Excerpts for Lost Years of Merlin
Prologue If I close my eyes, and breathe to the rolling rhythm of the sea, I can still remember that long ago day. Harsh, cold, and lifeless it was, as empty of promise as my lungs were empty of air.
Since that day, I have seen many others, more than I have the strength left to count. Yet that day glows as bright as the Galator itself, as bright as the day I found my own name, or the day I first cradled a baby who bore the name Arthur. Perhaps I remember it so clearly because the pain, like a scar on my soul, will not disappear. Or because it marked the ending of so much. Or, perhaps, because it marked a beginning as well as an ending: the beginning of my lost years. A dark wave rose on the rolling sea, and from it lifted a hand.
As the wave surged higher, reaching toward sky as smoky gray as itself, the hand reached higher as well. A bracelet of foam swirled around the wrist, while desperate fingers groped for something they could not find. It was the hand of someone small. It was the hand of someone weak, too weak to fight any longer.
It was the hand of a boy.
With a deep sucking sound, the wave began to crest, tilting steadily toward the shore. For an instant it paused, hovering between ocean and land, between the brooding Atlantic and the perilous, rock-bound coast of Wales, known in those days as Gwynedd. Then the sucking swelled into a crashing roar as the wave toppled over, hurling the boy's limp body onto the black rocks.
His head smacked against a stone, so violently that his skull would surely have split open were it not for the thick mat of hair that covered it. He lay completely still, except when the whoosh of air from the next wave tousled his locks, black beneath the stains of blood.
A shabby seagull, seeing his motionless form, hopped over the jumble of rocks for a closer look. Bending its beak toward the boy's face, it tried to pull a strand of sea kelp that was wrapped around his ear. The bird tugged and twisted, squawking angrily.
At last the kelp broke free. Triumphantly, the bird jumped down to one of the boy's bare arms. Beneath the shreds of a brown tunic still clinging to him, he seemed small, even for a boy of seven years. Yet something about his face?the shape of his brow, perhaps, or the lines around his eyes?seemed far older.
At that instant, he coughed, vomited seawater, and coughed again. With a screech, the gull dropped the kelp and fluttered off to a stony perch.
The boy remained motionless for a moment. All he could taste was sand, slime, and vomit. All he could feel was the painful throbbing of his head, and the rocks jabbing into his shoulders. Then came another cough, another gush of seawater. A halting, labored breath. Then a second breath, and a third. Slowly, his slender hand clenched into a fist. Waves surged an
d subsided, surged and subsided. For a long while, the small candle flame of life in him wavered at the edge of darkness. Beneath the throbbing, his mind seemed strangely empty. Almost as if he had lost a piece of his very self. Or as if a kind of wall had been erected, cutting him off from a portion of himself, leaving nothing but a lingering sense of fear.
His breathing slowed. His fist relaxed. He gasped, as if to cough again, but instead fell still.
Cautiously, the seagull edged closer.
Then, from whatever quarter, a thin thread of energy began to move through his body. Something inside him was not yet ready to die. He stirred again, breathed again.
The gull froze.
He opened his eyes. Shivering with cold, he rolled to his side. Feeling the rough sand in his mouth, he tried to spit, but succeeded only in making himself gag from the rancid taste of kelp and brine.
With effort, he raised an arm and wiped his mouth with the tatters of his tunic. Then he winced, feeling the raw lump on the back of his head. Willing himself to sit up, he braced his elbow against a rock and pushed himself upright.
He sat there, listening to the grinding and splashing sea. Beyond the ceaseless pulsing of the waves, beyond the pounding inside his head, he thought for an instant that he could hear something else?a voice, perhaps. A voice from some other time, some other place, though he could not remember where.
With a sudden jolt, he realized that he could not remember anything. Where he had come from. His mother. His father. His name. His own name. Hard as he tried, he could not remember. His own name.
"Who am I?"
Hearing his cry, the gull squawked and took flight.
Catching sight of his reflection in a pool of water, he paused to look. A strange face, belonging to a boy he did not know, peered back at him. His eyes, like his hair, were as black as coal, with scattered flecks of gold. His ears, which were almost triangular and pointed at the top, seemed oddly large for the rest of his face. Likewise, his brow rose high above his eyes. Yet his nose looked narrow and slight, more a beak than a nose. Altogether, his face did not seem to belong to itself.
He mustered his strength and rose to his feet. Head swirling, he braced himself against a pinnacle of rock until the dizziness calmed.
