Previously on Pendragon:
MACBETH: I have been a king too long to serve any man. But if you need to me to stand by your side, I will come.
CASTAWAY: Good evening, Mr. Macduff... I've come to punish you for your crimes against humanity!
CASTAWAY: I want the traitor brought before me, now! A bonus to the man who captures Macbeth!
MACBETH: He killed my father, I killed him, you kill me, and so on. This kind of thing accomplishes nothing.
CASTAWAY: This isn't over, monsters!
There was a gentle whispering, a sound belonging only to a page which has been read, digested, pondered over, and at last turned aside in favor of new horizons - or, simply, the next page. Again, the whispering, and a deep, soft sigh of one who has been searching for a great while. Another whisper - and then, none. There was a pause in the midst of the small shop, felt even under the soft, flowing lullaby of Beethoven's Für Elise.
Leo looked up from the front desk, putting aside for a moment the accounts. His golden mane flashed brilliantly with the small movement, creating an element about him which was both glorifying and mysterious - fitting for such a creature as he. "Have you found something, Arthur?" the gargoyle asked. In spite of his comfortable English accent, he could not bring himself to refer to Arthur, Once and Future King, as "chap," or "fellow," or something equally familiar to his repertoire. "Your Majesty" had been banned as soon as the title had come up, and yet - what else was fitting for such a man; a hero of ages? And so, simply Arthur it was. No more, no different, no less than requested.
After a considerable pause, Arthur broke his concentration. "Perhaps..." he mused. "I have been muddling over this book - The Quest For Merlin - since the time I returned from Tintagel. It seems to focus on those throughout history who have been associated with my teacher, Merlin. Thus far, I have found accounts of no man, woman, or child who I would ever imagine that he might have found friendship with, let alone impersonated. Yet, in this book of falsehoods - or so it seems to me - I find one whom I know to be my teacher, if any man is he."
Leo strode - there was no other word for it; 'walk' was too common a term for his golden majesty - to Arthur's side. "Who is it?" he asked curiously. He both hoped and feared that the King had found that which would lead him to Merlin; on one side, he could not help but wish for the success of such a great man, and, he had to admit, his interest in the magical arts did nothing but cultivate any wishes he himself had about meeting the wizard. One the other side, he dreaded the uncertainty of what was to come. What would Arthur do, when he found his mentor? Would they embark upon some historical journey, once again taking Griff with them? And... leaving him behind?
He shook his head and brought himself back to the present. He peered over the majestic king's shoulder, and observed at the top of the page the words, "Thomas the Rhymer." He nodded, saying the words aloud. "Yes, I know a little of the man."
The king read the words, his authoritative voice filling the small shop with an air that sent shivers down Leo's spine; a voice from another time, another world. "Known for his gifts of prophesy and his dealings with the Fair Folk, this late thirteenth century..." Almost forgetting himself and completely forgetting Leo, Arthur's voice drifted off as he scanned the page once again. At last, he closed the large, hard-bound book, and looked at the gargoyle who had not left his side. "I do not know what it is, Leo, but something in these words, something that describes this man, convinces me wholeheartedly that it must have been Merlin in disguise. The characteristics fit - his talents, those with whom he associated, yes, they are so like Merlin. But this book is filled with the same. I cannot explain it; something in these words tells me, 'Merlin - Merlin was here, this was he.'" Arthur sighed deeply. "Is this my search?" he pondered, speaking again to himself. "Shallow hints and base feelings? How can I possibly find Merlin in this manner?"
"Please excuse me, Your Majesty," interrupted Leo, using his title out of respect and hoping that the king would not become irritated, "But it occurs to me that you, of all men, should know Merlin best, as any man would know his best friend. Yet, how do we know these friends, save by emotions and gut feelings? You know him best, Arthur. Listen to what your heart tells you."
For a moment, the King considered this, then nodded thoughtfully. "Yes, you are right, Leo. Thank you." He paused. "Sometimes... it is simply that the search seems endless, and at the same time, I feel that it has only just begun. It makes me doubt myself at times, Leo, forgive me. Once Merlin is at my side, I can go on. Until then-" here, he gave a wan smile, "you will simply have to put up with me."
Leo smiled and gave the king a firm pat on the shoulder. "Even the greatest king is no more than mortal," he said.
Now, Arthur smiled genuinely. "Then I shall track this Thomas, until he sifts through my fingers like sand. Have you any books about this man?"
Leo furrowed his brow and traced his way to the back of the shop. "This is more Una's department than mine," he called over his shoulder. "But I'll see what I can find."
Minutes later, he came back with a heavy, leather-bound volume covered with fine dust. He blew the gray layer away with a single puff, and handed it to Arthur, who immediately engrossed himself in its pages.
"Shall I fetch Griff?" he heard Leo ask dimly in the background.
"Mm, yes," muttered Arthur, waving the gargoyle off with a kingly gesture. He did not look up from the book, and minutes later, Leo was gone.
As he finished the last words of the book Leo had given him, Arthur Pendragon looked up to see that same gargoyle, accompanied by Griff and Cavall. For a moment, he had the odd sensation that they had been watching him for some time. "How long have you been standing there?" he asked firmly, but did not demand.
"Long enough to know you've found something," quipped Griff in his easy-going manner. He ruffled his feathers, which had been tossed in the blustering winds until he looked to be in a state of complete disarray. "Where are we headed this time?"
"Scotland," announced Arthur.
"Ah!" exclaimed Griff eagerly. "Goliath's old home - and Brianna's. Do you suppose that we could visit her and her clan again while we're there, Arthur?"
"If our quest takes us to the Caledonian Forest again, perhaps," Arthur replied.
Griff smiled and rubbed the prodding head of Cavall. "You're ready to go too, aren't you?" he asked the beast.
"All right, then," smiled Arthur, standing. "Let's be off." He tucked the book inside his bright armor and started for the door. Cavall and Griff followed eagerly behind.
"Wait!" came Leo's cry. The small company turned. "Griff - don't you... want to say goodbye to Una?"
"Life's too short for good-byes," laughed Griff. "She'll understand."
Then they were out the door, and Leo was left to himself. "No," he said aloud to the empty room. "No, she will never understand why your first allegiance is to the man Arthur- even if he is the Once and Future King. And neither will I, I'm afraid."
"...Which is why James VI - as he was formerly known in Scotland - was able to assume the English throne. And so the Tudor monarchy fell." Macbeth, alias Professor Lennox Macduff, turned from the diagram on the chalkboard and surveyed the classroom. Or, rather, an auditorium with desks. The room had been built upon a slant, so that every seat provided a perfect vantage point, and almost two hundred faces stared back at him. At his conclusion, some of the students smiled; most sat with a fixated gaze about them which he knew to be a sign that he had achieved his goal: they were transfixed with the tale.
In America, most students came to listen to "Professor Macduff" speak out of simple curiosity; only about half in attendance each day he lectured were actually enrolled in his class. However, most young people on campus had heard tales of his booming voice, telling breathtaking tales of the past which almost put you there, and - his odd contempt for Shakespeare. None could reason it. He spoke, at times, as if he were born into the very words and worlds of the great dramatist, as if he had just stepped from the pages. And yet, he despised the works with such great fervor that no student would dare utter the man's name in his presence. Perhaps, said some, he secretly wrote plays and sonnets of his own, and harbored some literary jealousy. Perhaps, said others, he had been subjected to misread versions of the plays as a child and could do nothing but remember the terrible pronunciations each time the words were read aloud. In any case, the mystery of Professor Macduff was one few students had not attempted to solve, at one time or another.
