Several hours of persistent droning from the nearby rock drill had left me with the distinct impression that my head was being bored into more readily than the stone itself. While I was assured that the sappers were doing their best, the project seemed to be taking much longer than I had been led to believe. The overgrown clearing that surrounded the monumental boulder was arrayed with a haphazard assortment of tools and compounds. Men in varying state of uniform dress puttered about the space. Tall, thick-leaved trees towered over us on any given side, leaving the small field bathed in perpetual shade. Coupled with a slight breeze, this made for a beautiful day in central England. Either I had become entirely accustomed to the sound of the drill, or the ringing in my ears made for an impressive facsimile. I had not noticed the sound had stopped until I heard the sapper calling my name.
“Lieutenant Masters, we’re in deep enough to plant the charge.” A stout man with brutal copper muttonchops harrumphed in my general direction. He was dressed in a sergeant’s uniform, looking toward me with an air of combined disdain and misogyny. I pushed off of the tree trunk that had served as a resting place for the past hour and gave the man a curt nod.
“Use a minimum of dynamite; I don’t want to damage anything inside.” My voice sounded tinny and distant, my ears still recovering from the drill’s cacophony. Already, two of the sappers were disassembling the contraption, packing each individual piece back into a set of nearby crates.
“The day some woman knows how to do my job better’n mys--,“the sergeant began to grumble loudly, his voice tinged with gravel.
“Is today, Sergeant. Get to work,” I snapped, my patience worn thin. He reared back, his chin lifting as if he was trying to decide if outright defiance would be an acceptable response to my chiding. We had caught the attention of several enlisted soldiers at this point, who paused in their work to watch the conflict. I pointedly readjusted my Special Courier Service uniform jacket, tugging the combination cover’s brim down over my eyes. This subtle reminder of rank seemed to be enough, and the man turned back to the drilled rock with an intense muttering of curses under his breath.
Their entertainment thwarted, the men returned to their various tasks and the sergeant moved across to oversee the loading of several sticks of dynamite into the narrow hole that had been punched in the boulder. I watched with quiet interest as they set the fuses and ran cord back to a demolition plunger set behind a series of sand bags at the clearing’s far side. The mood of our troop shifted from mundane boredom to curious anticipation as the final preparations were made. A dozen soldiers and sappers made their way out of the clearing to preset safe points, leaving only the sergeant and myself standing behind the set of sandbags. He looked at me expectantly, before glancing down at the plunger, unwilling to address me audibly again.
I took a firm hold of the demolitions plunger and pushed it into the mechanism. A deafening explosion rocked the small clearing, the concussive shockwave forcing the trees back for a brief instant before everything returned to an eerie stillness. A cloud of dirt and rock dust obscured our view of the boulder and I soon found myself coughing into a leather gloved fist as it reached our position. The sergeant gave a smug expression of satisfaction at the show of weakness, but I ignored it. The soldiers had moved back into range, and as the smoke cleared, I could see that the boulder had been split precisely down the middle. The force of the explosion had knocked either half onto its side, leaving the area that had previously been occupied by several tons of solid granite unprotected.
“Excellent work, Sergeant,” I said, in an attempt to placate the man. He seemed somewhat pleased with himself, but otherwise did not respond. I jumped the sandbag wall and closed the distance with the split boulder, seeing that a three foot hole had been exposed by the explosion. I peered over the edge, seeing that it took a sharp bend after dropping just over ten feet. “I’ll need two men to help me search, Sergeant. I’m going in.”
“Hartley! Moran!” the sergeant snapped, and two of the soldiers stepped forward. The first was a tall, wiry man with short cropped dirty blond hair. He had a bookish appearance and was not at all comfortable in his uniform, standing awkwardly with his rifle slung over his back. The second was shorter, his eyes heavily lidded in boredom. Unruly black hair stuck out at odd directions from beneath his helmet. “Help the lieutenant into the hole.”
“Yes, sir,” came Hartley’s response, and Moran apparently didn’t feel the need to respond. I considered mentioning that I did not need help with the initial climb, only the exploration itself, but felt it would only exacerbate the friction between the sergeant and me. Instead, I sat on the edge of the burrow and allowed the two men to lower me down as far as possible before releasing me to fall the last few feet. The burrow opened up into a natural cavern almost immediately, and it was abundantly clear that it had been modified by human hands at some point in time. A thick layer of dust and cobwebs had settled over the cavern, but the stalactites had been cleared in a path through the center of the cavern. The ground was worn smooth, and in the diffuse sunlight streaming in I could see torch brackets along the walls.
“This looks like the place!” I called back, catching a kerosene lantern as it was lowered down by rope. The flickering light better illuminated the pathway, and I could see illegible scrawls along either wall. I took a step further onto the rough path and was rewarded with the sound of an impact behind me. Moran had entered the cave and turned to retrieve his rifle from above. The instant he had cleared the entryway, Hartley arrived with far less grace.
