The tenth installment in T.A. Barron's magical fantasy saga MERLIN!
As peace returns to Avalon, Tamwyn, Elli, and Scree discover a terrifying new threat: The Warlord Rhita Gawr has set out to conquer Avalaon as well as mortal Earth. Racing against time, the friends embark on three separate quests. To succeed, they must solve Avalon's most elusive mysteries. And they will need to travel vast distances—both in their world and in their own hearts.
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XXX A Pure Crystal
Elli and Tamwyn found themselves sitting on the floor of a large room. Its floor, walls, and furniture all sparkled with a moist, silvery sheen, like frozen mist. The ceiling, unlike any they’d ever seen, tapered to a point high above their heads. All at once, the truth struck home, and they turned to each other.
“We’re inside the tree!” they both said at once.
“I do have chairs, you know,” rang a mischievous voice behind them.
They spun around—and then leaped to their feet. Tamwyn accidentally stepped on Elli’s toes, but she hardly noticed. For seated before them was the Lady of the Lake herself.
She sat in a chair sprouting out of the floor, a crystalline burl that was part of the tree itself. Under its vaporous surface, it seemed as solid as any wooden chair—maybe more so, since it looked as if it had lasted all the ages of Avalon. The woman herself seemed quite old, and yet her gray-blue eyes twinkled with youthful vitality. She studied her guests, playing with the curls of her silver hair, until at last she spoke to them in a rich, gentle voice.
“And so we meet,” she declared, inclining her head to each of them in turn. “Elliryanna Lailoken. A mouthful of a name, that is! No wonder you go by just Elli.” She grinned playfully at the surprised young woman, then turned to Tamwyn. “And Tamwyn, who doesn’t even know his full name.” She watched him shift uncomfortably, then added softly: “Although … I do.”
Tamwyn started. He leaned forward and opened his mouth to ask her to say more, when she raised her hand. “Later, Tamwyn.” Reluctantly, he shut his mouth, though his dark eyes stared at her in wonder.
She turned at last to Nuic, who was standing on the sparkling floor beside Elli. This time, she did more than incline her head. She drew her thick shawl about her shoulders and rose from her chair, as gracefully as a spiral of mist. Then she made a full curtsey to the pinnacle sprite.
“Nuic,” she said. “How good to see you.”
The Lady’s special treatment of Nuic was, for Elli, surprising enough. But what words then came out of his mouth surprised her even more. For her ever-grumpy maryth said nothing harsh or even irreverent. He simply said graciously, “The pleasure is mine.”
Elli glanced down at the sprite, whose colors were vibrant blues and greens. “You’ve met before?”
Nuic just shrugged. “You could say that, Elliryanna.”
The Lady, watching him, fingered the amulet of oak, ash, and hawthorn leaves that hung around her neck. “Indeed you could.”
Tamwyn and Elli traded glances. Then, while Elli puzzled over the sprite’s strange behavior, Tamwyn turned back to the Lady. Her eyes, so bright, with both gray and blue, reminded him of the mist swirling on the sapphire lake. And there was something else about her—something magical—that made him think of the museo he’d seen that night back in Stoneroot. Although he’d been mired in a heap of dung, that museo, and the strange bard with the sideways-growing beard, had lifted his spirits right out of the dung and into the stars.
That’s how Tamwyn felt just now, for no reason he could name: ready to reach as high as he could. As high as the true heir of Merlin, perhaps—even if, as he feared, he was really very different. As different from Merlin’s heir as anyone could possibly be.
The Lady of the Lake sat again, and gestured for them to do the same. Both Elli and Tamwyn found shimmering burls beside the enchantress, not far from a wide hearth that glowed steadily. But it wasn’t any fire that produced the glow. It was, as Elli realized with astonishment, a cluster of light flyers—tiny winged creatures who were among the rarest in Avalon. They were crawling across the back of the hearth, their frilled wings pulsing with golden light.
“What a beautiful way to light your home,” said Elli.
“And no need for kindling,” said the wilderness guide next to her.
“Hmmmpff,” said Nuic in his usual crusty style. He had chosen to sit on the floor, not far from the Lady’s bare feet. “At least they’re friendlier than the last winged beasts we encountered.”
The Lady’s eyes grew suddenly sad. “Ah, yes. You have met ghoulacas.”
“Where did they come from?” asked Tamwyn.
The old enchantress sighed. “They are fairly new to Avalon, made by some hand I do not recognize. Yet this much I can tell you: In their blood runs an ancient evil. As old as Merlin’s magical seed. The same evil that fanned the flames of greed and hatred into the War of Storms.”
