Camelot & Vine (10 page)

“You’re better this morning,” he said in his
rumbling voice. “You must be hungry.”

I followed him into the shade of what I at
first thought was a kitchen. Herbs hung in bunches from the ceiling
to dry, giving the place a wild, fresh smell. Every surface was
cluttered with bowls of seeds, vials of powder, and organized
arrays of bones. I turned away from what looked like an odd biology
experiment but turned out to be the dissection of a hapless
squirrel. Not a kitchen. A laboratory.

The old man gestured a skinny arm to a table
laden with food. “Sit and eat.” He padded in bare feet to the
corner, his dingy robe dragging on the packed dirt floor. He picked
up a couple of stones, smacked them together, and blew gently on
the sparks they created in the fire pit. It seemed like magic.

He looked up. “Eat,” he said. “I’ve eaten
already. I hope you don’t mind.”

I took a seat at the table. He dipped a
cauldron into a barrel of water and hung it over the small
flame.

“Are you...?” I had so many questions.

“Am I what?”

“Is your name...?”

“Myrddin,” he said. It sounded like
Merthin,
just as King Arthur had pronounced it. Almost, but
not quite,
Merlin.
Without looking, he took pinches of herbs
from a bunch hanging above his shoulder and tossed them into a pair
of mugs. “This time it’s only tea.”

Laid out before me was enough food for four
people: small pies, baked buns, sliced apples, nuts and berries. No
silverware. No matter. He was right, I was starving. I plucked up a
warm roll with dirty fingers and inhaled the aroma of freshly baked
grains.

“Are you a wizard?” I asked.

“You first.” He brought my tea to me and
took his to a desk in the corner, behind which leaned precarious
shelves overloaded with bottles, scrolls, and rusted tools. There
he sat and regarded me.

I chewed, hungry but self-conscious, not
sure what to say, wondering what the king had told him about
me.

“Did you come from a star?” asked Myrddin.
“We have legends of people from the stars. Did you really appear
out of nothing? Arthur mentioned a gap. You received your garment
there?”

“Uh, yes.”

“Is it a gap in the sky?”

I picked up a piece of pie. “No. I think
it’s a gap in time.” Egg pie, it looked like. With cheese.

Myrddin brought his fingers to his lips. “I
like that. Explain.” He rested his chin on bony hands and
waited.

My instinct was to trust him. I hadn’t felt
that instinct in years. Though Myrddin was old and cheerful unlike
my young, sad father, my dad was the one who had listened, like
that, with his chin resting on his hands.

“All I know is I was riding Lucy in the rain
and a car came along. Lucy panicked, the car slammed on its brakes
and I flew. When I landed it wasn’t the twenty-first century
anymore.”

“Carrrr,” Myrddin muttered, taking up a
quill and scratching it on a flat piece of leather. “Brakes.
Twenty-one.” He stopped. “Lucy. A horse?”

I nodded.

He glanced back at his notes and frowned.
“You came from the twenty-first century?”

“Yes.”

“By what reckoning?”

“Well...have you ever heard of Jesus?”

“Why?” He eyed me with suspicion.

“Years since Jesus lived. That’s kind of how
we count it.”

“That bodes ill.” Myrddin sighed. “Poor,
fatherless boy. Tragically misunderstood. He’s all the rage with
the young people these days.”

“What year is it now?”

“By the same reckoning?” He bent over his
scratchings. “Alas, from his death I calculate...oh, five hundred
years. Or so. Perhaps fewer. Certainly not more.”

I put down the meat pastry I’d been
munching. Myrddin laid his quill on the desk. We gazed at each
other. I wondered if he’d almost stopped breathing, like I had, at
the thought of it.

I’d lost fifteen hundred years. My nose
tingled.

Myrddin’s black eyes glowed. “Your people
must be looking for you.”

“I don’t think so.” Mike had his wife and
baby. Hollywood and
Gone!
were finished with me. My mother
wouldn’t notice I was missing until she didn’t get her Christmas
e-card. I didn’t matter to anyone in the world. My eyes misted.
Among the apples, pastries and nuts on the table was not one,
single napkin.

“You didn’t choose to come here?”

