Part One - the awakening
The first thing he noticed that morning was that there was no pain. He blinked once or twice, trying to decide if he was still sleeping. Finger and knee joints weren't screaming for attention as they normally did and his back felt nothing but the comfortable firmness of his bed. Comfortable. Now that wasn't a word he'd used much in the last 500 years or more. Experimentally he stretched out his arms. A vigorous energy shot through his body. His heart leapt as the blood pulsed through more strongly than it had in recent memory and he felt the magic curl around his hand, as if it was a kitten seeking to be stroked. "Forbearnan" he murmured, and then jumped out of bed as the fire leaped high. "No! Bugger! Um, ācwencan!"
The fire vanished replaced by the smell of burnt wool. He screwed up his nose and turned to look about the room, nearly knocking the lampshade with his head. That was strange. He flexed his straightened shoulders, relishing the fact that he was no longer stooped over. He took a dazed look at the smoking carpet, realising he wasn't squinting. With an oath he stumbled backwards; no long grey beard, no wrinkled skin. Both hands went to his face and felt a short stubbly beard the likes of which he hadn't worn for centuries. Strong muscles and youthful though trembling hands forced his gaze to the mirror by the bed. A face he hadn't seen in a very long time looked back at him. His heart skipped a beat.
"Well. That's unexpected."
A knock at the door dragged his face away from the mirror. He pulled his pyjama pants up on much narrower hips and pulled the drawstring tighter. The knocking got louder. "Yeah, alright I'm coming!"
The knocking was pounding the door by the time he got to the door and pulled it open, the safety chain catching. Gwaine's familiar shock of hair framing his worried eyes appeared through the narrow crack. Those eyes quickly widened and his friend's jaw dropped. "Merlin!"
"Yeah, I know. Surprise. Come in" He unhooked the chain and stepped back, running a hand through much shorter hair.
Gwaine edged in through the doorway.
"Bloody hell, mate, I mean it's certainly an improvement but what's going on?" his friend wrinkled his nose. "and what is that smell?"
"Carpet. Burning. Well, it's out now so I guess you could say charred." He forced himself to stop babbling as Gwaine's face screwed up in more confusion.
"Magic, Gwaine. That's what's happening. But I'm not sure why".
"I don't understand"
"Join the club" he muttered, turning away. This was too much to focus on this early in the morning, despite the energy racing through him. Tea would help.
It was a bit unnerving, the way Gwaine stared at him while he made the tea. He couldn't blame him though; he kept stealing glances at his own reflection in the window.
"So, Merlin, any thoughts on why a thousand year old man suddenly looks 33? Sure you weren't mucking around with youth spells or something?"
"Don't be stupid, I haven't done that since 1915"
Gwaine straightened abruptly from where he'd been leaning on the sink bench. "What? I was just joking. Have you done this before?"
A sigh escaped him. "Long story Gwaine. But this isn't like that. I don't feel like I've put on a coat of youth, I feel young." He grinned, feeling his cheek muscles awkward with lack of use. "It's an extraordinary feeling"
"Must be great if you're smiling. It's good to see by the way, you don't do it enough".
"There's not usually lots to smile about."
The fragrance of the tea rose with the steam. Funny how tea was calming even when he actually preferred coffee.
They sat at the small kitchen table on chairs that he noticed now were slightly rickety. It was if he was seeing everything not just through young eyes but new ones. As if he'd woken up.
Shaking his head on that thought, and the thoughts it triggered he wrapped his hands around the warm cup and looked at Gwaine under his brows. The former knight, now a barman in the local pub, was still frowning but his eyes looked happy and as their eyes caught he threw his head back and laughed. "Sorry mate, but just thinking this will really throw a spanner in the works won't it? Can't you just see Professor Emrys turning up to work on Monday looking like that?"
He groaned. Work. He hadn't even thought about it. He had a seminar to give soon too. Well, it would have to wait. There was no way he was aging himself again - the vitality of youth was too addictive. Anyway, there were more important things to think about.
Feeling his chest constrict he took a deep breath. "Gwaine. I think the magic is returning"
"What do you mean "returning", hasn't it always been there? You've certainly used it before, as I know"
"Yeah, it's been here, but it's faded over the centuries, especially since the age of iron and steel.' He raised his eyebrows at the blank face turned towards his. "The Industrial Revolution, Gwaine. What do they teach you in schools nowadays?"