In Scotland, it was quite another matter. He had been expected, anticipated, for quite some time, almost as a lost child returning home. The campus had heard of his popularity in New York, and wondered why this professor, this Scottish professor, was not known to them. And so, he had been invited. Being a guest speaker, he felt he had much more freedom; there were no officially enrolled students in the auditorium, and he had to grade no papers. He was free to expand on subjects at will, carefully drawing in the crowd. Now, as he ended, he knew that he had succeeded. For a moment, there was a pause, and then one student applauded, slowly. A moment later, the entire auditorium broke from its trance and into a roar of applause.
Gallantly, Macbeth bowed, and smiled slightly to himself. But, as he rose again to go to his desk and collect his papers, he stopped suddenly in his tracks, his eyes searching the audience with the precision of long years. Someone... was watching him. His eyes found nothing. Shaking his head, Macbeth chided himself. "Of course they're watching you, you old fool," he said to himself. "You were lecturing, weren't you?"
And yet, he still felt the odd sensation that, somehow, one being in the audience had not come to hear his lecture.
Again, he shook the feeling away. Perhaps it was simply that he was not used to such crowds. After nine centuries of solitude, it took some getting used to. He gathered his papers and prepared to make his way to his car.
"Professor!" called a healthy young voice, accompanied by the pounding of hurried footsteps. "Professor!" The tone was thickly accented, deeply contrasting Macbeth's own speech, diluted with time.
Macbeth turned to see not one boy, but two. The one who had called his name reached him, and stopped, waiting for his less-fit partner, who lagged a little behind. "Yes?" he asked when both had come to a stop.
At the actual confrontation, the first boy reddened slightly, matching his wild strawberry hair. He seemed a little awed and embarrassed to actually be in the private presence of "Macduff." Fortunately, the other boy covered for him.
"We was wondrin' if ye happened t' have any plans for t'night," he said, tossing his head slightly to rid his forehead of bangs. Taller than his companion, this young man's own brown hair was parted neatly down the center and combed to either side, causing little curls to fall down into his face from time to time. His eyes were an icy green.
Macbeth was caught off guard. "Ah-" he stalled, thinking. Were Scottish lads accustomed to asking their professors out to dinner? Nonsense, he caught himself. He was being paranoid. "No," he said at last.
The red-haired boy relaxed a little. "Well, then," he said, interrupting his partner, who had been about to speak, "Would you be wantin' t' come with us for dinner and a show?"
Macbeth blinked. "I'd be glad to, lads," he said.
When they arrived at the local pub, Macbeth was treated to a drink and a sandwich by the enthusiastic boys, and they took a corner booth. For a few minutes, they chatted aimlessly, touching such subjects as the weather, Macbeth's trip, and what he thought of returning to Scotland.
"Well," he admitted to this last, "I must say it has changed much. But then," he amended slowly, "That could just be a change in perspective." - One does not mind his surroundings when he has such consuming thoughts as revenge on his mind, he added sadly to himself.
After a minute more of conversation, the two boys - their names were Henry and Mark - quieted, and Macbeth could see that they wanted to ask him something more.
"Well - what is it?" he asked gruffly - a little too forcefully. The boys shied, and Macbeth let out a sigh. "Go on, lads. I won't have your heads, though I sound it. I'm an old man, embittered by the years."
Mark - the brown-haired one - swallowed. "We was wondrin' if we might ask ye some more questions. About yuir lecture. If we're not intrudin'."
Macbeth's ears suddenly pricked, alerted by a noise heard but not heard, and completely unidentifiable. His hands froze in midair, the half- finished sandwich still held between them. It was simply his instincts, honed by centuries of lessons well learned, telling him something _was not right._ Then, he remembered his companions and forced out a hearty laugh. "Never, lads! It is always a pleasure to discuss my area of expertise. Therefore, ask away."
Henry, now assured all was in place, beat his friend to the chase once again. "All right," he said. "If Queen Mary hadn't..."
In Macbeth's mind, the boy's voice was tuned out, and he shifted his gaze about the pub, carefully examining each face. He fully expected to identify the culprit; his subconscious should have alerted him to anyone now in the pub who had also been in the lecture hall. His eyes found no one.
"Professor Macduff? Professor?"
Macbeth snapped his gaze back to the two young men seated across the table. "I apologize," he said, standing. He flipped a bill out onto the table. "Please have another drink on me. I - need to make a phone call. I think there's a booth just around the corner."
The boys displayed puzzled looks, but nodded and called the bartender over.
Outside the small pub, Macbeth glanced around cautiously, then loped quickly for the back alley. In a moment, he was at the back door of the place he had just left. He slipped quietly inside, keeping in the unlit areas of the back of the room so as not to be noticed by anyone. Now, none could enter nor leave the bar without his knowledge. He waited. The boys, in the corner, chatted amiably. Several men were lined up at the bar, and there was a semi-heated debate going on between two women and an older man in one of the front booths. Others were scattered throughout the pub, but none had departed.
What was he doing?
Macbeth backed out of the door, intending to go around to the front and enter again. Before he could turn around, he heard a small scuffle at his back. Reflexes worked instantly, and he spun, locking his iron grip around the culprit -
A teenage girl. For a moment, she stared at him in horror, dropping the stolen pack of cigarettes she had been about to open under cover of the dark alleyway. Before she could scream, Macbeth clapped his other hand over her mouth. He thought furiously.
"As I suspected," he half-growled, kicking the cigarettes to the other side of the alley. "You couldn't get away with it forever," he said, boring his gaze into hers until she looked appropriately frightened. "Lucky for you, you're getting one more chance; if I ever catch you again, you won't get off so easy. Now, take them back." With this, he released her.
She swallowed, backing away from him until her back was against the wall of the adjoining building. The girl bent low and picked up the pack. "Y-yes, sir," she stuttered, and ran.
Macbeth sighed with relief. Again: what was he doing?
With that question, Macbeth pulled out something deeper. What did a man do, after hate? When that dark, vengeful passion had consumed him fully, or almost fully, until no recognizable speck of goodness remained? When, suddenly, a light pierced the night and hate was dissolved? What was left, for a man, when he suddenly realized that he had destroyed all that might have healed his pain? When he realized that he had devoted his life to chasing a single evil, and because of that chase, had destroyed every goodness in his life - had himself become that hated evil? What happened, when hate had been life, and suddenly, it was gone? What was there for a man, after hate?
A terrible, regretful, sorrowful, remorseful loneliness; a rejection of self from the whole of the world, whilst gaping wounds to the soul healed. And - then what? What when a man felt the need to rejoin humanity, but knew not where to start?
The answer came back to him, haunting and impossibly true: he was afraid.
Is that what it was? Fear? Now that, for the first time in centuries, he had allowed himself to be part of a simple friendly outing - was he afraid? Fearful of closeness, friendship? And, being so alienated to that underdeveloped sense, attuned instead to battle, to The Hunt, that he no longer recognized his own fear when it came upon him- that, instead of seeing that fear, he imagined other phantom dangers?
