Arthur was waiting.
He was standing on the shore of an island, staring out across the lake to the mainland, and he was waiting. He was unsure how long he had waited, but he knew it had been a long time. He had watched the trees grow and fall and die and be reborn. He had watched the dirt path beyond turn into a road, with hedges planted along it. He had watched as horses turned into strange metal contraptions in all various sizes. He had watched as strange buildings replaced forest. He had watched so many walk along that lakeside, in all various types of costumes.
Sometimes, he had watched Merlin. At first Merlin had come to the bank a lot and had stared across the water to Arthur's island, and cried. Afterwards he vanished for a while, then came back looking decades older and stared blankly across the lake instead. After that, the visits got rarer and Merlin got older and his stares grew dimmer. Every time Arthur wondered if it would be the last, but it never was. Merlin always came back, older than ever before, while the world around him changed. He always came back, but his visits became less and less common.
Near the end, Arthur regarded Merlin's visits as a special treat.
He had not moved from his spot, either to eat or sleep, because he did not need to. He was not mortal in the usual sense of the word. He was only there to wait, and feel his armour grow rusty around him.
And then, one day, after maybe centuries of waiting, a voice said in his ear, Go home.
Merlin woke to darkness.
This was not uncommon. He had often woken at the strangest hours since Arthur's death, at first due to nightmares and then later due to an old man's needs to...well, to relieve himself. But this was different. This hurt.
Pain. Pain screaming through his head and then, as he awoke fully, spreading through his body, a full intense pain that even made his nails throb, a pain that left him paralysed in his bed but somehow...released.
The pain stopped, leaving him gasping. He felt strange. Different. His bones did not ache like they had before.
He raised a hand to his face. The movement felt easier, his limbs lighter. He stared at his hand. It was no longer an old man's hand. It was not wrinkled or deformed in any way. It was young, the skin smooth. He flexed his fingers experimentally and found his arthritis had gone.
Adrenaline replaced pain. Merlin sat up quickly, and found that that was easier to do as well. The room around him was dark, but his eyes were getting used to the light, picking out objects around his tiny studio flat. He could hear the constant hum of traffic outside.
"Oh my god," Merlin said.
He swung his legs out of bed and attempted to stand. It was as easy as breathing. No pain, no aches. He felt like he'd just been let off a death sentence.
"Oh my god," he said again, and stumbled to the light-switch, flicking the light on. The light burned his eyes, but he blinked and then found that his vision was actually better than it had been in years.
There was a mirror hanging on the wall over his sink. He rushed over to it and peered inside.
Merlin – the young Merlin, the Merlin of Arthur's day – peered back. He felt – and looked – totally flabbergasted.
"Oh my god," he said to his reflection, then turned his back and ran for his phone sitting on the kitchen counter.
She was on speed-dial. He pressed the button and listened to the phone ring.
It rang for a long time. Then she picked up.
"It is," she snarled, "Four o'clock in the morning. Whoever this is better have a good reason to call or I'm going tear off your balls and use themas paperweights."
"He's coming back," said Merlin. "Sarah, he's coming back."
There was a pause on the other end of the line. "Professor?" she asked. "Is that you? You sound...different."
"I'm younger," Merlin replied. His heart was still racing. "I'm younger."
Another pause. "And you think..." she said at last.
Merlin turned on his heel and started pacing the room. "It has to be," he said. "Why else would – it has to be."
Sarah spoke, and this time there was a hint of excitement in her voice. "I'll ring the others," she said. "Prof, we'll come with you – "
"No time," Merlin interrupted. "I have to go now. Avalon's still four hours drive from London, I've got to leave now if – Sarah, he – "
He sat down suddenly on his bed, his stomach suddenly dropping. "Arthur," he said, gasping. He hadn't said that name in a while. "Arthur – he..."
"Professor..." Sarah was starting to sound worried, but whatever she was going to say was cut off when there was a sudden knock on Merlin's door.
