I conjured powerful magic to contact the Admiral, and nothing— no response. Socrates glanced at Puck and Badger sprawled on the rug in front of the fire. The animals lightened his mood; his smile pushed his glasses back up the bridge of his nose.
“My good friends, it’s been a riveting evening, but alas, it’s time for bed. Oh, please, don’t get up,” he teased as snores gurgled from the sleeping animals. I’ll check the tele- vision before I turn in.
Once again, he turned on the old television set; its tubes glowed orange through the ventilation slots of the plastic case. Nothing on the boys or the Admiral. Next it was time to check the house; one by one, Gramarye’s rooms materialized on the tiny screen. He stopped when the library came into focus. A small blond-haired girl crawled on the floor.
What’s Jynx up to? Tenacious critter, isn’t she? Socrates thought.
“Where’s Jynx? Perspective,” he said to the television. The angle of view changed, and he saw Jynx hiding behind a chair.
She’s spying on the boys. There’s no telling what she’ll do when she sees they’re not where they should be. She’s very clever; my third eye tells me she’ll be joining in the adventure. I think it’s developed to the point where I need to tell these kids what’s going on. But how? I haven’t had a chat with Mr. Poe in a while. His advice has been invaluable over the years.
Socrates walked over to the fireplace. Hanging from the mantel was a beat-up sneaker filled with tobacco. He refilled his clay pipe, lit it, and settled back into his chair. He closed his eyes and concentrated his thoughts to contact his old friend. A soft Southern drawl floated down from the bust of Edgar Allan Poe: “It’s been a long while.”
“Too long, my friend,” said Socrates.
“Are you stuck again—can’t think of anything to paint?” Poe asked, twitching his moustache.
Socrates sighed. “I guess I am a fair-weather friend, aren’t I? Only calling on you when I need something. You see, once again I need your advice.”
“I’ve had my foibles as well. You’re forgiven. Well, out with it, man. What’s troubling you to reach out to an old scribbler such as myself?” the bust replied, winking.
“It’s this dual identity thing. Transforming into a child was more difficult than I’d imagined. I soon learned that I had to have a parent, so I had to find one. With parents came rules—not easy for a person who’d been living on his own for more years than I can remember. I had to learn to live with a sibling! The worst was not being able to use my magic. Have you ever washed clothes before, with soap in machines?” Socrates said, blowing a perfect smoke ring.
Poe sighed. “Socrates, that again? Come now—it must be something else.”
“Well, that’s the ointment in the fly—I mean, the fly in the ointment. You see, Poe, there’s been a development. My niece and nephew are staying with us for Christmas,” said Socrates.
“I see,” mused Poe’s bust. “You’re wondering if you should tell the children who you really are. Simple remedy— don’t tell them. It’s for what, a fortnight?”
“It’s more serious than that. Bleise is plotting something and choosing now to carry out his plans. I’ve told you how secretive and slippery he is. What I didn’t tell you is that he can be dangerous as well. There’s more. He’s learned through his snooping that these are exceptional children, and he’s involved them in his plans.”
“Involved them, Socrates—how?” asked Poe.
“Remember my theory of how Bleise has involved me--making me the guardian of the Ceithir?”
“The Ceithir?” repeated Poe.
“Yes, four objects that when brought together bestow incredible magical powers—powers that can easily corrupt even the best of people. Bleise doesn’t even trust himself with them. You see, whoever possesses the Ceithir could become the most powerful person in the world. Well, Bleise has created a fresco in the mausoleum that’s the key to finding the objects. Bleise loves ciphers and puzzles. The fresco may be his masterpiece.”
“That doesn’t explain the children’s involvement.”
“I believe Bleise put an extra layer of protection in place: only the innocent can enter the mausoleum or use the fresco,” Socrates replied. “You know, animals or children. Seeing the boy and his friend trying to find the entrance tipped me off. Suppose they were just being curious. There’d be no reason to hide their adventure. Ethan’s been sneaky and spending far too much time in my library. His sister, Jynx, told me he doesn’t even like books. I sense Bleise has enchanted him.”
The bust of Poe sneezed from the tobacco smoke. “Jynx— great name. So he’s somehow bewitched the children into helping him collect the four precious objects. Hmmm, intriguing. One thing nags at me. Socrates, how could you not know that you are the guardian of the Ceithir?”
“Bleise taught by making us figure things out for our- selves and providing little information. Infuriating old buzzard. The maze behind my house has no entrance. You have to solve a puzzle to enter another puzzle. Only Bleise would create a maze with no entrance. Why, you ask? He’s hidden something of great value in this maze—the fresco. He’s placed his mirage maze near me, the safer of his two pupils. Then my third eye told me that Morgause is active again. Her magic is closely bound to Bleise. When we were students together, she could always sense when he was up to something. When Bleise is up to something, he usually involves me. Morgause is watching my house again; that seals it.”
