The Sorcerer's Apprentice: Book Two of The Merlin Chronicles
Mumbling and twitching in his sleep, Merlin snuggled deeper into his heavy bearskin coat then, after a restive moment, he began to dream again. He dreamed of a time when he had been priest and court wizard to the warlord Uther, known as the Pendragon, and of his time as mentor to Uther's son Arthur. He dreamed of the ambitiously evil Morgana le Fay who had driven him into fifteen centuries of self-imposed exile in a six inch crystal sphere buried deep in the earth beneath Tintagel and he dreamed of Jason Carpenter, the young archaeology student who had dug up the sphere, thrusting him into a world for which he was emotionally and psychologically unprepared. But mostly, he dreamed of dragons.
First appearing as legends and stories brought to Briton by travelers from distant lands, when the dragons finally appeared in Briton during Uther's reign they brought with them a tidal wave of death, fire and destruction that destroyed Uther's fragile political coalition. Appearing out of the sky, the dragons swooped down on the primitive armies of fifth century Briton, leaving in their wake a land burned and blackened, much as it had been foretold in the biblical book of Revelations. Merlin’s troubled dreams recalled the time when their common greed had brought the Dragon Lords and Morgana le Fay into a mutually advantageous compact designed to wipe out all civilization and install the mad Morgana as regent over the shattered remnants of the earth. Their plans were only thwarted when Merlin broke into Morgana's library and secured enough information to temporarily close the invisible gate through which the dragons came to earth. Lastly, he dreamed of his brief time in the twenty-first century when he and Jason Carpenter had chased Morgana le Fay in a crazy race across three continents, finally facing the last of Morgana's pet dragons at a monastery inhabited by a band of Buddhist monks in the icy mountains separating Mongolia and Russia. They were terrible dreams, nightmares filled with danger, death and blood. Worst of all, they were completely real.
“Merlin. Merlin, wake up.”
“Mph? What? Oh, I'm sorry, Jason, I must have dozed off for a moment.” Merlin opened bleary eyes, focusing on the haggard face of the tall, slim young man in the seat next to him.
“A moment? You've been out cold for nearly four hours.” Jason grinned wryly, tugging idly at his long blond ponytail.
Pulling himself upright in his seat, Merlin looked around, taking in his surroundings, bringing himself back to the world. “Oh, good heavens. I am sorry, I must have been dreaming.”
“I know, you were muttering in your sleep. It was her wasn't it? You were dreaming about Morgana, weren't you?”
“Yes, her and the creatures. It was very disturbing. You’d think I’d be used to it after a millennia and a half, wouldn't you?”
“I understand. And don't apologize. After what we’ve been through in the last six weeks you’re entitled to a little sleep, I'm just sorry it wasn’t more restful.” Jason's voice was placating, reassuring.
“Where are we?”
Glancing up at the flashing seat-belt light on the overhead panels, Jason answered “We’re just coming in to...” Before he could finish he was cut off by the public address system.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we will be landing at London Gatwick International Airport in approximately ten minutes. The weather in London this evening is cold and rainy, and the temperature is five degrees Celsius. Please remain in your seats until the plane has come to a complete stop and the overhead seatbelt lights have been turned off.” The stewardess’ voice droned through the close air of the 747, grating on the nerves of more than two-hundred tired passengers.
“God, it’s good to be home again.” Only Jason's eyes betrayed the depths of his exhaustion, but at twenty-five, he was expected to have more resilience than his companion whose bearing and agility belied his physical age of seventy-five and whose chronological age was only slightly shy of one-thousand-six-hundred years.
“It is, indeed. Unfortunately, there is still much work to be done, my boy.”
“I know, but we don't have to think about it tonigh. Morgana can't find us anymore and you have all the time you need to figure out a way of sealing the dragon gate once and for all.”
“Not me; us. Remember, it is you who will decipher the riddle of the Gnostic gospel, Jason.”
“Oh, please, Merlin, not tonight.” Jason waved his hands helplessly in the air. “I just want to go home and get some sleep.” He paused, shook his head and let out a long breath before completing the thought. “Sleep, what a wonderful concept.”
“Do you think your young lady is going to let you get any sleep after not having seen you in almost two months?” The old wizard's eyes twinkled.
“You really are a dirty old man.”
“Not in the least,” Merlin protested in a tone of mock injury. “She’s an attractive young woman and love is a perfectly natural thing between two healthy young people.” Then, after a small pause he added almost as an afterthought. “She does love you, you know.”
“You really think so?”
“Yes.” Merlin laid a paternal hand on Jason's arm. “I really think so. In fact, I know so.”
“What did she say to you?”
“Nothing. But one doesn’t have to be a wizard to know love when it stares you in the face.”
“Right.” Walking toward the check-in gate and passport control, Jason looked at Merlin with a side-long glance. After seeing the old man perform a hundred or more impossible feats of magic any doubts concerning his power had long since been erased.
Beverley McCullough elbowed her way through the crowd of people milling around the entry gate outside the international arrivals desk, her long, frizzy auburn hair billowing out around her shoulders like a halo of fire. Craning her head one way and then the other, she searched through the line of tired looking passengers from Air Mongolia's flight number seven as they straggled wearily into the vast bleakness of Gatwick's main terminal. Finally, her eyes came to rest on two disheveled looking figures, a skinny, heavily bearded old man wearing a long grey gown under a filthy fur coat and his tall, slender young companion. Ignoring those around her she rushed forward, throwing herself onto Jason, embracing him and burying her face against his shirt. A second later, she pulled back and began pounding furiously on his chest with one fist while clutching his jacket with the other. Huge, wet tears seeped out of her eyes and rolled down her delicately freckled cheeks.
“Damn, you. Damn you, Jason Carpenter. I’ll have your guts for garters, I swear I will. Seven weeks of running all over the orient and not a single bloody word from you until you were ready to come home. I was worried sick. I didn't know if you were alive or dead. Morgana could have eaten the both of you for all I knew. Then what would I do? I'm not exactly on her list of friends and favorites, you know. Don't you ever do that to me again, do you hear me?”
