Historian's Note: This episode takes place approximately two weeks before the events in "Reprisals".
The airport hummed with the rush and bustle of humanity, crowded with little beings each the hero of his or her own story. Tantalizing smells coaxed otherwise hurried passersby into crowded kiosks, while members of various religious organizations plied their beliefs to any who would listen. Above and also part of the noise was the music from an intrepid band of street musicians, in a prime location near the fountain, who somehow had not yet been escorted away by airport security.
Mavis O'Connor stood apart from the rest, watching them with calm disdain. Her flight would not leave for another hour, and her check-in was complete. She hated waiting, hated the waste of time, and she amused herself by considering the deal she'd just completed. Nicholas had wanted to send young Strijken instead, but she'd called in favors and taken the trip herself. She'd always loved Ireland in the Spring, with its misty reminders of the more pleasant parts of her life and its enticing promises of what would come.
"Ma'am?" She turned. A kindly-looking man in his late forties or early fifties smiled benignly at her.
"Would you like a free book?" He held up a slim, slickly-covered volume, its face turned so that she could not immediately read the title. She considered several responses, then mentally shrugged. She had time to kill.
"The road to enlightenment. The world has been through four ages already ... " He continued in his well-practiced spiel as she tuned him out. The musicians were not that bad, and she found herself humming along with them as they played an old folk ballad.
Something the man said caught her attention. "Would you repeat that?"
He smiled again. "The end of this age is coming very soon, possibly in the next year. The natural disasters this decade are only increasing in number, and they all point to the same thing. A new, better age is about to be ushered in, and we must be spiritually prepared for it."
He showed her the book. It had been prepared by leaders in his religion, names she'd never heard before, and appeared at first glance to be a guide to preparing the soul for the events that were still to come, as the earth moved through its painful changes.
"Ma'am, do you mind if I ask what do you believe?" His face was bright with prepared responses for whatever she could throw at him.
"I believe that you are correct. The world is about to undergo a great change." She took the book and put it into her wheeled carry-on. It would make an amusing read for the trans-Atlantic trip. When the time came, it wouldn't matter what this man or any of his fellows believed, or how much they had prepared their souls. She would be interested to know what they thought they should believe.
"We don't ask that you pay for the book," he began.
"But you do have a recommended donation, yes?"
"We usually ask whatever you would care to give. Three pounds would be more than enough."
Mavis sighed, and turned away to dig through her purse for the money. If she had not, she might not even have seen him.
He looked to be no more than twenty or twenty-one, slim but not skinny, handsome in a rude, countryish fashion. His red-brown hair had the look of a recent and inexpensive trim, and his rumpled denim jacket, open to expose the shirt and tie he wore beneath, did nothing to make him look higher on the social scale. Mavis took all this in with a glance, then turned back to the book seller.
"Here," she said, giving him an American fifty. "Enjoy this age while it lasts." Leaving him flabbergasted, she moved to where she could observe the young man. She could not shake the feeling that she knew him, if she could only determine from where.
He glanced at his watch, and then his eyes moved to her. They made an appreciative pass of her body, but before they could meet her eyes she pulled out her cellphone, turned, and began to dial, hoping he had not caught her staring. Only when she heard the ring did she realize whom she was calling.
She hung up before he answered. No, she would not get Nicholas involved in this. Not until she was certain what this was.
She turned back to the young man, but he had wandered into the crowd.
She needed to get to her gate, wait for her flight, go back to New York, continue her work there. Nicholas was capable of handling the business alone, but things seemed to go much more smoothly when they were together.
Then she heard the musicians:
I left my home, my family by the ocean
All on my own to seek my fortune
But there's no work to occupy these young hands
So look out, boy, you're headin' for the mainland
Mavis turned, wheeled case in tow, towards the Security Office.
* * * * *
Idly, Arthur tossed a ha'penny into the fountain. I wish for this conference to give us the final key. I wish that I might find Merlin and have one old friend back. I wish ... He wondered how many wishes one got for a ha'penny, and decided they were probably all used.
Out of pennies, he continued waiting impatiently for the skycap to return with a forklift. Travelling with two gargoyles had a certain downside.
Near the fountain stood a trio of street-singers, and Arthur paused for a moment to listen to them. A tall thin man with white-blond hair in a ponytail, his large slender hands picking at guitar strings; a redhaired woman playing a merry wail on a fiddle; a woman with a sandy-brown braid strumming another guitar. All three were singing. One guitar case lay open on the paving stones at their feet, and assorted coins lay scattered inside it. As he watched, they brought their song to a close, and scattered applause came from the surrounding listeners.
Arthur let his gaze wander over the crowd, and paused at one figure for no reason he could name. It was a young man, perhaps twenty or so, with reddish-brown hair and a denim jacket, who seemed to be listening to the singers but wasn't looking at them. He carried no luggage, which in itself was odd at an airport; perhaps that was what had caught his attention.
The woman with the guitar whispered something to her companions, and the three struck up another song. The fiddle wailed high and lonely, the guitars struck an angry chord, and the sandy-haired woman's voice rang out in bitter challenge:
I left my home, my family by the ocean
All on my own to seek my fortune
But there's no work to occupy these young hands
So look out, boy, you're headin' for the mainland
As chance (or fate) would have it, Arthur was looking directly at the youth in the denim jacket; otherwise he might have missed his reaction. The boy stopped moving, his shoulders jerking as though he'd been struck, but he didn't turn to face the trio of singers as three clear, fierce voices joined together on the chorus:
So what do you do? You can't make nothing out of nothing
Everybody needs a start
What do you do? You can't make nothing out of nothing
Give my country back its heart!
The woman with the braid took up the verse again, guitar and fiddle sobbing rage and frustration around her voice:
Well I was born on a Wicklow street
Where all my dreams could meet with defeat
I had my days shooting higher education
Now I'm so smart, I get ruinous condemnation!
So what do you do? You can't make nothing out of nothing
Everybody needs a start
What do you do? You can't make nothing out of nothing
Give my country back its heart!
* * * * *
When the song ended, Rory applauded with the rest of the audience as loud as he could. One of the singers cast her eyes his way and he flashed a smile, applauding harder.
"Thank you, thank you," the blond-braided woman was saying as she caught his eye, and finished directly to him: "And thank you."
"And all those who'd like to show their appreciation in the form of donations can step right up front," said one of her companions.
Rory patted his pockets and pulled out his wallet. It was battered, and had enough for lunch if he ate here. The musicians were already starting into another song. He pulled out a crumpled bill and smoothed it.
The redhaired woman suddenly broke off and lowered her fiddle, pointing with her chin across the concourse. The other two followed her gaze and immediately began packing up their own instruments.
What? Rory turned. Two (three?) men in uniform walked purposefully towards the fountain. Oh.
"Milords, ladies and gentlemen," said the woman with the blond braid, "that's all the time we have. This is Cory" -- she indicated the pale-blond man, then the redhaired fiddler -- "this is Heather, I'm Leba, and we thank you for your patronage and for your attentive ear. May your travel be uneventful, may you arrive safely at your destinations, and may fortune find you there and lead you home." She swept an elaborate, showy bow to the crowd, grabbed the hat with coins and bills in it, and the three headed for the doors at a run.
Rory heard one of the uniformed men curse in Gaelic, and they broke into a run after the streetsingers. Good luck, Rory thought towards the singers. He'd spent enough time dodging the Gardai to have a soft spot for people like these. They weren't harming anyone, just brightening the day a little.
With nothing more to watch here, he meandered with the crowd back towards the offices near the front of the terminal. His interview was still an hour away.
Fool guards, tryin' to arrest a bard, he thought. A moment later he paused. What did I just think?
* * * * *
The hotel where the conference was to be held was less than extravagant, but certainly more than Arthur had expected. The staff was only mildly annoyed when he explained about the "special equipment" he needed to be brought to his room. They balked only when they saw the size of the crate. Convincing them that yes, he needed a room with a balcony required a larger drain on his credit card. As it was, it took hours, so that he had only a little time to open teh crate with teh crowbar in his suitcase before the sun's last rays came over the horizon.
Arthur sat down on the edge of his bed. The outside light dimmed. Cracks appeared along the surfaces of the two statues.
Arthur hoped the hotel staff wasn't listening.
Cavall roared. Griff did as well, then yawned. "So remind me again, Arthur," he said. "Why are we in Ireland?"
"Because of this - folklore conference," said Arthur. "It is supposed to deal with the stories and traditions about myself and Merlin. Una told me about it in London."
"And you think that it might help you find Merlin?"
"I do not know for certain," the former king replied, absently stroking Cavall's head. "But it can hardly hurt. I might be able to learn a few things of use."
"Well, that's good, then," said Griff. "And if we don't find out any clues as to where he is?"
"Then we return to Britain, and resume our search there," said Arthur. He was silent for a moment, then sighed.
"Truth to tell, it may do us little good. The Queen of Northgalis did warn us that Merlin was not to be found in any of his old haunts, and I very much doubt that any other will be spoken of there. But I am almost at a loss."
He was silent for a moment. "I never thought I would actually set foot here in peace," he added. "Ireland was no friend to Britain in my day, and I had to take up the sword more than once in dealing with the raiders that sailed from it. It is strange to think of how much the island has changed since then. Like so much else." He said nothing more for a moment, but remained lost in thought, brooding.
* * * * *
The door was unlocked when Rory arrived home. He turned the handle silently, hoping perhaps that Da would be somewhere else and not sitting on the couch.
He opened the door.
"How did the interview go?"
"Same as always, Da." He walked past the couch, past his father, into his room. He closed the door behind him, then rested his head against it.
* * * * *
Mavis frowned, trying to bring up the young man's image. The security cameras and photographs conveyed nothing; it was the presence of the boy that had taken her the way it had, that much was clear. What was it? Who was he?