Macbeth; warrior, hunter, king, and- ...human, shoved his fists deep into the pockets of his long overcoat and stalked around the block, brooding.
He felt as if he were going mad. Yet, at the same time, he steeled himself. What had he to fear? Nothing could harm him, physically. He had not been afraid since- he could not remember. The past was so dim, that time when he had been a child so like a dream, that he could no longer be certain that it was reality.
At last, Macbeth came to the door of the pub. "Get a hold on yourself," he muttered deeply to himself, and stepped through the door.
He did not notice the shadow which lingered in the darkness of the alleyway - a shadow which was not his own.
Later that evening when the trio arrived at the small, one-screen theatre, they were joined by another young man - though not so young as the other two - who was introduced as James MacFergus. Macbeth smiled politely and offered a hand. He also offered to treat the boys, but they refused, saying that it was their pleasure.
In the lobby, Macbeth insisted on buying cokes for all, and they entered the theatre sipping at plastic straws. Finding their seats, they settled into a healthy chatter, and Macbeth forced himself to sit back and relax in the friendly situation. Soon, he found he was relaxed, and joined the small talk freely until the screen lit up.
The professor had not thought to ask the boys what the feature was, and as familiar upbeat, adventurous music began, he smiled. When the expected roguish figure with the brown fedora and large whip lit the screen, Macbeth leaned towards the brown-haired Mark, sitting next to him, and said lowly, "Interesting selection."
Mark grinned boyishly and chuckled. "It's a kind of tradition for us. The theatre shows 't once a year, and we never fail t' come."
Macbeth graced the young man with another smile and leaned back in his seat to enjoy the show. The warm company of the boys, along with the familiar scenes flashing before him, caused Macbeth to let down whatever reservations he had yet maintained, and he truly relaxed for the first time in a long, long while. In fact, he wasn't even annoyed by the fact that the theatre attendants had turned the sound up so loud that he could not hear himself think - which, perhaps, was best.
Toward the climax of the movie, just as Macbeth was wondering if the speakers wouldn't explode, MacFergus made his way haltingly through the row and into the aisle, apologizing, "Ach! Sorry. Got t'use the men's."
"Yuir goin' t' miss the best part," whispered Henry unnecessarily, underneath the blaring roar of action.
"Don't ye think I know that?" he growled as he snuck up the center aisle, bent over so as not to obstruct anyone's view. "I've got to."
In spite of himself, Mark let out a bark of laughter, then slapped a hand across his mouth, although no one asked him to be quiet.
Again, Macbeth found a smile crossing his face. There had been times such as this, when he had been young... yes, he remembered dimly having to wait uncomfortably through some ridiculous ceremony or other, held in place by his father's large hand. Such a thing, to be a young man.
Alone in the formerly abandoned projection room, a shadowed figure gave a final twist, screwing on the gun sight to the rifle he held. He took a deep breath and, carefully avoiding placing his body between the projector and the glass, slipped the barrel of the rifle through a small hole in the pane.
Slowly, almost agonizingly so, he aimed at his target. Could he do it? He was there, and now was not the time for such thoughts. It was for the cause - he must! He wiped his mind of any more thoughts, and sat back, waiting for the most opportune moment, the moment when no one would hear...
As Nazis rattled off machine guns and motors roared in the final action sequence, Macbeth winced at the noise - a bit much, even for his ears. Then, he flinched sharply at another noise, hidden amidst the blaring of the speakers, a noise which only he heard. He was conscious at once that soda was running out of his cup and over his hand, and of a burning sensation that he knew only too well in the side of the arm which had been holding the cup. Ignoring the pain, he slapped his other hand over the wound, and rushed from the theatre.
Left to themselves, Henry and Mark looked at each other. "I guess even professors are human," shrugged the dark-haired one. They chuckled and went turned back to the film.
Macbeth was relieved to find the lobby deserted, and, feeling the grazing bullet wound to be healing already, ascended two-by-two the tiny stairway leading to the projection room. He felt strangely naked and vulnerable without his usual armor, but threw the door open anyway, braced for a fight.
A faint smell of gunpowder tainted the air. Otherwise, nothing.
"What are you doing up here?" demanded a harsh voice.
Macbeth turned to see a thin man with glasses and a ponytail of dyed baby-blue hair: the projectionist. A projectionist who was not in a good mood, after being called away from his duty to answer and insistent phone call which, when he reached the receiver, had been a hang-up.
"Ach, I'm terribly sorry," he said. "This isn't the men's room, then?"
The man edged around him and closed the door halfway, leaving Macbeth standing at the top of the stairs. "No," he said, and closed it the rest of the way.
At the bottom of the stairs Macbeth paused. What to do? At that moment, MacFergus stepped from the true men's room. "The boys," muttered Macbeth. "I can't let them get caught in this - whatever it is."
"What're ye doin' out here, professor?" queried MacFergus.
"I apologize," returned Macbeth. "Tell Mark and Henry I've just remembered something - I must leave."
"Well, all ri- but ye're bleedin'!"
Macbeth held out his hand; the wound had healed, but the blood which had been spilt remained. "Ach, it's nothing. I had a pair of glasses in my pocket that broke when I sat down, and I cut my hand a little when taking the pieces out. Now-" he interrupted MacFergus, who looked as if he were about to say something. "I must leave. Good night." With that, he strode purposefully from the theatre.
Macbeth, having left his own car back at the university while riding with the youths, caught a taxi. He pretended that he needed to stop at a drugstore on the other side of town before having the driver take him back to the university, hoping to throw off anyone who might have been following. He ran inside and bought a paper, then came back and gave the driver his true destination. The man looked at him somewhat dubiously, as if to say, "We had to drive all the way out here to get a paper you could have gotten around the corner?" But the driver shrugged, turned around, and drove anyway.
Back at the university, Macbeth didn't bother to go to his car, heading across the campus for the small apartment reserved for visiting professors and speakers. Unlocking the door, he tossed the paper on an accommodating desk and stripped off his outer layers, preparing for bed. As he began to unbutton his shirt, however, he stopped mid-chest, turning to face the door. He felt as if someone's eyes were upon him.
Quickly, efficiently, and almost as if he were embarrassed of himself, Macbeth locked and bolted the door. He then strode from the small sitting room into the bedroom, where he also bolted the glass double doors leading to the little patio. "Ridiculous," he scoffed at himself. "That I should be worried!"
And yet, he was. Instinctively, he grabbed a clothing bag which hung in the closet, pulling out his durable armor, loaded with weapons and technology beyond the imagination of most citizens. He began to put it on, then threw it aside. It landed on the bed, then bounced to the floor.
"There is no reason for you to be afraid," he told himself in his definite, precise manner. "You know you cannot die." But still, he knew it was not so much fear as the fact that he could not pinpoint what was bothering him, could not identify nor see the shooter, and this led him to conclude that he was being stalked by someone who knew his business. Someone who might not be gotten rid of so easily. Someone who might - yes, that was it. Someone who might cause a fuss, cause someone to come running, cause people to start questioning him and his remarkably fast recoveries. He would have to disappear again. Start over. And he would be alone.
