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Golden & Gleaming

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Sort out the rocks, pick up the diamonds, put them in your pocket and keep them for a while, taking them out every so often to admire their beautiful, glimmering surfaces.

As long as there have been people on this earth, there have been Merlins and Arthurs.

The king and his warlock—fighting, leading, losing, dying, laughing, crying, conquering, saving—hold the fragile threads of humanity in their calloused hands, and they weave them delicately, shape them as though they are wisps of faerie dust that could be tossed away by the wind at any moment.  They are magic, Arthur and Merlin, Merlin and Arthur, a kind of golden, gleaming magic that shines like a broken storm cloud or a newly-formed sword.  They are the heartbeat of Albion, and when they bleed, it is with the tears of her people.

The first Merlin was no sorcerer, only a man—and barely that.  They weren’t men in those days, not quite yet, and they barely had enough language to communicate with each other.  Merlin tripped over his own feet more often than he helped his tribe, and his slight body was a mere twig in the howling wind that raged among them.

The first Merlin was only a man, but he could talk to dragons.

He learned their language the way other boys learned hunting; he shouted until his voice was rawer than an early breakfast.  It didn’t come naturally to him, but he was hiding willpower behind his idiotic smile, and one day, it just clicked.  The dragons were so impressed that they bowed down to him—and when he asked them to teach him their secrets, they did.

The first Arthur was more than a man—he was a leader.  Arthur is always a leader, of course, but few Arthurs have been as tall, in stature and in heart, as the first one was.  He wasn’t the son of a king, or even a tribal leader, but he didn’t need to be one to move his people from a place of war and strife to a peaceful paradise of rolling hills and dense forests.

They followed Arthur because there was something about him—something in the way he walked, talked, held his head up high but looked people in the eyes nonetheless—that inspired fierce loyalty, the kind soldiers would die for.

The first Arthur built a village, and it wasn’t always easy, but he had Merlin there to help him, so it was all right, really.

When they talked about it in whispers, late at night as they watched the stars with eyes that wondered what they really were, Arthur and Merlin called this new land of theirs Albion.

The second Arthur was the son of a clan’s best hunter.  He learned to track game before he learned to speak, learned to build a spear before he learned to build a fire.  Life was rough for him, crude and scruffy and brown, do what you have to in order to survive.

But the son of a hunter didn’t want to be the father of a hunter.  He watched shifty-eyed coyotes scramble for the slightest piece of game and wondered if it was all worth it.  At the age of maybe sixteen, he went out hunting one foggy autumn morning and heard a young girl screaming, lost and terrified, more wild than the game he hunted.  He brought her home instead of a deer, and ate with kind strangers instead of judging parents.

He became the first knight.  The position didn’t have a name yet, but it had a man – more than a man and less than a god, riding across the land and helping, teaching, saving, but never staying too long.

The second Merlin was his clan’s clown.  He couldn’t hunt, couldn’t build, couldn’t provide.  He was ostracized, ridiculed, alienated – but he was just a little bit magic.

He explored out into the forest, across rivers and over moors, where he was free.  The earth spoke to him, whispered ancient secrets in the wind’s laughter, the bird’s song, the tree’s roar – secrets he couldn’t quite understand, not yet.  He never told anyone quite what he discovered out there, but a few heard him mumble about dragons.

When he was maybe sixteen, he broke open a mountain to rescue the old woman trapped inside, and the clan was suddenly much kinder.  Children loved him, because he could push flowers up through the snow and nurture butterflies in the warmth of his palms.  They asked him to teach them to brighten up their lives the way he did, and he told them that if they wished very hard and concentrated very long, something might happen.  And something usually did – at least, the children thought so.

In this life, Merlin and Arthur didn’t meet until late, when they were both old men – old in body, but not old in spirit.  Arthur knocked on Merlin’s door looking for shelter from the rain, and the pounding drops were unable to drown out their energetic conversation.

In the morning, they left to search for a place to build the new paragon of cities, and were never seen again.

The third Merlin was a teacher.  He said that people deserved knowledge, and an eagerness to learn was all the payment he required.  He taught reading, writing, and sums, as well as how to listen to the earth, how to free one’s mind, and how to live life to the fullest.

The third Arthur was a warrior.  When the Romans tried to take a sacred lake (he didn’t know why it was sacred, only that it needed to be protected) he fought fiercely, and gave no quarter.  His strategies would be studied for centuries to come.

But after the battle, he returned to his home village, and asked his old friend to teach him how to heal a beaten-down soul.  (Merlin told him that the cure was hope, and Arthur hoped for a place where battle would not be necessary – where if a man died, he would die with honor.)

The fourth Arthur was a builder.  He could create a house out of a mountain or a mountain out of a sea.  He wanted to build something that would last through the ages, a monument to greatness, but a stray boulder crushed him under its hard grip before he had the chance.

