The only time in here is that meted out by the flickering of candle flames.
They're burning backwards.
Thirteen candles light my prison. Thirteen long wax tapers. At least, they will be long, I assume. All but three are melted down to the bottom of their holder on the many branched tree of iron that rests in pride of place on the centre of the large stone block that dominates the rear of my prison. Two are fully lit, the third is half way restored.
The wax, when I touch it, is cool, even though it runs liquid upwards towards the flame. And the flames...
...the flames burn as cold as the ice plains of this planet.
I've had time (or what passes for it in here...) a plenty to study the confines of this place. The crystal walls that bind me refuse to reflect or refract the light from the candles. Instead they seem almost to absorb it. Except for the places where my shadows fall. There are three of them now. The third is still half-formed, dancing on the wall in time to the flickering of the nearest candle. The other two roam around the cave at will, sliding across the angular planes of the walls and floor like liquid darkness, seemingly with a life of their own. They slide away from me if I try to approach to closely, and so we have for now an uneasy truce. I keep to my side of the cave, they stay mostly on theirs.
I haven't slept since I awakened in this place. It must have been days ago, but I feel no need for sleep, or food, nor is the air stale. There is no escape. The cave is totally sealed, I've had time enough to find that out. I cannot even find the entrance by which I was placed here. The walls are as smooth as glass, no purchase, no crevices, not even the faintest trace of a line, however hairline, to indicate where the entrance might be. And my magicks, such as they are, are useless here. As they were as she bound me by my own enchantments.
Nimue, Nimue, do you watch? Do you look on and laugh to see me bound? When will you release me from this cage?
Will you release me?
The third candle is now almost fully restored. How time flies. I find I can't keep a track at all. Even trying to keep track by the beating of my heart does no good. Time runs on its own rules in here, and nothing I do can affect it, monitor it or stop it.
Nothing. Nothing.NOTHING! Nothingnothingnothing. No time, no exit, no torment, no sound (except my heartbeat and the sussuration of my own breathing.) Time flies, time stands still, and I - I, Merlin: Prophet, Magician, sorcerer, druid, warrior - Merlin, who has not walked a straight path through time for decades, am trapped like a fly in amber. Four walls, a ceiling, a floor, a bare stone altar and a candelabra are all that surround me now. This is the limit of my world.
Four candles burn brightly now, with that cold, ice cold light that gives no heat, but yet casts shadows on the razor edged crystal walls of my cage. Shadows with a life of their own, dancing in time to a music only they can hear.
I am Merlin. MERLIN. The crystal walls bounce the sound of my name back at me, around me, through me. The multitude of angles gives birth to a cacophony of sound, until the air rings with it.
And then it dies, so suddenly. Once again, there is only silence. Yet in that silence I remember something. A way out, if I have the courage, and the desperation. A contingency long planned for. But risky, so risky. I will not be the man I am now.
But to stay... to stay will be to live out an eternity trapped in this place, only my shadows for company. I will be mad before the end, a state of mind I have no wish to revisit, thank you very much. Been there, done that.
Eternal madness, or the half life of the cauldron-born, everything I am or ever was poured into a new vessel, in the hope that not too much will be spilt in the transition. Let her have the body then, an empty shell to mock. I will not jump to her tune again.
Let it be so...
Five. The fifth just came to life as I watched. I'd tried to keep a count of the seconds, but found my mind wandering in strange pathways. This place does not want me to keep time. At least, not one that is not given to me.
How long have I been here? Does the question even have a meaning here? I do not hunger, or thirst. I do not sleep. The air has not even begun to taste stale, nor, do I think, it ever will. Will I die here?
Can I die here...? Or will this be a living hell of my own making, damned for all eternity, just me, and my shadows. Four of them dancing along the walls, making finger-plays to mock me. The fifth hovers just on the edge of my vision, yet to be born. They overlap occasionally, but seem to want to pull away from each other, constantly jostling for space. The only place they overlap completely is at my feet.