His eyes roamed over the desolate coastline. Rocks upon rocks lay scattered everywhere, making a harsh black barrier to the sea. The rocks parted in only one place?and then only grudgingly?around the roots of an ancient oak tree. Its gray bark peeling, the old oak faced the ocean with the stance of centuries. There was a deep hollow in its trunk, gouged out by fire ages ago. Age warped its every branch, twisting some into knots. Yet it continued to stand, roots anchored, immutable against storm and sea. Behind the oak stood a dark grove of younger trees, and behind them, high cliffs loomed even darker.
Desperately, the boy searched the landscape for anything he might recognize, anything that might coax his memory to return. He recognized nothing.
He turned, despite the stinging salt spray, to the open sea. Waves rolled and toppled, one after another after another. Nothing but endless gray billows as far as he could see. He listened again for the mysterious voice, but heard only the distant call of a kittiwake perched on the cliffs.
Had he come from somewhere out there, beyond the sea?
Vigorously, he rubbed his bare arms to stop the shivers. Spying a loose clump of sea kelp on a rock, he picked it up. Once, he knew, this formless mass of green had danced with its own graceful rhythm, before being uprooted and cast adrift. Now it hung limp in his hand. He wondered why he himself had been uprooted, and from where.
A low, moaning sound caught his ear. That voice again! It came from the rocks beyond the old oak tree.
He lurched forward in the direction of the voice. For the first time he noticed a dull ache between his shoulder blades. He could only assume that his back, like his head, had slammed against the rocks. Yet the ache felt somehow deeper, as if something beneath his shoulders had been torn away long ago.
After several halting steps he made it to the ancient tree. He leaned against its massive trunk, his heart pounding. Again he heard the mysterious moaning. Again he set off.
Often his bare feet would slip on the wet rocks, pitching him sideways. Stumbling along, his torn brown tunic flapping about his legs, he resembled an ungainly water bird, picking his way across the shoreline. Yet all the time he knew what he really was: a lone boy, with no name and no home.
Then he saw her. Crumpled among the stones lay the body of a woman, her face beside a surging tidal pool. Her long, unbraided hair, the color of a yellow summer moon, spread about her head like rays of light. She had strong cheekbones and a complexion that would be described as creamy were it not tinged with blue. Her long blue robe, torn in places, was splotched with sand and sea kelp. Yet the quality of the wool, as well as the jeweled pendant on a leather cord around her neck, revealed her to have been once a woman of wealth and stature.
He rushed forward. The woman moaned again, a moan of inextinguishable pain. He could almost feel her agony, even as he could feel his own hopes rising. Do I know her? he asked himself as he bent over her twisted body. Then, from a place of deeper longing, Does she know me?
With a single finger he touched her cheek, as cold as the cold sea. He watched her take several short, labored breaths. He listened to her wretched moaning. And, with a sigh, he admitted to himself that she was, for him, a complete stranger.
Still, as he studied her, he could not suppress the hope that she might have arrived on this shore together with him. If she had not come on the same wave, then at least she might have come from the same place. Perhaps, if she lived, she might be able to fill the empty cup of his memory. Perhaps she knew his very name! Or the names of his mother and father. Or perhaps ... she might actually be his mother.
A frigid wave slapped against his legs. His shivers returned, even as his hopes faded. She might not live, and even if she did, she probably would not know him. And she certainly could not be his mother. That was too much to hope for. Besides, she could not have looked less like him. She looked truly beautiful, even at the edge of death, as beautiful as an angel. And he had seen his own reflection. He knew what he looked like. Less like an angel than a bedraggled, half-grown demon.
A snarl erupted from behind his back.
The boy whirled around. His stomach clenched. There, in the shadows of the dark grove, stood an enormous wild boar. A low, vicious growl vibrating in its throat, the boar stepped out of the trees. Bristling brown fur covered its entire body except for the eyes and a gray scar snaking down its left foreleg. Its tusks, sharp as daggers, were blackened with the blood of a previous kill. More frightening, though, were its red eyes, which glowed like hot coals.
The boar moved smoothly, almost lightly, despite its hulking form. The boy stepped backward. This beast outweighed him several times over. One kick of its leg would send him sprawling. One stab of its tusk would rip his flesh to shreds. Abruptly the boar stopped and hunched its muscular shoulders, preparing to charge.