“Whoa. Easy, Bev, easy. I told you when I called from the airport that we lost the mobile phone when we had to abandon the Land Rover. I'm really sorry. Honest.”
Beverly pulled away, wiping her face awkwardly before nodding abstractly and turning to Merlin to embrace him fondly.
“I'm really glad you're alright, too.” Then, pulling her head back with a jerk, nearly gagging, she choked out “Oh, bloody hell, what is that smell?”
“I'm afraid it’s my coat. It’s had a rather hard time of it.”
Beverley's grimace almost passed for a weak smile. “I told you not to wear dead animals.”
Merlin laughed for the first time in weeks and threw one arm around Beverley and the other around Jason. “May I suggest that we all go somewhere, sit down, relax a bit and get something to eat? I'm famished.”
“What you really mean is you mean you want a drink.” Jason snapped, poking the old man gently in the ribs.
“Ah, yes. That is what I mean, isn't it?”
“Oh, I don't know. If we’re going to drive all the way back up to York tonight, we need to leave now. It’s a long way and you both look dreadful.” There was real concern in Beverley's eyes as she examined the two men's faces.
“Well, then, possibly we should get rooms somewhere near the airport and get a good, fresh start in the morning.” Merlin seemed genuinely enthused by his sudden inspiration when, in fact, staying near London had been his plan all along.
“Umm, we don't really have much cash left and I think my credit card is about tapped-out after paying for the plane tickets.”
Herding Beverley and Jason toward the exit and the car park beyond, Merlin muttered “Don’t worry. I’m sure we’ll find a way.”
“You're not going to do one of those weird things you do to get money, are you?”
“Why, Jason, I’m shocked that you would think such things about me.”
Two hours later Jason, Beverley and Merlin were ensconced at a small corner table in the restaurant of the Gatwick Marriot Hotel. As Merlin and Jason unraveled their adventures in Mongolia they were both careful not to reveal anything that might cause Beverley undue worry. But the knowledge of what they now understood about Morgana, and the dangerous work still ahead of them, punctuated their conversation with occasional awkward silences. They told Beverley about their time with the itinerant Mongol tribesmen and the wonders of the Buddhist monastery, trying to avoid any in-depth retelling of the horrifying deaths caused by the attack by Morgana's pet dragon. Still, Merlin insisted on heaping lavish praise on Jason for coming up with the idea of constructing a medieval ballista with which he had ultimately killed the beast, and for probably being the only man ever to face down a dragon and live to tell about it. When Beverley stared into her boyfriend’s face in shocked awe, Jason pooh-poohed the whole thing as a fluke and admitted he was scared out of his wits the entire time. His humility only made Beverley snuggle closer to his side.
In gentle retaliation for what he honestly believed was unwarranted flattery, Jason deflected the conversation toward Merlin. He told Beverley about the previously unseen talents the old man had displayed; his levitating skills, his ability to create flaming balls of fire from thin air and hurl them at Morgana's army of mercenary thugs. He told her how Merlin had made the two of them appear in Morgana's office even though they were actually standing in a pitch-black tunnel far below ground. With mounting excitement he even blurted out the details of Merlin's duel with the Chinese sorcerer Ling Chow, and how Merlin had hung suspended in mid-air during a bone-jarring electrical storm, fighting the evil necromancer in an epic battle-to-the-death. Already awed by what she had seen of Merlin's powers, Beverley was at once fascinated, and more than a little frightened, at the power of this seemingly eternal man who had suddenly popped into her and Jason's life from the pages of some Arthurian legend, bringing with him tales of the threat posed to humanity by Morgana le Fay. The more Beverley heard about Arthur's step-sister's plots and plans, the more incredulous she became.
“I just can't understand how can anybody can be that WICKED?”
“My dear,” Merlin said, taking her hand gently in his and locking his unnaturally vibrant blue eyes with hers, “the woman's soul is so empty, so completely imbued with evil, that she can only feel pleasure by inflicting pain on others. The more and greater the pain, the more satisfied she is. It may be a sad truth, but it’s the truth nonetheless.”
Attempting to veer the conversation away from the subject of Morgana, Jason and Merlin concentrated on less depressing aspects of their journey. They described the ancient book - probably a form of pseudo-Gospel written by the ancient mystical sect known as Gnostics – they had discovered in the Buddhist monks’ library, and which apparently alluded to the secret of the dragons’ method of entry into the world. With a sigh, Merlin explained that because the manuscript was written in a combination of Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Persian it was almost impossible to translate so that it made any coherent sense. From what he and the Panchen Lama had been able to worm out of it, the dragons’ earthly power cantered on, or around, a cave that had once been used by holy men who were not holy and a warrior who was not really a warrior. There was also mention of the waters of oblivion and something referred to as the light of the underworld. None of it made any sense. Once again, Merlin insisted that it would be Jason, and not himself, who would unravel the mystery of the book, and find the answer which would lead them to the means of permanently closing the ethereal gate through which Morgana planned to call in the dragons and conquer the world.
During the course of their long, rambling conversation, Jason carefully side-stepped his short imprisonment by Morgana and her threats to hunt down Beverley if he refused to cooperate in the capture of Merlin. Since he had escaped unscathed, there didn't seem to be any need to mention the ugly threats against Beverley's life, particularly since she was still dutifully wearing the crucifix that Merlin had empowered against Morgana's scrying crystal, and given to her before he and Jason left on their quest to find Morgana and her fortress on the Mongol-Chinese border. Discussion of the crucifix did, however, remind Merlin of another protective device they had obtained from the Buddhist monks. Reaching into the leather pouch hanging from his belt, he produced a small jar, unscrewed the cap and held it out toward Beverley.
“What’s that?” Beverley leaned forward, sniffing at the nearly transparent, creamy contents of the jar.
“It would appear that this is an anti-scrying agent. Sun Wang To, the Panchen Lama of the monastery we were staying at, gave it to us. A small dab of this applied regularly to the center of the forehead makes it impossible for anyone to find you through the medium of a scrying glass. Jason and I have been using it now for more than a week, and we think you should begin wearing it too.”
