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The Other Way Around

For a score of days the chronicler Raedulf had sought the magician, trailing him on uncertain information obtained from sulky peasants, importuning mendicants and cautious bandits encountered along the way.

The going was often difficult. The magician followed the weedy Roman roads only when they seemed to suit his odd fancy. Nor did he confine his course to the wandering byways and riding paths.

It was as if, thought Raedulf, the magician were impatient with the routes of ordinary men, pushing his way instead through whatever bog and bramble stood between him and his destination.

Why, then, was the course he took so far from straight?

Raedulf was minded of some mighty knight bereft of his senses by too many blows on the head in too many jousts, mounting his charger and clattering hither and yon while convinced he was riding straight into the face of the foe.

"Yea, I encountered an ancient such as you detail," said a young friar met on the old road along the River Kennet. "We talked somewhat, but I fear he will find meager favor in the eyes of our Redeemer. There was no charity in the man."

Raedulf took the hint and dropped two coppers in the young man's hand. "Did he say whither he journeyed?"

"No, gracious sir, nor whence he came. He was hard of speech and arm, and I did not deem it prudent to question him closely. He seemed of a sullen humor."

Raedulf nodded. All reports indicated the magician was indeed a man of temper. "Did he say ought to you of his errand?"

"Nothing. He tested my knowledge on various matters, sneering at my replies, then whirled and strode away. He muttered foully at what he called my ignorance of the Old Stones."

"I know little of the Old Stones, myself," said Raedulf, "except that they stand somewhere in this region of Briton."

"They form a round figure, and are ten leagues south and west from here. That was all I could respond to the ancient's test."

Raedulf grew alert. "He wished to know where the Old Stones stand, then?"

"Why . . . I think not. Seemingly he knew, and was but trying my knowledge." The friar hesitated with puckered face. "Think you the ancient scamp made a pretense of trying me, to hide his own ignorance?"

Raedulf replied, "The ancient scamp seems capable of that—or of most anything."

The friar uttered an unchristian oath. "I am shamed to have been awed! A fraud!"

"It is perhaps well you were," said Raedulf. "This ancient may travel like a bull both crazed and lost, but like the bull he has horns with which to gore."

After proper farewells, Raedulf turned his mare and rode westward along the road, watchful for a good way trending more to the south. By and by he found a side road that proved well-frequented, with a fair scattering of villages and farm stockades along the way.

Through the afternoon he rode at a comfortable pace, having no need for hurry if the magician were indeed making for the Old Stones. The magician traveled afoot and would easily be outpaced to the destination by Raedulf's mare.

The chronicler found a comfortable inn for the night, and there obtained clearer information on the location of the Old Stones and how they might best be reached. He was also warned that the Stones were in outlaw-infested country, to which he nodded solemnly, thinking of how many times he had received similar warnings during this quest, and of how he had yet to meet a brigand who cared to challenge a man who was mounted and wearing a sword.

If he rode in fear of any man, Raedulf mused, that man might best be the very one he was seeking.

Late the following afternoon he reached the Old Stones. They rose above the thick brush of the deserted heath like some primitive colonnade. Raedulf stared at them in wonder. Here was surely a thing that should be better chronicled. Who had raised these great stone slabs on end along a circling line, and had spanned many of their tops with massive lintels?

Certainly they were not the work of the Romans. They had not the style of Roman structures. And they appeared far too old.

Allowing his mare to stroll along what paths she could find through the brush, Raedulf explored the place at length, but found nothing enlightening. Here and there were ashes of campfires, some quite fresh, left by outlaws or outcasts or whoever, but nothing to indicate what the Stones might have once been.

And no sign of the magician. The old man would not reach the place until the morrow, he guessed.

With that thought, he turned his mount back the way he had come, toward the stockade of a peasant-squire he had passed half a league to the north.

He met the magician on the way.

Raedulf had never seen him before, but descriptions made his identity certain. He was a huge man, a head taller than even King Lort, with a heavy beard of gray and frowning brown eyes. Strapped to his shoulders was a backpack of peculiar design.

