Merlin hated freeways with a passion so he took the winding country roads for as long as he could. He loved the 1933 Morgan F4, with its sleek racing shape and traditional green-and-black paint of the British sporting car. It had been the most magical thing he’d possessed this century; he’d even driven it completely around Britain and Ireland one summer.
With his careful driving and knowing his mechanic would be very displeased with him, he’d driven the machine thousands of miles without its receiving as much as a single scratch on the paint until that trip up to the Lady’s lake. Merlin wasn’t looking forward to the scathing lecture that was sure to come his way as soon as that very talented man saw the damage to both fenders. He was convinced the trees moved because he knew he was a better driver than to actually hit a tree but he’d never be able to convince his mechanic of that story. “That damned woman,” he said aloud.
In the thousand years before this day, he had traveled the world avoiding wars, pestilence, and famine as much as possible. It wasn’t cowardice but a rather healthy sense of his own limited powers and the incredible leap in human technology that encouraged him to avoid unnecessary risks.
Entering London, the stop-and-go of the city traffic reinforced his opinion of modern drivers and he chafed at every red light. Traffic is too damned heavy to change the lights today, he thought. His mood lightened with the memory of the last time he’d changed every light to green ahead of him.
Damned if I do and damned if I don’t, he grumbled to himself. Can’t resist driving this old girl but the traffic is… He couldn’t come up with a comparison worthy of the hell-on-wheels he’d been mired in for the last half hour. It’s why I seldom drive you in the city, my friend. But I do so love to drive you and there are days – like today – when I couldn’t stand the thought of leaving you behind. Forty-five minutes later, Merlin slowed down to turn into his driveway.
A push of a button on his keychain – he did so enjoy some modern conveniences – and the wrought-iron gates blocking his driveway swung back to admit the small car into the fenced-in garage area. The tiny rumblings of the engine as he pulled into the garage in his London house became almost too loud for comfort.
Merlin interspersed dance steps with his normal walk up the short red brick pathway from the driveway to the lawn. There was a bounce and a renewed energy in every one of the nineteen short steps it took to go from that driveway gate to the front door.
The windows of his garage and house were not barred, nor were there any security decals on the dark-green door or windows. The neighbors never noticed this and took the lack of crime and casual strangers on the street for granted. Members of the fae community could, of course, see Merlin’s protective spells.
Merlin made a show of pulling out his keys, inserting them into the lock, twisting the tumblers and then turning the large, ornate, bronze doorknob. Had anyone else tried to open either of the two doors to the house by inserting something into the lock, they might have been discovered wandering confusedly up in the Scottish highlands. Or, they might not have been found at all. Merlin wasn’t fussy about such things.
There was no squeak or squeal as the thick oak door swung open. The only sound an observant person would hear was the snick of the door closing behind Merlin. The click of his grey-leather boots on the uncarpeted, shiny oak floors was the only sound in the house.
The antique hat rack just inside the door contained a collection of formerly fashionable hats from the last 50 years. Its brightly polished, brass hooks provided the space for Merlin’s favorite hats, and he flipped his current favorite, a tweed Ascot cap, onto the top hook where it spun around the hook but successfully remained.
With a smile of success, Merlin turned to his left and entered the library. The two windows were protected by richly toned purple drapes. Not a shred of light could enter when Merlin pulled them shut. He did so, from across the room, with a single flick of his wrist and a deep sigh. The outer walls of the room had been heavily insulated and soundproofed between the brick and the dark brown wood panelling. The panelling used to reside in another of Merlin’s homes in the 1840s when the house was originally constructed. But the paneling had been moved just before Merlin sold that house – he moved regularly – and now shone with a deep luster behind the paintings and other bric-a-brac that was shelved in the numerous late-Victorian furniture pieces taking up much of the wall space.
Merlin smile of anticipation grew broader as he walked into the room, gently pushed the door shut behind him and when he heard the door click shut, his grin grew even larger. He turned to the door and waved a hand, almost negligently, to make the Victorian door panelling disappear. A solid wood door made of two giant planks appeared in its place. It was a solid door without ornamentation or openings of any kind. Even the doorknob disappeared, leaving no obvious way to get out of, or on the other side, to enter the room. Turning to the wall just to the right of the door, Merlin made a gesture as if he was sweeping the wall from top to bottom. With a final flick of the wrist through the dust motes, the Victorian bric-a-brac furniture and the old paintings disappeared.
Had anyone been watching, they would not have believed that Merlin’s grin could possibly get any larger. They would have been wrong. With almost frenetic energy, Merlin extended his arms to their full reach, his hands opened wide and he spun on one foot completely around the room once and then twice. He stopped as the furniture began to dissolve and shimmer.
The furniture against the walls disappeared and in its place were floor to ceiling shelves filled with leather-bound books. Each deep-brown volume had its title inscribed with a flowing gold script that was unknown in any modern language. Merlin took a deep breath, walked to the bookshelf to the right of the door, stretched out his right arm and gently rolled his fingertips across the leather spines of the books on the eye-level shelf. He walked across the door to the other side of the room and ran his fingertips along that shelf as he walked slowly to the corner.
