THE CURSE OF RIVENCROFT
Written by Todd Jensen.
Outline by Todd Jensen, based on an earlier outline by Damien "Foggy" Tobin.
Artwork by Lady Foxglove.
The Curse of Rivencroft
* * *
Previously on Pendragon
ARTHUR: No, there is only one course of action for me to take. I am going to have to leave London for a while.
* * *
"Leave London?" asked Griff. "But for where? Where are you going?"
"I do not know as yet, my friend," said Arthur. "I will just have to take whatever adventure comes my way."
* * *
"Wait a minute, Arthur," said Merlin, speaking up. The youth had been standing quietly in a corner of the hall, his arms folded across his chest, listening up to this point. But now he came forward. "I'm coming with you."
"Merlin, I cannot permit this," Arthur began. "I already told you that I must go alone. I cannot permit even you to come with me."
"Don't be a fool, Arthur," snapped Merlin, sounding more than ever like an old man trapped inside a young boy's body. "If you go off all by yourself, who'll watch your back for you?
* * *
Arthur sighed at last. "Very well, then, Merlin. I accept your company on this quest. Even a knight-errant needs a squire, after all. You may come."
* * *
"Farewell, my friends," said Arthur. "We shall return, someday." And with those words, he and Merlin set off towards the north. Their new journey had begun.
* * *
"It must be here somewhere."
The shadowy figure swung the beam of his flashlight about the walls of what had once been the great hall of the castle, back in the days when it had still been lived in. Nothing. Only bare grey stone, eaten away by the ravages of time and neglect, and in some cases, outright theft at the hands of villagers who must have decided that an abandoned castle was a perfect source for free building materials. There was no sign of anything interesting here. Except for....
"Ah, here we are," said the figure, with an approving nod, as his electric torchís light revealed in the distant corner of the hall what he had been looking for. The spiral staircase had, amazingly enough, survived the past five centuries of decay and dissolution, curving downwards into the darkness below. "This must be the way to the cellar. And no doubt, to wherever Lord Brihtric kept his treasure for the past thousand years. Down we go."
He carefully placed his foot on the highest stair, testing it. When he found that it was secure, he slowly descended the stairs, still holding his torch out before him. Now that he no longer had the night sky above him, the darkness was stronger, and he needed his flashlightís assistance all the more. Without it, he could not have seen even the stone beneath his feet. The stairs curled downwards, again and again, until they finally reached the bottom. The man strode forward into the open chamber before him, shining his flashlight straight at the stone walls and studying them closely.
"Ah, yes," he said, nodding again. "Roman masonry, going back to the time of Hadrian. No trace of the Plantagenets here. Yes, this is what remains of the original Castle Rivencroft when Lord Brihtric lived in it, before the Normans. And this must be where he hid his hoard. Now to find it."
He began to tap the walls carefully, checking for hollow spaces. He would have investigated the flagstones upon the floor as well, had his search been unsuccessful. But he never needed to go that far. For, after tapping his fifth stone alongside the west wall of the cellar, he heard the response that he was looking for.
"Yes, thatís it," he said eagerly. He set down his flashlight, then reached for the crowbar that he had tucked into his belt upon setting out on this midnight expedition. He carefully pried at the stone, and dislodged it after a fair amount of struggle, giving silent thanks that the mortar was as old and weak as it was. "And now weíll just see what Brihtric left for me to find, shall we?" he said to himself, shining his flashlight straight into the space behind.
It was just as he had hoped. An old wooden chest sat behind the stone, still sturdy-looking and remarkably well-preserved, considering that it had to have predated even the reign of Edward the Confessor. The man tugged it out with much grunting, and then set it down upon the floor. He inspected it closely, examining the runes carved upon its top. "Late Anglo-Saxon runes, but with Norse influence. That fits Brihtric. Those legends did say that he had allies, even relatives, in the Danelaw. This could very well contain his treasure."
He thrust his crowbar into the part of the chest where the lock ought logically to go, and pulled down hard. With a crack, the lid came open. The man lifted it up all the way, then peered inside eagerly.
His face fell when he saw the contents inside. "This is his hoard?" he said, his voice shaking in disappointment. "Some old books?" He lifted one out, opened it, then closed it again upon finding it written in characters which he could not decipher, but which were clearly not Dark Age runes or any other alphabet or writing system known to 10th century Europe. Putting it back, he rummaged through the other objects in the chest, the ones that were not books.
"Maybe this," he said, pulling a small stone tablet out. He looked it over, then shook his head. "No, it doesnít look valuable at all. Iíd be lucky to get two pounds for it." With a grumble, he tossed it over his shoulder, ignoring the shattering noise that it made as it struck the floor behind him, then continued sorting through the chestís contents. From the tabletís remains, a cloud of smoke rose up, briefly formed itself into a small and somewhat bewildered-looking creature that seemed a cross between a lion, a goat, and a serpent, and then dispersed. The man never even noticed the sight.
"That man was supposed to be one of the richest thanes in Northumbria in King Edgarís day, and this was all that he left behind? Where is the gold? The jewels? The finely-crafted objects? All that heís got here are some old books and a few other useless - wait a minute! Whatís this?"
He pulled out something from the bottom of the chest, and held it up so that he could look at it more closely. It was a small figurine, crudely carved from ivory. It seemed to be a representation, if a rather rough one, of a hag-like woman, with three smaller figures clinging about her robes. The man looked it over thoughtfully, turning it over in his hands.
"The Alfred Jewel itís definitely not," he said to himself. "And this lady would definitely win first prize in any ugly contest. But it may be worth something. If I can just find the right collector, someone who wonít ask questions...."
He sighed, then arose and stretched himself. "Well, it wasnít as much of a find as Iíd been hoping for. But this is as good as anything, I suppose. I might as well call it a night." And with that, he closed the lid, and climbed back up the stairs to the surface, holding the statuette tightly in his free hand.
A few minutes later, he had left the ruined castle behind him, and was making his way back into the village of Rivencroft with the one prize of his expedition still safely in his grasp. "I doubt that itíll be worth what I went through to get it," he said to himself with a sigh. "I should find a better way to earn some extra pounds. Treasure hunting just isnít it. But at least I wasnít caught at it."
It wasnít until he was walking past the village well that he suddenly found himself having to rephrase that. For that was just when he heard the footsteps approaching. Footsteps indicating that somebody else was out and about in the village, rather than home in bed and fast asleep as they ought to be. And they were drawing nearer.
"The constable!" He swallowed hard. That was the only person who ought by all reason to still be awake and out of doors this late at night, and also the person whom he was most afraid of meeting after his little visit to the castle. And all the more so thanks to the fact that he was carrying the incriminating evidence of his precise activities there....
There was only one course of action for him to take, and he took it at once. He threw the figurine into the well, and raced back to his house at a much quicker pace, hoping frantically all the while that the policeman would fail to hear either the resulting splash or the sound of his feet in such great haste. He wasnít sure how heíd be able to recover it, or even if he would be able to recover it; that hardly mattered to him by now. All that mattered was to get inside now, and hope that P.C. Hanley didnít catch up with him, identify him, and start asking him some very uncomfortable questions. This nightís excursion was shaping itself into an utter disaster.
Behind him, the footsteps came to a halt, as the small, slight figure that had been making them reached the well and stood beside it, gazing down into the watery depths below. She never spared the fleeing man even a momentís glance. She was too busy staring at the well.
Without warning, a sudden shaft of green light thrust itself upwards from out of the well, rising over the roofs of the village. A second such ray followed it upwards, and then a third. All three burst suddenly into balls of verdant brilliance, as if they had been fireworks. The small silent figure lifted her head to look up at them now. Bathed in their radiance, she looked almost like a living statue fashioned from emerald or jade. But then the three balls of light dwindled into sparks, and sank back into the well, with a splash as they struck the water, followed by a hissing sound. The water shimmered green for a moment, then reverted to its normal appearance.
The figure said nothing. She stared at the well for a few more minutes, then turned and walked away from it.
* * *
One Week Later
"You want to go to where?"
"Rivencroft," answered Arthur Pendragon in a matter-of-fact way. "Itís not so far from here, I understand. Just a brief journey northwards, is it not?"
"Well, yes," said the landlord of the pub. "But if I were you, now, Mr. - Unwin, wasnít it?"
"Quite correct," said Arthur, nodding.
"Ah, yes," said the landlord. "Well, as I was saying, if I were you, Iíd be giving Rivencroft a wide berth. Itís not a particularly pleasant place to visit at present."
"Indeed?" asked Arthur. "Why not?"
"We donít quite know, actually," said the landlord. "Itís been very difficult to get in touch with people there. Now, before it all began, we got a few people from Rivencroft visiting here occasionally. Take Alan Paterson, for example. Heíd stop by here regularly on his trips to Manchester and back; he always had time for a pint, and a bit of a chat with the locals. But heís not shown up in the last week. Itís not like Paterson to miss his visits here."
"Have you been able to contact him about it?" Arthur asked. "If you could inquire to him as to what was the matter, he would surely be able to inform you."
"That Iíve tried," said the landlord. "I have his number; I tried ringing him up at his home. But nobody ever answered the telephone. Well, except once, when I finally got hold of him. Very late in the evening. Last night, in fact."
"And what did he say?" asked Arthur, becoming quite interested now, in spite of himself.
"He said that he just wasnít able to leave Rivencroft," answered the landlord. "He couldnít say why, but he just wasnít able to manage it. But hereís the really strange part. He says that heís found that ever since last week, heís been blacking out in the daytime."
"Blacking out?" asked Arthur. He made a mental note to ask Merlin about these modern-day expressions. Even after having been abroad in the world of the 1990ís for more than three years now, he still felt confused by many of them.