The magician halted in the middle of the path, and Raedulf stopped his mare.

"Hail, thou of renowned wisdom!" he called out.

The magician's right hand stole out of sight under his cloak. "Who the hell are you?" he growled.

Taken aback by the strangeness and vehemence of the magician's words, he replied, "Raedulf of Clerwint, good sire, a chronicler in the service of God and His Majesty, Lort."

"Huh! A damned newspaper reporter! Of a sort, anyway. You know who I am?"

"Thou art he who is called Merlin," replied Raedulf, wondering if it would be safe as well as courteous to dismount.

The magician said, "I'm Wilmoth T. Aberlea of Maryland, and if you hayseeds make 'Merlin' out of that, what the hell's the difference to me?" He paused. "Is this a chance meeting, what's-your-name, or were you laying for me?"

"Raedulf of Clerwint," the chronicler supplied, feeling miffed. "I confess to having sought you out, good magicker."

"Okay, Roddy," the magician said brusquely, "let's hear what you want. I'm a busy man."

"In behalf of my liege, sire, I would have of you circumstantial knowledge of the lamented King Arthur."

Merlin stared at him, then chuckled. Raedulf took heart from this display of good humor and dismounted.

"This Lort of yours . . . isn't he the bully boy over in the Leicester neighborhood? What's his interest in Arthur?"

"There is a likeness in the names, Lort and Arthur," Raedulf explained. "My lord wishes to know if there is a tie of blood; if, indeed, he might be heir to the kingdom of Camelot. And if so, he would have me enquire the whereabouts of that kingdom."

The magician bellowed a gust of laughter, then soured abruptly. "Tell him no," he grunted. "Now pull your pony aside so I can get by, boy."

Raedulf began moving his mare slowly out of the way, hesitant to let the magician move on but fearful of disobeying. "Frankly, renowned magicker," he entreated, "that is not the answer my liege wishes to hear."

"Nuts to your puny liege!" grumbled Merlin as he stomped forward. Raedulf quickly yanked the mare aside as the magician went past, and stood looking helplessly after him.

But a few steps later the magician halted and turned, frowning unhappily. "This Lort of yours . . . he doesn't know his own genealogy?"

"Not precisely, sire," Raedulf replied. "Like the great Arthur himself, my king's origins are confused. Since the departure of the Roman legions, our land has been rife with disorder and civil strife to a degree that families are uprooted and—"

"Okay," snorted Merlin, "I get the picture. What the hell, your boy Lort might even be Arthur on some other timeline. Look, tell him what he wants to hear. Tell him he's the third son of Arthur's only child, a daughter named . . . named Merlinette, after me. Say his elder brother was slain in battle and the other has taken Church vows. So that makes him heir. As for Camelot . . ." The magician shrugged. "Tell him it sank, that it was lost in The Wash."

Raedulf bowed stiffly "I extend His Majesty's thanks, gracious magicker."

Merlin was grinning. "You don't believe a word I said, do you?"

"I have obeyed my king's command," retorted Raedulf, "in seeking out and questioning he whose knowledge of Arthur is fullest and most direct of all men still alive. It remains for me to report accurately your words on the subject."

Merlin chuckled. "Spoken like a true newspaperman!" He applauded. "You ought to go far, although you don't get a mention in any history book I ever read. You know how to lie honestly, and that's a big step toward civilization as I knew it. Maybe that's what I should have encouraged around here, instead of chattering about Arthur and Company. But I suppose it wouldn't have led to a convergence at this early date, and wouldn't have caught on."

The magician fell silent, seemingly lost in speculations beyond Raedulf's ken. Indeed, nearly all the magician had said was mystifying to the chronicler, and rankling as well. There was the insulting suggestion that the accurate recounting of the words of an authority was not necessarily honest. What else was a faithful chronicler to do? And the strange comment that Arthur might be Lort in some other . . . other here-and-now? How could Lort be his own grandfather? But, no, that was Merlin's fabrication . . .