“But,” protested Tamwyn, “that war, and that whole age, ended long ago.”
“It did indeed.” The elder woman drew herself up straighter. “We ended it, Merlin and I, with the Treaty of the Swaying Sea. But the evil did not die. It merely retreated to the shadows.”
She plucked at one of the green threads in her gown, holding it closer to the hearth’s light. At once, Tamwyn and Elli realized that it wasn’t a thread at all, but a living vine. Her entire gown was woven of vines and leafy green shoots, all supple and alive. To Elli, it was almost—though not quite—as beautiful as the gown of woven spider’s silk worn by the High Priestess.
“You see this vine?” asked the Lady. “Green it is, and green it will remain, so long as my will is there to support it. The same is true for a friendship, a marriage … or a treaty of peace.”
Tamwyn gazed into the hearth. “So when the people lose their will for peace, things will happen—things like ghoulacas?”
She nodded. “And more.”
He chewed his lip. “Things like weird, moaning winds … and strange white lakes.”
“Or maybe even,” added Elli, “distant stars going dark.”
“Or things more subtle, that can’t be seen,” declared Nuic. “Things like arrogance. In a priestess, or a so-called teacher.”
“True.” The woman’s eyes, glowing brighter than the hearth, peered at Nuic. “The same sort of arrogance that, long ago, caused Rhiannon, daughter of Elen the Founder, to resign as High Priestess and leave the Society that she’d worked so long and hard to create.”
Elli started. “So that’s why Rhia walked out?”
“Hmmmpff,” corrected Nuic. “She didn’t just walk out. She stormed out— shouting and hurling insults right and left. I remember well, I saw it.”
“Nuic,” demanded Elli. “I didn’t know you’d ever been to the Drumadians’ compound before last month.”
The sprite eyed her grumpily. “You think all I’ve done with my life is sit on my ass in mountain streams? Well, think again.”
Beneath the wrinkles on the Lady’s cheeks, she grinned. And Tamwyn noticed, really for the first time, just how beautiful she looked. Not just radiant, and magical, and mysterious. Beautiful.
You must have been totally gorgeous when you were young, he thought to himself, speaking in his mind’s private language that only non-human creatures understood.
To his absolute horror, she turned to him and answered with thoughts of her own.
So I’m not gorgeous now?
Tamwyn sputtered and had such a sudden fit of coughing that he almost fell off his burl chair. As soon as he could speak again, he stammered, “You—you are, my gorgeous. I mean, my grace! Er, your gorge … No, no. Your grace. You’re really—”
“Amused,” she cut in, her whole face alight. She reached over and patted his shoulder. “I really am. And I’m also flattered by your comments.”
Elli drew her brows together. “Comments? All I heard was coughing.”
The Lady turned toward her. “With Tamwyn, my dear, you have to listen closely. Just as a good guide might tell you to listen to the voices of the forest.”
Both Elli and Tamwyn stiffened. “So …” asked Elli, “you’ve been watching us?”
“Only while you’ve been in the forest. But that’s long enough to know something else is troubling you. Something besides ghoulacas and vanishing stars.”
She faced Tamwyn. “What is it?”
He hesitated. “Well … who really is the true heir of Merlin? And is he …” His eyes darted over to Elli. “Is he really like a brother to that, that other person?”
Long and hard, the Lady looked at him, saying nothing.
“Before we talk more,” the Lady said at last, “I should like to offer you a meal.”
She rose, beckoning them to come across the room to a round hole in the floor where a spiral stairway descended. Elli picked up Nuic and followed, while Tamwyn came last. Down they went, stepping on the glistening stairs that seemed as delicate as wisps of mist. Soon they stood in another room, lit not by a glowing hearth but by rays of starlight that poured through knot holes in the trunk of the tree. In the center of the room sat a table and four chairs, all sprouted from the tree. As they sat down, the Lady brushed some silver curls off her brow and waved her hand in the air.
A flock of faeries suddenly appeared, flying in through the holes in the trunk. Their wings, colored the same misty blue as their flowing tunics, whirred through the shafts of starlight. It seemed as if their wings caused ripples and swirls in the light as they passed, like a hand moving through a quiet pool of water.