"Thatís right," said the landlord. "He canít remember what happens to him in the daytime. Itís a complete blank. It seems to start at dawn, and end at sunset. But thatís not the strangest part. The strangest part is that nobody else in the village can remember what they were doing in the daytime. Nobody."
"That is very odd indeed," Arthur commented. "Admittedly, not the strangest tale that I have ever heard, but still, a most unusual one."
"Itís kind of like what went on in New York a few years ago," chipped in one of the regulars. "Remember, when there were those two nights there where everybody couldnít remember what happened to them?"
"You mean, the time that that strange lady showed up on the telly there?" said another regular. "Yes, I remember. Did they ever explain that one, anyway?"
"Not that I heard," said the first man. "Although strange things do go on there, anyway. Remember, New Yorkís where theyíve got all them gargoyles. Unnatural, I call it. I wouldnít want some of those creatures flying around my place at night, let me tell you. If you ask me, the Yanks can keep them."
"From what Iíve heard," said Arthur, a trifle sharper than he had intended his statement to be, "gargoyles are harmless creatures, no threat to the innocent at all." He was about to continue in this vein, when he remembered that that was not why he was in the pub. "But let us return to this Rivencroft matter, shall we? Now, has anybody actually ventured there, to investigate this mystery?"
"Mike Crampin went there a couple of days after it started," said the landlord. "His sister lived there, and he wanted to make sure that she was all right. We never heard from him after that. In fact, nobody who goes to Rivencroft ever comes back. Thatís whatís so creepy about it. Itís almost as if the place turned into a black hole or something. I donít like it at all, I donít mind telling you."
Arthur frowned thoughtfully. "It does indeed have a certain eerie tone to it," he said. "I must confess, what you have told me has aroused my curiosity all the more."
"But youíre not seriously considering going there still, Mr. Unwin?" said the landlord, astonishedly. "Not after all that youíve heard?"
"I am still giving that much thought," said Arthur. "But I imagine that it will still be necessary to visit that place. And it certainly does warrant some such investigation. I cannot say at present what is causing those strange circumstances at Rivencroft, my friend. But I do know that such phenomena seldom disappear by themselves. I have come across other - marvels of that sort."
"Marvels?" asked the landlord, raising one eyebrow. "Are you quite certain youíre feeling well, Mr. Unwin?"
"Very much so, thank you," replied Arthur.
He paid his bill, then left the public house, and walked back to the hotel where he and Merlin were rooming. The stars were out, but he paid little attention to them, or to the town about him. He was too busy pondering over what he had just heard.
Arthur had heard a great many tales about wonders and strange happenings in his time. His knights had all delivered them to him regularly at the grand meetings of the Round Table each Pentecost and on other occasions, so often, in fact, that he had adopted the custom of not sitting down to dinner on feast days until he had been told of some marvel - or received a call for assistance from some petitioner. He was now pondering over the tales that he had heard from them, seeing if he could remember anything that any of his knights had mentioned that could give him some clue as to what had caused the strange events there. For, although he could not be certain yet, he had a strong suspicion in him that whatever was at work in Rivencroft, it had been caused by magic. Had any of his knights ever come across such an experience on their quests?
There were one or two parallel cases, he did have to admit. Once or twice, one of his knights had come upon a remote forest glade or hidden valley where those who strayed within were unable to leave, unless somebody broke the enchantment which controlled the place. But never had a village been subjected to such a spell, and certainly never could he recall any magic which had caused its victims to forget whatever they had undergone in the daytime. This seemed to be quite a puzzle.
"Well, I imagine that Merlin will know the answer," he said to himself. "This is more his field than it is mine, in any case. And he does seem to know more about Rivencroft than I do. It was he who proposed that we go there after we left London."
Merlin was still awake when he entered their hotel room, seated in an armchair by the window and quietly reading. "Hullo, Arthur," he said, looking up from his book. "Did you find out anything important?"
"More than you could have expected," the former King of Britain replied. He quickly filled the lad in on what he had learned about Rivencroftís present situation in the pub. Merlin listened thoughtfully, a look of intense interest on his young face. Only when Arthur was done speaking did he reply.
"I must admit, this does sound very fascinating indeed," said the halfling wizard. "It does seem as though Rivencroft has recently fallen under some sort of unique enchantment. Itís certainly one that Iím not familiar with. I will confess that Iíve more than a little desire in me to study it. It might be an entirely new magical phenomenon."
"So there are no precedents for it?" asked Arthur, feeling a little disappointed.
"None at all," said Merlin. "For one or two components of it, there are, certainly. But in terms of its overall composition - itís definitely an original. I would very much like to know what happened there."
"Could it have anything to do with the Unseelie Court, do you think?" asked Arthur.
Merlin shook his head. "I very much doubt it," he said. "If this had anything to do with the war, it should have started much further back than just a week. No, I donít think that my fatherís people are to blame for this one. It must be something else. And I can easily guess as to who may be a partial culprit in this, based on the local history."
"The Lord Sorcerer?" asked Arthur. "You think that this may be his doing? But you told me that heís been dead for a thousand years now."
"True," said Merlin. "And Iím certain that he really did die, too. But a wizardís legacy can outlast him. When the Lord Sorcerer met his end, he still had, according to what Iíve heard, a fairly good collection of magical oddities. It could very well be that one of them may have been responsible for those unusual goings-on that you told me about. From all that I can tell, he must have kept his collection in his castle - and thatís close enough to the village to be able to influence it."
"Is that all that you can tell me?" asked Arthur, feeling slightly disappointed. "I was hoping for more than that."
"Unfortunately, I never met Lord Brihtric," said the boy. "His rival the Archmage - yes; I did encounter him once in 971. We didnít get along too well, either." A sudden, impish smile passed over his face for a moment. "Iíve sometimes wondered what heíd have thought and done if heíd known who that Welsh minstrel really was. I suppose Iíll never know. But the Lord Sorcerer - well, Iíd sometimes considered visiting Rivencroft. But I never got around to it. It might have been just as well. From what my informants told me, the Lord Sorcerer was in some ways more dangerous than the Archmage. He was a much better planner, for one thing, and more observant. Be glad that you werenít fighting him on Avalon, Arthur. Heíd have had the sense to attack the island in the daytime while all the gargoyles there were asleep, instead of getting impatient the way that the Archmage did. I may have done the right thing in steering clear of him.
"I knew that he had one of the best collections of magical books in Britain, and no doubt a few other interesting keepsakes. Remember, Rivencroft used to be a part of Hadrianís Wall, and the Roman legionaries posted there had a habit of bringing some very unusual talismans from all over the Empire. When you combine soldiersí superstitions with a healthy dose of cosmopolitanism, you can wind up with a very interesting blend of magical objects in one place. There must have been enchanted devices from as far away as Egypt and Syria there - and the Lord Sorcerer was able to claim them all, thanks to where he lived. And as I said, Iím quite certain that his collection must have outlasted him. And no doubt, itís somehow involved in the Rivencroft situation."
"And do you have any idea as to how that came about?" Arthur asked.
"Not yet," said Merlin. "And I wonít even guess until I know more about just what went on there. Remember your Sherlock Holmes, Arthur: itís generally a bad idea to form theories before you have the facts."
"Very well, then," said Arthur. "We will just have to discover the cause of the problem when we go there."
* * *
The journey to Rivencroft, as it turned out, took somewhat longer than they had expected. They had travelled there, as they had ever since leaving London, on foot; they had no car, and even if they had had one, neither one had a driverís license. Besides, as Merlin had pointed out, the search for them could be extending across the country any time now, and the authorities would be most likely to begin their search for the man suspected to be "the Connection" on the roads, and in other public places, which meant that the two fugitives would be safest out in the countryside, where fewer eyes would notice them. Merlin had spent some time studying the Ordnance Survey Maps covering the area, and had located a few footpaths which he felt confident would lead them straight to Rivencroft. There shouldnít be any trouble there.
As it turned out, though, there was. Some of the maps that Merlin had consulted had turned out to be slightly out of date, and so here and there, a footpath had been blocked due to somebodyís property expanding across it since the time of the map which the young wizard had read, or some such matter. Arthur and Merlin had needed to make more than one detour, which had cost them a fair amount of time. And then there had been the encounter with the herd of sheep and an extremely suspicious sheepdog, which had eaten up more of the day. Thanks to one delay, and another, it was not until half an hour past sunset that they finally reached the village.
It was difficult to see it in very much detail, thanks to the fact that night had only just fallen. Neither one of them had brought any source of illumination with them, and although Merlin could have conjured up a small ball of light to serve for such a role, both he and Arthur had agreed that it was a bad idea and would only have called the wrong sort of attention to themselves. Still, they could make out the general nature of the buildings. They were sturdy-looking stone cottages with slate roofs, all of them looking as if they had been standing for a good few centuries. Many of them were clustered in a sort of circle around the village well, an equally-solid looking piece of weathered masonry. The two travellers stopped outside of the pub, and looked up at the sign.
"Itís hard to tell in this light," said Merlin, squinting, "but I do believe - yes, I was right. Itís a wolf, wearing a medallion. Some memories about old Brihtric must linger on here."
"That wolf was a creature of his?" Arthur asked.
"He had an entire pack of wolves under his command, I recall, although he didnít make use of them very often," Merlin explained. "Their captain bore that medallion about his neck, as a badge, and the Lord Sorcerer could through it use the wolf as his eyes and ears if he chose. And yes, thereís the name of the pub. I can make it out now. ĎThe Sorcererís Servant.í"
Arthur nodded. "Well, it does seem as though this tavern will be the best place to begin asking our questions. Shall we, then?"
