Read the first chapter of SINS OF THE EMPRESS, the story of Catherine the Great of Russia
To that I will only answer that if I had murdered him, it would have been for love of Russia, nothing else.
The first time I saw my future husband, Peter III, then known as Karl Peter Ulrich, was in 1739. He was eleven years old and drunk. He kept demanding that he be served glass after glass of wine as we dined with the adults in the home of my mother’s brother Adolf. I was ten, known then as Princess Sophia, and I had come with my mother and grandmother to Eutin in the Holstein district of Prussia. My uncle, Prince Adolf, had summoned his family to introduce Peter to us because he had been named Peter’s guardian after the death of Peter’s father, the Duke of Holstein, a cousin. Peter, I was told, was my second cousin.
I watched him from across the table as he blew bubbles in his third glass of wine, making a loud, rude noise with his lips. He took a sip then set the glass down hard, purposely sloshing the contents on the white lace sleeve of Prince Wilhelm, another of my mother’s brothers. The delicate threads of the ruffle drank up the wine and were transformed to a purple hue in the exact moment the prince’s face turned the same color. Peter giggled and raised his glass above his head humming, “muhmuhmuh,” until he got the attention of a steward, ready to fill his glass yet again.
I saw Prince Adolf signal the steward with a slight movement of his hand. The steward stopped before he reached the table, and two men who had waited near the door during the entire meal approached Peter. They each took one of his arms and pulled him away from the table and took him in the throes of a tantrum to his chambers.
“Please accept our apologies, Wilhelm,” my Uncle Adolf said after Peter was taken away. “It seems young Peter was a little overly excited about meeting our family.”
Prince Wilhelm said nothing, but his thin lips stretched white and made an angry slash across his purple face.
In spite of Peter’s disgustingly bad manners, by the end of the week I couldn’t help but feel a pinch of pity for him. He was a thin boy, very pale and sickly looking, and his eyes were a watery blue. It was clear that his two guardians treated him roughly.
Later, as we were preparing to leave Eutin and return to my grandmother’s estate in Hamburg, I overheard my mother and grandmother discussing Peter.
“They’re grooming him for the crown of Sweden, you know.” My mother spoke over her shoulder to my grandmother while one of her servants arranged her hair.
“I thought it was the Russian throne he’s after,” my grandmother said. “He’s the last surviving Romanov male.”
“Actually, he’s eligible for both.” Mother’s voice was smug.
“Pity the poor Swedes and Russians,” my grandmother said.
My mother’s reply was swift. “Don’t waste your concern on the Swedes or Russians, Mother. Think of Prussia. The young duke is German. He’ll serve our interests.”
“The young duke is an idiot.”
My grandmother’s reply caught me off guard and made me snicker.
“What was that, you impudent monkey?” My mother pushed her hair dresser away and turned to glare at me. Her eyes burned with anger, apparently because she saw my laugh as siding with my grandmother’s opinion and not hers. “You dare laugh at what the old woman says to disparage Peter? You, who are so plain and dull-witted you’ll never attract even an idiot for a husband?”
“Leave her be, Johanna,” my grandmother said. “She’s only a child and not so plain as you claim. See how pretty--”
“You’ve no business listening in on the conversation of elders,” my mother said, still haranguing me and ignoring my grandmother. “Why was I cursed with a child so disrespectful?’
The suggestion that I was a curse to my mother shattered me. I wanted nothing more than to please her. “I’m sorry, Mama,” I said, crying and falling on my knees at her feet. “I meant no disrespect. Please, please forgive me.” I reached to kiss the hem of her skirt, but she jerked it away from me.
“Stop that nonsense,” she said. “You’re only playacting. There’s not a sincere bone in your body.” She stood up, literally kicking me out of the way. “Go now, wait outside near the carriage where you won’t be underfoot.”
“But Johanna, there’s a cold breeze this morning. Don’t send her out to. . .”
I never heard the rest of my grandmother’s protest because I was already out the door. The protest would have done no good anyway. My mother rarely showed compassion.
She stayed in her bad mood for almost the entire journey back to my grandmother’s estate in Hamburg. When we left there to return to our home in Anhalt-Zerbst, she was in an even worse mood. It had always been clear to me that my mother, Princess Johanna, had never been pleased with her life as the wife of such a minor prince as my father in such a remote outpost as Anhalt-Zerbst. She grew up in the court of her uncle, the Prince of Brunswick, and was used to its opulence. Being in the presence of her family—all of whom bore the title of prince or princess—had made her realize how much she missed having the life she believed she deserved.
Soon after we returned home to our German town, I settled into my routine of instruction in religion, history, geography, and mathematics with my teacher Reverend Wolff, an uncommonly strict Lutheran minister who always spoke in a monotone at just the right level to make me crave sleep. I think I might have died of boredom in my early years had it not been for my governess. Mademoiselle Cardel was a Huguenot, but, unlike others of her faith, she disliked discussing religion. She much preferred to talk about books. She even let me read some of her romantic novels.