It was much too confusing. To change the subject in his own mind, Raedulf asked, "Does the good magicker seek the Old Stones?"

Merlin frowned down at him. "I go to the Old Stones," he corrected. "I seek nothing, because I know the location of all things."

Raedulf gathered his courage and said sharply, "I believe the good magicker shares my ability to lie honestly."

Merlin blinked, then chortled in surprised delight. "Aha! Hoisted by me own petard! You're a clever lad, Roddy. Okay, I know Stonehenge is somewhere on Salisbury Plain, but how the hell to find it in all this damned brush is something else."

"Five furlongs down this path," said Raedulf boredly, "you will be in sight of the top of the Stones."

Merlin studied him in amusement, then said, "I have a recently seized fowl in my sack, along with other foodstuffs fit for a magician. Come along to the rocks and dine with me, lad. Else I might wind up talking to myself."

"I'm honored, sire," said Raedulf, bowing. "Perchance you would accept the use of my mount, to rest your limbs after so long a journey."

Merlin snorted. "Not on your life! You have to grow up with those stupid animals to understand them. Besides, I'm a jogger from way back. Keeps me in shape."

So Raedulf led his mare and walked at the magician's side. He was less awed now, having bested Merlin in one verbal exchange. Also, he found a touch of comic absurdity in someone exercising (if he had understood correctly), to stay in good walking form . . . the way knights exercised with lance and sword.

"The Old Stones have not a Romish look," he offered.

"They're not Roman," said Merlin. "I'm going to study them, find out what they really are."

"Mayhap I can be of some assistance in this undertaking," Raedulf hinted.

The magician glanced at the younger man. "Think you might pick up some of my magic, boy?"

"You might choose to reward me in that manner, sire. Or perhaps with more of the history of Arthur the King."

Merlin spat a word that was strange to Raedulf, but that sounded obscene nonetheless. "I've shot all the Arthurian bull I intend to," he snapped.

The remark had puzzling implications. But they made it clear the magician did not want to tell more of the great king. "Then perhaps of your own history, good magicker."

"My history you wouldn't believe. Or be a fool if you did. We magicians lead strange lives."

Annoyed at the patronizing tone, Raedulf replied tartly, "You may try me, sire."

"Okay, boy. How about this for a starter: I come from thirteen hundred years in the future."

Raedulf nodded thoughtfully, although he would have guessed that, possessor of the wisdom of the ancients, Merlin had come from the distant past. "Your time must be one of inspired magicianship," he flattered.

Merlin grunted in disdain. "Mediocre. I was the greatest of the lot. Got damned little credit for it, of course. A prophet without honor in my own time," he muttered bitterly. "Not that I gave a damn. I was never one of those security-blanket organization scientists who can't function without coddling and praise. And the lousy Swedes know where they can shove their stupid Nobel Prize, for all I care."

"You are highly honored here, good sire," placated Raedulf, wondering what the old man was raving about.

"Oh, sure! But not understood," snapped Merlin. "A magician with some impressive tricks, but not a brilliant physicist whose discoveries surpassed those of Einstein! Those dolts called me 'simplistic'!"

"Which dolts, good sire?" Raedulf inquired.

"My damned so-called colleagues! Those biddy-brained idiots who sat in judgment on my work, those referees who insulted my discoveries and kept them from being published!

"That's the way they buried my theory of subatomic structure, in which I demonstrated that there is only one kind of particle, the neutron. All the other kinds that have multiplied like rabbits in the minds of bought scientists are merely reactions to neutron configurations of flows and counterflows of energy.

"You want to know what the referee said about that? He said I chose to ignore numerous phenomena that failed to fit my scheme. A damned lie! But those party-lining journal jacklegs believed him.