"Ah, there's the grumpy old man I know and love"
He flicked his eyes, felt them change to gold, and the pepper pot flew across the table and would have hit Gwaine in the forehead had his friend not had such quick reflexes.
"What happened to magic not being used for games?"
The thrill of using his gift buzzed through him. "You better pay attention then." He leaned back in the chair and stretched out legs that seemed longer for not being so cramped with age. The lino was peeling, he noticed. "Magic has always been here, it comes from the earth and wraps around everyone; I can feel it like a hum beneath our feet. But the mystical beasts were mostly killed off during the inquisitions and those who escaped retreated to sleep." Visions of burnings shot across his memory, worse by far than anything Uther had done. He shoved those images to the back of his mind. "With the arrival of factories and steel and the growth of cities the earth that creates magic was wounded and there were too few of us with magic to stop it sleeping too."
Gwaine was nodding but he could tell his friend didn't really understand. "Look, all you really need to know is that magic never went away but it went…dormant I suppose is the best word. It still came to my call but others found it harder, at least, some of them did." 1918 played across his mind and he shifted in his seat. "The way the magic feels now is as if it's wide awake for the first time in a long time."
"So what woke it?"
He shrugged but froze half way through. Could it be now? He'd given up so long ago, despite the awakening of Gwaine a few years earlier, but it could certainly explain it. And the others he'd seen, or thought he'd seen. He felt an ache in his chest. Hope wasn't as great as everyone said.
Drawing his legs in and placing his cup gently on the table, wiping up the drips caused by his shaking fingers, he faced Gwaine.
"I'm in the wrong place. I need to go to Caerleon."
His friend's eyes widened but he didn't question, simply nodded slowly and stood. "Train or car?"
"Train. I need you to stay here. If I'm right" his voice cracked and he cleared his throat "If I'm right we'll have to assume that others have woken too, and they won't all be friends. We need to be ready"
"You want me to make contact?"
"Yes, primary parties only". He headed to the bedroom before wheeling back.
"Um, never thought I'd ask this but can I borrow some clothes?"
Gwaine laughed, his head thrown back. "What's the problem with yours? Old man styles not doing it for you anymore?"
"Shut up. Jeans and a sweatshirt - have you got some spare?"
"Sure thing, I'll go next door and grab them. Can you get me the book?"
"In the hall table."
Hands on hips, he watched Gwaine rummage through the drawer, hoist the precious little book high and then dash out the door. His heart was pumping a bit fast. He'd need to stop by the ATM too. Thank goodness for electronic banking where no one questioned your appearance.
Another image shot into his head, wavy black hair and green eyes. He glanced at the clock on the wall. Well, the next train to Wales wouldn't be going for a couple of hours. There'd be time to stop for a coffee on the off-chance she'd be there. Even if that was the stupidest thing he could do right now.
He turned away from his inner debate, knowing already which side had won, and looked out the kitchen window at the roofs of London, grey with morning mist. It was peaceful on the surface but he leaned on the metal counter, closed his eyes and felt the magic rising from the earth. Opening his eyes again he smiled, most of him still didn't believe it was time, there'd been so many disappointments over the years, but this, this feeling was nearly worth it.
He sat at the table wondering for the hundredth time what he was doing. The steaming hiss of the espresso machine scraped on his nerves and the chatter of the patrons, normally a sound he found relaxing, made him want to tell them all to shut it. He pushed his spoon around on the saucer. Why did they always give everyone biscotti? No-one ever ate it. The bell on the cafe door tinkled and he looked up. His breath caught when she walked in. She was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen; she always had been. He couldn't stop staring as she sat down at the table next to his, put her bag down and smiled at the waitress. When she caught him looking at her he tried to look away but couldn't. Those eyes. Green and murky like deepest emerald. He allowed himself the luxury of staring. She might be the physical reincarnation of the woman he remembered but he doubted that her smart navy suit hid a magic nearly as powerful as his own. A frown marred her perfect brow and she shifted a little in her seat, as if to move out of the line of his sight. He watched her for a moment more but she kept flicking her fierce eyes up to his and away, the frown deepening.
Finally she turned to face him. "Do I know you?"
He smiled at her, heart hurting inside him. "Now what makes you ask that?"