I knew, of course, the entire time that I was growing up being alternately bored by Reverend Wolff and enthralled with Mademoiselle Cardel, that my stay at Stetten Castle would be relatively short. I was barely eleven when my parents began their discussions about arranging a suitable marriage for me. It was to be expected. All girls my age from noble families such as ours were expected to be married as advantageously as possible, preferably to someone from one of the royal families of Europe, and arrangements for the marriages usually started early. The constant alignment of kingdoms and noble houses through marriage was dizzying. I was to be a party to it, but at the age of eleven I was not concerned with who married whom. My parents, however, were acutely interested.
“We shouldn’t fail to consider a good German state,” I overheard my father say one day. “ Perhaps Brandenburg or Goslar or—“
“Of course not.” My mother was emphatic. “Don’t you ever think of our well being, Christian? You’ve never shown any ambition to rise above anything more than a minor prince in a petty German state. A proper alliance could pave our road to fortune.”
“We should be more concerned about paving our way to Heaven, my dear Johanna.” My father spoke in his most pious voice which always angered Mother.
“Heaven? Is that all you think of? All I can say is that you were well-named, my dear Prince Christian. Heaven is many tomorrows beyond us. In the meantime, God has given us today.” There was a cutting edge to her tone, and I knew that my father would acquiesce by remaining silent.
By the age of twelve I had resolved to thwart any attempt to participate in any marriage for political reasons. I was determined instead to marry for love. I had Mademoiselle Cardel to thank for that notion, which I picked up by reading the novels she provided. I could think of nothing more exciting or satisfying than to have a husband who would be kind to me and who would eagerly profess his love for me.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” my mother said when I told her one day that I had accepted a proposal from a young man. “He is nothing. We can do better than that!”
“We?” I said. “You have nothing to do with my marriage. It is between me and the man I love.”
My mother slapped me. “You will not address me in such a manner. And further more, you should be grateful that I strive so hard to arrange a suitable marriage for such a plain and dull girl as you. Who would want to fall in love with the likes of you?” She sent me to my bedchamber and forbade me to come out for the rest of the day. I was desperately afraid that she was right—that no one could possibly fall in love with me. Still, in the deepest chambers of my soul I held on to the idea that romance and love would be my destiny.
I was aware that the pace of making an arrangement for me accelerated over the next eighteen months. Letters passed back and forth between my mother and our King Frederick as well as Mother and the Russian Court. By this time Her Imperial Highness Empress Elizabeth of Russia had taken Peter to live with her and declared him heir to the throne, and she was looking for a bride for him.
It was my mother who took charge of the negotiations and arrangements as she did for almost every other aspect of our lives, since my father was mostly away with the army in service to the king.
“The empress has always been quite devoted to our family,” my mother boasted to one of her friends who had come to call shortly after I turned fourteen.
“Because of her betrothal to your brother Karl, I assume.” The woman whom my mother called friend spoke in a voice stiff with aloofness and boredom.
“Of course,” Mother said. “They would have been married by now had he not died.”
“Of smallpox,” the woman said in the same indifferent voice because this was not the first time she’d heard the story.
“Yes,” my mother answered sounding a bit overly dramatic. “God rest his soul.”
She went on and on about the empress’s attention to her family, the gifts she’d bestowed upon my grandmother, how she’d proclaimed the Holstein-Gottorps—my mother’s family—as part of her own family because she had so deeply loved the late Prince Karl. I stopped listening because I, too, had heard it all before. However, I now knew what was most likely in store for me. I would be betrothed to Karl Peter Ulrich, the naughty little boy I’d met in Eutin at my uncle’s home. Only he wouldn’t be a naughty little boy now. He was a year older than I, so he would be fifteen. He would have begun to develop the physique and mannerisms of a man. I remembered his silky blond hair and his blue eyes. Perhaps they would no longer look weak and watery. Perhaps he would even be handsome. His title and proper address I knew, would be His Imperial Highness Grand Duke Peter III. He would be emperor one day, and I would be known as Her Majesty Empress Consort. The thought of it made the blood in my veins effervescent.
For months nothing happened. My euphoria and enthusiasm waned. Reverend Wolff’s lectures and assignments became almost unbearably boring, and I had to force myself to concentrate on my study of the French language and literature with Mademoiselle Cardel—subjects that had once enthralled me.
Then on New Year’s Day of 1744, a letter came from Her Majesty Empress Elizabeth. I was summoned to her court in Russia, and my mother was ordered to accompany me.
We left home on a cold winter morning. Our first stop would be Berlin and the palace of King Frederick of Prussia. He was my mother’s relative, and he’d written to ask her to visit the palace before we departed the Prussian Empire. I read the letter myself, knowing it would ignite my mother’s rage if she found out I’d done so. But I was almost certain it concerned me, so I had a right to read it, didn’t I? If Mother became angry, so be it. I could never please her anyway.
I was right about the letter. The king asked Mother to help bring about an alliance between Russia and the Prussian Empire. France was to be part of the bargain in some way. The details bored me, but I did know that it was the King’s feeling that I, being German and a part of his empire, would cement the alliance if I married the Grand Duke Peter. Any sort of alliance was of no consequence to me, but my mother was bursting with self-importance at having been handed such a mission.