"After that disaster, I didn't even try to publish my finding of the equivalence of gravitation and nuclear binding force. What a laugh some idiot would have had with that one! Everybody knows the two forces can't be the same. Gravity's the weaker by too many orders of magnitude to make a relationship thinkable. So nobody but a trouble-maker like me would see a parallel between the neutron stars, in which gravity is so concentrated as to be almost totally self-confining, and the atomic nucleus where binding force is similarly concentrated. Oh, no, I wasn't about to announce that one! I was enough of a joke or a fraud without that hanging over my reputation. Instead, I carried on alone, and brought a consideration of time into the light thrown by my earlier discoveries. And I learned how to time-travel."

He paused, slamming fist into palm.

"That was exactly what I needed. I was a man ahead of my own time, trying to mingle with people far too stupid and backward to appreciate my work or myself. The future was where I belonged, so . . ."

Merlin broke off his angry recital in midsentence, glowering at the path ahead. "How much farther till we see the stones, boy?" he demanded.

"Around yon turning of the path."

"Good. I'm getting hungry. Keep an eye out for firewood."

"Very well, good sire." After a hesitation, Raedulf asked timidly, "But, sire, if you sought the future, how is it that you journeyed into the past?"

Merlin snorted. He strode on in silence, and Raedulf concluded he had asked about a matter that vexed the magician sorely. He was casting about for a graceful change of subject when his companion began muttering, "Even I fell in the intellectual trap. Even I."

He looked at the chronicler and spoke more audibly. "We believe what our society believes, boy, whether we mean to or not. We're tricked, because there are so damned many beliefs and they come at us in so many shapes and disguises. You believe I'm a great magician, but in my own time no intelligent young man would accept that. He would look for the mirrors, or the sleight-of-hand. Or the scientific explanation. When I tell you I come from the future, you accept that as powerful magic and ask no explanations. But a young man of my era would say, 'Impossible!' Or he might be sharp enough to ask, 'How does it work?' Both reactions would be based on accepted assumptions of the times. They would be proper."

Raedulf nodded slowly. "Even within one time, that is true. The deeds of the Romans oft were senseless to my greatfathers."

"Right!" approved Merlin. "Now, you see that any society's set of beliefs will contain falsehoods, beliefs that contradict the natural scheme of things."

This was a difficult point. In accepting it, Raedulf saw that he would be admitting that his own deepest convictions could be in error . . . along with the rulings of his king and the teachings of the Church. He was not prepared for that. But he could pretend in order to stay on pleasant terms with the magician. "It would seem that each group of beliefs would contain its share of truth and its share of falsity."

"Correct!" said Merlin. "And the discerning man cannot test every belief of his society. Most are drilled in when he's too young. And, there are so damned many of them one lifetime isn't long enough to test them all.

"So I accepted a notion about the structure of time that was inaccurate, and as a result I wound up here in the past instead of the future."

Raedulf stared at him. All that lecturing about beliefs merely to justify an error in the magician's time-journeying spell! Surely, Merlin must make few mistakes, to be so perturbed by just one!

"The error must have been profoundly subtle," Raedulf said.

"No, not really; I can explain it to you. If you went back to the time of your father's youth and killed him before he bedded your mother, then you could never have been born and thus could not have killed him, could you?"

"Not unless my mother . . . But then he would not have been my . . . No." Befuddled, he shook his head.

"What would happen?" asked Merlin.

"A pretty riddle," said Raedulf, pausing to jerk some dry brush from the ground for the campfire. "I would think on it."

"I'm not bandying riddles. My question was rhetorical."

"Your pardon, sire," Raedulf responded. "Then I would say, without thinking on it, that upon slaying my father I wouldst must vanish."

"But how could you have existed until then?" persisted the magician. "How do you explain this paradox within the laws of nature?"

To cover his hesitation Raedulf began breaking up the brush in his hands as he walked along. He had at least a vague notion of what the magician meant by "laws of nature." This brush, for instance, was a natural thing with its slender trunk and still thinner branches, which he was snapping off to make a compact bundle under his arm. Also, he recalled the magician's earlier mention of "timelines."

"Could it be," he asked, "that time is shaped like a tree? Then if I returned to slay my father, my deed would cause a new branch to sprout at that point—a branch on which I slew my father and vanished."