He hit the ground and stumbled, placing one hand against the wall to steady himself, succeeding only in deflecting his energy off and to the side. The man careened and landed unceremoniously on his rear end.
“Impressive,” Moran muttered, before grabbing the other soldier’s arm. Together, they were able to haul the lanky man to his feet, and he could do little but offer a sheepish look of embarrassment in my direction.
“Apologies, Lieutenant, I seem to have landed incorrectly.” He retrieved his own rifle, as well as another offered kerosene lantern.
“You’ll need to be more careful.” I admonished, sweeping my own lantern’s light across the cavern. A bend in the path obscured my view after a dozen yards. “There may very well be traps littering the area.”
“After a thousand years, how well could they possibly work?” Moran asked lazily, shouldering his rifle.
“You would be shocked,” I muttered, taking a step forward.
All three of us froze at the unexpected voice. The timbre suggested an old man, weak and reedy, but it was abundantly clear that he was trying to sound both threatening and powerful.
“Leave this cursed place before a terrible fate falls upon you!”
Even Moran’s eyes had suddenly widened, the man obviously not expecting to find anyone alive in the hole.
“Let’s move.” I said quietly, heading forward along the path.
“Who is that?” Hartley whispered.
“You have entered the realm of magic and death. Turn back and repent!” the voice wailed pitifully, and I felt like I could hear the sound of flailing limbs in the way his voice modulated.
“Shouldn’t we listen to the disembodied voice warning us to leave?” Moran asked, a hint of nervousness creeping into his lazy tone.
“In my experience, no,” I answered with a smirk, my boots scuffling along the gravel strewn path. We rounded the corner and found ourselves faced with a few decaying shelves that held a variety of unidentifiable objects. “They don’t warn you if there’s an actual threat.”
“Who doesn’t?” Hartley asked insistently.
“In the name of our lord and savior, I swear I will send a dragon to rend you limb from limb,” the voice announced desperately before adding. “The dragon will be very frightening!”
“Disembodied threatening voices,” I explained to Hartley, pausing to spin a silvered vial in my fingers. Something within rattled, and I set the object back down.
“Do you often find yourself dealing with disembodied voices?” Moran asked angrily. “As I feel that would be a sign of severe mental disease, Lieutenant.”
“Moran!” Hartley gaped like a fish, his mouth opening and closing, shocked by the man’s conduct towards an officer, I assumed.
“You’ve made it abundantly clear that you hear the voice as well,” I responded coolly, stepping out into a large, stone room. A platform, roughly the size of a man, had been carved out of the far wall. What I assumed were personal belongings sat in decayed and barely identifiable piles about the chamber. “Maybe my ‘mental disease’ is contagious?” I added.
“Oh noooo!” The voice was somehow smaller now, and the source was far more identifiable. Perched on a rusted table in the center of the room was a small glass sphere, held aloft by a claw-footed silver bracket. Inside the sphere was a particularly ancient looking man. I could see a pointed hat on his head. The faded color could have been blue or purple, but the man was otherwise obscured by an absurd amount of gray hair. Flowing from both his face and the top of his head, the man’s beard seemed to have long ago merged with his hair and dominated the small space within the sphere. Only his face was visible, pressed up against the side like a child peering through a window. “Leave me alone!”
“What the bloody hell is that thing!?” Moran cried out, taking a step back. He fumbled with his rifle, and I quickly lifted my hand, gloved palm out, to stop him.
“It’s nothing that can harm you, soldier. Drop the gun,” I said, looming over the glass ball. The man inside gave me a withering look before his face disappeared within the mass of hair. It reappeared in an entirely different spot on the surface, with narrowed eyes and pursed lips.
“I am not a thing!” the man in the sphere cried out before disappearing within the ball of hair. “I am M--“ His voice was far too muffled to hear the remainder of what he said. His face reappeared, smashed against the glass, with a palm to either side. “the king of England!”
“You are not the king of England!” Moran shouted back, and I rubbed my temples.
“That’s not what I said!” The old man wailed, and I quickly silenced the escalating conflict with a fist on the table.
“He said,” I began, turning to look at the two soldiers, “that he is Merlin, advisor to the court of Arthur, King of England.”
“I don’t believe that for a second,” Moran announced.
“The Merlin?” Hartley said, dumbstruck.
“Who else do you think you’d find trapped in an English cave for a thousand years?” I asked, exasperated.
“No one!” Moran’s rifle remained pointed at the ground. “I don’t expect to find anyone alive after a thousand years, let alone in a cave.”
“If he is Merlin,” Hartley mused, taking a step towards the table. “That would certainly explain why he’s still alive. Wouldn’t it?” He half turned to Moran while asking the question.
“You’re as daft as her.” Moran shot back, taking a step towards the exit. “And I am leaving this mad house.”
