The Mage Unbound

DISCLAIMER: The British Matter as the Arthurian legends were known in the 13th century, is now free for all. Thus, this story is mine. My favourite version of the Arthurian tales is the one by Mary Stewart, which I now hold superior even to the one by Marion Zimmer Bradley, my former favourite. I consider Stewart's work more realistic and executed with a much greater attention to detail. However, I have not drawn upon either of these sources here, but only on the legends themselves. In particular, two of the more fantastic and less realistic ones, more popular with the common folk than with researchers. So this is a kind of what if? story. The title is a homage to Matt Wagner's Mage books which inspired me, but are otherwise not reflected here, except perhaps vaguely in the mage's appearance.

RATING: Oh, please! Legends that have been around for so long certainly have no need of our officious modern rating systems. But if you insist - no more than PG, possibly G.

FEEDBACK: Yes, please! :) You can reach me at the address given on my main page.

SUMMARY: Read the story. It's brief enough.

 





THE MAGE UNBOUND

 

by Eliann SleepingCat



She turned from the site and started walking back to the tour bus. The guide's voice droned on behind her. "Of course, this is all just a legend. There are many such legends all over the Glastonbury area, and quite a few other sites share this tale. Nearly every hill of any notable size has rivalled this one for its reputation at one time or another. Most of them are in the Scottish Lowlands, a couple in Wales, and at least one in Cornwall. Best known are ..."

She stopped listening. She was nearly out of earshot anyhow. The sturdy heels of her sensible, brown shoes pushed deep into the wet gravel with every step, and her supportive stockings were beginning to squeeze rather than aid her. She could feel every ounce of her fifteen stone, and she was bone tired already, though the morning was still young.

As she was not. Laboriously, she heaved herself up the step and into the open bus, where she sank down on the nearest seat and just sat for a moment, her eyes closed. Then she dug out a comb and a pocket mirror from her handbag and started ordering her hard-permed, white curls. According to the mirror, she looked even worse than usual. For what had to be the sixtieth time or thereabouts, she wondered what she was doing on this tour. She hadn't been anywhere near the old, familiar places for ages, hadn't even thought of them. Now, a year after the death of her last remnants of a family, it had suddenly seemed like a good idea.

And suddenly she knew why she had come. Her swollen legs and her mirror told her how much she needed to rest. And for the first time, it struck her that nobody would miss her. The Myers, Ronald's family, had only made contact once, to sort out the formalities around the funeral, then they had gone back into hibernation, or wherever they usually spent their time. She knew they had only wondered why she had not followed Ronald into the depths. Possibly, they felt it would have made things easier for everybody around. Her two surviving children were rarely in touch, as both were getting on in years, and their Australian ranches took up all their time and effort these days. Luckily, none of the four grandchildren who went down with the ferry had been theirs. As for great-grandchildren, she had always taken care to step quietly out of their lives in time. Before they started wondering. No, nobody would miss her, she was certain of it.

Cheered by the fact, she put her comb and mirror back into her rather oversized, brown handbag and stepped back out of the bus, just in time to meet the group coming back from the hill. The driver was with them, not having had anything better to do in the generally deserted area.

"Oh, Mrs Myers!" the guide fluted at her over the distance. "We were starting to get worried - are you all right? You're not feeling sick or anything?"

"A little faint", she admitted. "Just briefly. I'm all right now. In fact", she added before the guide could ask any more solicitous questions, "I think I'll be staying on. I have a friend nearby here I thought I should visit. I won't be coming back to London with you after all."

The guide looked bewildered. She was quite young, and the stubborn ideas of elderly people always made her uneasy. "Are you sure?" she asked unnecessarily, in the hope of gaining some time. She could see by Mrs Myers' stern face that she was indeed quite sure. "But then at least let us take you back to the village", she worried, "you can take a bus from the station there - or a train ... where does your friend live? Hadn't you better call her first, to make sure she is in?"

