Previously on Pendragon…
ANGELA: Who's Darien?
(Prophets and Angels)
DARIEN MONTROSE (to Bruce and Stephen): Here are your orders. Follow them constantly, both night and day.
MACE MALONE: What a majestic beast.... The Society will be pleased, Mr. Bluestone.
ELAINE: Oh, Arthur. Life is for the living. Don't waste it in the past.
(The Ill-Made Knight Part Three)
Darien Montrose leaned back in his office chair, shifting himself into a more comfortable position. "So, have you heard anything yet from Alexander Thailog, Mr. Reeve?" he asked.
The man seated opposite him shook his head. "I'm afraid not, Mr. Montrose," he said. "Still no sign of him. Not that Ms. Destine seems to be making that much of an effort to find him, mind you."
"Ms. Destine not trying to find her business partner?" inquired Darien, leaning forward with interest. "Any particular reason why?"
"I don't know, sir," Mr. Reeve answered. "We're not in the habit of asking Ms. Destine about such things. You haven't met the woman, but I have. Rub her the wrong way, and you're certain to regret it."
"That bad, eh?" asked Darien, chuckling.
"Have you ever seen 'Macbeth', Mr. Montrose?" asked Mr. Reeve.
"Once," said Mr. Montrose, with a shrug. "Though I don't see what Shakespeare's got to do with your boss."
"Well, Dominique Destine could make Lady Macbeth seem like Snow White," said Mr. Reeve. "You really, really do not want to wind up on her bad side. After a couple of days at Nightstone Unlimited, you come to understand that - or else you find yourself downsized in a hurry."
"Well, I must admit that she does seem to have undergone her share of disasters lately," said Darien Montrose. "First her partner disappears, just like that. Then her new personal assistant suddenly turns out to have a very impressive police record, and winds up on the inside of Rikers Island in a hurry. Not to mention that short-lived marriage of hers with Professor Macduff. She's got worse problems than our Royals, I'd say."
"You don't know the half of it," muttered Mr. Reeve. "Believe me, Mr. Montrose, you wouldn't believe how eagerly I jumped at the opportunity to handle that meeting with you here. Anything to get away from her headquarters for a few days."
"I can imagine," said Darien. "By the way, did that - ah - little good-will package get through safely to Nightstone Unlimited? I was wondering how Miss Angela received it."
"It came through," said Mr. Reeve. "Though Ms. Destine said to tell you that the young lady was not quite that interested."
"I can't imagine why," said Darien, sounding bewildered. "I mean, those were very expensive flowers and chocolates. But I imagine that she'll come around in time. I'm planning on visiting Manhattan sometime next year; I wonder if your boss wouldn't mind introducing me to her daughter then?"
"Actually, I think that she would," said Mr. Reeve. "She's extremely protective of that girl. She kept her practically under her wing when Miss Angela visited the company in April, in fact. And she also says that her daughter's very busy at college at the moment. Not to mention that she lives with her father, Ms. Destine's first ex-husband."
"Well, send her my regards, if you can," said Darien, with a little smile. "Now to business, about this deal between my company and Nightstone Unlimited. If we can come to some sort of arrangement about this acquisition of the Exeter property, then - "
At that moment, the intercom on his desk sounded. Mr. Montrose switched it on. "Yes?" he asked.
"A couple of gentlemen from the Farsight Corporation to see you, Mr. Montrose," said his secretary's voice. "They say that it's extremely urgent."
"Can't it wait for a bit, Mabel?" Darien asked her sharply. "I am right in the middle of negotiating an important deal with Nightstone Unlimited. Please tell them to wait until I'm finished discussing matters with Mr. Reeve."
"I already tried telling them that, and they wouldn't listen," Mabel replied. "They said it was most urgent. Something about an aviation plant in Birmingham."
Darien Montrose started. "Birmingham?" he asked. "An aviation plant? Is that what you heard, Mabel?"
"That's what they said, Mr. Montrose," Mabel replied.
"I think that I'd better see them right away, then," he replied. "Show them in at once, Mabel." He turned to Mr. Reeve. "I'm so sorry about this," he said. "It seems that this Farsight Corporation business is much more important than I'd thought. Perhaps we can continue these negotiations tomorrow?"
"Well, Mr. Montrose," Mr. Reeve began.
"The way that I see it, you deserve a little holiday away from Manhattan, anyway," said Darien. "Relax a little, Oswald. See some of the sights of our great city. Big Ben, the Tower of London, the British Museum. Take a ride on a double-decker bus. I understand that the view from the top of one of those vehicles can be quite spectacular. We can easily resume things tomorrow."
"Well, if you insist," said Mr. Reeve, at last. He got up, and left the room.
Darien sat back in his chair. "Birmingham," he muttered under his breath. "That aviation plant. I was *certain* that I'd covered my tracks on that one. When I find whoever's been blabbing, I'll - "
At that moment, two men in smart-looking business suits entered the office. "Darien Montrose, we presume?" asked one of them.
"Yes, yes," said Darien, rising to greet them. "At your service. And you would be - "
"I am Jacob Feldman," said the first man, nodding in a business-like fashion. "This is Alfred Ratcliffe. And we'd like to have a few words with you, Mr. Montrose."
"Of course, of course," said Darien, trying to sound as cheerful as possible. "Now, I understand that you've heard of some sort of business involving a - well, deplorable fire in Birmingham that did a lot of damage there. Very regrettable incident. Simply regrettable. Believe me, gentlemen, I wish that there was something that I could do to help repair the damage - "
"Well, you should, Mr. Montrose," said Jacob Feldman, looking at him sharply. "Particularly considering who was responsible for the fire."
"And what makes you think that I had anything to do with it?" asked Mr. Montrose, looking as bewildered as he could manage. "Now, I know that it must seem suspicious to you, gentlemen, that the fire began in the plant of a rival corporation, and one that had been my chief competitor for a very lucrative contract. But I assure you, it's nothing more than a coincidence. I can't even figure out how you could ever have seriously thought that I had any connection to the disaster at all."
"The Society makes it its business to know these things," said Alfred Ratcliffe quietly.
"The Society?" asked Montrose, staring at the two men nervously. "What Society?"
Mr. Feldman responded by reaching into the inside pocket of his coat, and producing a small pin with an odd design on the head of it, a design depicting a pyramid with a fiery eye at its summit. Darien Montrose stared hard at the emblem, and swallowed.
"So it is true, then," he said. "You're two of - of them."
"You've heard the rumors, then, haven't you?" said Jacob. It did not sound that much like a question, the way that he spoke it.
"Well, one or two little whispers," said Darien, laughing uneasily. "I do keep my ear close to the ground, you know, gentlemen. Although I never took the least bit seriously all that business about an all-powerful Illuminati Society running the world. I thought that it was just another crazy thing that impractical people insist on believing, like the Loch Ness Monster or aliens visiting Easter Island. I didn't think that it really existed."
"Well, the Illuminati are real enough," said Alfred. "And believe me, Mr. Montrose, the stories about our power are not exaggerations."
"Well, what do you want with me, anyway?" asked Darien. "Has Evans made friends with the Society? Did he ask you to arrange some little accident for me?" He eyed them both nervously, retreating as he spoke. "Please, you're both reasonable people. Can't you reconsider this?"
"Mr. Evans doesn't know that you were behind the sabotage of his plant, and we don't work for him, in any case," said Jacob calmly. "That was just to get your attention."
"And it succeeded, too," agreed Mr. Ratcliffe, nodding. "No, this is about an entirely different matter, Mr. Montrose. Something that the Society is far more interested in than your little operations."
"And what might that be?" asked Darien, relaxing only slightly.
"Mr. Montrose, it has come to the attention of the Illuminati that you have been keeping tabs on a certain man who claims to be King Arthur," said Jacob. "Is that correct?"
"Well, yes," said Darien. "Though I don't see how you know. If Bruce and Stephen have been talking to anybody, I'll give them both the sack for this."
"Your henchmen have nothing to do with it," said Jacob. "We have a very capable intelligence network. Very little goes on anywhere in the world that we do not quickly learn about. Trust me, Mr. Montrose, you could not hope to hide your search for the so-called 'King Arthur' from us for very long."
"Well, what's it to you?" asked Darien, looking at them. "If you're rounding up every nutter who thinks that he's some famous person from history, you'd better start with the ones who go around wearing funny hats, sticking their hands in their jackets, and flinching at the mention of Waterloo. There are a lot more people like that around than there are the ones who think that they're from Camelot."
"We're not interested in this 'Arthur Pendragon' himself," said Alfred. "We're interested in his friends. If you can call them that."
"Friends?" asked Darien.
"Two gargoyles," said Jacob. "I would have thought that you would know about them, considering your agents' tracking efforts."
"Oh, yes, those gargoyles, of course," said Darien, laughing uneasily. "You're interested in those walking lawn sculptures?"
"They're nothing so trivial as that, Mr. Montrose," said Alfred, looking at him a trifle sharply. "The Illuminati are very interested in obtaining living gargoyles, at whatever the cost. And these two look very promising to us."
"Well, if you want gargoyles so much, why don't you go to New York, then?" asked Darien. "The city's supposed to be crawling with those creatures, if you can believe the latest news reports. You could bag a lot more over there."
"The Illuminati do have plans for the gargoyles living in Manhattan, Mr. Montrose," said Jacob. "But they want to know about the survival of other clans, elsewhere in the world. Our reports on the two companions of the supposed 'King Arthur' indicate that they are not members of the clan in New York. Their physical features are too different. The implication is that they come from a second clan. The Society is very anxious to obtain specimens from that clan, and to locate its home. And it believes that the two who accompany this 'Once and Future King' can be very useful in fulfilling those objectives."
"And just why does the Illuminati Society want a lot of winged monsters on its hands, anyway?" asked Darien. "Are you people planning on starting a gargoyle zoo, or something like that?"
"We have our reasons," said Alfred. "But they do not concern you."
"So just why have you come here?" asked Darien. "What do I have to do with this gargoyle hunt of yours?"
"Your agents have done a very good job of tracking these three," said Jacob. "They report to you regularly. We believe that you might be able to help us pinpoint the location of our quarry."
"I'm not so sure about that," said Darien cautiously. "I mean, I've already got a client who is very interested in these three, and I don't think that he's a member of your little organization. I'm certain that he'd see you stepping in as interference, and he wouldn't be very happy with you two for it. Worse, he wouldn't be happy with me either."
"Mr. Montrose, did you hear, by any chance, what became of Professor Adrians last year?" Alfred inquired.