"Well I wondered, the way you were staring so rudely. But, now I look at you, your eyes…" a quick shake of her head, as if to dispel a thought. "You seem so familiar." Her smile seemed hesitant. "Are you sure we haven't met?"
His smile twisted. "If we had, I hope you'd remember"
The waitress walked between them, setting down a frothy coffee in front of the lady whose familiar face had drawn him the moment he'd seen her in passing the day before, going out of the cafe as he entered. He'd held the door for her and looking down into her face when she smiled her thanks he'd frozen until an older woman bustled past him and her shopping cart had hit him in the ankle. Her face had played in his mind until he found himself returning again today, not admitting to himself why but hoping none the less.
"Here you are Morgana love, and I'll bring out your eggs as soon as they're done"
He was grateful he'd finished his own coffee or he might have spat it across the table. Morgana. No. Coincidence surely.
She looked at him again, a breath taken in as if she was about to say something and then she shut her mouth and stirred the coffee. He watched as she put in three sugars. Morgana had always had a sweet tooth.
"You seem very interested in my coffee"
The lilting voice was the same also. This was completely insane. He had to leave. He shot up, knocking the table slightly as he grabbed his bag. "Sorry. I, um… Bye"
He threw a few quid onto the table as he stumbled away. The door opening onto the fresh morning air steadied him a bit but then he paused. His face tightened in a grimace. He knew it was stupidity itself but on a compulsion he looked back. Morgana was staring at him and there was something in her face that hadn't been there before. Recognition. He stood motionless a moment longer then flung himself out into the London streets.
The train station was close but he walked like an automaton, hardly noticing the people around him. He'd known, even yesterday. It was just denial that had stopped him realising. It always was.
Finally on the train he stared blindly out of the window. This could be bad. If she'd recognised him it meant that she might know who she was. But then that didn't fit with the woman who'd smiled at an old man holding the door, a woman who had an easy, warm relationship with a waitress in a coffee bar. He crossed his arms across his chest, Gwaine's borrowed hoody pulled over his head. This was stupid. He should be hoping that she hadn't recognised him, that she didn't know, but the same old feelings surfaced. He didn't try to squash them; they'd hurt for so many years that he was used to the pain. Was it really that foolish? To hope that things could be different now? His mind, never the most obedient and now shooting fast on a wave of magic, cast an image of Morgana the first time he'd seen her, the first time he'd fallen for her. And then he saw her as she exulted over a fallen Arthur, before he'd thrust Arthur's sword into her heart. Foolish wasn't the word, more like hopeless.
He shoved his hand over his cheek, wiping away treacherous wetness. Well, he was used to disappointment, but as the magic swirled around the train and he caught sight of a flock of birds, flying in a shape that was suspiciously dragon-like, he thought ahead to what he was about to try and his mouth ran dry. What if it actually worked?
Her head was not in the right space for a meeting. She dashed off an email to cancel it and then sat back in her chair, inhaling the cool scent of the leather and biting the end of her pencil. She swivelled back and forth and tried to focus. The door snicked open and her associate's perfume wafted in.
The other woman closed the door softly behind her. "Are you okay? It isn't like you to cancel. Is something up?"
She tapped the pencil against her teeth a couple more times then tossed it on the desk, where it fell against her open planner.
"I had the weirdest thing happen this morning and I can't get my head straight. You know I told you about the nightmares?" her friend nodded and she leaned back further in her chair, arms crossed over her chest. "I did what you said and went to the therapist. It didn't help"
Gwen's mouth twisted. 'I'm sorry to hear that. Have they been very bad lately?"
"No more than usual. But here's the thing" she took a deep breath "I've seen one of the people from my dream. I saw him this morning in the cafe." Her eyes flicked up at the other woman and her lip curled. 'I know what you're thinking, I could have seen him any day and that's why he was in my dream or I could have mistaken him for someone in my dream. But I also know that neither of those are true."
She leaned forward, eyes intent on her friend's face - Gwen's brows were drawn down and her nails were in her mouth again in that awful habit she'd never break no matter how many times she was scolded at the salon. "There's no way I could be mistaken. I've dreamed about him since before I could remember dreaming. He looked different at first; he has a beard now and his hair is swept off his face. He looks stronger. But when he stood up and nearly knocked the table over I knew that I knew him. His eyes. I've seen them every night in my sleep. How is that possible?" She hadn't been able to control the tremble in her voice and she saw Gwen's hand flick up as if she'd offer comfort, but then it fell back at her side. She couldn't blame Gwen; her friend knew she had a thing about being touched. Although she would make an exception now.
