DISCLAIMER: All Gargoyles characters contained herein are the property of Disney and Buena Vista Television, not of the author. This story is not being written for profit, but merely to continue an unfinished plot-thread.
As the sun set in the west, cracks formed in the two stone figures overlooking the town of Tintagel. For a moment, their eyes glowed white, and then fragments of stone skin flew in all directions as Griff and Cavall awakened. Griff stretched and roared, while Cavall growled and shook himself.
Griff looked about him, and frowned. "That's funny, Cavall," he said to the gargoyle beast. "I could have been certain that Arthur would be back from the village by now. And there's no sign of him yet."
Cavall made no response, but it was clear from the expression on his face that he was also troubled by the fact that his human master had not been there to greet them upon their awakening. He looked about in all directions, then, seeing no sign of the former High King of Britain, began to whine troubledly.
"I agree," said Griff, shaking his head. "It's almost like Broceliande all over again. We wake up, and find out that he's gone. At least we know this time that he was going to be away during the daytime. And it is possible that he's just been delayed by something entirely ordinary. Just because he's late doesn't mean that he's run into trouble again."
He looked down at the town of Tintagel, and the castle beyond it. Despite his words, he was feeling anything but confident that his friend was safe. Why had Arthur not yet returned? Tintagel was a village, not a large city like London or New York; he hardly thought that it possessed the dangers that lurked in such places. Nor did he think it possible that another sorceress like Nimue was at work here. Such things were feasible enough in an enchanted forest like Broceliande, perhaps, but not in a civilized human settlement in Great Britain. For that matter, what enemies did he and Arthur even have? Macbeth and Nimue had been their only adversaries in this quest, and both of them had made their peace with the Once and Future King. And he knew of no other foes that either one had. Arthur had had his share of ill-wishers, true, but none of them could have possibly survived the long centuries between his departure for Avalon and this very night. And it hardly seemed likely that a complete stranger would attempt harm to the Pendragon.
"There may be nothing to worry about," he said to Cavall, in a reassuring tone of voice. "We'll give him fifteen minutes. If we haven't heard anything from him by then, then we'll go looking for him."
Cavall probably hadn't understood the meaning of the words, but he clearly had understood the comforting tone in which they were uttered. He sat down and looked much calmer. Griff stared ahead at the shadowed village, and the ruins on the headland beyond it. "Arthur," he murmured to himself, "where are you?"
Arthur came to, with a groan. He still felt extremely dizzy, almost as if he had been struck by Thunor's hammer out of the Saxon legends. He opened his eyes, to see the darkening sky overhead. The first stars were already glinting in the heavens, and a cold night-wind blew about him. It was then that he noticed that he had been bound head and foot with strong ropes, and that Excalibur was missing from his belt. He struggled against his bonds, but they were too strong for him.
"So you've finally awakened," said a familiar, and most unwelcome, female voice. Arthur turned his head, to see the dark-haired woman standing a few feet away, leaning against one of the wall-fragments, Excalibur clasped in her hands with its point touching the stones of the castle floor. A lit pinewood torch was wedged into the ground to her left, providing some light.
Arthur glowered at her. "Morgana!", he said. "I should have known that it was you!"
"So it took you that long to recognize me?", Morgana la Fay asked, with a mocking smile curling her lips. "You truly have been sleeping on Avalon for too long, my dear brother. Or perhaps, not long enough. For if you were still there, then you would be perfectly safe from me. You were a fool to return to the outside world, Arthur."
"I had hardly expected to find you awaiting me," Arthur replied sharply. "How is it that you have survived the centuries, Morgana? I left for Avalon over fourteen hundred years ago."
"I have my ways," she replied casually. "Remember, I am a sorceress."
"How could I forget? Your spells and cantrips caused troubles for us enough at Camelot. You doubtless remember most of them. Your two direct attempts on my life. The snares that you wove for my questing knights. The magical objects that you sent to my court, to expose Guinevere's love for Lancelot. Whenever anything dark and strange took place, more often than not, you were behind it."
"Your memories are clearly stronger than I had thought," said Morgana, amused rather than angered. "And maybe it is not so odd that you failed to know me at once. After all, you must have assumed that I was dead. But that's hardly the case. I still live, as you can see. But you, on the other hand, will not be alive for much longer. When the sun rises in the east tomorrow, only one of us will greet it."
"So your hatred of me is as strong as ever," said Arthur. "Were fourteen centuries not enough to placate you? To heal you of your desire for vengeance?"
Morgana's dark blue eyes narrowed, a cold and bitter light shining in them, and her grip tightened upon Excalibur's hilt. "Do you really believe that fourteen centuries would make me forget the wrongs that I have received from you and your father, Arthur Pendragon?", she hissed. "Even fourteen millenia would not be sufficient for that purpose! The hundreds of years that I had to wait for you to leave Avalon only whetted my anger towards you! If you could only know the frustration that I had to endure over the centuries, unable to reach you on Oberon's mystic isle, unable to carry out my retribution upon the last of the Pendragons, the spawn of that accursed tyrant Uther! The efforts that I made to force my way into Avalon, efforts that all failed! But now, that time is over! At last, my father will rest easy in his grave, knowing that the wrongs done him and his will have been punished!"
Arthur looked at her face, with it's wild looking eyes, and silently shivered. It had finally happened. His sister had become well and truly mad.
"All right, now I'm getting worried," said Griff. The fifteen minutes had passed, and there had still been no sign of Arthur at all. The gargoyle was beginning to feel certain that this wasn't just some case of his friend having lost track of time. "Something must have happened to him, Cavall. I think that we'd better go looking for him."
Cavall barked in reply, and headed down the hill towards the town. Griff wondered if he should warn the gargoyle beast about how it would be a good idea not to be seen by the locals, but then decided that the animal was in no mood to listen, even if he could understand. Instead, he found a good-sized rock, overlooking the edge of the hill, from which to launch himself. Moments later, he was soaring towards Tintagel.
James Compton, the owner of the "Camelot Gift Shop", locked the door to his shop and pocketed the key. A peaceful night, with the sky clear for a change. A good night to stroll home on. He breathed in the cool sea air, and looked up at the stars. The familiar pattern of the Plough shone above him, making its eternal cycle around the Pole Star. Whistling softly to himself, he began the walk back to his house.
Then, he halted. A howl split the night, not far off, on his left-hand side. A howl that sounded as though it belonged to some gigantic hound. Compton stood perfectly still, his heart beating faster. It might have been some ordinary dog that had made the sound, but he certainly did not like the sound of its cry. It reminded him of the legends that he had heard about the monstrous hounds that roamed much of Britain, stories that he had always thought to be no more than that. The tales had all stated that these beasts bayed and howled loudly whenever they roamed the earth, and that the sounds which they uttered were enough to frighten even the boldest.
"That's ridiculous," Compton told himself. "Those things are just legends, myths, nothing more than that. Demon hounds don't exist in Cornwall, not these days. It's just superstition, that's all. What you're listening to is just some stray."
But then the howl sounded again, nearer and louder. Compton swung the beam of his electric torch in the direction that it had come from, and then cried out in shock and alarm. For running down the street, to the confusion and fright of the few other townsfolk still out in this late hour, was an enormous crimson beast. It looked vaguely dog-like, but was massively built, with great toothy jaws, clawed feet, and glowing eyes. It bounded past him without giving him a glance, heading in the direction of the castle ruins on the headland. Compton and the other townsfolk watched it go, none of them daring to speak.
It was a few minutes before James Compton found his voice. "They - they're real," he stammered. And then glanced up and saw something else. A dark winged shape, too large to be a bird, crossed the stars, heading in the same direction as the hound.
That's it, he said to himself, doing all that he could to keep his knees from buckling. I'm closing my shop before dark from now on. And I'm going to stay in my house the moment that the sun sets, every night, and not go out no matter what. And with that, he staggered home so unsteadily that a casual observer would have quickly assumed that he'd had one ale too many at the local pub.
"But why do you find it necessary to slay me?" Arthur asked Morgana. "You know well enough that it was not I who slew your father."
"True enough," said Morgana coldly. "But his blood is on your father's hands, and you are all that remain of the line of Uther Pendragon."
"My father did not kill Gorlois, either," said Arthur. "You surely know that, Morgana. It was his men who killed the Duke, and I doubt that even you know the name of the man who struck the fatal blow. I certainly do not."
"They were his soldiers, fighting on his orders," said Morgana. "And my father's death is on Uther's hands just as surely as if he had wielded the sword himself. Were it not for his ride to Tintagel, to seduce and deceive my mother, my father would have never issued forth from Dimilioc to ride to his doom. He would have stayed behind his walls that night and been safe. It was your father and your wizard who together wrought Gorlois's death! And the betrayal of my mother, to boot!" Her eyes flashed with fury as she spoke.
"Then blame my father for it, but not me," said Arthur. "I was not even born then."
"You partake of his guilt," said Morgana coldly. "You are Uther's spawn, the product of his desire for my mother. The tainted blood of that tyrant flows in your veins. The entire House of Pendragon must be destroyed, must be purged! It is a plague that will destroy the world, if it is not exterminated first! And you are the sole survivor of it."
