The Birth of Modern Merlin

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Chapter 29

Virtus Durissima Terit

Translation: Virtue bears the greatest hardships.

From the McLean of Coll coat of arms.

Leaving Nessie behind, Arthur and I returned to the boat.

“What happened to you?” asked Marcus

“Nothing,” I answered. “It got a bit hairy there for a while, but I’m fine.”

“You need to look in the mirror,” said Marcus.

I headed down the steep steps to the interior of the sailboat and made my way to the head. I looked in the mirror and saw what prompted his question. Gone was the twenty-five year old man who emerged back in March, replaced by a grey, ancient man I didn’t recognize. My skin, pale and nasty, hung loose, unglued from my cheek bones below. No longer clean shaven, a white beard dangled beneath my chin; my dark hair, replaced by a stringy, white mass which failed to cover my scalp. My transformation into Merlin was complete.

“It’s going to take a little getting used to,” I said as I climbed the stairs and rejoined Marcus and Arthur.

“Don’t worry about me,” said Arthur, “you look like I remember you from when I was a kid. I’m fine with that.”

“How about you, Marcus?” I asked. “Does the new me freak you out?”

“Probably,” he said. “But I won’t know for sure until I have to change your diapers and take away your driving privileges.”

“Marcus,” said Arthur, piling on. “He doesn’t need to drive; he can fly a broomstick.”

Marcus and Arthur both howled with laughter. That was good. Even though some things changed, others had not. So geezer jokes and offers to help me cross the street became an added part of our relationship.

It wasn’t time for weepy feelings or regrets. We completed our mission, life was good.

We caught some sleep. It wasn’t enough. Once the sun rose and Nessie became visible to a curious world, full of questions, we’d need to be there to protect her with our answers.

Sure enough, before the sun rose, the helicopters returned, joined by reporters, photographers and curious onlookers who made their way to Iona to see this incredible story unfold.

We sat cross legged on the ground, the sword in the stone behind us. Cameras clicked and video recorders whirred as the beauty queen broadcasters tried not to embarrass themselves. This wasn’t celebrity gossip, it was real news and they knew nothing about 6th century history, swords, dragons or the historic significance of Iona. We listened to them stumble over their straight white teeth, trying hard to impress. We tried not to laugh.

The three of us agreed to say nothing until the officials arrived but that didn’t stop the broadcasters from sharing the video, relaying it all over the globe: the aerials of Nessie lying on her side, close-ups of the three of us, close-ups of the sword of Robert the Bruce, countless pictures of the green marble stone with Excalibur imbedded deep within and, most importantly, close-ups of the iconic words engraved on the sword’s handle: ‘Whoso pulleth this sword from this stone is Right Wise...’

When officials from the Argyll and Bute administrative area arrived on scene from Lochgilphead, we stood up, trying to look unthreatening. There was the matter of the sword of Robert the Bruce which the officials might see as a threat. We needed to address that issue as quickly and as peacefully as we could.

I waited for the man in charge to make his way towards us. I held the sword of Robert the Bruce out with both my hands, palms up, the sword laying across them, hoping to look like I was not a threat, but a man of peace.

The crowd grew larger: tourists from Mull and the mainland, the media, a group from the enclave on the other side of the island, everyone recording everything on smart phones and cameras. Some went live on Facebook.

A hush fell over the crowd as I began to speak.

“Good morning, sir,” I said, as politely as I could. “Before we get started, I would like to surrender this sword to you for your safe keeping. It is not my sword; it was loaned to us some time ago. But now it needs to be returned to its rightful owners. I will now give it to you, sir, and you may take it into your possession.”

I placed the precious sword of Robert the Bruce into the officer’s hands and backed away before continuing.

“Sir, let me begin with the introductions. I know you will all find this quite fantastic. I can assure you, it is all true.

The man on your left, my right, is Marcus Baul. Many of you saw him recently as he and our large friend over there hovered over the music festival at Glastonbury. I’m sure you have many questions about that event and we will do our best to answer them.

