Excerpts for Mirror of Merlin

Chapter 24 Merlin's Isle The aged man, my elder self, ran his sleeve across his brow. Wearily, he confessed, "This will require a bit of explanation, I'm afraid. Shall we sit down?"
Without waiting for my response, he wriggled his fingers in a strange manner. Immediately, the floor behind us erupted, spraying chips of stone across the floor of the cave. I leaped aside, though the wizard didn't even budge. When I turned around, I saw that a fully grown beech tree had surged through the floor, its branches arching from one wall to the other, touching the crystals at either end.
Awestruck, I studied the tree whose sturdy roots now clasped the broken stones. Unlike any tree I'd known before, its trunk rose only a short distance above the roots before bending sharply to the side. Then, after a short horizontal distance, the trunk lifted upward again, stretching its leafy boughs to the ceiling. Heaving a sigh, my old companion sat himself upon the horizontal section and leaned back against a pair of branches. His feet swung slightly above the floor.
"Ah," he mused, "I have always loved to sit in trees."
"So have I," I replied, "but normally not indoors."
Ignoring my comment, he laid his hand upon the smooth, gray bark. "And beech trees, somehow, always make me feel more peaceful." His voice dropped a little lower, as did the harp music that continued to fill the chamber. "Such things are more and more helpful these days."
"Tell me," I said, stepping nearer. "What has happened to you, to us?"
"In time, lad, though first you should have a seat yourself." His brow knitted. "There's really not room for two of these chairs, however. A matter of floor space, what? Ah, there's the solution!" He pointed to the empty stools beside Arthur, who was busily devouring another chicken leg, oblivious to anything but the repast before him. "Fetch another one of those, would you?"
I started to move when, to my utter astonishment, something else went to fetch the stool. The wizard's shadow! The great form, as tall and broad as the tree itself, slid across the crystal cave's wall and over the floor to the banquet table. Without a sound, it lifted the stool, carried it through the air, and placed it by my side, right on top, I was pleased to note, of my own squirming shadow.
As the immense shadow returned to its position, nestled among the branches next to its master, the wizard gave a nod of approval. "Thanks, old friend."
Old friend, I thought. That part of my own future will surely be different! And yet, I glanced down at my own little shadow, struggling to free itself from the chair, and wondered. Could it be possible? Though I felt certain that the answer was no, I grasped the stool and slid it to one side, just far enough that it no longer pinned the shadow. As expected, I received no gesture of thanks, only an impudent kick.
The elder, I realized, was observing me. "How do you get your shadow to behave so well?" I asked. "I'd love to trade mine for one like yours."
He shook his head, making his flowing white hair shimmer in the crystals' glow. "It's part of you, my lad, just as the night is part of the day."
"I wish it weren't," I grumbled, seating myself on the stool. "Now tell me, please. What caused you to send Arthur back to that marsh? The way he described it, you were imprisoned, very likely to die! Yet here you are, in your own crystal cave."
Somberly, he gazed at me. "All of that is true, indisputably true."
"But this place, so full of marvels-"
"Is also my prison," he declared. Sliding his hand over the smooth trunk, he drew a deep breath. "It's that sorceress Nimue, I fear. She lured me, tricked me, into revealing some of my most powerful spells. Then, using the very power of this chamber to enhance her own, she turned those spells against me, sealing me into this place forever."
The final word fell upon me like a stone. "So you're completely trapped?"
His eyelids closed. "I am."
"That Nimue!" I cried. "What torture it must be for you."
"All the more so because of the important work that remains to be done beyond these walls."
For a long moment, his words hung in the air. Then, reopening his eyes, he noticed something above his head. With a curious expression, he raised one hand toward an object, slender and brown, dangling from one of the limbs. A cocoon! Despite his troubles, the wizard seemed rapt in concentration. As the cocoon quivered slightly at his touch, he nodded, and the firmness seemed to lift a little from his face.
He lowered his head, then turned back to me. "She did forget about one thing, though, one quite important thing. The Mirror! I can still use its pathways, the very Mists of Time, to bring others to me, or send them elsewhere. Even if I can't travel through it myself, it offers me a window, you see, on the world outside." The sober expression returned. "And, for at least a moment, it gave me a chance to escape."