And yes, that frightened him.
So far, he had made few friends in this modern-day world, and none he could begin to call good friends. More like amiable acquaintances. A hasty peace had been made with Goliath and his clan, yes, but they were more "not his enemies" than "his friends." He had a few friends back on the campus in New York; he knew some students, another professor who might potentially be someone he could form a lasting friendship with- Joanna Walker. And just tonight, he had made friends with three very fine young men, any of which he would have been glad to call his son.
But now - this person, whoever had shot at him, had the potential to destroy all of that. Macbeth could not let that happen. It was a fragile beginning he had made, he knew that, and easily toppled. One mistake, and he might fall into the trap of revenge which had held him for so long. But a start had been made, however small. And he would fight to keep it.
In the meantime, however- Macbeth finished undressing and slipped between the sheets. It was not practical to worry about things that were not there. Most likely, the would-be assassin had run off and was now taking time to regroup after his failure. Tomorrow he would be on the lookout, for certain. Until then, he had best get his rest-
Macbeth sat up in bed. His ears had caught a rustling which was not a draft. He reached for the chest plate lying on the floor. There was not enough time to put it on, but his fingers felt deftly for the hidden gun. Slowly, Macbeth swung his feet to the floor, his eyes sharpening to scan the shadows in the darkened room. When his eyes focused on nothing, he passed through the doorway back into the sitting room. There was a second rustle, in the curtains to the left of his bed - at his back. Macbeth spun, but even his reflexes were not enough to prevent what was now inevitable, and he knew it even as the soft thump, thump, thump of a silenced weapon sent three great, fiery spasms of pain ripping through his unprotected chest. Reflexively, his finger jerked at the trigger of his own pistol, but his finger found no hold, and the gun dropped to the floor, followed by his own substantial bulk. He gasped for breath, but felt air refused to move past the warm liquid filling his throat. Slowly, painfully, consciousness faded away, and Macbeth passed finally into a black bliss before the hooded face in the shadows let itself out the glass doors and over the patio.
The sun was blooming gracefully over the horizon in a new dawn when Macbeth's body had magically healed itself enough so that he could sit up, albeit slowly and feebly. There was still a burning pain within his chest. He groaned weakly and pulled himself to a chair, which he only leaned against from the floor, rather than expending the energy to lift himself into it. Unable yet to do anything more, he sat and watched as the sun worked its way from a sliver into an entire glowing ball.
It was then that his mind cleared enough to realize that he was late for his morning lecture. Best he call the dean and let everyone know he had caught something and was home in bed. Fortunately, the phone was close by, and Macbeth had regained enough strength to crawl over to it without much strain. There was a single call button for the dean's office, and he pushed it.
"'Dean's office," answered a bright, male voice. Dimly, Macbeth recognized it, but he could not pin down where he had heard it. No matter.
He tried to say, "This is Professor Macduff," but before he had gotten out the first word, his lungs erupted in a fit of coughing, and he tasted blood in his mouth and saw it on the receiver of the phone.
"Hello?" asked the voice on the other end of the line. "Are ye quite alright? Hello?"
Still coughing, Macbeth hung up. He winced, realizing that his lungs must have collapsed, and were not yet fully repaired. He waited another ten minutes, then, feeling better, stood up with a groan and went to the bathroom. The professor leaned over the sink and let his reflexes take over until nothing came forth except a dry cough. He rinsed his mouth out. "This is Professor Macduff," he said clearly, although his voice was still a bit rough.
Again, he phoned the dean.
"This's th' dean's office. May I be 'o service t' ye?"
Macbeth cleared his throat and said, "This is Professor Macduff. Can I speak to the dean?"
"Oh, for certain, professor. I'll put ye' through. Is everythin' all right?"
It was then that Macbeth realized the secretary on the other end of the line was MacFergus, the boy from the theatre the night before. "I'm afraid the business I had to leave about last night isn't fully cleared up yet, but I hope to resolve it within the next few days." The boy's voice caused something to click in his head. If he stayed here, while he was still being stalked, there was a chance that someone else, someone innocent, might get hurt. He needed to move the battle elsewhere. If only he could identify his opponent! It was impossible to fight, let alone manipulate, a phantom.
"Well, I wish ye th' best of luck, then," replied the boy. "Here, I'll patch ye' through."
There was a click, and silence for a moment. At last, the dean picked up his phone and said efficiently, "Yes?"
"This is Professor Macduff," said Macbeth for the second time. "I'm afraid I'm calling to say that I can't attend my first lecture this morning. It seems" - here, he coughed - "it seems I've come down with something, and I'm going to need a few hours to sleep it off."
"I'm sorry t' hear that," said the man sympathetically. "I hope ye'll be feelin' better this afternoon."
"As do I." He paused. "There's something else I want to discuss with you. Something in my... personal life has suddenly come up. I need to ask you if cutting my scheduled lectures short will cause any severe problems for you."
On the other end of the line, there was silence. Then, after a small, reluctant noise, "Puttin' aside m' own wishes - which, of course, would be for ye t' remain - I have t' tell ye that yes, it would cause some problems with our scheduling. We were planning t' base a course next semester on recordings of yuir lectures, and if ye don't make the recordings..."
Macbeth grunted thoughtfully. "If I must go, I can promise that you'll get the lectures you need, if I have to tape them myself. However, until then, I'll try to resolve the issue as best I can from Scotland."
"Thank you," murmured the dean. "It's much appreciated."
Arthur Pendragon approached the little pub - which seemed to be the center of this little village near Ercildoune - cautiously. He had left Griff and Cavall tucked safely between a pile of boulders in the forest nearby, and now, during the daylight hours, he planned to use his time well. It wasn't very handy trying to ask questions of people in the dead of night. For one, most people out at that time weren't exactly the sanest of beings. Two, there weren't usually many people out at all, sane or not. In any case, his exploits during that morning had led him to this small building; more of a meeting place for the general public than any sort of bar. He walked in to find both men and women, as well as children. And they all seemed to know each other. Although he felt awkward being the only stranger, he relaxed in the homey environment. Big cities, he had found, were far too impersonal for his tastes.
Attempting to be inconspicuous (though that was a little hard with his sword clanking about underneath the long black coat he wore) he slid up to a barstool and waited patiently for the busy attendant, a small bearded man with a wide smile and a hearty laugh. Immediately, Arthur took a liking to him.
"And what would ye be wantin?" boomed the friendly bass.
Arthur shook his head once, blinking. He had drifted off, watching the general populace travel in and out of the always-open door. "Some tea, and a little more of something else, if you don't mind."
The bearded man burst with a joyous noise which set Arthur at ease in an instant. He turned, speaking over his shoulder as he poured Arthur's tea. "Englishman, is it? Always welcome 'ere."
"An' who ain't welcome?" responded a distinctly feminine voice. Carrying a tray, she pushed in the swinging half-door that separated the area behind the bar from the rest of the room with a hip.
"Ye jes' stick t' yer business, Sara," smiled the bartender. He turned. "Here's ye'r tea, boy. Don't ye pay no mind t' young Sara there. She's naught but a tongue o' fire, and won't be caught by no man - though there've been those t' try."
Arthur accepted his tea, but shook his head. "My business is not with her."