"Now what's that got to do with anything?" asked Darien.
"Just tell us if you have or not," said Mr. Ratcliffe.
"Well, there was a little something about it in the Times, and on the BBC news programmes," said Darien. "Something about him having to resign from his position at Oxford, because of his loony ideas about what was really behind all that business with UFOs and crop circles and things like that. I don't have much time for that flying saucer rot, personally. The tabloids can keep it, for all that I care."
"The Illuminati Society was not too happy with what Professor Adrians was saying," said Jacob. "His guesses were coming much too close to the truth, a truth which we would just as soon the general public not be aware of. There are certain things that humanity is better off being ignorant about. A little influence to the man's superiors, and he was forced into dismissal in a hurry. And his notions were quickly discredited. Just as the Illuminati wanted."
"So you're saying that you could put me out of business if I wanted to?" asked Darien, staring at them both nervously.
"If we wanted to," said Alfred with a nod. "Though that's only if you don't feel like cooperating. If you do, then that's no problem. If you don't - well, have you ever felt like taking a holiday in New York? To be precise, in one of our finest suites at the Hotel Cabal? Trust me, Mr. Montrose, you do not want to room there."
Darien shrank back, shuddering. "So what do you want to know, again?" he asked.
"Just where can we find these two gargoyles and their human friend?" asked Alfred.
Darien opened a desk drawer, and pulled out a small map of Great Britain with a series of red arrows drawn all over it. "Well, they've been all over the place already," he said. "London, Cornwall, Northumberland, Scotland - they even managed to get across the Channel to Brittany for a little bit. And they choose some odd places to visit, too. Stonehenge, Tintagel, places like that. It's as if they were on some 'Myths and Legends Tour'."
"And where are they headed to now?" Jacob asked.
Darien looked over the map, frowning. "Ah, yes, here we are," he said. "They're in southern Wales now, and headed for Carmarthen. Apparently they're expecting to find Merlin there. The wizard, I presume. More of that Arthur-chap's delusions, I'd imagine. He'll be looking for the Holy Grail next."
"That doesn't matter to us," said Alfred. "What does matter is that we know where to go. Thank you, Mr. Montrose. You've been very helpful to us."
And with that, he and Jacob turned and quietly left the office. Darien watched them go, then sank into his chair, a troubled expression on his face.
"I'm going to need a nice long holiday very soon," he muttered to himself. "Preferably in Barbados or somewhere like that. Someplace without any medieval monarchs, gargoyles, or secret societies." He sighed, and leaned his forehead upon his clasped hands. "These things are getting out of hand. I'll be running into fairies next." And he heaved another deep sigh.
The eastern sky was lightening as the three travelers paused on the hill, and looked out at the town lying below.
"So that's Carmarthen, Arthur?" asked Griff.
"It is indeed," Arthur Pendragon replied, in response to his knight's question. "Though it has changed much while I was sleeping on Avalon, it seems. But then again, everything on this island has."
"Do you really think that you'll be able to find anything about Merlin in town, then?" asked Griff.
"I hope so," said Arthur. "He was born here, after all. But I'm really not certain about it any more. So far, in all our questing, we've found not a single trace of him anywhere. Not one clue. Nothing." He shook his head in frustration.
"Well, maybe it'll be different this time," said Griff. "Maybe you'll find something there."
"I sincerely hope so," said Arthur. But his voice showed little hope in it. "Maybe Macbeth was right, back in London," he continued. "Maybe Merlin simply doesn't want to be found. Or maybe he really is dead. He is a halfling, I know, but can even a halfling still be alive after fourteen centuries?"
"We've met Nimue and Morgana la Fay already," Griff said. "They made it down to the present."
"True," said Arthur. "But it may be different with him." He shook his head again.
"I sometimes wonder if I did the right thing, departing Avalon to explore the outside world. Everything has changed too much. My old homeland now takes its name from my Angle foes. London is a city of glass towers, nothing like the town that I once knew. Camelot is no more than a grassy hill in Somerset. Guinevere and my knights are reduced to dust and memories."
Griff looked at him concernedly. "Are you all right, Arthur?" he asked.
"More or less, my friend," the former High King of Britain replied. "I suppose that I brought this on myself. I probably shouldn't have turned aside from our journey here to visit Caerleon. Seeing the ruins of another one of my castles may have been too much for me. When I saw what was left of the Roman amphitheater where I used to hold tournaments, when I thought back to the feasts and hunts that we had whenever I held court there, the tales that my knights brought with them back from their quests... truth to tell, I think that I can understand how our friend Goliath must have felt, when he woke up in Manhattan after a thousand years of sleep. It is a hard thing, to outlive your world."
"I know the feeling too, Arthur," said Griff. "Sort of. Just imagine how I felt when Goliath brought me to the 1990's. I almost passed out from the shock. In fact, every night for the next week, I'd wake up at sunset half-hoping that I'd find myself back in 1940. But of course, it never happened."
"You've a good point there," said Arthur, nodding. "And you're right, too, my friend. I do have a quest to carry out, and I cannot abandon it. I can only go forward."
Cavall, the Once and Future King's pet gargoyle beast, had taken no part in this discussion up till now. Like all of his kind, he could not speak, but confined himself merely to snuffling the ground. Arthur didn't know what smell had so intrigued his faithful "hound", whether it was a rabbit or something else, and decided that it was not particularly important anyway. Now the gargoyle beast looked up at Arthur, and whined a little. He smiled, and patted it on the head.
"Sleep you now, Cavall," he said. "I will be back to join you and Griff when the sun goes down."
Cavall nodded in a satisfied manner, as if convinced by his master's words. At that moment, the first rays of the sun lit up the sky. Griff and Cavall turned at once to stone, with the usual grinding noise as their transformation took place. Arthur stood back and watched the completed results, then made his way down the hill towards the town, leaving his two petrified companions to wait for him throughout the day.
To any casual observer, the two men watching the scene through their binoculars could have been a pair of hikers out for an early morning stroll. They wore heavy jackets, thick trousers, boots, gloves, and cloth caps. However, the keen interest with which they studied the two statues would have quickly belied this initial impression.
"That must be them," said Jacob Feldman, nodding to his partner. "At least, they fit the descriptions we got from the Stonehenge incident."
"And even if they aren't the same as those two, they're still gargoyles," agreed Alfred Ratcliffe. "And that's good enough for us. Shall we move in?"
"I think that we should," said Jacob, nodding. He pulled a cellular phone out of his coat pocket, punched in a few numbers, and held it up to his ear. "Yes," he said, after listening for a moment. "They're at the hill just overlooking the town. And they'll be asleep for several hours yet, enough time for you to come along and collect them. No, he's not with them. We'll deal with this Arthur chap when we have to, but he's not as important. After all, he's not one of them. It's those two that we want. Yes, they're all yours now. Proceed as planned."
With that, he returned the phone to his pocket. "The Society will finally have its specimens," he said with a beaming smile.
"I hope so," said Alfred dubiously. "Of course, that's what we were saying during the Hotel Cabal incident, and we both know how that one turned out."
"Hey, that was an over-the-hill gangster who couldn't stop the big one from escaping," protested Jacob. "We're younger and tougher than he was. So things ought to be different this time around."
"And if this Arthur fellow shows up?" inquired Mr. Ratcliffe.
"We'll deal with one problem at a time," Jacob answered, unconcernedly. "For now, let's just make certain that the capture goes according to plan. And that the goods don't get chipped by mistake. Come on!"
Early morning sunlight streamed into the comfortable kitchen as the two women sat at the breakfast table, their gray eyes, brown hair and similar features marking them as family. Toys were strewn across the floor, a sign that small noisemakers were still snug in their beds. The welcome quiet was an opportunity too good to pass up and the early risers were making the most of it.
"It's thrilling how well your company's doing, Jennifer," said the older woman as she poured some fresh coffee into her guest's cup, "but do you really need to head back so soon?"
"That's the price for being a modern woman in the business world today, cousin," Jennifer answered as she stirred a fresh spoonful of sugar into her coffee. "I've got to be on top of everything."
"Surely not everything," her cousin said, raising an eyebrow. "I mean, you can't be in the office all the time. What about romance, adventure? It's much of a life if you don't get to live it, now is it?"
Jennifer sighed. "That's easy for you to say, Janet. You found your Prince Charming."
"Oh, yes," Janet said broadly, gesturing around the room. "And my darling Alan set up me up in this enchanted castle with the royal children and the imperial laundry and all the domestic trappings of state." She laughed and her cousin laughed with her.
"And you wouldn't trade places with me for the world, you know it." Jennifer swirled her spoon idly in her cup. "It's been ages since I've met anyone outside of the office."
"Then maybe you shouldn't rush straight back to London." Janet reached across the table to put her hand on her cousin's arm. "You should take a little time for yourself. Stop in town and poke around the shops, you know, like you used to in college. Buy yourself some frivolous little pleasure."
Jennifer pursed her lips thoughtfully. "That's not a bad idea. I've been thinking that my office decor is a little too stiff. An antique here and there would make a nice addition."
"There you go, Jen. If there's one thing Carmarthen has in spades, it's antique shops and dusty old booksellers." Janet leaned back in her chair and sipped her coffee. A thumping from the ceiling drew their eyes upward.
"The royal family is awake," Jennifer said wryly.
"Poor bloody us," Janet agreed.
"This is not going to be easy," Arthur muttered to himself, as he went through the section of Carmarthen Public Library's catalogue on Merlin once again. "Not easy at all."
So far, his search had failed to uncover anything pertaining to his old advisor and tutor other than some general books about himself - which he had already read in the early stages of his journey, at other public libraries that he had consulted, and even in Leo and Una's shop - and an astonishing wealth of fictional works, the latest being "The Sword and the Staff" by one Jeffrey Robbins. Nothing else. Arthur finally turned away from the catalogue with a sigh, and walked over to the librarian's desk.
"May I help you, sir?" asked the librarian on duty.
"Ah, yes," Arthur replied to the man. "Do you have anything here on Merlin? I mean, besides the Arthurian fiction. Something about local traditions on him."
"Local traditions?" echoed the librarian.
"Well, yes," said Arthur. "I understand that Merlin was said to have been born in these parts. And I thought that there might be a few legends to be found here, reflecting that."
The librarian frowned. "Truth to tell," he said, "I don't think that we have that much here about it. Nobody's taken the links between Merlin and Carmarthen seriously for years, after all. It's just a story, after all. There's not a shred of evidence that if there was a real Merlin, he ever spent any time in this town, let alone was born in it. Truth to tell, I don't even think that there ever was a real Merlin, myself. Or a real King Arthur, for that matter."