Glancing behind, the boy could see only the onrushing waves of the ocean. No escape that way. He grabbed a crooked shard of driftwood to use as a weapon, though he knew it would not even begin to pierce the boar's hide. Even so, he tried to plant his feet on the slippery rocks, bracing for the attack.
Then he remembered. The hollow in the old oak! Although the tree stood about halfway between him and the boar, he might be able to get there first.
He started to dash for the tree, then suddenly caught himself. The woman. He could not just leave her there. Yet his own chance for safety depended on speed. Grimacing, he tossed aside the driftwood and grabbed her limp arms.
Straining his trembling legs, he tried to pull her free from the rocks. Whether from all the water she had swallowed or from the weight of death upon her, she felt as heavy as the rocks themselves. Finally, under the glaring eyes of the boar, she budged. The boy began dragging her toward the tree. Sharp stones cut into his feet. Heart racing, head throbbing, he pulled with all his power.
The boar snarled again, this time more like a raspy laugh. The whole body of the beast tensed, nostrils flaring and tusks gleaming. Then it charged.
Though the boy was only a few feet from the tree, something kept him from running. He snatched a squarish stone from the ground and hurled it at the boar's head. Only an instant before reaching them, the boar changed direction. The stone whizzed past and clattered on the ground.
Amazed that he could have possibly daunted the beast, the boy quickly bent to retrieve another stone. Then, sensing some movement over his shoulder, he spun around.
Out of the bushes behind the ancient oak bounded an immense stag. Bronze in hue, except for the white boots on each leg that shone like purest quartz, the stag lowered its great rack of antlers. With the seven points on each side aimed like so many spears, the stag leaped at the boar. But the beast swerved aside just in time to dodge the thrust.
As the boar careened and snarled ferociously, the stag leaped once again. Seizing the moment, the boy dragged the limp woman into the hollow of the tree. By folding her legs tight against her chest, he pushed her entirely into the opening. The wood, still charred from some ancient fire, curled around her like a great black shell. He wedged himself into the small space beside her, as the boar and the stag circled each other, pawing the ground and snorting wrathfully.
Eyes aflame, the boar feigned a charge at the stag, then bolted straight at the tree. Hunched in the hollow, the boy drew back as far as he could. Yet his face remained so close to the gnarled bark of the opening that he still could feel the boar's hot breath as its tusks slashed wildly at the trunk. One of the tusks grazed the boy's face, gashing him just below the eye.
At that moment the stag plowed into the flank of the boar. The bulky beast flew into the air and landed on its side near the bushes. Blood oozing from a punctured thigh, the boar scrambled to its feet.
The stag lowered its head, poised to leap again. Hesitating for a split second, the boar snarled one final time before retreating into the trees. With majestic slowness, the stag turned toward the boy. For a brief moment, their eyes met. Somehow the boy knew that he would remember nothing from that day so clearly as the bottomless brown pools of the stag's unblinking eyes, eyes as deep and mysterious as the ocean itself.
Then, as swiftly as it had appeared, the stag leaped over the twisted roots of the oak and vanished from sight. Part One A Living Eye I stand alone, beneath the stars.
The entire sky ignites into flame, as if a new sun is being born. People shriek and scatter. But I stand there, unable to move, unable to breathe. Then I see the tree, darker than a shadow against the flaming sky. Its burning branches writhe like deadly serpents. They reach for me. The fiery branches come closer. I try to escape, but my legs are made of stone. My face is burning! I hide my eyes. I scream.
My face! My face is burning!
I awoke. Perspiration stung my eyes. Straw from my pallet scratched against my face.
Blinking, I drew a deep breath and wiped my face with my hands. They felt cool against my cheeks.
Stretching my arms, I felt again that pain between my shoulder blades. Still there! I wished it would go away. Why should it still bother me now, more than five years since the day I had washed ashore? The wounds to my head had long since healed, though I still remembered nothing of my life before being thrown on the rocks. So why should this wound last so much longer? I shrugged. Like so much else, I would never know.
I started to stuff some loose straw back into the pallet when my fingers uncovered an ant, dragging the body of a worm several times its size. I watched, almost laughing, as the ant tried to climb straight up the miniature mountain of straw. It could have easily gone around one side or another. But no. Some mysterious motive drove it to try, spill over backward, try again, and spill again. For several minutes I watched this repeating performance.
At last I took pity on the little fellow. I reached for one of its legs, then realized that it might twist off, especially if the ant struggled. So I picked up the worm instead. Just as I expected, the ant clung to it, kicking frantically.