“No. I don’t know how I got here, or how to
get back. I could die here.” My stomach churned and sank like a
dying motor. I was a negative. I had to get back, even though I had
left nothing of importance behind. “Myrddin, have you ever heard of
Camelot?”

“No. What is it?”

“It’s the greatest legend of all
England.”

“Angland?” He stiffened. “Don’t tell me the
Angles are going to win?”

“Oh—uh, I’m not a historian.”

Myrddin glared.

“Well. They don’t exactly lose.” He
continued glaring and I hurried to mollify him. “The trouble is,
not a lot of detail is known about how it happens. King Arthur and
you, you’re legends in my time. But there’s no proof of your real
lives.”

“That is not to be tolerated.” He stood,
surprisingly agile, and began to pace. “You shall take proof back
with you. You certainly brought things—your horse, your pack, your
clothes.”

“But I don’t know how to go back.”

“Well, you can’t stay here.” He stopped
pacing, towering above me, eyes gleaming. He must have been
fearsome in his youth. Even then I cringed at the foot of his
power. He calmed, speaking almost apologetically. “You and I are
intelligent people. We know how to solve problems. We shall study
this one together to determine exactly how you got here. When we
know that, we’ll know how to return you to your time.”

It seemed impossible. But my presence there
was impossible, too.

He returned to his desk and plucked up my
passport. “Let us begin with this. Do you know what these markings
are?”

“It’s writing—words.”

“Can you read these words?”

“Yes.”

“What do they say?”

“‘Passport, United States of America.’
That’s where I come from.”

“I’ve never heard of it.”

“It’s a new country.”

“A new country. Oh!” He closed his eyes and
allowed a thrill to shudder through his body. Recovering, he waved
the piece of leather he’d been writing on. “And this? Can you read
the words on the vellum?”

Lines and scratches. “Is it Latin?”

His eyes widened in surprise. “Yes, it
is.”

“I can’t read it.”

“But you recognize it.”

“Where I come from, lots of people would
recognize it. But you’re not speaking Latin.”

“Our language isn’t written. To create a
dispatch or a record, I must use Latin. But few people know it—the
educated few. And none of them are women.” He tossed the vellum to
the desk, still watching me. In a single, swift movement he was
sitting across from me. “Your society—mostly educated, eh?”

“A lot, yeah.”

“Hmm.” He flipped through the passport and
opened it to my picture, which showed me grimacing as if I’d just
eaten a dissected squirrel. “This likeness—it’s uncanny. Tell me
how it was made.”

I’d be lost if I had to explain photography
or any other modern innovations, from computers to can openers.
“I’m not good with technical stuff like photography, or cars, or
air travel—”

“Air travel! Oh yes yes yes!” He clapped his
hands like a six-year-old at Christmas. “Tell me all about flying.
I must know how you did it! If you are from the future, I’m
thrilled to learn what I can from you. If not, your lies are
grand.” He then quickly composed himself. “In either case, your
presence is perhaps not best for our cause, despite Arthur’s
delight in you.”

“I’m glad he’s delighted.”

“Oh, he believes you’ve come expressly to
protect him. That’s why he wants to keep you.”

Ah yes. I was King Arthur’s property.

“Of your true purpose, however, I’m not
certain. We’re at war,” Myrddin went on, popping a handful of nuts
into his mouth. “A king has many enemies.”

“Sounds like he’s insecure.”

“Watch what you say, my lady. Besides, every
king is insecure, as well he should be. An attempt was being made
on his life even as you appeared. It happens all the time.”

“That’s no way to live.”

“It is his calling. He has no choice.”

That, I knew from the stories. I had thought
of it as grand and heroic, as opposed to burdensome.

I sipped my tea. “What if he didn’t want to
keep me?”

“That would depend upon you.” Myrddin
selected a meat pastry. “If you committed an offense, perhaps, like
treason—if you lied, for example—he’d have to kill you.” He took a
bite and continued. “If he tired of you or you became useless, he’d
simply turn you out.”

“I won’t commit treason. I’ll be
useful.”

“That doesn’t mean you belong here.”

I wondered how I was going to make myself
useful. I couldn’t imagine fending for myself on the open plains,
but what did I have to offer a king? I didn’t even have the skills
to survive Hollywood.

“The king called you his wizard,” I said.
“Can you teach me?”

