Chapter Twelve: Do the Time Warp
Disclaimer: There. I ripped the magical, circled "C" from Merlin's precious face. Now he MUST be mine...
Mighty the Wizard
Who found me at sunrise
Sleeping, and woke me
And learn'd me Magic!
Great the Master,
And sweet the Magic,
When over the valley,
In early summers,
Over the mountain,
On human faces,
And all around me,
Moving to melody,
Floated The Gleam.
-"The Gleam" by Alfred Tennyson
Time isn't some straight line that you can follow with your finger, but the world likes to think that way. The world can't help it- they're trapped by their own humanity. A three-dimensional world blindly aware of travelling through a fourth- a line that leads to some unseeable place.
But the Otherworld isn't blind like this world. And I was born there.
My mother is Queen Guinevere Pendragon, wife of High King Arthur Pendragon of Albion. She sometimes told me that, when I was only a thought, something evil wanted to claim my life. This was mostly averted, and I was soon born. But you see, after a time, when the threat was gone, she came back and discovered that my father had vanished as well. I suppose my birth should have been a celebration in such a dark time. But my mother was heartbroken by the loss of her husband. With the help of a great sorcerer, she sent me back to be trained by the creatures of the Otherworld. I saw her often, almost twice a year in her time, which was still twenty-six more times than I had ever met my father.
The Otherworlders fawned over me. They named me Ether, because I was of the air, and heir of Albion.
I grew up surrounded by magic. I played with it, trained in it. For twelve years of time outside of our time, I grew into a novice magician. I could wrestle trolls and race the basilisk and dance with the Seelie court until my legs went numb. I would never been a Sidhe, but I was something different than a human…
Three years ago and a few months from now...
Ether sometimes thought he lived in the moon, because he and the Otherworlders were able to dance like ghosts through the human world when the moon's face was widest. They watched the humans, when the moon was thinnest. There was just enough room for them to press their eye into the white gap and stare down at the reveling nights. The Unseelie liked to encourage the wars. But the Seelie, Ether's Seelie, encouraged the midnight mischief.
In the moonlight, they zipped alongside horses and spooked them with sounds. They stole trinkets and planted them on enemies or lovers. They mimicked the beasts and loped beside them.
Only the craftiest of the Seelie knew how to break into the Second World- into the dream worlds that men carried around in their heads. Some men went years without finding them. And most never did. But a clever Otherworlder, if he or she knew the right words, could step in as easily as they stepped in the air.
Ether was not one of the craftiest or cleverest Otherworlders. He blamed that on his humanity.
It was midnight on Samhain and the Otherworlders hovered over his shoulder while he slipped the glamour over his head. It, like all his glamours, was more of a net than a cloth- magic woven over reality, but not really hiding it. It was the strongest that he could manage. He didn't have a lot of natural magic to him to start with, but with a little cleverness, he could make-do.
Below them, in the human world, hundreds of men and women danced around their campfires. Ether could feel it where he stood, and was glad of the smoke that helped blot out the moon, because it also hid the small star that fell off the lip of it.
Down, down, down into Albion-
Down, down, down into Man-
Down, down, grievous Wanderer,
Deep down, n'to the pit of the Damned!
Ether shuddered with the spell that they chanted after him. It followed ahead, crushing the ground into a hollow and letting him softly find his feet. He stroked his fingers along it as it ravelled back up into the Otherworld, leaving him behind with the glamour netting over his face.
He took a breath and straightened his shoulders.
Otherworlders loved to make mischief with the Men of the World, but they knew that mischief is an art style carried by presence and surprise. Mischief is no good to anyone if Otherworlders are always up to it. How could that keep Men on their toes? It couldn't. Men, though dull, adjust rather well to their environments. And too much mischief, the Otherworlders realized, was something that couldn't happen.
So they shortened the nights and they slimmed the groups. And when it came time for Ether to have a turn, he was all alone.
Or he thought he was alone, because the first Men which Ether found had a fortress around them unlike any magic he had seen.