He stared at it.
"Who's that?" said Sarah's disembodied voice.
"Don't know," said Merlin.
The knock sounded again.
"Don't open it," said Sarah, suddenly alarmed.
"Pointless," Merlin replied. "I'll call you back." And he disconnected the line with Sarah still squawking protests.
Another knock. He stood up and gathered his magic inside him. It had been difficult to do when he was an old man, even painful at times. Now it was effortless.
He walked to the door and opened it.
Morgana stood on the other side. "Hello Emrys," she said, and smiled in victory.
There was a boat. Maybe it had always been there, but even so Arthur had never noticed it before. He got inside as easily as he could in rusted armour, and began rowing for his life, rowing back towards the mainland.
He had often imagined this moment. In all those imaginings, Merlin was there, sometimes the old man Arthur had seen before, sometimes young like Arthur had known him. Sometimes he'd laughed, sometimes he'd cried. But he'd always been here.
There was no one there now.
It was early dawn, the sky a light powdery blue, and a low mist was hanging over the lakeside, but even from across the lake, Arthur could see there was no one there.
"He's probably late," he said aloud to himself as he rowed. His voice was croaky with disuse, it hurt to talk. "It wouldn't be the first time. He's always late, he's the most useless manservant – "
And then he thought that Merlin probably wasn't his manservant after all, not in these times. There probably wasn't even a Camelot. He might not even be a king anymore.
He shut up and kept rowing.
The boat bumped against the bank and he got out. It should have felt like victory, but it didn't. Something was missing. Something was missing.
There was a sign on the bank. He had watched it being put up, but it had always been too far away for him to read. He read it now. It said: Nature Reserve – Protected Area of Importance. Funded by the Emrys Foundation (founded circa 1895).
That, he thought, was why everyone had built roads and houses close by but had not touched the lakeside. Or his island. Good old Merlin, he thought.
"Merlin," he said aloud. "Where are you?"
Only early birdsong answered him.
He wandered down the road because he didn't know what else to do. He'd planned for a lot when he'd been waiting all those years, but not for this. In the past, Merlin had always been there for him, even when Arthur had thought he wasn't. Now where was he?
One of those strange creaky metal contraptions on wheels rattled past him, with crates and crates of some bottled white liquid inside it. The driver in a white hat gave him a long, odd look as he passed. He remembered he was in armour, rusty armour, and that people didn't really wear that sort of thing anymore.
"I'm going to kill Merlin," he said aloud, and did not voice his answering thought which was: if someone hasn't done it already.
Eventually he reached a village, just as day was properly breaking. Villages in his memory were made of mud and straw. This one was all stone and brick.
There were some children playing with a ball in a little green as he clattered into it. They stared at him in open curiosity. One of them – a small thing in pigtails - said, "You look funny. Are you here for the fair?"
Arthur ground his teeth. "Sort of," he managed. "I don't suppose you know anyone called Merlin who lives here?"
The urchin gave him a blank stare.
Arthur racked his brains and tried again. "What about anyone called Emrys?"
An older boy nearby scratched his nose thoughtfully. "There's a Mr. Emrys up the hill," he said. "He sometimes visits. Lives in a shack. Old man."
"He gives us biscuits," chimed in Pigtails.
Right, thought Arthur with a vengeance. "Could you take me there?" he said.
They brought him to the front of Merlin's dwelling, then had to go back to get the bus to school. Arthur was left to loiter outside it alone. It was a small cottage, made of dark stone and surrounded by a weed-filled, overgrown garden. The house was in darkness.
Arthur marched up to the door and knocked on it. There was silence. He moved to knock again and accidentally nudged the door – and it opened.
He peeked inside. The cottage was tiny, basically one room, with a kitchen area at one end and some seating and bed in a corner at another. There were books and papers scattered everywhere, as well as many, many objects that Arthur could not divine the purpose of. The place was empty.