"I see," said Arthur, resisting the temptation to come up with a good reply to that last sentence. "So there's nothing at all."
"Well, there used to be an old oak tree growing in the middle of the street," said the librarian thoughtfully. "It was supposed to have been planted by Merlin, and they said that when it fell, so would Carmarthen. But it's not there any more, while the town still is. You can see a few fragments of it in the Civic Centre. Don't expect anything too exciting, though. The tree only went back to the 17th century, anyway, so Merlin couldn't have been responsible for it, even if he had been real."
Arthur nodded. "Well, I thank you," he said.
"Of course, if you're really that insistent on looking for local legends," the librarian continued, "you can always check a few used bookstores here in town. They might have something."
"Maybe," said Arthur. "Well, thank you very much."
He walked out of the library, and down the high street again, lost in thought. "Why couldn't you have left a few proper clues for me to find, Merlin?" he murmured. "Didn't you foresee this quest? Even an obscure riddle would be welcome now."
The brass bells rang merrily over the antique shop door as Jennifer stepped out into the sunshine. For a minor fee, the proprietor would arrange for her newly purchased Tiffany lamp to be shipped directly to her London office, and save her the effort of re-packing to fit the thing in her car's boot. Janet had been right; spending the day rummaging through musty old antique stores had lifted her spirits tremendously. She smiled to herself and peered into the window of the neighboring shop at the display of heirloom china, a veritable flower garden in gilt-edged porcelain.
"Lovely," Jennifer commented to herself, "but I wouldn't dare to eat off them and I wouldn't know who I'd invite over to tea." She quirked up the corners of her mouth and laughed before continuing her window-shopping up the street.
Her attention was drawn to the untidy pile of books in the tall bins under the awning of Smith & Smith, dealers in vintage books and fine art prints. A tall, bearded man with graying brown hair had just passed by on his way into the shop proper but Jennifer barely gave him a glance. There was a slim volume of Elizabethan love poems on the table and she smiled to herself as she leafed through the book, recognizing one or two of the sonnets from her school days.
The hustle and bustle of modern-day Carmarthen slipped away and Jennifer found herself drifting away to the days of knights roaming the countryside on daring quests and ladies in long, silk gowns, languishing for their long lost loves. She sighed. It sounded so much more appealing than dealing with proposals, contracts and the world of corporate politics. A little old-fashioned adventure would be a welcome change.
She turned the page and started to go into the shop to pay for the book.
He was just stepping outside the bookseller's shop when Arthur collided with a young woman walking in. Like himself, she had been barely noticing where she was going, reading a leather bound book in her hands and apparently lost deep in thought. Both of them stepped back and blinked in astonishment.
"I'm dreadfully sorry, my lady," said Arthur at once. "My mistake."
The bookseller bustled out. "Miss? Are you all right?"
"Yes, I'm fine. I'd like this book, sir, if you please," said the woman, handing the bookseller the volume of poems in her hand. She smiled awkwardly at Arthur. "And I'm sorry myself. I'm afraid that I was letting my mind wander a little, Mr. - ?"
"Pennington," said Arthur, using the assumed surname that he had adopted for his visit to the Caledonian Forest. "Arthur Pennington, if it please you, my lady."
She laughed nervously, the corners of her mouth crinkling up. "My, you are an old-fashioned sort, Mr. Pennington, aren't you?" said the woman, arching her eyebrows. She was in her late twenties to early thirties, with brown hair in a conservative ponytail and bright grayish eyes, and wore a tailored Edwardian jacket over jeans and a dark green mock turtleneck shirt. "Still, it is rather refreshing from the sort of behavior that you run into so often nowadays. Oh, and my name's Jennifer Camford" she added. "Just call me Jennifer."
"Then you must call me Arthur," he replied. The bookseller returned with her book wrapped in brown paper and Arthur waited while Jennifer paid for her purchase. "I didn't find the book I was looking for here. Can you recommend any other bookshops? This is my first visit to Carmarthen, and I fear that I do not know my way around this place as well as I ought."
"Well, that makes two of us," said Jennifer wryly. "I haven't been here since I was a schoolgirl, truth to tell. I was visiting my cousin for a bit of a holiday, and since I'm not needed back in London for a few days, I thought that I'd come here and see if the place had changed that much."
"And has it?" asked Arthur.
"It might have," she said with a shrug. "It's hard to say. I don't remember it well enough from my school days to be able to tell, one way or the other. It's probably just as well. It can really be shocking to see something that you're familiar with undergo some really drastic changes."
"That I know only too well," said Arthur, before he could stop himself.
Jennifer looked at him curiously, but before she could say anything, the silence was suddenly broken by a loud voice.
"The end times are upon us! The hour of final reckoning is at hand! You may scoff at me, good people, if you will, but the marks of doom are all about to be beheld, by those who have eyes for them!"
Arthur gave a startled glance in the direction of the speaker, some distance to his left. It was a small man standing on a podium in the middle of the "pedestrian area" of the street, at the center of a gathering crowd. He stared at the orator in astonishment, then glanced back at Jennifer for her reaction.
"Another one of those 'doomsday prophets'," she said to him with an amused smile and a shake of her head. "They seem to be everywhere these days. Not a week goes by in London without more than one of them showing up at Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park, in fact."
"Yes, the marks of doom are all about!" continued the little man. "Surely you must have heard of some of them! A giant clay statue now stalks the streets of Prague! What else can it be but an omen? In Egypt, not more than two years ago, an entire town was reduced to ruins in one night, with no life remaining in it! No common disaster could have been responsible for that. It's a sign, I tell you! A sign!"
"I've heard a few of these people myself," commented Arthur to Jennifer, finding her smile infectious. "They were in London when I was a lad too. Talking about all manner of horrors about to unfold upon the island and the rest of the world, and the Last Trump due for sounding any day now. Along with the usual rains of fire and frogs. Of course, considering what things were like back then - ". He cut himself off as he suddenly realized what he was about to say. It would definitely not do to mention anything to Jennifer about the Saxon war-bands that had menaced London so constantly in his day, or the wars among the petty kings that had taken place between Uther Pendragon's death and his own coronation. At any rate, the speaker's next words so quickly grabbed his attention and alarm that he would have broken off his speech upon hearing them anyway.
"And how about those winged demons that they found in New York City just half a year ago? You've heard of them, all of you! The beasts that destroyed a police station and a cathedral! Everybody wants to know what those things are, where they came from, what they mean. Well, I can tell you what they mean! They're the vanguard! The rest of their kind will soon follow them into our world, and then Armageddon will begin! The hosts of darkness are gathering! Just you wait and see!"
"Now that is going too far," said Arthur sharply.
"I'll admit that it is a bit extreme," agreed Jennifer. "I have heard quite a bit about that gargoyle business in Manhattan, but nothing on this level. Of course, it does put a fresh spin on your typical Apocalypse oratory."
"It's not that," said Arthur, turning to her. "It's that I've heard too many of those speeches trying to make gargoyles appear like evil monsters. Nothing but distortion and lies by small-minded folk who insist that anything that they can't comprehend must be the Devil's handiwork. Or by people willing to serve as puppets in the hands of others. It is rather discouraging, seeing how little things have changed."
Jennifer raised one eyebrow. "You are overreacting a little, aren't you?" she asked him. "I mean, we don't even know for certain if those stories from New York are true or not. It could just be more American yellow journalism at work, after all. And in any case, all that trouble is on the other side of the Atlantic. You're making it seem as if it's personal."
"Well, in a way, it is," said Arthur. He realized almost at once that he could not tell her all about his own experiences with gargoyles, or the savage propaganda that Mordred had directed against the Logres clans during the civil war that had reached its bitter culmination at Camlann, without making himself appear like a madman himself in her eyes. "I've studied a bit about gargoyles and I know they're not the monstrous creatures that so many people believe them to be. They're a very old race, noble and intelligent, and they were unjustly persecuted in the Middle Ages, reduced almost to extinction. We've been blessed with the discovery that a few of them yet live, and how do we respond? We try to destroy the few survivors." He shook his head. "I'm beginning to fear that some things will never change."
"Well, you may have a point there," said Jennifer intelligently. "I've heard a few things in the news from America myself about the way that things were over there. There were a lot of people trying to kill every last one of those creatures in New York - the Quarrymen, I believe that they were called. I didn't approve of that notion one bit. After all, if these reports are right, if there actually are gargoyles living in New York, then they're an endangered species. They should be preserved for science, not driven into extinction like the dodo."
Arthur looked at her in shock. "You can hardly be serious, Jennifer," he said, when he had found his voice. "You make it sound as if it's merely another breed of animals that you are speaking about. Gargoyles aren't animals any more than we are. Keeping them in cages would be like keeping humans in cages."
Jennifer raised her eyebrows even higher than before. "You do say some very strange things, Arthur Pennington," she said, with a slight smile. "If I didn't know better, I'd actually think that you'd met a few gargoyles personally."
"You don't know the half of it," Arthur muttered under his breath. "Well, it hardly matters, my lady - Jennifer," he said out loud to her. "The point is, that man does the race an injustice, without even knowing it."
Jennifer shrugged. "Well, I'll leave it at that, then," she said. "So what brings you to Carmarthen, anyway?"
"I'm trying to find an old friend of mine," said Arthur, choosing his words carefully. "He grew up in the area, and I was hoping that I could come across some trace of him in the town. So far, I haven't found anything."
"Perhaps my cousins might know him," said Jennifer. "I can always ring them up and ask."
"I thank you, Jennifer, but I somehow doubt that any of your kinsfolk have ever met him," said Arthur.
"Kinsfolk? You certainly have a habit of talking like a book, Arthur," said Jennifer, shaking her head. "Almost as if you've been asleep since the Middle Ages."
Arthur only barely managed to prevent himself from starting at her words. The soapbox prophet had acquired a gaggle of leather-clad young people who were agreeing loudly with him. Several members of the local constabulary began to converge on the site as the speaker's new supporters started to express themselves, loudly and in rather vulgar language.
Jennifer rolled her eyes at the commotion. "Well, that's that. It's getting close to noon, anyway. Maybe you can tell me more about this friend of yours at lunch. My treat. There's a nice tea shop just this way; I think that you might enjoy it."