Our journey across Prussia was miserably cold, and Mother complained constantly for the entire way until we reached the ethereal whiteness that was St. Petersburg which was to be our last major stop before going on to Moscow. Marble-white buildings rose from a foot of pearled snow, and trees still wore their platinum and glass winter coats. Even the doves were the color of milk. Here and there wisps of morning fog lingered, making the city look as if it were floating in clouds. I thought of the Heavenly City of my Lutheran Catechism. Here, though was the new and beautiful earthly city built no more than thirty years earlier by the emperor Peter the Great.
Once we reached the palace, it appeared the entire court, along with ambassadors from every country I could name, came out to greet us and to escort us inside with more ceremony. It was Princess Sophia this and Princess Johanna that and should you desire more and may I please get you such and such. My mother stopped complaining. She was delighted with the attention. She immediately made contact with the Prussian and French ambassadors.
I, on the other hand, wanted to get to know Russia. I’d heard snippets of the story from soldiers and peasants along the way of how Empress Elizabeth had seized the throne from her enemies, and it seemed such an exciting and romantic story to me that I wanted to follow the route she’d followed as she made her coup. I asked the chamberlain to arrange a day-long journey for me to see part of that route as well as some of the important sites around St. Petersburg the next day after we arrived.
I returned to the palace after the day-long tour feeling well-armed with information about the coup and disillusioned by some of the sordid details. Particularly upsetting to me was that Empress Elizabeth had not only removed her cousin Anna from the position of regent in her coup, but she’d sent to prison the little boy who was heir to the throne. His name was Ivan Antonovich, and I couldn’t stop thinking about him being only six years old and languishing in prison.
We began the last leg of our journey the next morning. It was late on the second day by the time we reached Moscow. I saw it as a town huddled in shadows with odd ball-topped spires crowded together like monsters plotting evil. Only an occasional candle or lamp shown in a window here and there. Not even the snow displayed any brightness because the moon and stars were hiding themselves in a blanket of clouds. The palace, secured within large walls, was a mass of stone hulking in the darkness. Torches with long fiery tongues licked at us along the driveway. When we stopped at the front of the royal dwelling, I saw a weak light seeping through windows, but when the wide front doors were flung open by a guardsman, I saw that the interior beyond an enormous hall was well lighted.
The guard who opened the door bowed low and told us he had been instructed to show us to our apartment, which we would share. He spoke to us in French, which, because of my governess, I happened to know was the common language of all the courts in Europe. That was a convenience to both my mother and me since neither of us spoke or understood Russian.
The apartment assigned to us was large and well appointed, but I was disappointed nevertheless, because I hoped to have lodging separate from Mother.
Several servants stood back against the wall of the main sitting room with their hands folded, and they all bowed as we entered.
“The grand duke has asked to be informed of your arrival,” the doorman said, also bowing. “I shall do that now. You may expect him to greet you shortly,” he added with his head still down.
I felt my breath catch in my throat. Within a few minutes I would see my future husband. Until now I hadn’t felt at all shy about meeting him. I had constructed dozens of possible scenarios in my head of what we would say when we met again. I never imagined it to be awkward since we’d met as children. Now, suddenly I was nervous. It could be that he wouldn’t remember me, that he would find me unattractive, that he would find me dull because I’d spent all of my life in the backwaters of Prussia while he enjoyed the privileges of the royal Russian Court.
Mother seemed not to be concerned. She began immediately to instruct the servants on how her trunk should be unpacked, exactly how her bed was to be turned back, and how long she must have her tea brewed.
The wait was not long. Within five minutes there was a knock on the door. When I opened it, two people stood in the doorway, but I only recognized the one on the left. It was the chamberlain who had escorted Peter out of my uncle’s dining hall so long ago. I hadn’t seen him since I was ten years old, five years ago, but I hadn’t forgotten his ice-colored eyes or his pale hair.
Standing next to him was a frail boy, no taller than I and weighing less. He had a thin face with a rather long nose and protruding lips. He came toward me with open arms.
“Sophia! My dear cousin!” He spoke German, and his voice was high-pitched, very much like a little boy’s.
I felt those wet, full lips touch my cheek. Without meaning to, I backed away slightly. I tried to speak, to acknowledge him as the grand duke, but he gave me no opportunity.
“Welcome to Moscow, horrible though it may be. But all the more reason for me to welcome you here.” He glanced over his shoulder. “When we can get away to ourselves, I’ll tell you all about Russia. You’ll laugh. I know you will! Especially when you hear about their religion.” He giggled. “It’s strange. Really strange. Not at all like the sensible Lutheran faith. Ah, and you!” He pointed to my mother. “You must be Princess Johanna!” He skipped across the room to her and took her hand to kiss it. “You are from Holstein-Gottrop, a good Prussian woman, just like your daughter. That makes me so happy. I love King Frederick. He’s my hero. Now, sit down, both of you, and let’s have some wine. You can tell me about your journey and how you liked St. Petersburg. Not much better than Moscow, is it? It’s a better place to drill my soldiers, though, because the snow is not so. . . .I must say King Frederick could teach these Russians a thing or two about military affairs. Cossacks, all of them. The roughest of peasants. Just wait until you hear some of my stories.”