“If you think that's best, sure. Do I need it when I have the magic crucifix?”
“The crucifix is hardly magic, my dear, and although the stone from which the cross is made has been given special properties to deflect the power of the scrying glass, it would still be best if you used this, too. Better safe than sorry, as they say.” Merlin reached across the table and laid his long, slender hand over Beverley’s, patting her gently.
“Whatever you say.”
Throughout the conversation, Merlin had been glancing furtively over his shoulder, peering through the doors of the restaurant and into the hotel lobby.
“Is something wrong out there?” Reflecting on all they had been through, Jason craned his head around as his voice became tight with anxiety.
“No, no. Everything’s perfectly fine. I just need a moment to investigate something. If you two will excuse me, I’ll give you a little time to yourselves. I should be back shortly and then we can have something to eat.” Thinking about what he had missed most in the world of twenty-first century culinary arts, he added dreamily, “I wonder if they have pizza here?” Rising from his seat, he wandered toward the door, ignoring Jason's protests that they were very nearly out of money.
Alone for the first time since his return, Beverley leaned closer to Jason, nestling her head on his chest, idly tracing the seam on his tattered Levis with one finger.
“You smell. You need a bath,” she murmured quietly.
“You want to help me take care of that?” When she raised her eyes to meet his, Beverley saw the grin playing across his weary face.
“Sure.” And she grabbed his ribs, making him flinch.
Before Jason could carry the thought any further, Merlin swept back into the restaurant and settled down into his seat.
“I took the liberty of getting us rooms for the night. I think we will all feel better if we have a bath and get a good rest before starting out in the morning.”
“Umm, Merlin, where did you get the money this time?” Jason shook his head in anticipation of yet another of the old magi's semi-larcenous money conjuring tricks.
With an air of complete innocence, Merlin answered defensively. “I wasn't the only one. I’ve been watching that machine on the wall of the lobby and one person after another was getting money from it, so I got some for us.”
“That was a cash machine. You’re supposed to have a card and a PIN number and it takes money out of your bank account. You don't have a bank account and mine’s almost empty.” Jason ran a dirty hand over his forehead. “How much did you get?”
Reaching into the pocket of his coat, Merlin pulled out a small mountain of ten and twenty pound notes and laid them carefully in the center of the table.
“I don't know. I paid for the rooms and this is what was left. I would have gotten more, but there wasn't any more in the machine.”
“Oh, Lord, Merlin. You know, you really are a piece of work.”
Furrowing his brow in confusion, Merlin mumbled “Thank you…I think”.
Jason shook his head but Beverley only covered her mouth and giggled softly. “Here, Bev,” Jason said, snatching the wad of bank notes from the tablecloth, “put this stuff in your purse. We don't need everybody in the place witnessing our bank robbery techniques.”
While Beverley made a neat pile of the money and tucked it carefully into her hand-bag, Merlin broached a new subject.
“I know you came down from York to see Jason and give us a ride back home, and I’m sure we both appreciate your efforts on our behalf...” It was obvious he was going somewhere with this, and Jason and Beverley waited to see where that might be. They only had to wait a minute till Merlin held up his empty wine glass, signaled to a waiter and picked up the thread of his tale. “Since you have your car here, I was wondering if you would mind if we took a little side trip on the way back north...a detour, if you will.”
“You mean I finally get to go on one of your little adventures with you?” Beverley's tone was half-mocking, but she was obviously thrilled to be included.
“Yes. If you don’t mind, and it’s not too far out of the way. There’s someone we need to talk to, an old friend of mine. She might help us answer the riddle of the Gnostic gospel.”
“No offence, but I didn't know you had any old friends.” Jason's face was screwed up in doubt and confusion. “I mean, with the exception of Morgana, I thought everyone you knew is long dead.”
“All the people, yes, but not everyone.” Still delighted with his ability to mystify his young friends, Merlin was obviously enjoying this new game.
“Ok. I give up. Who is this friend who is not a person and where do they live?”
“She lives in Wales. I am a Welshman, you know. That's where I’m from.”
“I know, you told me. Carmarthen, if I remember right.” Jason knew he was right, he even remembered that the original name of Carmarthen in Old Gaelic, had been Caer Myrddin, and it meant Merlin's fortress.
“Very good, Jason. You have been paying attention.” Now that he had their rapt attention, Merlin leaned back in his chair and took a deep breath. “My friend is someone with whom I was once very close, her name is Vivian...”
“Wait. You said that name the first night in my apartment when you were telling me about Arthur and Morgana. But I can’t remember.” Jason screwed up his face searching vainly for the answer.
“You know her from the stories about Arthur where she is referred to as the Lady of the Lake.” As Beverley stared at him in open-mouthed amazement, Merlin rose from his seat. “But there’ll be plenty of time for explanations tomorrow on the drive to Wales.” Turning to Beverley he continued. “How long would it take to get from here to north Wales?”
“I don’t know, it’s two hundred miles at least so, somewhere between four and five hours. Maybe a bit more if we have a lot of traffic.”
“Would you mind? It could be important and might well help us unravel the riddle and provide the key to closing the dragon gate permanently.”
Her eyes lighting up at the prospect of meeting the legendary Lady of the Lake, Beverly nodded enthusiastically. “I’d love to, if you two aren’t too knackered for another day on the road.”
Jason just shook his head, wiped a hand across his eyes and shrugged wearily. “At this point it’s just another day.”
“Well, then, I wish you two young people a very good night and I will see you at breakfast at eight o'clock in the morning.” With that, he reached into his pouch, produced a room key, laid it on the table, tossed back his half-finished drink and walked silently toward the lobby and the elevators.
“What on earth are we supposed to make of that?” Beverley was talking to Jason, but her eyes were riveted on Merlin’s retreating figure as it glided silently across the marble floor of the lobby, with great dignity, in a filthy grey gown and tattered bear skin coat.
“I have no idea, but if I’ve learned anything from that old man, it’s never to underestimate him. He knows things you can't even imagine and probably don't want to.”