Merlin nodded. The Once and Future King knocked twice on the front door, then stood back and waited.
There was a long silence, before they finally heard footsteps approaching. Then the door swung open. A middle-aged man with thinning grey hair opened it. His eyes had a troubled, exhausted look in them, and his clothes hung upon him in an unkempt fashion, in many places looking quite baggy, almost as if their wearer had lost a great deal of weight recently. He blinked and stared at them both. "Here, who are you?" he asked, in a wavering voice. "I havenít seen you before."
"Good evening to you, sir," said Arthur. "My name is Arthur Unwin, and this is my ward -" - he glanced at Merlin for a moment, making certain that he could remember the youthís current alias - "- Timothy Peregrin. We have come quite a distance, and seek shelter in this village."
"This is a pub, not a hotel," said the man, rubbing his eyes. "If you want a place to sleep, thereís a Bed and Breakfast four cottages to the left."
Arthur nodded. "Well, I would prefer more than that alone, good sir, in fact," he continued. "My ward and I have come here on business - of a sort - and I would like to know a little about how things currently stand in this village. If I might come in and ask a few questions to you and the other folk here?"
"Do you have money?" asked the landlord sharply.
Arthur nodded. "I do have adequate expenses for my meat and drink, yes," he said.
"Then you can come in," said the landlord. "But the kid stays outside. Iím sure you know the rules: no minors inside a pub."
To Arthurís relief, Merlin made no protest to those words. "Iíll just go for a stroll around the village," he said to Arthur "Maybe Iíll meet with you at the Bed and Breakfastís that the man mentioned afterwards."
Arthur nodded, and entered the public house. The common-room had a number of other people already seated in it, local villagers by the looks of them. While they were of different ages, builds, and coloring, they did seem to share one thing in common: the worn-out, almost haunted look, that the landlord bore. Arthur made a mental note of it, wondering if it could have anything to do with the mystery of Rivencroft. It certainly did seem a possibility worth pursuing.
The regulars gave only a rather anemic response to him, a few muttered "hullos", before returning to their lowered conversations. Arthur sat down in an empty seat, and waited for the landlord to approach him. "And I suppose that youíll be wanting something, Mr. Unwin?"
"No thank you," said Arthur. "My ward and I had something to eat on our way here." Which was true, but he also was hardly in any mood to eat or drink anything at the moment, in any case.
"So what business brings you to Rivencroft, Mr. Unwin?" asked one of the regulars, looking at the newcomer sharply.
"Well, my ward wants to visit the ruins of the castle here," said Arthur. "Heís - very fond of castles; boys often are, you know. And also, Iíve heard - well, stories about this place."
"What sort of stories?" asked his questioner sharply.
"Things about how nobody can remember anything that took place during the day, for one," Arthur replied. "And one or two - disappearances. I donít suppose that any of you have heard of one Michael Crampin? He went to visit his sister here a week ago, and hasnít been heard from since."
"Michael Crampin?" The regular frowned, apparently trying to remember. Then he gave up, and shook his head. "Never heard of him. I certainly donít recall anybody by that name coming here lately."
"Nor I," agreed another voice. The other regulars grunted in assent.
"I see," said Arthur, nodding. "Well, let it be. I am curious about these Ďmissing daysí of yours, though, still. Could you tell me more about them, pray?"
The common-room of the pub fell silent, and every man there turned his eyes upon Arthur at once. They stared at him in sudden suspicion. "And why do you want to know?" asked the first patron sharply.
"I'm just interested," Arthur replied. "I have a certain - taste for such matters. And I thought that I might be able to help."
"Oh, one of those researchers, then, are you?" asked the man. "Well, we don't need people like you coming around here, sticking your nose into these things! We can take care of ourselves, without a whole bunch of questions from outsiders!"
"I am not denying that, my friend," Arthur said. Apparently this "missing days" matter had become a very sore point for the men. "But I can hardly think that there is any harm in my wishing to find out. I can assure you that I mean no malice to you at all."
There was some murmuring among the other patrons for a while, but at last, the first patron spoke, his voice sounding somewhat less hostile now. "Actually, we donít even know why we keep on blacking out ourselves. It happens to all of us, and nobody knows why it does."
"To all of you?" asked Arthur, leaning forward.
"Thatís right," said the man. "Everyone in the village. Even the children. We all black out when the sun comes up, and the next thing that we know, itís setting, and we canít remember what we did all day. Except that whatever we did, it must have been pretty tiring. We all feel worn out afterwards."
"Yes, I donít like it at all," put in one of the others. "If you want to know what I think, this place is being used for one of those top-secret Government experiments. Theyíre making us forget everything that happened during the day. Itís like weíre guinea-pigs for their newest weapon."
"Not the ĎGovernment lab ratí theory again!" groaned a third man. "Iím sick and tired of it. Itís nothing but absolute rubbish! Things like that only happen on the telly, not in real life!"
Arthur turned to him in interest. "And what do you think?" he asked.
"I think that itís aliens at work," said the third man. "Theyíre kidnapping us during the day, and making us do slave labor on their flying saucers. Then they make us forget everything and beam us back down again, so that we can sleep it off and be ready for beaming up again tomorrow."
When a few of the other patrons snorted in disgust and disbelief, as did the landlord, the man stood up. "All right, so you chaps donít believe me! But just think about it! Whatís been going on in the world lately? Itís got to be aliens! Thatís why weíve had all that extra winter lately. Theyíre the ones whoíve been causing it. How about all those lights in the sky that they had in New York and London recently? UFOs! Thatís what they were, UFOs! Theyíre planning to invade us, and maybe even blow up the White House, just like in the movies!"
The others only snorted some more, and a few of them made circling motions about their heads. Arthur decided against informing them about the real reason for the strange events that had inflicted the world in the last year or so. Instead, he asked, "And has anybody seen anything else here? Anything else that might be considered out of the ordinary?"
One of the men frowned. "Now that you mention it," he said, at last, "there is something odd thatís been going on here for the past week, ever since this business all began. Iím not sure if itís anything to do with this business, but, it is rather strange, and we havenít been able to explain it yet."
"Indeed?" asked Arthur. "What is it?"
"Well, thereíve been these little thefts lately," said the man. "Well, maybe Ďtheftsí is too strong a word for them. Perhaps we should call them Ďdisappearancesí, instead. But these things keep on vanishing. We never hear from them again, either."
"What manner of Ďthingsí?" Arthur asked.
"Food, mostly," the man answered. "Cans of soda, bread, that sort of thing. Weíre not certain how it happens. Most of it seems to take place during the day, and I suppose thatís why we havenít seen the thief yet."
Arthur frowned. "That is a very interesting detail," he said thoughtfully. "Has anything else vanished?"
"A blanket, a couple of days ago," said somebody. "And thatís it."
"Well, I thank you," said Arthur. He got up. "Iím going to find my ward now, and weíll see if we can obtain lodgings at the Bed and Breakfast that you spoke of. I wish you all a good night." And with that, he left the common-room of the pub.
He stepped out into the night, and went looking for Merlin. He did not have far to go, however, for he had barely left the public house when the boy came walking up to him.
"Hullo, Arthur," he said. "Iíve just been looking around. Havenít discovered any clues yet, though. I thought of doing a little exploring around the castle - itís up on the hill above the village - but then I decided to save it for tomorrow. The lightíll be better then. Well, did you find out anything?"
"Very little that was new or something other than wild speculation," Arthur admitted. He told Merlin about the conversation in the pub. "They know as little about this as do we at present," he said. "But the small disappearances did intrigue me. They certainly do not seem to fit the cliches that appear to cluster around these - paranormal occurrences was the word for them, I recall. Not like those crop circles or strange lights in the sky. I believe that it may very well be significant."
"You could be right about that, Arthur," said Merlin. "That might be the best place to begin our investigation. First off, we have to work out what is most likely the reason for those disappearances. I suppose that thefts is the most likely explanation."
Arthur nodded. "That is what I had thought as well. But thefts by whom? Someone in this village, or someone from outside?"
"Thatís the more difficult part," said Merlin. "Now, some dishonest villager may be taking advantage of these Ďlost daysí to rob his fellows, but it could equally well be an outsider. Actually, I think that itís probably the latter. You said that nearly all of the things that had been stolen were food. Iíd assume, therefore, that the motive of those thefts was hunger. It might have been a passing tramp. Or it might be someone else. We wonít know, until weíve found this person."
"Assuming that the person is still near at hand," said Arthur. "It is entirely possible, remember, that he or she may have since left."
"True," said Merlin. "But weíll assume, at present, that our mystery figure is still in the area. If that is the case, then where would we be most likely to find him?"
"The woods, just beyond the village," said Arthur. "A wanderer would encamp in them, no doubt."
"Then I would suggest that we search the woods first," said Merlin. "We may find our thief there. Itís possible that he or she has nothing to do with these goings-on, of course, but Iíd like to ask this person a few questions in any case. He could have seen just what takes place here during the day."
"That seems sound enough," said Arthur, nodding. "Then let us go there at once."
They walked back out of the village and into the woods, to begin their search.
* * *
"Iím beginning to wish that we had not left Cavall behind on the estate," said Arthur, as they crept through the woods. "If there were any strange scents to be found in this forest, his nose would have picked them up, and he could have led us to their source."
"True," said Merlin. He was bent low, looking closely at the ground before them, to check it for footprints. "But we did indeed leave him behind, so weíre going to have to do without him. Heíd have been rather difficult for us to transport anyway, given his condition in the daytime."
"True enough," agreed Arthur, nodding. "His namesake would have been much easier." He sighed, thinking back to his original hound, who had accompanied him on his adventures fifteen centuries before. Then, as his gaze swept about the woods, he spotted something.