A shudder ran through my whole body. "The key."
"Yes. It is-er, was-the only thing strong enough to break Nimue's spell." He blew some stray beard hairs off his lips. "I recalled that it had been hidden in the swamp. So I sent Arthur to find it, to bring it back. When the sorceress learned of that, she realized she had to find it first. So she, too, entered the mists. No doubt she turned the marshlands upside down searching. Why, she even lured you in there to assist her, changing our history in the process."
"So you, at my age, didn't spend any time in the Haunted Marsh?"
"Heavens no, my lad." He grimaced. "She really made a beastly mess of things."
"I'm the one who made the mess!" I could hardly contain my anger. "Now I understand.
She tricked me, just as she tricked you. She knew that the key could only be used once. And even though she expected me to use it to stop the bloodnoose, not to free the marsh ghouls, she still got what she most wanted."
My throat made a sound, part growl, part sob. "By using the key in the past, I sealed your fate, my own fate, in the future. Nimue said so when she left: 'You have doomed yourself.' That's what she told me! And she was right. More right than I could ever have guessed."
"At least," said the old man, "you stood up to her."
Bitterly, I hung my head. "What good did that do? It was just what she needed to prevail."
I regarded him sharply. "And what good does it do for you to teach Arthur all those high ideals, when you already know that his kingdom is going to fail in the end? That he'll never live to see them prevail?"
Squeezing a branch of the beech tree, the wizard gazed at me. At last, he spoke, his voice full of tenderness. "What good? I cannot tell. Nor can anyone."
I shrugged. "Just as I thought. More good intentions worth a handful of dust."
"Hear me out," he declared, his eyes gleaming anew. "There is still this: A kingdom that is banished from the land may yet find a home in the heart." His back straightened, and he seemed to grow larger as I watched. "And a life, whether wizard or king, poet or gardener, seamstress or smith, is measured not by its length, but by the worth of its deeds, and the power of its dreams."
Absently, I scanned the glittering facets surrounding us. "Dreams can't make you free."
His hand, so deeply wrinkled, reached over and clasped my forearm. "Ah, dear lad, but they can." He looked not at me but through me, at something far distant. "Most surely, they can."
I studied his face: the dark eyes, almost laughing while at the same time almost crying; the wide mouth, so old and yet so young; the wrinkled brow, marked by ideas and experiences I couldn't begin to fathom; and, of course, the great beard, tangled in places, luminous throughout. Yet for all that face made me want to hope, I still felt defeated.
"Know this as well, young wizard," he said kindly. "Everything I have taught and will teach my pupil Arthur boils down to this: Find your true self, your true image, and you shall tap into the greater good, the higher power that breathes life into all things. Most assuredly! And while you may not prevail in your own time and place, your efforts will flow outward as ripples on a pond. Powered by that greater good, they may touch faraway shores, altering their destinies long after you have gone."
"But destiny can't be changed," I protested. "Because of my folly, you, and therefore I, will be trapped in this cave forever."
The old man considered my words for a moment before speaking. "You have a destiny, lad. That much is true. But you also have choices. Yes, and choices are nothing less than the power of creation. Through them, you can create your own life, your own future, your own destiny."
I merely looked at him in disbelief.
Pensively, he rubbed a few leaves between his thumb and forefinger. At the same time, the harpstrings seemed to pluck slightly more rapidly, their notes echoing from the walls with a lighter lilt.
"By your choices," he continued, "you might even create an entirely new world, one that will spring into being from the ruins of the old." He smiled to himself in a secretive way, as if he knew much more than he was revealing. "There is a poet called Tennyson, from a time yet to come, who describes such a world: Avalon is its name. That is a land, he says,

"Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow,
Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies
Deep-meadow'd, happy, fair with orchard-lawns
And bowery hollows crown'd with summer sea." The words fell upon me like a warm summer rain, yet still I could not bring myself to believe him. "I can't even move my own scrawny shadow, no matter how hard I try. So how can my choices make any real difference to the outside world?"