Picking up the key with one hand and taking Jason's arm with the other, she said quietly. “One thing I can imagine is that shower we were talking about.”
Jason leaned over and planted a soft kiss on her temple. “Oh, yeah, I can imagine that, too...but why imagine?”
Pulling him up from his seat she whispered in his ear “Oh, I don’t know, that gamey boy-smell kind of turns me on.”
Jason, Merlin and Beverley piled into Beverley’s black Mini Cooper the following morning and drove north from Gatwick Airport, took the M40 past Birmingham, skirted Liverpool where, only three months earlier, Morgana le Fay had nearly killed Jason. A half an hour later they bypassed the medieval town of Chester and headed into the northern reaches of Wales. Even at the height of summer the hills and valleys of Wales can be subject to the most unpredictably unpleasant weather; the locals say that if you can see the mountains it’s about to rain, if you can't see them it’s because it’s already raining. Lowering clouds with slate grey bellies cling perpetually to the mountain tops, making the country look like some mythical land ruled by small, petty and very angry gods. In the dead of winter Wales is far less hospitable.
Long before Merlin directed Beverley to pull the Mini off of the main roadway and move onto back roads that proved to be little more than unmarked sheep paths, the fat black clouds had virtually devoured the ghostly shape of the distant mountains. If the occupants of the car could have seen the entire dome of the sky, it would have appeared to them like little more than a field of boiling lead. As they climbed steadily upward toward the distant hills, the air filled with a mist so thick that everything more than a few yards in front of them was reduced to shimmering, spectral outlines. Not that there was much to see; the only things moving on the remote roads of rural Wales were a few sheep wandering aimlessly through the fog in search of any edible patch of grass that miraculously survived on the sodden, brown hills. On one occasion they passed near a border collie who paused in his work of shepherding a flock of sheep long enough to bark once at the passing Mini.
“Nice country you got here, Merlin. Has it always been so inviting?”
“Wales has its own peculiar charm, Jason. The atmosphere lends a mystery to the Welsh countryside that is found nowhere else in the world. It grows on you.”
“So does a wart."
“Don't mock what you don't understand.”
“Where are we going again?” Beverley was straining her eyes through the fog, trying to follow Merlin's vague directions toward the coast and the westernmost edge of Great Britain.
“Just follow the signs toward Ynys Enlli and Bardsey Island. It’s the same place, the road signs just list it in both English and Welsh. Can you make out the signs?”
“Um Hum. I think so. As long as I don't go too fast.”
“Take your time.”
“Oh, there’s the turnoff, now. Ynys Enlli.” Beverley cranked the steering wheel hard to the left, bumping carefully over the rutted track that passed for the roadway leading towards Ynys Enlli Island.
“When you get near the ocean, just park anywhere along the edge of the road and we can walk from there.”
“Oh, look, over there’s a little car park. I can pull in there.”
Once on the foot path, they stumbled along through the fog, Merlin in the lead, feeling his way according to some mental map that had not been accessed for a thousand and a half years. How he kept from getting hopelessly lost, the other two could not imagine. The fog was so thick it even blotted out the natural sounds of both the sea and the countryside, leaving them to stumble, nearly blind and deaf, through a soft, wet, silvery curtain. After a half-hour of climbing up hill and down, the temperature began to drop, a sure sign they were nearing a large body of water. Ten minutes later, the tough gorse and dead ferns covering the landscape began to give way to a rock-strewn shingle.
Merlin stopped moving, looked left and right while idly wringing the water out of his beard. “We need to follow the shore northward until we come to a big hawthorn bush standing on its own.”
“What makes you think this bush is still here after all these eons?” Jason was holding tight to Beverley's hand, helping her over the uneven stones and rocks of the beach.
“It will still be here. Never fear.”
“Is this where your friend, Vivian, lives? Out here on the edge of the world?” Beverley was fighting to maintain her balance, keep up with Jason and Merlin and still carry on a conversation.
“More or less. She lives on the island; it’s about two miles off shore. Out there somewhere.” Merlin gestured vaguely to his left. “Today they call it Ynys Enlli or Bardsey, in my day it was commonly known as either ‘the road to heaven’ or ‘the gate to paradise’ but its proper name was Avalon.”
“You mean Avalon was a real place?”
“Oh, my, yes. Later scholars somehow came to the bizarrely erroneous conclusion that it was somewhere near Glastonbury, but it was here in Wales. Ah, and there it is.”
“Where’s what?” Straining his eyes, Jason could still hardly see ten feet ahead of him.
“The hawthorn. It’s over here.”
The twisted shape of an ancient thorn bush suddenly appeared out of the fog, looming up in front of them. Massive, gaunt and leafless in winter, its gnarled branches looked like skeletal fingers reaching out to ensnare unwary passers-by. Following Merlin haltingly toward the bush, Jason and Beverley came to a stop only inches from the briar covered branches.
“Where to now?”
“Through the bush, Jason. Through the bush. Here, let me pull the branches apart. You go first and open the way while I will hold the path open for Beverley.”
“Through the bush? Why don't we just go around it? There isn’t another thing within a million miles.” Jason gestured toward the endless expanse of open shoreline stretching into the foggy distance on either side of them.
“Because going around it won't take us to where we’re going. Now, come on boy, step lively.”
Lowering his head and elbowing his way through the ensnaring barbs and twigs of the hawthorn, Jason stumbled forward, holding Beverley’s hand to help her along. A minute later, the three of them were out of the thicket and standing on the same rocky shingle as before, but in the time it had taken them to fight their way through the shrub, the fog had dissipated enough that they could clearly see the gently lapping sea in front of them. In the distance, far out across the glassy, green surface of the water, stood a fog enshrouded island.
Looking around, Beverley furrowed her brow in confusion. “I would have thought the fog would have hung more heavily on the water than on the surrounding land. This seems to be all backwards.”
“Turn around and look back the way we came.” Merlin's voice was simultaneously playful and commanding.