The magician gasped. "Remarkable! You have duplicated precisely the erroneous belief of my own era; that timelines diverge into the future like the branches of a tree. You are a man of wit, Rodney."

Pleased by the praise but irked at being misnamed, Raedulf said, "Then nature is deceptive in this matter?"

"Only to the extent we deceive ourselves," growled Merlin. "My excuse for being taken in is that I acted in haste. I was too damned eager to get into the future and find an advanced, compatible culture, perhaps even a woman who would measure up to my standards . . . I being a younger man then than now. But here we are. Stonehenge."

"Yes, good sire." Raedulf pointed. "Yon is a partially fallen lintel stone under which others have sheltered before us. Mayhap you will find it a suitable nook."

Merlin walked over to the stone and gave it a hard push. But it was firmly wedged in place against one of the uprights, and was some eight feet above the ground at its higher end. "It'll do," he said. "Tie your pony and hunt some more wood."

Raedulf obeyed, and when he returned the magician had a fire going. "Who's been camping here, Rodney?"

"Outlaws, or so the people hereabouts say."

Merlin snorted. "They better not bother me!"

"I thought on that while gathering wood, sire," replied the chronicler. "The bandits are a cowardly lot, but when we are in our blankets at night they might find us easy prey. Also, this plain abounds in concealment for those of evil intent. I would favor precautions, sire."

"Yeah? Such as what?"

Raedulf lifted his hands in a gesture of ignorance. "I know not what magical protections you have, sire. I merely suggest it would be well to have those protections in readiness."

"Let me tell you something, boy," said the magician. "There's no magic like an alert watchman. Maybe I'll rig up something, but we're going to take turns sleeping. And you'd better not doze on watch, understand?"

"Of course, sire," replied Raedulf grumpily.

But he soon forgot the insult as he watched Merlin remove the limp form of a fat goose from his pack, plus a number of bewitched utensils of light gleaming metal. The magician put him to work plucking the goose while he busied himself over the fire, often muttering what the chronicler took to be incantations.

The goose was soon broiling on a spit, with frequent bastings of a spicy liquid the magician had concocted. Raedulf watched in awe, his mouth watering from the savory odors of the bird and from a small stewpot, as the magician worked his wonders.

The supper was eaten shortly after nightfall by the light of the dwindling fire.

Raedulf picked the last bone clean and sighed contentedly. "Were the victuals so wondrous in Arthur's Court, noble magicker?" he asked

Merlin chuckled and sucked his teeth. "Far better than this, lad. The banquets of the Table Round, honoring some worthy knight for valor on a perilous quest, were marvels beyond delight that all but the angels might envy and—" He broke off the recital with an impatient grunt. "Never mind that nonsense!"

Raedulf realized belatedly that he had blundered in bringing up the subject of Arthur. The old magician was obviously bitter about the fall of the great King and the sundering of the Table Round. It was not a matter to remind the magician of.

"I have thought on the shape of time," the chronicler said quickly, "and must confess my thinking comes to naught."

"Small wonder," said Merlin. "You haven't the background to deal with it. You never heard of the expanding physical universe, and wouldn't see the absurdity of the idea that time, too, was expanding through the multiplication of divergent timelines.

"To compensate for the physical expansion of the universe, timelines have to converge. One by one they have to be consolidated into fewer and fewer tracks. That's what I should have recognized at the beginning." The magician stared moodily at the embers of the fire.

"That shaping," hazarded Raedulf. "It caused you to journey opposite to your desired course."

Merlin nodded. "I moved toward divergence, which is the only direction one can shift in time. A time-traveler can get himself out on a limb, but can't go from limb to trunk. That would compromise all the consolidations that took place during the period covered by his shift. That much I knew, but what I didn't know, didn't bother to realize, was that time branches downward, into the past, not upward into the future. Which makes me an idiot, like everybody else."

"Belittle yourself not, noble sire," Raedulf soothed. "You are renowned above all mortals for wisdom and power, and are spoken of in kingly councils with awe and trembling."

