The body by the side of the lake was still warm when the old man found it, lying across the path in a tangled heap as if it had been thrown from a moving vehicle. He paused to examine his find with interest, planting his staff in the dirt and leaning closer. This was his path—he walked it twice a day without fail, down from the door of his cottage and out towards the lake—and with the body lying where it was, he would not be able to get home before the sun went down.
“Excuse me,” he said. It would be the work of a moment to step over the corpse, but the old man’s knees were as old as the rest of him, and his balance wasn’t what it once was. “If you don’t mind, I need to get past.”
The dead thing opened its eyes and looked at him; it was not merely a body but a man, his blue eyes dulled with pain and a patch of rusty bruising already blooming along one side of his face. The only other mark on him was a deep red gash nestled in the hollow of his abdomen, about two inches across, half concealed by the blood-drenched fabric of his shirt. Something about that wound was familiar when it should not have been familiar, and the old man stared at it, perplexed.
“Ah,” he said to the dead man slowly. "I see.”
— ❤︎ —
The old man fixed broken things sometimes: the clock on his mantlepiece routinely got stuck in another era, and occasionally a wounded bird found its way onto the path, mauled by an animal or struck by a car. He did what he could for them and set them free again, onto the path if they were well, into the lake if they were not. Fixing things was not his true purpose, but it was good to be useful, and it passed the time until the thing he was waiting for should occur.
“Flotere,” he said to the body, for the thing had closed its eyes again. It travelled up the path ahead of him with its arms dangling, slow red droplets of blood dripping onto the grass in its wake. The old man tsk-ed as he felt the path shudder and shift beneath him, stretching itself like a cat waking from a nap. It would sing to him for days now, low, urgent songs full of things he did not understand. Already, his routine had been disrupted. Other people were never meant to cross the path with him in this way—it disturbed the magic, broke the circle he had been tending for centuries. It would take weeks before he could settle it again.
Back in the cottage, the old man made up a bed by the fire and lowered the body into it, peeling the shirt away from its torso with careful hands. He did not want to touch the strange wound or feel the coolness of the skin, but he knew he must in order to restore the man back to his original state. He packed the gash carefully with herbs and spoke a curing charm over it, reluctantly at first but with increasing force when the wound resisted his attempts to seal it.
“Haelan,” he said. “Geinsegle þín sylfum.”
The wound stubbornly would not close, and the old man felt the strange flutter of memory again, like a pulse in the earth beneath him, making its way up through the soles of his feet. On the shelf beside his bookcase, a sealed wooden box rattled slightly, as though something inside it were trying to escape.
“Shut up,” he told it sternly. “This has nothing to do with you.”
There was one last thing that he could try, and so he went into the kitchen where he kept the cup, pouring into it the water from the flask that he refilled every morning at the edge of the lake. The water looked and tasted like any other water, but when administered in the proper manner it would save a man who was inches from death.
“Drink,” the old man urged his guest, coaxing the man’s mouth open and pouring the water inside. He stroked the pale throat with one finger, as though tending to a baby bird, and the man swallowed the mouthful obediently; then the old man sat back on his haunches to wait.
— ❤︎ —
Time dripped past. The clock on the mantelpiece reminded him that it was necessary to eat, and when he came back the stranger was awake.
“Where am I?”
He spoke weakly, but the words were clear, and the old man rocked back on his heels, taking his time before answering. He had not been expecting the new tongue, though he did not know why.
“Are you repaired?” he asked finally, kneeling beside the grate. The man looked up at him in the firelight, the colours catching in his hair like the sun on a field of ripened grain.
“Your wound. It is…” He groped for the phrase. “Better?”
The man put a hand to his side, then pushed back the blankets, tracing the fading scar on his abdomen beneath the loose shirt. “It’s almost gone.”
“I healed you,” the old man said, by way of an explanation. He had washed and dressed the injured body as well, bundling it into some clothes he had kept in the back of a cupboard but had never worn. It was right that he had done so. “You are safe now.”
Safe was an odd word. There had been no danger. He saw the young man register it at the same time he did, the blue eyes narrowing into cautious slits. The old man could not remember whether he ought to explain about the magic or not.
“Then I suppose I ought to thank you. Mister…?”
