It was a shock to look down at the tiny creature with the sweet, familiar visage. A tremor ran through him as the reality struck him. Homespun silk hugged her curves, its bodice cinched in back by drawstrings that fit it tightly against her flesh. She was warm and soft in his arms, as real as drawing a breath or taking a step, and yet…
She couldn’t be real.
Sydney, his Sydney, was actually a hair taller than Nigel. She couldn’t be this diminutive waif whose slender curves woke him in ways he barely dared acknowledge. His heart responded to things outside the realm of consciousness. He clung to her while shock and the memories of a thousand lifetimes flooded his awareness.
All around them, the meadow grasses and tree limbs whispered in the breeze, while a lark choir sang in the background. From the pond, frog songs joined the musical tribute, and a showy cardinal conducted nature’s symphony from his spot in the upper limbs of a sycamore. There was something surreal about the place, as though an idyllic painting sprung to life. It seemed no more real than the apparition before him, despite his body’s evidence of solidity.
His mind connected on several levels. He was the one who was physically changed. He was taller, with a long white beard that spilled over his chin and tumbled down the front of his robes. It was at once familiar and strange, a dichotomy of memories never intended to meet.
"What is it, Merlin? Art thou ill?" The voice was Sydney’s, but not Sydney’s. There was subservience in this woman’s tone, and more than a little fear.
Slowly, reluctantly, he pulled free of the doppleganger’s embrace. He nearly lost his resolve upon seeing the hurt and confusion in her eyes. She understood only that he was rejecting her. "Merlin?" she asked, her lip trembling in uncertainty.
He shook his head, holding up a hand that was wrinkled and spotted with age. Slowly, this world permeated his consciousness, even as it began to fade. "I can’t do this, sweetheart," he returned, his fingers reaching to brush along her cheek. "No matter how tempting. You see, if the stone is right, to embrace you would mean losing the Sydney in my time. I don’t belong here. I’m not the Merlin you know. I have to leave you and go to her. She doesn’t know it yet, but if I don’t go back, my Sydney will die."
"Who is Sydney?" Trembling, she stepped back. "Thou hast found another?" Tears welled in her eyes.
"No," he assured her. "I found you, but in another time. And as much as I might like staying in this dream, it would not be right. I hope I am good to you in this reality. I hope I protect and care for you."
She gave him a strange look, as though seeing him for the first time. "Thou hast always been good to me, but…" She stared at his eyes. "Tis true, then? Thou wouldst defend me. Even though I am a lowly woman, mixed blood, thou wouldst defend me. Tis not my Merlin who would do such a thing. But if it is also true that thou cometh from another place and time, I would that I could defend thee..." With a bitter laugh, she added, "Such nonsense, a woman defending a man!"
Her last words melted on a wind that had nothing to do with the weather, and the meadow and all its beauty melted into oblivion.
He drew a deep breath as the world spun around him. Slowly his vision realigned itself. He looked again into Sydney’s frightened eyes, but this was really Sydney, his Sydney. He was back inside the foyer of the big theater, while countless uniformed medics hovered over him. Sydney’s eyes were moist with unshed tears that he could see even from a distance. An unfamiliar voice welcomed him back to life, but he barely heard the paramedic who inundated him with questions. He reached out for the soul linked with him for time untold. Only when his fingers interlaced with Sydney's did he reply to the EMT’s queries. Even then, Nigel flatly refused to go to the hospital.
"I know where it is," he apprised his companion. Her subdued smile told him she didn’t believe him. "I know," he repeated. "And I’ll prove it."
Go to Part Seventeen.