His name, when she was able to get it from the airport computer system (he was in the records as having gone in for a job interview), told her nothing. Rory Dugan. Common modern Irish, common as dirt, nothing particularly striking about it. That was appropriate, at any rate; there was nothing particularly striking about the boy either, to look at his picture. Fairly good-looking, but nothing special, not until you saw his eyes....
Mavis O'Connor went cold with sudden recognition. His eyes. Oddly large irises, their color shading through seven hues of green, from dark at the rims to almost silver next to the pupil. But the color wasn't it alone; there was fire behind those eyes, fire and a fierce spirit, power and swiftness like a spear. She'd only ever known one other with those eyes.
"Who he is I don't know, but sure I know who he was," she said aloud in the empty room. "He was Cuchullain, two thousand years ago."
Her hands tightened on the back of a chair as though they held a shield, and her voice suddenly held the flavor of a different accent, wilder, older.
"Two thousand years ago, when I was Medb."
CRUACHAN FORT, CONNACHT (ERIU/IRELAND)
"It's true what they say, love; it's well for the wife of a wealthy man."
Queen Medb of Cruachan, ruler of Connacht, stretched luxuriously against the pillows of her bed and rolled onto her stomach, blinking catlike green eyes at her husband Ailill. "Now what put that in your mind?"
Ailill grinned at her across the expanse of pillows. "It struck me how much better off you are today than the day I married you."
Medb chuckled. "It's well off enough I was without you."
"Is it now?" He leaned back and propped himself on his elbows, grinning wider; this boasting banter was one of their favorite forms of entertainment. "And all your wealth something I never heard about."
"It's ten soldiers I had for every one of yours," she began, her voice ringing like a bard's and her eyes dancing. "And when we married I gave you the finest bride-gift ever given in Connacht -- your arm's length in white gold and your head's weight in red gold, and horses and maidservants in scores." She rose to her knees on the bed and posed upright, with her hands on her hips and her black hair falling in curls about her shoulders, looking down at her husband like a conqueror; her pose was only slightly marred by the five-month swelling at her midsection. "And my foster-father, the High King Eochaid Feidlech the Steadfast, gave me this province of Cruachan to rule. It's well for you that you married me, Ailill. And if anyone causes you trouble it's mine to revenge, for you're a kept man."
"It still remains," Ailill said with the air of one dismissing all further argument, "that my fortune is greater than yours."
"And what is it you've got that I haven't got?"
Ailill tipped his head back towards the window and closed his eyes against the sun on his face. "And don't I have the White Bull Finnbennach, the mightiest and most magnificent bull there ever was, in my herds?"
Medb's smile shone with a secret. "Sure and Finnbennach's as fair a creature as I'd wish to see, but I've seen a fairer one."
"Oh?" He opened one eye.
She leaned forward, her linen shift clinging to her. "The Donn Cuailgne. The Brown Bull of Cuailgne, in the province of Ulster. Daire mac Fiachna's bull. A far mightier and more magnificent beast than Finnbennach. How if I send to Daire and bring him here?"
Ailill laughed like a waterfall. "Then, my wife and queen, you and I and all of Connacht will be praised above all provinces, for the owning of two such magnificent bulls."
MAG GAIRECH/GAIRECH PLAIN, ULSTER (ERIU/IRELAND)
2 months later
Medb crouched behind the shelter of shields, cursing in a steady stream between her teeth. That boy-hero Cuchullain had held the line for just long enough; the Ulaid had risen from their pangs and taken the field, and the battle was slowly but unmistakeably turning against the Connachtmen. Their allies from Munster and from Galeoin had quit the field, and Fergus mac Roich had retreated from the front line like a coward, leaving her no choice but to pull back. But the prize of the battle, the Donn Cuailgne, was hers at least; the magnificent brown bull was even now being taken back to Cruachan by a route that avoided the battle. The Donn Cuailgne was hers.
"Fall back!" she shouted above the din of sword and spear and shield. "Men of Connacht, the shield-shelter will guard the retreat! Fall back!"
And then the pain gripped her abdomen and clenched it into a knotted fist, and she stumbled to her knees, her eyes going wide in shock. She looked down at her stomach, half expecting to see a spear or arrow in her, but saw only the armor and the curving swell of her pregnancy beneath it --
Another clenching pang shook her and she cried out aloud, spear falling from her nerveless hands. "Too soon," she whispered, and her voice was an agonized gasp. "It's too soon...."
The sun had long since set. Somewhere in the city a clock struck nine.
In the dimness of the hotel room, lit only by the crack of light under the door and the streetlights outside the window, Mavis O'Connor closed her eyes -- and Queen Medb of Connacht opened them.
The same eyes. The same woman. Two thousand years later, in a country called Ireland rather than Eire, wearing a conservative green business suit instead of tunic and mantle and leather armor... but the eyes, and the woman behind them, had always been the same.
"And the boy-hero lives." A bare whisper in the darkened room. "What must I do to be rid of him?"
She tapped a number into the cellular phone's keypad and waited, drumming her fingers restlessly on the end table. "Nicholas? It's me."
"Mavis? Is something wrong there?"
"I've come across something I wasn't expecting," she told him. "I'll be needing to stay here a while longer to take care of it."
"Is it anything I should know about?"
"It's by way of being a personal matter, Nicholas. A rather poorly timed one."
There was a pause. "You're angry," he said.
Her voice was hard. "I am that."
"Not at me, I hope."
"I see." He paused again, and she could almost see him restraining himself from asking any further. "You'll let me know if you need help?"
"I will. Anything else?"
"Mavis, please. Don't take any foolish chances."
She smiled, a smile that would have unsettled anyone who chanced to see it. "I never take foolish chances, Nicholas." And she tapped the disconnect button and put the cellphone away.
* * * * *
Rory bolted upright in bed with a strangled yell, clawing aside the sheet that covered him. Sweat stood out cold on his forehead, dampened his pillow.
The room was dark and quiet and reassuringly normal, but it was a long time before he could stop shaking.
In the corner by his night-table, the spear Luin hummed softly, distressed at his distress. "I'm all right," he told it, oddly comforted by its inanimate concern. "Just the dreams again. Remembering the Connacht raid, and Muirthemne Plain." He shivered again as he said the name, and pulled the blanket around his thin shoulders. The dream-memories of Muirthemne Plain were always the worst. Muirthemne Plain, where two thousand years ago he had lost a beloved friend, and a faithful steed, and finally his life.
He had remembered none of it for the first two decades of this life, his current life, as Rory Dugan. Not until he'd met the Hound and found Luin, the spear of light, had he begun to remember his life as Cuchullain -- remember the events as they had happened to him, not as distorted fairy tales learned in school.
"How much of it all d'you remember?" he asked the spear impulsively.
Luin made a feeling like a shrug. It remembered Cuchullain's death, certainly; it had grieved in its fashion, grieved that there was no longer any hand mighty enough to wield it. It had always been able to sense Cuchullain's distress or joy, but often had very little clear idea of the events associated with the emotions.
"So what do you remember?"
It remembered being forged, it told him in a surge of mingled impressions (fierce heat, fierce light, music of hammer on anvil, spirit one with form for the first time), by the smith Govan and Lugh Allcrafted, youngest of the fay-folk. It remembered (swift flight, piercing the malignant darkness, savage exultation in the foe's fall) being used by Lugh to slay Balor of the Fomori, thousands of years before Cuchullain had been born. And it remembered --
(shattering grief, grief that weakened and sickened the hand that wielded the spear; a blow unwillingly struck against a friend dearer than brother; despairing fury of the wielder against the spear and against himself)
Rory gasped and closed his eyes convulsively, swaying.
-- it remembered the death of Ferdia mac Damon.
"Ferdia," Rory said, and his voice was a moan. "Swordbrother. Ai Ulaid, I remember."
ATH FIRDIA/FERDIA'S FORD, ULSTER (ERIU/IRELAND)
Cuchullain shaded his eyes from the slanting light of the rising sun and watched the single figure approaching the river from the Connacht lines. "Laeg? Can you see him?"
Laeg, his chariot-driver, squinted into the light and finally nodded. "It's him," he said. "It's Ferdia."
"Ferdia." The young warrior shook his head and spoke in a low voice. "I swear by all the gods of Ulster, Laeg, I don't want this meeting."
The charioteer shrugged. "No help for it," he said. "Ferdia mac Damon fights for Medb and Ailill, and you fight for King Conchobar. And you knew when you trained together that someday it could be this way."
Cuchullain looked at the ground and sighed heavily, silent for a few heartbeats. "Well, friend Laeg," he finally said, "bring the horses, yoke the chariot." He looked up and tried to smile. "If Ferdia is waiting, he'll be wondering what keeps us."
"Cuchullain!" The figure standing ankle-deep in the river raised one hand in greeting, and Cuchullain clenched his jaw against a moan of recognition. It was Ferdia, foster-brother, companion in arms-training, dearest friend in the world, whom he had not seen for far too long.
And he was going to have to kill him.
"You are welcome here, Cuchullain," Ferdia called across the water.
"I could trust your welcome once, Ferdia," Cuchullain answered, deliberately harsh. "I can't trust it now. And it is not yours to bid welcome; this is my home, and you are the intruder."
A shadow passed over the other's face. "It's been a long time since we trained together, Cucuc." He said the nickname without bitterness, with genuine affection. "I have missed you, brother."
"You did not come here this day to call me brother, Ferdia; you came with your arms and your chariot, as I did." He steeled his heart against gentleness, against the hurt. "What sends you here to fight me?"
Ferdia smiled, a painful smile that nearly cracked through Cuchullain's defensive anger. "I am of Connacht, brother mine. It is Medb's wish that I meet you in battle. What else can I do?"
Cuchullain's heart cried out within him. "Is she still offering her daughter's hand in marriage to whoever kills me?"