“Nooooo!” Merlin whined, his face having found a way to remain upside down, likely suspended by a cushion of infinite hair. “You can’t leave now; that’s the whole point. If I could have just up and left, I would have hunted down that tart that trapped me here in the first place.” He rambled on, his face slowly rotating within a vortex of beard. Moran paid no attention to the wizard, turning to step out of the room. As he did so, a torrent of flame erupted from the floor beneath his feet, igniting several parts of his uniform as well as several rifle rounds, judging by the sudden sound of a report from within his satchel.
“I warned you about the dragon!” came a self-satisfied, smug little quip from the sphere.
Moran cried out in surprise and anger, slapping at the flames while stumbling forward into a run. I rapidly lost sight of the man, but judging by the cursing and stomping that echoed back to us, only his pride was truly wounded.
“To be in the presence of something like this…” Hartley returned to being awestruck, reaching out for the sphere. “Merlin the wizard, why, he must know where to find Camelot!”
“That’s the hope, anyway,” I said, reaching out to lift the wizard up and out of his bracket, before Hartley could do so. “What do you say, old man, can you lead us there?”
“You’re quite fair for a soldier,” Merlin changed the subject grumpily, only his eyes peeking out from the mass of hair.
“And you’re awfully hairy for a sorcerer.” I frowned down at the miniaturized man, before deciding to answer the unasked question. “I’m a woman.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Merlin said, parting his hair with both hands. “Are there so few men in this day and age that they send women to do their work?” He peered over my shoulder, at Hartley. “Is he a woman as well?”
“No, he’s just British.”
“Hey!” Hartley protested.
“Why I n--“ Merlin whined.
“Enough!” I silenced the two with as much authority as I could muster. “I never cared all that much about British history, but I’ve been ordered to find you.” I pointed at the wizard with my free hand. “And to determine if you can lead us to Camelot. After that, I don’t care if you rot in this cave for another thousand years.”
“I should hope I know how to find Camelot!” Merlin’s haughty response came quickly this time. “I came here, directly from there, back then. No more than a day’s walk!” He narrowed his eyes. “If as much time has passed as you say, and if the location has been lost, then I must warn you. I left many cunning traps and defenses to protect the castle should it ever be necessary.”
“As cunning as your dragon?” I asked dryly.
“Far more cunning!” Merlin’s voice sharpened to a high pitch, and his hair swirled about as he swung his arms in futile little circles.
“I think we should be able to handle it.” I turned, holding my lantern out to Hartley. “Here, I’d rather not run the risk of dropping our new friend here. I’d be in serious trouble if I shattered a wizard.”
The trip out was uneventful, the single trap apparently accounting for Merlin’s entire defenses. The sergeant and his men were waiting when we emerged from the ground, all looking suspiciously at Hartley and me. Moran, standing behind the sergeant, stared with narrowed eyes. A look of anger was plastered across his face.
“We found what we were looking for. Break camp. We’re heading out.”
“What kind of men let a woman order them around?” Merlin complained loudly from my left hand. I shook the sphere violently, causing the wizard to squawk.
“Lieutenant! You’re shaking a British legend,” Hartley said with a frown. “I realize he is slightly… uncouth, but you really should try to show some restraint.”
“I’m not one to be superstitious.” The sergeant began, wavering. “But this looks like black magic to me, and Moran says you lit him on fire.”
“It was a dragon!” Merlin argued.
“It was not, and you’re not helping,” I seethed, before looking up at the sergeant. “Moran did not pay attention to my warning and appears to be just fine.”
“Just the same, I don’t think I’ll be subjecting my men to this kind of unholy act.” The sergeant said. His eyes were locked on the small sphere in my hand, and despite the man’s restrained words I could see more white in his eyes than I was comfortable with. “So you go ahead and report me to whomever it is that assigned us here in the first place, but we are leaving.”
“Sergeant,” I warned, my lips pressed into a tight line. “I do not have the time to deal with this. We have a job to do.”
“You have a job to do,” he said slowly, taking a step back. “And I can’t say as to agreeing with that particular job. So you just move along now, and we won’t have any problems. I don’t consort with witches.”
I stared at the man. I had been called a witch in the past, mostly by Germans, but never in the sense of a spell-casting, curse-causing magic woman. I couldn’t fathom what had happened in the short time I was underground, but the white knuckles gripping several rifles in my immediate vicinity kept me silent. My right hand flexed and released, and I nodded.
“Alright then,” I murmured, taking a step away from both the small troop and the entrance to Merlin’s burrow. The small wizard himself was not visible, hiding within his mass of hair. I kept a close eye on the sergeant and his men, moving to the tree line with slow, measured paces in an attempt not to spook them. I stood near the sandbag wall and peered down at the sphere, while in the distance the troop set out for civilization. I tapped the glass surface and grumbled, “Get out here, and tell me where I need to head.”
“Straight to hell, trollop!” Merlin snapped from within his nest. “Those men were right. You probably are a witch. Just like the one who trapped me in the first place.”