"Merlin!" he said in a low voice, tapping the youth on the shoulder. "Look!"
Merlin followed the direction that his former pupilís finger was pointed in, into the depths of the woods. A figure was crouched amid the trees, watching them. As soon as they turned their attention towards it, however, it quickly turned and scurried off, disappearing into the shadows.
"What was that?" Arthur asked.
"I donít know," said Merlin. "It did look human, though. And a bit on the small side. Thatís all that I could tell about it, from the brief glance that I got of it."
"I could discover no more than could you," stated Arthur. "But it does seem that we have our hidden thief. Let us see if we can follow him."
They plunged through the undergrowth towards the spot where the mysterious watcher had stood, but their quarry was already long gone by the time that they arrived there. Arthur searched the ground for signs of footprints, but the soil on which the person had been standing had apparently been too light for his shoes to have left any discernible trace. He stood up at last, and turned to Merlin.
"Well, what shall we do now?" he asked. "Should we go hunting for this person now, or return to the village?"
"If you want my advice, Arthur," Merlin answered, "I think that we should split up. Weíll be able to cover more ground that way. Iíll go on searching for this suspect of ours, and see if I can finally track him. I lived in the Caledonian Forest for several years; I canít have completely forgotten the woodcraft skills I learned there. I ought to find this person, given time."
"Very well, then," said Arthur. "In that case, I shall return to Rivencroft. Itís drawing close to dawn. If I am in the village when the sun rises, maybe I can discover just what is going on there that the villagers have forgotten."
"Maybe," said Merlin. "Just be careful, Arthur. Make certain that whateverís affected them doesnít affect you as well."
"Iíll be careful," Arthur assured him.
"True," said the boy doubtfully. "But let us not forget that we donít know what is causing this odd case of amnesia. It could be something very common and difficult to avoid. For all that we know, the cause could be in the very air."
"Well, we do not know that as yet," said Arthur. "I will rejoin you when I can, Merlin. And once we have done that, we can decide what to do next."
Merlin nodded. "Godspeed, then," he said, as Arthur Pendragon turned and walked back towards the village.
* * *
Once Arthur was gone, Merlin continued to carefully make his way through the undergrowth. He honestly wasnít certain as to just what he was looking for, as yet. All that he knew was that he had to keep on going until he found it.
He had a vague recollection that the mysterious figure had fled to the left after being sighted, so he was headed in that general direction. He had found nothing so far that indicated that that person had been this way, at least nothing conclusive. Once or twice, heíd come across something that had looked like a footprint, but he hadnít been certain. Still, he stumbled on as best he could, even though the undergrowth about his feet was quite thick. It almost tripped him up, more than once. After the third time that it did that, he decided that he would just have to watch where he was going much more closely.
It was drawing very close to dawn - the eastern sky, or what he assumed was the eastern sky, was finally paling - when he came upon the clearing. It was a small one, surrounded by thick bushes on most of its perimeter, and open to the sky. It was what lay in the clearing that drew his attention. There was some sort of sleeping bag, with a woollen blanket over it, in the center. By it lay a backpack, a full-looking one. Merlin crept towards it closer, to get a better look.
"Yes," he said to himself, nodding in satisfaction. "I think that Iíve found it. The thiefís hide-out."
He bent over the backpack to examine it, and see if perhaps there were the remains of stolen loaves of bread and cans of soda inside. But before he could do so, something suddenly lunged into him from behind, throwing him forward upon his face. And the next thing he knew, he found himself in the middle of a violent struggle with his ambusher.
* * *
The sun was not above the horizon as yet when Arthur entered Rivencroft again and walked up to the front door of the Sorcererís Servant, but all the signs indicated that it would be rising very soon. Dawn would be upon them in only a few minutes. He would soon find out just what went on in this place during the day, or, at least, he hoped so.
Arthur knocked three times upon the front door, then waited. The footsteps took a while longer to respond, but at last the door opened and the landlord stood there on the front step, in his dressing-gown now, rubbing his eyes blearily, and looking even worse for wear than when the Once and Future King had seen him last.
"Oh, itís you," said the landlord with a groan, recognizing Arthur from the previous night. "What do you want? The pub doesnít open until noon; surely you must know that."
"I do," said Arthur. "But there are a few more questions that I wish to ask you."
"Canít they wait until this afternoon?" the landlord protested. "I need to get some proper rest and sleep. Donít know why, but Iím feeling very tired. I want some real shut-eye -".
He paused, and stared up at the sky. The rosy glow in the east was growing stronger now. The landlord watched it with fixed eyes, almost as if hypnotized. Arthur stared at him, wondering what had happened to the man. "Sir?" he asked, hoping to break the landlord from his trance. "If you could please tell me -"
It was then that the sun rose.
As its light filled the village, the landlord suddenly began to moan. He dropped to his knees, clutching his head between his hands. Arthur bent down to him, wondering what illness had suddenly smitten him. "What ails you, man?" he asked. "I ask that you answer me at once!"
The landlord let out a sudden sharp cry of pain, and even as he did so, the shape of his head began to alter. It elongated, and his nose and mouth fused together into a long bill. White feathers covered his head where skin and hair had been, and his neck stretched out to an amazing length. Arthur stepped back, speechless in surprise. He was used to strange sights, but this one had come so without warning that he had been barely able to prepare himself for it.
The transformation was complete, and what had been a human only a few minutes before was now a monstrosity, a man with a craneís head and neck. It swayed unsteadily for a moment, then righted itself. It turned its head so that its right eye now faced Arthur directly.
"What has happened to you?" Arthur asked the bird-headed man before him. "Can you speak?"
But he had his answer at once, merely in the look in the craneís eye. There was no sign of recognition or of rational thought in there at all. Only madness and savage ferocity. The crane-man now turned its head again, and stepped towards Arthur, still wobbling. As it did so, it opened its great beak, and let out a harsh cry.
The cry was answered by others, up and down the village, although different-sounding ones. The former High King of Britain turned his head to see other beings emerging from the cottages all about, beings of all varieties. Some seemed close to human, but had only one leg each and an enormous foot, upon which they hopped. Others had heads like those of dogs, fierce dogs which snarled and growled, showing their teeth. Still others had no heads at all, but merely oversized torsos with faces upon their chests. But all were dressed like ordinary English people, and, from both their garments and their sizes, not all of them had been men; there seemed to also be women and children among them. Or at least, that was what they must have been a few minutes ago, before their transformation.
"There is sorcery at work here," said Arthur, stepping back, his eyes widening further with awe. "I had expected it, but nothing this dark.."
The transformed villagers formed a circle about him, and began to close in.
* * *
"Get off me!" shouted Merlin, struggling still against his assailant. "Let me go!"
"No fear," his attacker replied. "Not until you tell me who you are, and what youíre doing here."
It was just a few words, but they were enough to tell Merlin a little more about his adversary. A quick turn of his head, with an effort, and his suspicions were confirmed. "Youíre a girl!"
She stared down at him grimly, a distrustful look in her eyes. "Very accurate indeed," she said, in a biting tone of voice. "You certainly must be a sharp one."
Merlin pulled himself free from her grasp, and took a closer look at her. She was about his current age, so far as he could tell, around fourteen or fifteen. She had shoulder-length chestnut-brown hair, quite curly, which fell over her ears, hazel eyes, and an oval face with fine, aristocratic features. She wore sensible-looking walking clothes, a thick jacket over her shirt, and blue jeans, with sturdy boots upon her feet. And there was a definitely unfriendly look in her eyes, directed straight at him.
"Youíre the person that my guardian and I are after!" he cried. "The one that we saw slinking about in the woods!"
"And you and your guardian are the people whoíve been chasing me," she retorted. "And I would like to know why. Why do you two have to pester me, anyway? Who gave you the right to stick your noses into my business?"
"Thereíve been some very strange goings-on in Rivencroft lately," said Merlin boldly. "My guardian and I are looking for whatever caused them. And seeing how suspiciously youíve been behaving, whoever you are -"
"My name is Mary Sefton," she replied in a very stiff, overly formal tone of voice. "And Iíd like you to explain just what you found so suspicious about my behavior. Well?"
"Youíve been sneaking about in these woods, for a start," said Merlin.
"And so have you," she replied. "That doesnít mean a thing."
"This is different," said Merlin at once. "We were investigating you. The way that you were doing your best to keep yourself hidden -"
"And who wouldnít be?" Mary Sefton retorted. "If you were trapped in a village, unable to leave it, and every morning everybody else in the place suddenly turned into a monster, would you be walking about in broad daylight, saying to everyone, ĎYoohoo! Here I am! Come and eat me up!í? Well, would you?"
"Well, when you put it that way, -" Merlin began. Then he stopped short. "Did you say Ďturned into a monsterí?"
"Exactly," she replied. "It happens every morning. They turn into these horrible creatures and stay that way until dark. All of them."
"In the village?" Merlin said, beginning to feel alarmed. "But - thatís just where Ar - my guardian went! And -"
He looked up at the sky. The sun was already above the horizon.
* * *
There had been only one thing for Arthur to do, and he had done it at once. With a swift movement, heíd pulled Excalibur out of its scabbard, and held it out before him now. His sword was there more to hold them at bay than anything else, actually. While he still understood very little of what had befallen Rivencroft, he could certainly tell that these half-human monsters now closing in upon him were actually the villagers, transmuted by some dark act of sorcery. In such a case, he did not like the idea of doing them any harm, not when they only attacked him because of the influence of whatever spell had transformed them. It was hardly a just act, to slay or wound these people merely for being the victims of an enchantment.