Over there, still resting comfortably after her ordeal, is a large creature most of you did not believe was real. I can assure you; she is quite real. Most of you know her as the Loch Ness Monster. Yes, we call her Nessie, that’s true, but she is anything but a monster. She is a most intelligent being, a dragon, a silver dragon. She is no danger to you. Silver dragons are not fire breathers like their red cousins. She is quite tame and domesticated. But I ask you not to go near her at this time so she may continue with her recuperation. She had a rough night, last night.

Finally, there are the two of us,” I said, now placing my arm around Arthur’s shoulder. “I guess you could say we are a team, both of us, locked together through time and space. My name is Merlin. This… is His Royal Highness, King Arthur Pendragon of Camelot. And that, over there, is Excalibur, the sword in the stone.”

An audible gasp went up from the stunned crowd.

Under normal circumstances, a wild, unbelievable announcement like that would be greeted with great suspicion, the three of us, carted off for a thorough psychological examination. That still might happen. But Nessie’s huge presence, lying next to the quarry, and Excalibur, imbedded in the green marble of Iona, cloaked my statement in an aura of truth. Skeptics will have a hard time trying to explain any of this to an adoring public, desperate to believe everything I said was true.

Six weeks later

Buckingham Palace

“Marcus, how do I look?” I asked, nervously.

“Like you’re the King of Creepy,” he said before punching me in the arm. “But that’s how we’ve come to know and love you.”

“No, really,” I said. “I don’t want to make an ass out of myself today.”

“Don’t worry, fellas,” said Arthur, “I don’t think we need to worry about that. It’s just the opposite, I’m afraid. It’s Beatlemania out there.”

Arthur was right. In the six weeks after our completed mission, the world became crazy for Camelot. It was nuts; they couldn’t get enough of us. Just when we thought we had answered every trivial question imaginable, someone would come up with a new one. Did Nessie have fleas? What was the percentage of dark matter imbedded in the sword? Was there chewing gum back in the sixth century? One sixth grader asked me for a urine sample for his science fair project.

The first two weeks were the easiest. After Nessie recovered enough to fly again, Marcus flew her to a secure, remote location where Arthur and I joined them, out of the sight of the curious cameras which wanted to record every move we made. For two straight weeks they poked and prodded. They asked; we answered. Just when I thought I had no more blood to give, they found more and took that, too. The DNA sequencing on the three of us was unlike anything ever done before. It was cutting edge research.

It was all just beginning. It was a bit overwhelming, especially for Marcus and me who weren’t used to all this public acclaim. Arthur took it all in stride, enjoying his new freedom.

The part I found curious was what they didn’t find. After we told them the whole story, the scientists with the British government did their due diligence. But they never found any evidence Swede existed. They never found any evidence Jameson Black or GG MacLean ever existed. And, most sadly, they never found proof that an Eilidh MacEachern from Islay ever existed. I checked that one out myself a few weeks after we were released. I secretly went to Islay and asked around. Nobody ever heard of Eilidh or her rich father and mother. They didn’t know a man named Neal who worked at the Humelochan distillery. Nothing. It’s like they were never here. But they were.

The two weeks leading up to today were as insane a time as anyone could remember. Producers for television newscasts and talk shows all over the globe wanted us. Publishers offered book deals with huge advances; prestigious universities wanted us to come and speak, marriage proposals and unrequested gifts poured in. The government had to assign twenty people to help with the mail and to manage public relations for the UK’s newest celebrities.

Arthur was nervous, today more than any other. We were to meet the Queen. He worried some crazed nutcase would claim, since Arthur never died, that he was still the King of England and enough other nutcases would believe him, leading to a crisis of sovereignty. I assured him, this was not the case. He could meet the Queen and feel good about the honor.

“Arthur, relax,” I said. “Look at it this way. You don’t belong to England anymore; you belong to the whole world now. We all do; all three of us. If some whack job tells you to take the throne, just say you’re happily enjoying your retirement and that’s all there is to it.”

“You’re right, Merlin, I’m just nervous. Two months ago I worried I’d run out of good water or there wasn’t enough petrol to run the generator. Look at me now, I’m shaking. I’m about to meet the Queen.”

“Three deep breaths, my friend; you’ll be fine. Shall we proceed?”