Where am I? Why am I here? I remember...
...no time, no sense of rhythm, no rhyme, no reason. What have I done? My memories peel away one by one, like my shadows cast by these cold candles. I know I am fading, I remember that I set this in motion, presumably to flee this prison, but I no longer remember how I got here. Pieces of my life are simply slipping away... and I don't know what they are. That's the worst of it, I feel. I try to hold onto the memories, but its like carrying water in my hands.
Nimue. Nimue brought me here.
No. We were by the stream, in the woods, laughing together, making love, enjoying the feeling of dappled sunlight on bare skin, loving and living and never wanting the moment to end.
Or was that Viviane? Viviane, my Ice Queen, Lady of the Lake, ice blonde hair falling over her shoulders, Viviane fighting side by side with me as inch by inch we retreat from the ruins of the Winter Palace. Already the day grows dark, as Morgaine's star-killer devours the sun. Ragnarok come to Breceliande, and in the darkness of true night, much later...
No, that was long ago, or yet to be.
No time. For the first time in many years I am not taking my drunkards walk across history, and where once I would have welcomed the respite, I now feel trapped. So much for the great, legendary Merlin.
I must have cried, for a while. Something I have not done in many years. The collar of my tunic is wet.
Six candles burn on the altar, and two of my umbral playmates make finger-shadows on the floor, in a pool of light. Hands locked together to form the images of two birds. Ravens.
Hugin. Munin. Thought. Memory.
One flies away, and the other crouches in a sullen pose, wings hunched.
Yes, thank you, I get the joke. Very funny, now go away and torment someone else.
How long will I have before even my thoughts are gone? Will I know, when the time comes? Will there be anything left? If anyone ever comes and unlocks this prison, will they find me here, muttering nonsense in a corner, a babbling, drooling fool, bereft of power, of thought? Of self?
Or will there be only shadows left, dancing on the walls to the tune of the cold flames playing on the altar? Is that how I will end, a hollow man, fallen between the shadows?
Are you getting all of this, whoever you are, or will be? When you awaken, you will be me. Or I will be you... I never really paid that much attention to the procedure. Or to the ethics of it, although I remember...
..."remember"... a word I'm starting to treasure. I remember. I still have my memories. So long a life, it will take a long time to drain me completely...
...Morgaine, standing in the rain under the awning of a tent on the eve of battle. Her grey cloak hanging sodden from her shoulders, dragging near to the ground, it is so heavy with water. Her battle armour glows slightly in the twilight, the repulsor field activated. Whether as a warning to me that she does not trust me, or as a precaution against an ambush by Cynric's troops, I do not know.
Knowing Morgaine, probably both.
They carry Kai's body out on a stretcher, laid out in state, as befitted the half brother of both the new High King and his second in-command. Morgaine raises her hand as the druids pass, and they stop, the faint red glow surrounding the seneschal's body deepening as the propulsion spells are momentarily stopped. She places her hand on his cheek, and brushes his dark hair away, tracing the line of the scar that runs from his eye to his jaw. The terrible burns from the hell-fire cannon blast that killed him are mercifully hidden by the black and red banner that covers him.
'The vat-masters say he will awaken in 3 days, Knight-Commander,' I tell her. 'Do not grieve for the shell.' I mean it kindly, but she turns on me anyway. As perhaps well she might, there is no love lost between us. She resents my influence over Arthur, and I...
...I can never forgive her for continuing to hold his heart. Does she think I do not know that she still slips away at night to his tent? That they still share a bed? Or is this something else she does to taunt me, to flaunt their forbidden passion in front of me, as if daring me to put an end to it. I dare not, not directly. She has the sight, she sees this, I feel.
Damn the woman, she reminds me so much of her grandmother, more so with every passing year.