“They call me Wyllt,” the old man said. They had called him a lot of things, over the years, but Wyllt seemed to be the best, as it suited the way he had aged, like a wilting flower. “And you?”
“Wyllt,” said the stranger, testing it out. “I’m Arthur.”
— ❤︎ —
Arthur had indeed been thrown from a moving vehicle; his car had stalled, skidding on the road before crashing into a tree. He'd only made it a short way from the wreckage before he’d collapsed.
“I was lucky to have survived,” he said, his hand going once more to the place where the wound had been. “I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t found me. My phone wasn’t working, and there isn’t another house for miles.”
“I expect you would have died,” Wyllt said, since it was true. The box on the bookshelf clattered as he spoke, making them both jump.
“What was that?” Arthur asked, staring around the room. “Is there someone else here?”
“No, there’s no one else,” Wyllt said. He handed Arthur a bowl full of broth and gave the box a baleful glare until it fell silent. “I have—a pet. Sometimes it’s noisy.”
It was necessary that no one else should know about the box, but the lie sat uneasily. It seemed to be somehow different from the other things he had said, though his tone hadn’t changed. The old man moved back into the kitchen to cover his confusion and found he had left the kettle on the stove, where it was whistling piercingly. That was unlike him.
“Why did you come here?” he asked his guest, wrestling the cast iron teapot onto the bench-top. It belched at him reproachfully, and he waved away steam. "You didn’t say.”
“Visiting my sister,” said Arthur, raising his voice to be heard from the other room. “Have you lived here long?”
“Centuries,” said the old man truthfully, which for some reason made the young man laugh. “I imagine it’s over a millennium by now.”
There was a short silence as Wyllt poured out the tea and Arthur, presumably, consumed his soup. The windows had fogged up from the heat of the fire and little else was visible save his own reflection, though in daylight it was possible to see right down to the lake. The old man was careful to avoid meeting his own gaze in the glass. It seemed like the sort of day when he might regret it.
And then—the faintest flicker of something, like hands laying hold of a knife buried deep in his chest. He nearly dropped the kettle and had to put it down, staggering backwards against the sudden thump-thump of an old wound coming back to life.
“Don’t touch that.” The words came out as a snarl before he had time to register them; Arthur’s hands were on the box, having somehow unlatched it, and the lid might slide open at the merest touch. “That’s none of your business!”
”Are you sure?” Arthur said, and he was frowning at the box like he was listening to something, as if it were whispering to him things the old man could not hear. “I could have sworn I heard you tell me to open it.”
“I said no such thing,” Wyllt snapped, and the whispering ended. “Close it! Now!”
He had not felt such things in decades, perhaps centuries, but it was like hope, the way he caught his breath as Arthur slowly lowered the lid of the box, and it was like fear, the way his hands trembled as he reached out to take it back from him. He cradled it close against his chest, pressed up against the scar buried by the layers of cloth, and said resentfully, “You’re not supposed to be here.”
Arthur blinked. “I’m sorry,” he said in a normal voice. “But you’re the one who saved me, remember? It’s not like I meant to crash my car and get stranded in the middle of nowhere.”
"Not the middle of nowhere,” Wyllt said. And then, though he did not know why, "There are worse places you could have ended up.”
— ❤︎ —
"I need you to show me the way back to the road,” Arthur said in the morning. He had risen early to pace the confines of the hut, and the old man thought this time of a trapped bird, beating its wings against transparent glass. “My sister will be worried, and I left my things in the car.”
Things meant clothes, because he plucked at the laces of the white tunic with a distracted air, a moue of dissatisfaction marring his face. The old man smiled, then wondered why he had done so.
“I’m needed down by the lake,” he said. It was just after dawn and already he was running late, having slept imperfectly for the first time in as long as he could remember. He had been dreaming of strange things, made stranger still by the fact that they had no names. He had woken once in the dark convinced that he heard someone calling for him, but it had only been Arthur by the fire, tossing and turning, caught in his own troubled sleep. “And you need to rest, and eat your breakfast. I won’t be long.”
The man said nothing. Wyllt felt the pressure of his displeasure at his back, but the path was necessary, the ritual calming after his disturbed night. The dew was still wet on the grass and the air felt cleaner, somehow, and as soon as he set foot on the earth he felt it again—the pulse, that steady beat.