The three of us entered the room and the privileged hundred who gathered to greet us absolutely loved it. The Queen and her whole family were there. They loved it, too. We were asked, more than a few times, variations on…‘Where is Nessie? Is she hiding behind the curtain?’ These were good natured jokes and we laughed each time, as if it was the first time we ever heard them.

When Her Majesty offered to open the doors to the balcony on the public side of Buckingham Palace and we walked into the English summer sun, the assembled crowd outside the palace gates roared their approval. The three of us felt as if we were on top of the world. We obliged the crowd as best we could: soldering our thumbs to our fingers and stiff wristing our best parade waves to the assembled multitude.

That was fun, a highlight, no doubt. But once one reaches a high, any high, what comes after can’t compare. It didn’t. Weeks of ribbon cutting ceremonies and baby kissing events left us exhausted. Marcus hadn’t been home in years and, in fairness to him, it was time. He earned it.

Arthur and I agreed. Nessie and Marcus bonded during our trials on Coll and during the weeks which followed. We now believed she was more his pet than ours. If he wanted, but only if he wanted, Nessie’s care should pass to him.

“I can’t tell you how much this means to me,” he said. “It’s truly an honor, an honor. I’ll take good care of her. But it’s more like she’ll be the one who takes care of me.”

After all preparations were made and the multi-week flight plan was submitted to countries along the way, Nessie, Arthur, Marcus and I said our good-byes. But right before Marcus climbed up onto his perch astride her head and before the noble dragon began to flap her wings, I handed him a simple black mask with a cheap, elastic band attached to the back.

“Here,” I said. “You’re a superhero now. You’ve got to look the part.”

Marcus played along and put on the black mask, sliding it over his head, covering just his nose, his cheeks and part of his forehead. His bright brown eyes shined through its openings.

We embraced in an honest hug and Marcus climbed atop Nessie’s head, settling into his flight position. He whispered something into her ear, something Nessie expected to hear. Her wings began to flap and the young dragon rose into the sky. Marcus stood up, raised his fist, high to the sky, saying loudly, for all to hear,

“Arise, my darling, and fly. Let us kiss the moon.”

The assembled crowd roared its approval and Bangladesh’s first superhero began his long trip home.

We followed their progress in the news reports. After all, it was the biggest news story ever in some places they landed. Marcus and Nessie were greeted as the international celebrities they were, celebrated in villages and cities everywhere, honored by Kings and parliaments through much of Europe, Africa and Asia. When they landed in his hometown, to the loving roar of thousands of South Asian well-wishers, Marcus and Nessie were already national heroes.

Not bad for the son of a rickshaw driver from Barishal, Bangladesh.

Our friend was gone. Back to work for the King and his trusted taibhsear. Back to the endless ceremonies and speeches, talk shows and public appearances. Every time we met a stranger, it became selfie-time. I had a limited number of fake smiles to dole out and my remaining supply was almost gone. These selfie moments became old and stale, real quick.

It wore on Arthur, too. Imagine being held hostage for a millennia and a half, mostly living alone, then two weeks later you’re an international celebrity. It was too much, too soon.

In one of our rare moments alone, together, away from the world, Arthur and I had a heart to heart, the kind we had so often back on Coll.

“I think we’ve lost track of our mission,” he said.

“I couldn’t agree more, Arthur,” I said, the frustration evident in my voice. “I’ve come to hate microphones. The next one that gets shoved in my face, I’m going to take a bite out of it and swallow, hard.”

“The kids, I’m fine with them,” said Arthur. “When I go to an elementary school and speak with the young ones, it’s like I’m back on Coll with the children of the fairies again. It’s the pompous, self-absorbed adults who drive me nuts.

There was this one guy, asked me a question at a big lecture hall in some university. He wanted me to help him with his dissertation. I said ‘what are you writing about?’ and he said, ‘I’m exploring the homo-erotic tendencies of Lancelot during the winter of his discontent.’ A Shakespeare-Camelot mashup? Really? Don’t we have more important problems to tackle?

What kind of makeup did Guinevere wear? Was Sir Kay really bi-polar? Do you blame excessive bacon eating for Mordred’s treachery? Shut-UP; all of you! Weasels!