'Awaken? To what, Stormcrow?' She pulls her hand away and with a gesture tells the procession to depart. Ungauntleted her hand moves to pull her coif from her head, letting her brilliant red hair tumble freely about her shoulders. 'Cauldron-born. Vat-grown. A construct given life and the memories of a dead man. It won't be Kai.' She fiddles with the holster of her hell-fire pistol, takes the weapon out, checks it, re-holsters it. The only sign she gives outwardly of her discomfort, for otherwise her face is unreadable.
I pride myself on my ability to judge those around me, but this woman... the woman persists in confounding me.
'The ensoulling process is true, Lady. Kai will be restored, it is rare for much to be lost in the process. And it is better than death...'
'Is it?' She stares up at the sky, refusing to meet my gaze. Overhead, the great bulk of Caer Tagel looms, blotting out the stars where it lurks above the battlefield. Flitters and Ornithopters, their lights twinkling in the darkening sky, can just be made out as they fly backwards and forwards, shuttling troops and much needed supplies down to the camp. 'I wonder, Merlin. The sorcerers say that the cauldron-born are truly ensouled, but how do we know? What makes the difference between the original and the copy?'
'There is no difference, 'I tell her. Repeating what long ago, Blaise taught me.
'Then why do we treat the cauldron-born so poorly? Rank upon rank of vat-grown cannon fodder to place in the front ranks of our legions, given life, and flesh, and memories enough to train and fight and die, and yet - should it be a mage, or a great lord who is reborn this way, he is himself. No different.' She does turn to face me then. 'Hypocrisy, Merlin. One law for the great, another for Everyman.'
I didn't have an answer for her then. I don't now.
Seven, and the shadows huddle in a corner, a pool of darkness deeper than the surrounding shadows thrown by the knife-edged walls. Strange, that the crystal should reflect shade, instead of light. Or perhaps not, for this place must have been crafted for a purpose, with malice aforethought.
Try as I might, I cannot remember what that purpose might be, or how I got here.
What do I know? I am Merlin.
The candle flames flicker and jump, and the shadows momentarily surge towards me, and I find myself cringing away from their touch. But they flit back to their corner, and the candle burns steadily, wax running up the taper to pool in the base of the cold flame.
Why do I fear them so? What danger lies in the darkness? They flutter on the walls like raven wings in flight. Perhaps they hold the key to my memories, which are pouring out of me moment by moment, with no rhyme, or reason, or rhythm.
How do I know they're gone? It's like a growing hole deep inside, and I reach for the edge only to find it just out of reach, a little more every time. I still know who I am. I remember my life. I remember Arthur.
But not what happened to him. Or how I came to be in this place. Or why I'm forgetting so much. Is it the crystal cave that takes it away from me? Perhaps the candles, or maybe it's the shadows, my shadows. Perhaps each one takes something from me every time. How much of me will be left when all thirteen dance upon the walls?
Merlin. I am Merlin. I will not be imprisoned like this, do you hear me? Are you watching, listening, whoever you are? Set me free, or by the Great Dragon I will see you crushed. I know you're watching, why else would you do this? You think you can hold me? No prison can contain my sorcery. I will destroy this place, and everything in it. Back. Back, keep back, you will not have me. I can destroy you, all I have to do is... I am Merlin, who would do this to me? Who, who?
Shadow, shadow, on the wall,
Who's the most powerful one of all?
If I cannot destroy the lights, perhaps I can destroy the shadows. Tear them from the walls, crush them, rend them, scatter them to the night they came from.
Perhaps more light would destroy them? Yes, that's it. A light spell, brighter than the day...
I awaken in a corner of a cave of crystal. That's the first thing I notice. The second is the pain. I look down, and see my hands, torn and bloody, criss-crossed with cuts as though from a thousand small knives, the fingernails cut to the quick and broken and torn. So much blood. And my clothes... what isn't torn and bloodied is scorched, as though from a great heat. When I move it feels as though my body has been flayed, although except for the cuts, it's just reddened.
There is light in the cave, reflecting and refracted from a million faceted planes. It comes from a stone altar at the far end, upon which stands a candlestick, with thirteen tapers in it.