"Oh aye, and pretty Finabair was terribly kind to me last night, such that I almost believed Medb's promise.... She's desperate, Cucuc. Some of her best warriors have already run off rather than fight you." Ferdia grinned, his old easy grin, as though he were discussing nothing more consequential than a game of finchnell. "She offered to marry me to her daughter and make me a wealthy man in the bargain, and whatever else I might ask for, if I would come fight at the ford today. All that when she could have just given an order."
Cuchullain lowered his head and closed his eyes against the sight of his friend, his comrade, his brother, with the early sunlight flashing on his wheat-colored hair and his laughing eyes, the water glittering like gemstones around his feet. "You should have run, Ferdia," he said, low.
Ferdia sobered again. "I know you don't want to fight me, Cucuc."
"You know I will, though."
"As will I."
"That's all that need be said, then," Cuchullain said gruffly. "To it."
* * * * *
"Three days we fought." Rory's fingers twisted the edge of his blanket. "Three days before I used the gae bolga." His mouth twisted up as though he would cry or laugh. "Do you know what he said? Before he died? He -- he caught hold of the spear where it came out of him, and he, he laughed -- this little choking laugh, like a cough -- and he said, he said 'That's enough now. I'll die of that.'"
The spear made a feeling of remembered sorrow.
"And ... and he did. He died." He was shivering again, his arms wrapped around him. "I...fell down. I don't remember a lot after that. Laeg pulled me away from the fighting...." He looked at Luin. "The stories say that Lugh came to Cuchullain then, and healed him. But I can't remember it."
Luin glowed faintly. (Truth.)
"You remember him, don't you? What...what was he like?"
The spear's response was even less verbal than usual -- an almost palpable image of a blaze of light and warmth, a blazing fierce and gentle at the same time. It paused, then made words again, deliberately sharp and clear: (Loved you.)
* * * * *
Mavis came out of the restroom, a swirl of hot steam following her steps. The bath had washed away her anger, replaced it with rationality. She would deal with Cuchullain. Her plan was almost complete in her mind, lacking only ...
A thin teenage girl with a wild mane of black hair was sitting cross-legged on the desk, cleaning black-lacquered fingernails with a pocketknife. She wore a dark purple t-shirt, torn black jeans, heavy black boots, and a battered and scuffed black leather jacket a couple sizes too big for her. Her eyes were heavily shadowed in purple, and a silver earring the shape of a dagger glinted in her right ear. As Mavis entered, she looked up from her fingernails, put down the knife, and faced her unsmiling. "H'lo, Mavi."
"Hello, Corbie," Mavis said quietly.
"Come back here for a spell, is it?"
"Gonner tell da where I am, then?"
"That I will not," Mavis said rather sharply. "How could I tell anyone, and me not knowin' where you're to from one day to the next?"
Corbie unfolded her legs and swung them over the edge of the desk. "Gonner tell him who I am?"
"I don't speak to your da, Corbie, you know that." Mavis picked up a hairbrush that stood on the dressing table and began to brush her wet black hair with swift strokes, looking into the mirror rather than at the black-haired girl.
"A know what y'r doin' here, cousin," Corbie said.
The movement of her hairbrush paused for a beat, then continued. "Do you now."
"Aye." She sat there calmly, swinging her legs and bumping her booted heels against the desk. "Time's comin', innit."
"Is it ready you'll be, then?"
"A will that," the girl said, a roguish smile lighting her face. "An' splendid it'll be, won' it? Storm-night comin' up again, an' me waitin' all this time, an' you ask after me bein' ready?"
"And is it help or hinder ye've come to do now, cousin?" The woman turned to her. "For it's alone I'd planned to do this, but I'd not say no to any help of yours."
Corbie shrugged. "It's little I've t' do till th' time comes, now. Th' lads up in Northern Ireland c'n just go on fightin' without me."
Mavis made a quarter-smile. "I'll tell you what it is you can be doing for me, then...."
* * * * *
The next morning....
The water prickled Rory's skin. The lather of his shampoo tingled under his fingers. There was a smell to it that he hadn't noticed before: sharp, almost medicinal. His body was alive with new sensations: the soft brush of the terrycloth towel, the cool burn of his razor blade and the bite of his musky aftershave, the scratchy stiffness of his one good dress shirt, the smooth cotton of his tie traveling over and through his hands. His vision of the night before had faded to the lesser intensity of a disturbing dream, the face of Ferdia mac Damon overshadowed in his mind by thoughts of resumes and references.
He inspected himself in the mirror, ran his fingers through short damp hair. "Passable," he said to his reflection. "If I was an employer, I'd hire you on the spot."
As he passed through his room, he felt curiosity radiating from the spear. "I'm goin' to find a job," he told it.
"I'll be back tonight," he said reassuringly.
"There'll be none of that. I can't very well take you with me into an interview."
(With!) He was put uncomfortably in mind of the dog he'd had as a small boy.
"All right," he surrendered, taking Luin in hand, "but you'd best stay out of sight."
"Some people have dogs. Me, I have a spear that likes to go bye-byes." His da was still asleep; Rory debated with himself for a few moments, then decided not to wake him. He grabbed a soda from the icebox and a stack of papers from the endtable, then headed out the door.
The morning air was fresh and invigorating as he walked through the trees. His appointment was in an hour; just enough time to reach the office building listed in the advert and gather his wits. He knew he would be against a good hundred other applicants, most of whom had to be more qualified than he. The job at the airport had looked much more promising: see the world, meet interesting people, get paid to travel. The pay wasn't much, but it was a fair sight better than the nothing he was currently earning, and it meant leaving ....
(Leaving?) He stood there for a moment atop the hill at the edge of the road, blinking. Images flashed through his mind of misty fields, the faces of friends. The meaning was clear enough: he was willing to leave all this?
The truth was, he did not see much of future for himself here. His roots were in this land, but he yearned for fresh soil, if only to prove that he could go. There was money to be made elsewhere, and a livelihood for a young man.
A young man who also happened to be the reincarnated spirit of a centuries-dead hero. He knew in his heart of hearts that he would return to Ireland, that his soul was a part of the mountains, of the very land. He needed to stay, he wanted to go, and with every "Don't call us, we'll call you" he heard, both paths became more and more impossible.
So caught up was he in these thoughts that he nearly didn't notice the red sportscar until it was practically on top of him.
(Move!!) He flew to the side of the road, cutting the palms of his hands on sharp stones. The car squealed its wheels and was gone. Rory got to his feet and shouted several oaths at the driver denouncing his (her?) parentage, fertility and chances of proving the latter.
His clothes were a little dusty, but fortunately otherwise undamaged. Luin was also dusty but fine. The resumes lay scattered; he gathered the less filthy ones and sadly declared the others a loss. He wiped his hands together to dislodge the last of the pebbles. Paying more attention this time, he continued on his way.
* * * * *
Rory stepped out into the too-bright sunlight. As he'd expected, there had been standing room only in the office. The bland-faced woman who'd interviewed him had offered the blank stare of someone who did not expect to see him again. He had to agree with that assessment.
At least no one had asked about the spear.
The day was still young. He had written down the short list of prospects he'd scoured from the paper, and had every intention of hitting them all today. He checked the list. His next stop was a bank two blocks away.
As he walked, he took in the scenery as never before, noticing the varied textures of the stone and brick walls, the sounds of cars and people. Walking by a church, he was almost overcome with the scent of incense. "Are you doing this?" he asked of the spear.
The air whistled. "Look out!" came a shout from above. Rory's feet moved him before his head caught onto what was happening, although this time he did not drop either Luin or his resumes.
CRASH! Shards of stone bounced from the pavement, and by merest coincidence did not blind him.
"Are ye okay?" From a ledge, two burly men looked down on him in concern.
His pulse raced and he was covered in clammy sweat. "I'm all right," he squeaked. He saw the remnants on the pavement: a face, shattered wings.
"I tol' you she wasn't secured yet!" one of the men berated the other.
"She was too secured! I checked 'er twice."
Rory bent down to the broken form. Her face lay at his feet, a beautiful study in white marble.
"Sure the Bishop'll have our heads for this. Worse luck, he'll be takin' it out of our paychecks."
"Not mine he won't, and you bein' the one who dropped the bloody angel!"
"She wouldn't 'a fallen if ye'd secured her proper!..."
Luin made a feeling of shame in his mind. (Too fast,) it said. (No warning.)
"It's all right," he said, too loudly. By now, a crowd had gathered to stare at the wreckage. Several heads turned towards him inquisitively, and seeing that he was apparently consoling the fallen angel, sidled a bit further away.
Flushed with embarrassment, Rory turned and headed quickly in the direction of the bank. He had a lot of ground to cover today. No use wasting any more time.
* * * * *
"Fried chicken-n-chips, 'ere you are, love." The girl at the register smiled at Rory as he counted out change. He gave her a halfhearted smile back, picked up the spear Luin from where he'd leaned it against the wall, and carried it and his lunch outside.
"So how're you doing this?" he asked it quietly, sitting down on a park bench and watching the pigeons scatter. "I've been carryin' you around all day, and nobody's so much as given us a second look."
Luin hummed faintly under his touch, but said nothing.
"If y'r lookin' like a stick again, that's fine," Rory told it, opening the plastic boxes of chicken and french fries. "But ye might tell me these things." Not really expecting an answer, he took a bite out of the drumstick. The flavor exploded on his tongue in waves of spice and rich chicken fat. "That's another thing," he said suddenly, his mouth full. "You don't feel as heavy as you used to. Is that because y'r makin' y'rself lighter, or is it me gettin' stronger?"
The spear made the shrug-feeling again.