All the same, they were surrounding him now, and he was alone. He would have to fight his way out, and get into the woods to warn Merlin. Merlin would know what to do. If this was magic, then it fell into his area, and even if the wizardís powers werenít as great as they once had been, still, he would almost certainly be able to explain this event. Assuming that Merlin was still all right, of course.
He held Excalibur out at full length, point raised in the air rather than thrust outwards towards the ranks of his attackers, and concentrated hard. One of the swordís powers, which Merlin had told him about once, was the ability to produce light from its blade equal to that of thirty torches, when commanded by the silent will of its bearer. He had seldom made use of its power, but once he had invoked it, to help rout the rebellious army of King Lot of Lothian and Orkney, during their first battle at Caerleon at the beginning of his reign. A gathering of wild monsters was a very different matter than a war-host of northern knights and kerns, but he still hoped that the result would be the same. It formed his best possibility for escape.
The sword-blade suddenly erupted into a dazzling display of blue light. Energy crackled about its edges. The foremost monsters halted, turning their heads and closing their eyes against the blaze. Arthur strode forward at once, holding Excalibur before him. The dog-men and headless folk and the others crowded out of his path, unable to face the glory of the sword.
Arthur never stopped walking until he was out of their broken circle. Then, he turned and made for the woods. The monsters stood their distance, whatever remaining of their intelligence now having apparently informed them that a man with a blazing blue sword was a man to leave alone. Arthur was able to make it out of the village, safely.
"I donít know how long this display will keep them cowed," he said to himself. "But at least we have part of the answer now. I must find Merlin and tell him about this. Then we can decide what course to take from here."
* * *
"Youíre not one of them," said Mary, sounding relieved. "Youíre still human."
"About as human as I ever was," Merlin replied. "Now, I want to know more about these monsters that you say the villagers turn into. What sort of creatures are they? Iím not expecting you to know the technical terms for them, of course, but if you can give me some general description of them, I might be able to identify them."
"Itís all sorts of monsters," she said. "Some have heads like dogs, or like birds with very long beaks. Others have huge feet that they hop on, or just one eye. And then there are the ones whose faces are on their chests. Theyíre the really creepy ones." She shuddered. "Thereís more, but those are the ones that I can remember at the moment."
"Anthropophagi," said Merlin thoughtfully. "Something rather unusual for England, but not completely impossible. This really is amazing."
"Amazing?" asked Mary. She stared at him suspiciously, scrutinizing him with her hazel eyes. "Everybody in this village turns into some sort of horrible monster in the daytime, and that's all that you can say?"
"Well, -" began Merlin. But she cut him off before he could say more than that.
"And what was it that you called them again? Anthropo-something?"
"Anthropophagi," Merlin repeated, pronouncing it with all the dignity of a scientific lecturer.
"Then you know what these creatures are?" asked Mary.
"You might say that," said Merlin. "I - well, I've got some familiarity with this sort of thing."
"I see," said Mary, looking at him oddly for a moment. "Well, now that we've met, I'd like to know a bit more about you. Who are you, anyway?"
"Well," began Merlin, reaching quickly for the new alias that he had developed for himself since fleeing London, "my nameís Timothy Peregrin - at least, for the moment."
"The moment?" Mary asked. Her gaze from him did not waver.
"Itís a rather complicated story," he said. "Oh, and donít call me Tim. Or Timmy."
"I wasnít planning to," said Mary. "And, incidentally, why do I have the feeling that that name was something that you made up on the spur of the moment? Whatís your real name?"
"My real name?" asked Merlin. He wondered what to tell her. His real name would only mean more questions, of an increasingly inconvenient nature, and he wasnít certain that it was safe to let her know about his Emrys Hawkins identity. Before he could say anything, however, there was the sound of someone approaching through the trees. Mary stiffened, stepping back, and quickly picked a tree branch off the ground, a rather sturdy-looking one. "Theyíve never gone beyond the village before," she said to Merlin in a low voice. "This could be trouble. If you can find a branch, pick it up. We may have to fight our way out of this one."
Then the figure emerged into the clearing. It was Arthur, holding Excalibur out before him. Blue fire danced up and down the swordís blade. Arthur quickly halted, and lowered his weapon.
"Ah, good," he said. "Iíve found you, Merlin. And -" He stopped short, noticing Mary there. "And who might you be, my lady?" he asked.
"Merlin?" asked Mary, looking sharply at the boy. Then her eyes went back towards Arthur, riveting themselves upon his sword. "And just who - what on earth is going on around here?"
"Arthur, I believe that things have just become a little more complicated," said Merlin. He indicated the girl. "This is Mary Sefton. She seems to have gotten herself into this little problem, just as we did."
Arthur frowned troubledly, looking at her. "I do believe that we are going to have to begin with a few proper introductions," he said.
* * *
"If youíll forgive me about this, Arthur, I am still having some serious problems believing all of this," said Mary. "The only thing thatís keeping me from considering you and your friend completely out of your minds is that I saw that blue light coming from your sword, and it didnít look like just a touch-up from a Hollywood special effects department. Well, that and the fact that itís a little harder to be skeptical about this sort of thing after what Iíve seen in the village during the daytime. But still - youíre really King Arthur?"
Arthur nodded. "That is quite correct, my lady," he said.
"And heís Merlin?" asked Mary, looking sharply at the youth. "THE Merlin?"
"Also correct," said Arthur.
"Thatís what I have the most trouble accepting," she went on. "Now, granted that Iím finding it hard to believe that thereís a real King Arthur and that heís roaming around England today. But at least you look the part, and that sword of yours really could be Excalibur, the way that it was glowing when you came here. But as for your friend - well, shouldnít he be a lot older? With a long white beard and that sort of thing?"
"Iíve regenerated," said Merlin in a sour tone of voice. "I really donít want to talk about it."
"He certainly doesnít look very wizardy to me," Mary went on. "I definitely canít imagine him turning people into toads, or anything like that."
"Do you want me to try it on you?" Merlin asked sharply. Arthur quickly held up his hand.
"That will do, Merlin," he said. "For now, let it suffice that we are who we say we are, my lady. I am more concerned in learning your tale, at present. What brought you here to Rivencroft? And how is it that you have not been affected by whatever curse lies upon this place?"
"Well, you certainly insist on talking like somebody from the Age of Chivalry, even if you're not really King Arthur," said Mary.
"Itís the school holidays, and I was out taking a walking tour on my own in the area. I do this sort of thing every holidays, go out in the countryside for a week, stroll about alone, see a few interesting sights like ruined castles and abbeys, that sort of thing."
"And your parents permit it?" Arthur asked.
"Well, my motherís been dead for five years now," said Mary. "And Father doesnít really mind. Actually, I think that he likes it because it keeps me out of his hair. Heís a very busy man, you see. He spends most of his time down in London, actually. Heís got a lot of work there. Heís in the House of Commons, you see. And a very important member, at that."
"I see," said Arthur. "Well, proceed with your tale then, my lady, if you please."
"Well, I came to Rivencroft about a week ago. I thought that it might make a nice place to visit for a little while. I could visit the ruined castle, and do one or two things like that. However, I didnít manage to get to the village until after nightfall. I ran into a few problems along the way, and the sun was down by the time that I came in.
"I was just going past the well, looking for the Bed and Breakfastís or a youth hostel, when it started to happen. This strange green light came out of the well, then sank down again. I thought that it was - well, very creepy. It put the wind up me, I donít mind telling you. I wondered what had caused it.
"I managed to find a room at the Bed and Breakfastís after all, and slept there. The next day - thatís when it all began. I went up to the castle to take a look at it, and when I came back - people were turning into monsters, all over the place. It was horrible. I only barely managed to get away."
"And youíve been camping out in the forest ever since?" Arthur asked.
She nodded. "I had to. They donít leave the village - I donít know why, but they donít. Iím safe out here in the woods during the day. Well, safer. But it hasnít been very nice. Those things are horrible. You wonít believe how often Iíve had nightmares about them, since I first saw them. Itís a good thing that they at least change back at night."
"And you havenít simply left this place altogether?" Arthur asked.
"Iíve tried doing it," she said. "But I was never able to go very far. Thatís another weird thing about this place. Every time that you try to leave it, something goes wrong. The paths turn about and you find yourself walking back towards the village. Or the trees start shifting about and blocking your way. Iíve tried more than ten times, and it always happens. I canít leave at all."
"The Aldbourne Effect," said Merlin thoughtfully. "Yes, I should have known that something like this would have started up."
"Whatís that?" asked Mary. Arthur, by the expression on his own face, seemed unfamiliar with the term as well.
"Itís something that happens fairly often to a community thatís been placed under a magical curse," Merlin explained. "It sets up barriers that prevent anybody from leaving the area. You can get in, but you canít get out. Thatís what happened at Aldbourne in 1971, for example - which is where its name comes from, by the way."
"And how does one reverse this - Aldbourne Effect?" Arthur asked.
"Thereís no single means of doing that," Merlin replied. "For one thing, the precise nature of the Aldbourne Effect varies from occurrence to occurrence. In some cases, you get an invisible wall of fire that burns up anybody who tries to leave. The milder cases have the paths simply re-arranging themselves to keep people inside. Fortunately, we seem to be experiencing the latter variant. And, more significantly, thereís no single way of creating the Aldbourne Effect. Itís usually a side-effect of a more powerful piece of magic."
"Such as whatever is transforming those villagers into monsters," said Arthur. "I take it, then, that we need to discover the source of this enchantment, in order to reverse it."
"Precisely," said Merlin, nodding. He turned back to Mary. "Thereís something about your story that Iíve been wondering about, now," he continued. "Why is it that you donít turn into a creature during the daytime, like everybody else?"