“Okay, Bleise is behind all this. Have the children actually entered the maze?” Poe asked.
“Yes, and I have to say I’m very impressed with their cleverness. Especially when the real maze is in Scotland.”
“Scotland? Poppycock!” said Poe.
“Poppycock, you say? The portal to the real maze in Scotland is in my cemetery. The children have been magi- cally portal-hopping to Scotland all this time without even knowing it.”
“Oh, they’d have to know—you told me once about nausea and whatnot,” Poe said.
“Portal-hopping is easier than time travel—you simply hop from one country to another,” Socrates said. “There’s no time change. Time travel is a different kettle of fish altogether. Days and nights get all mixed up, or worse—lost. Anyway, I’m wondering if I should tell them who I really am. With Bleise in the picture, I’ll eventually have to intervene. I’ll be forced to reveal my true identity—it’ll be a mighty shock.”
“Socrates, think about it,” said Poe. “Do you really want to tell them your true age, including the whole living- backward-in-time thing, which after all these years I still don’t understand? Do you really want to tell them about the magic, the king, and the unpleasantness with that creature Morgause?”
“It is a sticky wicket, but I should be honest with them. By having them stay with me, I’m partly responsible for their involvement in Bleise’s scheme. You know, up till now, Deadmoor has been so relaxing. Very different from my life in England. But alas, I do sometimes miss that magical realm.”
“Then why are you here and not back on your beloved isle?” Poe gazed at Socrates with arched eyebrows.
“I got to be too famous there.” Socrates shook his head. “People asked me to do everything for them: ‘Merlin, turn this rock into gold. Merlin, win this battle. Merlin, deal with this beast!’ I had no privacy, and the old world grew boring. Creativity had been stomped out. I decided to move to the New World and create a new identity. I thought becoming an orphaned child would be the perfect disguise, though it wasn’t easy transforming into a child! I didn’t plan on the kindness of Finley Maupin—he became the only father I’ve ever known. Anyway, in my travels I discovered Deadmoor. Plenty of peace and quiet—people leave me alone. Plus, Deadmoor reminds me of the hills of Wales.”
“I’ve been calling you Socrates. Should I start calling you Merlin?”
“That’s what I mean!” Socrates rolled his eyes and leaned his back. “It gets confusing and all catawampus. Socrates is fine.”
“Calm yourself, man. When we met in Richmond all those years ago, you told me your real identity immediately,” said Poe.
Socrates lifted his head back up to look at Poe. “You have the disposition for it.”
“Thanks, I guess? By the way, how’s your classmate—that dragon of a person Morgause—doing? Is she still locked away in her tower?” Poe asked with a chuckle.
“She’s a fairy witch, not a person. I only wish it were amusing. She’s gaining strength. It’s only a matter of time before she frees herself. I think this is another reason to tell the children—in case she gets involved.”
“Socrates, you’re considering telling these children that you are Merlin, the greatest wizard the world has ever known? I fear that they’ll think you’re insane. Give it a little time. Be patient and see what happens.”
“Poe, put that way . . . I agree. I will simply have to wait.” “Merlin—I mean Socrates—it’s always such fun chatting with you. Your world is much more bizarre than mine, I’m afraid. I only wish I’d known you when I was alive and writ- ing stories. Your life is much better than anything I could ever dream up. Um, do you think we could try one of your housekeeper’s delicious cookies again?”
“Poe, you know you can’t eat. It didn’t work last time.” “Alas, you’re right. I sometimes forget the marble bust is just a host for me—lips move, but no tummy.”
“Thanks for listening to me and for your advice—it’s always helpful. Happy Christmas!”
“Merry Christmas, Socrates! Good luck!”
Socrates sat gazing at the fire. If the children come back to visit again after this Christmas, I’ll have to tell them. The only question is how?
In a subterranean stone chamber, an elderly man scuttled over to his desk. His gnarled fingers struggled to strike a match. Once it was struck, his hand shook as he lit the bees- wax taper. Settling into his chair, he positioned a scrap of paper, dipped his quill pen in ink, and began to write. When he’d finished the riddle, he blotted the ink, stood, and held out the parchment. He focused his mind, and with a snap of his fingers, the scrap of parchment appeared tacked to the door in Morgause’s tower chamber. It’s time for the second preceptor oculus, he thought. Morgause has depleted the clock’s power. I must honor the prophecy from long ago—two battles for the Ceithir. As good and evil exist, the just will prevail. I can’t stop her, but I can delay her.
