she found herself saying.
He met her eyes, seemingly searching for something there. He found nothing. “Maybe not now,” he conceded. “Some called you Gwen back in Camelot too, though.” He smiled fondly. “Forgive me if I call you by a name you don’t remember, but I…” He took a deep breath. “To me, the battle was only two days ago, and…to me, you are still Guinevere.”
Only two days. “So was it really like in the legends for you?” she asked, curious. “You were in this…dreamless sleep in Avalon? And you just woke up like no time had passed at all?”
“I think so,” he said, uncertainly. “It’s sort of…muddled. I remember dying.” He pursed his lips. “That’s a strange thing to say.”
“Honestly, once you’ve heard you’re the reincarnation of queen Guinevere, nothing really seems strange in comparison anymore.”
He laughed at that one. “I imagine not,” he agreed. “So, I died,” he reiterated. “Merlin was with me. Next thing I know, he’s with me again, except he looks like the man who killed my father.”
Arthur shook his head. “Long story.” He sighed. “Turns out it wasn’t him, in the end. But the point is, I suppose…these legends you speak of are right. I feel like no time has passed at all. And yet…” He looked around the room. “Nothing in the world is the same.”
She felt that pang of sympathy again. “I’m sorry,” she said. “This must be terrible for you. To just wake up, and suddenly everything is different.”
“Well, you’re not,” he said softly. “I mean, your hair’s a bit different,” he amended, eyeing the spot where the ends of it just barely met her shoulders. “And you dress differently. Other than that…you’re exactly the same as the last time I saw you.”
Impulsively, she requested, “Tell me about it?” She swallowed. “The last time you saw” – her – “me.”
He seemed surprised, but acquiesced quickly, nodding. “We were at the war camp,” he began. “At Camlann.”
Camlann, a thousand and a half years (or thereabouts) ago
She tightened the last of her belts when he stepped up to her, a silver chain in his hands.
“Here,” he said, already clad in armor; all ready for battle. The chain slid over his fingers until it hung before her eyes, the pendant spinning this way and that, catching the light of the candles.
She couldn’t bear to take it. “No.”
“Guinevere – ”
“I won’t take it now.”
He gave a soft sigh, then lifted her hand in his. Despite her wishes, the royal seal found itself in her palm. Arthur held it there. “If I am to die,” he said, “I leave Camelot in your care.” He smiled with pride. “And there is no one I would trust more to rule it when I am gone.”
She blinked back her tears, and slipped her hand out from beneath his. “I won’t take it,” she repeated.
He looked ready to argue, but she shook her head. When he chuckled, it bordered on exasperation. “What if I am killed in battle,” he proposed, “and a Saxon gets ahold of this? Or Morgana?”
“Best not to get killed, then.”
His expression softened. “I hope that is not my fate,” he said quietly. “I would hate most of all to never see you again.”
As would she. Her heart seized at the thought now as it had dozens of times before.
Her love, her king, her lord and husband; the whole of her heart. To never see him again –
“You will see me,” she said. “Victory is all but ours now.” Gently, she took the chain from his hands, holding it up. After a moment’s hesitation, he bent his head. “You will win this battle, and the war,” she went on, and hung the royal seal around his neck. “And then you will see me again.”
He smiled slowly, fondly, and ever-so-slightly, nodded. “Until then,” he whispered and bent to kiss her, a sweet and gentle pass of his lips over hers.
You don’t have to go, part of her always wanted to say, even now. But instead she only echoed, “Until then.”
Arthur drew back, giving her one last, lingering look.
Then he turned to walk away, pausing only once more as he lifted the tent’s flap, to glance back over his shoulder and, with a slight smile, incline his head to her. With that, he took one more step, the flap falling down behind him.
And she never saw him again.
“What on earth is this?”
Gwen put a fist to her mouth so she wouldn’t laugh.
Merlin had returned with two bags and Arthur, bless him, had rummaged through them like a curious child, until he had come across a pair of plain, black boxers. Which he was now turning over and stretching every which way in his hands.
“It’s underwear,” Merlin informed, looking about as put-upon as Gwen felt amused. “People wear it under their trousers.”
Arthur grimaced. “Seems awfully…”
Gwen pressed her lips together and looked to the ceiling.
“You’ll be fine, my lord,” Merlin deadpanned.
Arthur didn’t seem convinced but still nodded. “A man must adapt,” he declared, like he was issuing a royal edict. Then he turned to her. “Do you have a place where I might change?”
