ELEMENTAL by reveuse2
He hadn’t watched the others disappear. Though his heart ached at the thought of never seeing them again there’d come a point where the pull was stronger, even, than his grief. He’d resented the feeling; had wrapped angry tears around it all the way back to the city; scrubbed and polished and hammered his way through it. And then the nudge of a shoulder, a growling of his name, a sigh would pierce the illusion of distance so sharply it made him gasp, the feelings flooding back so swiftly through every fibre it seemed he was melting. And perhaps he was. Smelted and forged anew – more resilient, shaped more precisely to protect the one who always drew him back.
Perhaps that was why, this time, he couldn’t look away; why – when all he wanted to do was run and howl and beat his head upon rocks until he could no longer move, or breathe or feel the raw, weeping edges of his soul – he could only stand motionless in the shallows, watching as the bier boat glided beyond the reach of his hand, his sight and, eventually, his magic.
And I will protect you, or die at your side.
Merlin felt the moment when Avalon took the body for its own. Even after Arthur’s heart had ceased to beat, Merlin had still felt their connection. Now it simply...ceased to be. He swayed as the hollowness unfurled in his breast, eating away at the pain which only moments before he had wished to escape. He reached for his sorrow, for the bitter disappointment of his failure, but the feelings skittered away like fragments of a dream. All that was left was emptiness.
Perhaps Kilgarrah hadn’t known, or had hoped he might be spared this. The Sidhe clearly had no such compunction. That there would be no cleansing fire, nor rest for Merlin until his king had slept and risen again, he’d suspected. But this severing of his link with Avalon – and therefore with Arthur – he had not anticipated. Perhaps it was his punishment – for magical laws bent or broken too often; for his temerity in using his power to defend those who did not possess it – or perhaps the Sidhe were simply as cruel as they seemed. Whatever the reason, this was the price – for the Once and Future king to fulfil his destiny, Merlin must truly live without him.
The sky dimmed towards twilight and mist rolled across the lake, obscuring all but the heights of the Isle from view. Still, Merlin stood in the shallows, his body bending with the breeze that blew in across the darkening water. For the first time in his life there was no reason to move. There was nothing to hide from, no cause to serve; no nameless hunger that had gnawed at the insides of a young boy until he’d picked a fight with...with...
Merlin wrestled with the numbness that crept inexorably over him. He’d long since ceased to feel his feet as the freezing waters soaked through his boots and the cold crept up his body inch by inch. He knew instinct would shift him, sooner or later. When the numbness within matched the numbness without he would turn and walk away from this place, without even remembering what had brought him there, but until then, until then...
...until he’d picked a fight with an arrogant clotpole, been tied to his service and discovered his destiny; until he’d met the man for whom he had been made. His magic flared as the memories darted through his mind, bright and swift as the Sidhe across the surface of the lake. It enveloped them, buried them deep in the dreaming darkness of what was and will be.
Merlin stared blankly towards the Isle, unaware as evening fell and the moon rose, as the glistening forms of the Vilia crept softly upon him, whispering their spells, and as Freya rose from the depths, lake tears tumbling down her cheeks as she kissed his mouth and said,
“This is the day, my love.”
* * * * * * * * * *
The Levels, long since drained by man, still flooded frequently. Rain swelled the streams, overcoming ditches and dykes, while underground rivers thrust upwards through the marshy soil. The lake of glass was not as mighty as it once had been but it appeared and disappeared, shifting shape and substance in the mists that still gathered around the Isle become a Tor. There were roads and fences, farms and a small town, but some power long since forgotten protected the place. No-one disturbed the heart of the hill, nor uprooted its orchard or the trees strewn around its once wide shores.
The willow that grew upon a grassy incline was one such that had escaped notice. Not celebrated as the thorns, or mighty as the beeches within the abbey grounds, it was older by far than any of its species had a right to be. Month upon month, even year upon year, the willow’s gnarled and weathered trunk stood brittle and barren but then it seemed the tree would sense the rising of the ancient waters beneath its roots and be transformed. Shoots sprang anew from its battered limbs, verdant with life, and reached for the pools, leaves caressing their shining surfaces with a delicate reverence. Then the skies would clear, the waters shrink away and the tree would sleep once more.
The last year of the tree’s life was a wet one; the wettest since records began according to those who kept track of such things. The willow had never been so heavy with foliage for so long, nor the earth beneath it so waterlogged. Smaller trees succumbed to the flooding, leaning crazily, roots exposed by the softened earth. One by one, they were felled for safety, but the willow’s fate was postponed in acknowledgement of its great age. Animals that used to graze around it were moved to higher ground and, as the waters rose and the pools melted together, deepening and furrowing in the arms of the coming storm, the buildings were abandoned too.
The roads fell silent; the lights of the town dimmed and were extinguished as the land drank its fill. Black clouds scudded across the full face of the moon, its pearlescent light flickering across the shifting surface of the water as the lake of Avalon rose and was reborn.
Deep in the dreaming darkness of wood and water the memories stirred. Limbs of foam hardened and of bark smoothed. The earth beat a tattoo and the heartwood answered, ripples pulsing in time across the waters at its feet. The willow groaned and swayed as thunder resounded overhead and the depths of the lake boiled upward.
The sword thrust through the plume as swift as from a scabbard. Lightning flashed toward it, running down the blade like liquid fire and forking in a dragon’s tongue towards the shore. The willow convulsed, rent from root to branch and toppled into the lake.
The sword bearer roared and dove, cutting fast through the waves, stumbling to his feet as he reached for the hollow, half trunk floating in the shallows. Moonlight and water streamed from his hair and shoulders as he clasped the pale hand that rose from within the wood and the smell of sap and stream blended in their embrace.
“You’re so cold,” Merlin rasped in a voice unused for centuries.
“And you so warm,” Arthur replied, “trust you to get the better deal.”
Merlin, remembering how to smile, nodded. “And I dreamed of you.”
Earth, air, fire and water quieted and Albion sang.