Rory sighed and idly tossed a couple of metallic-smelling french fries to the pigeons, watched them cluster around to peck at the greasy offering. The sun glinted in rainbow hues off their feathers. Their coos echoed softly as they crowded. Just outside the knot, he saw a crow looking curiously at the hubbub, its plumage black as a darkened star. He tossed it a chip. "And here's me sittin' an' talkin' to a stick," he muttered. "It's a right idiot I must look."
An indignant feeling came from the spear. Who would dare think of the Hero of Ulster as a fool?
He couldn't help smiling. "No one, surely," he told it, reaching for another handful of french fries. "No one."
The spear's hum abruptly scaled up into a shrill warning buzz, so loud that Rory started and glanced around, sure that someone else must have heard it. "What? What is it?"
It shivered palpably against his hand, radiating inanimate fury. (Danger, treachery, danger -- )
"What are you on about? What danger...?" He trailed off, looking down.
A small cluster of pigeons lay at his feet, around the pecked remains of the morsel he'd thrown to them. Dead pigeons. The circle of flapping wings had widened around them, avoiding the remaining french fries.
Rory looked at the french fries in his hand, then down at the pigeons, then dropped the fries back into the plastic box with a shudder and scrubbed his greasy fingers against the painted wood of the park bench. The sound of flapping wings filled his ears, and sunlight glinted off the feathers of a nearby crow like a darkened star.
"I think you're right," he muttered through a dry throat, picking himself up off the bench and grasping the spear. "Let's get out of here."
* * * * *
Arthur shook his head in disbelief during the intermission of the conference. "I can hardly believe some of the things that I have just heard," he said to himself.
He must have spoken louder than he had thought, for the young red-haired woman sitting next to him nodded in response. "Isn't it something?" she said in a cheerful American accent. "Me, I'm not sure I buy Professor Bittrich's theory about Arthur really being a first-century Celtic chieftain named Arviragus, but you've got to admire the man's daring to say so."
"I had hardly expected expected that they could have gotten so many things wrong," said Arthur. "Particularly m - King Arthur's name. Why do they believe that he was named after a bear, anyway? His symbol was a dragon, not a bear! What could possibly have given them that impression?"
She laughed. "And those are the mild ones. Ever hear the one about Arthur and Gawain being ancient Sumerian gods who somehow got transplanted to the British Isles? I ran across it while researching my thesis. And don't get me started on the psychoanalysts. Merlin as superego and Lancelot as id, Morgana la Fay as Oedipal mother-figure...." She shuddered delicately. "You don't want to know."
"I'm afraid to ask," Arthur replied, barely suppressing a shudder of his own. He shook his head. "This conference is disappointing me," he continued. "I had hoped to be able to learn something useful. But all that I have heard is nothing more than conflicting theories."
"Oh, but that's what it's about!" the young woman said cheerfully. "I mean, we barely know anything about the origins of the Arthurian legend. A few sentences from Nennius and the Annales Cambriae, a couple centuries after the fact. Gildas's Excidio Brittaniae is the only source we've got for post-Roman Britain, and he never mentions Arthur once."
"A petty man," Arthur muttered under his breath. "He never did forgive me for what befell his brother - or other things."
"But I'm in it for the literary aspects; the historical's never been my strong point, and -- I'm sorry, were you saying something?"
"It's nothing," said Arthur hurriedly. "Truth to tell, my lady, it's Merlin that I'm more interested in. And I've found precious little to help me with him, either. Most of what I've heard so far struck me as being nothing short of improbable."
"Well, if the history is what you're after, then you probably won't find much help here," she said. "There's even less proof for Merlin having been a historical figure than King Arthur. Dr. Prescott -- my thesis advisor, Dr. Lillian Prescott, she's speaking after the intermission - says that Merlin was based on Lailoken, the mad prophet of the Caledonian Forest, who went mad after the Battle of Arderydd in 573. But that's about half a century after Arthur fell at the Battle of Camlann. If they ever met, Arthur must have been an old man and Lailoken a child, rather than the other way around."
"If they ever met," Arthur repeated.
"I'm more interested in how Merlin the wizard is used in the stories, not in who he really was. If he ever really was. Anyway, there's a tradition linking Merlin to the Welsh bard-wizard Taliesin, and one that says that 'merlin' was a title given to the current high-ranking druid.... You'd be surprised at some of the bizarre theories writers are digging up these days." She chuckled. "Wish my brother were here. He loves bizarre theories."
"What of the Scrolls of Merlin?" Arthur asked her. "They were discovered in Wales two years ago; surely that would have provided proof for Merlin's existence."
"Biggest can of worms in the field since Schliemann discovered Troy." The red-haired woman grinned in genuine delight. "Marvelous, isn't it? Everyone's got his own axe to grind, too; they're forgeries, or they're the genuine article, or they do date back to the right century but they're fictional. And they'll probably be arguing about the translations forever. There's supposed to be an open-forum panel on that tomorrow morning --" she peered at the clipboard she was carrying " -- at ten, in the Schiff room. And you can bet I'll be here for it."
"I suppose I will be as well," Arthur said with a small sigh. "I wish I could summon the same enthusiasm you seem to feel, my lady."
"Oh --" She shifted her grip on the clipboard and offered him her right hand. "My name's Janey."
He reached to shake her hand -- a strange custom, but he was getting used to it -- paused for a moment, and said "Arthur. Arthur Pennington."
She raised her eyebrows, and her mouth quirked into an odd smile. "Brave of you to come here with a name like that," she told him.
At that moment, the speakers returned to their tables. "Next panel up is Religion In Arthurian Legend," Janey whispered to the former High King of Britain. "Probably start with the Holy Grail."
"Give me strength," groaned Arthur, shuddering involuntarily.
* * * * *
"When can you start?"
"Excuse me?" Rory stared blankly at the short, balding man across from him.
"Your resume is in order. I'm sure your references will check out. When can you start work?"
"Monday," his mouth said. Moments later, his brain registered that he'd just found a job.
"Monday it is. You'll be working second shift. It's not the most glamorous of jobs, but I'd like to think there's room for growth, especially for a motivated young man like yourself." There was no mockery in the fellow's eyes.
"You're serious?" He could not believe his good fortune, and then he could. Did you have something to do with this? he asked, casting an accusatory glance towards the spear. Luin radiated innocence.
"I'm serious." The man, whose name Rory had utterly forgotten, laughed. He reached over and shook Rory's hand. "Welcome to the team."
"Thank you! Thank you very much!"
He walked out of the office in a daze. The interview had gone over; it was well after five already, and starting to get dark. He could tell his da over supper. No, he was gonna take his da out to supper. He had a job!
He had a job. He would be loading boxes in a warehouse for eight hours a day, getting paid just enough to survive, and despite what the interviewer had claimed, he probably would not advance much further. He would stay in his Ireland, and that would be that. He headed towards home.
The streets and sidewalks were crowded with those who had jobs, rushing to return home. Angry clouds in various shades of grey threatened above, making the early evening a bit darker than it should have been. Still, he'd found employment. Life was finally looking, if not up, at least ahead.
Rory made a wrong turn, and did not notice for a few blocks.
The streets became unfamiliar. He paused at the corner of one, trying to get his bearings. The bustle of humanity grew sparser, as people found their homes or some shelter from the imminent spring storm. He wished he'd brought his jacket.
A familiar street name greeted him on a signpost. If he followed it, he would eventually run into territory he knew. He set off along the street, listening to the initial patter of the rain as it kissed the blacktop and the rooftops. Luin began to hum in his mind with worry, but to him it sounded like a rain-song. Rory hummed with it, and kept a lookout for anything that might indicate he was headed in the right direction.
The night grew darker.
The street narrowed and ducked between two tall but shabby buildings. He could not see the other end for the rain in his eyes, but he was almost certain these were the backsides of two buildings he'd passed before in his wanderings with Molly.
A shiver passed through him that had nothing to do with the rain and the cold. He saw her before him, her pretty face in a rogue's grin. She was his best friend, his dearest companion, and, though he'd never put it into proper words, the woman with whom he wouldn't half mind spending the rest of his life. She was also a she-demon, bent on keeping him from his true destiny, who would destroy him given half a chance, her soulless eyes flashing from her sickly sea-green face. The girl he'd known, the woman he'd loved, his Molly had been no more than a mask worn by a vengeful spirit. And he'd killed her.
A jolt ran along his arm from the spear. (Ware!)
"'Lo, mate," said a voice from the darkness. A figure hulked from the shadows. Behind him, he heard deliberate footsteps. Without turning, he knew he was trapped.
"Excuse me," Rory said, praying his voice would not tremble. He attempted to walk past the man in front of him. A beefy arm stopped him in his tracks.
"Spare a few bills for a chum?" asked the man, smirking.
"Sorry, I don't have a job." That was no longer technically true, but he certainly hadn't been paid yet.
"That's too bad," said a voice behind him. His stomach curled inwards.
"A real shame," said another voice.
"We don't have jobs, either," said yet another, and one of his fellows said, "Shaddap!"
"Really," he said, trying to discern a way out, any way out. He saw every nook and shadow of the alleyway, but all his avenues of escape were blocked. "I don't have a dime on me." Another man appeared from the darkness before him. That made five.
The first man said, "Then we'll just haveta take it outta yer hide." A short blade flashed to life in his hand. Rory brought Luin up at the same time and just barely blocked the blow, the knife glancing off the hardened wood without leaving a nick. He felt a savage battle-joy from the spear as he spun, taking in all his attackers with a single dizzying glance. There were six; one of those behind him had remained silent. This was not good.
Four more blades joined the first; he saw their individual gleams in the odd half-light coming in from the street. He brought Luin across in a solid blow to the knees of the man closest to him, who fell with a satisfying cry, then pulled away from another knife attack. He felt a cool sting on his arm, had no time to assess the damage.
He had to get away now. There was no way to freedom. All right, he had to keep them moving. Rory had grown up on these streets, had been in a knife duel once before. On that occasion, though, he'd had a knife on him. This time he had Luin.