"I am also of your blood, Morgana, and do not forget it," said Arthur. He disliked this pleading with her; it felt unmanly to him. But bound as he was, he had no other way of protecting himself from her than with words. And perhaps he could reach out to her. Perhaps. Somewhere beneath the centuries of hatred, there had to be something better, even if deeply buried. "We share the same mother. You are my sister."
"Half-sister," said Morgana. "And I count whatever blood of my house you bear as a disgrace and shame to it, rather than as an honor to you. A cancer that must be removed, no matter what the cost."
She fell silent for a few minutes, pacing back and forth, her eyes smoldering. "I have been cheated of my vengeance already," she said, in a low voice, sounding deceptively calm and even. "Uther died not at my hands, but from a wasting illness that consumed him. Merlin was imprisoned by Nimue in her Tower of Air before I could gain the power to overthrow and destroy him. And after he escaped from it, he hid so securely that I could find not a trace of him. He may very well be dead by now, and safe from my wrath. The only one that I have left to hate in this world, Arthur Pendragon, is you. And upon you shall all my anger pour!", she cried, her full fury returning. "You shall pay fully for your father's crimes! And for the misery that you brought me yourself, when you were High King!"
"And what misery was that?", asked Arthur. "Surely you cannot be speaking of your father now."
"My father was only the beginning," Morgana replied, fixing him with a look of virulent hatred and anger. "It was your own deeds that visited further woes upon me. Woes almost as great as the loss of my father."
THE WOODS NEAR CAMELOT, BRITAIN - LATE 5TH CENTURY A.D.
King Arthur reined in his horse in the forest clearing, and looked about him, sighing. He had done it again; outdistanced all the members of his hunting party and gotten himself lost in the bargain. Not to mention losing the stag that they had been chasing. He shook his head ruefully. This was one of the few times since Merlin's disappearance that he had been glad of his tutor's absence. Merlin would have given him a long lecture on recklessness the moment that he got back.
It had been ten years since Arthur had defeated King Lot and his allies at Bedgraine, and become firmly acknowledged as High King of Britain. In that time, much had happened to him. He had defeated the invading Saxons and Picts in twelve fierce battles, culminating the previous summer in the siege of Mount Badon, where he had so firmly broken the barbarian war-bands that it would probably take them a generation to recover. He had taken a wife, Guinevere, the daughter of King Leodegrance of Cameliard. And although Merlin had been anything but happy about his choice for a queen, he had found nothing but joy in their marriage. He had set up the Round Table, and already many fine and noble knights had joined it. The northern kings who had rebelled against him were now his vassals; a few of them, such as King Urien of Rheged, even had seats at the Table. Lot was the one exception to the rule, having fallen in battle against him, but his three older sons, Gawain, Agravain, and Gaheris, were now at Camelot being trained for knighthood, though their younger brother Gareth was still in Orkney, too young for court as yet. And their loyalty to him was assured.
Camelot; that was another change. He had been forced
to abandon London as his court early on. The old Roman city was too
far gone in decay, and too close to the Saxon Shore. For a while,
he had resided at Caerleon in southern Wales instead, but at last he had
moved his court to Camelot, a small castle in Somerset. Under his
direction, Camelot had been expanded upon to grow into a more suitable
residence, the strongest and fairest castle in all of Britain. And
not only by humans, but by gargoyles, as well. There was a gargoyle rookery in the woods to the north of Camelot Hill, and Arthur had discovered it early on while first exploring the territory. That had encouraged him to make Camelot his new home. He had met with the clan, promised to protect it in return for its defence of the castle in time of danger, and soon had won its alliance and trust. Gargoyles roosted on the battlements of Camelot during the daytime now, and stood watch over it at night. Their services had perhaps not been entirely needed, for the castle had never been attacked by a hostile army, but it was a sign of the growing unity between their kind and his.
Arthur looked at his surroundings again, and wished that he had explored this portion of the woods more thoroughly. He could not understand how it was that he had gotten so thoroughly lost. It must have been the excitement of the hunt. In all the eagerness of pursuing the stag, he had failed to note where he was going, and now it was too late. There was not a single familiar sight anywhere about him. He shook his head.
"Well, there's naught to be gained by tarrying here," he said to himself. "The only thing to do is ride on. Perhaps I can see something that I know. Or even meet someone who can help me." That seemed like the best course of action to take, in fact. It was getting dark, and it was not long before the gargoyles of the North Wood would be awakening from their stone sleep. They patrolled the forest at night, hunting for food and watching out for any dangers that might threaten their rookery or Camelot, so he was certain to encounter one soon enough. And they surely knew these parts much better than he did, so they would make excellent guides. If he could find one, of course.
As he rode on his way, he drew Excalibur from its scabbard, and held it before him. The blade of his sword began to glow, a soft silvery light that illuminated its immediate surroundings. This was one of the powers of his enchanted weapon that Merlin had told him about, before he had vanished in Broceliande. It could produce light, when its possessor so willed, enough light to equal the blaze of thirty torches, in fact, if that was what was desired of it. Arthur had no need for that much light, but certainly the present glow would help him see where he was going. It made him glad that he had brought the sword along with him.
True, Excalibur was hardly, under normal conditions, his first choice for what to take on a stag hunt. But the North Wood of Camelot had not been properly tamed yet. Gargoyles were not the only unusual beings dwelling in it. There were reports of other creatures lurking in its depths, things that not even gargoyles could easily overcome. Small dragons and griffons, for example. Arthur planned to have them all driven out eventually, but for now they were still a menace. Spears and arrows were not much good against such creatures; a mightier weapon, such as Excalibur, would be needed if he encountered any.
Somewhere behind the trees, the sun set, and the stars began to slowly appear. Arthur tried to get his bearings from them, but it was a cloudy night, and what few stars that he could see he could not immediately identify. He was just on the verge of recognizing one cluster when he finally emerged from the trees into a fairly sizable clearing. And there before him was a rough straw-thatched hut, a thin trail of white smoke drifting up from its roof.
Arthur felt relief sweep over him at the sight. The cottage was clearly inhabited, and that meant somebody whom he could speak to, and possibly get directions back to the castle from. He dismounted, and tied his horse to the nearest tree. Then, sliding Excalibur back into its scabbard, he walked up to the cottage door and knocked on it.
"Who is it?", asked an old woman's voice from the other side.
"A lost huntsman, ma'am," Arthur replied. "I wish directions from you, if you please."
The door opened and the old woman stood in the entrance, a stooped and gnarled figure with a long nose, stringy white hair, and a hooded cloak over her dress. "Welcome, traveller," she said, with a toothless smile. "Welcome to my humble abode."
"I thank you, ma'am," said Arthur, then frowned. "I cry you pardon, but I lack your name."
"My name is Eilian, if it please you, sir," she answered, with a slight bow. "And you do an old widow a very great honor, in visiting her and treating her with such courtesy."
"Well, then, Eilian," said Arthur, "I fear that I have lost my way on the hunt. I pray you, can you tell me which way I must take to reach the castle of Camelot?"
"That I can, and right easily," Eilian replied. "But not until the morning. The sun has already set, and there are unpleasant things abroad in the hours of darkness. And you may risk losing your way in the night. Rest here in my cottage, I beg of you, until the morning. Then you can make your way to the castle without misadventure."
Arthur thought it over for a moment. She did have a good point. It was already night, and probably too late to find his way back to the castle. Maybe it would be wiser to spend the night here. The cottage was hardly a princely abode, but he had slept in worse places in his boyhood adventures, growing up in Sir Ector's castle and exploring the woods around it. So he finally nodded in agreement. "I thank you, ma'am," he said.
"Then pass within, most noble sir," said Eilian, standing to one side and letting him enter.
The hut was small, dark, and sparsely furnished. Only the embers of the dying fire in the middle provided any real light. Still, Arthur sat down on the stool next to the rough wooden table, at his host's bidding, and made himself at home as best he could. The supper that she served him was left-over broth that tasted burnt, but was good enough for a man with an empty stomach. Eilian said very little, maybe stunned almost into silence at the nature of her visitor. He had not identified himself as the High King of Britain, and saw no need to do so, but his hunting garments had certainly indicated him to be of the nobility.
After finishing the rough supper, he yawned, suddenly feeling very sleepy; probably the result of the long ride and the lateness of the hour combined. Eilian showed him to a small bed of straw in one corner of the hut; it looked distinctly lumpy and was probably filled with fleas and other vermin, but that hardly mattered to him at this moment. Taking enough time to thank her for her hospitality, he stretched himself out on it and fell fast asleep.
Eilian stood over him, watching him, then smiled again and raised her hand. Her form blurred and changed, and barely a minute later, another figure entirely was standing there. A tall, pale, dark-haired woman dressed in a regal gown, much younger and fairer than the old peasant crone had been. Morgana la Fay nodded with satisfaction at her sleeping half-brother, before bending down and gently removing Excalibur from his belt. Then she turned around to face the door. "You may enter now, my daughter."