"I donít know," she replied. "I havenít had that much time to think about it. Iíve been mostly trying to stay out of those thingsí way -". She broke off, and looked at Merlin. "What was it that you called them, again? Anthropophagi?"
Merlin nodded. "That is the technical term for such creatures: crane-men, dog-heads, sciapods, and the rest. It literally means Ďhuman-eaters.í They were mythological creatures, believed to live only in the far reaches of the East, back when Arthur was High King of Britain. Iíve only read about them in bestiaries and travellersí works, such as the writings of Sir John de Mandeville - which I honestly never believed until now, I might add."
"Oh," said Mary. "Well, in any case, Iíve been keeping out of their way, and doing a little foraging. Not to mention those occasional visits to the village."
"Visits?" asked Arthur. "For what purpose?"
"Once I realized that I was going to be here a while longer than Iíd intended," explained Mary, "I realized that the food that Iíd packed in my backpack could risk running out. So I had to start - well, helping myself to supplies in the village." She looked uncomfortable as she spoke. "Stealing, I suppose, actually, but Iím afraid that I didnít really have that much choice. I know that itís wrong, and I usually donít do that sort of thing, but when itís either that or starve - well, Iím sure that you must understand."
"We will not pass judgement upon you for the time being," said Arthur. "It does seem, though, that we have solved one mystery about this village, Merlin. Now we know why those small objects disappeared."
"Why didnít you just go up to the villagers at night and ask them for food?" Merlin asked. "Theyíre human after sunset, after all."
"I wasnít certain as to how much I could trust them," said Mary. "And I was a little scared, too. I donít know how one catches this - well, curse. I was afraid that I might somehow catch it from them, if I wasnít careful. I was taking a great enough risk just eating their food. Although I was careful to stay away from their water. I only helped myself to soda - and milk here and there."
"Why did you avoid their water?" Arthur asked.
"Everyone in this village gets their water from the well," Mary explained. "And I saw what happened at the well the night I came here. I definitely donít want to drink anything that came from a place like that."
"I do believe that youíve hit upon the source of the problem!" said Merlin, eagerly. "The well water! It must be the factor here!"
"Are you certain of this, Merlin?" Arthur asked.
"Iíll admit that itís just a guess at present," said the lad. "But itís beginning to fall into place. Mary has reported odd lights rising from the well at night, apparently the very night before the transformations began. Everyone in the village drinks from the well. Mary hasnít drunk any water out of it - just soda - and so sheís escaped the curse. I should have known that soft drinks would have to have some useful quality about them to outweigh what they do to your teeth."
"Can we have this explanation without the clever little wisecracks, please?" Mary asked sharply.
"If you insist," said Merlin, sounding a little disappointed. "At any rate, to continue: neither Arthur nor myself have drunk the village water as yet - fortunately. Thus, weíre not affected by the curse either. Itís all falling into place."
"Not entirely," said Arthur. "We still need to investigate the well, and discover if your theory is indeed correct, Merlin. And then we need to find a way of undoing this enchantment."
"And I suppose that you canít just snap your fingers and get these people back to normal?" Mary asked Merlin.
"Itís not quite that simple," Merlin replied. "Iíll explain later."
"You had better," she said. "If thereís something important going on here, I want answers."
"We are going to need to see that well," said Arthur. "We could, of course, wait until after dark."
"And risk being seen by the villagers once theyíre in their right state of mind, and having to answer a lot of tricky questions," said Merlin. "I think that weíll need to do this now. Theyíll be savage monsters, but at least savage monsters donít ask questions."
"Of course not," said Mary sharply. "They just try to rip you to shreds."
"Iíd better take a look at the well, then," said Merlin. "If we can form some sort of plan to make certain that the villagers donít give me any trouble while Iím examining it -"
"Iíll deal with that," said Arthur. "Iíll provide a distraction. Oh, and you should take the girl with you."
"Arthur, Iím not certain that thatíll be a good idea," protested Merlin. "Iíll have problems enough without her tagging along, and -"
"You will need her help, Merlin," said Arthur. "She's seen the well, and you have not."
Merlin sighed. "Oh, very well," he said. He turned to Mary. "Since youíre paired up with me, youíll just have to come along. But stay quiet unless I tell you to."
"Just so that youíll understand," replied the girl in a testy tone of voice, "Iím just as unenthusiastic about this as you are. All right?"
"And that will be enough from both of you," said Arthur. "We canít afford to quarrel any further. We must be on our way at once. Let us go, now!"
The three of them left the clearing, making their way back through the woods to the edge of the village.
* * *
Arthur drew Excalibur from its scabbard, and cautiously looked around the side of the cottage. There were very few of the Anthropophagi to be seen now; the only ones that he could espy from where he stood were one with very large ears, vast enough to serve as blankets for their bearer, and a couple of small dog-headed people. From the size of the latter, and the shrillness of their yaps as they chased each other, Arthur judged them to be children. That made him grind his teeth and tighten his grip upon Excaliburís hilt all the more. It was bad enough, placing a spell such as this upon innocent villagers, but upon children? At this moment, he would have given much to know who was responsible for this curse.
Arthur had to admit that he was taking a very serious risk here, based almost entirely on an assumption that he was making. Mary Sefton had already made it clear that the transformed villagers never left Rivencroft, not even to venture into the woods around it. Since she had been able to enter the woods to take refuge in them, and he and Merlin had been able to do the same, clearly the Aldbourne Effect would not have prevented the monsters from entering the woods as well. So, there seemed to be something else at work, something which prevented the victims of the curse, and them alone, from going outside the actual village itself. In which case....
He stepped out from behind the cottage, holding Excalibur aloft, and cried out. "Hear me, denizens of Rivencroft! I am Arthur Pendragon, the Once and Future King! I call you out to battle!"
The large-eared man and the puppy-headed children turned towards him at once, grunting in astonishment. Then, they rushed towards him, crying out as they came to alert the others. From all about the village, its transformed inhabitants emerged, sciapods hopping on their enormous feet, crane-men snapping their bills, dog-heads growling, cyclopes blinking their single eyes. All ran towards their challenger.
Holding Excalibur out before him, Arthur carefully stepped backwards until he was at the edge of the village. One step more, and he was just outside the edge, although barely so. He stood there and waited.
The monstrous horde halted just inches from where he stood, struggling to continue towards him, but unable to do so. Arthur nodded, with satisfaction. "Thus far and no further," he said. "And now to make certain that you remain here."
Crying out again in a voice of challenge, he brandished Excalibur before the ranks of the Anthropophagi, as if still doing battle against them. They snarled and howled, leaping at him, but Arthur always carefully stepped back in such a manner so that the boundary of the village was always between they and he. Thus, they were unable to reach him, or even to touch them.
"Let us hope that they continue this course long enough for Merlin to do what he must," Arthur murmured to himself.
* * *
"Not a monster about," said Mary, looking around cautiously as she and Merlin crept into the open part of the village. "He must have done it."
"Yes, Arthur does have a knack for this sort of thing," said Merlin, nodding. He walked up to the well, looking about him cautiously. "Nothing in sight. Itís safe."
Mary joined him at the well. "Now, do you seriously think that whatever is causing this problem is at the bottom of the well?"
"As I said before," Merlin answered, "all the evidence that we have points to it. I donít have time to run any tests on the water, but I have a very strong suspicion that if I did just that, it would turn out to be contaminated by magic. What we have to do now is to find out what contaminated the water, to begin with. And once we learn that, find a way of removing it from the well."
"So, do you have any ideas?" Mary asked him.
"That Iím still working on," said Merlin. He frowned, placing his hands on the stone rim of the well and peering down into the depths. "I wonder what did happen to it. The trouble is, there are so many possibilities. A meteorite landing in the well, for example, and tainting its water - although thatís a bit far-fetched, Iíll admit. Or maybe some secret government experiment. I met a fellow in New York earlier this year whoíd definitely believe that in a hurry."
"An FBI agent, I suppose?" asked Mary sarcastically.
"Well, he used to be one, actually," said Merlin, "but I understand that his higher-ups dismissed him for his theories. Heís a police detective now. Come to think of it, that particular theory could be correct. Maybe it is a secret experiment - although that would mean that somebody in Whitehall knows a lot more about magic than he ought to. Or -"
"Youíre a wizard," said Mary in an increasingly impatient tone of voice. "Canít you use your powers to handle this?"
"Well, maybe," said Merlin. "Although I should warn you that ever since Iíve regenerated, my wizardry hasnít been quite as strong as it used to be. You might say that my hocus pocus has been a wee bit out of focus. But Iíll give it a stab."
He stretched out one hand over the well, closed his eyes, and concentrated hard. Swirling images formed in the darkness behind his eyes, shifting their shapes. He squeezed his eyelids harder. And then, something began to take shape. It was a small figure carved out of ivory. He stared at it, trying to get a closer look at it. It was almost there....
The picture suddenly broke up. Merlin opened his eyes at once, blinking. Mary was looking at him. "Well?" she asked.
"Itís an object," said Merlin. "An object at the bottom of the well. We have to get it out of there."
Mary stared down into the darkness. "You know, I do believe that I can see something down there. You seem to be right about that, Merlin."
"And now we have to find a way of getting it out of there," said Merlin. "Thatíll be the tricky part."
"You canít just - float it up?" Mary asked.
"Not all the way," said Merlin. "I don't know what sort of magic might be powering that thing, and if I use the wrong spell, I could wind up turning the well into a very large crater in the ground - and us alongside it."
"That's certainly not a desirable option, I agree," said Mary. "So, do you have any ideas at all, Merlin?"
The young wizard frowned thoughtfully. "Maybe something small...." he said at last.
"Such as?" the girl asked him.