Ether crept close, hiding behind the trees, his eyes glowing as he took in the sight ahead of him.
The foreign magic was so fine that it was almost invisible, like unicorn wool. And the strength of it rolled through him, not a ripple from a single shot of magic, but a stream of it, moving out and out and out from nothing.
At first, he thought it was the Otherworlders playing a prank on him, for he was a Man. Technically. But his sourness passed as he used his Man-eyes on the group around the fire.
Knights, he saw. About a dozen of them, gleaming in their chainmail and armor, all handsome and ruddy and jolly. He edged a little closer, breathing by the worms in the dirt and the moths on the leaves. His glamour shimmered around his eyes, he pulled at the webbing to better see.
There was one man not like the others- a rippling man, bent with age. He was withered like an old apple core, brown about the skin with years of sunlight, endless searching in the reflection of humming water. His long white hair whispered down his bowed back, tapering off into a messy braid. He looked about a hundred years old to Ether's Man-eyes, but when he saw the man by magic...
Well. That was another story altogether.
This is hardly fair, Ether mused. Here I am, trying to play pranks on men, and men are playing pranks on me!
And then the rippling man's eyes crossed his.
Ether knew at once, even before the earth beneath him began to lurch, that he was caught. The soft mossy ground rose up and wrapped around his ankles, pinning him in place, and the vines of the murmuring oaks bound his arms. The frogs began to croak, loudly, like an alarm.
The rippling man said, "Ah, so I remembered this time. Just as awkward and certain as your father will be. You've got some of his build, haven't you? But I suppose the Seelie court are to be blamed for the rest."
Ether struggled, bewildered. The knights didn't seem surprised at all with the way the old man was talking. In fact, they froze and flickered like a dream. Then, shockingly, they vanished at once.
"Oh!" he exclaimed.
The rippling man creaked to his feet and hobbled in Ether's direction, flicking his fingers this way and that in the air, sending waves and waves of magic towards him, undoing the spells on the vegetation without so much as a glance or a word.
Ether staggered and regained his equilibrium. "The knights were a mirage!"
"Yes, a mirage," nodded the man. "Of the air, just like you."
Ether looked at him sharply. "Who are you?"
"Who am I," said the man. He thought very hard, tugging fitfully at his beard. "Who I am is a little difficult to explain, I'm afraid. I am what I was and what I will be, but at the moment, I'm more of what I will be, unlike how I will be what I was... Oh bother." He had tugged so hard on his beard that a little bit ripped out. He held it up and breathed on it, and it floated away to be caught up by a nesting owl.
"You're mad," Ether said, delighted. He'd always wanted to meet a madman. The Seelie favored them as company, and Ether was beginning to see why: you could never tell what they would say.
"I'm Emrys," corrected the man. "I've always been like this. I think."
Ether was curious enough about Emrys to follow him to a small coal hut in the thick of the woods.
If Ether had been a normal boy, the place would have frightened him. Twisting shadows and snapping twigs surrounded the place. There was a cold, sharp feeling like eyes were always watching you, and he could smell the movement of wolves and other things in the trees, lurking just out of sight. But Ether was raised by the Seelie court- earthly creepers were laughable to him.
"Do you make coal?" Ether wondered, ducking his head so that he didn't bump into the lintel. It was warm inside, if horribly messy. Small animals lived in every pile of clothes or wood or compost that scattered around the space. Something big breathed under the large flowered quilt in the far corner.
"No," Emrys said. He stopped and scratched his head. "But I could, actually. I hear it's a noble profession."
He drew off his outer robe and threw it over the breathing quilt in the corner, then put on another one (identical, but magenta) from a hook on the wall. With a flick of his hands, flint flew into his gnarled hands and he hunched over the barren fireplace, striking them clumsily against one another.
Ether watched for a moment, then, growing impatient, let his eyes flash gold.
A spark jumped from the stones and into the fireplace. They lit up immediately into a roaring fire that caught a bit of Emrys' beard on fire.