The door opened, and a young maiden, perhaps in her late teens, entered. She had the same pale skin, elegant features and dark hair as Morgana, but with a diffident look on her face where Morgana's was proud and commanding. "He's asleep, mother?", she asked, looking down at Arthur.
"Yes, Morfydd," said Morgana. "The enchantment placed on the broth that I - or rather, Eilian - fed him has rendered him in a state of utter slumber for the next ten hours. Even the roar of a hunting dragon cannot awaken him. We can carry out the next stage of our plan without fear of interference from him."
"Do we really have to do this, mother?", asked Morfydd uncomfortably. "He is our king, after all."
"A false king, not worthy to receive allegiance from us," Morgana replied. "You should know that well enough, my daughter. His father was that loathsome tyrant Uther Pendragon, who murdered Duke Gorlois your grandfather, that he might possess his wife. Arthur partakes of Uther's blood, and thus shares in the guilt. He must be destroyed."
"But surely he isn't a tyrant like his father?", Morfydd asked.
"Indeed he is," said Morgana. "Remember what he did only a few years back. He gathered together a host of helpless, innocent babies, whose only crime was to be born in the last week of April or the first week of May, and drowned them all. What else is that but an act of cruelty, unworthy of any true claimant to the throne?"
Morfydd looked uneasy at that, but still remained where she was. Morgana walked over to her and gently placed one hand on her daughter's shoulder, looking down on her. "Trust me, child," she said. "There's no other way."
"So what do we do with him, now that we have him?", asked Morfydd.
Morgana laid Excalibur down on the table, then raised one hand over it, and chanted an incantation in some ancient tongue. The sword began to glow, and then a ball of green light appeared on the table beside it. Slowly, the sphere took on the shape of another sword, one that looked precisely like Excalibur. It finally solidified, and the green light faded away, as did the shimmering about King Arthur's sword.
Morgana picked up the second sword. "This is how we will destroy this false king, Morfydd," she said. "Take a close look at this sword. It looks in every detail like Excalibur, enough to deceive even the most familiar eye. Arthur would never be able to tell the difference. Perhaps not even the Lady of the Lake would be able to do so. But there is one simple difference between the two blades. This false Excalibur, Morfydd, has no magic within it. Not only that, but it is not even a well-made sword. Only a few blows with it, and it would shatter and become useless to its wielder. But by the time that Arthur learns of this quality, it will be too late for him."
She walked over to the sleeping king, and gently slid the imitation sword into its scabbard. "As to the real Excalibur," she said, walking back to the table and to Morfydd, "we have other plans for it."
She briefly instructed her daughter on these plans, and she nodded without speaking. Then, Morfydd gingerly picked up Excalibur, and walked out of the hut. Morgana watched the girl go, and sighed.
It had been difficult for her to find allies in her struggle
to destroy her half-brother. Her own family had shown no interest
seeking vengeance upon the last of the Pendragons, Uther's whelp. Her sisters, Morgause and Elaine, had no wish to destroy him, and had begged Morgana to do the same, to put aside her anger for Arthur; he was, after all, their half-brother, and thus as much part of their house as Gorlois and Igraine had been. That had been disappointment enough for Morgana; she simply could not understand why her own sisters had failed to understand their duty to punish those who had wronged their family. Elaine was bad enough - but Morgause had lost both her husband and her son to King Arthur. If that was not enough to make her willing to see his downfall, what was?
Nor had she fared better with her husband Urien. He had fought alongside King Lot at Bedgraine, and well enough, but after the eleven kings' defeat there, he had decided to battle Arthur no further. In fact, after Lot had finally been slain in a later war upon the young High King, Urien had come to court to offer his allegiance as a loyal vassal straightaway. Furthermore, their son Owain had followed in his father's footsteps, and was eagerly in training at Camelot, hoping to win his spurs soon enough and become a knight in King Arthur's service. Maybe even to win a seat at the Round Table. No, she had failed with him as well.
Morfydd was her last hope for an ally among her own family, and even she had proved a bit of a disappointment. That the wrongs that Uther Pendragon had visited upon Gorlois and Igraine were wrongs indeed, and demanded some form of reprisal, she had been willing to admit. But she was clearly uncertain as to whether the vengeance should fall upon Arthur's head. After all, she had pointed out, Arthur hadn't even been born when the war in which her grandfather had been slain had taken place. Why blame him for the sins of his father? Morgana had done her best to persuade the girl otherwise, that destroying Arthur was their duty. And even so, she was not certain that she had succeeded entirely with her. Morfydd was helping her in this enterprise, true. But in a half-hearted sort of way. Maybe there was just a little too much of Urien in her.
Morgana turned back to look at her half-brother, still asleep. He looked so much like Uther Pendragon at that moment, in her eyes, that she could barely restrain the urge to kill him now. To kill him, as she had longed to do to Uther through all her cloistered days and nights in the nunnery at Amesbury, for his crimes. But she had been cheated of her revenge. Uther had fallen ill some years later, and had been confined to his bed, unable to walk and ride, until he finally succumbed to this sickness. While he had suffered, it was not enough to satisfy Morgana. It had not been done by her hand. She should have been the one to take his life, not some wasting illness! And now she would never be able to do so.
But when she had learned of Arthur, and realized that he was surely Uther Pendragon's son, it served as some sort of consolation for her. As Uther's offspring - his only offspring, which was nothing short of strange, given the wild life that he had led - he carried his father's guilt upon his head. She could still avenge Gorlois upon him, and she would. Quickly, she had urged her husband to join King Lot in his grand rebellion, to bring about Arthur's death. That had failed, however, and she had quickly realized that she would need to try some other scheme against him.
In the years that immediately followed the Battle of Bedgraine, Morgana had learned more things about Arthur, things that made her all the more convinced that she would have to destroy him, and not just because he was the son of the thrice-accursed Uther Pendragon. She had been horror-stricken to learn that he had carried out the senseless murder of a score or more of helpless infants, based apparently on some prophecy or other of Merlin's. It fit, somehow. That demonspawn of a sorcerer had assisted in the betrayal of her mother, and now he counselled Arthur himself to further depths of wickedness. Even worse, one of the babies that had been drowned was the youngest son of her own sister Morgause, a sign once more that the Pendragons would forever be a plague upon her house, the House of Gorlois. The mere thought of that had filled her with dread, and for weeks thereafter, she had had nightmares in which her own children, Owain and Morfydd, had been similarly torn from her arms to be put to death. After that, she no longer suspected that Arthur had inherited the cruelty and senseless brutality of his father. She knew that he had done so.
Uther was long since dead, and buried within the Giant's Dance upon Salisbury Plain. Merlin was trapped in Nimue's Tower of Air in the forest of Broceliande, and thus safe from her. But she could still exact her revenge upon Arthur. Before the sun set tomorrow, he would be gone from this world forever.
With this satisfying thought, she began to cast a fresh spell, the next step in her plan to destroy him.
Arthur awoke, to find himself lying on a cold and hard stone floor, rather than on the rough straw bed in Eilian's hut. Only a fitfully burning torch in a bracket, placed high up on a far wall, provided any illumination. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, however, he could see that he was in some sort of dungeon cell.
"How on earth did I come here?", he thought aloud. "Where is the cottage?"
"So, you're awake at last, stranger," said a low voice to his left. Arthur turned, to dimly make out the features of a man clad in a ragged tunic, with long unkempt hair, a thick beard, and skeletal features. He looked at the High King curiously.
"Who are you?", asked Arthur. "And what is this place?"
"Welcome to the dungeon of Sir Damas, stranger," replied the man with a bitter laugh. "Your new home - just as it is ours." He stretched out his hand to indicate other emaciated-looking men, all dressed like him, hunched over in various positions, scattered throughout the cell.
"Sir Damas?", asked Arthur. "Who is he? And why does he keep you all prisoner?"
"Sir Damas is the baron who owns this castle, and the lands about it," the man answered. "And a more craven or treacherous lord, you could not find if you searched all Britain from Land's End to the Orkneys. His lands are under constant siege from his many foes, and he lacks sufficient fighting-men to defeat them. So he captures wandering knights when they stray onto his fief, and brings them to his castle. Then he gives them a choice, between fighting under his banner or rotting in his dungeon. But so much of a poltroon is he that we would sooner languish in this cell than serve him. So he imprisons us. I've been kept here for eight years, but there are many here who have been held longer than that."
"And some have even perished from starvation," said another of the prisoners, with a groan. "Sir Damas does not feed us very well. I believe that there've been no fewer than eighteen men who have died in this place."
Arthur shuddered. "Heaven help us all," he said. "But how did I come to be here? The last thing that I remember was sleeping in a peasant's hut in the woods near Camelot."
"All that we know was that you were borne into this cell two hours ago," said the first prisoner. "We can tell you no more."
Arthur frowned. This was more than he could understand. He had the suspicion that there was sorcery at work here, but more than that he could not say. Eilian must have been a witch of some sort.
He suddenly noticed something else. Excalibur was gone from his belt. Sir Damas must have disarmed him before having him imprisoned here. He was about to mention this, but then decided against it. It only made sense that his sword would have been removed from him before he was brought here. Also, it occurred to him that it would be a good idea to keep his true identity secret here.