"If you insist," said Arthur. He still wasn't sure how he was going to explain to her that the man he sought had probably not gone anywhere near Carmarthen for the last fourteen centuries, but maybe he could think of something. And she did make a nice bit of human company, which he had had all too little of since leaving Avalon. Apart from Macbeth, Colin Marter, and the woman named Elaine at Bamburgh Castle, he had exchanged very few words with anybody other than a gargoyle, a fay, or a halfling during his travels. It was about time for a change. "Lead the way, my lady."
The two gargoyle statues stood atop the hill in the mid-day sunlight. One a griffin-like creature clad in what would have been a leather jacket had he been alive, the other a great dog-like beast, its mouth open in something like a savage growl.
"Ugly-lookin' things, ain't they?" said one of the men looking at them. He and his companions all wore ordinary-looking workmen's coveralls. "I don't see what anybody wants with them."
"Well, they're paying us to haul these two off to Mr. Powell's place," said another of the men with a shrug. "So I say, as long as they sign our paycheques, I'm all for it. It's Mr. Powell who gets stuck with those creatures, anyway."
"Fair enough," agreed the first man. "Though I still think that this man has some very strange tastes. I wouldn't want one of these in my flat."
The workmen carefully picked up the stone Griff first, and gently carried him down the hill to the roadside where a large truck was parked. Bundling it up carefully in protective carpeting, they then climbed back up the hill, and returned a few minutes later with Cavall, whom they treated the same way. They then closed the back door of the truck, and climbed into the front of it.
"And off we go," said one, starting the truck up. They drove off, the two Illuminati agents watching calmly from underneath an oak tree.
"Phase One flawlessly executed," said Jacob Feldman, nodding approvingly. He pulled out his cellular phone again, and punched in a number.
"Hello?" he said. "Mr. Powell? This is Jacob Feldman. Yes, expect the merchandise at your premises in less than half an hour. In one piece." He nodded, then replaced the phone in his pocket.
"We should be advanced a grade in the Society for this," he said to Alfred with a smile. "I mean, we finally have a couple of those creatures. Can you just picture how the Inner Circle will take it when we turn the goods over to them?"
"I can easily imagine," said Alfred, nodding. His face suddenly took on a thoughtful look. "I wonder just why our superiors are so interested in getting their hands on these creatures, anyway. I mean, what use are they to us? They're asleep during the day, which pretty much limits their effectiveness. And judging from the Xanatos report, they're very difficult to control. Of course, it's an entirely different clan that we're talking about, but all the information that we've got on this species indicates that stubbornness is common to all its branches. I'm wondering why the Inner Circle doesn't just ask Xanatos to start mass-producing Steel Clan robots for the Society's use. They'd be a lot more obedient."
"Maybe," said Jacob. "On the other hand, the Inner Circle does have certain resources that Mr. Xanatos didn't have access to. I'm sure that Mr. Duval and his associates can be very persuasive if they want to."
"You could have a point there," said Alfred, nodding. "Though I would like to know more about this."
"Well, we're not likely to find out just standing around talking," said Jacob. "Come along, Alfred. Mr. Powell will be expecting us, as well as the specimens. Let's be off, shall we?"
Alfred looked back doubtfully. "Do you suppose that this Arthur fellow will come after us? I mean, those things are his friends - or his pets."
"I've no idea," said Jacob with a shrug. "But he's only one man, and a bit of a nutter at that. He won't last very long if he tries to interfere. Now come on!"
"Here you go, luv. Our special white chocolate and walnut scones, fresh out of the oven and I'll top off your cups for you," said their hostess, a short cheerful old woman with a face so wrinkled and brown, she looked like a happy raisin. She winked at Arthur. "Eat up, ducks. You'll need your strength." She winked mischievously at Jennifer as well.
"Gytha!" called her partner, a tall woman of equal age with a stern yet handsome face. "Stop pestering the customers!"
"Oh, hush up, Esme!" Gytha elbowed Arthur good-naturedly. "There's nothing wrong with fanning the flames of romance, is there, guv?"
Jennifer stifled a laugh at the brief look of dismay Arthur gave the old woman. It had been the most interesting luncheon she'd had in some time. Even though she dated irregularly given her workload, Jennifer couldn't remember the last time a man had treated her as chivalrously as Arthur. He had been a complete and utterly charming gentleman. His anachronistic mannerisms were quite amusing and he had that balance of lost little boy and knight-errant that she'd always found irresistible.
For an older man, Arthur seemed quite fit and still quite ruggedly handsome. It was curious but he had insisted on keeping his dark overcoat even though the tea room was comfortably warm. He brushed a stray lock of hair from his face and again Jennifer's eyes were drawn to the slight crease in Arthur's forehead. She wondered what sort of headgear Arthur habitually wore that would leave such a mark. A policeman? A fireman? A construction worker's helmet? Jennifer found herself coming up with all sorts of fanciful alternatives as she gazed across the table at her mysterious luncheon companion.
"I still don't understand why the British these days should be so fond of this beverage," said Arthur, staring moodily into his teacup. "Much as I respect Captain Marter's judgment in so many things, I am entirely at a loss as to why he should praise it as though it were nectar from Olympus."
"Well, it may be something of an acquired taste to some," said Jennifer, sipping her tea. "Personally, I rather like it." She looked at him thoughtfully. "So what's this friend of yours like, Arthur? The one that you're looking for?"
"Well, it's been some time since we last met," said Arthur. "I don't know too much about what he does now or where to find him. He always kept to himself, and I had to accept it. That makes it all the harder. He could be anywhere in the country. For all that I know, I could have come within ten feet of him and not known it."
"For a friend of yours, you don't seem to know him very well," Jennifer observed.
"Oh, I do know him well enough," said Arthur, after finishing the last scone on his plate. "It's just that he was a very mysterious person. He kept his own counsel, and while he seemed to know more about me than I did about myself, I doubt that I could ever fully know what was in his heart. It was always that way, from the time that he was my tutor."
"Your tutor?" asked Jennifer, now seeming very interested.
Arthur nodded. "And my advisor after that," he continued. "Before he had to leave." He looked away uncomfortably, fingering the silverware on the table.
"Advisor?" asked Jennifer.
"In various matters," said Arthur. "I had a great many responsibilities at the time."
She nodded. "I can get some idea as to what that must be like. I've had my taste of leadership for some time now, ever since my father had to retire for health reasons. I'm managing the business he started, the Camford Corporation in London. It's a small company, nothing on the level of Xanatos Enterprises or Maddox Technologies, but I've had my share of problems running it. Especially having Darien Montrose for a competitor. Have you ever met him?"
"I fear not, my lady," said Arthur. "Truth to tell, even the name is foreign to my ears."
"You do talk like someone who's been living in a cave for the last thousand years," said Jennifer, amusement dancing in her eyes. "Well, at any rate, consider yourself fortunate not to know Montrose. The man is utterly shifty and unprincipled. He's probably behind half the disasters that his competitors suffer from. Oh, we can't prove anything; he's much too careful for that. But we always feel certain that he's the guilty party."
"I had a few competitors like that myself," said Arthur, nodding.
"So you're in business too?" asked Jennifer.
"Not exactly," said Arthur. "It was some time ago. I'd rather not dwell on it at present."
"Hostile takeover?" she asked matter-of-factly.
He nodded. "It's just grieves me to think of all I worked so hard for that's gone now," Arthur said, his eyes sad and distant. "It's also that - well, it's very difficult. If you'll forgive me - ".
"Say no more," Jennifer said, raising her hand in a knowing gesture. "Contractual silence due to litigation pending. Bane of the business world."
It was his turn to smile as if laughing at a hidden joke. "Yes, you could say that."
"Truthfully, Arthur, you're becoming almost as much of a mystery as your friend. What's his name, by the way?"
"I'm afraid that I can't tell you," said Arthur. "I doubt that he'd be using his real name these days. He couldn't without drawing a lot of attention to himself. If you'd ever met him, he'd have almost certainly been using an alias."
"A member of MI6, or something like that?" she inquired, intrigued by the possibility.
"I'm not quite certain what you mean by that, my lady," said Arthur. "But he will be trying to keep himself a secret to everybody. Perhaps myself included. I really should have expected that before I went to look for him. I've visited some of his old haunts in various parts of the island - Cornwall, Scotland, Wales - and so far I've found not a trace of him. Sometimes I even wonder if he's still alive."
Jennifer frowned. "Well, that certainly is a strange story that you've told me, Arthur. I don't think that I've heard anything odder than that in quite some time. So tell me, do you have any other friends? Or is this 'mystery man' of yours the only one that you have?"
"Well, I do have a couple of others," said Arthur slowly. "They've been traveling with me around the country, helping me search. And I've one or two acquaintances in London. Captain Colin Marter's one of them; he used to be in the Royal Air Force. And that is pretty much it."
"Any family?" asked Jennifer.
"Just a sister," said Arthur, "and I'm sorry to say that we're not on speaking terms at the moment. I was married once, but my wife died some years ago. It's another one of those things that I'd rather not talk about, either."
He seemed to shrink in upon himself at that point, looking so terribly lost and alone that she wished she had never brought the subject up. "Dear me, I am sorry," Jennifer said. "I really didn't mean to pry that much."
"Think nothing of it," said Arthur. He smiled sadly. "Truth to tell, I suppose that I should thank you, my lady. It probably does me some good to speak of these things every now and then. Oh, I talk with my friends about them occasionally, but it just is not the same, somehow."
"And what are these friends of yours like?" asked Jennifer. "Are they still with you?"
Arthur frowned, and looked around cautiously. The two old women who ran the tea room were bickering about something in the kitchen so he leaned over the table towards her. "I couldn't bring them into Carmarthen with me," he said. "Jennifer, can I hold you to a secret?"
Jennifer blinked. His brown eyes were warm and earnest and boring into hers. She felt her heart skip a beat. "Very well," she answered. "I won't tell anyone. I promise. Now what is the secret?"
"Well, my friends are gargoyles," said Arthur.
She stared at him in astonishment, her gray eyes wide open. "Gargoyles?" she exclaimed softly, startled but still very much in control of herself. "You - you're not serious, Arthur?"
"Very much so," said Arthur. "I've kept them hidden so far, particularly after the news from New York reached our ears. I don't want to alarm people with their presence - I can easily guess how they would respond to my friends - but I think I can trust you. You do seem a bit more open-minded than many that I've exchanged words with in the last few months, and therefore, be more accepting."
