Mingus stopped at the top of the stairs. He heard voices in the lab. He peeked through the glass in the door and saw old, white-bearded Doctor Procter leaning over a table, trying to concentrate. Doctor Procter held a delicate piece of equipment in one hand, and held his wand in the other hand, ready to make whatever adjustment might be necessary. The young elf doing all the talking and interrupting kept leaning into the light, like he might be trying to read over Doctor Procter’s shoulder.
“Roland.” Mingus entered the room, the name of the young elf on his lips. “Leave the man to his work.”
“Father,” Roland turned and stood tall. A look of pride crossed his face. “I guessed I would find you here.”
“Why?” Mingus sounded suspicious.
“Because I have not been able to find you anywhere since you came back from the past. But you have always lived in this place… Oh, I guess you are asking…” Roland straightened up. “Because I want to give answer to your unasked question when you went away.”
“What question? Maybe there was a reason it was unasked.”
“Father.” Roland sounded serious. “You said some terrible things about Alexis before you made the time jump, but I want you to know, I support my sister. She freely chose to give up being an elf and became a human to marry a human, and I say, as long as she is happy, she will have my full support.”
“And you have told her this?”
“Not yet.” Roland looked down at the table and at his feet. He worried his hands before he raised his head again. “But I intend to.” He spoke with conviction.
Mingus nodded and kept his sarcasm to a minimum. “You better hurry up, son. Your sister is sixty. Her human husband is sixty-five. They have children of their own. They have grandchildren. You know; humans don’t live very long.” It irked Mingus every time he thought of Alexis getting old and dying, but he tried not to show it on his face.
“Like a breath,” Doctor Procter breathed.
“Roland. Son.” Mingus stepped to the far side of the table to face the young elf. “I am glad you support your sister. Family is important. But now, um… You are over a hundred, aren’t you?”
“Father.” Roland let out a deep breath of exasperation. “I will be one-hundred-twenty-seven next winter solstice.”
“Good, good.” Mingus waved off his own ignorance. “I heard certain elf maidens have a bonfire and dance planned in the three-circle court of Giovani. An elf your age should be out enjoying himself.”
“No good. You spoiled him by activating his brain cells,” Doctor Procter said, with a small grin beneath his long white, unkempt beard.
“Father. Those elf maids are not exactly well educated,” Roland admitted.
“It isn’t their education you should be looking at, at your age. Go have some fun. You remember fun?”
“Get out,” Mingus yelled. Roland flushed red and made a fist. He stomped his way to the door. Mingus and Doctor Procter watched until the door closed.
“No need to yell,” Doctor Procter said.
“That is what children are for,” Mingus responded. “They are for yelling at when they don’t get the message.”
“Um,” Doctor Procter made a sound, shook his head slightly, and returned to his work.
“So,” Mingus said, casually, taking a deep breath to calm himself. “Is that the new amulet? The prototype worked well enough, but it did not give much detail in terms of the surrounding area. We—I came to a cliff in the Rockies in 1875 and had to backtrack a long way to go around.”
Doctor Procter nodded. “See any Indians?”
“Native-Americans. No. Is it ready?”
Doctor Procter paused in his work. “We have added some basic scanner technology to the amulet so it will get a reading on the area, cities, towns, forests, mountains, and so on. But the screen is so small, it will take very good eyes, preferably elf eyes to see it. It took some real coordination with the technology and IT departments, not to mention—”
“Doctor.” Mingus cut the man off before he went into a half-hour unintelligible explanation. “Is the amulet ready?”
“This? No. It needs further adjustments, and then testing.”
“Additional work. I’m afraid it would not work at all in its present condition.”
Mingus nodded. “The prototype still around?”
“On the wall there,” Doctor Procter pointed over his shoulder without turning from the table. Mingus walked to find it in the mess by the filing cabinets. Doctor Procter paid no attention.
“The prototype worked well enough,” Mingus said, in his friendly voice.
“Yes, yes,” Doctor Procter responded as he leaned over his work and squinted at the amulet in his hand.
“It got me home in one piece, through the time gates.”