He ordered wine and a light supper which arrived almost immediately then he quickly dismissed the chamberlain so that he had my mother and me to himself while we ate. He did most of the talking throughout supper. I could tell my mother was growing tired of his constant chatter, and she quickly made an excuse to withdraw to her bedchamber. This seemed to please the grand duke.
“Oh, it’s so nice to have you all to myself,” he said and giggled again. “It’s so tiresome to have no one to talk to but old people. Except for my little soldiers, of course, who don’t act like old people at all. Ah but you! I’m so happy you’re here. At last someone I can open my heart to. And I can, I know, because you are my cousin. We have the same blood in our veins, and that’s so nice, isn’t it?”
“Well, yes, I suppose so.” I didn’t want to say more. It was more important that I allow him to talk. He seemed a bit immature, but I didn’t want to judge him too quickly.
“The empress is your kinswoman, too, although I can’t remember exactly how we are all connected. She’s taken complete charge of my life, you know.” He paused only long enough to cough. It was an alarmingly wet and unhealthy sounding cough. “She brought me here from my beloved Prussia,” he continued. “I’m the heir to the Russian throne, you know. I was in line for the Swedish throne, too, although I’d much rather be the King of Prussia. I’m sure you understand.”
“I see,” I said. That seemed to be all that was required of me because he went on talking.
“But what I want doesn’t matter to her. When I say she controls my life, I mean she controls it completely. I’m to be the Russian Emperor, and I’m to marry you and make you my empress. She simply doesn’t care that I’m in love with Kisa. The darling girl was one of Her Imperial Majesty’s maids of honor, but she dismissed her. It’s not fair!” His lips trembled, and once again he sounded like a little boy. “It was Kisa’s mother who was plotting against the empress, not my Kisa. Now they’re in Siberia with the other conspirators, and I heard the empress had their tongues cut out.”
I was stunned. He was in love with someone else. And she had been tortured! What a cruel and barbarian place I’d come to. Would I be tortured if I displeased the empress? What was I to do? And this strange boy telling me about his lover! Was there no chance that he would ever love me? What was worse was a growing fear that I could never love him. At that moment I wanted desperately to go home to Germany.
“But,” he said with a heavy sigh that made me think he was trying to be brave. “Now, I’m resigned to marry you. After all, what else could I do but resign myself? You see how I open my heart to you, my cousin?”
I couldn’t speak, but it didn’t matter. He expected no response.
“Who else could I talk to?” he said with another heavy sigh.
His conversation continued in a similar vein for a long time with Peter alternating between the extent of his mistreatment, how he hated all things Russian, and comments about his soldiers, whom I gathered he was responsible for training and drilling. That he would be given such a responsibility surprised me since he seemed so immature. Yet, it also gave me hope that there was more to him than I was seeing now.
Although I tried not to appear so, the truth was that besides being uneasy about being in such a place where dissidents had their tongues cut out and six-year-olds were left to languish in prison, I was having a difficult time staying awake after such a long, continuous journey. Peter seemed not to notice as he kept up his monologue. I fear I might have fallen asleep in his presence except that another servant appeared. It was a young woman who looked to be only a few years older than I, announcing that Her Imperial Majesty Empress Elizabeth would receive my mother and me in the audience chamber. Peter quickly excused himself with a promise that we would talk again tomorrow. I couldn’t help but feel that he was glad not be included in the audience, which, of course, made me even more nervous.
I accompanied the young servant woman to fetch my mother, who had fallen asleep in our chamber, sprawled on her bed still fully dressed. Thank God, the servant awakened her, sparing me the unpleasant duty. However, hearing that it was the empress who had summoned us, she was able to forgo the usual grumpiness she shows when she’s first awake. The woman who had been assigned her lady of the bedchamber quickly tucked in stray strands of hair and brushed her skirt, and we were on our way to the audience chamber within minutes.
The nap Mother had enjoyed left her refreshed in contrast to me. She all but danced along the hallways on the way to the audience chamber, and she kept asking if she looked all right and if I thought she was suitably dressed. I, on the other hand, felt as if I were dragging a heavy weight, and it was a great effort to place one foot after the other as I walked along marbled walls..
The young servant woman turned us over to a male servant once we reached a set of heavy doors highly decorated with carvings and edged with gold. The man opened them and stepped inside, signaling my mother and me to wait. I couldn’t quite see him or the empress from where I stood, but I heard his voice.
“Your Imperial Majesty, may I present to you Princess Sophia Augusta of Anhalt-Zerbst and her mother, Princess Johanna.”
There was only the slightest pause before the servant signaled that we were to enter. The empress was seated at the end of the long, ornate hall, and I truly believed my heart stopped for at least a few beats when I saw her. She had the most imposing form of any woman I’d ever seen. It was obvious, even though she was seated, that she was uncommonly tall, and she had a large figure. One could not call her fat. Rather she was massive, imposing, as if she had been born to rule. As we drew closer and just before it became necessary to bow, I saw that her face was remarkably beautiful with skin that was so clear it appeared translucent.
