Authors: Stephen R. Lawhead
Tags: #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Historical, #fantasy
I was afraid to leave my rooms for three days after that—afraid of what I might see next. And when I did screw up my courage to go out again, almost immediately I stepped off the sidewalk on the High Street smack in front of an Oxford Experience bus. I got knocked down, but not run over—those tourist buses do not move very fast and the drivers are skilled at bumping into unwary pedestrians.
It came to me . . . as I lay in the street . . . staring up into the ring of ripely disgusted faces gathered above me . . . that something had to give. A bus today, a train tomorrow. Or would it be a screaming free fall from one of the dreaming spires? More to the point: was this denial really worth my sanity, my life?
One gets a singular perspective on life while gazing up from the gutter. When the policeman who helped me to my feet asked, “You all right, then, son?” I was forced to consider the question in all its greater philosophical implications. No, I decided, I was definitely not all right. Not by any stretch of logic or imagination.
I spent the rest of the day wandering around the streets, aimless and sick at heart. I lost myself in the usual stream of shoppers and simply drifted. I shuffled here and there; I watched chalk artists and street musicians without heeding what they drew or played. I knew something was happening. I
it had something to do with me. I knew also that I could not hold out against it much longer. But what was I to do? What was required of me?
These and other questions, barely formed, occupied me all afternoon. And when I finally gave up and headed back to my rooms, it was nearly dark and the weather had turned rainy. The streets were all but deserted. At Carfax I stopped for the traffic light, though there were no cars on the street. I felt silly standing in the rain, so I ducked under a nearby awning.
As I stood there, waiting for the light to change, a very strange feeling came over me. I was suddenly light-headed and weak in the knees, woozy and unsteady as if I might pass out any second. Perhaps getting knocked down by the bus had hurt me more than I knew, I thought. Perhaps I’ve injured myself after all. I grabbed my head with both hands. I gulped air, and my throat felt tight. I couldn’t breathe.
The pavement beneath my feet seemed to buckle and heave. I glanced down, and my heart skipped a beat. For I was standing in the center of an elaborate Celtic circle drawn on the sidewalk squares with chalk. The street artists—I had seen them working earlier in the day and paid them no attention—had drawn a primitive maze pattern surrounded by a knotwork border of interwoven colored lines. I had often seen sidewalk portraits and landscapes. But never anything like this. Why had they drawn this particular design? Why, of all things, a Celtic maze?
I stood there, clutching my head, staring at the intricately interlaced lines and the dizzying pattern of the maze. I stood there for a long time, the traffic light blinking from red to green over and over, the rain pelting down on me. Staring, staring, unable to move, trapped in that charmed circle—inexplicably bound by those interlocking threads of bright-colored chalk. I might still be standing there but for the fact that my condition had not gone entirely unnoticed.
For I felt the light touch of a hand on my elbow and became aware of a kindly voice in my ear. “Let me help you,” said the voice.
I swiveled my head toward the sound and found myself face-to-face with a white-haired old gent dressed like Central Casting’s idea of an aging country squire complete with porkpie hat and black briar walking stick.
“N-no thanks,” I told him. “I’m okay. Thanks.”
But the grip on my elbow tightened. “Pardon me, but I think you need a hand,” he insisted. He raised his walking stick before my face and then lowered it, pointing to the strange drawing on the pavement. He tapped the chalk with the tip of his stick three times. This simple action, deliberate and slow, gave me to know that our meeting was not mere happenstance and he was no ordinary passerby. He knew something.
“I had better see you home, I think,” he told me. “Come along.”
I looked helplessly at my feet, for I still could not move them. “There’s nothing to fear,” the old man said. “Come.”
At his word, my feet came free, and I stepped easily from the circle. We crossed the street and, by the time we reached the other side, I was thoroughly humiliated. “Thanks,” I said, stepping up on the sidewalk. “Really, thanks a lot. I’m okay. I just got a little dizzy, you know. I had a bump on the head earlier, but I’m okay now.” The words just tumbled out. “I’ll be fine. Thanks for your help . . .”