Sitting again at his desk, he spit on the dusty crystal ball and wiped it with his sleeve. It began glowing, and the old man touched the side of his nose. A scene on a ship with a cannon and two boys appeared. Another touch and the scene changed to Socrates snoring loudly. After a third touch, the crystal revealed Jynx crawling through the library. He pushed aside papers, feathers, and a half-eaten sandwich, until his fingers found a small wooden box. He pulled a small orb from the box and held it in front of the flame. The dazzling colors were swirling around inside it.
I must devise a stratagem—one with style, a certain panache, I think. Now, what form of bewilderment shall I employ for this exercise? The girl is clever. Could Jynx be the one? We shall see. Wait: the feline. That’s it. I will subvert the feline. I’ll need something to attract the girl’s attention, he thought, snapping his fingers again.
He scanned the Gramarye library and settled on the painting over the fireplace. Why always blobs and squirts with Merlin? Dash it all—what is his alias again? Maupin—that’s it. Perhaps I can ply my hand at finger painting just as well as he. I think I’ll change that picture. Perhaps I’ll paint books and a handsome black leopard, he thought, chuckling softly to himself. Then I’ll initiate my plan to test the girl. Of course, with the help of her friend.
Jynx crawled slowly toward the armchair. I’ve got to move silently and gracefully—just like Badger, she thought. She continued toward the library’s fireplace, the thick Persian rug muffling any sound. Jynx had crawled near the back of the large armchair when she felt a presence beside her. She froze. Was someone breathing next to her?
I can’t look. Ooh, I can’t stand it—I’ve got to look!
Turning her head ever so slowly, her eyes met the green eyes of Badger just inches from her own. A wide pink tongue covered her face with a gentle lick.
“AACK!” Jynx screamed and then clamped both hands over her mouth. “Badger, you bad girl. You gave me the willies,” she whispered.
The big cat rolled onto her side, flicking her long tail. Composing herself, Jynx scratched Badger behind each ear and continued crawling. Careful to make no noise, she peered around the chair and was amazed at what she saw: the boys weren’t in front of the fireplace.
Maybe they’ve moved.
As Jynx made her way to the library’s central corridor, Badger followed closely beside, her head swiveling and bobbing with Jynx’s head. Noticing a dark corner, Jynx started to investigate, but was cut off by Badger. She darted around the cat and gained a few steps before the cat blocked her way again.
“Badger, stop it,” she whispered. “Let me by, silly.”
Badger refused to move. Every time Jynx moved, the cat blocked her path. Jynx soon realized that Badger had herded her back to the fireplace. Sitting down, she whispered, “What’re you up to, girl?”
She sat and waited a few seconds, but the leopard contin- ued staring at her. She tried moving to another chair, but again Badger blocked her way. “Badger, I’m about to give you a piece of my mind!”
Sitting back in the chair, she narrowed her eyes at Badger. “You won’t let me move, but you want something,” she muttered. Then Badger nudged Jynx’s knee with her head. “Now what are you up to, crazy cat?” she asked, and Badger nudged her again.
She won’t let me leave this spot. What does she want? Then she got an idea. “Do you want me to look at something, huh, girl?”
Looking around her, she saw it. “There’s a different painting over the fireplace now.”
The big cat curled around her feet, rooting her to the spot. After a few attempts, Jynx gave up trying to shift her. Jynx studied the painting. “Why would Uncle Socrates have a painting of bookcases?” she asked Badger. But the leopard was too busy playing with her tail like a house cat to make any indication.
A noise outside made her look toward the window. Realizing it was just an owl, she turned back to the painting—but it had changed again! Badger had been painted standing in front of one of the bookcases! She didn’t know whether she wanted to scream or run up to her room and hide under her covers.
Badger was no longer wrapped around her feet. She heard Badger’s loud purr and turned to see the leopard standing in front of the real bookcase. I’m going crazy, she thought. Just then, a thick purple fog descended on the room, and as Jynx breathed in the lavender-scented air, her eyelids grew heavy and she struggled to stay awake. She fell to the soft Persian rug in front of the warm fire and fell into a dreamless sleep.
Owen R. Minter was inspired to write The Shrouded Sword, a fantasy story filled with ancient magic and time travel, after creating a drawing based on Arthurian legend. The Shrouded Sword is the first book in the Gramarye Cycle series. When he’s not writing, Owen makes paintings with a leaf blower, reads, and enjoys coaching Special Olympics Athletics.
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