“Welcome, Princess Sophia, and you also, Princess Johanna,” she said as a signal that we could rise. I saw her eyes then, bold, blue, and lively, and her hair like spun gold. In spite of the fairness of her skin, hair, and eyes, it would be impossible for anyone to see her as frail or delicate. Her very presence, enormous in more than one sense, exuded strength and a voluptuous earthiness.
Her eyes were on me. It was obvious that she was inspecting me, taking my measure to see if I was fit to be the wife of the future emperor of Russia. Knowing that made me blush. She smiled and gave what I took to be a slight appreciative nod, but even that didn’t help me relax. I was at least a little relieved when she turned her gaze to my mother. Her expression changed immediately. She gasped and put her hand on her ample bosom, and I could see her eyes cloud with tears.
“Forgive me,” she said, addressing my mother. “It’s just that you look so much like him.”
I knew immediately that she was speaking of my mother’s brother, Prince Karl, the man the empress had been in love with and who died of smallpox before they could be wed.
“I hope I don’t distress you,” Mother said. I could see that she was pleased by the empress’s attention.
There was a little pause before the empress responded. “No,” she said with an odd finality. “Of course not.” Her face had changed. The tears were gone. All by the force and strength of her will, it seemed. “Come,” she said as she stood and moved toward us. “Let us have a little chat.”
When she stood, I almost gasped. She was even taller than I’d thought, as tall as the tallest of men, perhaps six feet. She moved with uncommon grace to a grouping of chairs around a table, indicated where we should sit then sat down herself in a chair with a seat cushion slightly elevated above the other chairs.
“I’m delighted you are here,” she said, addressing me.
“It is my pleasure to be here, Your Majesty,” I responded.
“I’m also pleased to see that your French is flawless,” she said. “Do you speak Russian?”
“I’m afraid not, Your Majesty.”
“Well,” she said with a little laugh. “We must remedy that.”
“I shall look forward to the remedy,” I said.
Our conversation continued for perhaps twenty minutes and consisted of nothing more than pleasantries and inquiries as to our satisfaction with our apartment, the meal we’d been served, and whether or not our journey had been tolerable. While she directed most of her questions to me and continued to make me feel that I was being inspected, she, nevertheless, paid sufficient attention to Mother to make her simper with delight.
“It’s obvious the empress will be fond of me,” Mother said as we made our way back to our apartment after we’d been dismissed. “King Frederick must have known he made the right choice when he sent me on this mission.”
I had temporarily forgotten her so-called mission. I knew she had no skills as a diplomat and probably had no more of a notion than I as to how to secure alliances of one country with another. Yet, if it kept her from complaining, I would be grateful for the distraction it afforded. After all, what harm could she do by playing at being a diplomat?
By Paula Paul
I’m not even supposed to be here. I knew that within minutes of landing face-down in that duck pond. Problem is I don’t know how to get back home. Worse, I’m afraid to go home because I know I’ll be killed if I do.
It’s my brother’s fault. You see, I was supposed to go to Amorika in the eleventh century, but because of him, I ended up in a place I never heard of—America in the twenty-first century.
When I knew I had to run for my life, I chose to go to Amorika because I’ve heard it’s beautiful with high cliffs of pink granite overlooking the sea. It’s in Gaul, which by now I’ve learned you call France. Amorika was particularly interesting to me because it was part of something called a continent, not an island as Britain was. I mean is. At least I hope there’s still a Britain now in the twenty-first century.
I first heard about Amorika from a young knight who came from there. His name is Tredwal, and he came to Britain because he heard that Arthur would be king someday, and he wanted to be one of Arthur’s knights when he ascended to the throne. Tredwal is quite handsome, and I’m a little in love with him.
All right, I admit, I’m a lot in love with him.
It’s embarrassing that he hardly knows I exist, and that if he thinks of me at all it’s as Merlin’s little sister. At fifteen, I am hardly a little sister. Most girls my age are married and have children of their own.
Tredwal is nineteen, which makes him the same age as Arthur, and I know for certain Arthur doesn’t think of me as someone’s little sister, since he flirts with me every time I see him and even hints that he’d like to make me his queen if he ever becomes king. Arthur’s all right, it’s just that I grew up with him, and it’s hard for me not to think of him as a brother. Maybe he’ll find someone else while I’m gone.
Come to think of it, by now Arthur and Tredwal are one-thousand-five-hundred and nineteen years old, and Merlin is one-thousand-five-hundred and seventeen. Or maybe not. After all, I’m still fifteen even though I’m now in the twenty-first century.