His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of keys jangling. Then, the door at the top of the stairs leading into the cell swung open. Light poured into the cell, causing all the prisoners except for Arthur to shield their eyes. Arthur stood up, and walked towards the stairs.
Two guards stood in the doorway. "You, the new one!", one addressed the king. "Sir Damas wishes to speak with you!"
Arthur sighed. He was unarmed, and both of the guards had spears and swords. If they wanted him to come with them, there was little that he could do to deny them. In any case, it made better sense for him to accompany them. If he could talk to Sir Damas, maybe he could find some way of securing his release. And the release of these other men. Arthur glanced at the prisoners, clearly proud knights once but now reduced almost to living scarecrows. It would be difficult for him to restrain himself from giving harsh words to the baron for his treatment of these men, but he would have to do so. Otherwise, it was doubtful that he would ever leave this castle.
So he walked up the stairs, and joined the two guards, quietly walking with them through the hallways of the castle until they came to the great hall. Sir Damas sat in a high-backed wooden chair atop the hall's dais. He was a small, thin brown-haired man, with a poorly-trimmed moustache and a long nose. He did not bother rising to greet his new "guest" when Arthur was admitted to the hall. Instead, he simply stared him straight in the face.
"So you're the latest one," he said.
Arthur nodded. "What do you want from me?", he asked.
"Much, much," said Sir Damas. He shifted his weight upon the throne before continuing. "I have a few problems that I could use your help with, Sir - what did you say your name was?"
"I didn't," said Arthur. He had already decided that it would be wiser not to let Damas know that his newest prisoner was the High King of Britain. The moment that the little baron knew this, he'd probably start thinking about the likelihood of a very sizable ransom. "You may call me - ", he racked his brains for a suitable alias - "Sir Fergus of Cornwall."
"Sir Fergus, eh?", said Damas. He did not look entirely convinced by that - clearly he had correctly suspected that that was not Arthur's true name - but did not view this as being important. "Well, you seem like a suitable champion. A hardy fighter, by the look of you. And you come betimes, as well. My worst enemy comes to my castle, to offer me battle."
"Your worst enemy? And who might he be?"
"I do not know his name," Sir Damas replied. "Men call him only the Red Knight, for he is clad in red armor always, and never even deigns to raise his visor. But he is held to be one of the doughtiest men of arms in all Britain. Even King Arthur's foremost knights of the Round Table would find it not easy to vanquish him. He comes today at noon, to deliver his challenge to me. I must either fight him in person or send out a champion to battle him, else he will send his army hither and lay my castle waste I need someone to fight the Red Knight for me. Will you do so?" He looked at Arthur, an almost frantic look in his eyes.
Arthur frowned. He had heard enough about Sir Damas already to dislike the man, and seeing him only deepened this feeling. The baron had imprisoned and mistreated many knights-errant, and was an utter coward.
But at the same time, he had no real choice in this matter. If he refused, it was only too obvious how Sir Damas would respond. Throw him back into the dungeon, and keep him there until he starved. An inglorious demise, and one which he did not desire. Also, he was High King of Britain. His life was not his own, and he had the duty to do what he could to regain his freedom, for the good of his kingdom. And it seemed likely enough that the Red Knight was a greater threat to the peace of Britain than Sir Damas was. He had heard of a baron by such a name, living in the northern reaches of Britain, who had an evil reputation in the land; he pillaged his neighbor's domains without mercy and hung the knights that he overcame in battle from the branches of trees, shamefully, as prey for the crows and the kites. Perhaps this man had come south to wage war on Sir Damas as well - assuming that he was still in the south of Britain. Where sorcery was concerned, he could conceivably be anywhere in the island.
He nodded. "I will fight for you," he said. "On two conditions."
"Two conditions?", began Sir Damas, a look of absolute consternation in his eyes. Then he settled down, and spoke, in a much calmer voice. "Name your conditions, Sir Fergus."
"First, that you free the knights whom you have imprisoned at once, and give them proper meat and drink," Arthur said. "And regardless of whether I win or lose this battle, they are to be permitted to leave this place freely."
Sir Damas frowned troubledly, but finally nodded. "If that is the price of your service, Sir Fergus, then so be it," he said. "Now that I have you for my knight-champion, I hardly need those others."
"That is well," said Arthur. "And my other condition is this. When I was brought to this castle, I had a sword with me, did I not?"
"Yes, you did," said Damas, after a moment's hesitation. "We - um - relieved you of it before placing you in the dungeons. It hardly seemed necessary for you to have it in there."
"I would like it returned to me, for the duel," said Arthur. "You may equip me with whatever else in the way of armor and arms that you have in this place, but I will fight with that sword by my side, and no other. It sits better in my hand than any other blade."
"If you insist, so be it," said Sir Damas, with a shrug.
Arthur nodded approvingly. With Excalibur in his hand, his hopes of defeating the Red Knight were all the stronger. And he had to admit one thing to himself: from what he had heard of that warrior, he would need all the aid that he could get.
Sir Accolon of Gaul reined in his horse in the forest clearing, and dismounted. The woman whom he had been looking forward to seeing, the woman who was never far from his thoughts, was awaiting him there. He doffed his helmet, pushed back his chainmail hood, and rushed forward to meet her.
"My lady," he said, joy sparkling in his eyes.
"Accolon, my love," Morgana la Fay replied, accepting his embrace. "It has been so long since we were last together."
Accolon still felt a silent twinge of guilt whenever he and the Queen of Rheged held their secret trysts. He knew well enough that his lady love was married, and to one of King Arthur's foremost vassals, at that. Only the two of them knew of their affair; it had been kept so carefully hidden from the court that not even King Urien suspected anything. But it still gave him feelings of discomfort. And yet, he could hardly help himself. Ever since he had been introduced to Morgana at Camelot three years before, he had been drawn to her, and by now he'd become her lover. It was to her that he had dedicated every deed of his in King Arthur's service ever since; he had never confessed this to anybody, but the quests that he had undertaken, the robber-knights that he had battled in the outlands, these had all been for Morgana's sake, not for the High King's. It was to her that his sword was pledged.
"Is there any great reason why you wished me to meet with you here, my lady?", he asked her, after a few moments of silence in one another's arms.
"Yes," she said, quietly. "I fear that there is more that I wish from you in this place than your presence. I have work for you to do."
"And what might that be?", he asked.
"Not far from here is the castle of Sir Damas, one of the falsest and cruellest lords in all of Britain," said Morgana la Fay. "He makes unprovoked wars upon his neighbors, stealing their lands and adding them to his own. He treats his own folk with utter brutality, such as would shame even the Saxons. He has defied King Arthur's lordship, and refuses to pay him tribute - doubtless he'd even send back my brother's emissaries to Camelot without their ears or their hands, if ever they came to his castle. It is nothing short of grievousness that he yet lives, and is free to carry out his evil work."
"And you would have me encounter this man and overthrow him, in the High King's name," said Accolon.
"It is your duty, as a knight of the Round Table," she said to him. "And I myself will be the happier, once Sir Damas has been vanquished, and brought to my brother's subjection. Only three days back, some of my folk strayed into his lands, on an errand of mine. His wolvish guards found them, and beat them most cruelly before they were able to flee. Not all of them lived long afterwards, either." She shook her head sadly, tears forming in her eyes. "There was nothing that I could do for them, but you can see to it that Damas never harms another innocent."
"I will battle him as your true knight, my lady," Accolon said to her. "This I promise."
"That is good, my love," she said. "And, I pray you, take with you this." And she produced from beneath her mantle a well-made sword, with an ornate golden hilt, that she handed to him.
Accolon looked down at the weapon in his hands, and then stared at it. "I believe that I have seen this before," he said. "Though I cannot remember where."
"Do not trouble yourself on that, my love," said Morgana, giving him a brief kiss on the lips. "I assure you that it is a finely-made sword, better than your own. Sir Damas has a mighty champion to serve him, so you must be mightier still. A sword like this can fell even a giant. With it, you will be victorious over your foe."
"I thank you for this bestowal, my lady," said Accolon, nodding. "I will go forth to battle, and return to you victorious."
"There is one other thing," she added. "You must hide your name from Sir Damas's champion. There is an evil enchantment placed upon him, by the baron's sorcerers, so that he may overcome any warrior whose name he knows. You must not proclaim your identity before the walls of Sir Damas's castle, or even declare your allegiance to King Arthur, until after you have bested your foe. If you do, then all your strength and skill will be as nothing to him. Keep yourself nameless, until the battle is over."
"But will he not know me anyway, my lady, because of the blazon upon my shield?", Accolon asked her, frowning troubledly.
"True enough," said Morgana. "So I must disguise you. Fortunately, I may accomplish that easily enough, through my arts."
She raised one hand, and extended it in Accolon's direction, speaking some words which he could not quite distinguish. His shield turned a brilliant blood-red, erasing its original device. His armor and helm turned the same color as well. "Now you are disguised," said Morgana, smiling satisfiedly.