"He'll be in", Mrs Myers said, confidently. "And it's of course awfully sweet of you and all that, but I'll be fine here. In fact, it's much more convenient for me, if I start from where I am."

"But we can't leave you here, in the middle of nowhere!" the guide exclaimed, her voice growing a little shrill.

"It's hardly the middle of nowhere", the driver pointed out. "The motorway is just down the slope from here, and there's a petrol station less than two hundred yards from the exit. I could drop her off there, and she could call anybody from there, including a taxi."

She knew she had a choice. Either go with them to the petrol station, hoping to assuage their worries and/or curiosity - and hoping there wouldn't be too many more meddlesome people at the station - or ... She thought of the walk back from the petrol station, some two hundred yards on heavy legs, then back up the slow but long gradient to the hill ... and suddenly she lost her temper.

"Just please forget about me", she said, in a quietly menacing voice. "Just forget there ever was a Nina Myers on this tour. And wipe my name off the lists while you're at it. I called to cancel the stipulated two weeks in advance, if anyone should ever ask."

At first she did not think they had heard her. But then the guide turned away, and her eyes were blank but calm as she called to the driver. He got into the bus, and the guide started counting the group in. Nina Myers held her breath, as the count reached the final member.

For a moment, the guide frowned, then she shook her head. "Twenty. That's all then. Well, if everybody's ready, let's go." The doors closed, and the bus pulled out. Nina Myers remained for a few minutes, watching it safely down the slope to the motorway. When she was quite certain it would not be back, she turned and started walking upslope, towards the tourist site. "Whew", she muttered to herself, "that's been a while. Guess one never really forgets." Oddly, she felt invigorated rather than drained, as she had expected. Nothing like a little success at an old trade ...

She found the entrance that did not look like one, and squeezed through. She had not had to squeeze last time. Now, it was all she could do to avoid getting stuck. Children had played here, a long time ago; she could tell by a discarded wooden sword. They had not gone far, only the first few yards of the passage. So her preventive measures had been strong enough to keep children incurious? She must have been something in her day ...

The passage was every bit as long as she remembered, though she had walked it more lightly then. Twice, she had to stop and rest, before she finally reached the doorway - which still had no door. She could see the room as through a mist or milky glass, and she hesitated. After all these years ... yes, he would be in, as she had said. He might even be alive - after all, she was, wasn't she? But he had been so very much older than her. In fact, that had been the whole problem, back then. No, he could not be alive. After all this time, even his bones might be gone. She had nothing to fear now.

Slowly, she went through the motions, unlocking the milky glass. It was soon done, as once it had been quickly locked. Sometimes, the most powerful measures are also the simplest. Could she have got away with it otherwise? Perhaps; he had seemed rather resigned to his fate, after all. Possibly, he had been as tired as she was now. Yet, his vitality had always been remarkable - she could not recall him ever looking tired.

She stepped into the room, and realized right away that he had to be alive. Damn. Well, she had half expected it, hadn't she? The room was changed, no sign now of the miraculous, golden decorations he had put up for her sake. Now, it was a practical, comfortable living-room, with a telly and stereo set, and even sunlit, as the roof had cracked open enough to allow for a neat skylight - not that he could have got out that way, of course.

The room had been added to. Passing a small kitchen area on the left and a bathroom on the right, she entered a smaller room which had been delved out inward under the hill. It contained two computers and a draped-off alcove at the back. Inside the alcove was a single bed. For some reason she could not have explained had she tried, the sight of it put a thorn in her heart. Briefly, she wondered just when he had given up on her. She looked down and saw that the carpets were still costly. So he had kept those. Or renewed them, most likely.

But where was he? She scanned the rooms for invisibility spells, but found none. Then it occurred to her - the bathroom of course. She walked up to it and tapped gently on the door. "Hello? Anybody there?"

"Just a minute", he said, and she heard the shower go on. Then off again. "Get into the living-room and make yourself comfortable, I'll be out in a jiffy." The shower resumed.