"With m'self, then?"
"I've been told you know something of Thomas the Rhymer."
"Aye, that I do. Would ye be collectin' tales?"
The king smiled faintly. "You might say that. And hunting for a bit of truth as well."
"Ach, no need t' tell me ye'r reasons. Sara 'ere'll be my witness when I say I don't mind usin' my mouth. Any partic'lar tale?"
"No," said Arthur slowly, frowning slightly. "Start at the beginning, I suppose."
"An' end at the end?" chortled the bearded man. "Certainly I will."
Thereafter, king Arthur sat back and listened as the cheery man related countless tales, taking orders and serving his customers all the while - as if he did this often. A small group of rag-tag boys gathered around Arthur for a while, then dissipated after a tale or two, only to be replaced an hour or so later by a small girl, who climbed up eagerly on Arthur's knee with neither permission nor hesitation. They listened together raptly for a long while, she with widened, worshipful eyes, and he with a sharp ear for details, and questions now and then. When the king sensed at last that the old man was wearing down, he bought the little girl a few pieces of candy from the jars behind the bar and set her on the floor. She thanked him with her grateful, innocent eyes - her mouth being full of a sugar stick - and ran from the pub.
At last, Arthur put a hand out to the bartender. "I thank you," he said.
"No trouble 't all, lad, none. 'Tis good t' see a fresh face about now and then." He gestured at the room in general. "They've all grown tired of my tales, but they canna be lost. T'would be a shame."
"Yes, it would. And now I carry them with me."
"Good, m'boy, good. Tell me - did ye find what ye were lookin' for?"
Arthur shook his head. "I'm not sure," he said. With another "thank you," he departed, unwilling to let the kind old man see his disappointment. For, in fact, he had found nothing to catch his attention. He saw that the sun was low on the horizon, heavy with the weight of the day. Perhaps it would be best to go to Griff and Cavall, then start back for England. The bar tender had been his last lead, and now that was gone.
Just then, a paper littering the sidewalk caught his eye - no, not the paper, exactly; rather, the picture printed upon it. "Macbeth," he muttered to himself, memories of that night in Manhattan suddenly flashing to the foreground of his memory. He picked up the paper. "No," he amended, reading the caption below. "Macduff." It was only logical that the man take another name; he himself might be jailed at every corner, had he chosen to go around telling others that his full name was Arthur Pendragon.
Heading back to the forest, Arthur scanned the article. Evidently, the former king was touring, giving a series of lectures at several different universities around Europe. He checked the date on the paper - if he had counted right, Macbeth would still be in Scotland for some time.
Arthur's step suddenly picked up in both speed and vigor. He would consult Macbeth. If nothing came of the meeting, then he and his companions would return to England. Hopefully, something would come of it.
Suddenly, he found himself face to face with a wakened Griff. "Are we off, then?" queried the gargoyle.
"With that, class is adjourned. Hopefully, I'll see you all tomorrow." Macbeth watched as the present assembly filed out, still humming with excitement. He nodded, almost smiling, to those students who waved to him as they exited.
Macbeth counted himself fortunate. His wounds had healed in time for his scheduled afternoon lecture, and he had relaxed enough to enjoy it, though lines of worry still creased his face. No matter how much he wanted to preserve his reputation, to keep others from asking questions, he could not let any of those in the room today come to harm because of it. The start he had made was precious, but he had an infinite number of chances to start over. Every one of the students, on the other hand, had but one life to live.
Unsurprisingly, the two boys who had approached him the night before came down the center aisle of the rows of seats and jumped easily over the small fence which separated the lecturer's small demonstration area from the rest of the room. Macbeth greeted them with a nod. "I apologize for having to leave so suddenly during the film," he said, this time in person. "It had to do with the... personal business I spoke of."
The boy with the strawberry hair waved a dismissing hand. "That's all right, professor. Ye don't need t' explain more than ye did t'day during the lecture. I just hope ye c'n stay as long as ye'd planned to."
"As do I."
"Anyway, would ye care t' come t' the cafe with us? It's a little way up the street, not far."
Macbeth considered. During today's lecture, he had not felt those invisible eyes on him; nothing, in fact, seemed amiss. He wore a pistol beneath the jacket of his suit, and he was confident that he could defend himself and the boys, should anyone attack. "I would be glad to. First, I need to get some things from my office. If you would wait for me at the bottom of the back stairway, I can be there in about five minutes. Do you know where it is?"
The boys nodded, turned, and jogged back the way they had come, exiting the auditorium in the same manner as the rest of their classmates had.
Macbeth, on the other hand, turned and left via a small doorway at the back of the small lecturing area. Behind was a small room with a desk and a few chairs for the benefit of the speaker, on which Macbeth had left his briefcase and a couple of textbooks. He put his notes in the briefcase, picked the pile up, and exited through a second door, down a narrow flight of stairs. Holding the books in front of him with two hands, he did not see the trip wire which had been installed especially for his benefit near the top of the stairs.
Too late to recover, Macbeth realized what had happened. As he tumbled down the stairs, he found himself both dismayed at the fact that he had been so easily caught, and strangely relieved that the trap was one which would not harm anyone else. He landed with a thump and a crunch of bones at the bottom of the stairway, scattering the flow of students in the hall. He moaned once, wishing for unconsciousness that did not come. Instead, he felt stabs of pain in his arms and legs, and most horribly, his neck. He sensed that a crowd had gathered around him, and faintly heard screams for help, but the pain shooting through his mind and body was too great to allow any sort of rational thought. Delirious, nightmarish visions flooded his head, twisting thoughts and memories in an attempt to block out pain. Words flashed in his mind, jumbled. Demona. She'll be feeling this. But haven't we suffered enough to want that? Sorry creatures are we. What were you trying to do? They'll see now, or wonder anyway. Dashed to pieces. Everything's gone. Dashed to pieces. To pieces.
Slowly, his mind cleared; a shorter time in actuality than the seeming eternity of his agony. He blinked, his eyes attempting to focus. His body itched oddly all over, both outside and in, and he recognized it as the familiar feeling of healing he had experienced so many times. His eyes at last pinpointed another face, that of Mark, the chestnut-haired boy. He was peering worriedly at Macbeth, and as the professor's eyes ran down the rest of the boy's form, he realized that the boy was feeling his pulse at the wrist.
Macbeth moaned, attempting to lift his head in spite of his aching neck. His arm, he felt, was positioned oddly, although it was healing rapidly; the wounds he had just sustained were not nearly as destructive as those of last night, although they might have been equally fatal for any other man, and they were healing quickly. He lifted his arm to position it more comfortably, but gasped in pain with the movement. It had not been quite healed.
"Hold on," whispered Mark fiercely. "Hold on, professor. Help's comin'. Just hold on."
"Unh- I'm- fine," Macbeth managed. "Give me a moment." He put his hand to his face; it was healed. He sat up, cradling his other arm. He needed to buy enough time to heal himself; he also needed to spend as little time as possible, so as not to arouse suspicions.
"Let me check for broken bones," said a girl, putting down her books. "M' mother taught me." She began to reach for Macbeth's twisted leg, but he held his yet-injured arm out to her.