That’s it; I’m done! Time to get back to the task at hand.”

“I think we need to disappear for a while,” I said. “Give them time to forget us; turn their obsessions in a different direction.”

“I agree,” said Arthur. “It’s not like we’ve been selfish; we’ve given them so much time and energy already. We owe it to ourselves to step back for a while.”

“Better yet, we need to get back on board with our real mission, finding your Grandson. Lest we forget, everything we’ve done up till now is prelude, finding him is the main event.”

“How do we do that, exactly?’ asked Arthur. “It’s not like we can jump on a plane and leave. This damned circus will follow us, wherever we go.”

“Well, we’ve still got a boat, a good boat,” I said. “Poseidon’s Trident is still moored near Oban, where we left her. And since nobody ever saw us on board, the world doesn’t know she’s our boat. She can be our ticket out of here.”

“What a GREAT idea Merlin; I love it. Take the slow boat to America.”

“Just one little problem, Arthur. Maybe it’s not so little. If we go, we’ve got to take Excalibur and the stone with us. This only works only if we find your Grandson and he pulls the sword out of the stone. But that’s no small rock; it’s got to weigh a couple of tons. How do we get it out of the secure place where the government’s got it stashed and get it to where we’re going, in secret?”

“Think of something,” said Arthur. You’re the smart guy. That’s why I keep you around, to do the wizardy stuff.”

“That’s not fair,” I protested. “I came up with the boat idea. This one’s on you. It’s your sword. It’s your Grandson.”

“Seventy-one times removed,” said the wise old King, not afraid to correct his ugly old wizard. “But today is your lucky day, Mr. Merlin; I’ve still got one more little trick up my sleeve. Something I never told those government boys.

Can you get back to Oban? Get the boat equipped: fuel, provisions for a long voyage, water, money, clothes, whatever we might need to be away a long time?”

“I can do that,” I said.

“Good,” said Arthur. “Also, I want you to purchase a second boat, like the dingy, only larger, big enough to hold that rock without sinking her. Pay whatever you need to pay. Also, purchase two kayaks and eight, ten foot PVC pipes. Contract with someone to attach those kayaks like outriggers; we don’t want the small boat to capsize once we get the stone on board.

As for getting Excalibur and the stone to Oban? Leave that to me.”

Arthur went off on his mission; I went off on mine.

Four days later, Poseidon’s Trident was tuned up, inspected and fully loaded for a long ocean voyage, just as Arthur requested. Arthur drove into the marina, to a spot underneath the crane. Excalibur and the green stone were draped with a solid blue packing blanket, tied safely and securely in the back of a pickup truck. Arthur got out of the passenger side and an unknown young man got out of the driver’s side, then walked away.

“I told him to get some lunch and do some shopping in town,” said Arthur. “Then he could come back in a few hours to pick up his truck.”

“I was wondering how you were going to do that. I knew you didn’t know how to drive. Who’s the kid,” I asked.

“Just a guy who got lucky and won my lottery. I overpaid. It’s good to be rich,” he said.

“I wouldn’t know,” I replied. “I’m just an old, country wizard.”

After a few more obscenely large payments, the recipients sworn to secrecy, the green stone and sword were hoisted up by the crane, lowered into the refurbished boat, and secured.

“So tell me, smart guy,” I said, “How did you get Excalibur out of the warehouse? There were a lot of guards there.”

“The same way I’ll get us out of this harbor,” said Arthur, boarding the smaller boat.

Arthur untied the blue blanket and tossed it partially aside. Now that Excalibur’s handle was exposed, he grasped the knob on its end and twisted, hard, ninety degrees clockwise.

“There,” he said, “that ought to do it. The sword and the stone are invisible. So are we. The dark matter inside the sword was tuned to cover just the truck for our trip here but I bumped it up a notch. It’s now set to medium. Both boats are covered and we’re invisible out to about 150 feet in all directions.”

Now that Excalibur was set to hide us during our journey, we had the marine technicians cover the smaller boat with nautical shrink wrap to keep out the water.

It looked good, the outriggers securely attached. We were confident the second boat with the precious cargo would survive the long voyage at sea.