She plumped down on his sofa and put up her weary legs. Yes, he was definitely alive. She would have known that voice anywhere. Only, she did not. Not quite. It had sounded different somehow, stronger, or perhaps only darker, hard to say which. Maybe some kind of bathroom accoustics. Still, it had been undoubtably his.

For a while she dozed. In fact, she had almost fallen sleep as the shower woke her up by falling silent. She sat up, trying to look perky.

"Turn your head a minute", he called to her. "That is, if you embarrass easily. I haven't got any clothes in here. Wasn't really expecting anyone. I'll just pop into the other room and get dressed ..."

She turned her back, hearing the door open. That little thorn stirred again. So who could it be but her? Once upon a time, he had not been so bashful. Still, she had not come here for his sake. Not then, not after all this time.

Then he was suddenly standing there in front of her, and she cursed herself for giving him time to prepare. She would have known him anywhere, though never by sight. Instead of the wizened old man she had left behind, here was an elfin youth, slim and pliant, dressed in druidal greys and greens, and with dark hair. Well, they had always said he was not really a Celt. Or at least not only that ... She was a little surprised that he had not added to his height. He seemed no taller now than he had been, and she always used to think him stooped with age, the decrepit remnant of a once powerful, athletic man. But he showed no bulging muscles now, rather he was as slender and graceful as a willow, and though she suspected he was a bit taller than she, he was far from towering. Nor did he have a beard, any more. His eyes were the same though, hawk golden, and just as clear as they still had been back then.

"The tables turned, eh?" she said gruffly. "All right, I suppose I deserved that. You can knock it off now."

"Nimuë", he said. He could not have known her by sight either. Not by external sight. "Sorry I wasn't expecting you."

"Don't give me that", she said. "You always expect everything. Besides, who else could it be?"

"I mean, I didn't expect you right now", he said. "Though I suppose I knew you'd come. Eventually. Why did you?"

"I need to rest. To sleep for a couple of millennia or three. In fact, if I never wake up, that'll be all right too. I'm old and tired, as you can see."

He nodded. "Want me to put you to sleep?"

"Thanks, I can do it for myself. I never meant to invade you in the first place. Actually, it was sort of a spur-of-the-moment decision. I came here on a tour bus, don't know why. Then it occurred to me how absolutely peaceful this place must be. Not many places around where you can sleep undisturbed for aeons - not any more."

"Will nobody miss you?"

"Nobody. I've been living on Jersey for the last fifty years. Lost my last family in one of those silly accidents that should never happen. The ferry turned over for no apparent reason, and my husband and four grown grandchildren went down with her. As did most everybody else onboard, except me. No, I'm free to disappear. Unless it bothers you. Frankly, it only just occurred to me at the doorway that you might still be alive. But then, I expect you'll want to leave now that the locking spell is broken."

He cast a swift glance towards the entrance, as though he really had not thought of that fact until now. For some reason, he seemed hesitant.

"Reluctant to change places with me?" she asked. "Well, I suppose it might be hard for you to venture out into the world again, after all this time. You've made quite a good home here. Been keeping in touch too, I see", she nodded her head towards the telly.

"It is a bit sudden", he admitted, then smiled as his words caught up with him. "If you can call some fifteen hundred years sudden. I suppose neither of us is in any hurry now. Would you like something to eat, while I think about it?"

Damn. She knew his smile only too well. Only, it had never occurred to her how radiant it must have been in his younger days. Not until now. Why punish her now? On the other hand, it was the first real chance he had got, wasn't it? All right, let him have his fun. After all, she did sort of deserve it. "I don't see why not", she said. "I should be safe enough from you by now. Guess I don't need to look for any devious love potions anymore. How do you get food in here anyway?" she asked, feeling she had embarrassed him enough.

"I'm a vegetarian these days", he called back over his shoulder, already at work in the kitchen area. "The hares bring me food - but I had to swear never to touch any of them. So meat is out. Not that I mind. They are my friends. Kind of shortlived, but then, isn't everybody?"