"I will conquer as your champion, my lady," said Accolon. And with that, he remounted his horse, helmed himself again, and rode on his way.
Morgana watched him go, with a smile. Her plan was working perfectly. Through her subtle manipulations, Accolon - whose presence near Sir Damas's castle she had already ensured days ago - was on his way to fight King Arthur and slay him; Arthur would not know who his opponent was until it was too late. And it was likewise with Sir Accolon. Furthermore, Arthur was armed with the false Excalibur, while she had just given the Gaulish knight the true enchanted sword. Despite Arthur's puissance at arms, there could be only one outcome to this fight. His death, at her lover's hands.
She had lured Sir Accolon into her subtle service long ago, when he had first come to Camelot. He was a handsome young warrior, brave and gallant, and far more to her liking than her husband King Urien. Urien was much older than her, and she had only wedded him because of Uther Pendragon's demand that it be so. Her stepfather had seen her, just as he had seen her sisters, as merely a bargaining counter to assist him in his political alliances, binding one of the strongest rulers in the Northlands to him. Morgana had borne her lord two children, but she had felt small liking for him, and even less after he had gladly entered Arthur's service and become a member of the Round Table. He could die tomorrow, of illness or on the hunt or in a battle with the Saxons, and she would not mourn his passing. She had little use for the aging fool.
Accolon, on the other hand, had won her heart with his courtesy and valor. They were of much the same age, and for the first time in many years, she had felt something that she had never expected to feel again when Uther had all but banished her to the convent at Amesbury. She had somebody to stand beside her, to face the world with, to make her feel no longer alone. The secret hours that they had spent together had given her a sense of happiness that she had not known for so many years. Which had ony made her despise her husband all the more. Were it not for Urien, she could have wedded Accolon, and this secrecy would no longer be necessary. As it was, the difficulty of arranging hidden meetings had galled her. Her husband probably did not suspect a thing, but there were others in Camelot who did. In particular, Morgana felt certain that Queen Guinevere had guessed at it, and did not approve. She would have to deal with that woman, once Arthur was no more.
It was a pity that Accolon was, as far as she knew, a loyal knight. She could have found a way of turning him against Arthur, but she would have had to sound out his thoughts concerning the High King first, and so far, she had not done so. Maybe it was for fear that if she had done so, she might have found his allegiance to her half-brother utterly unshakeable, and she could not bear such a discovery. No, the only thing for it was to use him against Arthur without his knowledge. Deep down inside, it made her uncomfortable to be manipulating him so, but she had no choice. She had to destroy Uther's son, and Accolon was the only one who could help her. There was no other way.
Well, the plan was now set fully in motion. In just a few hours, it would reach its fulfillment. In just a few hours, Arthur Pendragon would be no more.
"He's here!", cried a sentry from the battlements over the castle gates. "The Red Knight is here!"
Arthur had finished arming, and was now mounted atop a horse from Sir Damas's stables. It was a rather clumsy-looking beast, and extremely thin to boot. He would much rather have had one of his chargers from Camelot's stables, but this was no time to be choosy. He lowered the visor of his helmet, couched his lance, and rode out of the gates to meet his adversary.
The Red Knight was already awaiting him, a tall figure arrayed in blood-red armor with scarlet-plumes on his helmet. He spoke not a word, but merely held his lance high. Arthur raised his lance, in salute, then spoke. "You have come to challenge Sir Damas?"
"Aye," said the Red Knight. There was something slightly familiar about his voice, but Arthur could not place it at present. "You are his champion?"
"That I am," Arthur replied.
"Then you have ridden out to your doom," replied his opponent. And with that, he lowered his lance, and rode towards the High King.
Arthur lowered his own lance in reply, and thundered towards the Red Knight. The two of them met mid-way in the field, and unhorsed each other with a loud clamor. Both struggled to their feet, drew their swords, and began to battle each other on foot.
It was not until a few minutes into the fight that Arthur began to realize that something was wrong. Excalibur was simply not biting his enemy's armor with its accustomed strength. Rather, each blow glanced harmlessly off the Red Knight without doing him any damage. While his blade, on the other hand, clove through Arthur's armor every time that it struck, and wounded him several times. Each time, Arthur had managed to swerve just enough as to avoid being dealt a fatal blow, but he was badly injured already.
But this was impossible, he realized, while trying to concentrate on the battle. How could Excalibur's magic be deserting him now? It was as if he held in his hand the product not only of a human armorer, but of a human armorer altogether lacking in skill, a weak and poorly-fashioned blade. While, from the strength and sharpness of the Red Knight's sword, it would seem almost as though he was the one wielding Excalibur.
Then Arthur took a closer look at the knight's sword, and realized that it seemed extremely familiar to him. And it was at that moment that he realized, fully, that somehow he had been betrayed, and that what he held in his hand was not the true Excalibur, but a worthless counterfeit. How this had come about, he did not know, but he had to find a way to reverse this, and quickly.
He had one hope. Even if the Red Knight had Excalibur, while he himself was armed with a brittle sword that would have shamed any armorer, there was one thing that he remembered from his lessons in Sir Ector's castle as a boy. The quality of a sword was not everything. Skill was as important, even more so. With a little bit of careful thinking, he might be able to stave off death for a while. He carefully stepped back, to decide how best to do this.
"This is no time for slacking, sir knight!", his opponent cried, noticing Arthur's pause. He charged at the High King, readying Excalibur to strike.
There was only one thing to do, and Arthur did it. Grasping the hilt of the false Excalibur with both hands, he brought it down with all his might upon the Red Knight's helm. The warrior staggered back, clearly stunned, and all but lost his balance. But with the same blow, Arthur's sword broke in half, leaving him holding the hilt with a few inches of jagged blade clinging to it. Clearly the effort of the blow had been too much for the counterfeit sword.
The lowered visor hid the horrified look upon Arthur's face, as he stared at his useless weapon. But he had little time to think about what to do next, for the Red Knight was once more upon him. Arthur hurriedly interposed his shield between the knight and himself, letting it block the blows from Excalibur. But the fury of the enchanted sword was too much for even this defense. Again and again, it fell upon the shield, and each time carved off a piece of it, blue sparks flying. Before long, there would be nothing left of it, and the High King would have no defense against the sword but his armor. And from the blows that he had already experienced, he knew that that would be of little help to him.
This is it, then, thought Arthur, a cold dread stealing over his heart. The end. In a few minutes, the Red Knight would surely slay him. He had never thought that it would end like this, felled by his own sword, championing a cowardly robber-baron, far from Camelot and from his friends. But if he was to perish today, he would at least do so as befitted a true warrior, fighting to the last.
He pushed the remnants of his shield into the Red Knight's chest, with the force of a small battering ram, while simultaneously striking him on the helm again with the pommel of his sword's hilt-shard. So much strength did Arthur put into his blows that the Red Knight staggered back three paces, before managing to right himself. However, he quickly recovered sufficiently to come charging upon the High King once more, raising Excalibur up high. Arthur prepared himself for the final blow; he knew that it would be the last one that he would ever feel.
I only hope that it's a clean kill, he thought. Please, make it so. Swift and merciful. Not some slow agonizing death. Never that. Another part of him wondered what would become of his kingdom, and of Guinevere. Would anybody ever learn of his fate? Would - .
The Red Knight suddenly let out a cry of pain, and dropped Excalibur. Just what had happened to make him so do, Arthur could not even guess. Certainly it had not been through any act of his. But his sword now lay on the grass just in front of him. And whatever had caused his foe to let go of it, it certainly was all to the good for him.
Swiftly, Arthur snatched his trusty sword up from the ground before the Red Knight could seize it again. "You've been away from me too long, old friend," he said to it, grasping it firmly in his hands. "And done me much harm, as well. But now it is time to make an end of this!"
Running at the now-bewildered Red Knight, he brought Excalibur down upon him with one mighty blow. The warrior fell to the ground, with a groan. Arthur stood over him, holding the sword at his throat. "Do you yield?", he asked. "Yield, and I will spare your life."
"Too late for that, it seems," groaned the knight. "Spare me or slay me; it's all the same to me. You have dealt me my death-blow, I fear."
Arthur suddenly paused, frowning. There was something familiar about the Red Knight's voice, he now realized. He could not quite tell what it was, considering how the helmet muffled and distorted it. But he knew that he had heard it somewhere before. Who was this man? And more importantly....
"How came you by this sword?", he asked.
"Woe befall that sword!", the knight replied bitterly, in a weakening voice. "It has been my death! I would that I had never accepted it from my lady!"
"This sword is my own," said Arthur. "How it came to fall into your hands, I do not know, but it is mine own. It is Excalibur, and I," he said as he raised his visor, "am Arthur Pendragon, High King of Britain, its rightful owner."
The Red Knight gave a choked gasp as he stared up at Arthur's revealed face. "King Arthur? My lord! Forgive me, sire! Forgive me! I did not know who you were!"
Astonished at his enemy's response, Arthur bent down and removed the man's helmet. Then stared, horror-struck, at the countenance of Sir Accolon of Gaul, one of his own knights, beneath. The man's face was contorted with pain, but still recognizable. "Accolon?", he gasped. "What has brought this about? Why did you raise a sword against me?"