"Well," said the mage with a sigh, scanning the boughs that supported him. "With regard to your shadow, you might stop trying and simply start being."
"Being? Being what?"
"And with regard to your choices," he went on, "you have already affected the world because of them. Indelibly, I might add. Think of it, lad! In your brief time on Fincayra, what has it been? Three years?-you have roused the hidden giants, found a new way of seeing, toppled an entire castle, answered an oracle's riddle, defeated those wicked beasts who devour magic, taken your sister's spirit into yourself, healed a wounded dragon, and so much more. And that is but the beginning! You have (if I recall correctly) become a deer, a stone, a feathered hawk, a tree, a puff of wind, and even a fish."
He paused, glancing over at Arthur, who was finishing one fruit pie and moving on to another. "A fish," he muttered to himself. "Yes, yes, that might be just the thing for him at this stage."
His bright eyes swung back to me. "You have choices, my lad. And with choices, power. Inestimable power."
Despite myself, I felt a faint glimmer of renewal somewhere down inside. Had I really done all those things? Though I knew that Nimue's treachery had defeated me, forever it seemed, I still found myself feeling curiously different. Stronger, somehow. I shifted my weight, sitting a bit more erect on the stool.
Then a wave of doubts washed over me. "I may have done those things on Fincayra. But, what about here? This place called Gramarye? This is the land you wanted to save, but now cannot."
As the old mage regarded me, the crystals lining the walls and ceiling seemed to grow a little brighter. "Whatever happens to me, or to you, my lad, we will have forever changed this place, this island, just as you have forever changed that island that is now your home. Most certainly! I have even heard some people cease to call it Gramarye, or even that modern term, Britain, at all, preferring instead to say Merlin's Isle."
Almost imperceptibly, he smiled. "You doubt me? Then hear these words, penned by a poet named White, who will not even be born for more than a thousand years:

"She is not any common earth
Water or wood or air,
But Merlin's Isle of Grammarye
Where you and I will fare." He pointed a knobby finger toward the far end of the cave. From within its depths, a small clay cup came floating toward him. Carefully, he plucked it from the air, reached inside, and pulled out a tiny sphere. Though the sphere was dark brown, it gleamed with an eerie sheen that seemed to pulse like a living heart. It was, I knew at once, a seed.
"The wonders of this seed," pronounced the wizard, "are both too subtle and too immense to name, though in years to come, many a bard will try."
Slowly, he rolled it between his fingers. "Its history, too, is immense, so I will share but a little with you now. This seed was discovered in ancient Logres, at the bottom of a deep tarn, possibly by Rheged of Sagremor; transported in secret by an unknown Druid elder to the Isle of Ineen, where it stayed many years; stolen by the stern queen Unwen of the realm of Powyss; lost eventually; found; lost again; and found again by a young page after the terrible battle of Camlann right here in Gramarye."
He smiled briefly, but whether it was a smile of pleasure or of sadness, I couldn't tell. "Ah, lad," he continued, rolling the little sphere in his palm. "I could say so much more, yet nothing is more important than this: This seed carries the power to grow into something magnificent. Truly magnificent."
I leaned closer to the stool. "Can't you tell me what that will be?"
"No, I cannot."
I frowned at him. "And you will say nothing, either, about the lost wings?"
He shook his white head. "I will, however, say one thing more about this seed. If you succeed in finding just the right place for the planting, it will, one day, come to bear fruit more remarkable than you can guess. And yet it will take, even in the finest of soils, many centuries just to begin to sprout."
He handed me the seed, pressing my fingers over it. I could feel, through my palm, a hint of motion, a vague beating against my skin. Gently, I placed it inside my leather pouch.
Then, lifting my face, I looked upon my elder self. "If, as you say, it will take centuries to sprout, and time before that to find where it should be planted, then-"
"Then I had better begin soon, don't you think?"
As he nodded, the stars embroidering his cape seemed to sparkle. "As soon as you like, my lad."Text copyright ? 1999 by Tom A. Barron, published by Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers. All rights reserved.