Merlin peered over the edge of the well. "Maybe something to shove it just a little, enough to land it into the bucket at the bottom," he said. "Then we could haul it up. The spell's small enough to avoid the usual dangers that come from mixing magics."
"Very well," said Mary. She still had a lingering note of skepticism in her voice, as if not quite expecting him to be able to perform such a task. But she bent over the rim of the well and watched.
Merlin extended one hand out over the center of the well, and pointed his index finger down towards where the object lay, muttering a few words in Old Welsh as he spoke. Blue sparks shot out from his fingertip, diving into the bottom of the well. Mary's eyes widened at the sight, but she said nothing. Then the object floated up from the bottom, and hurtled itself straight towards the wooden bucket floating by it. It hopped up into the air, and landed in the bucket with a satisfying thud.
"There, that's done it," said Merlin. "Let's haul it up, quickly!"
The two youngsters turned the crank until the bucket rose up to the top of the well. Inside was a small ivory figurine. Merlin gingerly lifted it out of the bucket and dried it off, while Mary watched.
"There," he said at last, nodding with satisfaction. "I believe that itís dry enough now. So letís see what we have here."
The statuette was one of a gaunt, bent hag-like figure, with a sour wrinkled face and thinning hair. Mary stared at it, and grimaced. "Definitely not at all worth a second look," she said. "Even my Great-aunt Violet never looked this horrible."
"There are smaller figures at the foot of her robes," said Merlin. "Letís take a closer look at them, shall we?" He brushed the lower part of the statuette off with his sleeve, removing the dirt and grime that had obscured them. "Ah, thatís better. Now let us take a closer look at them, shall we?"
There were three figures crowding about the crone. One was a wolf with its jaws open, appearing to be slavering hungrily. The second was a long dragon-headed serpent with a great mane extending down its spine, coiled all the way about the hag. The third was a human-like figure, but in some ways, even more grotesque than the two animals in appearance. The right side of her body was that of a lovely young girl, but the left side that of a withered, wrinkled corpse. Merlin frowned as he stared at them closely.
"Do you recognize them?" asked Mary.
"The offspring of Angurboda," said Merlin in a low voice. "This is worse than Iíd thought."
"Angurboda?" Mary asked. "What are you talking about, Merlin?"
"Howís your Norse mythology?" Merlin asked her.
"A bit on the rusty side, actually," said Mary. "I know some things about Odin and Thor and the Valkyries, but thatís all."
"Iím not that surprised," said Merlin. "Not considering what Iíve seen of the countryís educational system these days. But anyway, this figurine is a representation of Angurboda. She was the wife of Loki, the evillest and most corrupt of the Norse gods, and was the mother of three monsters by him - the very ones whom you can see clinging to her robes. The Fenris-wolf," he said, pointing to the wolf. "Jormungand, the Midgard Serpent." Here he indicated the snake. "And Hel, goddess of the dead." He indicated the half-girl half-corpse female figure.
Mary sniffed at it. "The last one looks as though she should be flipping a coin," she commented. "So, youíre saying that this is the cause of our problems?"
Merlin nodded. "Itís making sense now," he said. "Angurboda was the mother of monsters in Norse myth, kind of like Echidna was in Greek mythology. So it stands to reason that a depiction of her would be able to turn people into monsters, if it was charged with enough magical power. It must have been. It all falls into place now."
"And I suppose that youíre next going to tell me that the Norse gods are real as well," said Mary, rolling her eyes.
"Well, Loki is, at least," said Merlin. "I havenít met him, but I know somebody in New York whoís had a lot of problems with him. Heís not a problem any more, fortunately, but he doesnít have to be for this little family portrait of his to be a pain in our necks."
"Well, we have it now," said Mary. "Now we can do something about it."
"Youíre right," said Merlin. "Iím going to have to study this thing much more closely, and see what I can find out about it."
"Thatís what youíre going to do with it?" the girl asked, in a disbelieving tone of voice.
"You had a better idea, then?" Merlin asked her sharply.
"I was thinking of destroying it," she replied. "That seems the sensible thing to do, doesnít it? I mean, once itís been demolished, wonít the curse be broken?"
"Maybe," Merlin replied. "But with most of these talismans, itís not as easy as it sounds. You have to find a proper way of destroying one, in order to be certain that it really is gone for good. And that can be very tricky. There never seems to be a volcanic chasm around when you need one."
"Well, assuming that you really are as good of a wizard as youíre supposed to be, and that all of those stories about you arenít just exaggerations," said Mary, "that shouldnít be such a problem then, should it?"
"Maybe," said Merlin. "Well, letís get this thing away from here."
He began to walk away from the well, holding the figurine in his hand. Then, the statuette opened its eyes, staring straight up at him. Mary suppressed a startled gasp, while Merlin stared back at the statuette in utter astonishment. "What on earth -" he began.
The figurine of Angurboda then opened her mouth, and a high-pitched shriek came out from her lips.
"Howís it doing that?" Mary asked, staring at it.
"I donít know!" cried Merlin. "But I think that weíd better worry about that later! Right now, I think that weíd better run!" Under his breath, he muttered, "And I thought that mandrakes were noisy."
Sudden cries and howls sounded from behind them. Both youngsters turned around, in time to see a crowd of Anthropophagi charging towards them.
"Into the woods!" shouted Merlin, running towards the trees. "They canít follow us in there!"
Mary was right behind him, dashing towards the forest with him. "And a fine mess that thingís gotten us into!" she snapped, glowering at the statuette. "So what do we do with it now?"
"Donít rush me!" Merlin protested. "Iím thinking!"
* * *
Arthur heard the cry coming from the village well, away beyond the ranks of the monsters, and saw them halt, break off their assault, and turn in the direction of the sound. He guessed at once what it must mean.
"Merlin!" he cried. The diversion must have only succeeded for a while after all, it now seemed. He didnít know as yet what had happened, but clearly it had alerted the transformed villagers to his activities. And now his tutor and that young lady Mary Sefton were both in danger.
He acted at once. It would be suicide to run directly through the crowd of Anthropophagi in his search for Merlin; that much was clear. So he turned his course to run on the opposite side of the cottages from the stampeding horde, towards where he judged the well was. If he ran quickly enough, he might reach the two youngsters while there was still time.
* * *
Merlin and Mary flung themselves underneath the nearest bush, and pressed themselves low to the ground. They then stared up cautiously at the throng of magically altered villagers milling about through the trees, sniffing.
"Somethingís wrong here," said Mary in a whisper. "They oughtnít to be able to leave the village! Theyíve never been able to do it before."
"Shhh," replied Merlin. "Yes, I know, and I donít like it myself. I canít help but wonder whether our hauling that figurine out of the well had something to do with it." He stared reproachfully at the ivory statuette in his hand. At least it had fallen silent now.
"How long do you suppose itíll be before itís safe to crawl out?" Mary asked.
"Iím not even going to guess," said Merlin. "As long as it takes them to get tired of searching and go back home, I suppose. And thatís anybodyís -" He broke off in alarm, as something drew nearer the bush that they were hiding beneath.
It looked much like a lion, but it had a human head, with ruddy skin and a mouth with three rows of teeth. Its tail was studded with spikes, looking very much like the quills of a hedgehog. Its face was pressed low to the ground, and it was snuffling very intently.
"A manticore," murmured Merlin in a troubled voice. "One of the worst creatures that we could have gotten hunted by. I should have known that something like this was going to happen."
The manticore was drawing closer, sniffing with increasing eagerness. It growled softly as it came. It was now only ten feet away from the bush, and approaching all the time. And then Ö.
The flat of Excaliburís blade came down upon its head, striking it unconscious. Arthur stood over his fallen adversary, staring down at it for a moment to make certain that his blow had taken it out of the action for the time being. Then he turned towards the bush beneath which the two children were hiding, and spoke in a low voice.
"I believe that itís safe now. You can come out - but be careful, both of you."
Merlin and Mary crawled out and climbed to their feet, brushing themselves off. "Good timing, Arthur," said Merlin, breathing relievedly. "Iím not certain that I was up to facing a manticore just now."
"So youíve recovered the device from the well?" Arthur asked. He looked closely at the Angurboda Figurine in Merlinís hand, as if that sight was enough to answer his question.
Merlin nodded. "But there is that little side-effect problem," he said. "Taking this out of the well seems to have removed the monstersí restrictions on their movement. They can enter the woods now. I think that theyíre somehow attracted to this thing."
"I am no expert on magic," said Arthur, "but if this object is indeed responsible for their transformation, then I would imagine that that would make sense enough. But we must not linger here. They will find us, sooner or later, and we must be in a defensible place before that happens."
"The castle, perhaps?" asked Mary. "I mean - thatís what those things were built for. It is in ruins, I know, but it looks a sight better than anything else around here."
"You may be right, my lady," said Arthur, nodding. "To the castle it is, then! And hurry!"
The three of them quickly made their way back to the now-deserted village. Grunting, barking, and roaring sounds came from the trees behind them.
"They're still searching the woods for us," said Merlin, in a low voice. "But, if my hunch is correct, they'll soon realize that the very object that transformed them is moving, and then they'll be after us again."
"Do you have any more good news?" Mary asked him bitingly.
"At least once the sun sets, they will return to normal, and we will be safer," said Arthur.
"Sunsetís not for a while," replied Mary, as they made their way up the slope of the hill leading to the ruined castle. "Several hours in fact. If weíre going to find a way of curing them, then weíll have to find one quickly."
A baying noise rang out from below. The first of the dog-heads had begun to swarm back into the village, and saw the trio heading towards the castle. They yipped and howled to alert the others, and then ran towards the Once and Future King and his companions themselves.