"Most of the people I've known", she agreed absently. She heard him curse briefly. "What's the matter?"

"Too many dandelions in this batch. They are a bit harebrained at times." She could hear him smile. She had always known when he did. "I could make a dandelion leaf salad. Or a soup if you'd rather?"

"Anything non-poisonous will do." In fact, she did not much mind if there were poison in it either.

He was soon back, with a steaming salad of what seemed rather more than dandelion leaves, but of course, there was no knowing how much of the variety was real and how much had been added along with the spice.

Then he poured two glasses of clear, mountain stream water. "There's a stream coursing through underneath here", he said. "I've delved out a cellar around it. Sorry I have no real wine, but I could slip a spell into the water if you like."

"Thanks, this'll do just fine", she assured him. She took a draught of the water, and immediately regretted her refusal. It tasted strongly of quite a few less than savoury minerals, manganese among them. Furtively, she slipped a spell of her own into her glass, and was annoyed to see him smile mischievously and add one to his own.

"I know it's pretty awful", he said. "I usually turn it into Saxon wine, myself. What's yours?"

"Vodka", she said, in a tone to shut him up. His hair was dry now, and she could see highlights of Celtic red among the dark. Damn him, how long could he hold that appearance? It bothered her that she could not see how it was done. Still, he had had a long time to practice.

She decided to resort to small talk. "You've certainly made a home here", she acknowledged. "Did the hares bring you the machinery too?"

He shook his head, while chewing. "The little folk", he said. "Or rather, they bring the metal and some other rawstuffs. Trade with the dwarves. That's why I've got silver computers - the conductivity plays havoc with their function sometimes, but there isn't much of anything else around in this hill. Besides, the dwarves won't mine anything but gold and silver. Gold would be worse."

She glanced at her disguised mineral water and shuddered. "Does that really work?" she said around a forkful of dandelion leaves.

"Gold computers? Well ..."

She shook her head impatiently. "No, bringing you things. Right through the spell, I mean."

"It works fine as long as nobody tries to get in or out. Just handing objects through the barrier works. Even better through the skylight and other cracks."

"I had wondered about those", she admitted. "So you didn't make them yourself?"

"No, the bedrock cracked. As bedrock will. Given time."

Time. There had been plenty of it. "How did you stand it?" she asked, involuntarily. "How did you stay sane?"

"Are you sure I did?" he joked. "Sorry", he added, seeing her face. "Well, I've never been a claustrophobic person. And whenever it got too cramped up, I'd turn myself into a dormouse - the size, I mean, not literally - and everything would get vast around me, and I would find thousands of nooks and crannies I had never known about before. And when finally I knew all of those too, I'd cast alienation spells on everything, and I would see it as if for the first time, no matter how well I knew every corner, every piece of furniture. Then I would change everything and start over. Finally, I found out that as long as I was not actually trying to get out or around the spell, I could make it expand somewhat. That's when I started adding to the place. Can't have been more than some six hundred years ago."

She nodded. The fake vodka was beginning to take effect. "And you still had your work cut out for you?" she mumbled. "Healing injured hares, helping the little folk ..."

"That's more or less how I started out", he said. "Once."

They ate in silence for a while, finishing their meal. Neither of them seemed to find anything further to say, although she could sense something weighing on his mind. She sat watching his hands while he ate. Long and graceful, so unlike the blue-veined talons she remembered. These, she could imagine lightly weaving his elaborate spells. Or ...

She emptied her glass, and he dismissed the dishes to the kitchen, without even standing up. Then he said, hesitantly, "I'm sorry I bothered you so much in the past. I was often childish, I know that now. About what you said before, about being safe from me now - well, unrequited love is a thing you do outgrow eventually, although you can never believe it while it's going on."