When it became obvious that I had to get out of Avalon, Merlin said the eleventh century would be a good choice because there would probably be interesting things happening in about 500 years. He promised to send Tredwal to the same time and place so I wouldn’t be completely alone. Since he’s not here in America with me, I have to assume he’s in Amorika in the eleventh century. However, given Merlin’s problems with forward-projecting calculations, he could be anywhere. Don’t get me wrong, my brother’s a pretty good wizard, but everyone has their weak points, and forward-projecting calculations happen to be his. I wish he’d listened to me when I told him he was making a mistake if he didn’t cut the number of words in the spell in half and use the bladderwrack instead of liquid amber. Maybe I’d be with Tredwal now if he had. But since when do big brothers listen to their sisters? All he did was sneer at me and tell me that, unlike me, he knew what he was doing.
In spite of his insinuation that I don’t know much, I have to say I’m not too bad at wizardry myself. I’ll admit I make mistakes, but it’s only because I couldn’t practice every day for an hour they way you’re supposed to. In fact, I couldn’t practice at all, at least not openly. That’s part of the reason I had to get out of Avalon, but I’ll explain more about that later.
Merlin, for all of his faults, really did want to help me escape, and I know he didn’t make that mistake on purpose. But there I was, all of a sudden face down in a pond with ducks swimming all around. The water wasn’t terribly deep. It only came to my knees when I finally managed to pull my soaked and dripping body upright. There were people wearing strange clothing and walking around carrying books. Some had big bags strapped to their backs, and all of them were speaking a strange language. I now know they were speaking twenty-first-century American English and that they were probably telling me I wasn’t supposed to be in the pond.
It appeared no one actually saw me land in the pond—that was part of Merlin’s magic--but I can tell you I certainly felt the landing because I scraped my nose on the bottom. The ponds I’m familiar with have muddy bottoms.
So now I was dripping wet and really angry. I was saying some things about Merlin and his stubborn refusal to listen to my suggestions, and, I might add, using some words considered inappropriate for a fifteen year-old-girl to use. Or anybody of any age for that matter.
That’s when I noticed a boy gliding toward the pond on an odd looking contraption—a flat board with wheels on it. As I watched him, I was trying to keep my footing on the slippery bottom long enough to get out on dry ground.
He was younger than the other people I’d seen walking around with their books. My guess was that he was close to my age, while the other people looked to be in their late teens, or maybe even in their twenties. The boy spoke to me, but I couldn’t understand him, and when I tried to speak to him, it was obvious he couldn’t understand me either. There is a magic way to make other languages understandable, but it’s really hard and requires so much concentration that a person has to be perfectly calm to do it—not upset, not overjoyed, not distracted. That’s because it involves casting a spell on yourself, not on another person. There was so much going on in my head at that moment that there was no way I could do it.
The boy, who had blue eyes and short light brown reddish hair, picked up the rolling board and stuck it under his right arm then reached his left hand toward me. At least I understood that. He was offering to help me out of the water. He was a nice enough looking boy, although not as handsome as Tredwal and certainly not as old. He led me toward a building, me with water dripping from my hair and my dress, and all the time he was speaking to me in that foreign language. I told him I didn’t understand him, but of course he didn’t understand what I said either.
When we reached the building, I thought it might be a castle because it looked so large. There were no walls surrounding it, however, and no spaces for bowmen to stand and defend it.
Once we were inside, we turned a corner into a long narrow room that looked like a dungeon. There were lights with no flame burning in the ceiling, and I knew by that we were inside an enchanted castle. The boy led me to an odd looking door where he did something with his hand on the wall, and the door opened on its own! I followed him inside because I was afraid there might be dragons in that dungeon. The boy made the door close, and we began to move. I thought the castle was levitating, and I cried out, trying to steady myself against the wall. The boy gave me a puzzled look. It was clear I was in the presence of a powerful magician.
He led me through another dungeon with flameless lights to another door where he knocked lightly then opened it without waiting for an answer. Inside the room was an adult man sitting at a table using a peculiar looking stylus to make marks on papers. There were books everywhere—more than even Merlin has. I heard a confusing noise in the background—a kind of muffled roar and now and then a squawk.
The man smiled when we came in and said something to both of us. He stood up after the boy responded, and I could see that he had on loose-fitting leggings and a rumpled tunic of some sort that was open in the front to show a white garment that was also rumpled, and there was something colorful and striped tied around his neck and hanging down the front of his chest. I thought at the time someone had tried to hang him with that striped thing. He spoke directly to me.
“I don’t understand you,” I said. “And I don’t know where I am.”
“So Ryan is right, you’re speaking Brethon! Or do you prefer to call it Britton?” He was addressing me in my own language!
“The dialect is what?” he continued. “Late sixth century? Certainly before the eighth century when Germanic influence was stronger. You speak it quite well, so you must be one of my students, although you look a little too young for that. What’s your name, my dear?”
“My name is Meghan, but I’m not one of your students,” I said. “What century is this?”
“What century? Twenty-first, of course.” He was giving me an odd look. “Are you all right?”
“Twenty-first? You mean it’s not the eleventh century? And where’s Tredwal?”
Instead of answering him, I went back to saying unpleasant things about Merlin.
The man raised his eyebrows but said nothing.
I felt ashamed of myself. I don’t like foul language, and I only use it in extreme circumstances.