“I’m afraid he used the term broadly. I’m a
natural philosopher, a physician. And I’m blessed with a plethora
of assistants.” Finished eating, he wiped his hands on his robe.
“Arthur knows
my
limitations.” He looked deep into my eyes.
“He tells me you have magic.”

“I have...
some
powers,” I said,
unable to hold his gaze. “But I wouldn’t mind picking up some other
skills.” I had to buy time until I came up with a way to make
myself indispensable.

“I’m pleased and amazed that magic exists in
the future,” said Myrddin. “Here, it has almost disappeared. Arthur
still believes, but he’s old-fashioned.” He stood. “Well! Soon
enough, you and I shall begin seeking a way to send you home.
Just...let’s not mention it to Arthur, shall we?” He wiped his
mouth with his sleeve, towering over me once again. “Today, you
rest. Tomorrow you have an audience with the king.”

 

 

 

 

FOURTEEN

 

I had to jog to keep up with Myrddin’s
confident stride. My painfully stylish boots pinched my toes with
every step. We retraced the path I’d taken from among the infirmary
huts the day before, following it past my hut deep into the green,
buzzing forest, until we stood at the bottom of a seemingly
insurmountable stone stairway dappled in sunlight. Each of its
risers was so steep and uneven I thought the old man wouldn’t make
it to the top. But he skipped up it, his long, slender legs
sticking out under his flowing robe. I scrambled up behind him as
best I could, grabbing branches to balance myself and stopping to
gasp for breath.

At the top of the stairs, a boy waited with
two horses. His off-white tunic marked him as a member of Myrddin’s
staff. Without a word, he blew a puff of air upwards to push his
brown bangs from his eyes, then formed a lift with his hands to
give me a leg up onto the back of a brown mare. The “leg up”
business was clumsy (stirrups made so much more sense), and while I
was at it Myrddin had already leapt aboard his fine, black steed
and ridden away into the forest. Seated at last, I clucked to my
mount, who was willing to trot. Further effort to catch up was
outside her circle of interests, but when Myrddin’s horse slowed to
a walk we were able to overtake him.

At first the wide, clear path was lined with
rocks. Soon we came upon a pair of giant stones posed like sentries
at either side of the way. Myrddin reined his horse to a stop and
leaned so far to the side I thought he’d lose his leather cap in
the underbrush. “These stone columns mark the entrance to my
compound. But it wasn’t always mine. Look.” He pointed to deep
curlicues carved into the giant stone. “A message from our
ancestors. There have always been people here. There always will
be.” He sighed. “I wish I knew what they meant to say. But do you
see? It’s entirely possible to send messages to the future. It
makes me hopeful we can send people as well.”

My mount swished a fly with her tail. I
leaned across her neck to trace my finger along the intricate
patterns in the cool, white stone. How deep in time had the
inscription been made if even Myrddin couldn’t read it? Maybe we
could send messages ahead, but the only people I knew of who went
to the future were found there in the form of mummies and
bones.

Beyond the stones, the woods grew wilder. I
was forced to ride behind Myrddin much of the time because abundant
flora crawled its way over the edges of the path so profusely we
couldn’t ride two abreast. The trees were close enough to touch,
and I sat astride my gentle mare paying little attention to what
lay before me while reaching up, looking sideways, turning to
follow a sound in the underbrush. Sometimes I was forced to duck to
avoid being knocked off by low branches. Eventually our way grew so
thick with growth it seemed not to be a path at all. At times I
thought we were lost. Yet in less than an hour the forest thinned.
Dark green paled to yellow at the edge of the woods, and we emerged
from the trees into bright morning.

Our path met a road that led up the shaded
west side of Cadebir hill, a road so wide it didn’t require
switchbacks. At its summit stood a stone gatehouse about twice as
large as the one atop the zig-zag path on the other side. This more
impressive entry was well-provisioned, with armed men and a store
of weapons.

A dozen guards greeted Myrddin with a
respectful “Good morning, sir.” They bowed slightly to me, as
though I gained respect by virtue of being with the old physician
regardless of my blood-caked sweater and muddy cargo pants. I’d
lost track of the number of days I’d been wearing those pants. I’d
been wearing the underpants even longer.

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