But the old gent did not release his grip on my arm. Thinking that he maybe didn’t hear so good, I raised my voice. He stopped suddenly and turned to me. “You should have that bump looked at.”
“Yeah, I’ll do that. Thanks.” I tried to disengage his hand from my arm, but he would not let go. “You’ve been a big help. I won’t trouble you any further.”
“Oh, it’s no trouble. I assure you,” he said airily. “I’m afraid I must insist.”
“Are you a doctor?” I asked. I don’t know why—something about his solicitous nature suggested it.
“I’m all the doctor you need,” came the reply, and next thing I knew we were stumping along the all-but-deserted street, arm in arm. He seemed determined to have a look at my bump, and I seemed to have no choice in the matter. After the trauma of the last few days, my willpower was at low ebb, so I took the path of least resistance and went with him.
After much twisting and turning down this street and that, he eventually arrived at a low door in Brewer’s Lane. A brass plaque proclaimed the residence of D. M. Campbell, Tutor. He put a key in the lock, jiggled it open, and ushered me in.
“Come in, please,” said the old man. “Come in out of the cold, my friend. Make yourself at home. I’ll get something warm on the hot plate. Put your coat there.”
He peered at me myopically, patting his pockets absently. I stepped into the dim apartment. “Kind of you to invite me. But, really, it isn’t necessary. I’m fine.”
He smiled and bustled off into the dark interior, unbuttoning his coat as he went. His voice lingered behind him. “A pleasure. My load is light this term. As it is, I don’t have enough visitors. Come, sit down. Won’t be a moment.”
I found an ancient, overstuffed chair and dropped into it, wondering why I was there. Well, I thought, I don’t want to hurt his feelings. Just a quick cup of tea and I’ll be on my way.
For his part, the old gent drifted in and out, snapping on lights here and there to no great effect. The room remained dark as before. At one point he came to stand before me, gazing down at me as if he had won me in a turkey shoot.
“Introductions,” he said abruptly. “Professor Nettleton. Merton College. How do you do?”
“Not Campbell?” I wondered aloud.
“A former occupant,” he explained. “I value my privacy.”
“And you are?”
“Oh, right. My name is Lewis—Lewis Gillies.”
“Glad to meet you, Mr. Gillies,” he began. At that moment a kettle in another room whistled, and he bustled to attend it. He returned a moment later. “Best give it a moment,” he said pleasantly and proceeded to clear off a table piled high with papers. It gave me a chance to study him.
Nettleton was the archetypal Oxford don. Shortish, baldish, sixtyish, slightly stooped, and nearsighted from deciphering the crabbed text of too many illegible manuscripts. What hair he possessed was wispy and white like candy floss; it floated over his head rather than resting there. His apparel was a subdued riot of mismatched tweed—all of ambiguous hue. He wore a Balliol tie, a bright-blue woolen waistcoat, and stout, brown Irish brogues on his feet.
The kettle sounded again, and while my host busied himself with practicalities—I could hear him clanking around in the dim recesses— I took the opportunity to examine my immediate surroundings. The professor’s room was one of those immense Victorian caverns in which Oxford abounds, and no less eccentric than its occupant: twelve-foot ceilings; a forest of ancient dark oak paneling; mammoth carved mahogany sideboards, mantels, bookcases, and tables; a desk that could easily serve as the bridge of a battleship; great soft chairs one could get lost in. The dark oak floors were covered with about an acre of faded, threadbare carpet; the lighting apparently dated from the Dark Ages; and the heating system was older than Moses.
I glanced around at the various shelves, which were crammed with knickknacks and whatnots. Curiosity drew me from my chair, and I approached the shelves for a closer look. They supported a pack rat’s museum of queer artifacts: odd-shaped stones; peculiar knobs of polished wood; tablet-sized slabs of slate with strange inscriptions scratched on them; gleaming nuggets of misshapen coins; a collection of carved-horn combs and buttons made from animal teeth. Bristling from a nook was a stuffed yellow cat the size of a cocker spaniel, and a gross black-feathered carcass I took to be a mounted raven.