The fourth Merlin was a herder.  His goats were his family, and he’d do anything for his family.  Anything, especially fighting off the idiot who wanted to use their pasture to build a dam for the nearby river.  Of course, the man was persuasive, and had a stupidly nice smile and some interesting ideas.

The dam wasn’t built, but that turned out to be alright.

The fifth Merlin was a great physician who planted the very first stones in the path to modern medicine.  He saved countless lives, wrote most of the medicine books that were used in the next couple of centuries, and occasionally wondered if his life would have been better with less work and less stress, if he had developed his magic instead of his intellect.

The fifth Arthur was a farmer who didn’t mind chaperoning long excursions to seek out valuable herbs.  Sometimes, after staying up late, writing medical texts, Merlin would fall asleep on his shoulder, and Arthur would smile fondly and idly poke at the fire to keep it going.  He didn’t like seeing Merlin run himself into the ground, but he was proud of his friend, for achieving so much in such a short lifetime.

Merlin made Arthur want to work harder.

The sixth Arthur was a wanderer, and the sixth Merlin was not a wanderer, but he followed Arthur, anyway.  They were searching for something, but they didn’t quite know what.  Maybe it was a place, maybe a time, maybe a feeling.  Whatever it was, they gathered a band of people looking for the same thing.  Knights, they called themselves – Arthur liked the word, and Merlin begrudgingly admitted that it had a nice ring to it.

They never found what they were searching for, but it was okay, because for them, the journey was home.

The seventh Merlin was a sorcerer, and the seventh Arthur was a king.  They built a city out of determination and hope, the stones of the walls forged by the deeds of the courageous, the foundations of the castle dug by the loyalty of the valiant.  It was to be a haven, a hearth, a home – a place of just laws and equality between strong and weak.  Their city was built to last, with brick and wood as its flesh and bone, and a round table at its heart.

And they called it Camelot.

Arthur fought for the land he built his city on.  There were more knights by then, and he led the best of them, trained to fight for honor (not for glory) and willing to follow their king to the ends of the earth.  Merlin brought people to the city, soaring far and wide on his great dragon to spread the word of a utopia among men until the stories traveled faster than he did.  He healed and taught the citizens of Camelot, advised and argued with their king – one man never made a decision without the other.

Camelot shone, a beacon of light stretching far into the distance, golden and gleaming.

The eighth Arthur was an innkeeper, best in Albion, and the eighth Merlin was a stable boy who spent his evenings at the tavern – not drinking, only talking, dreaming, planning.  They would stay up many a night after all of the other patrons were gone, Arthur detailing all of the policies he’d change if he were king instead of being stuck running his father’s old place and Merlin debating vehemently, or nodding off on Arthur’s shoulder as he aimlessly pieced together dragons out of the coals of the dying fire.

The ninth Merlin was a foreign nobleman, ordered to negotiate a peace treaty with Camelot, and the ninth Arthur was a palace guard who prevented an assassination with quick wits and a quicker sword hand.  Afterwards, Merlin realized that some alliances are meant to be broken, moved to Camelot for good, and invited his savior to a ride – a ride on his dragon.  Arthur wasn’t scared, only exhilarated, and Merlin was impressed.

The tenth Arthur was a king, and the tenth Merlin was his manservant.  They pretended to hate each other, but it was clear from the beginning that neither man could live without the other.  The kingdom were prosperous, the Knights of the Round Table were gathered, and a glittering future lay out for Camelot on a road paved with battles won and hands clasped in glory.

But there were lies in this life, so many secrets and lies, malicious and scornful – everything from the dragon in the dungeons to the witch in the castle to the two separate identities called Merlin and Emrys.  Lies are hard to find and harder to end, hidden trickles of acid that slowly grow into streams and finally rivers, eating away at the foundations of the tallest buildings.

Camelot won, in the end, but at such a cost.

Merlin pressed his forehead against Arthur’s – whispered, “Stay with me” like the most powerful of any spells – unlike a spell, this could never be.  Arthur said, “Thank you,” and why did it have to sound like goodbye?

And as he stood on the rocky beach, watching a boat with his other half (his better half) sail away, Merlin was struck by a great shock, not of lightening but of remembering.  He knew all of the lives that had built up to this one – this was supposed to be the great life, the life in which everything went right, the life that saw Briton built up from honor and loyalty and the best kind of magic.

Merlin fell to his knees, sobbing not only for his Arthur but for all of the Arthurs that had gone before, and the Merlins that had gone with him.

I’m sorry.  I failed you, and I’m sorry.

Yet the sun still shined the next morning, and the water in the lake echoed back, her ripples gleaming and dancing.  The king was gone, but the queen was strong, and the sword waited patiently – swords will wait forever for the right bearer.