Arthur stepped inside. Everything was clean, if a little dusty. His armour was weighing him down, and he was starting to feel tired and more than a little confused. He sat at the wooden kitchen table and tried to think of a strategy. Opposite him there was a large, red book. He flicked through it. It was a series of dates – a beginning and an end date, and each of them had the word No written underneath in Merlin's terribly familiar handwriting. There were large gaps between each series of dates. Where had Merlin been? Where was he now?
His musings were interrupted by someone opening the door. He glanced up quickly, heart pounding, but instead of old Merlin, or young Merlin, or any kind of Merlin, there stood a woman, dressed all in black, with very spiky boots and more bits of metal in her face than Arthur had ever seen.
She stared at him, wide-eyed. Arthur stared right back. She had black, cropped hair tinted purple at the ends, and she had painted her lips black.
"Bloody hell," she said, taking in his appearance. "You're King Arthur."
Arthur straightened up. This was more like it. "Yes," he announced.
She nodded. "You look a right state," she said.
This was less like it. Arthur glared. "Who are you?" he demanded. "Why do you have so many face piercings? Are you a Saxon? What have you done with Merlin?"
The woman stared at him. "Jesus," she said. "The Prof was right when he said you don't make a good first impression."
Arthur set his jaw.
"I'm looking for the Professor," she continued.
"I'm looking for Merlin," he replied.
A ghost of a smile flickered across her face. "Same person, love," she said.
Arthur stared at her. The woman sighed and glanced around her. "Fancy a cup of tea?"
They sat on opposite sides of the table and drank tea. The tea, at least, was the same. It was growing lighter outside, and warmer, and Arthur's armour was now feeling very uncomfortable.
"He called me up," the strange woman said. "Two days ago. Rang me. He was - "
Arthur frowned. "Rang?"
She gave him a stare, disliking the interruption. "It's...sort of a device we use to talk to people far away," she said. "It's called a phone."
Arthur looked at her blankly.
"Wow," she said. "You're not going to understand anything."
Something squirmed deep inside Arthur, making his stomach clench. He stared down at his tea, suddenly lost for words. The woman cleared her throat awkwardly.
"Anyway," she continued. "He said something had happened. He'd grown young again. He thought this might be a sign you were returning. He said he was going to come here and find out. And then someone knocked on his door while he was talking to me and he rang off. I've heard nothing since. So I came here to see what was going on."
Arthur's stomach clenched harder. "He's vanished?" he asked.
The woman frowned. "I've got one of the others to go to his flat," she said. "They'll text me soon."
Arthur decided not to ask the obvious. Instead he said, "Others?"
The woman grinned. "Oh yeah," she said. "We're Merlin's Magicians. And my name's Sarah."
Sarah brewed a second cup of tea and Arthur went through the laborious process of shedding his armour. It was a very difficult business – some of the parts had melded together with rust – but he knew his armour like a second skin, so it didn't take long to sort out. When he removed it, he found his clothes underneath were very almost rotting off him.
"There's some spare clothes in the chest," Sarah said without turning around. "Your size – the Prof prepared for every eventuality."
Arthur sniffed. "Obviously not every," he said, and peered inside said chest. There was a collection of clothes tucked inside. They were strange but not completely uncommon from those he had remembered. A top and trousers – just like before, just a stranger cut. He dressed quickly and efficiently. The clothes were light on his body, and well fitting, and he felt almost better now he had that armour off.
Sarah put the tea on the table, then flicked through the same red book sitting on the table that Arthur had. He glanced at her. "What is that anyway?" he asked.
"Well," she said, turning the pages. "Every time he sensed something, the smallest thing, he would come back here to see if you had appeared. And every time he recorded it in this book. Of course, it never was you. Most of the time it was probably just his imagination. Oh."
She had paused at a page. Arthur hurried over. "What?"
"The last entry," she said, and pointed.
It was the same collection of dates, but as well as the usual written No, Merlin had added a bit more.