(Duck!) Rory ducked. The swing missed, but only just.
The most important thing to keep in mind during a brawl was the ratio of Them to Us. One of his assailants was down, holding his knees. That left five to one. There was still an eighty percent chance that, if he kept them moving, his assailants would stab one of their own rather than him.
With a war-cry, Rory attacked the one who stood silent, the one who had not drawn a switchblade. For a moment, the face was outlined in the muted streetlight.
"Molly ... "
The face shifted, and he saw Ferdia. He did not even see the fist that connected with his gut. Luin fell from suddenly nerveless fingers as Rory hit the pavement, clutching his stomach. The attackers gathered round him, all their forms writhing and serpentine, their faces melting into nightmareish masks.
With a desperate reach, he grabbed his spear and stabbed at the one who'd hit him. The man or woman or beast hissed at him, its tongue flicking out in a long, quivering fork. He smelled the flat, dead scent of dry rot, sensed each individual nerve's private agony as a heavy boot connected with his ribs. Rory cried for air.
No, he thought.
"No!" he screamed, pulling strength from some inner reserve. The spear practically flew into his hands. Strategies filled his mind as the faces danced before his eyes. He shut them tight. With the shifting, slithering forms no longer making him queasy, he could think clearly.
He thrust Luin between the legs of one man and twisted hard, using the leverage to get to his feet. Instinct guided him now. He spun and swung his fist into a face, ignored the unusual feel of the flesh beneath his knuckles. He snapped his fist back and struck with a solid kick to the midsection of an assailant.
He risked opening his eyes. Two of his attackers were on the ground, and two more had become more concerned with their own pains than with him. A fifth still lurked just beyond his reach, and ducked Luin easily, then slipped in under his defense. The knife burned down his side. The last stood aside, watching them.
* * * * *
Arthur had left the conference hall in a foul mood. Perhaps sensing this, Griff was uncharacteristically quiet as the two walked back toward their hotel.
"We've made a wrong turn," Arthur said abruptly. Cavall whined in agreement.
"Are you sure?" Griff looked around them. "I could take a look from the rooftop, if you'd like --"
"Please." Arthur gave a sigh of exasperation. "We've wasted enough time in this country already."
Griff looked at him quickly, then turned to climb the nearest handy wall.
"No!" The cry cut through the still night air. Griff spun around, eyes blazing.
"It came from that way," Arthur pointed. The unmistakeable sounds of a struggle came from an alley just ahead. Cavall scampered ahead with Arthur on his heels. Griff had no choice but to follow.
The sight that greeted them was grim, and all-too-common: six thugs surrounded one young man with a staff. He looked like he'd taken a good pounding, but amazingly enough, his attackers appeared to have seen even worse times.
Cavall growled, catching the attention of the nearest man, who took a step back, then broke into a run down the alley. Cavall ignored him and pounced on the nearest thug. Arthur smiled at another and drew his sword. The youth took advantage of the new distraction and flattened his closest opponent. From there, it was hardly a fight at all.
Of the six men, one took no part in the fighting; he watched until it became apparent who the victor would be, then slipped around a corner of the alley. Without a word, with barely a glance exchanged, Arthur and the young man rounded the corner in pursuit -- and found the alleyway empty.
* * * * *
Rory felt the fight go out of him like a deflating balloon as they went back around the corner. The remaining five men who had attacked him were sprawled unconscious on the cobblestones, their bodies littering the alley.
Rory's vision went hazy, and he swayed on his feet.
Their bodies covered the field. The bards sang afterward that the plain was red after I rode over it. "Through the hosting rides Cuchullain, / Scatters bones like winter snowflakes, / Red the plain when he rides over it / From the sea of blood his sword takes...." It was all play, all sport. Until Ferdia came to the ford.
Ferdia. Oh, Ferdia, swordbrother. Rory put out an arm to steady himself, leaned heavily against the alley wall. The worst wounds I took in that defense, and none of them as great as the wound in my heart when you died. At my hand.
And I lay hurt. And he came. Lugh.
The image Luin had given him, the fierce and gentle blaze -- it was the essence of the soul behind the face now clear in his memory. Red-blond hair in close-cropped tight curls, eyes the color of new leaves, ears that came to a firm yet delicate point. A green cloak held with a bright silver brooch. A strong face, now creased with worry. "This is a manly stand, Cuchullain."
He had managed to speak around the gut-tearing pain; he would have answered this voice if it had killed him. "It isn't very much."
"Will you let me help you?"
"Who are you?"
"I am Lugh, your father from the sidhe." His sight was fading rapidly, and he felt a hand brush his eyelids. "Sleep now, Cuchullain," the voice said gently, "sleep until your wounds are healed."
He struggled to stay alert. "The raid," he muttered. "Medb's army...."
"I will stand against them while you heal." A note of gentle self-mockery came into the voice. "Against the rules it is, but why start minding the rules now? Rest, son of mine. Rest."
"Here, lad -- are you all right?"
Rory blinked, and for a moment was startled to find himself in an alleyway instead of lying on the stones by a riverbank. "I'm fine," he said at last, looking at his rescuers.
The bearded man glanced from him to the winged creature, and said hastily, "Don't be afraid --"
"I'm not," Rory said, realizing why in the moment he said it. "He's a gargoyle, isn't he? I knew a gargoyle once." He addressed the beaked gargoyle directly. "Thank you."
"He's Griff," said the man, "and I'm called Arthur. Arthur Pennington."
"Rory," he said, switching Luin to his left hand and offering his right. "Rory Dugan."
"You fought well, Rory. If there'd been fewer of them, I doubt you'd have even needed our help."
"But you did help me, and I did need it," Rory said. "Thank you both."
"Well, this is all exceedingly pleasant," said Griff lightly. "Shall we spend the rest of the evening telling each other what splendid chaps we think we are?"
"So what was happening here?" Arthur asked, indicating the unconscious men.
"Someone's tryinna kill me," Rory said with forced casualness.
Griff prodded one of the attackers with the tip of his lion-tufted tail. "Well, I didn't think these chaps were asking you to dance...."
The fellow stirred and moaned. Rory gripped Luin and bent over the man as he began to wake up. "Uhhhnnnn... Musta hit me head," he muttered blearily, in a vaguely familiar voice. Looking up at Rory, he gave a pained smile and raised a hand as if to be helped to his feet. "Thanks, mate. Here, don't I know ye?"
"I'm the guy you just tried to kill," Rory shot at him.
The fellow's eyes widened, and Rory abruptly recognized one of the construction workmen from the cathedral he'd passed that afternoon. "Oh yeah, you're the kid almost got hit with the angel! You okay?"
Griff reached down and grasped the man's shirtfront, hauling him effortlessly into the air. "Let me refresh your memory, chum," he said with icy cheerfulness. "This is the young fellow who was just attacked by you and these other chappies. Ring any bells? Hmmm?"
The fellow's eyes went round with terror, and he gabbled out an incoherent denial. The other men were beginning to wake up now, and mutters of pain and confusion rose about them; one of them saw Griff, pointed and yelled.
Griff looked at Arthur as the erstwhile attackers began scrambling out of the alley in panic. "Should we stop 'em?"
"No, let them go," Arthur said quietly. "You, sirrah," he addressed the one Griff was still holding. "I charge you, tell us on whose orders you attacked this boy."
"I dunno what yer talkin' about, English," the man insisted. "It's an accident that statue was, an' never saw 'him before nor since."
"Do you know, I think he really doesn't remember," Griff said in wonderment.
"Remember what?" the man almost wailed.
Rory was shaking his head. "Sorcery, an' worse than I thought. It wasn't his fault."
"Er..." the man said hesitantly. "D'you think you could be lettin' me down now?"
Griff looked down at him. "Oh! Righto. Sorry about that, old chap." He lowered the man to his feet and released his shirtfront.
"Ah...thank you." He backed away a bit, then turned and ran for the end of the alley.
The spear Luin hummed in Rory's hand. He glanced down at it. "What?"
Arthur and Griff exchanged glances. "It's a very well-made spear," Arthur volunteered.
"Spear?" Rory looked at him. "You mean you can see it?"
"Er...yes," said Griff, "that's a spear, right enough."
Rory looked back at the spear, turning it in his hand. "It's supposed to be makin' itself look like a stick. And it's after tellin' me I should trust you, and," he added a bit baldly, "I'm not sure why." He looked from Arthur to Griff and back again. "Maybe you have some idea."
"Maybe because one of us doesn't quite look like what he truly is either," Griff said softly.
Arthur looked at him.
"Well, if this spear thinks we ought to be trusted...." Griff said defensively.
Arthur paused, then nodded. "You're right, of course." He turned to Rory. "If you are to trust us, then you should know our true names. I am Arthur Pendragon, king of the Britons. And Sir Griff is one of my knights, sworn to me." Cavall looked up and whined, and Arthur smiled down at him. "And Cavall, here, wants you to know his name as well."
Rory looked at them both, then simply nodded. "As long as we're laying names on the table.... I am Cuchullain, Hero of Ulster."
Arthur's brow furrowed for a moment, but Griff let out a beam of genuine delight. "Good heavens, there's ancient heroes just poppin' out all over the place, isn't it!"
"Then you aren't...er, ancient?" Rory asked, bending to scratch an ecstatic Cavall behind the ears.
Griff laughed. "Not a bit of it. Lived me whole life in the twentieth century, though I seem to have somehow lost a fifty-year chunk out of the middle of it."
"But --" Rory started, then broke off, raising a hand, listening. Police sirens, coming closer.
"I'd better go," he said quickly. "I...."
"How can we find you again?" Griff asked.