Some of the faeries carried slabs of honeycomb, dripping with sweet nectar; others brought apples, raspberries, blueberries, tangerines, and pears, all bulging with succulent juices. Still other faeries bore fresh green shoots, mushrooms, tubers, and tangy strips of salted chewbark. There were open shells piled high with sweetnuts and orange cream, honey-glazed walnuts, and rosehip rolls filled with sliced strawberries. And to top it all off—platters overflowing with chocolates. Made from cocoa beans and sugar cane, the chocolates had been deftly formed into the shapes of maple leaves, pine cones, and raspberries. Finally, to drink, the faeries brought wooden cups that brimmed with the simplest and most delightful prize of all: fresh, clear water from a secret woodland stream.
“Thank you,” said Tamwyn as he stared at the magnificent feast arrayed before them. The Lady shook her head. “Do not thank me. Thank the forest. For all this comes as a gift, given freely by the land.” She reached out her hands, clasping those of Elli and Tamwyn. “But first, before we eat, let us take a moment to meditate. As Rhiannon herself once said:
Listen to Creation’s morning,Waking all around you.Feel the spark of dawn within,Breaking day has found you.”
Elli beamed. “I just love those words.”
“Do you, now?” The Lady gave her hand a slight squeeze.
“Hmmmpff,” was Nuic’s only comment.
A moment of silence ensued, and Tamwyn tried to think about the beauties of theforest that had produced this meal—the flowing rills, the boughs heavy with fruit, the starlit wings of the misty blue faeries. But hard as he tried, he couldn’t think about such things without imagining the rills going dry, the fruit withering and losing all its color, the faeries leaving their homes in search of starlight.
That’s not meditation, Tamwyn, came the Lady’s gentle voice inside his head..That’s all your worries. He looked at her. What he saw in those gray-blue eyes was a sadness beyond anything he could comprehend. And yet … sparkling in the depths, he caught the faintest glimmer of something else. He couldn’t be sure, but it seemed almost like a challenge. Or perhaps … a hope.
At a nod from the Lady, they began to eat. And eat, and eat! At some point in the meal, between the sweetnuts with orange cream and the honey-glazed walnuts, the Lady announced, “I would like to tell you a story. Keep eating, now, don’t stop. Just listen to a true tale of Avalon, one that happened very long ago, before any of you—save you, my dear Nuic—were born.”
She took a sip of crystal clear water. “Long ago, in the Year of Avalon 130, a terrible blight appeared right here in the upper reaches of El Urien … which in the wood elves’ language means Deepest Forest. Everything the blight touched withered and died, from the biggest tree to the smallest lichen. Some thought it was a disease spawned by the woodland marshes; others took comfort in the belief that it would never spread to other realms. But the High Priestess of the time—Rhiannon—felt differently. She felt sure that the blight was the work of the wicked spirit lord Rhita Gawr, who hoped to cause havoc in Avalon, to make this world his own. So Rhia sought help from the great wizard Merlin.”
“Who was also her brother, right?” Tamwyn asked.
“Hush, will you?” Elli scolded. “Of course he was her brother! Every little light flyer knows that.”
The Lady raised her hand for silence, then went on. “Merlin realized that there was only one way to stop the blight—to obtain a pure crystal of élano, which is the most powerful, and also the most elusive, magical substance in Avalon. Produced deep within the roots of the Great Tree, it is the Tree’s essential sap, supporting all forms of life. Yes—even you and me! Merlin called élano ‘the true life-giving force of Avalon’ … but even he didn’t comprehend all its powers.
What he did know was that, while élano needs no guidance to work its healing magic, it can still be shaped by strong wizardry.”
She drew a slow breath. “There is only one place in Avalon where undiluted élano is found, with enough quantity to make a pure crystal: the White Geyser of Crystillia, not far from this very forest. Bursting forth at the uppermost canyon of High Brynchilla, this geyser carries enough élano that its water actually glows at night.”
“And the water from that geyser also carries colors,” added Elli. “That’s why it’s so white. My father used to tell me stories about it—how it flows down a big canyon to a place called Prism Gorge, and how it splits into all the colors of the rainbow.”
Although Tamwyn was tempted to tell her to hush, just as she’d told him, he didn’t. For one thing, he was still within fist-striking distance—no small matter, since he’d gotten enough black eyes from her already. And for another, he just liked the way she talked about her father. He wished, in that moment, that he had known his own father. Or at least known for sure who he was.
“That’s right, Elli.” The Lady gestured for a pair of faeries to refill her wooden cup, and they whirred over with a brimming water gourd. When they finished pouring, she thanked them and took another sip.
“So Merlin got the crystal from the White Geyser?” asked Elli.