Doing an about face, Beverley drew in a quick breath of amazement. The nearly impenetrable fog had all but disappeared. Behind them she could see the path they had followed all the way back to the roadway where the Mini was parked somewhere in the distance.
“Where did the fog go?”
“It is still there, but it only exists on the other side of the hawthorn.”
“That’s why we had to come through the bush, isn't it?” Beverley seemed fascinated by this impossible truth, but Jason still scowled incredulously. Excited, almost like a child discovering a new plaything, she continued. “How do we get to your friend's house?”
“Let's just go over there on the shingle and sit down. She should be along in a minute.”
Exchanging a quick, confused look, Jason and Beverley followed the receding shape of Merlin as he made his way along the shore to what he evidently considered an accommodating spot and sat down heavily on the rocky beach. By the time they caught up with him, Merlin had leaned back, pulled his filthy fur coat close around him and locked his hands behind his head.
“You might as well sit down and relax; the only thing we can do now is wait.”
Jason thumped his flanks on the rocky ground a few feet from the wizard and pulled Beverley down after him. Sensing that Merlin felt the need to remain silent, they chatted between themselves in low tones, catching up on each other's lives during their nearly two months of separation. In the middle of their discussion of Jason's former professor and faculty advisor, Dr Carver Daniels, Beverley suddenly sat up and pointed toward the fuzzy outline of the fog-shrouded island.
“Jason,” her voice lowered to an almost inaudible whisper as she leaned close to his shoulder. “The fog on the island, it’s moving this way, across the water, toward the shore.”
Sure enough, as Jason refocused his gaze toward the misty surface of the Irish Sea, he could see a single, slim finger of fog creeping across the water toward the spot where the three of them sat.
“Merlin. I hate to bother you. But should that fog be moving toward us?”
“Yes, it should.” Merlin's face morphed into a faint grin and his voice was distant, dreamy and detached in a way Jason had never heard it before.
Within minutes, the tendril of mist had floated across the two miles of choppy water and was creeping onto the shore, swirling near the prone figure of Merlin. As the other two watched in uneasy fascination, the water vapor began to take form, shifting and condensing into a vaguely human shape. It was soon apparent that the solidifying figure was leaning low, reaching across Merlin's body. Slowly, slowly, the mist first shimmered and then dissipated to be replaced by the figure of a very young woman in a nearly translucent, diaphanous blue-green gown; her long white-blond hair streamed across her shoulders and back, nearly reaching her hips. When she lifted her head, Jason and Beverley could tell she was wearing a silvery band around her head. The circlet glinted and shimmered in the pale wintry light, but they could see it clearly enough to tell it was decorated with the forms of dozens of tiny fish, each one catching and reflecting the light so the fish almost looked like they were alive and swimming around her head.
“Merlin? Merlin, my love, is that you?” The woman's voice was distant, vague and musical, almost like a sound heard from far off, or down a length of hollow pipe. At the sound of her voice Merlin opened his eyes, hoisted himself up on his elbows and smiled.
“Vivian. My good lady. How lovely you look, child.” Scrambling to his feet, Merlin dusted the sand and dirt from his coat before laying his hands on the young woman's shoulders and staring hard into her face. Even from where Jason and Beverley were sitting, it was obvious that Vivian was still in her mid-teens. The flesh on her face, throat and arms still had that porcelain-like, nearly translucent beauty that blond girls on the edge of full womanhood sometimes manage to achieve. Her eyes were blue, like Merlin's, but where his were a riveting, electric blue, hers were pale and watery, so delicately colored that in the wrong light she could almost have been mistaken for being blind.
“Have you come back to be with me, my love? I have waited for you...how long has it been? Has it been a long time since I have seen you?”
“Yes, it has. Too long, far too long. But I’m afraid I can only stay here with you for a very little while. My friends and I need your help and then I have to leave again.”
The woman scowled slightly in confusion as she laid a gentle hand on Merlin's craggy face and drew it down across his snowy white beard. “Are you old?”
“Yes. I am. Very old.”
“When will you be young again?” She was staring hard into his face, trying vainly to grasp a concept that was obviously beyond her experience, knowledge or understanding.
“Never. I do not know how to be young again. It is the way of things in the world of men. When we age, it is irreversible. And now I am too old to be your lover, but I still love you, my child. I will always love you as I always have.”
Shaking her head slowly, she stared at her hand as two fingers plucked an invisible speck of lint from the front of Merlin's filthy coat. “Did you say you have friends with you?”
“Yes, they’re over there.” Merlin indicated Beverley and Jason with one hand, gently turning Vivian's head with the other. When she saw them, she smiled a strange, eerie, slightly vacant smile.
“Are you Merlin's friends, too?”
Jason nodded, but it was Beverley who stepped forward, extending her hand toward the young woman. “Yes. I’m Beverley McCullough and this is my friend Jason Carpenter.”
Vivian took Beverley's hand in her own and smiled again. “Do you know Merlin's other friend? Arthur? Did Merlin tell you that I once gave Arthur a sword?”
Stunned for a moment, Beverley did not know quite how to answer and she was relieved when Merlin stepped between them and put a protective arm around Vivian. But when he spoke, it was to Beverley that his words were directed.
“Vivian has no concept of time, you see. To her, past, present and future are all the same, she can remember the future as easily as we can remember the past. That’s why she wasn't sure whether I was old or young. We could never explain to her why it would be impossible for you to know Arthur.”
Beverley and Jason, who had now stepped forward to meet this strange figure, nodded in acknowledgement of Merlin's words but they could not understand how the Lady of the Lake could exist outside of time any more than she could understand how the rest of the world was bound by it. Most amazing of all, Vivian seemed not in the least perturbed by the fact that she was being talked about as though she was some aberration, some freak of nature.
“You really should meet Arthur. He and Merlin are very good for each other.” Suddenly she tilted her head to one side, musing, creasing her forehead. “But maybe you do meet Arthur in another time.”
At this point Merlin interjected himself back into the conversation. “Vivian and I first met when I came back to Arthur's court while I was still trying to recover my sanity after seeing the dragons wipe out Uther's army. She was very kind to me and gave me sanctuary here on her island while my mind healed itself. Didn't you, my dear.”