"Thank you," he said, as she probed. Even as she did so, he could feel the shattered bones knitting together. He straightened his leg a little, while no one was watching. The girl finished with his arms, and moved down to his lower legs.
After a moment, she sat up. "Ye've been mighty lucky, professor," she said, in awe. "I think ye might have a slight fracture in yuir left leg, but someone c'n help ye get back t' ye'r room before ye call a doctor; it's not so bad it can't wait. Other th'n that, a lot of twisted muscles. Ye'll be feeling that fer a while."
Macbeth nodded gratefully, and accepted the shoulder young Mark offered, favoring his left leg - which, indeed, was still not completely healed. On his other side, Henry suddenly appeared, red faced and short of breath. He had evidently gone somewhere else while Mark was waiting for Macbeth, and had just returned.
Carefully, leaning on both of the boys, Macbeth began to limp down the hallway towards his room.
Outside the door, taking the key from his pocket, he convinced the two young men that he would be perfectly all right to go in and call a doctor on his own. They looked uncertain about his assurances, so he let them help him inside to a chair before they departed.
When they were gone, Macbeth gave a sigh of relief. He had avoided suspicions once again, or so he hoped. This would have to be stopped, and soon. His leg ached, but he got up and limped to the closet, drawing from within the gently shadowed depths his armor. He looked gazed at it a moment, held in his hands, a little sadly. These days, he enjoyed lecturing, teaching the younger generations. In a sense, he was almost attempting to make up for the abandonment and loss of his own son, so long ago. He had not needed such protection for many months, and he had grown used to the comfortable suits and long hours of easy discussions between other professors and lovers of his area of expertise. At first, he had been reluctant to slip into such a... non-violent routine, but he had found intense pleasure in it.
Now, to be going back to this... If it had been any other time, any other place - any other cause - he might have willingly slipped into his armor, so weighted with weapons as it was. But here and now seemed so wrong. Here, he was a professor. Professors did not go out hunting for human prey at night.
And yet, what else could he do? It was a part of who he was. He could not deny that. He sighed again. Immortality (of a kind) had a heavier price than he had ever imagined, and he seemed to discover another price he had to pay because of that one decision at every turn in his life. But no use agonizing over choices already made.
He put on the armor and sat down to think.
A little over an hour and a sunset later, there was a knock at the door. "One moment," called Macbeth in his hearty baritone. He walked to the door easily, now fully healed but prepared to limp for the sake of any suspecting student.
The man at the door, however, was no student. "King Arthur?" questioned Macbeth, although he saw perfectly well that it *was* in fact Pendragon. He stepped aside to allow the king and his small entourage by. "Griff," he nodded politely, seriously, as the feathered gargoyle passed.
"This is Cavall," introduced Griff in his familiar, unassuming way. He smiled. "He's a knight too, of sorts."
"I... see," said Macbeth. "Come in, - Cavall."
Arthur did not wait to be asked to sit, shedding his coat and taking one of two chairs in the sitting room. Griff took a position just behind him, to the right, and Cavall, the left. Macbeth closed the door and sat as well.
"What brings you here?" he asked at last, a little uneasily. He had not seen Arthur since that night when he had attempted to usurp his throne, and the result was that he found himself more than a little ashamed. There was no doubt that the handsome man before him was a king, and he wondered how he had ever dared question that. He could see plainly now that there was but one Arthur Pendragon, and he had the fortune to have him, the greatest king in the world, sitting before him.
"The dean instructed us to your room. I hope you do not mind?"
"We were told you had taken a nasty spill down the stairway this afternoon," put in Griff, concern lighting his face.
"We might return later, if you wish to rest," offered Arthur, although his face told Macbeth that he wished to do anything but, if it could be helped.
Macbeth shifted uneasily. "No," he said. "I am fine. The conditions of my bond with Demona do not allow me to suffer for long."
"Ah," replied Arthur, feeling distinctly as if he were treading on dangerous ground. "I'm sorry. I should have realized-"
Macbeth shook his head once, cutting of the king quickly before any awkward apologies were voiced. "It is a fate I chose myself, and I must suffer the consequences. Now - I assume you have not come simply to visit me."
"No," replied the king shortly. He rose from the chair, standing tall, and strode to the window, glancing out. "I am on a quest, for my teacher, Merlin. Griff and Cavall accompany me." At this, the gargoyle and the beast seemed to swell slightly. Then, Arthur let out the breath he had been holding, and his shoulders dropped slightly in defeat. "So far, I have discovered nothing. My teacher has assumed, I believe, many guises over the years, and I am now investigating every road in that direction that I possibly can."
"And this road...?"
"Thomas the Rhymer. I thought perhaps you, as a professor, might be of some help to me. You must know your own country, and especially so if you have been living for as long as you have said. I am certain that you can aid me in my quest. You told me once that you would gladly come to my aid if I ever so needed it. So - I ask of you now: will you come with me down this road, Macbeth?"
For a while, the professor was silent. His heart, in his newly discovered passion for teaching, cried out "yes!" to this request. But could he risk...? At last, he looked at Arthur. "I am afraid that I would be more of a hindrance in your quest for Thomas the Rhymer than any help. A few days ago, I might have gladly accompanied you. However, I am currently being hunted by someone whose identity is completely unknown to me, and I do not want anyone caught in the crossfire, least of all you. ...My lord."
Arthur frowned slightly at the title, then set his face in a determined scowl. "I have never run away from a fight in my life - and if I have, without knowledge of it, I never shall again!" He turned slightly, gesturing to his small entourage. "We will help you fight this enemy." Griff nodded, and Cavall yipped, feeling the excitement from his masters.
Macbeth sat back, startled. This was not the way it was supposed to have been! That night in Manhattan, Macbeth had given up his pride, pledged to serve Arthur if ever he were needed. Now, the once and future king himself was offering his services to him. He shook his head. "I cannot let you do that, my lord. I may die a thousand deaths, but I cannot 'pass on.' You have but one chance in this mortal world. Do not waste it on me."
"You say I should not help you - yet I see that you are greatly distressed by this mysterious assailant. No, there are ways to suffer other than physically." Arthur looked at his companion, and saw that he was not convinced. For some reason, Macbeth did not feel worthy to accept anyone's help. "The wisest king serves his people," Arthur said at last. "Surely you know that. Let me serve you, Professor Macduff."
Macbeth stood, and bowed. The gesture was a little stiff; he was not used to it. "Thank you, my lord," he said, although he still looked slightly doubtful.
The king stood, his sword clattering slightly at his side. "Very good, then. We put ourselves at your service."
"Wholeheartedly, professor!" chimed in an enthusiastic Griff. "We'll find him, whoever it is. Of course, we will need a plan of some sort - won't we?"
"Yes," replied Macbeth. "And I've got one."
They arrived at the large hotel late that night, after Macbeth had packed his things and left a short message to the dean to let him know he would be "out of town" for the night visiting old friends, but would be back in time for the afternoon lecture the next day. Griff and Cavall had retreated inconspicuously to the rooftops, while Arthur accompanied Macbeth in his trip to the hotel on the edge of town.
Macbeth had called ahead, and when they reached the reception desk, Macbeth was relieved to find that his reservations for the entire top floor had been kept. He told the manager at the desk, (who, when asked, replied that yes, he would be the only attendant all night) however, to tell anyone asking for him should be told that he was in room 830, the last room in the hallway on his floor.