Slowly but surely he walked around and around the room reading the titles of these old friends on every shelf as if to satisfy himself that after all these years they had really come back to him.
On finishing and arriving back at the door he made a careless flicking gesture to a metal desk and leather office chair that stood in ugly isolation across from the door. A giant roll-top desk of highly polished, straight-grained maple instantly replaced the metal desk. Seeing the roll top desk appear, he began his gesture to the big leather office chair, hesitated, and changed his mind. He saw no reason to get rid of the most comfortable chair he had ever owned to replace it with an uncomfortable, straight-backed, oak chair.
A flip of his wrist and the roll top slowly rolled up into the top of the desk. The desk was littered with sheets of paper and at least a dozen fountain pens. Several large books stood upright in the largest cubbyhole and the other spaces were filled with the flotsam and jetsam of centuries of penmanship.
Merlin pulled the chair away from the desk, pushed it to the side, gently sat down in it, leaned back and swung his ankles up onto the desk’s writing surface. He crossed his legs at the ankles and entwined his fingers behind his head. Comfortably ensconced, once again surrounded by his books, he shut his eyes and allowed his mind to run free and unfettered by any spell.
It wasn’t an aimless wandering, Merlin seldom did anything, however small, without a reason. Both his friends and enemies over the centuries slowly but surely understood this small quirk in his behavior. Merlin seldom relaxed, seldom took time for himself and even when it appeared as if he was relaxing or sleeping, his mind and spirit moved restlessly through the world.
Driven by a deep compulsion, he began his search. He knew what he was looking for. He’d done this more than once in the past and knew what his role would be now that the lady had freed him. Both he and the Lady knew he was indispensable for what was to come.
With his body limp in the chair, his mind traveled up into Wales. There was simply no indication of his quarry and Merlin’s mind started to turn over faster and faster threatening to draw him out of his trance.
He fought back the emotions and managed to keep his muscles from tensing. A few deep breaths later, he relaxed even further and let his mind wander, letting it pick through the stories and debris of the past thousand years. It wasn’t idle curiosity as he was searching for one specific item.
A thousand years ago he bitterly understood deep in his soul he was about to pay a price, a very large price for a single moment of weakness. He knew the lady would ensnare him, he could see that coming and there was nothing he could do about it. He knew this was his fate for the immediate future and like many things in his world he simply accepted it. His only mistake was in not understanding how long his servitude would last. He had missed any signs it would last this long. He pushed back the walls of sadness for those lost years.
Many centuries ago, he’d gone up a hillside in Wales searching for a specific oak tree. He knew it was there. It was young and had more vigor than the other trees. The strength of this specific tree would ensure its survival for the time he’d be away. No longer being able to see his full future, he assumed he would return before the death of the tree to reclaim his power.
He congratulated himself on finding this specific tree. It was a fast-growing English oak, already taller than its neighbors with a good clear grain and a spreading root system that would provide all the energy the tree would require in the generations to come.
He’d looked at the 6-foot-tall wooden staff he carried in his right hand. Examined it closely and reached out with his mind and spirit to feel the power within the simple piece of wood. It was his conduit to the world of earth, wind, and fire and it had served him well for centuries.
With a growing sense of death and loss so deep it struck every cell in his body, he focused on the staff and transferred much of his power to it. He knew he wouldn’t be able to use this power or focus it while in thrall to the Lady. As he felt his life energy leave his body to enter the staff, he staggered with the sudden unexpected weakness.
He’d held the staff at arm’s length straight in front of himself and trembled with the exertion of holding something containing that much power in his newly weakened body.
He’d placed the staff against the straight trunk of the oak. As the staff disappeared, he staggered and bowed his head as a wave of grief consumed him. As the last vestige of the staff disappeared within the trunk, his left knee buckled and he almost fell. His right hand grasped the tree trunk and held himself upright. In that moment, in that final moment, he saw his immediate future laid out in front of him. He sighed and dropped his chin to his chest in understanding. A single, low moan forced its way out of his mouth.
Regaining his composure, he took two steps backward away from the tree and examined the trunk carefully. There was no sign of his staff and there was nothing marking this tree for common folk to find. The only witnesses to this act of desperation were the wind, the sky, and himself. Not even the Lady had seen this final act.
A sense of hope reserved a corner in his mind. This tree will survive, and when my trials are finished and my sentences served, I’ll retrieve it. I may be old, but I’m not stupid, I’ll wait, he thought. A grim smile played at the side of his mouth trying, and failing, to turn into a real grin.
The throaty croak of a raven mocking him rang out and he’d turned and looked up at the beady-eyed bird who was settling onto a branch about 20 feet above him in the nearby tree.
“Old friend you’ve come to say goodbye,” he said.
The bird cocked its head looked at him and flew away.
The old man chuckled aloud. Sometimes a bird is just a bird, he thought.
Looking back at the tree, he sent the thought, goodbye, old friend, I’ll see you in a few short years.
Turning, he strolled down the hill as if he had no cares in the world. Indeed, he didn’t as he knew his fate and what awaited him in the gentle rolling lake below.
He did know he’d survive. That much he could see.