“Yes, I helped you then, too. Just like I did in the before time.”
“It’s ok, Jason, there was no earlier instance. Time confuses her. I think she means years later when she helped me locate the best place to bury my sphere so I could be safe from Morgana's soldiers while I sought a way to permanently seal the dragon gate.”
“I don't want to talk about that, Merlin. I think it will make you afraid...or it did... I can't remember which.” She touched her forehead gently, in concentration, then, changing the subject in mid thought, the stared hard at Beverley. “Would you like to see where I live?”
“Oh, yes, if you don't mind, I...” When Beverley turned her gaze toward the island, she realized it was no longer there or, rather, they were no longer on the rock-strewn Welsh coast. The entire group was now standing on Ynys Enlli and in the distance, in front of them, was the far shore with its rocky shingle, the hawthorn bush and, in the distance, the path leading to the car. “What...? How...?”
The fog had disappeared and the entire landscape was now washed with a soft, melon-colored light. By contrast, the shadows cast by the ancient trees and low shrubberies were nearly blue, making the entire scene look as lush and surreal as an illustration created by the hand of Maxwell Parrish.
Vivian smiled, reached out and took Beverley's hand. Before leading her guests deeper into the island, she removed the sparkling circlet from her head and tossed it toward the sea. In mid-arc, before it began falling into the water, the delicate diadem broke apart, each of the tiny, shimmering fish that had comprised it flopping and twisting through the air and landing in the water with a series of tiny, silvery splashes before swimming away.
“Oh. Oh, my God, that was so beautiful.” Beverley said, squeezing Vivian's hand with a shiver of delight. “How did you do that?”
Vivian only looked at her as though she did not understand the question and giggled, covering her mouth with her free hand and averting her eyes. “Come. See my garden.”
As the sylphan figure wandered across the low grass toward the center of the island, Merlin caught up with her and took her gently by the arm.
“We really do need your help, my dear. Do you think you can try to help us?”
“It’s still her, isn't it? Arthur's sister. Morgana, I mean.”
“I'm afraid so.” Merlin shook his head, lowering his eyes sadly.
“You know you can be safe from her here. You can stay with me and we can be together always. Nothing changes here and you can be young again.” Glancing over her slim shoulder at Beverley and Jason, she added “You're friends can stay too, if they like. Then everyone will be safe.”
“I am afraid it’s not that easy, my dearest. Morgana has become very dangerous. Jason and I must find a way to stop her before she can bring back the dragons.”
While Merlin tried to explain the urgency of his mission, Jason and Beverley realized that their short walk had carried them to the edge of a massive knot garden. Scribing a huge circle that must have covered fifteen or more acres, the maze was incredibly intricate, with openings that led onto twisting pathways, cork-screwing into each other, most of them leading to dead ends. Only occasionally did one of them offer a way toward a large, open grassy area at the heart of the maze. Strangest of all, the shrubs forming the walls of the maze were trimmed so they were hardly knee high. It would have been impossible to get lost here; one need only step across the tops of the hedges and walk straight to the center. Still, the Lady of the Lake led her visitors into the maze, picking her way carefully from intersection to intersection, path to path, pausing now and again to consider which way to turn next. All the while, Merlin was explaining to her the contents of the confused, prophetic passages from the Gnostic gospel, hoping that with her powers of innate knowledge and second sight she could help them unravel their mystery. Finally, he drew her to a halt and stared hard into her eyes to hold her attention.
“Lady, have you been listening to me? Have you heard what I said?”
“Yes, my love, every word. And it pains me deeper than you can ever know to tell you that I cannot help you. I know nothing of these holy men who are not holy nor of knights who are not knights. Nor do I know of any water which induces a state of oblivion.” Giggling, she added, “Although it does sound very pleasant, don’t you think?” Finally, shrugging her tiny shoulders she said, almost as an afterthought, “And of course you already know all about the cave.”
Gently, Merlin took her by the shoulders and turned her so she was facing him full-on. “What do you mean, I know about the cave? I don’t know what you mean.”
“You were there, or will be, and I will be there with you. We will go there when you are a boy.”
“My dear, I didn’t know you when I was a boy. We only met when I took refuge with you after my wanderings.”
“No. The cave is where the dragons live. You told the king about them. Don’t you remember?”
“I know the dragons come out of a cave, Vivian. What I need to know now is where the cave is located so I can keep the dragons from coming out and getting loose into the world. Please, tell me where the cave is.”
Growing silent and obviously frustrated, she pulled away from Merlin and rubbed the end of her tiny nose with two fingers as a single, huge tear ran down one cheek. Finally, she looked up at Merlin and studied his face before turning to Beverley. “Men always want to know things. Have you ever noticed that? They want to know things and then they take the knowledge and go off and do things with it. Why can't they just accept things as they are?”
Beverley stepped forward and said quietly “I know that sometimes it must seem like that, but this really is important. If there is anything you can tell us that might help, we will be very grateful.”
Vivian stared at her, and then back at Merlin. Then she let out a large, ragged sigh that seemed bigger than she was. “I had hoped” she said in a tiny voice, “that Morgana would go away, or simply stop bothering people with her ambitions and schemes, but she hasn't, has she?”
“No, my dearest, she hasn't, and I fear she never will until someone stops her. And it would seem that the someone who has inherited that duty is my friend Jason. Can you help us?”
“Possibly.” She moved on through the maze, staring at the ground in an attempt to distract herself from what she was saying, but continuing to talk. “The dragons are the children of darkness and Morgana has fallen under their spell completely. She has become one of them, in spirit at least, if not in body. The only way to defeat their darkness is with the pure light of perfect truth which can only be found in the physical reality of God's promise.”
“I don't understand, child. What is this physical manifestation of God? God has no physical form.”
“That fisherman was looking for it, too, you know.”
“What fisherman?” Now, even Merlin was confused by this new riddle which Vivian thought must, somehow, be connected to the enigmatic puzzle of Morgana, the dragon gate and the Gnostic gospel.