After a pause Merlin said, "I have made my mark on this timeline, at that."

"Indeed you have, sire. However, I confess myself in darkness concerning these time-limbs bending into the past. If I entered the time of my father's youth and slayed him . . ."

"You wouldn't," said the magician. "Converging timelines solve that paradox by simply not allowing it to happen. If you went into the past, you'd likely find yourself on a limb where your father didn't even exist. Probably you would wind up marrying someone much like your mother and having a son who, when the juncture of your limb and a major branch came, would meld into the Rodneys from other limbs and continue as yourself. So, instead of creating a divergence, you would help bring about a convergence."

"But if I refused to wed the woman with my mother's likeness . . ." Raedulf began.

"You couldn't refuse, if that were the role you were destined to play in bringing the convergence. It wouldn't occur to you to refuse. No more than it occurred to me to . . . well, never mind that. I think you get the picture. Any point on any timeline can lead to only one future, but is led to by innumerable pasts, and a jump can be made only to a past where the jumper will fit in. That's orderly nature for you, boy."

The magician rose yawning. "I'm hitting the sack. Take the first watch and wake me around midnight, Rodney."

"Very well, sire."

The magician vanished under the lintel stone and was soon snoring softly.

Raedulf found his mind whirling with the many strange thoughts thrust upon him by the words of Merlin. The foolish question he had asked on behalf of King Lort—to which he had received a false and silly answer—seemed the least important part of his exchanges with the magician.

But he had learned much worthy of detailed chronicling about the magician himself, and about the magical cookery from which delightful flavors still lingered in his mouth.

Why, then, he wondered glumly, did the thought of chronicling these events leave him feeling uninspired? Thirteen hundred years in the future, the name Raedulf would be forgotten, and his chronicles unheard of. Why should he care for that? he demanded in self-annoyance. Before this day, he had never given a thought to the durability of his scribings. Why should ambition be destroyed by knowing his work would not survive some thirty mortal lifetimes?

He studied moodily on this, considering such possibilities as Merlin being a minion of Satan—despite his long service to the most Christian of all kings—who had purposely made the discouraging remark to tempt Raedulf away from his God-prescribed duties. Yet the remark had seemed unpremeditated, words carelessly dropped by an abrupt man.

Raedulf sighed and turned to look at the Great Bear in the northern sky, and estimate how much turning of the Bear would mark the end of his watch.

Perhaps, he mused, knowledge of the future was in all cases evil. Were not seers generally regarded with suspicion and assumed to be of dubious grace? Thus the knowledge the magician had thrust upon him in that one remark was best forgotten—pushed out of his mind.

So Raedulf murmured all the prayers he knew, and shortly felt less depressed.

But still he could not view his future with enthusiasm.

* * *

The night passed without incident, except for a few furtive sounds of movement that did not approach the camp and could have been made by straying animals rather than by men.

In the morning Merlin began his study of the Old Stones. He stomped about with great energy, uprooting brush that stood in his way, measuring stones and distances with a magical metal ribbon that lurked in a flat round box except when he drew it forth. He drove stakes, strung lines of yarn hither and yon, took sightings, and scribbled unreadable notations.

Raedulf helped to the extent his ignorance permitted.

"If the Old Stones stand in your future, good sire," he asked once, "could you not have studied them then?"

"I wasn't interested then," Merlin replied distractedly. "And not all the stones are still up in the Twentieth Century. Many will be removed, including the one we slept under. There won't be enough left to put the purpose of the structure beyond dispute."

"Could it be . . ." Raedulf began, and then caught himself. He had nearly brought up the subject of Arthur again, by suggesting the Stones were the underpinnings of a vast Table Round, left from some distant eon when giants strode the earth.

"It's thought to be a religious shrine," Merlin said, sounding cross. "With astronomical implications. Used for a seasonal celebration. Look, can't you work without asking questions?"

"My apologies, sire."