"Oh, I've never even been certain that the gargoyles business in New York City was anything other than a news hoax," said Jennifer, now looking much more composed. "It never even occurred to me that there might be any here in Great Britain. Although -" she chewed on her lower lip thoughtfully, "-- there have been some odd rumors floating around London lately. Of course, I'd always assumed that it was our local tabloids promoting a copycat of the Manhattan craze, just like the Daily Tattler in America."
"Well, those rumors are based on truth," said Arthur. "In any case, these two gargoyles are loyal friends of mine. They've even saved my life more than once. I can certainly vouch for their character. And I can assure you that they are not menaces to us at all, Jennifer."
"So why are you telling me this?" asked Jennifer, looking at him thoughtfully. "After all, you've only just met me today. Why are you sharing your having gargoyles for friends with me?"
"I don't know," Arthur said thoughtfully. His eyes studied her in a non-threatening, trusting way that rather pleased and thrilled her. "Perhaps, it's because you were much calmer about them," he said finally. "You didn't engage in the sort of fiery denunciations against them that that man we heard this morning did. I thought that you might be more receptive to their true nature. And if that was the case, then you could serve as an ally to them."
"You own a business company, Jennifer. It gives you a certain respect. If you can say a few things about gargoyles, things to help people understand that they don't want to make war upon the human race, that they want to live in peace with us, it will help them very much. Particularly if the Londoners find out about Griff's clan."
"Griff?" She raised her eyebrows and leaned towards him. "They have names? And they live in London?"
Arthur nodded. "It's only a matter of time before people here discover them, particularly after what happened in New York. And I don't want to see the result of that being another Quarryman movement, here in Britain. I know enough about such things to realize that they must be prevented. And a few words of reason from a person in a high place can do much to stave such a possibility off."
"So you want me to tell the world about your friends?" asked Jennifer. "Isn't that a trifle dangerous, Arthur? Especially for them, and for you?"
"No, you can keep that bit secret," said Arthur. "In fact, I'd rather that you did. But you can tell people that there's no proof that gargoyles are evil, that we should leave them in peace rather than hunt them down. That should be enough, surely."
"You could be right on that," said Jennifer, after thinking it over for a moment. "I'd like to meet your friends, first, before I decide anything. Just where are they?"
"Outside the town," said Arthur. "They'll be in their stone sleep right now. I'll take you to them, if you wish."
"Very well," said Jennifer. "Just let me pay the bill, and then we'll be off."
An hour later, the two of them reached the top of the hill, and stopped short. Arthur stared in disbelief and shock at the now empty space where his companions had stood only that morning. There was nothing but two flattened patches of grass to indicate that anything had been there at all.
Jennifer looked around curiously. "So where are they?" she asked.
"They were in this place this very morning, when I left them," said Arthur, bewilderedly. "I do not know what could have become of them."
Jennifer knelt down and touched the ground thoughtfully. "There have been a lot of people here lately," she said. "I can see their footprints. And leading down that way," she went on, pointing down the slope of the other side of the hill. "If your friends were indeed here, then somebody must have come along and taken them."
Arthur frowned. "Yes, you could very well be right," he said. "But who?"
"Considering that these are gargoyles we're talking about, there would be a lot of suspects to provide an answer to that question," said Jennifer. "I've heard quite a bit of gossip from my colleagues at the London Stock Exchange. If these gargoyles really do exist, half of them would trade their eyeteeth just to get their hands on one. After all, we're talking about an extremely rare species here, and potentially one with a lot of uses in unsavory enterprises. I'm sure that Montrose would just love to have a few gargoyles working for him."
"He'd be disappointed," said Arthur. "They're far too noble to serve men like him."
"Maybe, but I doubt that he knows that," said Jennifer. "At any rate, it should be easy enough for us to find out who the kidnappers are. Just follow the footsteps down the hill, and see if we can learn anything from them."
Arthur followed her as she climbed down the slope, watching the tracks left by the gargoyle abductors carefully. The two of them halted when they reached the road. "The tracks stop here," said Jennifer. "I imagine that they had a lorry or something like that waiting for them. It wouldn't make much sense to be carrying your friends when whoever the culprit is could store them in the back of a vehicle."
"If we only knew which way the lorry went," said Arthur. "This is one time when I could definitely use Mer - my friend's help."
"I don't think that we'll need your friend for that," said Jennifer thoughtfully, examining the road closely. "Fortunately for us, they've left us a trail to follow." She pointed. "See there? The mud on the lorry tyres is a different color from the soil around here." She straightened up. "I'll fetch the car," she said, "and we can drive after them."
"That seems like a good enough idea to me, Jennifer," said Arthur approvingly. "Let's get to it at once."
"So these are the gargoyles that you managed to nab," said William Powell, looking thoughtfully at the two stone figures in the middle of the cage before him.
He and the two Illuminati agents were standing in the cellar of William Powell's country house, a stone-walled, stone-floored chamber fashioned in a mock-Norman style. The room was bare except for the electric light bulbs set in the ceiling, and the cage in the center of the room. Griff and Cavall were both safely ensconced in the middle of this cage, still petrified.
"I must admit," Powell went on, "I am very impressed. For lower-echelon members, what you were able to do is quite a feat. And I believe that Mr. Duval himself will have to congratulate you most thoroughly."
"I certainly hope so," said Jacob.
"We'll have to find some way of getting them out of the country," said Powell. "That shouldn't be too difficult, of course. We simply disguise them as part of a shipment to a fellow Illuminatus in Manhattan - one other than David Xanatos, of course; I don't think that we can really trust him any more, after recent events - and shortly afterwards, Duval and the Inner Circle will be receiving an early Christmas gift. And one certainly much more welcome than neckties or chocolate oranges," he added, with a wry smile.
"We still have to make certain that their friend doesn't try to rescue them," said Alfred.
"Ah, yes," said Powell. "The so-called King Arthur returned from Avalon that gave us a few problems at Stonehenge. I'd have gone for having the authorities send him off to a mental institution, but when I proposed the idea to Mr. Duval, he didn't seem to like it. I don't know why, but it just seemed to rub him the wrong way somehow." He shrugged. "Well, it hardly matters. Unless he really is King Arthur - which I sincerely doubt - he won't get very far. Being an Illuminatus this high up in the Society generally encourages one to take certain security measures in one's own home."
"That still leaves the question of whom to send the gargoyles to," said Jacob. "Xanatos is out of the picture, of course. How about Mr. Cohn? He lives in New York now; in fact, he was the Society's liaison with Castaway before that recent little debacle."
"No, not David Cohn," said Powell at once. "I don't know why, but there's something about that man that I don't like. I can't define it; it just seems to be the 'Dr. Fell Syndrome'. I especially never liked the way that he seemed too much in love with the Quarryman idea. Almost as if he actually wanted Castaway to destroy every last gargoyle. And never mind that that would have defeated the whole purpose of funding his little organization in the first place. I've no proof for this, but I feel certain that if Cohn got his hands on these two, all that the Society would get would be a small pile of rubble."
"Are you certain that those two won't break out of the cage when they awaken?" asked Alfred. "Gargoyles are supposed to be very strong, after all."
"The bars of this cage are made from a titanium-steel alloy," replied Powell. "Trust me; they won't be able to bend or break them. I've planned for everything. I'd even have charged them with electricity, but I don't want our houseguests injuring themselves trying to escape. The Inner Circle won't be too keen on receiving damaged goods."
"Then everything's in order," said Jacob approvingly. "Shall we stand around and wait for sunset, or shall we leave now?"
"I say that we go upstairs now," said William Powell. "I doubt that these two will feel much in the mood for a casual chat when they awaken, and any conversations that we might have with them would be decidedly monotonous. They aren't going anywhere, so we might as well leave ourselves."
"Seems fine enough with me," said Alfred, with a shrug. And he and Jacob followed their host upstairs.
"This part of the woods looks familiar to me," said Jennifer, as she drove her car through the forest.
"Indeed, my la - Jennifer?" asked Arthur.
"I've been here once before," she said. "These are the lands around William Powell's house."
"William Powell," repeated Arthur. "Is he a friend of yours?"
"Not exactly," Jennifer replied. "More a casual acquaintance. I've occasionally done business with him, and even visited him once here with my father before I took over the company. He's one of the local magnates. He's even had a seat in Parliament once, though he was strictly a back-bencher. I hadn't thought that he might be mixed up in something like this."
"Do you believe that this may have been his handiwork?" Arthur asked her.
"I really don't know," said Jennifer. "It's entirely possible. He does have enough money to pay the sort of people you'd need to haul away a pair of stone gargoyles. Of course, I can't think of a motive for him, and I'm not sure how he'd even know about those friends of yours. You *have* been encouraging them to stay out of sight of most people, haven't you, Arthur?"
"That I have," said Arthur. "But there are a few people besides myself who know of them. My sister, for example. I hope that she is not in league with this Mr. Powell, assuming that he is party to this kidnapping."
"We're getting ahead of ourselves here," she told him. "We don't even know that Powell's behind this. That's still just an assumption. It could be anybody else." She paused and then looked thoughtfully at him. "By the way, are you and your sister really on poor terms, Arthur? I don't mean to pry, but it hardly seems very family-ish to me."
"It's a long story," Arthur replied. "I'd rather not dwell on it at present."
"Very well," said Jennifer, nodding. "I won't ask further." Then she suddenly halted the car. "I'm feeling more certain now that Powell is our man," she said to him. "Look!"
The road branched up ahead, with a smaller path turning off to the left. The tire-tracks turned off it, to continue out of sight.
"That's the way to Mr. Powell's house," she said. "I'd say that it makes it easier to believe that he's involved in this."
"Then we will need to find a way of rescuing my friends," said Arthur, preparing to get out of the car.
"Arthur, wait," said Jennifer to him. "First of all, we still do not know for certain that William Powell is a part of this. Oh, I feel certain that he is, but our evidence for it is all circumstantial. We could always have misread the signs. And more importantly, we can't simply force our way into the man's home. Perhaps it would have worked in the Middle Ages, but this is the 1990's, Arthur. Powell would have the law on us if we tried to break in, just like that. We must think over these things carefully first."
"Well, what do you propose, Jennifer?" Arthur asked. "I cannot simply abandon Griff and Cavall to the captivity of this William Powell. I never turned my back on my companions before, and I do not intend to do so now. I must find some way to come to their aid."
Jennifer was deep in thought. "It is a pity that I haven't been formally invited to his house," she said out loud. "If I had been, I could have brought you along with me, and we could have tried to uncover your friends' whereabouts, if they were there. But it would hardly be very polite for me to suddenly appear on his doorstep, asking myself to tea. We'll have to think of something else."