"Uh...." Rory grabbed at his pockets, pulled out a battered copy of his resume. "My address is on it, there at the top -- you can come by later tonight, just give me some time to --" He paused and groaned. "I don't know how I'm gonna explain this to my da."
Griff took the resume, and the group scattered, leaving the alleyway deserted.
* * * * *
"...All I will say is that I cannot help but wonder whether it is wise to trust this Rory Dugan."
"I don't understand, Arthur," said Griff. "Cavall seemed to trust the young man. And vice versa."
"I know," said Arthur. "But old habits die hard. And he is of the Irish."
"And what's that got to do with anything?" Griff asked puzzledly.
"Much," the Once and Future King replied. "Of course, you would not understand, my friend. It was before your time. But when I was High King of Britain, the Irish were among my enemies, and those of my kingdom. Many was the time that they would raid the western coasts in their little hide-bound boats, burning and pillaging. They would carry off sheep and cattle, gold and silver, and even my own people to be slaves.
"And I lost good men fighting against them, when I took up the sword against them. Trusted knights of my court fell in battle, slain by those pirates. If you only knew the slaughter that they carried out at Camlann, when they fought under Mordred's banner...." His voice trailed off, as he stared bleakly into the distance, his eyes clearly troubled by old memories.
"Well, yes, but that was fifteen centuries ago," said Griff. "The Irish here today aren't the same as the Irish that lived back then."
"I know," said Arthur. "But they still bear the same name."
"And a lot of the humans who live in Britain today are descended from the Saxons," Griff continued. "You told me how much trouble you had with them back in your reign too, Arthur. The fighting at Mount Badon, the way that they also helped Mordred at Camlann. And yet you don't hold it against somebody like Captain Marter that he's got Saxon blood in his veins."
"That's not quite the same," said Arthur.
"To me it is," said Griff. "And besides, think of your sister Morgana. She still hates you after fifteen centuries, and look at all the trouble that came from that. If you can't put the past behind you, how can you expect her to do the same with you?"
Arthur was silent for a moment, looking at his knight with an expressionless face. Then he finally sighed.
"Perhaps you are right," he said. "I'm in peril of doing the same thing that I condemned my sister for doing. It is not easy letting go of old dislikes, Griff. Even after a sleep of fifteen centuries, they have a way of clinging to you. But let them go I should."
"So how did the conference go?" the gargoyle knight asked, changing the subject. "Did you find out anything useful about Merlin?"
Arthur shook his head. "Nothing," he said ruefully, though with an almost amused look in his eyes. "A multitude of things, but none of them helpful to us. The gathering was a compendium of the beliefs that have sprung up over the years about my old tutor and myself, nearly all of them absurd. If you could only have heard the things that they were saying about us, my friend...." He now chuckled, his good humor restored. "Some say that Merlin and I were myths, old Celtic gods whittled down to humans. Or that we were inventions of the bards and storytellers. And even when they believed us to be flesh and blood, the disagreements over what we were was past belief. They can't even decide what century I lived in, what my name means, where I lived, how I lived, or anything.
"And it was the same for Merlin, for Guinevere, and for most of my knights. Not to mention Morgana. I can't help wondering what she must say when she reads or listens to half the things that have been said about her. It was all that I could do to keep from laughing during the conference."
"But no leads, right?" asked Griff.
Arthur shook his head. "No leads," he said. "We seem to have reached a dead end in our search for Merlin in Ireland. Again."
* * * * *
The night was chilly. The rain had stopped, but Rory's good white shirt clung against his clammy chest. He could see the lights of a few cars along the main road. Cross that, cross the field beyond, and he could get into some warm clothes and get a hot cuppa into himself. From the spear, he felt longing for a warm corner in the living room.
"Soon enough. We've certainly earned it after tonight."
King Arthur, alive and well? A gargoyle as his knight, and another beast besides? It was too much to digest, too much to comprehend. King Arthur was a legend. For that matter, so was Cuchullain, but the memories still lived in his brain. He could see Ferdia's face clear as day. Another living legend had walked the earth, had come into his life when he'd needed him, just as Bronx and the others had done. There were too many coincidences for Rory's liking.
(no such thing)
He hurried his pace, trying not to think about what Luin implied. He trusted its intuition, and certainly its presence had become a comfort these past months. In many ways, it was currently his closest, if not only, friend. Meeting not just one but two similarly out of joint heroes had been amazing, in that they understood. Just in the few minutes of conversation, he'd felt a camaraderie he hadn't realized he'd been missing.
What would it be like, to travel the world on a real quest, and not be stuck here for the rest of his life? Adventure, excitement; Rory thirsted for them.
He snorted, and muttered aloud "That'd be a fine thing, me servin' an English king, wouldn't it?"
"Depends on th' king," came a voice from nowhere. He looked around, then upwards. Perched on top of the dividing wall between the main road and the field that led back to his house sat a girl. Her dark hair and clothing had made her another shadow in the night. If she hadn't spoken, he would have gone right past her without ever seeing her.
"You're new around here," he said conversationally. Underneath the outrageous makeup she wore, he determined that she looked to be rather attractive.
I like this kind of trouble, Rory thought at the spear. It said nothing, but grumbled in the back of his mind.
She laughed harshly. "Na. A been 'ere longer'n most."
"That makes two of us." He came closer to her. When she didn't look like she was going to run, he went to stand beside her. Definitely attractive under the makeup, he thought pleasantly, for her age. "And what d'you know about kings, then?"
She extended her hand and inspected her glittery black nails from a short distance. "Don't trust 'em. You remember Conchobar, aina?" She looked up to him with dark eyes that held nothing of innocence.
The spear made the warning-feeling again, very strongly.
Conchobar ... "Who are you?" Rory demanded. She shrugged. "N'old acquaintance." She batted her eyes, and her purple eyeshadow made twin black holes appear in her face as she did. "Y'might say I 'ad some dealin's with yer ma. Tha' reminds me. How's yer da doin' these days? In good health is he?"
The car, the fallen statue, the poison in his food ...
She laughed again, and jumped off the wall, heading towards town at a full, loping run. He turned to follow, make her tell him what she meant, but there was a more immediate threat.
"Da," he muttered, sick at heart, and ran towards home as fast as his legs would go.
* * * * *
"Da!" he shouted as he threw the door open. Please let him be okay.
The living room was empty. He checked his father's bedroom. The bed was unmade, but that wasn't unusual. "DA!"
There was a jangling noise, then a rush of water through the old pipes. A few moments later, his father emerged from the Gents' with his newspaper firmly in hand. "What?!"
"You're all right," he said, relieved.
"O'course I'm all right. You look like you've seen a ghost."
"I may have at that." He sat down on the couch, put down the spear, and rubbed his face with his hands. (Disturbed?) "Too right I'm disturbed," he said aloud.
His father looked at his askance. "Rory?"
"Sorry, Da. I wasn't talkin' to you." I was talkin' to my pet stick. And by the way, Da, I seem to be the reincarnation of Cuchullain. What's for dinner? He rubbed his face again.
His father sat beside him on the couch. "You mind tellin' me what's goin' on?"
"Nothing's goin' on."
"That didn't work when you were five, and it doesn't work now." Patrick gestured at him. "You didn't get that suit torn up at an interview. Are you in trouble with the law?"
"No, Da. I'm ... " The Hero of Ulster. "I'm okay."
His father crossed his arms.
It burst from him like a flood: the dreams, the Hound, Molly, and the more recent events, from the speeding car to the goth girl on the wall. He carefully kept references to King Arthur and gargoyles out of the story. That might be too much. His father listened with stoney patience, not interrupting him once.
When he reached the end, Rory took a long breath, and added, "I must sound like a loony, but it's true. Every word."
His father looked away, his eyes focusing on the far wall. Then he said simply, "I believe you."
His da nodded. "It explains ... a lot."
"The girl, I think she may be like me, the reincarnation of someone from my past. And she's carrying a grudge, enough to threaten to go after you. I need to call her out, talk to her, maybe even fight her." He sank back into the couch. "But I don't know how."
His father pulled at his beard, uncomfortable as always with such frankness about his emotions. "I've watched you give up on too many things, lad, and tried to stop you every time. But if it's me pushes you into this, it won't be worth a pile of rusty nails. I've always told you that it's the blood of heroes that runs in you. You're of an old family, Rory, and a proud one. That's what has to matter now."
Rory watched the floor. "Blood of heroes," he murmured. And then raised his head to look at his father, a small frown line appearing between his eyes. "Da, you've been telling me that for as long as I can remember. I come from a proud family, I've got hero's blood in me veins. How come...." His voice slowed, the question in his mind deepening even as he spoke it. "How come you've never once said we?"
Patrick just looked at him, a faint sadness in his eyes.
"Never said our family? Never our blood?" Rory stood, a sick feeling in his gut. "Da...." The word hurt his throat, stung his eyes. "Why?"
The older man gave a deep and profound sigh, and lowered his head. "It's a bit complicated, lad."
"The hell with that!" Rory snapped, abruptly furious. "Tell me the truth, da! Are you or aren't you my father?"
The question hung in the air between them. And the moment before the man he'd always called father opened his mouth, Rory knew.
"I am," he said, "and I'm not."
Rory swallowed hard, and made himself sit down. "Go on then," he said, forcing an even tone into his voice.
"I knew the day you were born," Pat Dugan continued. "Your mother was still in hospital, and they let me come in to see you. And there you were asleep in a bassinet, a little mite with all that red hair just like your mother's. And when I leaned over to look at you, you opened those big solemn eyes the colors of every hill in Ireland and just gazed up at me." He spread his hands, stared down at them. "And I knew that you weren't mine."
Rory drew in a swift sudden breath.