Thereafter the chronicler spoke less, but the magician grew more irritable as the morning advanced. Finally he turned and snapped, "Look, boy, I work best alone! Always have. If you want to be useful, get on your mare and go get some groceries. See if that squire-peasant up the road will sell you cheese, meat, eggs of recent vintage, wine, cabbages, bread and whatever. Do that and I'll teach you some decent cookery."

"Most willingly, sire," beamed Raedulf, and he hurried to obey. After all, he was sure the magic of the Old Stones would be ever beyond the scope of a mere chronicler, but the magic of the cookpot might be a marvel he could master!

He outdid himself to be a quick student of Merlin's lessons. Thanks to his professionally trained memory, Raedulf could murmur to himself just once a formula given by the magician, and have it firmly fixed in his mind.

Merlin was pleased with him, and kept him busy at the campsite day after day, preparing dishes that took hours in the making. Meanwhile, the magician continued his investigation of the Old Stones.

* * *

The brigands attacked on the third night, during the magician's watch. Raedulf was startled awake by a sharp thunderclap of sound so powerful as to leave his ears dazed. He leaped up, tripping on his blanket while groping in the dark for his sword.

"Avaunt, you beggars!" he heard Merlin shout above the surprised yelps and brush-threshings of the attackers, and the alarmed whinny of the mare.

"Where are they?" he gasped when he reached the magician's side.

"In disorderly retreat." The magician chuckled in evident satisfaction. "I winged one of 'em. They won't be back—more likely they'll scram out of this region completely."

"That thunderclap nigh made me do the same," complained Raedulf. "And my mare as well." He hurried over to the animal and soothed her with strokings and soft words.

"That was my magic wand you heard." Merlin laughed. "My thunderwand. My faithful rust-proof roscoe! I'd better show you how it works tomorrow, boy, in case another band shows up during your watch some night."

"Whatever you think wise, sire," Raedulf agreed reluctantly. Using the thunderwand had no appeal for him. But he listened carefully next morning as the magician explained the wand's functioning. Its proper name, he learned, was "Forty-five Automatic." He handled it as well, but rather gingerly, not daring to touch the portions called "safety" and "trigger."

"Not many rounds left for it," Merlin remarked with regret. "When they're gone I'll bury it, I suppose."

Raedulf wondered if such fearsome magic was often needed in Arthur's Court, protected as it had been by the swords of many valiant knights. But he restrained himself from asking.

They were not disturbed again during the fortnight they remained among the Old Stones. Raedulf surmised that the marauders of that one frightful night had warned others of their kind that demons in human guise lurked amid the Stones.

Then one afternoon Merlin returned to the cookfire only an hour after the midday meal. He sat down and regarded the chronicler thoughtfully.

"I'm through here, Raedulf," he said gruffly, surprising the younger man by, for once, getting his name right. "I'll be moving on, and you'd best be getting back to Lort with that cock-and-bull story, and to your chronicling."

"Very well, sire, but I have little lust for either."

"Ah? Why not?"

"On our meeting, sire, you remarked that my chronicles are not known in your time of the future. Though I had never thought me to make a lasting impress, I am yet disheartened that my scribings are fated to perish."

"Humpf! I oughtn't to have said that," Merlin grimaced. "Look, boy, maybe your work does survive in a way. All this Arthurian guff I've been spouting gets preserved some way. Maybe your work lasts long enough to get it established in oral tradition."

"Perhaps," said the glum chronicler. "But the word-of-mouth of the Great King and the Round Table is already widespread. Methinks it will endure without my help."

"Yeah, I suppose so," mused Merlin.

"Would that I, like thee, had my lasting impress assured," Raedulf mourned. "Thou art as famed as Arthur himself."

The magician nodded. "And since I am Arthur, so to speak—on this timeline at any rate . . ."

"Thou art Arthur?" exclaimed Raedulf.