Her voice felt raspy. "Am I going mad, Gwen?"
"No! No of course not. Don't be silly". She could feel Gwen's eyes on her although she couldn't make herself look up from the pencil she'd begun tapping on the desk again. "Did you talk to him?"
She laughed harshly. "I tried. He rushed off. But when I asked him if I knew him he didn't really answer yes or no, now I think about it."
The other woman came up and took the pencil away. 'Well, maybe he was just nervous being talked to by a gorgeous girl. What does he look like? Is he attractive? fit?"
Morgana paused. 'I guess so. Yes. I didn't really notice."
She took a breath. "You see, in my dreams, he kills me."
Gwen dropped the pencil. "What?"
She stretched her eyes wide trying to stop the tears she could feel burning behind her eyelids. "Sometimes it's poison, sometimes it's a sword. And I wake up terrified and betrayed, night after night."
When Gwen came around the desk to put her arms around her she didn't push her away. "Can you imagine what it's like, having to die every night in your dreams? The odd thing is that he holds me every time, he doesn't leave me. There's compassion there and that's unsettling too."
Gwen's hands stroking her hair felt so comfortable, so natural that she let herself relax into the sensation for a moment. After a second though she took a breath and pulled away, pasting a smile on her face. "Well, now you know why I cancelled the meeting".
Her friend said nothing but fetched her some water from the jug on the sideboard by the window. It was cool on her sore throat and she felt her breathing even out. She smiled her thanks at Gwen, who always seemed to know what to do to help. Her friend's face was set in serious lines and she raised a brow at her.
"Morgana, I need to tell you something, something that might help or might not but I think you need to know."
She placed the glass carefully on the desk, slowly building her armour up again. "Go on."
"There's a man I've seen around lately, mostly on the tube. There's something about him that makes me want to hurt him, and I never know why. He doesn't do anything, although I've caught him looking at me in a funny way - par for the course on the tube I guess. Anyway, the other night I dreamed about him - but he was a boy. It was so strange, but I knew this small boy was the same person as the man and I felt sorry for him but frightened at the same time. And there's another man who was in the dream. A blonde man, dressed like one of those medieval knights you see at those silly re-enactments in the park." Gwen's voice dropped. "I know it's just a dream but I'm sure I know him, and he makes my heart hurt".
She couldn't take her eyes off Gwen. A blonde knight. Like the other man in her dreams. The one she killed. With a jolt, she knew in her bones she couldn't tell Gwen about that.
"Dreams, eh?" she tried smiling again but knew from the look on Gwen's face she hadn't been particularly successful. "At least I'm not the only one." On impulse, she reached out her hand and when Gwen's strong capable hand folded around hers she allowed herself to draw the comfort that she hardly ever sought.
It was as Gwen was leaving that she had the courage to ask the question uppermost in her mind. "Gwen. That man you see on the tube. What does he look like?"
Gwen paused and turned with her hand on the door frame. "Tallish, but not too tall. Dark hair. Pale. Intense eyes." She tried not to fidget as Gwen regarded her thoughtfully. "Clean shaven. No beard. Sounds like it's a different man".
She wasn't sure if it was relief or disappointment she felt, but, her armour fully in place, she smiled and said "No, I guess it couldn't be"
Once Gwen had closed the door behind her Morgana rose and walked to the window. The corner office had a beautiful view of the Guildhall nearby and normally she enjoyed watching the people pass by, but now she found herself looking at every man with a breathlessness that could be anticipation or fear. "Or both" she murmured and turned resolutely away. There was work to do.
Merlin stood on the shelly bank of the lake that only he saw. Every time his heart beat it felt as if it would pound out of his chest. His hand was shaking as he held it out towards the lake. Towards Avalon. 'Arthur. I think it's time. I've been waiting so long and there's been so many times I thought that it must be time. I mean, Hitler right? Time of Albion's greatest need? Turns out it wasn't. Things aren't great at the moment in England, what with the whole Brexit thing and Scotland breaking out of the UK and terrorism and threat of another Cold War, but I wouldn't have said it was our time of greatest need. But magic, Arthur, the magic has come back. It hasn't been this strong since you left." His voice caught on the last word and he cleared his throat. For god's sake, it had been over a thousand years, you'd think he would have got over the whole Arthur dying thing. His hand fell back to his side.