Merlin picked himself up, wiped his eyes, and swore on the stones of Camelot that he would get it right someday, even if it took a thousand years.  Arthur would be king again.

The eleventh Merlin was a hermit.  He grew up alone and aloof, with the feeling that he’d lost something, but he couldn’t quite remember what.  He was twenty-five when he was thrown from a horse and hit his head on a rock, then woke up with tears in his eyes.

He retreated to the forest and built a little home for himself, among the trees and beneath the stars.  He went for long walks and laid down on riverbanks in the midday sun, letting the earth whisper to him.  He tried to bring back a golden boy with a determined face and laughing eyes – he tried too hard.

The eleventh Arthur was a troublemaker.  When his parents told him specifically not to do something, he did it, and did it well.  So when they instructed him to stay away from the crazy old hermit who lived in the woods, well.

Merlin opened his door to a little boy, not older than ten, who pointed a finger in his face and said, “My parents say you’re crazy.”

The ancient warlock retorted that he wasn’t crazy at all, and was told that maybe he should go out more, so that people wouldn’t be so scared of him.  And for the first time in too many years, Merlin obeyed an order.

The twelfth Arthur was an explorer, with visions of vast lands across the great sea, and the twelfth Merlin was a navigator, plotting the stars far above.  The thirteenth Merlin was a gypsy rover, and the thirteenth Arthur was a boy who ran away to join the gypsies.  The fourteenth Arthur was a general, and the fourteenth Merlin was a prisoner of war.  The fifteenth Merlin was a university founder, and the fifteenth Arthur was a peasant who didn’t think an education sounded like such a bad idea.  The sixteenth Arthur was a landlord’s son, and the sixteenth Merlin was an argumentative bureaucrat.  The seventeenth Merlin was a Protestant revolutionary, and the seventeenth Arthur was a Catholic monk.  The eighteenth Arthur was a noble in Queen Elizabeth I’s court, and the eighteenth Merlin was a poet.  The nineteenth Merlin was a Roundhead, and the nineteenth Arthur was a Cavalier.  The twentieth Arthur was a governor in the New World, and the twentieth Merlin was a merchant who spent ten months of the year at sea.  The twenty-first Merlin was a philosopher who believed in the human spirit, and the twenty-first Arthur was a soldier facing the War for Independence in a tattered red coat.  The twenty-second Arthur was a field doctor in World War I, and the twenty-second Merlin was a refugee.  The twenty-third Merlin ran a library, and the twenty-third Arthur ran a law firm.

In each life, Merlin remembered.  Sometimes, the knowledge came earlier, before he met Arthur, and sometimes, it didn’t come until after Arthur was already lost.  But his magic was never lost, and Arthur’s magic was always growing – the magic of his words, of his presence, of his leadership.

They were learning, the two of them – the threads of their destinies were spinning tighter and tighter, a golden cocoon of the stuff that dreams and dragons are made of.

The twenty-fourth Arthur was finally a king again, and the twenty-fourth Merlin was his best friend.  They met in a park, at the ages of seven and five, when Arthur took Merlin’s favorite swing and refused to give it up, on account of he was the Crown Prince of the United Kingdom of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, and he always got what he wanted, regardless of what any commoner might say.  Merlin’s eyes flashed gold just long enough for him to push Arthur off the swing as he reached the apex of his ride, and the Crown Prince of the United Kingdom of England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland bruised his Armani-clad bottom.

Arthur’s guards were ready to thrown someone in prison and Merlin’s mother spluttered frantically with attempts to apologize, but Arthur waved them all off – grinned and asked Merlin if he could do it again, because he was pretty sure he flew for a second there, and that was really cool.

Merlin always knew, really, in this life – he knew from that very first smile, when visions of other smiles danced in his head like shining visions just out of reach, and a voice whispered in his ear, “Yes.”  And one summer morning, after a daring escape from the prince’s handlers, Merlin showed Arthur how he could build dragons out of flame, and a little spark flickered into being in Arthur’s chest, a slow-burning coal finally given a breath of fresh air.

They went to the same primary school, same secondary school, same college.  Merlin’s parents couldn’t afford it, but Arthur would have sired a hurricane if even the slightest suggestion of separation had been entertained.  And when that gleaming circlet was at last placed upon Arthur’s head, Merlin applauded louder than anyone else, remembering a different coronation, so long ago but not that distant, not really.

Magic ran freely through Britain, not dominating but flowing, laughing, flourishing thanks to the greatest king the nation’s people could remember.  Witchcraft was not taught in schools, but everyone suspected that the prime minister was really something special, and there were still dragons, if you knew where to look.

But there will always be those who protest, even in the best of times, and the palace never was all that safe.