“No,” answered the Lady. “To make a pure crystal of élano, he needed to find water that was perfectly still. The geyser wouldn’t work, nor would the river that runs from it down the Canyon of Crystillia to Prism Gorge.”
“Is there a lake of this élano water somewhere?” asked Tamwyn.
To Elli’s surprise, the Lady gave him an approving nod. “Good thinking. There was only one such lake.”
“Not …” Tamwyn frowned. “Not that white lake we saw near the geyser? It didn’t look right somehow.”
“Not right at all,” she declared, her brow furrowed. “About that, we’ll hear more later. But in Merlin’s day, there was only one such lake, and it lies far down inside the roots, many leagues below the White Geyser. Using portals known only to himself, Merlin took a remarkable journey deep within the Tree to find the lake. He brought along Rhiannon, her faithful maryth, and also her trusted companion from the Society of the Whole: a priest named Lleu of the One Ear, an old friend of the wizard from his youth in Lost Fincayra. When they finally reached the subterranean lake, Merlin conjured up a boat as white as the water itself. He sailed out to where the water was both deep and still, and inserted his staff, the wondrous Ohnyalei.”
The Lady’s cheeks flushed with passion. “And then a miracle occurred! The magic of Merlin’s staff drew to itself the tiny particles of élano. Just as a flower with nectar draws butterflies! Even Merlin wasn’t sure why it worked, though he believed that the powers of Ohnyalei were so aligned with the powers of élano, that they were practically kin. So his staff pulled the élano from the depths of that lake, and bound it together in a very small—and immensely powerful—crystal.”
Elli sighed deeply. “Amazing. A pure crystal of élano! Did it stop the blight?”
“Oh yes, my dear. Merlin and Rhiannon placed it deep in the forest, at the origin of the blight. The life-giving powers of the crystal expanded, restoring every particle of soil, every root, every leaf. It brought new life to the land, and fresh rain from the sky, leaving the forest even richer than before. Meanwhile, the priest Lleu returned to the Great Temple and gave the world a lasting gift—his master work, Cyclo Avalon, which sets down for all Drumadians the lore of élano.”
Elli smiled, thinking how much Lleu’s great-grandson would have appreciated hearing those words. “And so,” she asked, “where is the crystal now?”
The Lady’s gray-blue eyes sparkled. “Can you keep a secret? There are many, including the agents of Rhita Gawr, who have longed to find it.”
“I can,” promised Elli.
“Me, too,” declared Tamwyn.
“Not me,” said Nuic gruffly. “But if I ever told anyone, they wouldn’t believe an old pinnacle sprite anyway.”
The Lady flashed him a mischievous grin. “All right then, I’ll tell you. The pure crystal of élano, the only one in existence, is …” She lifted the amulet of oak, ash, and hawthorn leaves that hung around her neck. As she peeled back some leaves, there was a bright flash. “Right here.”
For a long moment, they gazed at the radiant crystal. Its white light, with subtle tones of blue and green, sparkled all across the room within the tree of mist. Light shone on the vaporous walls, the gnarled burls that formed their table and chairs, the delicate spiral stairway leading to the hearth room above, and most of all, in the Lady’s abundant silver curls.
“How,” asked Elli, “did you get it?”
The Lady released the amulet and drew a deep breath. “Rhiannon herself gave it to me.”
Elli said nothing, but looked at her strangely for some time. Then, her voice hushed, she declared, “I know who you really are.”