"I don't really know how to wake you, how to bring you back, but Kilgharrah said you'd return one day so I'm hoping that with magic returning another dragon can help. I haven't called a dragon since, well you know since you left, but there is one out there. Trouble is" he eyed the sky "I don't know if it can talk."
Licking his lips, trying to ignore how dry his mouth felt he cleared his throat again. It was ridiculous how self-conscious he felt. He looked down the road but even with his enhanced eyesight returning he couldn't see anyone. He shook his arms and loosened his neck. "Right then".
His head flung back and his eyes flicked gold. "O drakon, e male so ftengometta tesd'hup'anankes!" The words boomed into the night and he felt the power flow through him, different from the magic that filled him from the earth, this was even more ancient, dredged up through his very bones. The power of a Dragonlord.
Silence filled the night. And it was a deep silence. The owls had hushed and even the wind seemed to still. Then he heard it and tears sprang to his eyes. The unmistakable thrum of a dragon's wings against velvety air. His cheeks split as he grinned through his tears. He'd been so lonely all these ages. He'd never thought to call the dragon and he wondered for the first time if that had been a mistake. What if it didn't remember him?
A shadow eclipsed the moon and then it took form. A glorious, white winged beast touched down in front of him. Its massive bulk still bore the scars of that long-ago torture, but it had learned to compensate and the damage did not eclipse its nobility. The large head bowed and stared at him. His breath stopped. There in the great eyes he read interest tempered with wariness. The dragon remembered him.
Merlin bowed. "Thank you, great dragon, Aithusa. It pleases me more than you can imagine that you deigned to heed my call".
Aithusa huffed in what could only be a laugh. "I've been waiting a long time for you to call me from my sleep little warlock"
He felt tension leave his shoulders. "You can speak!"
"Of course I can speak!"
"I am sorry, I did not mean offense." He bowed again, "I am happy to see that you are well."
"The magic, Dragonlord, it fills the earth once more. Is this your doing?"
He shook his head "no, sadly it isn't. Not on purpose anyway. But that's what I wanted to talk to you about." He wiped his palms on his jeans as uncertainty shot through him. The dragon had always been attached to Morgana. What if it didn't want to help awaken Arthur?
"Well then, Merlin, ask your questions and I will do my best to answer them"
"I think it's time, the time that Kilgharrah always spoke of. With this much magic filling the world surely there's enough to raise Arthur, but I have to admit I don't know how. I don't want to raise a shade, he needs to be whole to fulfil his destiny."
The dragon's great head lowered so it filled his vision.
'I cannot tell you how to waken the Pendragon, little Warlock, that is magic well beyond my ken. But it matters not. He is already risen and in this world."
Merlin's heart stopped. "No. No he can't be. I would know. I would feel it! You must be wrong"
Aithusa shook her great head slowly. "No, Dragonlord, I am not wrong. He is awakened. He was found yesterday morning on the banks of the lake, clad only in thin clothing and half dead from cold."
The world seemed to break around him. How could this possibly be? The dragon looked at him kindly. "You said you would know. Why, how else would your body have known to become young again? Something in you did know, you simply refused to let it in"
Merlin's hand ran through his hair, the trembling fingers catching on knots. Aithusa was right. He had known. He just hadn't believed. Hadn't dared believe. And he wasn't here when Arthur finally awoke. All those centuries of waiting and he wasn't here. His chest tight he looked up into the wise face. "Do you know where he was taken?"
"There is a nursing home in Caerleon and he is being cared for there. But, Merlin, beware of those who would stand in your way. Not everyone will rejoice to see the Once and Future King back in Albion and there will be many who will strive to take the magic for themselves."
He nodded, every fibre of his being wanting to be gone, to see Arthur. "Thank you Aithusa. May I call on you again? I will need advice and" his mouth turned up in a grin "there's really no-one else who understands what it's like to be magic in a world where such things are child's stories only."
The white dragon bent her head down until her face was inches away from Merlin's. She breathed out and Merlin felt stronger, calmer. "I will always come to your call, Dragonlord."
He was itching to leave but he stayed to watch the dragon take flight. Joy rose in him. Truly nothing could compare to the beauty of it. Hoisting his bag onto his shoulder he set off for town at a run.