"Don't worry", she said, tiredly. "That's all in the past. In the far past. I only wonder why you still feel you have to appear to me in that guise - but I suppose I deserve it. And come to think of it, perhaps it is just as much punishment to you, seeing me the way I am now, as it is to me, seeing you like that. I only wonder why you never used that trick with me back then, when there might have been a slim chance it could have helped."

He looked puzzled, as if he did not quite know what she was talking about; yet he seemed to feel that he had to refute her last sentence. "But you made me swear never to use my craft on you!" he said. "And I never did after that. Though to be quite honest, I don't think I would have risked trying to maintain a disguise throughout, if that's what you mean. I can think of some hoped-for occasions where a suddenly slipping disguise could have come in very awkward."

She chuckled at that, and he looked pleased to see her in a good mood. Then he ruined it all by saying, "You know ... I'd like to make it up to you, pestering you like that. If you ... if you feel you'd like to ... before I leave you to your peace ... well, you can have me before I go."

It might not have been the best way of phrasing such a suggestion, and her rage took manifest form before she could stop it, lashing out at him like a tongue of fire, searing him on the cheek. It surprised her a little that she should be so fast. "All right", she yelled. "You've had your revenge! I thought it would be enough for you just appearing to me in the likeness of a young elf instead of the old wreck I know you for, but I might have guessed you had to push it! Never one for chivalry, were you? Sorry, but I won't stoop so low as to accept your offer. So you won't get the opportunity to slip your disguise at the proper moment and gloat! But I will grant you the satisfaction of your success, if that's enough for you. I know it has been for me. And now I'm tired, and desire nothing but my rest."

He felt his sore cheek, and his fingers came away slightly blooded. "I'm sorry you choose to take my offer like that", he mumbled. "I made it in good faith. After all these years, I never dreamed you were still so preoccupied with appearances", he added a bit sharply, and she could see a quick glint of sarcasm in his golden eyes.

She rummaged in her handbag, coming up with a bandaid which she gave him. "Put this on. Didn't really mean to scorch you. Just lost my temper for a while there." She watched him apply it to his cheek, and could not help observing, "I'd have thought you bled only ichor."

He grinned. "I'm not a god. At least not yet." He stood, putting on a greenish cloak of the kind elves would sometimes use for camouflage. In fact, she had not even seen it hanging about. "Well, I'll be going then", he said.

Just like that? No luggage even? she thought, then realized that he was the least likely person on earth to need any. "You've made up your mind then?" she asked instead.

He looked at her for a while, quietly. "If you have", he said.

"I have", she said, a little too firmly. Determined not to take his meaning, if indeed he had any. "And you can lock me up, the way I did you. If you want to."

He smiled softly, then came over to help her put up her heavy legs and get comfortable on the sofa. He spread another green cloak over her, then stroked aside her whitened hair and kissed her lightly on the forehead. "Sleep well", he said, and turned to go. In the doorway, she called him back.

"There's just one thing I'd like to know", she said. "I've been wondering all along - how come I can't sense your disguise? I can't tell how it's done, and I thought I was pretty good at such things. After all, I know everything you know. Or used to, anyway."

He turned, and this time he looked really embarrassed. "You mean you actually didn't know? Well, perhaps I never told you, but dammit, I thought it was common knowledge. Surely you must have heard it from someone else?"

"Heard what?" she asked impatiently.

"That I move backwards in time", he shrugged, helplessly. "I was born an ancient man - why else did you think I threw so many silly tantrums? For me, it was still a tender age. I'm fifteen hundred years older now - or younger, if you consider the outside. Eventually I'll die a babe, crammed with the knowledge of the world." He stood for a moment regarding her, his golden eyes wide with something she just hoped was not compassion. "Sorry you didn't know", he added lamely.

She closed her eyes. "Go away", she said. "Go away, and leave the old ones to their sleep."

She did not hear him leave, but after a long while she looked up to find him gone. With a sigh, she stretched out on the sofa, and clicked the spell in place behind him.



*** The End ***




© Eliann, 1992-04-06