“Forgive me,” I said, still speaking my native tongue. “It’s just that I didn’t expect to be here. And, if you don’t mind telling me, where, exactly, am I?”
“Why you’re on the university campus, of course. My son brought you to me because he recognized you were speaking a language I would understand.”
“What’s a university? And why isn’t this Amorika?”
“You mean America.”
“No, I mean Amorika. In Gaul.”
“Oh no, you can’t mean Amorika. That ceased to exist several hundred years. . . Don’t you think you’re carrying this game a little too far? Although I will admit you’re clever. Most of my students don’t speak any of the ancient languages that well. But still, it must be a game. Are you from one of those organizations that does those Medieval Fairs in the park with all those jousting tournaments and. . . You’re crying. I think we should take you to the infirmary.”
I was crying because I was frightened. I didn’t know traveling into the future could be so disorienting. If I ever do it again, I’m going to insist on no more than fifty years forward. A hundred at the most.
By now the man who was obviously a teacher of some sort had me by the arm, but I jerked it free. “I don’t know what an infirmary is, but I don’t want to go there. I just want to go home. I don’t care if they do kill me.”
“Kill you? You’re exaggerating, of course. Who would want to kill a nice girl like you?”
I saw the boy out of the corner of my eye looking very puzzled. He asked the man a question in that language I didn’t understand, but the man only shook his head.
I wiped my tears away and forced myself to stop crying. “Who wants to kill me? Morgan le Fey to start with,” I said, “and if you think Arthur could stop her, you’re crazy. Even Merlin couldn’t stop her. That’s why he sent me here. Merlin’s my brother, and he’s a wizard, just like I am.”
“Morgan le Fey? Arthur? Merlin?” Those are all fictitious characters,” the professor said. He was frowning at me and looking very puzzled.
“You think they’re not real?”
“Of course they’re not real, my dear.” He said that in a way that made me think he thought I was stupid. “It’s all a legend. There may have been a real king in history that the mythical Arthur was patterned after, but all the legends about the Holy Grail, the sword in the stone, and of course a magician called Merlin are all made up stories. Not real at all.” He said the last with a little laugh.
“I can’t wait to tell Merlin he’s not real,” I said and shivered because my damp gown was making me cold.
He said something in the strange language again and tried to take my arm, but I stood firm.
“I can’t understand you,” I said. “Please speak to me in my language.”
He gave me another puzzled look then said in Brython, “I’m afraid you’re having a chill, and you could catch cold. We need to get you in some dry clothes.”
I didn’t know what he meant by “catch a cold,” but he was right, I was chilled.
He paused a moment. “Let me see, where did my sister put that sweater she picked up from the cleaners?” he said. “Ah yes, in the closet.” He opened a door to a very small room and began rummaging around. “By the way, I’m Professor Benton Kingsolver. I teach linguistics and ancient languages here at the university. This is my son, Ryan, who spends his time skateboarding all summer when the high school is closed.” He said that last sentence as if he disapproved of skateboarding, what ever that is. “Now where is that sweater?” he added and went back to rummaging in the small room and muttering to himself.
While he did that, I walked to a window, curious to see what might be causing the odd sounds. The boy he called Ryan followed me. What I saw frightened me more than anything I’d ever seen in my life.
There were monsters down there! Black ones, red ones, silvery grey ones, and they were moving back and forth along a roadway, all of them grumbling and roaring constantly. Now and then there was that squawking noise coming from some of them, as if they were angry. Some of them were belching smoke from their backsides. Rude! I didn’t dwell on that thought long, however. That’s because they all stopped moving suddenly, and I swear they were all looking up at me with big, glassy eyes that grew all around their bodies. They were going to attack!
I screamed and backed away from the window. Ryan grabbed me and held me with both his arms around me as if he wanted to protect me from the monsters.
“What! What’s wrong?” the professor asked, rushing toward me. He had a tunic draped over his arm. “Are you all right?”
I couldn’t speak at first. I could only point to the window. The professor peered out the window then looked back at me. “I don’t see anything,” he said, sounding puzzled. Ryan was speaking at the same time.
Maybe the monsters were gone, I thought, as I moved cautiously to the window. I sucked in my breath audibly when I saw they were still there, and they were moving again. “Monsters,” I managed to say and backed away from the window so they wouldn’t stare at me again with those awful big eyes.
“Monsters?” The professor looked down at the roadway again. “Are you talking about the cars?” he asked, glancing back at me as his puzzled frown became even more pronounced. “Are you serious about this sixth century Britain talk? You’ve never actually seen any automobiles?”
I didn’t understand all of the words he used, even though he was still speaking my language. All I could do was back away even more because by now there was a loud and strange sounding scream coming from the roadway, as if one of the monsters was in great pain. Ryan kept his arms around me and backed up with me. The scream grew louder and louder and then faded away as if the screamer was running away. The professor didn’t seem to hear it, making me think screaming monsters were so common in this future world that people routinely ignored them.