Merlin looked wrong in a hospital bed – he was too still, too quiet, too cold.  Arthur looked wrong in a waiting room – he was too angry, too restless, too burnt.  He was the king, damn it, and he would not be kept waiting.  Ever.  Especially not now.

Merlin.  I … I can’t believe you took that for me.”  Arthur wasn’t screaming – he was whispering, as though speaking louder would make the unthinkable real.

Merlin smiled, ever so slightly, but without opening his eyes.  “Sorry, but I guess you’re just going to have to put on your own chainmail from now on.  Prat.”

Arthur dropped to his knees beside the bed and laid his head on Merlin’s chest, the cheap hospital blanket muffling his words.  “I don’t know how you survived those years without me – I don’t think I can do it.”

“Wait.  Arthur.  Arthur.  You remember?”  Merlin’s eyes were blue, blue as the sea in tropical waters when the sun hits it just right.

“Of course I remember, you stupid clotpole.”

And Merlin grabbed Arthur, pulled him close, eyes shining gold to keep him with Arthur those few, precious seconds as he murmured, “To be continued,” into Arthur’s lips.

The king walked out of that hospital room a changed man, able to govern the nation with mind and soul, but not heart.

The twenty-fifth Arthur was a fairly typical college student, who studied as little as possible, played video games instead of sleeping, drank and partied to escape the visions of a past he didn’t understand.

But then, second semester of junior year, he had a paper to write on the significance of Arthurian legends in English folklore and one night to do it, and somewhere in between the overdose of coffee, the immersion of his brain into the world of Camelot, and a line he’d heard in some Snow Patrol song that was circulating his head with increasing fervor—you know I love you like an ancient history come to life—a door opened, and everything made sense.

Arthur didn’t even stop to think about how this could be possible or what might be wrong with him; he had only one goal—he had some unfinished business, and a chance to get it right.  A quick Facebook search informed Arthur that his destiny went to the same college, and a quick inquiry of Gwaine, who had woken up when his roommate had started mumbling like a crazy person, informed Arthur in which room destiny could be found (apparently Gwaine had slept with the man not three weeks previously—it’s a small world, truly.)

And Arthur raced through the sleeping campus, not even sending a quick prayer to the stars for help because he was in too much of a hurry, and suddenly found himself in front of a simple, maroon-colored door.

A knock, starting out hesitant but soon escalating in both tempo and dynamics.

Footsteps—a crack widening slowly—a bemused face emerging.

 “What do you wan—oh.”

The twenty-fifth Merlin was only a boy, but he had never lost hope.

He was just as Arthur remembered.

Merlin.”

Arthur.”

They didn’t need to ask “Do you know who I am?” or exchange any clues or code words—they knew each other, they belonged to each other, they believed each other.  It went without saying.

There was a “please” written in Arthur’s eyes.

Merlin responded by leaning forward and pressing every inch of his body against Arthur’s.

Thank you.

What followed was not hurried or heated, even though it had been centuries in the making; their bodies melted to each other, the kind fingers of spring lifting away the ice of winter to reveal the beginnings of flowers beneath.  Smiles, caresses, glances, breaths of words perhaps better not left unsaid after all—this was the first life both Arthur and Merlin remembered, remembered everything.  Covers pulled tight, arms stretched tighter across bodies shining in the light of the early sun—this was the first life that had finally given them what they had always wanted.

Blaring trumpets, a curtain of dark mist, the ringing of an ancient war cry across distant peaks—this was the life in which they had to save the entire world.

Today, the warlock and his king are everywhere.

Their spirits leap through the ages, from doctor to banker to garbage collector and back around to astronaut, but they are more powerful now—they are more widespread.  They shined so bright in that one, best life that the cup of one Arthur and one Merlin started to overflow, pouring the whisper of Camelot into many an ear.

Maybe you know a Merlin or an Arthur—maybe you know both.  You might know a woman whose head seems empty but whose heart is full, or a teacher who commands the attention of his students by winning their respect, or two young boys who roughhouse in the playground now, but will forgive each other easily and join forces in persuading their mothers to take them out for ice cream any minute now, or one teenaged girl who grudgingly makes space for her friend on the bus, then willingly pulls out both headphones to rant about the intricacies of Doctor Who, or an elderly couple who have been together so long you can no longer say one name without automatically adding the other.

Maybe there is a sprinkle of magic deep inside you.  Can you feel it?

Maybe, someday, Arthur and Merlin will be spread out across wide galaxies, still leading, still saving, still falling in love, over and over again—sometimes remembering, sometimes not, sometimes finding bits and pieces in the cartoon of a dragon or the painting of a castle or the memory of a grin.

Maybe, someday, all of the magic across the world will be called to one place, to form a swirling kaleidoscope of golden and gleaming, to save—not just Camelot, or Albion, or even Earth—but the entire universe.

I want to be there, to hear them shout, “For the love of Camelot!