It took no more than five minutes to find the room, throw Macbeth's baggage into the closet, call Griff and Cavall to the correct balcony, and head back downstairs to the garden, which was more a grassy hill with some wildflowers than anything.
The desk clerk gave them an odd glance as they exited the lobby and went out past the garden gate; his boarders didn't usually go for walks at midnight. But, go for a walk they did, carefully staying in the glow of the walkway lights, and speaking quietly, so that their words whipped away in the wind as soon as they were said.
"Have you no idea at all who your stalker is?"
"Surely, you must have *some* idea-" Arthur cut himself off.
"You mean I must have many enemies," stated Macbeth. "I did, once," he said a little sadly. "Not so much, anymore." He laughed gently. "Margot Yale is my greatest adversary these days, I'm afraid - an obstinate woman, bent on destroying any faith people might have had in gargoyles."
"Pardon me if I go to far - you seem down that you've no one to fight."
Macbeth sighed. "No, no... just a little sad that the past bloodshed cannot be undone, though I strive to make up for it in the present. If only I had known..."
"If you had only known then what you know now? But of course, it's like that for everyone. We all regret things we've done."
The professor lifted his head. "But few so deeply as I."
Suddenly, Arthur threw a friendly arm around Macbeth, as if they had been comrades for years. Macbeth flinched, but the king pretended he had not felt it. "You sound so sure of it!" He laughed, a little sadly. "Don't be; you and I are not so different as you imagine. Many times, I could have taken one step more, and fallen over the edge. There were times..." For a moment, he halted, looking up at the stars, blinking moisture from his eyes. "Ah, sweet Guinevere..." he murmured softly. He looked back at Macbeth. "Well," he said. "Do you suppose we've been out here long enough?"
"Long enough, yes."
Arthur turned, bringing Macbeth around, shoulders still under the king's arm. "Well then, we'd better get back before Griff gets worried and comes looking after us." Arthur laughed. "I knew gargoyles protected, but he's such a worrier at times. He won't let me out of his sight!"
In spite of the situation which had brought them together, Macbeth smiled, suddenly and genuinely. It felt good, to have the comfortable weight of Arthur's arm upon his shoulder - and it wasn't just that. It was knowing that he wasn't quite as alone as he had imagined.
They stood facing each other in the doorway of the lobby, assuring that both anyone who happened to be inside and anyone who happened to be outside could hear them. "It was good to see you, Arthur," said Macbeth lightly, loudly. "Even if only for a few hours. Perhaps we might meet again sometime."
"*Any* time!" responded Arthur, equally loudly.
They shook hands. "I'm sorry I can't stay with you longer," apologized Macbeth, feeling eyes suddenly upon them. "But I've got to be up early tomorrow, and you know I can't sleep with anyone in the room."
"Quite all right, dear fellow," waved Arthur, heading off to the street some distance away to catch a cab. "Goodbye!"
Macbeth waved farewell, then took the elevator up to his floor and let himself into his room. Inside, Cavall bounded towards him with a joyful bark, then stopped with an expression of slight confusion. He had caught the scent of his master, but this certainly was not he.
The man patted the gargoyle beast on the head with one hand, stripping easily down to his armor with the other. "Do you smell Arthur on me, beast?" Cavall whined, his tail wagging furiously with joy at being petted. Macbeth single-handedly withdrew a pistol from his vest. "He'll be here soon. You remind me of another gargoyle beast I know."
"Bronx? Cavall is twice as loyal." Arthur entered the small hotel room, via the balcony.
A grinning Griff followed. "Bronx might be hard to beat, where loyalty is concerned - if my lord will pardon my saying." He bowed grandly, joking.
"Personal bias, I suppose," returned Arthur amiably. "But we had better get to the matter at hand. I'll take my place in the hall."
"Here." Macbeth offered him another weapon from his bag. "You'll need more than a sword against this assailant. He's bested me twice, so far."
Arthur looked dubious, but took the weapon and stepped outside the door, leaving a tiny crack of light showing so that the automatic lock would not engage. As soon as he had taken his place in the little room containing the ice machine, he stuffed the heavy object in his belt and drew his (considerably weightier) sword instead.
Griff stepped back out onto the balcony with Cavall close on his heels. "And I shall be waiting here. The best to you, sir."
"Thank you, Griff." With that, Macbeth turned out the lights, and waited.
He did not enter the eighth and final floor through the elevator. He came instead up the emergency exit ladder on the exterior of the building, climbing expertly, and entered through the small door at the far end of the hall, opposite Macbeth's room. Through infrared goggles, he checked the room numbers, found that he was at the wrong end of the hall.
He slunk down the carpeted hall, movements so smooth that he almost disappeared in the shadowed doorways. As he passed the ice machine, he paused, moving only his eyes, without turning his head.
As the dark figure passed on the other side of the hall, Arthur froze, not even daring to breathe. He saw the shadow freeze, and gripped Excalibur tightly, preparing for a fight. The sword seemed to sense his mood, and hummed with a warm frequency below hearing range. Then the figure continued on, and he let out a tense breath.
Macbeth, lying fully awake in bed, felt the presence of the stalker entering his room, and gripped his pistol tightly. Every thought, every emotion he had ever had about this event, was washed from his mind. He only knew that he did not want to feel those bullets ripping through his chest again; he did not want to feel that strange, horrible detachment from the world that came each time he "died." And he did not want to wake up again to find himself impossibly alive, knowing that his time should have been up, knowing that he no longer belonged to the mortal world. His finger moved to the trigger.
The figure moved to his bed, and Macbeth forced his breathing into a steady rhythm. In the dark, he saw an outline of a hand raising, and then the frigid end of a gun against his temple. He waited but a second, knowing that this man would not hesitate to shoot, then rolled, bringing his leg out from under the single sheet, ramming the back of the stalker's legs and sending him to the floor with a thump. The gun went off, making only a dull "thump" with the silencer, barely missing Macbeth's head.
The professor leapt to duck behind the opposite side of the bed, but the killer recovered instantly and sent another shot, through Macbeth's shoulder. He gasped slightly, but gritted his teeth and said, "Give up now, while you still can. You don't know who you're dealing with." With his unharmed left hand, he aimed his own weapon at the assailant, who ducked back down on his side of the bed and remained silent. Macbeth sighed. "Very well; I will not harm you if possible, but if you are hurt, it is upon your own head." With that, Macbeth leapt for the balcony; the glass double doors were open. When the stalker, knowing that there was no possible way to get down the sheer eight-story drop from the balcony, calmly followed him, he found himself face to face with two of the most terrifying creatures he had ever seen.
Griff's eyes blazed white, shedding an odd glow on the intruder. Cavall snarled and bared his fangs. And they pounced.
The assailant jumped to the side and fired another weapon - an electrified net which pinned the gargoyles to the wall.
Griff let out a bird-like cry of rage as blue light played over his trapped form, and clawed at the tangled netting before giving in to unconsciousness. Cavall, caught half-in and half-out of the net, whimpered and grappled reflexively at the wall before he was overcome, and his head lolled to one side.