She stuck her thumb out over her shoulder. “Bedroom’s that way.”
He inclined his head to her. “Thank you,” he said, and turned to Merlin expectantly.
Merlin baulked. “I’m not your manservant here.”
Arthur’s expression didn’t change.
“No!” Merlin protested, his beard shaking from it. “You know what, I am an old man, I am the most powerful sorcerer on earth – I am magic itself, I will not – ” He sighed. “Fine,” he relented. “Go on, then, you prat.”
“That’s no way to speak to your king,” Arthur was saying as they moved away.
“You’re not the king anymore.”
“I can still kill you.”
“Well, I’ve got an ancient and powerful blade.”
“And who do you think gave that to you?”
The door shut behind them, and Gwen dissolved into a fit of giggles.
Muffled sounds could be heard from the bedroom every now and again, and Gwen could only imagine what ridiculous sight they were part of. Shaking her head, she walked back to the desk and picked up the mug of now cold coffee. With her fingers around it, she paused, thinking about what Arthur had said. About Camlann.
She’d listened, waiting for something to come. But there was nothing. She felt nothing.
‘Sorry,’ she’d said, once he was finished. ‘That means nothing to me.’
He looked like she’d mortally wounded him.
Merlin’s return saved her from having to deal with it.
And the bedroom door creaking open saved her from having to feel bad about it now.
Have mercy, she thought, the sentiment all hers. Arthur emerged, in sleek black trousers and a crisp white shirt, unbuttoned at the collar. He fiddled with the sleeves, muscles moving as he pulled them back.
“Is this really what kings wear in this time?” he was saying as he went.
He caught her looking then, pausing in his steps. Ever-so-slightly, he smirked.
“There are no kings.” Merlin trotted in behind him. “Well, I mean, there is a queen, but – the point is, you’re good.”
“I wouldn’t trust your judgement on this any more than I would a blind man’s, Merlin,” Arthur said, never once looking at the man in question. “What do you think, Gwen?”
That she really didn’t have to remember him to do any of things going through her head right now. “You’re good,” she agreed.
He grinned now, quick and crooked.
“But, umm…” She went to him like a woman possessed, reaching for his arm. “Here,” she said, touching the end of his sleeve. He’d only pushed it back so she began folding it, once, twice, until it rested at his elbow. He held out his other arm when she was done, without a word.
Merlin, also silently, left them for the kitchen and began rummaging through her cupboards. She didn’t even have it in her to mind.
“There,” she finally said, other sleeve all done. “Now you’re perfect.”
She trailed her eyes up his chest, intent on meeting his, and got stuck on his mouth. His smile was still there, not too wide, but warm and gentle. She watched his lips move as he said, “Thank you.”
She gave half-a-shrug and half-a-nod, and some kind of awkward smile in return.
Her fingers tingled strangely, and it took a moment to realize she still held on to his arm, feeling his pulse beneath her hand – going faster, and faster, and –
Someone knocked on the door.
She jumped a foot in the air. Arthur held an arm in front of her, going for something at his hip with the other and grasping at nothing but air. They both turned to Merlin.
From where he stood munching on cereal right out of the box, crumbs falling into his beard, Merlin shrugged.
The knock came again.
Gwen went around Arthur to answer it, pulling on the knob.
There was another strange man at her door.
“So, funny story,” he said. “I’m just there minding my own business, when this morning, I suddenly remember that I was once a knight of Camelot, that I died an ignoble death at the hands of Morgana Pendragon, and that the girl I’ve been seeing ‘round the building actually used to be my queen.”
Gwen stared at him.
Arthur was suddenly behind her, exclaiming, “Gwaine!”
“And there’s my king,” the man – Gwaine said, breaking into a grin.
“You – you remember me?” Arthur let out.
Gwaine shrugged. “Yeah.”
Gwen looked over her shoulder, meeting Arthur’s eyes. She swore she actually saw his heart break.
Under the wind and thunder beating down upon it, the waters of the lake rippled from beneath.
She broke the surface, taking in a mighty breath; the smell of rain and salt and magic filled her lungs, her heart beating again for the first time in more than a thousand years.
She swam to shore, drenched to the bone, and marveled at the feeling of solid ground beneath her feet.
The waters rippled again, a mighty gust of wind blowing through the trees, raising waves as tall as her; now the ground itself shook, from the force of what followed her back into this world.
In the darkness, she smiled.