“Shall we go?” asked Arthur.

“Just like that?” I asked. “We just go?”

“Yup,” answered Arthur, “just like that. We disappear for two months and the world will wonder where we went; what happened to us. It will be one big mystery, for two weeks. Then they’ll forget about us and return to their hum drum, ordinary lives.”

So that was it and we cast off. I engaged Poseidon’s Trident’s engine and gave the throttle a little tap. The steel cord tying the sailboat’s stern to the bow of the second boat was slack but it tightened as we pulled away. We left the mainland of Scotland behind us, forever.

We could have gone due west, but there was no rush. I headed the large luxury boat on a more southerly heading because I wanted to sail by Islay, one last time.

We retraced the course I took when I first came aboard with Swede, reliving those heart pounding moments after Eilidh first joined us. I looked over the starboard side, to the shores of Islay, hoping I might see her standing on the dock at Glen Watt, waving at me, trying to attract my attention, hoping we would change direction and pick her up. She never met Arthur. I regret not being able to introduce them.

But, no, that was not my fate and this slow crawl along the shoreline of Islay was an extended exercise in deep anguish over what might have been, yet, never will be. Why was I doing this to myself? Why?

This must be how it felt during the Clearances when tens of thousands of exiled Highlanders were forced to leave the only homes they ever knew, gazing upon the craggy shores of Scotland one last time before the lovely lassie passed out of view, forever, secretly hoping for a miracle which might spare them from an unknown future abroad.

For those forced to leave the Highlands, the tear filled, painful good-bye only had to be endured once. But this was the third time for me, by far, the most traumatic.

In the years to come, I realized Eilidh was a metaphor for everything Scotland meant to those who loved her. Both were a paradox: world class beauty, kind, brilliant and bold, yet also, cold and cruel as the icy winter wind. Beauty and Brine; Ying and Yang; forever welded together to create the human, whole. She was Scotland.

But was she also my Nimue as Swede forewarned? Was she my one, true love, the woman who would enchant me then disappear, leaving me an addicted mess until she returned? If ever. Or was she a nice spring fling, a love, yes, but not THE ONE. Looks like I’d have a while to think it over.

Islay now retreated into the eastern ocean and disappeared. All that remained was the cold, grey Atlantic.

I altered course a bit, more to the west now. The sails filled with wind, the auto-pilot engaged. It was time to cut the engine.

One solitary teardrop rested atop of my cheekbone, refusing to fall away, not accepting the truth of a new future. With a quick flick of my index finger I whisked it away, banished for the crime of excessive melancholy at this moment of hope.

Dry eyed, I turned my face into the bracing wind, took a deep, deep breath and vowed to God to move forward, to embrace my call to be the best guide and Time Pilot I could be. If I was to help others, to encourage them to strive for the renewal of virtue, the quest began now.

Arthur and I sat down in the cockpit of the boat. I asked him if he wanted to celebrate the moment with some of the Scotch Swede left behind. I knew Arthur’s answer before I asked.

I was about to pour two glasses of the last few milliliters of the Glen Watt, award winning, single malt Eilidh brought aboard, neat. But before I poured I decided to ask Arthur the same question she asked on the day we first met.

“You’re not one of those wimps who needs the fuk’n ice, are ye?”

“No,” said Arthur, grabbing the bottle out of my hand, lifting it to his lips and draining what was left before tossing the empty bottle overboard. “Ahhh; I’m good... And what’s yer bevvy today, ye boggin auld minger?”

“I don’t think it matters,” I replied, now laughing at the old King’s perfect comic timing, and his sheer audacity. “It could be the best, single malt Scotch or the vilest swill imaginable. It doesn’t matter. But, considering the company I must keep these next two months, all I worry about is running out. If we do, then I’ll have to kill you.”

“Fair enough, Mr. Wizard. Here, let me fill you up,” he said, filling my glass from a second bottle.

“Oh, by the way,” he continued, “you really need to get yourself a last name. This is the 21st century, you know. Everybody in America’s got a last name.”

“Not a chance, Mr. King,” I said, settling into my seat. “I know exactly who I am.

Call me Merlin.”

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