I carried the ant and its prize up and over the straw, dropping them gently on the other side. To my surprise, when I released my hold on the worm, so did the ant. It turned toward me, waving its tiny antennae wildly. I caught the distinct feeling that I was being scolded.
"My apologies," I whispered through my grin. The ant scolded me for a few more seconds. Then it bit into the worm and started to drag the heavy load away. To its home.
My grin faded. Where could I find my own home? I would drag behind me this whole pallet, this whole hut if necessary, if only I knew where to go.
Turning to the open window above my head, I saw the full moon, glowing as bright as a pot of molten silver. Moonlight poured through the window, and through the gaps in the thatched roof, painting the interior of the hut with its gleaming brush. For a moment, the moonlight nearly disguised the poverty of the room, covering the earthen floor with a sheath of silver, the rough clay walls with sparkles of light, the still-sleeping form in the corner with the glow of an angel.
Yet I knew that it was all an illusion, no more real than my dream. The floor was just dirt, the bed just straw, the dwelling just a hovel made of twigs bound with clay. The covered pen for the geese next door had been constructed with more care! I knew, for I sometimes hid myself in there, when the honking and hissing of geese sounded more to my liking than the howling and chattering of people. The pen stayed warmer than this hut in February, and drier in May. Even if I did not deserve any better than the geese, no one could doubt that Branwen did.
I watched her sleeping form. Her breathing, so subtle that it hardly lifted her woolen blanket, seemed calm and peaceful. Alas, I knew better. While peace might visit her in sleep, it escaped her in waking life.
She shifted in her slumber, rolling her face toward mine. In the lunar light she looked even more beautiful than usual, her creamy cheeks and brow thoroughly relaxed, as they were only on such nights when she slept soundly. Or in her moments of silent prayer, which happened more and more often.
I frowned at her. If only she would speak. Tell me what she knew. For if she did know anything about our past, she had refused to discuss it. Whether that was because she truly did not know, or because she simply did not want me to know, I could never tell. And, in the five years we had shared this hut, she had revealed little more about herself. But for the kind touch of her hand and the ever present sorrow at the back of her eyes, I hardly knew her at all. I only knew that she was not my mother, as she claimed.
How could I be so sure that she was not my mother? Somehow, in my heart, I knew. She was too distant, too secretive. Surely a mother, a real mother, wouldn't hide so much from her own son. And if I needed any more assurance, I had only to look at her face. So lovely?and so very different from my own. There was no hint of black in those eyes, nor of points on those ears! No, I was no more her son than the geese were my siblings.
Nor could I believe that her real name was Branwen, and that mine was Emrys, as she had tried to convince me. Whatever names we had possessed before the sea had spat us out on the rocks, I felt sure somehow that they were not those. As many times as she had called me Emrys, I could not shake the feeling that my true name was ... something else. Yet I had no idea where to look for the truth, except perhaps in the wavering shadows of my dreams.
The only times that Branwen, if that was really her name, would show even a hint of her true self were when she told me stories. Especially the stories of the ancient Greeks. Those tales were clearly her favorites. And mine, too. Whether she knew it or not, some part of her seemed to come alive when she spoke of the giants and gods, the monsters and quests, in the Greek myths.
True, she also enjoyed telling tales of the Druid healers, or the miracle worker from Galilee. But her stories about the Greek gods and goddesses brought a special light into her sapphire eyes. At times, I almost felt that telling these stories was her way of talking about a place that she believed really existed?a place where strange creatures roamed the land and great spirits mingled with humans. The whole notion seemed foolish to me, but apparently not to her.
A sudden flash of light at her throat curtailed my thoughts. I knew that it was only the light of the moon reflected in her jeweled pendant, still hanging from the leather cord about her neck, although the green color seemed richer tonight than ever before. I realized that I had never seen her take the pendant off, not even for an instant.
Something tapped on the dirt behind me. I turned to see a bundle of dried leaves, slender and silvery in the moonlight, bound with a knot of grass. It must have fallen from the ridge beam above, which supported not only the thatch but also dozens of clusters of herbs, leaves, flowers, roots, nuts, bark shavings, and seeds. These were only a portion of Branwen's collection, for many more bundles hung from the window frame, the back of the door, and the tilting table beside her pallet.
Because of the bundles, the whole hut smelled of thyme, beech root, mustard seed, and more. I loved the aromas. Except for dill, which made me sneeze. Cedar bark, my favorite, lifted me as tall as a giant, petals of lavender tingled my toes, and sea kelp reminded me of something I could not quite remember.
