There was a tree growing out of the dining room table.
It was only an illusion, of course. An oak tree, its trunk thick with years. Its branches reached up to the sky, its roots were covered with moss. On its branches were both leaves and acorns. So wherever the tree was, it was autumn. It must have been a hundred years old, at least.
We could see through all those layers, to the man sleeping inside.
Seeing it there, in Mrs. Moth’s dining room, filled me with a sense of despair. It was so close that I could reach out and touch it, and yet what I touched would be – nothing at all, not the bark, not the bole, not the man. And even the illusion of it – you could feel how strong the magic must have been, that was keeping the strongest magician inside a tree. His own magic. Why?
“Thea, how did you learn he was trapped?” asked Mrs. Moth.
“I got a text message,” I said. “Here, let me find it.”
I went to Saved Messages on my cell phone. “Here.”
Thea: No idea how he did it, Merlin trapped himself inside a tree for a thousand years. Go figure. Any idea how to get him out? Morgan
There were text messages after that, most of them from Morgan. Most of them in the same tone. He was her brother, she was used to him getting into trouble of various sorts. Being put in prison in ancient Rome, guillotined in the French Revolution, that sort of thing.
“The problem,” said Mrs. Moth, “is that he’s disappeared entirely. As Hyacinth has told us, he’s not anywhere in the timeline. If the spell is supposed to last for a thousand years, we have no evidence that he ever comes out.”
“What could have made him trap himself in a tree like that?” I asked.
“Perhaps someone was threatening him,” said Miss Gray.
“The Merlin I know would have fought back,” I said. “He fights back even when he knows he’s going to lose. He’s just like that.” And he was. I’d seen some of his scars. The worst were from gladiatorial games, especially those involving bears. Or the sorts of contests that make magicians have to regenerate body parts.
“Maybe he was protecting someone,” said Hyacinth.
“Protecting them by trapping himself in a tree?” I asked.
“I think we need more information,” said Mrs. Moth. “Hyacinth, where is Morgan now?”
“I think she’s at the Castle in the Lake,” said Hyacinth. “Do you want me to text her?”
“Yes, make sure she’s there,” said Mrs. Moth. “But I think you’d better talk to her in person. You know how she is. She’s going to say it’s just him, always getting into trouble. But if he’s gone, truly gone, we need to find him. We can’t just wait for him to get himself out.”
“Can I go with you?” I asked.
“Oh!” said Hyacinth. “To the Castle in the Lake? I don’t know.” She looked at Mrs. Moth and Miss Gray. “Can she?”
Miss Gray looked at me as though I were an interesting specimen in one of her magical botany classes. “Now that’s an interesting question. Can Thea go?”
“Why, is it difficult to get there?” I asked.
“That’s not the issue,” said Miss Gray. “Do you know what the Castle in the Lake is, Thea?”
“I’ve heard of it,” I said. “Isn’t that where the Lady of the Lake lives?”
“Not just the Lady of the Lake,” she replied. “I’ll have to think about this.” She looked at Mrs. Moth. “Give me time. I need to do some research.”
“Think about what? Time for what?” I asked. But they were already getting up, leaving the dining room.
“Just try not to think about it, Thea,” said Hyacinth before she too left. They all had things to do, no doubt. A universe to keep going. I was the only one for whom this was personal.
I couldn’t not think about it, of course. I thought about it all the time. But I needed to do something. So I got out the bicycle and rode into Shadow. I went to the public library and checked out some books that had nothing to do with magic or trees. Or love.
I rode back slowly, looking at all the shops: the baker’s, the antiques shop, the pub where some of the local farmers were already sitting and telling stories. And for a few minutes at least, I wished that my life could be ordinary.