Arthur stroked his beard thoughtfully himself. "It is something of a quandary," he agreed. "I miss my friend more than ever now."
"Well, he's not here," said Jennifer, "so we'll just have to do without him." She was silent again, evidently mulling the situation over as she taped her fingers on the steering wheel. At last she shook her head and sighed.
"There's only one thing for it," she said. "It's hardly the proper thing, but I doubt that we have the leisure for etiquette here. I'll just have to 'invite myself to tea', as it were. It's a bit sudden but we do know each other - sort of - and I don't think that he's any reason to connect me with your gargoyle friends. In the meantime, you can find some way of slipping onto the grounds, and making some sort of search. Unless you could come directly inside with me."
"No, I believe that I had better not," said Arthur. "If Powell and his accomplices know enough about Griff and Cavall to set a trap for them, then they will surely know me as well, and by sight, as likely as not. It's better if they do not know that we are allies."
"Allies," said Jennifer amusedly. "You approach this almost as if we were going to war or besieging a castle, Arthur. Come to think of it, your name does strike me as very appropriate. I mean, the original Arthur. King Arthur."
Arthur decided against replying to her remark. "What is Mr. Powell's house like?" he asked her instead. "Do you know?"
"It's an old Tudor manor-house," she replied. "With a low stone wall surrounding it. You could probably climb over the wall, as long as you took care not to let yourself be seen. I don't know what sort of security measures he has; I never even gave them the slightest thought before. I'd still be very cautious if I were you, Arthur."
"I intend to be," said Arthur. "And I do have one or two precautions of my own." He took care not to let his eyes fall in the direction of Excalibur, still safely hidden from Jennifer's eyes, and anybody else's, by his overcoat.
"Very well, then, I'd best get ready," Jennifer said. She opened her purse in her lap and pulled the ponytail free, running a comb through her hair. Arthur watched her with a growing smile as Jennifer applied a little lipstick and blush, going from holiday shopper to sharp businesswoman in minutes. He had thought Jennifer had been an attractive woman before; now she was stunning.
"Well, that's the best I can do on the spur of the moment," she said finally. "What do you think?"
Arthur's eyes danced. "I think you are the fairest rose in all England," he said after due consideration, "and that if William Powell is not beguiled by your beauty the instant he sees you, he is both blind and a fool."
Jennifer laughed weakly. "Now there's a pick-up line you don't hear too often."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Never mind, Arthur. I'll wait here for ten minutes so to give you time to get to the house. When they let me in the main gate, they have to shut off the security systems for a few minutes. That should give you enough time to get inside." She looked at him anxiously. "Sound good?"
"It's a good plan." Arthur opened the car door and stepped out. He gave her a stern look. "Be careful, Jennifer. If there appears to be the slightest danger, you must leave immediately."
"Don't worry, Arthur." Jennifer smiled. "I'm a big girl. I can take care of myself."
Some minutes later, Arthur carefully scaled the stone wall surrounding the grounds of Mr. Powell's house. So far, he had seen no sign of any guards of any sort, but did not feel particularly reassured. He had the feeling that he would run into some sort of defenses soon enough.
He looked sharply at the Tudor manor-house before him, and began to think. Where would be the best place to force an entrance? Some side window, most likely, if he could find one that seemed unguarded. He moved slowly and carefully towards the wall facing him, looking over it for any likely opening. One hand went to Excalibur's hilt beneath his coat, as he approached the house.
He finally found the window that he was looking for. It looked into a small laundry room, unoccupied by anybody. The window refused to budge, so he finally, with a reluctant sigh, drew his sword and thrust it into the glass, shattering it. "I would that I were putting you to a nobler use, my friend," he said, sheathing Excalibur as he climbed through. "I feel more like a burglar than a king at this moment."
At least there was no noise to indicate that anybody had heard his entrance, which was a relief to him. Now he had to start exploring the house carefully, to find some trace of his friends. He silently opened the door and slipped out into the hallway, closing it behind him.
He was in a corridor with oak-paneling walls and a thickly carpeted floor. Several other doors were mounted into the walls. He tried a couple of them but found them to be locked. Arthur sighed again, and walked cautiously down the hallway.
"Now where would Mr. Powell be most likely to keep gargoyles?" he said to himself. "This would be much easier if I had been through something like this before. Up till now, everyone that I know who's caused trouble for gargoyles was more likely to kill them than to imprison them. Except for Macbeth, that is."
He nodded, remembering how the immortal Scotsman had confessed to him once, a little sheepishly, that he had taken prisoner three gargoyles from Goliath's clan the first time that he had met them, and placed them in cages in the cellar of his home. "The cellar," he said to himself. "Of course! As likely a place as any to search! Now if I can just find it."
He tried another door, and then another. All locked. He could have hewn them down with Excalibur, but it might risk announcing his presence. And he had no way of knowing which of these doors led to the cellar, or even if any did. Or if there even was a cellar. "This is going to be harder than I expected," he muttered to himself.
"It's getting close to sundown," said a voice suddenly, from around a corner in the hallway. "Our guests should be waking up soon, Alfred. Do you think that we should go down and check on them?"
"Maybe, Jacob," said a second voice, slightly less confident than the first. "Just as long as we can be sure that they won't break out. Powell says that those bars are tough, but after reading all the Gargoyle Reports that they issued us, I'm not so sure. Those guys must be even tougher."
"So they are being held here," said Arthur, nodding to himself with grim satisfaction. "That answers that question. And I may have found the guides that I need."
The two men rounded the corner, and stopped short in their tracks. Both stared at the intruder in shock, and all the more so since Arthur had unbuttoned and thrown back his overcoat, revealing the full splendor of his armor and surcoat. Excalibur was unsheathed once more and clenched firmly in his right hand, its blade shining brightly. It was a vision that neither of them could possibly have been expecting.
"I have reason to believe that you are holding captive two friends of mine beneath this roof," he said to them, in a slow, clear voice. "I have come to see that they are given their freedom."
The two men both stared at him with open mouths for a moment more. Then Jacob finally found his voice.
"You're trespassing!" he cried. "Who do you think you are, breaking and entering a private house like this?"
"I am Arthur Pendragon, once High King of all Britain," Arthur replied. "And I believe that whatever charges you have placed upon me dwindle before the wrongs that you yourselves have committed against my companions." He advanced upon them, his face grim. "Tell me where they are!"
"You're making a serious mistake here," said Jacob, collecting himself and staring Arthur straight in the eye. "If you knew what was best for you and your friends, King Arthur or whoever you believe yourself to be, you'd turn around at once and leave."
"I hardly believe that such will be the case," said King Arthur grimly. "And I'm not the least troubled by your threats. I've faced far more deadly adversaries than either of you."
"You misunderstand us," said Jacob calmly. "We are trying to help those two - friends of yours. That was why we brought them here."
"I fail to see how kidnapping them can be considered a form of assistance," Arthur said, frowning.
"You may not see it as that, but that is what it is," said Jacob. "Think about it, Mr. Pendragon, if you will. Humans fear gargoyles. They always have and they always will. That is why there are hardly any of these creatures left. Nearly all of them were hunted down and destroyed by frightened humans. Only a handful survived, and just barely at that."
"Remember what happened in New York just a few months ago," added Alfred, nodding. "A gargoyle clan made its presence felt, and the city turned into a morass of fear. The citizens banded together for the purpose of destroying these creatures, and formed the Quarrymen. They hunted the gargoyles, seeking their deaths."
"Old tidings," said Arthur. "The Quarrymen were broken up and their leader locked away. That peril no longer exists."
"Other such organizations will surely follow in their footsteps," said Jacob. "Human fear and prejudice will not evaporate simply because of Castaway's incarceration. There will be others like him, always."
"And you seek to imprison every gargoyle in the world to keep them from being hunted down," said Arthur. "And thereby deprive them of their freedom."
"Freedom is nothing compared to survival!" said Alfred. "The gargoyles cannot survive in today's world without our help! They're not designed to live in a world filled with hostile humans. They are stone in the daytime, and thus vulnerable to human attacks. How do you think most of the gargoyle massacres in the past occurred? Humans came upon them while they were in their stone sleep, and shattered them! There are no hiding places left for them, Arthur Pendragon! Too much of the wilderness is gone, and the cities are filled with frightened mobs that seek their deaths. Unless we step in, this race will be extinct by the year 2000! Trust me. This is the only way."
"No, it is not," Arthur answered firmly.
"I beg to differ with you, sir," said Jacob. "We made up our minds on this long ago. The only way of preserving this species is to keep every last member of it in captivity, far from prying eyes. Nothing else will work."
"That is where you are wrong," said Arthur. "Have the two of you not considered speaking to the people? Telling them that their fears of gargoyles are unjustified? Telling them what these beings are truly like? You will be helping them more that way than by confining them in cages, depriving them of their liberty."
"The public will never listen," said Alfred. "They're too easily swayed by hatemongers like Castaway. If we tried to convince them otherwise, they'd merely laugh at us - and then brand us 'gargoyle sympathizers' and try to kill us the same way that they try to kill these creatures. It won't work."
"I would think otherwise," said Arthur. "There are humans who are willing to listen, if you would but let them. I've already met a few on my travels, and there are surely more that I haven't yet encountered. And as for the Quarrymen, I wonder just how representative they are of mankind. I read about them in the newspapers, after their downfall. Most of them were mercenaries and hired thugs, not ordinary citizens; the latter had nearly all left Castaway soon after joining, when he failed to hide his true face from them. And as for Castaway himself - I've wondered whether he was not somebody else's pawn in all this. I doubt that he could have done all this on his own. Somebody was helping him - or possibly making use of him. I doubt that his uprising was quite the natural event you make it out to be."
"You've clearly been reading too many conspiracy theories lately," said Jacob. "The Quarrymen were a grassroots movement, if ever I saw one. And even if they weren't, most of the public still wanted those creatures destroyed. They didn't take up hammers themselves, but they still cried out constantly for their death."
"You do not convince me," said Arthur. "And I very much wonder how truly concerned you are about the lives of gargoyles, anyway. Are you telling me what you really believe, or what you want me to think you believe? I am not entirely certain, sirs, that your true motive in capturing my friends was not to make them into your servants, and force them into doing your bidding." He looked at them thoughtfully, frowning as he did so.
"You've no right to tell us what we can and can't do, anyway," said Alfred. "So what if we decided that they were safer under our protection? What are you, anyway? Some wandering lunatic who thinks that he's a king who died over a thousand years ago and may not have ever actually existed? Do you really believe that you're capable of looking after those friends of yours?"