"I did not know that it was you," Accolon replied, in a faint voice. "I thought you merely a retainer of Sir Damas. My lady told me not to reveal myself when I came hither, to keep my true name hidden. She told me that even when she gave me your sword, sire. I suspected nothing."
"Your lady?", asked Arthur. "Who is your lady? I've never heard tell that you have one."
"It was my secret, and one that I should never have kept," groaned Sir Accolon. "She was wedded, I know, so it was wrong - but she was so fair! So fair! Your own sister, my liege. Morgana la Fay."
Arthur stared at him, speechless with shock. "Morgana?", he finally cried, when he had found his voice. "But - but - I would never have thought this of her! My own sister, hating me! It's unnatural! I - I'd trusted her. I would have as soon expected Guinevere to betray me as her! Not Morgana, surely, Accolon?"
"It's true, all the same," said a woman's voice from behind.
Arthur turned around, to see a beautiful young red-haired woman standing there, watching him and Accolon calmly, with expressionless eyes. She bore a striking resemblance to the Lady of the Lake, though clearly she was not the same person. "And who are you?", he asked.
"My name is Nimue," said the woman. "Your old tutor Merlin may have mentioned me a few times. I was a - friend of his." She had a slightly pained look on her face as she spoke, which Arthur wondered about. And which gave him another feeling of uneasiness. The last time that he had heard from his wizardly advisor, Merlin had been off to visit Nimue, whom he had described as a promising pupil, in the forest of Broceliande. He had not been heard from since, and Arthur had more than half-suspected that Nimue might have had something to do with it. However, before he could ask her about this, she continued.
"I've suspected for some time that your sister was scheming against you, Arthur Pendragon. However, I had no proof of it, and so could not warn you. Only a day ago, I finally learned of her scheme to destroy you, using her duped lover and your own sword. I hastened here at once, and came in time to save your life. Though not his, I fear." She looked at the mortally wounded Sir Accolon, and there was a flicker of concern in her eyes. "I must thank you, Arthur, for enduring as long as you did. If you had not, I very much fear that my spell would not have been enough to save your life."
So that explained why Accolon had suddenly dropped Excalibur. Arthur recalled the reports that Nimue was Merlin's apprentice, and even the hints from his teacher that she might have faerie blood in her veins. It was her magic afoot that had done this. But this was not his greatest concern, at the moment.
"Why does Morgana hate me so?", he asked. "I am her brother. It makes no sense at all."
"It makes sense to her," Nimue replied. "Your father was responsible for her father's death, and she has not forgotten that. She never has. And the fact that you are her brother does not protect you from her anger. Many have brought ill upon their brothers before now - and more will do so in times to come."
Arthur frowned, and gripped the hilt of Excalibur tightly. "I would never have expected such treason from her," he said, in a troubled voice. "I had thought Morgana's loyalty to be assured. But it seems that I was wrong. My own sister, a traitor. If ever she is placed in my power, the known world will speak of her punishment for years to come."
Another groan from Accolon caused him to turn around, and bend down to the dying knight. "If only I had known," said Sir Accolon, in a whisper. "Forgive me, Arthur. I meant you no harm. I knew nothing of her intent."
"I believe you," Arthur said to him, in a gentle voice. "You were only her tool in this, used without your knowing it. So I forgive you for it - though not her. She will be a very different story."
"Thank you, my lord," gasped Accolon. His eyes closed, and when they opened again, they were empty. Arthur removed his cloak and laid it quietly over the dead knight, then rose unsteadily.
"You will need to have your wounds attended to," said Nimue, supporting him. "The injuries that you received from your sword must have been serious ones."
"I'll mend," muttered Arthur, through gritted teeth. But his head swam as he spoke. Nimue helped him walk back to the castle gates.
"I'll attend to Sir Damas shortly," Arthur told her. "And one other thing, Nimue. See to it that Accolon's body is sent back to Camelot for honorable burial. And tell the messengers entrusted with that task that my sister is to be detained at the castle, until my return. Which will be soon enough, I hope."
"Of course," she said, nodding. "I will see to it as swiftly as I can."
Morgana la Fay paced back and forth in her chambers at Camelot. It had been three days since she had given Accolon Excalibur and sent him off to unwittingly fight against King Arthur, three days since her half-brother would have fallen in battle. And she had heard not a word since about how her plan had gone. Accolon would surely have returned by now, and yet he had not. She wondered what could be delaying him.
Still, Arthur had not returned yet either, so as far as she knew, her scheme had succeeded. Certainly his absence had created something of a stir at court. Queen Guinevere and Sir Kay the seneschal had both expressed a particular amount of concern, and had ordered search parties to scour the North Wood for their missing king. The local gargoyle clan had been enlisted in their efforts, searching for Arthur at night while the knights and men-at-arms searched during the daytime. But their efforts had so far proven fruitless, and only Morgana and her daughter knew why. And neither of them had said a word as yet, although sometimes Morfydd had shown herself looking noticeably uneasy about it all. Morgana hoped that her daughter would not accidentally reveal anything. She disliked the thought of placing a geas on her child, but it just might prove necessary to make certain that Morfydd did not betray her knowledge of the plot.
She was just beginning to wonder if it was time for a judicious use of magical spying to learn the outcome of the battle, when there was a knock on the door to her room. "Who is it?", she asked, turning in its direction.
"It's me, mother," said Morfydd, on the other side. "There's been - some terrible news. Some messengers have come from Sir Damas's castle, and a body. And - " - there was a hesitant pause - " - it's not the King's."
What? It was all that Morgana could do to keep her composure. "Where is the body?", she asked, opening the door to her room. Morfydd was standing alone in the hallway, looking about herself uncomfortably. "Tell me, Morfydd!"
"It's been taken to the castle chapel, to be laid out in state," said the girl. "The burial will be held as soon as possible, I believe."
Morgana hurried down the corridor, and descended the staircase leading to the chapel as quickly as she could without attracting serious attention, Morfydd close behind her. It couldn't be Accolon. There must have been some misunderstanding. It had to be Arthur, not - .
Then she entered the chapel and saw the corpse laid out in the center, surrounded by candles. To her relief, nobody was present; the attendants who had placed the body there must have left. She drew closer to the bier, Morfydd still following, and looked down upon the face of the dead knight. And saw, to her horror, that it was indeed Accolon's face, recognizable even in death, rather than Arthur's.
"I don't know what caused the plan to miscarry, Mother," Morfydd was nervously saying in a low voice behind her. "I really don't. The messengers said very little. But the High King must still be alive. Something's gone wrong."
Morgana barely heard her daughter's words. She was bowed over Accolon's lifeless body, tears falling from her eyes. It was a few minutes before she could gather herself enough to be able to form words. It was bad enough that Arthur still lived, but what was worse was that her lover was dead, gone from her forever. He had been the one to fall, not her brother.
"Oh, my love," she finally said, at last able to form words. "What have I done - ". She then paused, and her dark blue eyes became cold and bitter. Her face contorted with anger, and she clenched her hands as she had done so many years ago in London, watching Merlin depart from her mother's chamber. "What has he done to you?", she cried. She drew herself up, and spoke in a low voice, filled with barely restrained fury. "Arthur, this is your doing. I will avenge my lover's death upon you, so help me! I will!"
"Mother?" Morgana was only dimly aware of Morfydd clutching at her sleeve, and turned to face her. "They may already know that you were behind this, if it was Accolon who was slain and not Arthur. What will we do?"
"The only thing that we can do, child," said Morgana, resting one hand on her daughter's shoulder. "We must flee from here at once, before the High King returns. If we are still in Camelot when he comes back, nothing will be able to save us from him. Let us leave at once."
"Whatever you say, Mother," Morfydd said, still looking troubled. She followed her mother out of the chapel without another word.
As Morgana entered the great hall, she found Queen Guinevere talking in a low voice concernedly with Sir Kay. Both of them turned to see her and Morfydd. They seemed astonished, but there was no look of immediate suspicion in their faces, as she had feared there would be. Clearly they did not know yet.
"Is anything the matter, Queen Morgana?", Guinevere asked her.
"Yes, Your Highness," said Morgana, giving a slight bow to Arthur's queen. "I and my daughter must leave the court at once. We have word of trouble at home, and must return there post-haste."
"I think not," Guinevere replied, with a frown. "My husband has just sent word from the castle of Sir Damas. He wishes that you remain here until he returns. Why, I do not know; the couriers did not say. But I must request that you stay at court until he comes back."
"I thank you, Your Highness," said Morgana, not certain whether to feel frustrated by Arthur's orders, or relieved that he had failed to reveal her plot against him. "But the trouble in Rheged is far too urgent for us to delay. It will grow worse unless we depart at once."
Guinevere frowned, and looked at Kay for a moment. Then she turned back to Morgana and nodded.
"Well, if that is how it sits, then I can hardly delay you. I'll explain to Arthur when he returns. But do hasten back here, once you have dealt with whatever the trouble in the north is."