The professor was shaking his head as he moved toward the big table, but he stopped before he reached it and turned back to me. “Here,” he said, tossing the tunic at me. “This is all I have, but it should fit you like a dress. You can change in there.” He pointed toward another door and sat down in the chair behind the table.
By this time I was more than ready to get out of my wet gown. I was shaking even harder from the cold by now. I caught the tunic the professor tossed to me and started toward the door he had indicated. I stopped when I saw him pull a small black object from his outer tunic. It resembled a block of cheese that had turned dark with mold. He was using the same finger magic on it Ryan had used in the levitating room. I stared, fascinated, wondering if he was going to make the room we were in levitate.
Nothing moved. He put the strange black thing up to his ear and began speaking that language. At first, I thought it was the words to a spell, but then I realized he was actually speaking to the black thing. It must have spoken back to him because I saw him pause then speak again. The black thing was whispering messages to him. That’s why he was holding it close to his ear. He was a magician just like Ryan. Maybe that black block of molded cheese was telling him how to get rid of those monsters.
I tried to take comfort in that thought and hurried into the small room to change out of my wet gown. I was in for another surprise. The room had two white objects in it. One had water in it, and the other was simply a bowl about waist high. Afraid to touch either one of them, I quickly took off my wet clothing and slipped the tunic the professor had given me over my head, but not before I transferred my wand from my dripping gown to a pocket in the tunic. I can carry my wand in my pocket because it only takes the most rudimentary magic to collapse it to pocket size.
The fabric of the professor’s tunic I wore was wonderfully soft and the color of rich brown earth. It didn’t cover my legs, though. Instead it only came to mid thigh, not quite to my knees. My first thought was that it would be improper for me to be seen in such a state of partial dress, but I remembered that some of the girls I’d seen walking near the duck pond wore garments even skimpier. After a bit, I finally got up the courage to open the door just a crack, and then a little more, and at last to step out into the room.
The professor showed no sign that I was dressed strangely. “Come along,” he said, standing. “I just spoke with my sister, and she says we are to bring you home before we decide what to do about you.”
I looked around the room, but no one else was in the room except Ryan, who was staring at me with great curiosity. How could Professor Kingsolver have spoken to his sister? Through magic, of course. Merlin does that to me sometimes. He just stares at his crystal ball until he sees me there, then he speaks to me. I’ve only had a chance to use his crystal ball once. I found him and spoke to him, but was he ever mad! He told me not to use his crystal again because I might break it. I hate it when he treats me like a baby when the truth is I’m more mature than he is because as everyone knows, girls mature earlier than boys.
“You’ll probably get along just fine with my sister,” the professor said as we walked down the long dungeon toward the levitating room. “She’s one of those New Age types who’s always talking about magic and crystals and spirits.”
I wanted to ask him what New Age means, but by now we had reached the levitating room, and I was intent on trying to figure out how the finger magic worked and why this time we went down instead of up, so I forgot about asking any questions. Before I had anything at all figured out, we were out of the levitating room, outside the castle, and the professor was leading me and Ryan toward a yard full of monsters. They all seemed to be sleeping, and neither the boy nor the professor appeared worried, so I tried to calm myself.
I reached my limit, though, when we stopped next to one of the sleeping beasts, and the professor literally pulled out the side of it. It looked kind of like a gaping mouth.
"Get in,” the professor said.
Get in? Did he think I was crazy? He wanted me to get inside the belly of that thing? I refused to move. Finally, the professor rolled his eyes and sighed then he and Ryan got in with Ryan seated in the back.
“Get in,” the professor said again.
Somehow, I got up the courage to do as he asked. I sat next to him in the front and closed the opening just as he had. I immediately wished I hadn’t done it because the monster growled and started moving. I glanced at the professor, too scared to speak. He appeared calm, however, and he kept turning a wheel in front of him. I finally figured out that he was guiding the monster with that wheel. He kept up a steady stream of talk as we moved along, but I have no idea what he said. I was too occupied with music coming from invisible musicians inside the monster. Besides that, the scenery seemed to fly by so fast it made me dizzy. I had to close my eyes. I kept them closed for what seemed forever until we came to a stop in front of a small castle.
The woman who met us at the front door was dressed in a long, flowing colorful gown with strings of brightly colored beads around her neck and a turban on her head. She greeted us with a flood of words in the same strange language the professor used.
“Speak to her in Brethon,” the professor said, using my language. “She claims she’s from the sixth century, and she’s the sister of Merlin.”
“Really?” the woman said. “Is this Ganeida?”
“No, I’m Meghan,” I said. “Ganeida’s the baby.”
“I never knew Merlin had two sisters,” she said.
All I did was shrug. Nobody ever remembers me. They know Merlin because he’s the clever oldest sibling, and they know Ganeida because she’s the pretty little youngest child. I’m the middle child. Who ever notices a middle child?
“My name’s Alicia,” the woman said. “If you’re Merlin’s sister, you must be a witch, like me.”
“Wizard,” I said.
“Wizard, witch, whatever. Did you bring your wand?”
I was stunned. She was asking about my wand! She must know the truth about me. The same truth Morgan le Fey knew, the same truth that could get me killed.