"I do indeed," said Arthur, holding out Excalibur. "And I have wasted enough time already, listening to your excuses. Take me to my friends - NOW!"
With the last word, he brought Excalibur down on the carpet, hard. The blade flared briefly with blue light, and left a dark slashing singe in the rug. Jacob and Alfred both stared at it, their eyes bulging, then looked Arthur straight in the face. It was not a particularly reassuring sight.
"This way, sir," said Jacob, in a faint voice. And he and Alfred walked over to one of the doors. Jacob unlocked it with a key from his pocket, and swung the door wide open, revealing a long flight of stone steps. "The cellar is down here," he said.
"Lead the way," said Arthur, still holding Excalibur unsheathed. "Both of you."
In the cellar, the statues of Griff and Cavall began to quiver. Cracks formed across their surface. Then their stone skins burst, fragments flying in all directions. Both stretched and roared, then stopped and looked around.
"Something is definitely not right here," said Griff, frowning. "Either my memory's gone bad, Cavall, or this is definitely not the place that we went to sleep in the morning."
Cavall growled, sniffing at the bars.
"And where's Arthur?" said Griff, looking about. "I hope that whoever came along and nabbed us didn't get him too. Well, we'd better see about getting out of here."
He reached over to a couple of the bars and began to tug at them. Nothing happened, despite all his straining, and at last he had to give up. "These things are tougher than I thought," he said to the red gargoyle beast. "Whoever built this cage certainly knew what he was doing."
Footsteps sounded on the stairs, and Griff pricked up his ears. "Sounds like we've got company," he told Cavall. "Well, I've got a few things to say to them about the accommodations. More than a few, in fact."
Then three figures appeared in the stairway, and came into full view. The first two were a pair of nervous-looking men in rather tweedy-looking outdoors clothing. They were followed by King Arthur, brandishing Excalibur in his hand and holding it at their backs, his face set and grim. "Now release my friends," he said to the two.
"All right, we will!" said one of them. "Just put that big sword away, please!"
Arthur sheathed Excalibur and watched as the two men approached the
cage and began to fiddle with the lock. At last, they opened the door. Cavall burst out almost at once, nearly bowling them over. He rushed to the Once and Future King, tongue hanging out of his mouth and stubby tail wagging, letting out a few eager barks. Arthur smiled, and bent down to pat the gargoyle beast on the head. "Yes, I've missed you too, boy," he said.
Griff was out next. "Hullo, Arthur," he said. "However did you find us?" He then took in the two men with a sharp glance. "And who are these two chaps?"
"The people who had imprisoned you," replied Arthur grimly. "They had a third party in their scheme, too. I take it that William Powell was involved in this as well? This is his house, after all. Are you working for him?"
"Working with him, more like," said one of the men. "And yes, it's his house, and he was part of it. So what of it?"
"If I had time enough," said Arthur, "I would have more than a few words with this Powell. The man is clearly just as much a caitiff as you are, to take part in such schemes. And I still won't accept that excuse of yours about how you were only trying to help them."
"Well, if you can't face the truth, that's your fault and not ours," said the other man. "So what are you going to do with us?"
"I have more than half a mind to lock you both up in your own cage," said Arthur. "Your friend will find and release you soon enough, and it will certainly give you time to ponder a few things. By which time we will be gone from here."
"Not quite," said the first man. He pulled out of his jacket pocket a small metal ball, and hurled it to the floor. There was a small explosion, and a cloud of dark smoke filled the cellar. Arthur, Griff, and Cavall were momentarily blinded by it, and closed their eyes, coughing. By the time that the fumes had cleared, neither man was in sight. And the door at the top of the stairs was slammed shut.
"They're much more cunning than I'd thought," said Arthur, frowning. "Well, we'd best leave ourselves."
"Those two will almost certainly have locked the door behind them," said Griff, as he and Cavall followed the king up the stairs.
"True," said Arthur. "But that won't delay us for long." And with that, he brought Excalibur down upon the door. There was a flash of blue fire, and the doorway was empty except for the smoldering remains of the wooden portal.
"We'd best be away from here, and quickly," said Arthur. "Now that our presence is known, it won't be wise to linger. I don't know what defenses William Powell may have, but I don't want to test them."
"So which way do we go?" asked Griff, looking about as he and Cavall entered the corridor.
"Follow me," said Arthur. "We'll take the way that I came in."
"I must say I was surprised to have you calling on me but I am delighted to have your company," said William Powell, finishing his tea. "So how are things in London, Jennifer?"
"Well enough," Jennifer Camford replied. "Rather quiet, but that's the way that I like them. Quiet and uneventful. Better than a lot of noise and commotion, any day."
Powell nodded. "The calm before the storm, I'd say. You've heard of the industrial development project going on in Exeter?"
"Yes, my sales people are going after some of the software contracts out there." Jennifer crossed her legs and leaned towards Powell. "The word around London is a representative from Nightstone Industries is in town and Darien Montrose is negotiating a merger."
"That is news, indeed." Powell set his cup and saucer down. "I heard down at my club that Montrose acts as the British agent for Maddox Technologies."
Jennifer sat bolt upright in her chair. "Maddox Technologies? Isn't that the German-based company that's competing with Xanatos Enterprises? What is Montrose playing at?"
"A bloody high stakes version of Monopoly, it would seem," Powell snorted. "I wouldn't want to be in his shoes when the Labor party hears of this. They'll shove the deregulation laws straight down his throat."
"So, that's what Dad meant," Jennifer said, thoughtfully drumming her finger on her chin. "He said Montrose had his fingers in too many pies."
"Leonard always did have a keen business sense," Powell said. "It was a rare gift." His expression softened. "How is your father these days?"
Jennifer sighed and studied the ornate pattern on the side of her cup. "He has his good days when his mind is very clear and we're grateful that they still outnumber the bad ones. Alzheimer's is a very cruel way to end up a life for everyone. Mum keeps a nurse on full-time now and she comes up to London to stay with me occasionally when it gets really bad."
"Yes, I'm very sorry not to have visited your father more often after I heard of his condition. He was always there for any of the chaps that ran in our circle of society. I should really -"
The doors to the drawing room suddenly burst open, and two very flummoxed-looking men burst in. "Mr. Powell!" one of them began. "There's a bit of a problem with - " He stopped short, seeing Jennifer for the first time. "Oh, I didn't know that you had company," he said.
"Jennifer Camford, from London," said William Powell. "Just making a social call. Ms. Camford, these are Jacob Feldman and Alfred Ratcliffe. They're business associates of mine from the States. I do hope that you'll forgive them for their sudden entrance."
"Of course," said Jennifer, acknowledging them with a graceful nod.
"Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll just have a little word with them," said Powell, getting up, and walking over to the two men. "In private. I'll be right back. Probably nothing more than a little trouble with my stocks or something like that." And he left the drawing room.
"What is this all about, anyway?" he asked them in a low voice, once they were out in the corridor. "And be quick about it. I don't want our guest knowing or even suspecting anything about what's going on here."
"This Arthur fellow broke in and rescued the gargoyles," said Jacob. "We tried to stop him, but he's got one tough-looking sword. I'm beginning to wonder if he's the genuine article. If he isn't, he certainly has some very fancy equipment."
"The Inner Circle is not going to like this," said Powell, frowning. "We are going to have to recapture those escapees, and quickly. I hope that they haven't got far."
"We'll have to put out a general alarm for them," said Alfred. "See if we can stop them from leaving the grounds."
"You two get on it," said Powell. "Keep our visitors from getting past the wall. I'll just handle things with Ms. Camford quickly, and then attend to this so-called 'King Arthur.' Personally."
"Personally?" asked Jacob. "Against him?"
"My family has a long and proud history, Mr. Feldman," said Powell firmly. "There were Powells who fought for Edward III and the Black Prince at Crecy, for Henry V at Agincourt, for Henry VII at Bosworth, for Wellington at Waterloo. More than one of my ancestors has been knighted on the battlefield for deeds of valor. I am not about to betray their spirit by refusing a duel with this intruder. And if he is the King Arthur - well, that will certainly make a worthy augmentation for our coat of arms. To have actually crossed swords with a figure like that!" He waved them off. "Get to the security room and delay them. I've got some things to get together."
As Jacob and Alfred rushed off, William Powell returned to the drawing room. "We have a little emergency here, Jennifer," he said to her in a courteous voice. "There seems to be an intruder on the premises. My staff have everything under control, but you just might want to remain here for a while. For your own safety, you understand."
"Thank you, Mr. Powell," said Jennifer. "But I think that I'd better be going now. I hardly think it advisable to stay if anything troublesome is happening here. Besides, I really had to be leaving anyway." And she arose from her chair, putting her cup and saucer on the table. "It was a delightful evening, and we'll have to do this again sometime. Maybe next Christmas. I'll try to make my visit less sudden then."
"Well, if you insist," said Powell. "And good night to you, Jennifer. Give my regards to your parents. Drive safely home!"
"I have every intention of doing so," she replied, walking past him.
"It won't be long now!" said Arthur to his two friends, as they headed for the stone wall. "Once we're out of the grounds, we'll be safe!"
A dart suddenly whistled out of the darkness behind them and struck Griff on the shoulder. He let out a startled cry and fell forward. As Arthur spun around, a second dart struck Cavall. The gargoyle beast growled and began to turn around itself, then suddenly collapsed as its legs went out from underneath it.
"What is in those things?" Griff murmured in a semi-conscious voice.
"Sorcery at work, I imagine," said Arthur frowning. "It seems that our foes have not yet given up." He held up Excalibur, now glowing brightly beneath the night sky. "Show yourself, whoever you be! Only a coward shoots arrows from ambush!"
"I am many things, Arthur," said a voice, "but no coward. Those tranquilizer darts are meant only for your friends, but not for you. I am not going to stoop so low as to overcome you by the same means."
A man came into sight, wearing a suit of armor and bearing a large sword and shield. "I knew that keeping these family heirlooms in mint condition would pay off someday," he said, with a smile, advancing upon the Once and Future King. "I am William Powell, owner of this house. And I must take serious objection towards your interference with my business."
"If you are trying to hold my friends captive," said Arthur, "then it involves me. What do you want with them, Powell? And this time, do not bother trying to tell me that you are trying to hide them for their own protection. Your accomplices already told me that tale, and I did not believe it of them."