"Oh, sorry," Ether said, as Emrys patted at himself vigorously. "Need some water?"
"Water?" demanded Emrys. "And be drowned? Never! Rather the pyre than a pool. Awfully noble, fire."
Yes, thought Ether, the maddest madman to ever madden a night. "So how do you know who I am? Does your magic tell you things like that?"
"Magic. Doesn't tell you much, does it? Have to guess a lot, don't you? No. We'll meet- have met- when you were older. I saw it. Tobacco?" He offered Ether a tin of old, smelly leaves and a pipe (Ether declined both) and puttered around, magicking teapots and strange clear boxes with the words Tupperware through the air. Emrys ate out of them as they floated by. "You are going to play a terrible part in it all, I'm afraid."
"You met me when I was older," Ether repeated. "Isn't that a little backwards?"
"What's forwards? You face one way, I face one way- presto! Two points of view."
"So, you live backwards- I mean to say- you get younger every year instead of older?"
"I suppose I have, haven't I?"
Ether helped himself to some of the chicken floating by on a red dish marked SOLO. "But that sounds fantastic!"
Emrys puffed on his pipe, blowing animated clouds of trees and dragons into the short ceiling. "I had a vision, once, when you were older," he said. "You had begun to understand that taking a path apart from your loved ones will always be fantastic. But it will be fantastically lonely. And then I remember how you reacted just now, and it was a little heartbreaking."
"All right," said Ether. "About that. About knowing me. How do we know each other? Did you say you knew my father?"
"I rather hate the linguist who decides on grammatical tenses," Emrys muttered.
"Present tense," Ether suggested. "Can you think in the present tense like everyone else?"
Emrys shrugged. "For a while."
"Good. Do you know me?"
"I'm there when you're born. I guide you between the Men and Fae. I send you on a mission to save the world."
Ether let out a bewildered laugh. "You do what? When do I ever get around to something like that?"
Emrys tapped tobacco ash onto his rug and checked the ticking circle on the far wall.
"In about twenty seconds."
"Twenty seconds?" Ether would have laughed again but he could feel that wooly magic gathering again, and that time it was a hundred times stronger. He began to feel very nervous. "What am I even supposed to save it from? Where am I-"
The wooly magic grabbed Ether by the feet and yanked.
Time travel, for beginners, is impossibly hot. (People in lab coats and PhD programs might say otherwise, but what do they know really?) If Ether hadn't been raised by the Otherworlders, you can bet your buttons that he'd have shriveled up like Emrys' tobacco ash. As it is, Ether appears in the exact same spot, more than thirteen years in the past of his own timeline. This is to say, he is simultaneously a lovely dream in his mother's mind and a soot-faced, slightly smoking twelve-year-old sitting in the middle of a coal-maker's hut.
The resident coal maker is not pleased.
The first thing Ether discovers is that coal makers are strong. Ridiculously so. The man lifts him with one hand and boots him clear out the door, shouting about the lunacy of sorcerers and the evil of magic and how he will report him so-help-him-god if he doesn't get out of here quickly.
The second thing Ether learns is that forests change over thirteen years. He should know the trees here, but cannot place them for the life of him. He wanders, dazed, for a few miles, finding himself more and more lost until he comes across a small hovel where a kid about his age is bringing firewood.
Ether stumbles, falls on his hands, and makes his way over to him. "Oi!"
The boy spins, drops his firewood, and blasts him.
The forest floor is lovely and soft, but Ether is growing less dazed and more angry by the second. He can see why Men aren't so thrilled by the prospect of dealing with madmen now. He leaps to his feet.
"What is your damage, moron?" he shouts. "Can't a fellow ask for directions in these fae-forsaken woods without being kicked or killed?"
The boy's eyes glow in the dusky light. "Leave, little boy, if you know what's good for you."
"Oho." Ether's temper flares, along with a bright flush in his cheeks, and he sets his jaw. "Is a dwarf like you going to make me?"