“The one with the keys. Oh, what was his name? I can't recall...”
“The fisherman with the keys? You don't mean St. Peter, do you?” Beverley was grasping at straws, but it was the only thing she could think to say.
Vivian smiled and her eyes brightened with remembrance. “Yes. That was his name. Peter. He had two keys, didn't you know that?”
Merlin looked back at Beverley and Jason, both of whom were as confused as he was. Jason stared back, shrugged and shook his head, while Beverley tried to piece Vivian's fragmented thoughts into a coherent whole. After a pause, she held up a hand to get the others’ attention.
“St. Peter is always shown holding the keys to the kingdom of heaven. I've always wondered why they show him holding two keys. According to the church, there is supposedly only one way to salvation, so why is he shown with two keys rather than just one?”
Vivian worked her way a few yards back through the maze to where Beverley and Jason stood and looked up at Beverley, searching her face. “Because” she whispered in a low, conspiratorial voice, as though she was sharing some great secret, “one is for good and one is for evil. They work together, yet against each other, two halves of a whole. Do you understand?”
“I think I see what you mean. Like the yin and yang, light and dark, positive and negative. But what does this have to do with Morgana and the dragons and the cave?”
“The fisherman never had the keys. He wanted them, God told him to find them and the Christian people believed he had the power the keys contained, but he didn't. The keys had already been lost ages before…or possibly ages later.” Vivian stared off into the nothingness, trying valiantly to separate past from future. Finally giving up, she sighed a tiny sigh, shook her head and smiled at Beverley. “Anyway, the keys he holds in the pictures are just symbols of the real keys, so it doesn’t matter.”
By now, Merlin and Jason had clustered around Vivian and Beverley, clogging the narrow pathway between the hedges, listening to the strangely youthful woman who was far older than even Merlin could imagine. She looked around at them, her eyes wide with anxiety, knowing that they expected things from her and unsure of what she should say.
“The real keys, the ones he never found, are still in God's covenant with the humans. That is where you can find them, along with the other parts of the covenant; inside its physical manifestation. The coffer...the box where they put them...don't you understand?”
“No. We don't understand. Please, Vivian, can't you be just a bit clearer? Can you just concen...”
Beverley excitedly cut Merlin off. “Wait. Wait. Vivian, look at me. Do you mean the Ark of the Covenant? Is that what you’re trying to describe?”
“Yes. The big gold box the Hebrews carried around with them.”
“Oh, my God. I am not going after the Ark of the Covenant. This is starting to sound way too much like an Indiana Jones movie. I can see the headlines now: ‘Young archaeologist discovers Ark of the Covenant: George Lucas Sues for Copyright Infringement’.” Jason was mumbling to himself and only stopped when Beverley scowled at him. “Sorry, Bev, but after all the crap I’ve already been through this is just way too weird to deal with.”
“Jason, after all the crap you and Merlin have already been through, this should sound almost logical.”
Jason rubbed his chin, alternately nodding and shaking his head. “I'm sorry. It was a stupid thing to say. I guess I'm just a little slap-happy from lack of sleep.”
Only inches away, Vivian had continued talking over their exchange. “…and there were two birds on the lid. Did you know that? Lovely golden birds with their wings spread up over their heads.”
Now it was Jason’s turn to interpret the Lady's vague ramblings. “Birds? You mean the angels that are supposed to be mounted on the lid of the Ark?”
“Is that what you think they are?” Vivian broke out laughing; the sound was like some bright, tinkling, fairy music that rang as clear and true as a sparkling glass bell. “No. They’re birds, silly. Sometimes you Christians are so confused. But yes, you are right. That is where the keys are. In the box. The Ark of the Covenant. All you have to do is take them out and they will allow you to seal the doorway against the children of darkness.”
“Yes, of course, the dragons.”
“Why didn't you tell me this before?” Merlin had grabbed Vivian's arm and swung her around to face him. His pain was obvious, at once heart wrenching and terrible.
She smiled sadly, clutching the greasy fur of his coat in desperation. “Because I didn't want you to leave me. I love you and I knew if I told you where to find the keys to the gate you would leave me to find them.”
“Oh, you poor thing. So instead you helped me lock myself in a crystal sphere for fifteen centuries.”
“Is that a very long time?”
“Yes, my dear child.” He reached out and stroked her hair sympathetically with one hand. “It is a very, very long time. Had you told me then, if I could have found them, I might have been able to close the gate and come back to you while I was still relatively young. Now it’s too late. I’m old and closing the gate is the last thing I will have the strength to do.”
Vivian's gaze began to cloud with sadness, but as her eyes wandered over the hedge rows of the maze toward the open plot in the center she brightened, a childlike smile replacing the look of frustration. “Would you all like to come inside and see my tower? Merlin has been there many times. It is where I nursed his wounds when he was dead.”
Since there was clearly no house to be seen, Bev and Jason both looked confused but Beverley desperately tried to keep Vivian both calm and focused. “That would be very nice, Vivian. Maybe there we could talk this out.”
“Not today, Vivian. I’m sorry, my dear, but we simply don’t have time to go inside. Maybe another day.” Merlin looked over Vivian's head toward Beverley and shook his head vehemently, but Vivian caught his movement and looked up at him.
“You liked it, didn't you, my love. Did you like my house?”
“Yes. Of course, but we really are in a hurry. Now what more can you tell us about the Ark and the keys.”
“Nothing. You must find the box with the birds, open it and take out the keys. They are the only way to close the dragon gate permanently.”
Merlin embraced Vivian so tightly it looked like he would crush her tiny form against his chest. He was crying silently. There were no tears, but Jason and Beverley could both see his chest heave with the effort of ragged sobs. Embarrassed for history's greatest wizard, who was, after all, as human as anyone, they turned away and headed back toward the outer edge of the maze. Finally, Merlin released the tiny child-woman, kissed her on the forehead and turned to rejoin his friends.
“Please, don't go, Merlin. How will I find my way back to my tower without you to guide me through the maze?”