I could have sworn it said, then broke off and started again. It was very strong. A very strong feeling. But not him. What does this mean?
There was something tucked inside the book – an envelope. Sarah plucked it out of the book. It said Arthur on the front. "Here," she said and handed it to him.
Arthur opened it, swallowing down the sudden lump in his throat.
Arthur, [it said]
In case I am not here, seek out my friends. Office block 34, 212 Shaftesbury Avenue, London. Get someone to help. Call Sarah – her number is 07553221556. Use someone's phone. Don't ask – just do what I say (for once). Sarah can be trusted, you have my word.
I hope I will be here. If I am not, something is very wrong.
If I am not...please find me, Arthur.
Arthur folded the letter back up. His hands were shaking slightly. "How long ago was that last date?" he asked.
Sarah glanced at the date. "Three years," she said.
Arthur nodded. "And how long," he said, not wanting to ask but at the same time desperate to know, "Have I been gone?"
There was a long pause. "One thousand, four hundred and nine years," she said at last.
They drank more tea than Arthur had ever drunk before. Arthur asked her inane questions about various things he had seen whilst on his island, and she answered them. She told him some more about technology. She told him what London was.
"It's kind of a big Camelot," she said. "But with less horses. And certainly no knights, that's for sure. More like a bunch of male bastards."
Arthur nodded, only half understanding what she was talking about. "Are there lots of," he tried the word out. "Cars?"
"Lots," she said. "And trains, and planes."
"The metal dragon things with wings?" he remembered.
Sarah grinned. "Sort of," she said.
"And," Arthur asked, "What are Merlin's Magicians?"
Sarah's grin faded a little. She fidgeted nervously, which she only did when she had to be serious. "Magic," she said. "Is not what it was."
"It's banned?" Arthur asked. He didn't like talking about magic. He didn't want to think about those last moments with Merlin. He'd done that for one thousand, four hundred and nine years.
"Worse," Sarah said. "It's forgotten."
"No one thinks it exists anymore," she said. "It's moved down into folklore. A bit like the legend of you, actually. Science has replaced it. But there's a group of us in London – Merlin's Magicians we call ourselves, but we're formally called the Emrys Foundation. It looks after people with some magical ability. Merlin finds us. He found all of us. He brings us together and educates us and helps us, and tells us that we're not freaks. He's...well, Merlin's amazing."
The lump in Arthur's throat rose again. "I know," he managed.
When it became evening, Sarah scared Arthur with the electric light, explained it to him, then cooked quite a good dinner.
The others texted her to tell her that Merlin's London flat was empty.
Merlin did not appear.
They settled down to sleep. Sarah demanded that Arthur take the bed and Arthur demanded that she take it while he had the sofa, and they had a brief argument that resulted in her snapping, "I ain't some damsel in distress, mate, piss off," and taking the sofa.
Arthur had to admit, the bed was just what he needed. He was utterly exhausted, both physically and mentally. But he was also worrying, and couldn't drop off.
He lay in the darkness for a while. "Are you asleep?" he asked at last.
There was a mumble from the sofa. "You really are a prat," Sarah grunted.
Arthur grinned to himself. "What are we going to do?" he asked.
Sarah sighed. "Go back to London," she said. "Go to Merlin's Magicians HQ and get help. There's ways we can find the Prof there." There was a pause. "We can take the train," she added wickedly.
Arthur nodded. "How long?" he said, "How long did Camelot last?"
Sarah was silent for a moment. "Not long," she said finally.
Arthur nodded again, though he knew she couldn't see him. His fingers were twisted up in his blankets painfully.
"You were the best of it, Arthur," Sarah murmured.
There was silence after that.
Hundreds of miles away, in a modern, two-bedroomed flat in North London, clumsy, dark-haired, 'slightly weird but in a sweet way' telemarketer Martin Earlton woke up suddenly.
He had just had the strangest dream.