Eleven of them are lit, ten burning brightly, the eleventh halfway down.
No. Not down. Up. Goddess help me, it's burning backwards.
Something about this isn't news. How long have I been here? I touch my face, wincing as my torn hands touch the skin. No beard, so it can't have been...
No. I cannot trust time in here.
Why would anyone do this to me? What have I done?
The shadows on the walls are long. Perhaps it's a trick of the light in here, made worse by the crystal walls, but they don't seem to be fully human. I'm not even sure they're my shadows. Ten of them scatter upon the walls, and across the glassy sand of the floor where it's been fused into glass at some point. The eleventh shadow is mine, I can see it at my feet. I raise an arm stiffly, and wave, and it waves back.
Then it thumbs its nose at me, and I sit back down on the sharp sandy floor, watching as it dances a little jig.
Why me? I'm just a mage, not even fully trained. Blaise...
Hope surges. Blaise will miss me, surely, and come looking! No-one could hide me so well that Blaise could not track me down, eventually.
Or perhaps this is one of his tests, like the time he left me to Lailoken's tender mercies. Dragon or not, I hate that creature. One day...
Perhaps this is Lailoken's idea of a joke. I wouldn't put it past her. Well if it is a joke, it's not funny. Using what little clean clothing remains, I bind my hands as best I can. I will wait. That's the best idea. Just sit, and wait.
I feel so tired, and the shadows are closing in. Must be a trick of the light.
'Do you know who you are?' The voice is familiar. I blink, and close my eyes tightly. The light hurts. 'Easy. Here, I'll turn down the light. Your eyes will be sensitive for a while until they get used to it. Can you sit?' Hands help me, and when I open my eyes again, blinking back tears from the faint light that illuminates the room, I'm staring into a face. A woman's face. Not young, but not old. Ice white hair falls down to her shoulders, catching all the colours, like a prism, from the shielded glow she holds. Her gown is blue, and floor length.
'I... I am...' I stop. I remember. Above me, perched on a tangled coil of organic conduits, two ravens look down on me, with heads cocked. One caws softly. I smile at her. 'You choose,' I tell her.
She smiles back and takes my hand in hers, and it is cool, so cool to the touch. 'I always liked the name "Gwion," myself,' she says softly. She places a cloak around my naked shoulders, still damp from the amnion fluid of the cauldron.
'You just like causing trouble,' I tell her. She laughs.
'It's my middle name.' She helps me to stand. 'Come, we still have work to do.'
Darkness, always darkness. The shadows have devoured everything. All but one small scrap. And that lies curled up in a corner of a cave, blinking in the light as sunlight streams into the crystal cavern for the first time in...
Who knows? The figure inside certainly does not. It cringes away from the light, huddled in the corner, hugging the last remaining shadows to itself for protection, and whimpers. The cave mouth is blocked momentarily by two figures, who stare at this creature in fascination. At least, one of them does.
'This is what they've given us to work with?' Lailoken tossed her long blond hair back from her shoulders, a suprisingly human gesture, for her. She usually hated taking human form. Her companion looked upon the creature in the corner rather more compassionately. 'A palimpset - is that the best they could do?' she asks frostily.
'We take what we're given. This one is just about ready for use, by the look of it.' Blaise walked forwards and knelt at the side of the ragged figure. 'Don't be afraid, we're here to take you home.' He took his cloak off and placed it around the man's shoulders. 'What's your name?'
Blank eyes stared back at him, fear flickering in their emerald depths. Blaise sighed. 'Never mind, we'll think of something to call you.' He helped the man to his feet, and led him haltingly from the cave. Lailoken was already outside, waiting to enfold them. She looked almost ready to stamp her foot with impatience, Blaise thought as he half-carried his charge towards her.
'Will you hurry up?' Lailoken snapped at him. 'We have work to do.'
"In the end is the beginning, and in the beginning the end."
(C) Helen S. Fayle November 2001