To no one in particular, Jason muttered under his breath “Why doesn’t she just step across the hedges?”
Vivian looked up sharply, raising her voice across the distance between them. “That would spoil all the fun. Don't you have fun where you come from?” Finally, she called out, “Merlin, when the dragons are dead and you are young, will you come back and love me?”
Looking very old, Merlin turned to wave at her once and then shooed Jason and Beverley through the maze, only glancing back over his shoulder once more to see the retreating form of the Lady of the Lake, the tip of one index finger pressed against her teeth in concentration, picking her way toward the open space at the center of the vast, low maze.
When they reached the edge of the island and were well out of Vivian’s hearing distance, Jason turned to Merlin, a scowl on his face. “So what was all that about you knowing about the cave and being dead?”
“If I knew anything about the cave I’m sure I would have remembered it at some point over the last thousand years and I’m quite certain I’m not dead…at least not yet. Consequently, I can only assume she was remembering my death from the future.”
“Ooo, that’s kind of nasty.”
“At least, according to what she said, it would seem that we will eventually locate the cave.”
The three of them stood there for a moment, looking silently out across miles of ocean, unsure of how to address Vivian’s prediction of Merlin’s death. Eventually, Beverley was the first to ask how they were going to get back to the shore.
“Follow me. Stay close.” Merlin stepped off the low bank and onto the leading edge of the water, Jason and Beverley following him, half a step behind. Before their shoe soles touched the water, they were already on the opposite bank, the island and its strange inhabitant again invisible, enshrouded in mist and fog nearly two miles into the churning waters of the Irish Sea.
Beverley stepped close to Merlin and tucked her arm through his, leaning close to his side. “Who is she? Really?”
“No one knows. They used to say she is one of the last of the fae, what you call the fairy folk, probably a naiad, a water spirit. Neither entirely human nor entirely spirit, but something in between.”
“You mean there really are fairies?”
“So it would seem. Certainly the Welsh who followed the old religion believed in them, and even the early church never entirely discounted their existence. In the Book of Genesis it does talk about ‘the sons of men and angels’. Some religious scholars claimed fairies were a cross between humans and angels, and the early fathers of the church held long debates to decide what these creatures really were and how they fell into the over-all scheme of heaven and earth.”
Jason grunted, nodded and mumbled “Was that one of those stupid ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’ type of arguments?”
Merlin nodded his agreement with a small, knowing smile. “It was just about that fatuous. But what they finally decided was rather interesting. The church finally agreed that when Lucifer mounted his war against God, there was a group of angels who refused to take sides. Consequently, they were not bad enough to be cast into hell but neither were they good enough to remain in heaven with God and the angels. As punishment for their neutrality, God condemned them to an existence somewhere between the angels and humans, living in the eternal, but only half-real, world of the fairies. Never again angels, but never becoming human. Never dying but never really living. I don't know if it’s true, but it certainly would explain a lot. And there is no doubt that Vivian lives at all points in time simultaneously; remembering the future as well as the past while the present is always as dim as a fleeting memory.”
“That’s sad…and really scary.”
“That is also why I couldn't allow you to go into her tower.”
“I didn’t see anything that looked like a house or a tower. What was that all about?”
“The tower sits in that open space at the center of the maze, my dear. She keeps it invisible from most people, or it’s in some other dimension or, at least, in some way not a part of the real world. Once we went inside, there is no telling how long it might have taken for us to find our way back out.”
“You don't mean she would have held us prisoners?”
“Oh, heavens no. But because she has no sense of time, she wouldn't know if we had been there for an hour or a century. And she likes to play games. Purely for fun she might hide from us and wander off for a few minutes or a hundred years. There’s just no way of telling. And without her we might never find the door. I couldn't risk it.”
“But you have been inside?”
“And you could have stayed there, with her, and been safe from Morgana, couldn't you?”
Merlin looked at Beverley, his intense, hypnotic blue eyes glowing. “Yes.”
“Why didn't you. You loved her.”
“Yes, I did. And even after all these centuries I still do. But I would never have been able to work on a way of closing the gate if I were in there with her.”
“So you gave up your life and your love for her, to live in that ball and fight Morgana.” She squeezed his arm tight.
“And all the time, Vivian knew where the key was located.” He shook his head, weary with the weight of a thousand and a half years bearing down on his soul. “Jason” he said, bringing himself back to the present, “you’re an archaeologist. What do you know about the Ark of the Covenant?”
“Oh, Lord, Merlin. That's not an archaeology question. That thing has been lost for thousands of years.”
“And what do you know about where it might be?”
“Based on nothing more than a couple of television documentaries I’ve seen, it’s either completely lost, maybe destroyed, maybe it never existed, or it’s right out in plain sight for everyone to see.”
“And if it happens to be the latter case, where might it be?”
“In a church somewhere in Ethiopia. At least that’s what all the conspiracy crazies say.”
“Where is this Ethiopia, place?”
“I don't know what they called it in your day, but in the Old Testament it is referred to as the land of Sheba.”
“Ahh, that would be the Kingdom of Aksumia, below Aegyuptus, south of the great cataract of the Nile. One of the very earliest Christian kingdoms, if I’m not mistaken. That might make sense, being as how King Solomon had a relationship with the Queen of Sheba, who ruled that land during Solomon’s reign.”
“Yeah, right, Ethiopia, south of Egypt. But that’s really pretty much all I know about it.”
“Who would know more?”
“Nobody I know, but I guess I can ask Professor Daniels when we get back to York. Maybe he knows somebody who knows something.”
“I'm sure he’d be glad to see you again, Jason.”
Turning at the sound of Beverley's voice, Jason asked, “How is he doing since his heart attack?”
“Much better. He’s back in his office, but he isn't teaching classes yet. I see him now and again at King's Manor and he always asks about you. You should go see him. I know he’ll help you if he can.”
“Would you like to come with me?”
She squeezed his hand and nodded. “Um hum. And thank you for finally including me in this.”
He pulled his hand away and slipped it around her waist, pulling her close to him as though his physical proximity could protect her from whatever the future might throw at them.