Realistically, Ether can't be more than an inch taller than the other boy, but when you're younger and shorter than most of Earth's population, technicalities like that begin to matter at a very personal level. The boy turns purple. His eyes clench shut and he shouts loudly, magic whipping out like a punch. It's very fast and very strong.
And very obvious.
Ether already has a shield up, and while his shields are always weak and shatter easily, it's enough to keep him from being knocked off of his feet again.
"Ha!" he crows. "Is that all you've-?"
But this time, when he goes flying backwards, Ether stops in midair as the forest vines grab him up and stretch him out like animal skin. From behind him comes a soft footfall, and a third person joins the scene- a beautiful woman in all black. Her wild hair is black, too- tumbling and knotted. Her eyes are a fierce gold. One hand is splayed out in his direction, trembling with the forces she commands. The other beckons to the bratty dwarf, who sidles up to her.
"Mordred," the woman says sweetly. "Who is your friend?"
"A magic user," the boy, Mordred, tells her. "Not the druid kind. He ambushed me."
"So, you're a liar as well as a dwarf," Ether says sourly. A vine tightens warningly around his neck.
"How did he get past the warding?"
Mordred nods enthusiastically. "Exactly! I wasn't expecting anyone. He came out of nowhere and started picking a fight with me. What if he works for them?"
"They don't use magicians, Mordred."
Mordred deflates, glaring up at Ether like he's trying to pick apart a particularly dense knot. The beautiful woman looks back at Ether.
"How did you pass our wards, boy?"
Ether wants to scream. Only a few hours ago he had left his home in the Otherworld to play tricks on Men. Now, he was tangled in a forest much younger than the one he'd started in, with only the word of a crazy old sorcerer that he would live to save the world, and no clue of how to return home to his family and friends. Brilliant.
"Look," he says. "Obviously, we've all started this relationship off on the wrong spell. I didn't know I was trespassing. I don't actually know where I am at all. I'm a long way from home, I'm tired, and if one more person picks me up and tosses me, kicks me, or drags me through a wormhole, I'll snap."
Mordred looks at Morgana. Morgana looks at Mordred.
"Look," Ether repeats. "Could you please put me down and lend me some bread or something while you decide whether or not to kill me? It's been a long day."
In the end, they take Ether into their hovel and let him "spend the night." This is in quotations because the night turns into the week, and the week the month, and before any of them know it Ether is part of the savage little family of magic users in the hovel in the woods. Morgana's rationale changes with each day that passes. At first, Ether is allowed to stay because she has to figure out how he got in. Then, Ether should probably stay because he really is very famished and where will he go, anyway, as a magic-user in an anti-magic society like this one? And then, it's because he has to repair the part of the hovel which he and Mordred demolish during one of their rows, or he won't be getting any supper just see if she's joking.
And after all the repairs are finished, well, nobody really thinks much about Morgana taking on another apprentice very much. Even Mordred, for all of his huffing and puffing, is secretly pleased to have another boy around to practice with. Especially since Ether is as eager to test the more violent spells as Mordred is, and neither of them mind very much about getting beat-up in the process. Plus, in the winter months, Mordred no longer needs to sleep bundled beside Morgana, but can snore freely on the floor rug with Ether. In the spring, they race each other around and keep things interesting all the time. Morgana helps them trim their hair with a pair of sharp shears with a dragon rampant printed in the side of one blade. She helps them darn their own socks and stitch the knees of their trousers.
Ether learns about the kingdom, and what it's like to live with humans, especially humans his own age. He becomes a little less fae, and little more human, and a lot more worried about how he's expected to save the world.
A/N: Do your eyes deceive you? Nope, this is an update. With more to come! Ether's not done telling his side of the story.
This is very fast-paced, mostly because there's a lot of ground to cover and I want to give it all to you as soon as possible. Emrys (the old man Merlin version) shows up again to help with the explanations. Things get a little Doctor Who around Ether.
Thanks for reading! Hope you're all having an awesome week.