The stalker turned back to the balcony, where Macbeth now stood, facing him boldly. "Come on, then," he said. "If you're going to do it." He had been a little surprised that his attacker had had the equipment to deal with a gargoyle, but was not shaken. He took a step forward. "Kill me." He said lowly, in a growl. "And then, kill me again. And again. Would that satisfy your taste for blood?"
For a moment, the assassin hesitated, then raised his weapon, fingering the trigger.
Macbeth dropped his pistol and bared his chest, his arms flung wide. "Do it. Let me see how low a man may sink, simply to destroy the life of another. Here," with that, he turned his back. "Shoot me in the back, if you are low enough."
The killer paused, his hands lowering, then quickened his resolve, aiming squarely at the back of Macbeth's head. His finger tightened on the trigger, squeezing slowly -
And then he went down with a thump and a low moan.
"Sorry, friend. I honestly thought you had him convinced, for a moment," Arthur's clear voice rang out in the silent room. He examined the butt of Excalibur unnecessarily for dents caused by the assailant's hard head, then sheathed the magical sword with a single swift movement. Ignoring the unconscious man on the floor, he moved quickly to Griff and pulled him free of the netting. Cavall, who had only caught half of the impact, had already recovered, and was scraping at the net to free himself. The gargoyle slumped, groaning softly, and Arthur slipped under one arm, sitting him on the bed.
Griff rubbed his head. "I'll be all right, Arthur," he nodded. "I'm going to have some nasty singe marks, though." He fingered a few of the damaged feathers on his wings, crisscrossed with light burns.
Next, the king went to Macbeth, who was still on the balcony. He had ripped his sleeve to expose the bullet wound, cooling it in the light breeze. "You've quite a talent with words," commented Arthur, admiration in his voice.
Macbeth turned. "But it didn't stop him, did it?"
"It would have stopped me, I can tell you that. You can't stop others from making their own mistakes."
"We should tie him up," said Macbeth, changing the subject.
"There's no hurry," grinned Arthur. "He should be out for quite some time."
Surprisingly, however, when they lifted the man - wearing a ski mask - into the single chair the hotel room contained, he groaned, attempting to move.
"You had better keep quiet for now," cautioned Macbeth, tying the man's hands.
When they had finished binding him, Macbeth got to his feet. "Now, let's see who you are," he said, and pulled the ski mask off. For a moment, Macbeth was silent, stunned. "MacFergus?" he said at last.
"You know him, then?" queried Arthur.
"He's the dean's secretary; I went to a film with him and two other lads just two days ago-" He cut himself off, realizing how the young man had slipped out to the "restroom" just in time to be absent when the misplaced shot had gone through the professor's cup. "Why?"
MacFergus stared at him sullenly.
"Why?" demanded Macbeth again, his voice assuming a sinister tone. He grabbed the young man's collar. "Tell me. I don't *have* to let you live, you know."
"Try again," he spat, feeling horribly betrayed. He had made friends with this boy, had thought he had found someone with whom he could enjoy himself. "Castaway's in the nut house." He tightened his grip on the boy's collar, until his knuckles dug into his neck.
"Castaway," was the grunted reply again. "Contingency plan." Macbeth's grip loosened. "I dinnae know what he had planned for ye before, but I know he made arrangements in case somethin' happened and he couldn't carry it out himself."
"Why me? I never opposed the man."
"He saw ye - on television. Ye're pro-gargoyle" - here, he glanced disgustedly at Griff - "and he viewed ye as a danger."
Something occurred to the professor. "Are you working alone? Or are all the boys involved?"
"Them?" scoffed MacFergus. "No. I work alone or not at all. Neither of them could hit a truck if they tried, in any case."
"Thank goodness," muttered the professor under his breath. "Boy," he began angrily, "You've been sorely misinformed. I'm not going to bother telling you the truth, because Castaway has brainwashed you so thoroughly that you won't listen, but I will advise you to do some research on your own, and not borrow your beliefs from some crazed maniac." With this, he reached down and loosened the young man's bonds. "Now go."
For a moment, MacFergus stared at him blankly. Behind them, Griff made a protesting noise, silenced by a gesture from Arthur.
"You heard me," said Macbeth. "Go. Go back to being the dean's secretary. Go, and never speak to me again, and never harm anyone again, or I will kill you." He leaned over, pulling the torn material away from his shoulder wound, which still bled. "You shot me, here," he said. "Now. Watch." As the boy stared, wide-eyed, the bleeding ceased, and the damaged skin healed, closing over the open hole. "You are dealing with something bigger than you can handle," he responded to the look of awed horror. "Now, I say, go."
MacFergus stood, and fled the room.
Macbeth turned to face Arthur and Griff.
"Why did you let him go?" queried the gargoyle, considerably confused. "He would have killed you, if he could, in cold blood!"
Macbeth shook his head. "He'll have a second chance, now. Maybe he'll re-think it, and maybe he won't. That's his choice. But I gave it to him."
Arthur smiled. "You seem most relieved at the fact that his companions were not involved."
"I had to know that there was some goodness left in the world," replied Macbeth darkly. "He seemed such a nice boy, I could not believe it..."
"Betrayal is a dirty business. It would not be called such if you did not fall for his act. But the other boys are clean of it, and that is what you must remember."
Macbeth offered his hand to the king. "Thank you," he said. "MacFergus might have ruined what little progress I have made in the world, had you not come to my aid. Again, I pledge my fealty to you; if ever you are in need of anything, come to me."
"You're welcome, Macbeth. You are an honorable man."
"You don't know what that means to me."
Arthur gave a slight smile. "I think I probably do. A little, in any case." He turned to Griff. "Now, we must be off."
"But -" protested Macbeth. "Thomas the Rhymer - I have promised to tell you of him."
"Somehow," sighed the king, "I feel I will find nothing here; what I came for has already been accomplished. We will return to England, and pursue the quest upon some other avenue."
"I second that," put in Griff, rubbing his head.
"Then you will not stay?"
"No; I think you have no more to fear from this 'MacFergus.'" They went to the balcony, and Arthur allowed Griff to secure him with a grip underneath his arms, for flight.
"Call on me, whenever you have the chance," said Macbeth.
"I shall. Goodbye!" With that, Griff launched himself from the rail, King Arthur hanging from his arms. Cavall gave a friendly yip and proceeded to walk down the side of the building.
Macbeth watched them disappear into the night. "Goodbye," he said faintly. "My friends."
The students filed from the auditorium, a general chuckle at Professor Macduff's last words flowing through the crowd.
Macbeth stood on his podium for a long while after everyone had gone, basking in the sunny feel of the room, a hint of a smile upon his face.
Macbeth turned to see the bright young faces of Mark and Henry. For a moment, he did not respond, frozen in slight shock. "Yes?" he said at last.
Henry looked at his feet, but Mark answered. "We're terribly sorry about yuir accident," he said. "We feel partly responsible-"
"Nonsense!" interrupted the professor immediately, somewhat harshly. "You had nothing to do with it."
"Well, in any case," continued Mark, a little taken aback, "We were wondering if ye'd care to try it again. Come t' th' cafe with us, that is."
Macbeth was silent for a long while, looking back and forth between the boys, who shrunk a little under the older man's gaze. Then, he grinned. "Certainly, boys," he said. "Let's go."