"You really don't believe that I'm going to share my motives with you, do you, 'King' Arthur?" asked Powell, amused rather than offended. "Trust me, I am hardly going to carry out the old cliche of telling my plans to you. In any case, I'm not at liberty to inform you about them. Suffice it to say that I and my friends have our reasons for wanting to get our hands on your gargoyle friends, and that's all that you will ever know."
Arthur glanced down at the now fully-unconscious Griff and Cavall, and then back to the armored man. "And what do you want of me?"
"You claim to be Arthur Pendragon of Camelot returned to Britain," said William Powell. "I am far from certain that you truly are he, but you certainly do seem to impersonate him most effectively if you are not. That makes you very likely to be - and forgive me if I really am indulging in cliches now - an opponent worthy of me. We Powells have a long and noble past, after all. We served with honor in half the great battles of this island's history. Who knows? An ancestor of mine might have even served under the original King Arthur - assuming that you are not he - in his wars."
"If that be the case," said Arthur sharply, "then you disgrace your forebears by engaging in such treachery as what you had planned for my companions. I'd have expected such actions from Mordred or his cohorts long before I would from any of my true knights. Your honor is already tarnished by your acts."
"Tarnished, perhaps, but not wholly gone," said Powell. "I will take you on alone, Arthur, man to man. And let none other interfere with us in this encounter! None other!" he repeated, turning his head to face the darkness behind him, from where the tranquilizer darts that had immobilized Griff and Cavall had come.
"Very well, then," said Arthur. "If it's a proper duel that you wish for, then a proper duel you shall have!" He raised Excalibur, and advanced upon his opponent.
The two swords met with a metallic clatter, and for the next few minutes, the armored men thrust and parried at each other. William Powell's skill quickly showed itself, and Arthur had to admit to himself impressed at how well the man could handle a blade. Defeating him would clearly not be an easy task, even with Excalibur.
"He's not an equal of Lancelot or Gawain," the king said to himself, warding off yet another blow. "But he's still a doughty enough foe. A pity that such prowess is not being used for a worthier cause."
Jennifer Camford walked quietly around the side of the house. She had only driven past the first row of high privet hedges and hidden her car. Arthur may or may not need her help but she was not about to just leave things half-finished. There was the noise of metal clattering on metal ahead, and could guess well enough as to what it meant. "I hope that Arthur's planned for this," she muttered to herself.
Then she stopped. She could make out two shapes crouched behind the hedges that surrounded the house, two shapes that she soon recognized as those of Jacob Feldman and Alfred Ratcliffe. Frowning, she moved silently a little closer, to see what they were doing.
"This is no time to be playing knight-errant!" Jacob was grumbling. "A third tranq, and we could have gotten them all taken care of without any of this nonsense! And he has to throw it all away, just because of a few ancestors of his! However did Powell get to be so high up in the Society, with an attitude like that?"
"Well, there's nothing that we can do about it now," replied Alfred. "We'll just have to watch. And if Arthur wins - well, we can still use your method."
"True enough," said Jacob, looking over the tranquilizer gun in his hand. "And at least we're getting a good show in the meantime.
Jennifer drew back, hardly even daring to breathe. As she squinted her eyes to look ahead, she could now see Arthur Pennington battling against an armored figure that was surely William Powell. But now Arthur was wearing a suit of armor himself, with a surcoat thrown over it that had a dragon emblazoned upon it, and a long cloak. And in his hand was a magnificent sword that glowed with a golden radiance. At this moment, he looked astonishingly similar to his legendary namesake. She blinked in disbelief, and blinked again when she saw the two unconscious forms lying close beside him - green, man-shaped creature with an eagle's head and wings and a large, reddish beast. He had told her they were gargoyles but his words to her hadn't prepared her for this.
With a sudden clang, Arthur knocked William Powell's sword flying from his hand, and then, with a quick blow from the flat of his blade, sent the man on his back. He then held out his own sword inches from Powell's throat. "Do you yield?" he asked.
"Now for it!" hissed Alfred to Jacob. Jacob prepared to fire the tranquilizer dart, but just as he was about to do so, a flower-pot came down hard on his head, knocking him unconscious. Alfred stared at his friend, then looked up, only to see Jennifer Camford bringing a second pot down on him in turn. It was the last thing that he saw for a couple of hours.
"Do you yield?" Arthur repeated his condition to a prone William Powell.
"I yield," said the man, his eyes widening as he looked upon Excalibur. "I yield. Do with me whatever you will."
"I want you to call off your attack on myself and my friends," said Arthur. "You will tell your allies or retainers or whoever the two men that worked with you were to leave us in peace. Myself and the gargoyles. And you will make no effort to pursue us. Do I have your word on that?"
"My word?" echoed Powell.
"Yes, your word," said Arthur. "You call yourself a man of honor. Well, tonight you can prove it. As bested in fair fight, you are bound to keep whatever oath the victor places upon you, by all the laws of chivalry. I assume that whatever respect you have for the code is true and not feigned?"
"Very well," said Powell. "You and your friends are free to depart. I - I vow not to interfere with the three of you, at least not for the term of one week. And to hold Jacob and Alfred to these terms, as well."
"That is well," said Arthur, lifting Excalibur up. "You may leave."
William pulled himself to his feet, turned, and walked away, slowly and unsteadily. As Arthur watched him leave, he saw a familiar figure approaching. It was Jennifer Camford, who was still staring at him, and at the bodies of Griff and Cavall upon the grass. She had a large flowerpot in her hands and her face was flushed with excitement.
"My lady Jennifer," Arthur said, stepping towards her. "Are you all right?"
"Me? I-I'm fine, I was -" she stammered and suddenly took notice of the pottery in her hands. "I saw some men that were going to fire on you. I bonked them on the head." She hurried set down the flowerpot and shrugged apologetically.
He nodded approvingly. "I realize that this is all going to be very difficult for me to explain to you, my lady," he began. "But I will do what I can."
"Well, the armor was probably more of an eye-opener than even the company you keep," she replied. "And the sword, too. Do you dress in that get-up often?"
"Well, yes," said Arthur. "But maybe we had better pursue this later. We must depart from here swiftly. I believe that William Powell will hold to the terms that I set him to, but I am not so certain as to how his comrades will respond."
"Trust me, I don't think that they'll be causing us trouble for a while," said Jennifer. "In the meantime, I think that we'd better move these two to my car." She indicated Griff and Cavall. "And that's going to be quite a handful."
Arthur nodded, and the two of them managed to raise the unconscious gargoyle knight off the ground. "Just be thankful that we aren't carrying them in the daytime," said the king with a smile, as they hauled Griff to Jennifer's car and placed him in the back seat. Cavall joined him shortly. Arthur and Jennifer then climbed into the front of the car, and Jennifer started up the ignition. A few minutes later, they were driving down the road from William Powell's house.
"Where shall I drop you three off?" Jennifer asked King Arthur. "It's a bit late for me to start back to London and I'm not sure my cousin would do if I showed up with the lot of you."
"The hill where my friends had slept the night before seems fair enough to me," he replied. "I'll keep watch over them until tomorrow night. Their stone sleep will have fully restored them by then, so that we can travel once more. And doubtless we'll want to be far away from here, after that."
"So these are your friends," said Jennifer, taking a brief look at the gargoyles in the back seat. "I must admit, you do keep unusual company. Though that's probably the least strange thing about you."
"At least you don't seem to fear them," said Arthur. "That's something of a relief."
"Well, they do take my breath away," she said. "But if you can vouch for them, I hardly think that they can be all that dangerous."
"It seems rather much to ask this of you, considering how much you have already aided us, Jennifer," said Arthur. "But when you return to London, please do your best to inform people there that they have no reason for dreading gargoyles. These beings are not their enemy, and only wish to live in peace with humans. You don't have to mention these events - in fact, I had rather that you did not, for now - but you can explain that we have no evidence that they are the evil monsters that many claim them to be."
"I'll see what I can do," she said, nodding. "Oh, and if you visit London regularly, do you suppose that we could meet again? It would be nice to have a friendly chat on some occasion when we don't have to deal with gargoyle-nappers."
"I'll see if it can be arranged, my lady," said Arthur, smiling.
LONDON - A WEEK LATER.
Darien Montrose walked out of the restaurant, turning up his overcoat against the cold wind that blew about the city streets. He glanced up at the night sky for a moment, then began to walk back to his car.
"Mr. Montrose?" asked a man's voice. "Might I have a word with you for a moment?"
Darien turned to snap annoyingly to the speaker, a tall gaunt figure muffled in a heavy coat who had just stepped out of the shadows. "What do you want?" he asked. "If you're another one of those pests from the Illuminati Society, then I've got nothing to say to you. It's not my fault that your friends couldn't keep their hands on those gargoyles. I've been chewed off by your people once this week, and I tell you, I had nothing to do with that piece of bungling. Which, now that I think over it, certainly raises the question of how you people ever managed to take over the world."
"I am from nothing so petty and trivial as the Illuminati, Mr. Montrose," said the man sharply. He took Darien by his wrist, clenching onto it with incredible strength. His eyes blazed with barely suppressed anger, as he pulled the shocked businessman into the shadows.
Darien glanced helplessly about, but could see nobody in sight. Not even any ordinary by-standers, let alone no police. "Who are you?" he stammered, looking at the grim face of his interrogator. "What do you want with me?"
"The Master is not pleased with your behavior, Mr. Montrose," said the mysterious man grimly. "You were given express orders by him. The man who calls himself King Arthur was not to be interfered with in any way. He was to be allowed to carry out his quest for Merlin unhindered by you. You understood that perfectly. And you told the Illuminati where to find him. You let them cross paths with the Pendragon, and jeopardized his mission. That must not be allowed to happen again, under no circumstances whatsoever! King Arthur and his companions must be permitted to find Merlin, without any further obstacles being placed in their path. Is that clear?"
Darien shivered, as the man's words hammered into his ears, and nodded. He lowered his eyes from the interrogator's angry face, and in so doing, noticed his tie-clip. It was made of silver, and shaped like a seven-pointed star.
"Wh - what are you going to do to me?" he asked, finally finding his voice.
"I am going to do nothing," the mysterious figure replied. "The Master needs you alive, to continue monitoring the search. So you are being spared - for now. But remember this. Betray us again, and you shall not find us so merciful. We have little patience for traitors. Is that clear?"
"Yes," stammered Darien. "Yes, it is."
"That is good," said the man. "Remember that. Remember that always. We will be watching you."
And with that, he let go of Darien, and walked off into the night.
The London businessman stood on the pavement alone, not daring to watch him depart. And it was a long while before his trembling lessened enough for him to continue on his way.