Hyacinth told me how Merlin broke his heart.
We were sitting in the tower room, on the first floor. (My bedroom was right above, on the second floor. I always stay in the tower room when I go to Mrs. Moth’s.) I was perched on the window seat. Hyacinth was curled up on the sofa. We were both still in pajamas, drinking our morning coffee out of mugs.
“It happened a long time, a very long time, ago,” she said. “More than a thousand years, but time doesn’t matter to Morgan and Merlin. You have to understand, they’re different, the children of Mother Night. You can’t expect them to think or act like us, although they do feel like us, as this story demonstrates.”
She sounded just as she had when I was at Miss Lavender’s School of Witchcraft. I had taken my Elementary Transformations class with her. Although she looked so young, like a student herself, she was over a hundred years old, an Advanced Transformation that – but no, I’ll tell you Hyacinth’s story later.
“For goodness’s sake, don’t lecture at me,” I said. “I know you don’t like him.”
“It’s not a matter of liking or not liking him, Thea. I just think you need to be careful. Did you hear what happened to Vivian Gaunt? I think she graduated from Miss Lavender’s before you started, but I’m sure Emma must have told you about her.” Hyacinth took a sip of her coffee.
“No, or at least I don’t remember. What happened?” I took a sip as well. It was strong and hot, with lots of cream and sugar.
“She just fell for him, that’s all. He’d been teaching for a semester at Miss Lavender’s. It wasn’t really his fault. He’d been her teacher, nothing more. I suppose I shouldn’t blame him. But she told him about it, and he told her it was an infatuation, that she would get over it. He could at least have taken her seriously. She took it seriously – went into the Other Country, wandered the forest for days, not eating. Eventually – she’d been through Advanced Transformations the previous semester – she turned herself into a tree. She’s still there, somewhere inside a wild cherry. We all tried talking to her. Emily and I sat for days beneath her branches, trying to convince her to turn back. The Gaunts were furious, but what could anyone do? She had graduated the month before. She was entitled to make her own choices. That’s what being a witch means, making choices and accepting the consequences.”
“You haven’t told me how he broke his heart,” I said. From where I was sitting, I could look out the window at the front garden, with its fountain and circular drive. Although it was still early, Mrs. Moth was already in the garden with a basket and what looked like a large fork, doing the sorts of things that gardeners do.
“Well, and again, this happened more than a thousand years ago, after the Roman occupation of Britain. You know that Miss Lavender’s school has been around at least since Roman days. I think she was Roman herself: Lavinia is a Roman name. She was originally trained to be a priestess of Mother Night, although the Romans called her Astarte or Cybele. But she thought teaching would be more interesting. She used to have one school in Rome and another in Londinium, when it was the administrative center of Gaul. After the Roman legions left, she decided to stay. She says she liked the weather! Can you imagine?
“Eventually, Mother Night sent Morgan there, to study with Miss Lavender, Miss Gray, and Mrs. Moth. They were already there, the three of them. And Morgan had a classmate, a girl named Gwen, the daughter of King Leodegrance of Cameliard. Merlin was studying with Paracelsus at the time, and whenever he was bored of his alchemical studies, he would come to visit. I know, Paracelsus lived much later, but times are nothing to Merlin. He just steps from year to year as though they were rocks in a stream.
“So he comes to visit and falls head over heels for Gwen. And she, of all people, doesn’t fall for him. She likes him, wants to be his friend, but she doesn’t want a boyfriend, at least not yet. She wants to be a witch like Morgan, and maybe a poet. She actually wrote very good poetry. Of course, her father has other ideas, and she ends up marrying Arthur, King of the Britons. Right after graduating, too. She wasn’t very happy about that. Arthur was a nice guy – I met him once at a party in the Other Country, long after his death, and we talked politics for a while. He was livid about Margaret Thatcher. He had fallen for Gwen too – just about everyone did, in those days. She was smart and funny and stunningly beautiful, with hair that was naturally red and freckles all over her nose. But what she really wanted was to go study in France with the Lady of the Lake. Morgan was going to go with her.
“She didn’t have much choice about marrying – princesses didn’t, in those days. But she was stubborn – she and Morgan were planning to run away together, and Merlin was going to help them. He must have been thrilled! Imagine running away with the girl you love, even if you’re not sure whether she’s ever going to love you back. But the day they were supposed to leave, Merlin came and told Morgan that it was all off, they couldn’t do it. He had talked to Mother Night. Gwen was supposed to marry Arthur, it was in the tapestry. It was part of the pattern.
“He was devastated. Mother Night told me and Emily about it, after the whole Vivian incident. I think she didn’t want us to blame him. She told us how he had come to her, holding the pieces of his heart in his hand. He’d handed them over to her, asked her to put them back together, and then keep them. If that was going to happen again, he didn’t want a heart anymore.”
“That’s awful,” I said. “Did he ever see her again?”
“Gwen? Sure, he saw her every day. He stayed with Arthur, to be his adviser. It was one of those crucial times in history when everything needs to go right. Those are the times when Morgan and Merlin step in. He and Gwen stayed friends, and eventually she fell for someone else, some French knight. When Britain fell apart, she went to live in a convent, and Merlin would visit her there. He was with her when she died. I don’t think he could have done all that, with a heart. It would have hurt too badly.
“So he did what he had to do. I told you, the children of Mother Night are different from us. They do what they have to do, no matter what the consequences. That’s why I warned you about him. He’s always going to be who he is, Thea. He’ll never be human.”
I looked out the window again. Mrs. Moth must have gone in, because the garden was empty. I felt empty too, sort of hollow inside. It had been a strange story to hear, a story of other times and places, of people who were not like me, princesses and priestesses and a man who walked through time as easily as I walked from room to room.
“I’ll probably never even see him again,” I said. I was surprised by how bitter I sounded; I had not meant it to come out that way.
“What? Oh, you’ll see him again,” said Hyacinth. “If you were never going to see him again, I wouldn’t bother warning you. But now that you’ve danced together, he’s sure to show up.”
“Oh,” I said. I’m not sure whether I was more glad or apprehensive.
“If you’re finished, I’ll take your mug down to the kitchen.”
I handed her my mug, said “Thanks,” and stayed on the window seat for a while after she had left, just looking out the window with my arms wrapped around my knees, thinking about life and other random things.