"In a sense. You see, lad, there was no Arthur on this line. I didn't know that at first. When I learned what century I was in and the people shortened Maryland to Merlin, I naturally assumed I was the historical Merlin of the Arthurian legend. I began trying to find Camelot, and amazing the hayseeds with tales about a great king they'd never heard of. The yokels believed me and repeated my tales as gospel. So, for all historical purposes, this timeline now has an Arthur, and it can converge into other lines in which he really existed."

Raedulf was staring at him in a state of shock.

"Don't take it so hard, boy," the magician snorted. "I'm not saying Arthur wasn't real. He just wasn't on this Line. On other lines . . . well, who's to say?"

After a silence, Raedulf moaned, "I can never bring myself to chronicle this, or even speak of it."

"If you could, I probably couldn't have told you. Can't have the legend doubted at its very beginning." Merlin studied him closely. "Look, boy, you just said you didn't want to chronicle anymore, anyhow. So what the hell. Give it up. Go into some other line of work."

"My training . . ."

"Your training makes you the best damned cook in the world today, myself excluded. Open a restaurant—an inn."

Raedulf blinked. "Could I, perhaps make a more lasting impress in that manner?"

"Not around here, you couldn't!" Merlin chortled. "The cookery on this island is an atrocity through all convergences to come. But I'll tell you what: go over to the Continent. Become a Frenchman. You'll need to do that anyway, to get half the spices I told you about. Do your fancy cookery over there and your impress will last quite a while, believe me!"

After a moment, Raedulf nodded. "I will heed your advice, sire."

"Fine! Now, I must be going."

"May I ask whither?"

"Into the past," said Merlin. "Where else? I know what Stonehenge is, but I still don't know who built it. I'll have to find out by going back and meeting the builders in person."

"And what is the purpose of the Stones, sire?"

"They're the remains of a perpetual clock-calendar, a time-telling device. When Stonehenge was in its complete form, it could tell one the exact date, year, and century. When I arrived in this time, if I had been unable to verify that I had, indeed, leaped thirteen centuries, then a structure such as this once was could provide me that knowledge."

"It must have been the work of magicians of vast wisdom!" said the awed Raedulf.

"My thought exactly. And there are legends of extremely advanced prehistoric civilizations. As I can't seek in the future for the high cultural climate in which I properly belong, I'll look for it in the distant past. So long, boy!"

Merlin had gathered most of his equipage as he talked and stuffed it in his pack. Now, before the mystified Raedulf could speak, he vanished into empty air, pack and all.

* * *

Raedulf did not leave the Great Stones immediately. Instead he wandered the paths opened by Merlin, who had apparently tramped all over the place. Here, untold centuries ago, he mused, magicians perhaps the equal of Merlin himself had labored long to raise the magnificent timepiece of which the Old Stones were the ruined remains.

It would, he decided, have been more practical to keep track of dates by the usual process of keeping records. One chronicler of no great talent could have done that. But—perhaps the ancient magicians had reasons beyond his ken.

He intended to prepare food for the road before starting his journey south to the coast, and he needed firewood for that. He wandered toward some dead brush he remembered seeing near the center of the ring of Stones, brush he had previously left untouched because a slender stump of broken stone had blocked his way.

Now that Merlin was gone he no longer needed to concern himself about leaving the stone undisturbed. He pushed hard against it and it tumbled over, out of his way.

On the ground where it had stood was a rust-crusted object. He picked it up and examined it with wide eyes. Beyond doubt, it was Merlin's thunderwand. The magician had said he would bury it when it had no more vigor.

Instead, he had placed it under the stone. And he had done so at a time so distant that the rust-proofing spell had worn off.

What could have been the occasion? Raedulf couldn't be sure, but suddenly he felt that he could make a good guess.

After all, who more than Merlin himself would need a timepiece that read the centuries? And particularly so if he found himself among untutored primitives who knew nothing of tallying days and years, and who could only slave with their strong backs to serve the great magician who appeared among them.

He guessed that Merlin would indeed make them slave. With no further hope of finding the wonderful magic land for which he longed, he would have little to do but see that the Old Stones were put in their proper place.

He would have to, because it was necessary for convergence.


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