All these ingredients and tools she used to make her healing powders, pastes, and poultices. Her table held a large assortment of bowls, knives, mortars, pestles, strainers, and other utensils. Often I watched her crushing leaves, mixing powders, straining plants, or applying a mixture of remedies to someone's wound or wart. Yet I knew as little about her healing work as I did about her. While she allowed me to watch, she would not converse or tell stories. She merely worked away, usually singing some chant or other.
Where had she learned so much about the art of healing? Where had she discovered the tales of so many distant lands and times? Where had she first encountered the teachings of the man from Galilee that increasingly occupied her thoughts? She would not say.
I was not alone in being vexed by her silence. Oftentimes the villagers would whisper behind her back, wondering about her healing powers, her unnatural beauty, her strange chants. I had even heard the words sorcery and black magic used once or twice, although it did not seem to discourage people from coming to her when they needed a boil healed, a cough cured, or a nightmare dispelled.
Branwen herself did not seem worried by the whisperings. As long as most people paid her for her help, so that we could continue to make our way, she did not seem to care what they might think or say. Recently she had tended to an elderly monk who had slipped on the wet stones of the mill bridge and gashed his arm. While binding his wound, Branwen uttered a Christian blessing, which seemed to please him. When she followed it with a Druid chant, however, he scolded her and warned her against blasphemy. She replied calmly that Jesus himself was so devoted to healing others that he might well have drawn upon the wisdom of the Druids, as well as others now called pagan. At that point the monk angrily shook off her bandage and left, though not before telling half the village that she was doing the work of demons.
I turned back to the pendant. It seemed to shine with its own light, not just the moon's. For the first time I noticed that the crystal in its center was not merely flat green, as it appeared from a distance. Leaning closer, I discovered violets and blues flowing like rivulets beneath its surface, while glints of red pulsed with a thousand tiny hearts. It looked almost like a living eye.
Galator. The word sprung suddenly into my mind. It is called Galator.
I shook my head, puzzled. Where did that word come from? I could not recall ever having heard it. I must have picked it up from the village square, where numerous dialects?Celt, Saxon, Roman, Gaelic, and others even more strange?collided and merged every day. Or perhaps from one of Branwen's own stories, which were sprinkled with words from the Greeks, the Jews, the Druids, and others more ancient still.
Her shrill whisper startled me so much that I jumped. I faced the bluer-than-blue eyes of the woman who shared with me her hut and her meals, but nothing more.
"You are awake."
"I am. And you were staring at me strangely."
"Not at you," I replied. "At your pendant." On an impulse, I added, "At your Galator."
She gasped. With a sweep of her hand she stuffed the pendant under her robe. Then, trying to keep her voice calm, she said, "That is not a word I remember telling you."
My eyes widened. "You mean it is the real word? The right word?"
She observed me thoughtfully, almost started to speak, then caught herself. "You should be sleeping, my son."
As always, I bristled when she called me that. "I can't sleep."
"Would a story help? I could finish the one about Apollo."
"No. Not now."
"I could make you a potion, then."
"No thanks." I shook my head. "When you did that for the thatcher's son, he slept for three and a half days."
A smile touched her lips. "He drank a week's dose at once, poor fool."
"It's almost dawn, anyway."
She gathered her rough wool blanket. "Well, if you don't want to sleep, I do."
"Before you do, can't you tell me more about that word? Gal?Oh, what was it?"
Seeming not to hear me, she wrapped herself in her customary cloak of silence, even as she wrapped herself in the wool blanket and closed her eyes once more. In seconds, she seemed to be asleep again. Yet the peace I had seen in her face before had flown.
"Can't you tell me?"
She did not stir.
"Why don't you ever help me?" I wailed. "I need your help!"
Still she did not stir.
Ruefully, I watched her for a while. Then I rolled off the pallet, stood, and splashed my face with water from the large wooden bowl by the door. Glancing again at Branwen, I felt a renewed surge of anger. Why wouldn't she answer me? Why wouldn't she help me? Yet even as I looked upon her, I felt a small prick of guilt that I had never been able to bring myself to call her Mother, although I knew how much it would please her. And yet ... what kind of mother would refuse to help her son?
I tugged against the rope handle of the door. With a scrape against the dirt, it opened, and I left the hut. (Copyright ? 1996 by Thomas A. Barron; Published by philomel Books, a division of Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers; all rights reserved)