His father -- was it his father? -- looked up sharply. "Oh no, nothing like what you're thinking. Your mother was as fine a woman as ever lived, and she'd never have.... I'm the father of the flesh of you, the skin and bones of you, surely. I knew that then." He glanced away, and his voice was very quiet. "But even as a babe, there was a spirit in you that's of nobler stuff than mine. There's something in you that's different from me, and from your mother -- different in a way I'd never seen before. Better. Stronger."
Patrick's hands closed into fists of impotent anger. "And that's why it's been killing me to watch this world drag you down like the rest of us. D'you think I want to see you wind up like me? Living on the dole, with nothing in your life but the newspapers and the telly and the drink? Be bad enough to see any son of mine in that way, but you--!" His voice shook, and was hoarse when he steadied it. "You could be so much more. So much more than I am. If you'd just let yourself be."
"There used to be two different words for it," Rory heard himself say.
His father looked at him, and the spear Luin hummed encouragement in his ears. How many men had he called father over the two lives he could remember? Sualdam, his first father; Conchobar the king, his foster-father; Lugh, his sidhe-father, who had healed him and saved his life; Patrick Dugan, who had kept up a stubborn belief in heroes through an age that no longer had a place for a hero to be. And had not each of them truly been his father, each in his own way, at the time he'd needed that father most?
"There were two words, when I was Cuchullain. There was one word for the father who sired you, and another word for the father who raised you." His throat tried to close, but he forced the words through. "I don't care if you're a hero or what, da. You're my father. And -- and whoever I am, this time -- whatever I am -- if I can be a hero, it's because of you."
Patrick drew in a gulping breath and tried to speak. "Rory.... Son, I--"
The knot forming in Rory's chest broke apart and dissolved in a sob, and he reached out blindly, and then his father's arms were around him in a rough embrace. For some time they held each other, unwilling to move, unable to speak.
* * * * *
They had ordered food delivered. Arthur had foregone the chopsticks for a plastic fork. He would not admit to being annoyed that Griff had mastered their use easily. Griff knew it, and quietly delighted in his lo mein the more for it.
"He'd make a good knight," he said around a mouthful of noodles.
"The deliveryman?" A bit of rice stuck in Arthur's beard. Griff indicated it and waited until his friend had wiped it away.
"Rory. Cuchullain. Whoever he is."
Cavall raised his head from the tray where they'd piled the ten orders of beef-with-broccoli. Griff patted him. "Cavall took to him. That's a good sign."
"Then we should also bring the butcher by the Mystic into our ranks as well. Cavall fawns upon him."
"Arthur, he's a fine warrior. You saw that. And if he is who he says he is, which I do believe, he's one of us already. It's destiny, as sure as it was that put you in my path when you found the Stone."
Arthur put his box down and sighed. "It is destiny, is it?"
"I'm certain of it."
"We'll talk to him."
"You won't regret this," said Griff.
"Just what we need in our group," Arthur replied, looking skeptically at the wrinkled resume. "Another hero from the past."
"He might not say yes." In his heart, however, Griff knew he would. Rory struck him as the kind of lad who would thrive given the right environment, but who would most certainly fade without it. "You know, if he does, our next stop should be New York. We need to convince Brooklyn to join us."
"Why on earth do you say that?"
"So we can form one of these rock-and-roll' bands the hatchlings are always going on about. We'll call ourselves the Time Bandits."
He ducked just before the pillow hit the wall with a soft whump.
* * * * *
His da was still standing in the middle of the room when Rory came out of his bedroom. His soiled interview clothes had been replaced by jeans and a sweater. He had memories of armor, but reality was denim.
"I think she'll come to me," he said. "I should be away from here." He thought for a moment. "Cairn Chullain. If she wants me dead, she can kill me there."
"God go wi' you. I can't. This is one of those things a hero must do alone." His father's eyes were misted. Rory nodded. He took Luin into his hand. The spear began to glow. Patrick fell back a step.
"Is that ... ?"
"The gae bolga, aye. And it's about bloody time it lets someone else see it." The spear sent a warm feeling up his arm. "We have to go."
"Go, then. Hurry back when you're done. And take your jacket; it's cold out tonight."
"Yes, Da," he said. He went outside. Patrick followed him, but only to the doorway. He would stay and protect their home. That was who he was, what he was born to do. Rory turned towards the woods, and the hill that lay beyond them. This was what he had been born to do.
* * * * *
Luin was light in his hands as Rory made his way through the tangled woods, stepping nimbly over creepers and brittle thatches of sticks. This battle should be on a field, but there was no way to arrange that without far too many questions being raised. The battle would be in the clear surrounding Cairn Chullain.
It was early Spring, and still surrounding him were the smells and faint bubbling sounds of organic decay, a counterpoint to his tread through the snapping twigs and last Autumn's leaves. He remembered a snatch of a song his mother had sung to him as a boy, to whistle when he was afraid. He tried, but his lips were too dry.
The forest broke before him, revealing Cairn Chullain. His breath caught, as it often did when he came here. The age of this place, and all it represented to him now, shook him.
Rory found a dry place by the entrance, where he could see all around him. (Wait)
"Yes, we'll wait here." He knelt, belatedly felt the dampness from the ground leaking through the denim at his knee. Obviously it hadn't been as dry as he'd thought. Luin snickered in his mind.
* * * * *
Paddy stared at his paper without reading it, as he often had on long nights like this. Usually, Rory was just out with his hooligan friends. Usually, he wasn't out fighting the reincarnations of legendary demons.
The clock over the mantle chimed merrily. It had once belonged to Meghan's grandmother. Meghan had called it a family heirloom. Paddy privately speculated the old woman had bought it at a rummage sale the week before she died. He stared at the clock's face, watched until the minute hand jerked from the twelve to one minute past.
How many minutes would Rory be gone this time? How long until he could sleep, only after hearing the click of his son's key in the lock?
*Knock. Knock. Knock.* The raps were solid and precise. Rory wouldn't knock. His enemy, looking for battle, might. Patrick stood.
He resisted the urge to put on the chain and look through the crack, instead opened the door wide. "Yes?" he demanded.
A man stood on the stoop, tall, with long dark hair turning grey. "Hello," he said. "I'm looking for Rory Dugan."
I'll just bet you are. In all the legends, tricksters could change their form and gender at will. This man could easily be another face for the girl Rory'd met earlier. Worse, the pu'ca's male form was English! "Haven't seen 'im." His arm stayed behind the door. His fingers scrabbled for anything he could use if this turned to blows.
The man frowned. He removed a battered sheet of paper from his pocket, and looked down at it. "I apologize. There must have been some mistake; I understood him to say that I should meet him here."
"What business would you have with 'im at this hour, anyway?"
The man put his paper away. "I'm afraid that is between me and Mr. Dugan. I'm sorry if I disturbed you." He turned to go.
"Your business," Patrick said, his hand closing on an umbrella, "would it have anything to do with," he took a breath, "Cuchullain?"
The man spun. "You do know him! Where is he?"
"Where you won't find 'im!" he snapped, and brandished his umbrella like a club. "Come on, then!"
The man stepped back, and for a second, Patrick thought he would flee. Then he drew, seemingly out of nowhere, a sword that glimmered in the porch light. "Hold, sirrah! What have you done to that boy?"
"He's safe, which is more than I can say for you!" His bravado quavered. In a contest of umbrella and sword, sword would most likely win. It was his son's life at stake. He made his decision, and rushed the stranger.
The man rolled as they fell to land on top, meanwhile knocking the umbrella from his grasp. His sword caught the light again, and Paddy gave him a vicious uppercut to the jaw. He heard a satifying click as the man's teeth slammed together. He brought his elbows in, found them blocked, and then bound, by the stranger's arms. Paddy struggled beneath him.
There was a movement from around the corner. He twisted his head to see the new threat, then wished he hadn't. More demons, he thought. Rory, I'm sorry.
The demon, a bird-like monstrosity, cleared its throat. The stranger looked up, maintaining his grip. Another demon, a red slobbering beast on all fours, followed the first. His heart sank.
"Sir," said the demon in a pleasant voice, "what's your name?"
"Patrick Grady Dugan!" he spat.
The demon looked at the stranger. "Bet you dinner he's the kid's father."
The man looked down at him. "Father?" He stood, then offered Paddy a hand. Patrick used it to pull him down again.
"You leave my son alone, you hear me?" The man sighed, then almost calmly threw him off. Paddy landed roughly.
"Sorry. He told you about us?"
"He told me enough. You and that girl, trying to kill him. You'll have to go through me, first!" He made another rush, found himself being held gingerly by the bird-demon.
"I believe you have us mistaken for someone else. We're here to help Rory."
"Sure you are."
The man muttered, then pulled another piece of paper from his pocket. A business card. Paddy read it.
"And this is supposed to impress me how?"
"Mr. Dugan," said the demon, "you must believe us. We mean your son no harm." He glanced at his companion. "You might even say we understand him better than most people possibly could."
"But here you come in the middle of the night attackin' me!"
"Actually," said the man, "you attacked me."
"Arthur," the bird-demon said diffidently, "that was an umbrella."
The man, Arthur, folded his arms. "An attack is an attack."
Patrick's skin suddenly felt alight, like during a thunderstorm. He turned towards the forest just in time to see an unholy bright flash from the general vicinity of Cairn Chullain. "Rory ... "
"He's there?" asked the man quickly. Patrick refused to answer. "Mr. Dugan, if you know where he is, you must tell us. He might need our help."
"He won't," Patrick replied. "He's Cuchullain, the greatest warrior who ever lived."
The man opened his mouth to say something. Before he could, the bird-demon said, "Not now." He turned back to Patrick. "Please, Mr. Dugan."
Paddy waited. From where he stood, he could see the clock. Six minutes had passed since he'd answered the door. If he told these strangers where his son was, Rory might come back in thirty or sixty minutes, or never. If he didn't tell them, the same could happen.
"Please," he said. "Bring him back to me. I can't lose him, not this way."
"We need to know where he is," said the man Arthur.