So deeply engrossed in this inventory was I that I did not hear Nettleton creep up behind me. I felt a prickly sensation on my neck and swung around to find him gazing placidly at me, two steaming mugs of something in his hands. I say mugs—the vessels were tall and had no handles, and they appeared to be made of a sort of crude stoneware. I’d seen a similar style of pottery before—in the Ashmolean Museum next to a tag which read Beaker, Neolithic, ca 2500 BC.
My host handed a beaker to me, raised the other to his lips, and said, “
To which I replied, “Cheers!” I took a large sip and nearly spewed the contents across the room. I managed to choke it down—but the corrosive liquid grated my throat like a wool rasp and produced an afterburn like an F16.
Nettleton smiled benignly at my discomfort. “So sorry, I should have warned you. There’s whiskey in it. I find a wee dram on a day like this helps to drive out the chill.”
Yes, and the will to live as well. “S’good,” I gasped. I felt my tongue swelling rapidly to roughly the size of a summer sausage. “Wha—what is it?”
The professor dismissed the question with a flick of his hand. “Oh, roots, bark, berries—sort of a homemade concoction. I collect the ingredients myself. If you like it, I can give you the recipe.
I was speechless.
He turned away and led me across the room to a set of red leather chairs on either side of the only window. The sky was dark; the window panes appeared opaque. A small table that looked as if it had been assembled of driftwood stood between the chairs. The professor sat down in one of the chairs and placed his beaker on the table. He indicated the other chair was for me. I sat facing him and peered into my drink. Were those raisins bobbing around in there?
“So!” he announced suddenly. “Good to see you!” He enunciated this meticulously, as if I were an aborigine who might not speak his language. “I have been waiting for this.”
His confession brought me up short. I could only stare and gulp.
“Yes.” He raised a hand quickly, “Please do not misunderstand—I mean you no harm. I intend to help you, as I said. And, if you don’t mind my saying so, you look rather in need of help at the moment.”
“Um, Professor Nettleton—ah, you seem to have me at a bit of a disadvantage here, I think.”
“Nettles,” he replied.
“Why not call me Nettles? Everyone does.”
“All right,” I agreed. “But, as I was saying, I thin—”
“Not to put too fine a point on it, you’ve rather let yourself go, Mr. Gillies. You are distressed.”
“No apologies, Mr. Gillies. I understand. Now then”—he folded his hands over his chest and leaned so far back into his chair that I could no longer see his face in the shadows—“how can I be of service to you?”
Nothing came to mind. I searched the shadows for a moment, and then suggested that he had already helped me a great deal, and that it was getting late and I was sure he had other things to do and that I shouldn’t trouble him further, and that—
“Pish-tosh!” he replied calmly. “There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Come now, please be assured, your secret is safe with me.”
My secret? Which secret? How did he know my secret? “I’m not sure I know what you mean,” I told him.
Nettles leaned further forward. His eyes danced. “You are a believer,” he whispered. “I can always tell.”
“A believer,” I repeated dully.
He smirked. “Oh, never worry. I’m a believer too.”
I must have appeared as thick as a plank, because he explained: “The Faëry Faith, yes? Everyone thinks me mad, of course. What of it?” He became conspiratorial. “I have
He nodded enthusiastically. “Oh, yes! But I prefer to call them Fair Folk. I understand, the word
has taken on some unfortunate connotations in recent years. And even if that weren’t so,
always makes them sound twee and diminutive. Let me tell you,” he added solemnly, “they are anything but twee and diminutive.”
I judged the conversation to have taken a peculiar turn, and attempted to steer it back. “Um, I saw a wolf in Turl Street. Maybe you read about it in the newspapers.”
Nettles winked at me. “
Blaidd an Alba