“Ohhhhh!” The crowd gathered on the market place let out a collective gasp at seeing the spectacle unfolding before their eyes and involuntarily they all took a step backwards, for there, right in front of their eyes, appeared the most hideous creature they had ever seen. A harpy, a terrible creature that surely could only have come from beyond the Veil appeared with a blinding flash and thunderous noise on stage, screeching and waving its skeletal wings, bones with rotting and decaying pieces of flesh sticking out of its body, tufts of lank and greasy hair clinging to its skull, and speaking in a distorted voice not from this world. Another flash, and in the blink of an eye a table laden with food disappeared into thin air. One woman in the crowd let out a scream and fell into a swoon, while others were suddenly looking extremely pale and uncomfortable.
“It’s all done with smoke and mirrors you know, it’s not real,” Leon whispered in Merlin’s ear, sensing his distress and thinking Merlin was scared out of his wits; but it was not from fear that Merlin had turned as white as a sheet, for he had sensed something: magic. He concentrated, closing his mind to anything around him but the players on the stage, and then he felt powerful magic emanating from the player hidden inside the harpy costume. Could it really be you? Merlin thought, after all these years?, and a smile came to his lips, for he thought he had recognised the man playing that terrible creature. I must go to him right after the show, he said to himself, and tried to enjoy the rest of the performance, all but jumping up and down with excitement with both the play and the prospect of seeing an old friend again. A band now appeared on stage playing a lively tune, and six players were engaged in an intricate dance of attracting and rejecting, trying, unsuccessfully and to the delight of the audience, to break up the two lovers.
A few hours later and the play came to a happy end. The crowd cheered loudly, clapping their hands and stamping their feet as the players went round with hats in their hands, hoping the audience would honour them with a few coins, which they generously did; and there was also the promise of a hot supper in the kitchens of Camelot. Slowly the market place emptied as everybody went their separate ways, back to their workshops and houses, and all still in awe at what they had just witnessed. The players in the meantime had quickly closed the front of their carts with thick leather curtains, brightly painted with scenes from their plays, for they did not want anyone inside so they could see and discover the secrets of their trade.
“Are you coming with us?” Leon asked Merlin, pointing with a half-eaten apple in his hand at the lazily swinging sign of The Rising Sun, it’s painted golden sun sparkling brightly in the afternoon sun. “I’m parched.”
“No…” Merlin said absent-mindedly, and he let his gaze wander over the players, and to one in particular. “Things to do, sorry…,” and he took a few tentative steps to the biggest cart into which the players had disappeared.
Leon raised an eyebrow. Merlin not visiting the tavern? That play really had done something to him, must have shaking him to the bone. So Percival, Leon, Kay and Gaharis walked without Merlin to the tavern, laughing and boasting, counting their coin, and each claiming to know exactly which tricks the players had used.
Merlin quickly crossed the market place, walked up the few steps leading to a small door at the back of the players’ wagon, knocked and said: “hello…?”, and before waiting for an answer he slowly opened the door and peered inside the dimly lit interior.
“I knew you would come,” sounded a voice, shrouded in darkness, “I saw you in the crowd, no, I sensed you first. Welcome!”
The other players kept silent and quietly left as if agreed beforehand as Merlin walked to the other end of the wagon, careful not to trip over all the props and costumes still lying scattered around. “Gilli,” he finally said, smiling broadly, arms extended, and both men embraced each other, both happy to see each other again after so many a year. “I knew it was you, had to be you!”
They both started talking at once, each had so much to tell the other.
“Do you still have your ring?”
Gilli held out his hand and there it was: the magical ring that, many years ago, he had used to defeat his opponents in a tournament at Camelot, until Merlin counteracted his last spell which would have made him defeat Uther, making him the winner. “And it still hasn’t lost it magic,” Gilli said, “on the contrary, and I can perform magic without using the ring now.”
“So you did make that table disappear.”
“Of course, but there is also a trapdoor underneath it, just to fool the likes of Uther and now Arthur. You know Uther…”
“It’s magic, kill it,” Merlin replied, and both started laughing at Merlin’s impersonation of Uther, former king of Camelot. “I sensed magic, you know,” he continued, “strong magic, and somehow I knew it had to be you.”
“I felt the same,” Gilli said, “even before I saw you in the crowd, I knew you were there. I was hoping you would come and see me. If not, I would have come to the castle and search for you. Still the servant I see.”
“Yes, but I like it that way. I know, I can’t use magic as much as I want to, but that’s alright now. It’s my destiny, and I know one day magic will no longer be forbidden.”
“That’s one thing I never could understood,” Gilli said, shaking his head, and there came a hint of anger in his voice, “never using magic, always subservient to Arthur, leading the life of a nobody while you could be so much more, could do so much more. Why, Merlin, why?”
“Yes…” Merlin wanted to tell Gilli all about his destiny, protecting Arthur, but he found he couldn’t. Some things were best left untold. “Yes, but I have my reasons.”
“I’m sure you have.” For a moment an uncomfortable silence could be felt in the air.
“And what about you?” Merlin finally said, trying to lighten the mood.
Gilli took a large swig of water before answering. “After the tournament I wandered through the lands of Albion, seeking employment wherever I could find it, using my magic whenever I could, not all rulers are like Uther you know, until I stumbled upon this troupe. It turned out I was rather good at acting. And magic. You know, the players welcomed me with open arms once they knew I was a sorcerer, for their own sorcerer had been executed, here in Camelot believe it or not. Thank you Uther, thank you so very much! Luckily it didn’t happen during a show, the whole troupe would have been killed, but he was using sorcery in a tavern, performing some innocent parlour tricks. Unfortunately some of Uther’s soldiers were present and, well…”
For a moment both men didn’t say anything.
“That’s why we have a trapdoor in the floor,” Gilli continued, “to make it all look harmless, make it look like some clever trick.”
“Smoke and mirrors,” Merlin said, “That’s what Sir Leon said, smoke and mirrors. But only a few weeks ago Arthur said something about making the use of magic no longer forbidden.”
Gilli snorted. “And you believe that? No, that will never happen. Arthur is just as bad as his father. No offence,” he quickly added.
“None taken, but people can change, you know, even Arthur.”
“Can a wildeorren change his habits and start eating plants instead of people?” Gilli said bitterly. “But let’s not discuss all this now, let’s have a bit of fun. I want to hear all the gossip about Camelot, and how Uther died and what Arthur’s like. I’m sure you know a tale or two. Come with me to the tavern.”
“Only if you will tell me all of your adventures,” Merlin said, smiling and feeling good about having found a long lost friend.
“You should come with us,” Gilli said as they walked to the Rising Sun, “You would make an excellent jester.”
“I could always turn the audience into white rabbits,” and both men laughed as they entered the tavern.
to be continued…