“And we are all glad. Welcome home,” Doctor Procter mumbled and he leaned further into his work. Mingus found the prototype under some papers and slipped it into his pocket. Doctor Procter paused and turned to Mingus. “We are glad you are home, but this time, don’t expect to steal the new amulet and leave me a note about going to test it. The new one is shielded. If you so much as touch it, alarms will go off and all of Avalon will know.”
Mingus looked down and nodded like a child, properly scolded. “I understand. It was just the first one. I am the only one in all of Avalon who knows the history; maybe the only one who had a reasonable chance of making such a journey, and getting home in one piece. I might have died at the outset, entering into the crystal. I felt I was the only one who ought to take that risk. An expedition of young elves without the proper knowledge would have been a disaster.”
“That is debatable,” Doctor Procter said. “But you stole the amulet and went before anyone could stop you. You won’t be stealing this one.”
“Fair enough,” Mingus said. “I’ll leave you to your work. You have had enough interruption for this evening.” He headed toward the door, and paused only briefly when Doctor Procter had one more thing to say.
“Glad you made it back. The history department would not be the same without you.”
Mingus stepped through the door and hurried down the stairs.
Now that it had become a fully dark night, he needed to get Alexis before she broke free of her enchantment. They needed to be gone before anyone found out. He looked once again to be sure the naiad was not in her spring. He looked again at the tower, now pitch dark, like a giant finger pointing to the stars. There were various opinions on just which finger the tower represented.
Mingus found his daughter in the closet where he left her. He paused to note her gray hair, wrinkles, and pale human skin. At least she didn’t get chunky like some human women got when they turned sixty, he thought. He made sure her hands were still bound and the magical gag remained in place. He made her stand and walk. He had to lighten the trance so she could stagger. He had to help her, but he dared not let her come to full consciousness, even bound and gagged. She retained her elf magic when she became human. She was hardly powerless, and might yet find some way to break free from his control. She was his daughter, after all.
The most dangerous part came when they went out into the open to cross the green, and particularly when they crossed the little bridge over the stream. Mingus’ mind wandered. Doctor Procter was wrong. The history department on Avalon would get along just fine without him. Some fifty years ago, the dark elves learned to extract information directly from the Heart of Time and put it on computers. The history department on Avalon started slowly filling up with computer geeks. Elves should not be nerds, he thought. Mingus knew he was old fashioned, like someone out of the stone age. But he still believed in things that mattered. He still believed in family. He believed a daughter should not die before her father, and Alexis, now human, was ageing rapidly right before his eyes.
Mingus got them to the tower door. He took one last look around the green before he slipped them inside.
“Uh,” Alexis made a sound and wiggled in the light, like a sleeper trying to wake. Mingus held her until she settled down again into her enchanted sleep. He looked around.
The ground floor was the only floor in that great hollow finger. The walls stretched up high enough so Mingus imagined the cathedral roof might have been designed not only to keep out the rain, but to keep the stars from falling in. No fire gave light to that room. No torches lined the wall. No electric lights were allowed near the place. Only the Heart of Time throbbed with its own internal light, and somehow, the wood out of which the tower got built retained enough of the light to light up the entire inside, even to the ceiling.
There were theories about the wood. Recently, an ancient theory had come back to the surface—that it was some alien wood Lady Alice snatched off some impossibly distant planet. Another theory suggested that the tower had actually been planted, like a tree, and the wood was alive, and still growing. Mingus shook his head. Some people will believe anything.
He helped Alexis come inside the circle painted on the floor. They faced the stand in which the crystal rested, silently pulsing with light. Mingus reached into his right-hand pocket to make sure he still had the amulet. He reached into his left-hand pocket where he had a handful of gold dust.
“Mister Barrie called this fairy dust,” Mingus whispered to himself—some distant memory. He sprinkled it on Alexis and himself, three times, and mumbled a long series of unintelligible syllables. Alexis sneezed. Mingus reached down to scoop Alexis up in his arms when he caught sight of movement out of the corner of his eye. Lady Alice was in the room. Mingus panicked and jumped right into the crystal. Alexis snapped out of her trance as they jumped into the light. She yelled, a muffled “No,” before the sound cut off.
Alice and the naiad stepped up to the crystal.
“I think he saw you,” the naiad said.
“He needed to see me,” Alice responded. “Hopefully, he won’t put up a struggle when the rescue party arrives. Now, let us see where they went.”