What People are Saying About This
"[A] fine ride for readers. The events, descriptions, and maturation of the main characters are all skillfully drawn..." -Wolf Moon Press Journal
Write Well, Live Fully
An essay for aspiring writers
by T. A. Barron
The wise and wonderful writer, Madeleine L'Engle, once told me: "There are three essential rules for writing a novel." She paused, then added, "Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." That sums up the situation! But after more than twenty years of writing books, I can also add these thoughts: Writing is the most joyous and also the most agonizing labor that I know. And it is by far the best way to travel in our world or any other. Every author has an individual approach to the creative process, and every author's experience is different except for the essential elements of hard work, inspiration...and magic. Whenever people (of whatever age) ask me about the writing process, I start by telling them how much I still have to learn. This is, after all, a craft and no matter how much someone knows, there is always more to learn and explore. That's one of my favorite qualities of the writer's craft: The horizon of excellence is ever receding. We can always improve, which means we can always grow as people. Before I give you my best advice on writing ... here is a bit of wisdom from that well-known sage, Snoopy: My own advice to new writers boils down to three words: Observe. Practice. Believe. From: The T. A. Barron Official Website www.tabarron.com Let's look at them one at a time: Observe. Notice the world around you, in deep detail. How do different people speak, with their voices, faces, hands, and posture? How do different types of trees' leaves fall to the ground, each with a singular sort of flight? How do different ideas stir your passions, fears, hopes, and dreams? And don't just notice the surface of things, the sights and sounds that first strike your senses. Go deeper. Ask yourself how something would feel; wonder what is that person's deepest, darkest secret. If you truly observe the world ... it becomes a fruitful source of writing ideas and elements. Then just add a little drop of your imagination, bend the rules of reality, and anything is possible! On top of helping your writing, observing the world closely has one more advantage. And it's a big one. This is a good way to live, to be more wholly alive. Being a writer encourages you to live more fully. Practice. Write every chance you can. Keep a journal. Write poems, whether you prefer haiku poetry, sonnets, or enormous epics. Write letters, plays, short stories, blogs, novels whatever gets you excited. Writing is hard, full of struggle, and greatly demanding ... but it is also deeply rewarding. And practice makes you better, just as practice makes you more skillful at everything from baking a pie to piloting a spacecraft. A lot of this comes down to discipline. Sometimes the last thing I want to do on a particular day is sit at my desk at home in Colorado and write. I'd rather be playing with my kids, baking bread, or hiking on a mountain trail. But I stay with my writing because I know that's the only way it will ever happen. So … if you can find the discipline to practice, the magic of language will become more present and familiar over time. And your powers as a writer will surely grow. Believe. This is, perhaps, the most challenging part about writing. To succeed, you must truly believe in your story in each of its characters, in its place, and in its underlying ideas. And then, even more difficult, you must believe in yourself. What can I say to encourage you? Just this: Know that you have valuable things to say, and the skills to say them. Know that your song is unique, that your voice matters. Think of writing as growing a tree. In the soil of your writer's heart, you have an ideaa seed. But it will need plenty of sunlight, air, and nourishing soil to grow. How does this happen? I can only tell you how it works for me, but for every writer the process is different. When I sit down to start a novel, a process that will take between one and three years, I begin with that seed. It helps me to sketch it out, in longhand, just to get to know it better. In time, I will write an outline of its growth, though I'm always aware that outlines are only a beginning, a rough concept. As the seed sprouts into a sapling during the first draft of the manuscript (which, old fashioned that I am, I also write longhand), the outline is abandoned. For by now the tree itself is guiding my work. I believe in it, and listen closely to its inner voice to its soul. Several more rewrites help me shape the growing tree. I try to develop characters, places (which are much more than merely backdrops to the story, deserving all the depth and subtlety of characters), plot lines, and the story's underlying ideas. When at last I feel satisfied that it is truly formed, I show a manuscript to my editor. Her comments and questions are sometimes not what I'd hoped to hear, but they are always valuable. After all, she is my ally, my fellow gardener. From: The T. A. Barron Official Website www.tabarron.com Now come more rewrites. People often ask me how much rewriting I do. The answer is, quite simply, as much as it takes to get it right. You see, there is no substitute for the integrating and deepening that happens in a thorough rewrite. Quite often, I am also doing research at this stage, to make the story's characters and places feel true. That, indeed, is the ultimate test. Paradoxical as it may sound, good fiction is true on many levels. That's right! Fiction must feel true. On the levels of the senses, the emotions, the intellect, and the soul, a story ought to win the reader's belief. Characters, if well developed, become so real that they can walk right off the page for both writer and reader. That is true regardless of whether the character is a man, woman, child, tree, mountain, or magical snow crystal. Sometimes I stop writing the story I am crafting and write a brief biographical sketch of one character just to get to know that character better. How do I know when a character is fully formed? When I can, at last, hear his or her voice. No aspect of a character's description is as revealing as the voice. And then, if that voice is true, the newly-created character will lean over to me and whisper his or her deepest secret. Now, at last, the book is a thriving young tree, though it has yet to bear fruit. I still need to do more revising but at this point the work is quite delicate, just trimming a few branches. Neuroscience is just beginning to illuminate how our brains work. But we do know this about writing: Connecting with both the left and right halves of the brain is crucial, for the creative process is both rational and metaphorical, logical and mysterious. Finally, the tree stands fully grown. It reaches high and has surprisingly deep roots. Maybe it also holds a wondrous crop of fruit. And perhaps, when the wind whistles through its branches, it brings to mind some secret, half-remembered song. Best wishes from your fellow writer, T.A. Barron