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Lying awake at night, my thoughts revolve around him, trying to remember his face as I saw it when he emerged from the shadows of the trees. I was aware for a while that he stood between the trunks watching me but I kept looking into the water of the spring. It was opaque, reflecting the branches of the hazel bush. Had I leaned forward further, I could have seen my face in it and my mother's face, too. The wisest of men would love me, she had promised, and his love would last forever. She said it in order to annoy my father, but I do not think he noticed, not sensing her jealousy engendered by his blind weakness for me.

The hazel's leaves were dead still, and even the birds may have kept repeating the same sound. I listened for the noise which would betray his presence, a rustle of dead leaves, the sound of his steps. But then, what I finally heard was different. It resembled a cough, a croak in the throat. As I turned around, he stood already fully in the sunlight. The wisest of men was smaller than me, his shoulders narrow and sloped, his face creased under a grey shock of hair. Those wrinkles ran under his eyes across the cheeks towards his temples and from the nostrils around his mouth towards the chin. He smiled and they deepened.

They said he was able to speak at birth and that his father bestowed on him the power to see past and present. Yet, he did not try to woo me with words but with the sounds of a melody. I saw slender shapes dancing in the grasses beside the spring, and in my head I could hear their voices: "Love's beginning - sweet joy, and yet will end ... ". I could not understand the rest. For the sake of his innocent mother, God had given him the power to see the future, too. He knew what was going to happen.

As a boy, he dreamt of the red and the white dragons fighting. And when the tyrant asked, he foretold him the demise of his rule. After that, he had peace no more and clad his words behind a smirk. He changed his appearance; he turned into a bird and the air to fly in, into a fish and the flow of water, into an old man, a blond boy, and he helped others to transform themselves. Utherpendragon entered Igraine's room with a husband's step and they made love in the dark. After birth, the old woman at the door received the child. It turned into the best of kings. I asked him to teach me the words which made the grasses dance. Every knight at Arthur's Table had a story. Everybody recognized the colours of their shields, knew their scars by heart, and the beds in which they slept. Only the wisest kept his secrets. The more they asked, the more he kept his counsel - he laughed. I asked him to teach me the spell which joined up sounds and turned them into a melody. People said he lived in the valley of no return protected by fords and bridges which changed their shapes. Those who met him, they claimed, were transformed. I stopped eating. He watched me and the creases in his worried face became thin lines. His castle, they said, could be found at the heart of darkness and from its windows you could see the stars and the destiny of man. I wrote the spells on tiny scraps of paper and tied them to the branches of the hazel beside the spring.

In tears, Arthur begged him to stay. From his window, you could see the plain extending to the forest's hem. Two horses grazed there in the shade. "Those who know the past can find the pattern pointing out the future." He drained his chalice. Both were driven by their own passions; death and madness waited for them in the wings. They would only meet again on the island. The King sobbed when the wise man departed. I begged him to teach me the spell which bound a man without chains. And as he spoke, I took a bite out of the apple he offered me.

I strolled with him through my father's wood. His steps were shorter than mine. Again and again he had crossed the borders separating the universes, dreaming first, later laughing, drunk at times and now entranced by love. During those still moments afterwards, grazed by the pair of black wings, he answered all my questions. With a smile, I told him my love was forever. Under the whitethorn in bloom we sat down in the grass. He tightened a little when I drew him towards me in order to rest his head on my lap. I stroked his grey hair. And when his breathing calmed, I bedded his head on my veil. Once again, I could hear the croak in his throat.

Against the flow of time, I walked around the bush, reading out the spell on the scrap of paper. It was so simple. When he opened his eyes, there was nothing left to say. He did not try to abscond from the whitethorn, and I was grateful. I promised to visit often. Arthur sent his knights to search for him a few years later. I met cheeky Gawain not far from the bush and turned him into a dwarf. He could not see the hostage but he recognized his voice. "What has to be will be" could be heard from under the branches, "and the wisest of men is the most foolish, too". I restored Gawain to his former self as he left the woods. Arthur would cease sending his men.

For a while, sitting under the whitethorn, I could still hear the melody but then that faded, too. He who knew everything was ignorant of the ways of man. He kept breaking his silence when they implored him and they thought he was talking about things to come when he explained the past. I cannot compose his face any more at night, his dark eyes, the creases, his mouth. They might call him a sorcerer, today, a fortune teller even, and he would have to show off his prowess at cattle markets. And because he clad his prophecies in that laughter which transcended the boundaries of time, they might have thought he was joking. Not even I have believed him when he pointed out, laughing, that whatever you own wholly, you have indeed lost already.

© Gabrielle Alioth, 1999, translated by Martin Alioth