— ❤︎ —
There were no more dead things on the path that morning. A rabbit ran out in front of him, its rear paw bloody where it had been savaged by a fox, but by the time it had vanished into the brush it was no longer injured. Flowers that ought to have lain extinct or dormant were bursting into bloom on every side, and the foliage was thick with bees and small insects, the birds gossiping in the branches of the trees like excited children.
When he looked across the water of the lake into the rising mist, the island was different, too. He only wished he could remember what it must mean.
— ❤︎ —
“You have a human heart in a box," Arthur said, when Wyllt returned. The old man had not felt his touch this time, or perhaps it had been drowned out in the clamour of the path and the shock of finding that the tower door was open. Had the magic warned him? The box was open on the doorstep, its contents a raw and grisly red in the morning light. “What kind of monster are you?” Arthur demanded. His voice tripped over the words. “What did you do?”
“What was necessary,” the old man said. There was an agitation in the air now, the sort that usually preceded rainfall, though the sky was clear. “It was causing more trouble than it was worth. So I cut it out.”
“You—" Arthur’s face went white. “This is your heart?”
“In a manner of speaking.” Wyllt looked at the box. “Sometimes I think it belongs to somebody else.”
Arthur touched it gingerly. The old man could imagine what he was feeling; the soft, wet heat of it, still beating, surprisingly heavy in the palm of the hand.
“I have been here a long time,” he said, when Arthur didn’t say anything. "There are only so many things you can give up before relinquishing your heart becomes the better option.”
“But—how are you still alive?”
“I have magic.” To prove it, he conjured a butterfly from the air, coral blue and perfect. “What is a heart but a pump, and what is a pump but a thing that beats, and what is magic but the pulse of everything that breathes? One is as good as the other, in the end.”
The butterfly landed on the lid of the box and flexed its wings, but when Arthur tried to touch it, it disappeared into a sheen of golden dust. “You have magic,” he repeated slowly. It was not the voice of a man who didn’t understand what he had seen. "I thought I must have imagined it, but I didn’t, did I? You used magic to heal me.”
“I fix things,” the old man said, “from time to time. It gives me something to do while I wait.”
“Wait for what?”
“That,” Wyllt said, "is a very good question.”
— ❤︎ —
Arthur was still holding the heart in his hands. He seemed fascinated by it.
“You can let go now,” the old man said. “Put it back in the box.”
But Arthur wasn’t listening. “You’ve waited all this time,” he said. “And you don’t know what for?”
“I know that I’m waiting,” Wyllt said. The temperature was falling now, a chill breeze sweeping in off the lake. Precipitation gathered. “What else is there?”
"There’s being alive,” Arthur said, “to know when the waiting’s over.”
He held the heart so carefully, without the revulsion that ought to have come from handling something so visceral. It was the closest Wyllt had been to the thing in years, and he could hardly take his eyes off it, remembering the day he had carved it out of his body. It had seemed quite simple then. The path had always attracted the injured and the dead, and there were some wounds that could not be fixed.
“I don’t need a heart for that,” he said. “That’s what the clock’s for.”
“The clock’s stopped,” Arthur said, before he stepped forward and pressed the heart into the old man’s chest.
— ❤︎ —
By now, the sun had burnt the last of the fog off the lake, and perhaps it was that which made the quality of the light seem different. It reflected off Arthur’s hair like a coronet, striking and golden, highlighting the jumping pulse at the base of his neck.
“How long have you known?” Merlin asked, when he could speak. “Do you remember everything?”
“Most of it, I think,” Arthur said. “It’s been coming back in bits and pieces.” He helped Merlin to his feet and dusted him off with a critical expression. “You look the same.”
“I do now,” Merlin said, because before he had been—someone else. Wyllt, wilting. It felt strange to have a young body again. “And you look—“ He didn’t have words for how Arthur looked. “I can’t believe you’re real.”
“I can’t believe you waited.” Arthur’s crooked smile was the same—his teeth—the patrician slant of his nose. He laid his palm against the livid bruise on Merlin’s chest, where the newly restored heart beat fiercely. “You idiot.”
“Takes one to know one,” Merlin retorted, wincing. But if it hurt, then it was a good pain; the kind that might eventually heal. “Welcome home.”