"Should we tell your husband and son about these matters, my lady?", added Sir Kay. "They are currently searching the North Wood still, but if you can wait until they return - ".
"That won't be necessary," said Morgana. "What has gone awry in Rheged is - well, better solved by myself and my daughter than by menfolk. Give Urien and Owain my love for me, I pray you both. And now we must depart."
Guinevere and Kay both nodded; Morgana had the feeling that they were all too happy to see her go. She had never been particularly popular with either of them. At least she had convinced them to give her leave to depart. Now she and Morfydd would have to go quickly, before more news arrived from Sir Damas's castle.
Only a few minutes later, the two women rode over Camelot's drawbridge, and off into the woods.
"So what do we do, now that your plan has failed, Mother?", asked Morfydd, standing by a narrow window in the study, and eyeing her surroundings nervously.
The two of them had fled to Castle Chariot, one of Morgana's secret fortresses scattered throughout Britain. The place was not particularly to Morfydd's liking. It was a dark and brooding place, much like the grim stronghold of Dolorous Garde in the north of the island; rumor had it that it had once been a home to those members of the Third Race that had rebelled against Lord Oberon when the world was young and had been banished from Avalon for all time as punishment for their treason. Something which made it almost an apt stronghold for Morgana, now that she was likewise forever exiled from Camelot for attempting to destroy her brother. Its gloomy halls and corridors, so different from the splendor of Arthur's court, weighed on the maiden's spirits, as did the odd demon sculpture here and there. She hoped that they would not be staying here long, though she feared that they would. Once word got out of what her mother had done, not only Camelot but even Urien's castles in Rheged would be barred to them forever. Morfydd still wondered if anybody had known that she had had a part in the scheme. Just as she wondered whether she had done the right thing, plotting against the life of her own king and kinsman. She could hardly defy her mother's wishes, but still....
Morgana was sorting through an open chest, taking out one object after another, staring at it, then putting it back. "There is something here that may be able to help us," she said. "If I can only find it - ah, here it is!" She pulled out a splendid cloak, set with rubies along its fringes. "This may succeed where the false Excalibur failed."
She looked it over, then handed it gingerly to Morfydd. "It is still safe for you to return to Camelot, my child," she said to her. "I doubt that Arthur knows of your role in my plot against him, so you can be received. Give him this mantle, and offer it to him as an effort on my part to make amends. Tell him that I was led astray by demons, but have since put aside their counsel and have repented. And give him the cloak to wear. But do not wear it yourself, under any circumstances. Is that clear, my daughter?"
Morfydd looked the cloak over, and nodded. She did not know what her mother's newest plan was, and was not certain that she wanted to know. She briefly considered begging not to be the messenger, but then decided against it. Morgana was her mother, after all, and she could hardly desert her. "It is clear, Mother," she said, in a small voice.
"Good," said Morgana. She embraced Morfydd. "Give Arthur the cloak, and hurry back here safely, once your work is done. This false king of Britain will soon be able to work no further evil upon anyone. You can be certain of that, my child."
A few days later, King Arthur sat in his place at the feasting table in Camelot's great hall, eating dinner in silence. The court was talking in hushed voices, aware that its liege lord was in a poor mood.
The wounds that Accolon had dealt him had been healed by Nimue's magic, though this had taken some time, and he had had to rest during that time. The inactivity had galled him, and had only added to the anger and shock that he had felt over his sister's treason. The one piece of consolation that he had gained was revealing to Sir Damas his true identity. The little baron had been rendered utterly speechless at the discovery that he had been holding the High King of Britain captive in his dungeon, and could now expect the possibility of reprisals. But Arthur had decided to go easy on him; the man had only been another unwitting pawn of Morgana la Fay, even as Accolon had been. He contented himself with righting the wrongs that Damas had done the knights that he had taken prisoner, ordering him to release them all, offer them compensation for all the harm that he had given them, and never take another questing knight captive again, upon pain of death. As a side measure, he had also condemned the baron to henceforth ride only upon a palfrey rather than a proper charger, to humiliate him for his cowardice. It had given him something to smile over, during his convalescence.
Then, upon returning to Camelot, he had discovered that Morgana had managed to escape, and had taken flight from the court with Guinevere's permission. He was anything but happy about this, but forgave his queen for her unwitting assistance. It was partly his fault, after all; he had failed to be specific over the reason for why he wanted Morgana detained at Camelot until his return. However, he had filled both Guinevere and his knights in on his sister's plot against him. They had all been horrified, and Sir Kay, at least, had demanded that they burn her at the stake if ever they found her, in which he was supported by many of the knights. However, that hardly seemed likely at present, considering the fact that she had disappeared altogether and nobody could find her. And her daughter Morfydd had vanished with her.
King Urien of Rheged had been shocked that his own wife had become a traitor, and had hardly known what to say. Owain had not been at an equal loss for words, commenting bitterly, "They say that Merlin was begotten of a demon, but I say that it must have been an earthly demon who gave birth to me!" Arthur felt sorry for them, himself. It would not be easy for them, knowing that it was a member of their own family that had plotted this evil. In particular, remembering his own shock at learning that his father had been a notorious tyrant, he felt nothing but sympathy for Owain. And he wondered about Morfydd, too. She had fled Camelot with her mother, but had she been a traitor as well? And how willingly? He did not know, and hoped that she had been involved in this scheme against his life, if at all, only against her wishes.
A page suddenly entered the great hall, and spoke aloud, breaking Arthur away from his reverie. "My lord," he said, bowing to the High King. "The Lady Morfydd, daughter to King Urien of Rheged, wishes to speak to you."
"Admit her," said Arthur. "Whatever she wishes to say to us, we will hear it."
A moment later, Morfydd was ushered into the hall, bearing in her hands a magnificent cloak, made from dark velvet and fringed with rubies that sparkled in the torchlight. She walked alone to the high table, and gave her uncle a bow.
"My dread lord, Arthur Pendragon, High King of Britain," she said, in a quiet voice. "I bring you greetings from my mother Morgana la Fay, Queen of Rheged."
There were some shocked murmurings from the diners at the mention of Morgana's name, but Sir Kay turned a sharp glance in their direction, and they fell silent. Arthur looked at his niece, frowning, but spoke to her in level tones.
"What tidings do you bear from your mother, Lady Morfydd?", he asked.
"She wishes forgiveness from you, my lord," said Morfydd, her voice quavering a little. "She did not wish your death, but was placed under the influence of spirits of darkness, who turned her astray. Now she has repented of the evil that she did at their bidding, and has rejected them. She regrets her attempt to slay you, and desires to make amends for her misdeed. And, as a gesture of her desire to put the past behind her and you, she offers this mantle to you, woven by her own hands out of sisterly love." She held it out to him.
There were several gasps from the assembled company at the beauty and magnificence of the cloak as they set eyes upon it. Even Arthur was not unmoved. He rose, and stretched out one hand to take it. "It is lovely," he said, "and a noble gift."
"My lord?" Arthur turned around to see Nimue rise from her place at the high table, a concerned look on her face. "Might I ask this of you?"
"What is it?", Arthur asked the young halfling enchantress, as she made her way over to him. "Speak, Nimue."
"Do not wear this mantle, nor permit any of your people to don it," Nimue said to him in a low voice. "Not until the Lady Morfydd herself has worn it first."
Arthur looked at her questioningly. "Trust me," said Nimue. "I know these things."
Arthur looked back at Morfydd, who was still holding out the mantle, an expectant look in her eyes. He frowned troubledly as he stared down at her. He had to confess that a part of him certainly felt suspicious of this peace offering of her mother's, and was more than ready to listen to Nimue's counsel. But another part of him wanted to believe that Morgana's repentance was real. He debated with himself over what to do, remaining silent for a few minutes. It would be much simpler if only Merlin was here. But he was not, so he would have to decide himself what to do. At last Arthur spoke.
"I pray you, my lady," he said, "to wear this mantle yourself first."
Morfydd looked suddenly uneasy. "My lord, I dare not," she said, her voice quavering once again. "It is - it is fit only for a king, and it would be unseemly for me to wear it."
"Nevertheless, you must wear it, before I or any of my folk don it," said Arthur firmly. "If you will not wear it, then neither will I."
Morfydd stared wordlessly for a moment, a helpless look in her eyes. Then she sighed, and pulled the cloak about her, fastening the brooch.
As she did so, the rubies sewn upon the mantle began to glow with an eerie crimson light. The odor of smoke began to fill the hall. Morfydd's lovely face contorted with a look of sudden pain upon it. And then, even as she let out a scream of agony, she and the cloak both burst into flames. The roar of the fiery blast filled the hall, and everyone turned their faces away, shielding them with their arms. In a moment, the fires died down, and Arthur turned back to look. And there, where Morfydd had been standing only a moment ago, was a small pile of ashes. No other trace remained of her or the cloak.
Utter silence filled the hall. Many of the knights crossed themselves, shivering. Guinevere stared open-mouthed at the ashes on the floor, gripping the goblet in her hand tightly. Arthur turned to look at Nimue, who alone seemed still collected, though her eyes betrayed a certain uneasiness. "Did you know that this would happen?", he asked.