"Cairn Chullain. It's not far."
* * * * *
Rory sneaked a peek at his wristwatch. He'd gotten off his knee a while before, and had been leaning uncomfortably against the hill for -- he checked again -- forty minutes.
For some reason, he'd pictured in his mind something, well, more spectacular. He would come to this place, and the force who'd been trying to kill him (the goth chick?) would confront him at last. Waiting hadn't figured into his speculations. With the slowly passing minutes, his thoughts drifted back to the girl he had seen on his way home. She reminded him of Molly --- could she be like him, an old enemy reincarnated to do battle over and again through the ages?
Luin hummed a warning in his mind. Instantly, he became aware of his surroundings again. He heard footsteps in the forest, the sound of feet barely brushing the same undergrowth he'd made his own way through almost an hour ago. It was about bloody time.
The woman stepped into the clearing. Medb, he knew without bothering to ask how he knew. Queen Medb of Connacht, dressed in a leather tunic and a red-speckled mantle, carrying a narrow-bladed spear, a gold torque gleaming at her throat, her hair tossing wild about her shoulders in the wind. There was no trace of the girl now.
"You." Venom dripped from the word.
"Why have you been trying to kill me?"
"That should be obvious."
"It doesn't have to be this way. We have new lives now. Medb --"
His hand lifted, either by instinct or action by the gae bolga. The blast glanced off the staff and bounced harmlessly into the earth. She lowered her hand. Her eyes were pure death. There would be no discussion, no quarter, no mercy from this woman.
He anticipated her next attack, ducking as the energy surged across his back, warming it like hot breath -- and barely brought up Luin in time to knock aside the spear she'd hurled at him. He sensed the tingle in his extremities, almost the same as when his leg or arm fell asleep. He could easily change into his other form, attack Medb as Cuchullain, go into the warp-spasm, kill her. As he'd killed Molly.
No! He forced the transformation away, instead brought Luin to his chest. As he recalled, her fighting skills had been impressive, but no match for his own. If hers had declined as his had....
"You killed my sons," said Medb. From her belt, she drew a short bronze sword and advanced on him. "And you shamed me before my people."
"That was two thousand years ago! In a different lifetime!"
She threw back her hand and howled a war-cry that had not been heard in Ireland for almost two thousand years, and her blade whirred through the air at him. He parried with Luin, felt the spear scream in his mind as the blade bit deep into the wood. He pulled back, and she dealt him a blow on his forearm as she delivered a sharp kick to his knee.
As he fell, he scissored his legs out, catching her feet and bringing her down with him. The sword skittered from her fingers, landed several feet away. She snarled and made a grab for Luin's center. Rory held a hand to either side of the spear, felt it groan in his mind as it began to bend. Between the damage from the sword and the inhuman strength of the two struggling for its possession, Luin strained.
Rory slithered his leg up between himself and Medb and gave her a solid kick in the stomach. She let loose of Luin and clutched her midsection. He slid to his feet, instinct screaming to kill her now, before she could strike again.
He heard a sound behind him, had presence of mind enough to duck aside, as more energy sizzled past him.
"Ferdia," he breathed.
A sunken-eyed wraith, like the washed-out remnant of a dream, stood in the clearing, reaching towards him. Rory squirmed away, badly shaken. He was put unpleasantly in mind of a horror movie about flesh-eating zombies that he'd seen with Molly. Giant worms were one thing --- ghosts were quite another. Other spectres rose slowly from the young grass. He watched, too terrified to move, as they formed the faces of Fergus, Orlam, Cruaid, Luar, a dozen others.
Medb was no longer behind him. She moved to stand beside the mound, cold hatred in her eyes.
"Here, hero of Ulster! See the faces of those who are bound here, brought down by your blade!" Fergus swung an etherial fist, which struck with a solid impact into Rory's jaw. His head flew back, and above the ringing in his ears, he heard Medb's cruel laughter.
He swung out with his own fist, which passed through the misty form. Perfect.
Another ghost swung at him. Rory raised his arm, felt a creeping sensation where the spirit's hand hit. And stayed. Rory filed away this information.
"You killed me, Cucuc."
Rory shuddered. He knew Ferdia's voice, and this was it, but thicker somehow, like he spoke through cloth.
"You would have killed me instead if I hadn't." Solid when they impact, he thought. From the side, he caught movement, neatly blocked an attack by Luar's spirit.
Ferdia drew a ghostly sword from its equally ghostly scabbard. Orlam moved in again. Rory ducked the former and met the latter with Luin's point.
There was a flash, and Orlam vanished.
He felt pain from behind. Medb had launched another attack of her own. He spun, snarling. Ferdia's blade sliced down the same arm Medb had cut. His arm went numb.
Rory let out a curse. He had clear memories of fighting a thousand men at once, but that had been long ago. This outnumbering business was relly getting irritating. If he could just get Medb, the others would surely ...
He sensed another onslaught and back-kicked Fergus' shade, then tried not to hear the scream as Luin's tip found another home. He'd deal with Medb in a minute.
"You can't kill them all," she taunted. "Not again."
They had fought at the river, and they'd made the water red, and he'd killed his friend. She's right. I can't do this again.
"Defend yourself!" came the voice again. Ferdia's shade stood behind him, holding a spear and advancing on him.
Tears stung his eyes. "I can't," he said aloud, inaudibly. "Ferdia, I can't."
"Cucuc," Ferdia pleaded, "I'm already dead! Defend yourself!" Rory turned back to his former friend. The eyes were almost devoid of life. Almost. In the pupils, he saw a glimmer, reflecting better days, spent as comrades, when the Brown Bull was only another legend in their legendary times.
A noise came crashing through the woods. Oh no, he thought. More of them ...
King Arthur and Sir Griff entered the clearing. Medb's attention redirected towards the interlopers.
"Duck!" yelled Rory, as she shot a blast of raw magic in their direction. He spun and caught a former charioteer of his in the midsection. The shade vanished.
At the edge of the clearing, Rory saw more spirits rising from the earth, wearing more familiar faces. With a sick feeling, he knew Medb was right. Even with the other two warriors at his side, he could not hope to defeat everyone.
"Forgive me," he said to Ferdia.
"Long ago," replied the ghost, advancing on him. Luin was at his heart, and then he was gone.
The shades at the outermost edge of the circle began to swing ghostly swords at Arthur and Griff. Rory shouted to them "Hit them when they attack. They're vulnerable then." He demonstrated.
Medb shrieked as another spirit disappeared. More and more formed from the fog. Rory fought like a man possessed, driving them back, forming a pathway directly to Medb. She watched him haughtily.
As he killed another dead soul, he saw something remarkable. A shadow flew in from the trees and landed at Medb's shoulder. As he watched, almost missing an attack from the side, he made out that it was a bird, with oil-black wings. Medb stared into its bead-like eyes. Rory stabbed at the latest attacker, sending it shrieking into nothingness.
When the scream died, there was silence for a heartbeat. Then Medb snarled, "Blast!" A cloud of smoke surrounded her.
Rory's leg went numb, and he just barely kept from falling. Three ghosts had moved in behind him. By the time he had dispatched them, the smoke had drifted away, and Medb was nowhere to be seen.
* * * * *
Mavis reappeared in her room, dressed in her business suit. With a growl, she activated the videophone. "This had better be good."
Nicholas registered her anger with a twist of his mouth. His tone remained as unflappable as ever. "We need you back here. Things are going to start moving very quickly soon, and we can't afford the extra time to track you down."
He was brushing off her vengeance as if it were a child's quest. No, he's pointing out that we have more important things to do. But I don't have to like it. She tried one last time: "You know he'll be trouble later, Nicholas."
"Then we'll deal with him later. The next flight to New York leaves at 6:45. Your tickets will be waiting for you."
* * * * *
No more spirits had appeared to replace those fallen. Quickly, he worked his way through to Arthur, Griff and Cavall, his heart as numb as his leg as friend and foe fell again beneath his blows. Together, the four of them vanquished the last of the sorceress's unhallowed creations. The poor soul howled once and was gone.
"Spend many of your nights like this?" asked Sir Griff, huffing.
He thought of Molly, how she'd screamed her ban sidhe scream upon the wind and had drifted into nothingness. "Too many."
"You fought well," said Arthur.
"Thank you, your ... How should I address you, sir?"
"Arthur will do for now." The timeless king smiled at him.
"Thank you, Arthur."
"Now would be a good time," said Sir Griff.
"For what?" Rory asked.
Arthur glared at his friend. "In a hurry?"
"Yes. I'd like to see this fellow knighted before dawn."
(Yes,) said Luin clearly.
Leave Da, leave the island ... He stared at the spear askance. I thought you wanted me to stay here.
Luin gave him the shrug-feeling. (rightness, belonging)
"And we'll look like right fools if he turns us down."
"It wouldn't be the first time for either of us. Remember that movie?"
"Yes," said Rory.
"That movie was pure farce and you know it."
Sir Griff shrugged. "I know that, and you know that ... "
"Yes," said Rory, louder this time.
They both turned to him. "'Yes,' what?" asked Arthur.
"Yes, I'll join you."
"Told you," said Griff.
Rory raised his hand. "But not yet. I'll need some time to explain all this to me father, and I'll have to make sure he'll be all right without me."
"Certainly," said Arthur. "Take as much time as you need."
"How will I find you?"
Arthur pulled out a business card. He looked at Griff, then said, "Have your people call our people."
Rory took the card. "My house isn't far. Come meet my Da?"
"We've met him," said Arthur.
"But we'd be honored to join you," said Griff quickly.
The three headed back towards the house. The sound of their footsteps died away from the clearing, leaving only the chirrup of a few early crickets. Then, from far away, came the astonished voice of a once and future young hero: "An umbrella?"
The dead, as they often do in these cases, slept on.