"I suspected it," she answered. "Morgana is not the only person in Britain who has read the Greek tragedians. And the story of Medea would have been greatly to her liking."
"Was it necessary to make her wear the cloak?", Guinevere asked, finally finding her voice.
Nimue sighed. "It was the only way to show you that the mantle was dangerous," she said. "And believe me, Morfydd chose her fate when she brought you the cloak. I am sorry for her, but I did what must be done." And she quietly returned to her place at the table.
The court returned to its feast, though with even less merriment than before. Nobody said anything to Arthur, or, for that matter, to Guinevere, Urien, and Owain, all of whom had been the most taken aback by Morfydd's fate. At a gesture from Sir Kay, a few of the servants began to gently clear away the ashes on the floor, silently.
Nobody noticed the small raven that had been watching the proceedings from the shadows at the end of the hall. And nobody saw it fly out of the hall, and into the courtyard outside.
Morgana sat in her study, looking out the window. By now, Arthur should have been consumed through the Cloak of Fire that she had sent him. It was a harsh enchantment, and one that she would not have used lightly on anyone, but for him it was necessary. With Excalibur back in his possession, she could hardly attempt to destroy him by force of arms again. She would have to use other means to bring about his death. And the Cloak of Fire seemed the best way to achieve that.
She could hardly wait for the news to reach her by the raven that she had sent after her daughter. Morfydd would not be able to return swiftly enough with the report of Arthur's death, so she had needed to use one of her birds to bear the tidings first. The raven was due shortly, and she could hardly wait to hear from it how Gorlois and Accolon had finally been avenged. After so many years spent plotting, it was finally over.
There was a flurry of wings, and the raven landed upon the table in front of her. She stared down at it. "Well, Cornix?", she asked, an eager smile forming on her lips. "Is the deed done? Is Arthur dead?"
The raven crowed to her, twice. Morgana stared at it, the blood draining from her face. Then she let out a scream that echoed through the walls of her study, a scream of mingled fury, horror, and grief.
"As if it was not bad enough what your father did to mine, you compounded the tragedy," cried Morgana, looking down at Arthur, her face drawn with pain from the memories. "You slew my lover, and had my daughter burnt alive. Their deaths are on your hands."
"On yours, you mean," Arthur replied. "Neither of them would have perished had you not sent them against me. It was your schemes against my life that brought about their doom. You used them as your pawns, and lost them both thereby."
"Lies!", Morgana screamed, with a frightening intensity. "Nothing but lies!" She clenched Excalibur tighter by the hilt, the hatred now clearly visible in her eyes. "I have heard enough of your falsehoods, Arthur Pendragon. Last scion of a blood-stained and treacherous house that has lasted far too long!"
"And you still want revenge, after all these centuries," said Arthur, looking almost pityingly at her.
"Is that so wrong?", she cried, turning on him. "You would have had me put to death at once had I fallen into your hands then! Don't deny it! You also desired vengeance then!"
"I was young then, and angry," said Arthur. "But I see more clearly now. These feuds never resolve anything. They only create more misery. Think of what you brought upon yourself in your own quest for revenge. And I saw what such pursuits did to my kingdom, as well. Our nephews from Lothian sought revenge upon King Pellinor for slaying their father, and destroyed one of the greatest families in Britain. Gawain wanted revenge upon Sir Lancelot for slaying his brother Gareth, and began the war that helped Mordred usurp my throne. Revenge does not end the grief; it only multiplies it. Renounce it, I beg of you. If not for my sake, then for your own."
"And you think me fool enough to listen to your platitudes?", Morgana retorted. "I have spent too many centuries encompassing your downfall. I will not be turned aside now. This time, I will succeed."
She approached him, raising Excalibur. "I will admit one thing, though," she said. "You were right when you said that I should not have sent my lover and my daughter against you. I should have slain you myself, while you were asleep and in my power, and your sword in my hands. There is a saying in this century: 'If you want something done right, do it yourself.' That is exactly the saying that I intend to follow now."
She raised the sword high. "How fitting that it should be here," she added, with a cold smile, "in the very castle where you were begotten, the very castle where my mother was betrayed. Things have come full circle at last. My fulfillment is here!"
She was about to bring Excalibur down upon Arthur in a beheading blow, when a sudden barking sound filled the air. Morgana turned her head for a moment, staring bewilderedly in its direction. At that moment, Cavall tore into sight, and collided with her. Morgana fell backwards, and dropped the sword, which landed only a couple of feet in front of Arthur.
"Arthur?", cried Griff, landing in front of the king, and staring at him. "What on earth happened - " He turned to see Morgana, now pinned down by the growling gargoyle beast. "Who's your friend?"
"It's a long story," said Arthur. "Suffice it to say, for now, that she is no friend of mine. But thank you for coming. You and Cavall have arrived just in time."
Griff clawed at the ropes and quickly freed Arthur from them, helping him to his feet. The Once and Future King bent down, and retrieved Excalibur just as Morgana managed to strike Cavall with a small flash of eerie blue light, knocking him off her with a yelp, and then pull herself upright.
"So you still associate with gargoyles, Arthur?", she asked him, looking at Griff and Cavall in astonishment. Then she shrugged. "Well, no matter. If they choose to support you, then they will share in your fate."
"Well, you're certainly not much of a lady," said Griff, looking at her sharply.
"I am not interested in your opinions," said Morgana, drawing herself up with dignity. "If you are foolish enough to stand against me, then you should see the extent of my powers. And see them you shall, just before you die."
She stepped back and held up one hand in a dramatic gesture, chanting aloud in Latin. An icy wind blew about the ruins, causing Arthur to pull his overcoat tighter about himself and Griff to wrap himself inhis feathered wings. Cavall growled, his eyes glowing. Then, the ground began to tremble. Cracks opened in it, and then skeletons, clad in rusting chainmail and helmets, old swords clutched in their clawlike fingers, began to emerge from them.
"You served my father once, warriors of Cornwall," said Morgana, in a voice of command. "Now serve me! Destroy them! Destroy them all!"
The skeletons advanced upon Arthur, Griff, and Cavall, their bones clattering as they came. Arthur swung Excalibur at the first one. The blade of the sword burned with blue fire as it fell upon the undead guardsman, slicing it in half. A second skeleton threw itself at Griff. The two of them struggled for a few moments, before Griff threw it back against the remains of one of the walls. The bones flew apart, and collapsed into dust. Cavall grabbed hold of a third by the leg, and shook it in his mouth. The skeleton spun around, then fell backwards, tumbling into a confused heap upon the ground.
The other skeletons hesitated for a moment, seeing the fates of their comrades, then pressed forward. Two of them were upon Griff, and forced him back against the wall to one side of the archway by which Cavall had entered the ruined chamber. Griff managed to wrest his hands free from their grasp, and smashed their skulls together. Both of them fell to the ground, crumbling into powder even as they did so. Arthur had struck down two more skeletons with Excalibur, and Cavall had forced one back, snarling and growling at it, until it reached the edge of the cliff upon which the castle stood, lost its balance, and plunged into the sea below.
The last skeleton finally went down before the might of Arthur's sword, and the king and his two companions faced a startled Morgana. "Is that the best that you can really do?", Arthur asked her. "Untried pages could have defeated those servants of yours with sticks. Your magic must have grown rusty over the years, my sister."
Morgana stared at them, a look of hatred burning in her dark blue eyes. She slowly retreated, until she stood at the very edge of the precipice. Then she spoke. "Watch your back, Uther's son. I will have my vengeance, some day."
And with those words, her form blurred and dwindled before Arthur's eyes. Where his half-sister had been standing moments before was now a raven, flapping its wings. It turned around and flew off into the darkness, crowing loudly.
"You wouldn't mind telling me what that was all about, would you, Arthur?", asked Griff, once she was gone.
"It was my half-sister, Morgana la Fay," Arthur replied. "You've probably heard of her."
"One of your worst enemies, wasn't she?", said Griff, frowning. "She's still alive?"
Arthur nodded. "She's somehow survived," he said. "Down through the centuries while I slept on Avalon. And she still hates me, as much as she ever did. More than ever, maybe. And she would have slain me, had you and Cavall not arrived in time."
He bent down to pat the gargoyle beast on the head. "I have never been more glad to have your company on this quest," he said to them both. "It seems that I did well to invite you to come with me."
"So what's she got against you, anyway?", Griff asked him.
"A long story, as I said," Arthur replied. "I'll tell it to you, if we have time before sunrise. We'll probably need to remain here another day and then move on tomorrow night. We still have to search Britain for Merlin, remember."
As he seated himself upon a piece of broken wall, a thoughtful look stole over him. "Since this quest began, I've already met two survivors from my time," he said. "Nimue in Broceliande, and Morgana here. I wonder if anyone else from those days has survived into this century."
THE EYRIE BUILDING, NEW YORK, U.S.A.
The telephone rang. Owen Burnett picked up the receiver, and listened silently for a moment. Then he turned to his employer, David Xanatos.
"It's for you, sir," he said. "Mr. Duval wishes to speak with you."