"Theyíre after us!" cried Merlin. "Run faster!"
They raced up the slope of the hill, and through the remains of the castle gates into the courtyard. They paused for a moment there, to look about them for a place of refuge from their pursuers. It was Arthur who chose one.
"The keep!" he said, pointing to the ruins of what had once been the central tower of Castle Rivencroft. "Itís the safest place for us to take our stand. We may be able to hold them off there."
They ran to the keep, and were entering the great hall by the time that the first dog-heads were loping into the courtyard. Arthur shoved a few rocks to half-block the one entrance to the hall, then looked about him, with a generalís eye for the terrain.
"This will not be the best place for us to make a stand," he said with a frown. "They can still scale the walls and enter that way. Merlin, have you any suggestions?"
Merlin had been looking about him at the great hall and its contents. "Thereís a spiral stairway over here, leading down into the cellar," he said, indicating it to his companions. "Itís also the only way down that hasnít been blocked by five hundred years of neglect. We could use that."
"Very well," said Arthur, turning and giving the stairs a brief glance. "You two, go down into the cellar now. I will hold the entrance. Let us hope that I can last against those creatures long enough for you to find a solution, Merlin."
Merlin nodded. "Come on, Mary," he said. "Letís see if we can analyze this thing properly down below." He dashed down the winding stairs.
"You mean, if you can analyze this thing," she replied, following him. "Youíre the wizard - well, sort of."
"Iím going to ignore that, thank you," said Merlin, reaching the bottom of the stairs. He snapped his fingers, and a small orb of blue light sprang forth from the palm of his hand to float up to the ceiling of the cellar, providing enough illumination for the two adolescents to see by.
"Somebodyís been here," said Mary, looking at the floor. "Look at that chest."
They walked over to examine it closer. Merlin picked up one of the ancient books that lay in it, blew the dust off it, and leafed through it quickly. "These must be some of the Lord Sorcererís books," he said. "Perhaps one of them might be able to tell us how to undo the work of the Angurboda Figurine."
"Perhaps?" asked Mary. "Youíre not completely certain?"
"Well, Iím only assuming that Lord Brihtric knew more about this statuette than I do," said Merlin. "But if he didnít, then we could have real problems. Itís entirely possible that he never fully managed to unlock its secrets."
"Well, thank you for inspiring me with that piece of hope," said Mary sharply. "Now start looking through it, and see if you can find anything!"
Merlin handed her the figurine at once. "Iíll need both hands free to do this properly," he said, as he began to look through the book. "Hang onto this for me until I can find a counter-spell in here. If thereís a counter-spell in here."
He turned the pages, looking over their contents rapidly. "Chess games with the Archmage... no, thatís not it. The Tablet of Amisodarus... no, not that either. Improving the capabilities of a familiar... No, thatís not it at all."
From above, howls and growls heralded the arrival of the Anthropophagi. They had apparently managed to enter the great hall. Arthur, standing at the top of the stairs, swung Excalibur at them again and again to ward them off, although seeming to deliberately aim wide.
Mary dashed away from Merlin, who was still thumbing through the Lord Sorcererís book, and ran to the foot of the stairs to look up and watch the battle. "Why are you going so easy on them?" she called up. "Youíve got a sword, havenít you? Canít you bring a few of those creatures down with it?"
"Mary, these are innocents!" Arthur replied, hurriedly fending off a lunge from a crane-man. "They are only behaving thus because a spell has compelled them to do so! I will not use Excalibur, or any other weapon, to slay them."
Mary sighed in exasperation. "You definitely havenít changed much in the last fifteen hundred years, have you?" she asked. "Still so annoyingly chivalric."
Arthur said nothing, too busy holding his assailants off. She turned and ran back to Merlin. "Have you made any progress at all?" she asked him, almost frantically by now.
"None so far," said Merlin testily, looking up from the pages. "I am searching for one, but I havenít found one yet. If youíve really got nothing else to do, why donít you go back up the stairs again and ask those monsters very nicely if they wouldnít mind going away please?"
Mary clenched her hands into fists and ground her teeth in frustration. She looked about to say something to Merlin, then apparently decided against it, and rushed back to the foot of the stairs, to look up.
"Get back, all of you!" shouted Arthur to his assailants. But he was beginning to lose ground. The sheer weight of numbers of the monsters was too much for him, one of the greatest warriors of all time and armed with Excalibur though he was. They were slowly driving him back down the stairs now. Then, one of the headlesses lashed out at him with a clawed hand, striking him in the left shoulder. Arthur staggered back, then steadied himself. But it was clear to Mary that he could not hold out against their assaults much longer.
"Merlin!" she shouted. "Do something!"
"I still havenít found anything on that figurine!" yelled Merlin back to her. "Just give me a little more time -"
"We donít have any more time!" she yelled back. "We have to do something now! And if we canít do it your way -"
She raised the statuette in her hands as high up as her arms would stretch, then hurled it to the stone floor, hard. Then she snatched up a rock and struck the image of Angurboda, again and again, shattering it into fragments.
A blast of white light erupted from the remains of the figurine and flew upwards, sweeping towards the roof. Merlinís orb of blue light winked and went out. Merlin lifted his eyes up from the pages of the book in his hands and stared at the pillar of light, his eyes widening.
Arthur turned around to see it as well, just moments before it swept past him. The brilliant glow enveloped the crowding, surging monsters. They froze in their place, unable to advance towards Arthur one step further. And then, they began to change.
Before Arthurís eyes, his adversaries reverted back to human form. Dog-heads and crane-men regained their human visages from the neck up. Headless folk sprouted their old heads again. The colossal single feet of the sciapods shrank and split back into two feet. Cyclopes, manticores, and all the rest shifted back into the appearances of ordinary English folk. And with that, the light died away.
The villagers stood upon their feet, swaying unsteadily, their eyes unfocused. Then, they collapsed upon the floor, closing their eyes.
Merlin ran up the stairs to join Arthur. "Are they dead?" he asked concernedly.
Arthur bent down and looked at them closely. "No, not dead," he said. "Merely asleep. Or unconscious, at worst."
"Ah, yes," said Merlin, nodding in a knowing fashion. "It makes perfectly good sense. No doubt having the spell removed from them must have exhausted them enough to produce such an effect. They should sleep soundly for a few hours, and awaken, none the worse for -"
He never finished his sentence. A sudden horrified cry sounded from the cellar down below.
"Mary Sefton!" cried Arthur. "We forgot about her!" He turned and ran down the stairs, Merlin following closely. They reached the foot of them, and halted, staring in amazement at the bizarre sight before them.
Mary was held fast in the light that streamed up from the fragments of the Angurboda figurine, motionless. For a moment, she stood upright, but then she dropped to all fours. Her hands began to turn into paws. A tail sprouted from her backside, and her clothes changed into a coat of thick grey fur. Her face elongated, changing into a canine snout. Within only a couple of minutes, the transformation was complete, and a shocked-looking grey wolf stood in the cellar before them.
"The statuette must have done this to her," said Merlin, staring at her in alarm. "I knew that you couldnít just smash it to pieces like that and get away with it." He shook his head worriedly.
"So we have a wolf to deal with now?" asked Arthur, frowning troubledly. "I only hope that we can find a way of defeating her without doing her any harm either."
"Wha - what are you talking about?" the wolf stammered, in Maryís voice. It walked unsteadily towards them, blinking. "And whatís happened to me? Answer me, both of you!"
Arthur and Merlin both stared at her. "You can still speak?" Arthur asked. "And you feel no - bestial urges towards us, as did they?"
"Not yet, although if you donít tell me just what happened to me, I might change my mind," the wolf retorted. "Why am I a wolf, either of you? What happened to me?"
"The work of the statuette," said Merlin at once. "When you destroyed it, it must have unleashed some of its magic upon you, and turned you into a wolf. Well, a talking wolf. Thatís something that I certainly wasnít expecting."
"Well, stop wasting time!" Mary cried. "Turn me back!"
"Iím honestly not certain as to how to do that," Merlin said quickly.
"What do you mean, Ďnot certainí?" Mary cried. "Youíre a wizard, arenít you?"
"Well, yes," said the boy. "But this situation is a rather complicated one, and -"
"Perhaps we should save this conversation for later," said Arthur. "When the villagers awake - and we do not know how long that will be - they will doubtless be posing us a number of difficult questions, questions that I very much doubt we will want to answer. And having a talking wolf with us would only make matters all the more problematic."
"Good point," said Merlin. He hurriedly scooped up the remaining books from the chest, and then kicked the chest back into the niche in the wall from which it had been removed. "I really ought to block the hole so that nobody can fetch anything out from it and use it to cause more trouble," he went on, "but I donít think that weíve got the time for that. At least weíll be able to keep these books in safe hands."
Arthur nodded. "Let us leave, then," he said.
The three of them climbed up the stairs, Mary going somewhat slower than the other two. She was clearly still getting used to her new form, and ascending the stairs on all fours was obviously something that she would need to take time learning. They crept cautiously by the still-unconscious villagers, and made their way out of the ruined great hall and into the daylight.
* * *
"Well?" the wolf asked sharply, pacing to and fro. "Iíve asked you this question several times, Merlin, and you havenít answered me yet! Are you going to change me back into a human again, or am I going to be stuck like this forever?"
"Will you kindly be patient?" asked Merlin in an irritable tone of voice, looking up from the book that he was reading. "I still havenít found anything about the Angurboda figurine in these pages, you know. And until I know more about it, I canít break the spell that it placed upon you."
He looked up at the sky. It was getting dark, and the sun was setting below the western horizon. "Actually, Iíve a slight suspicion of my own," he continued, "that you wonít necessarily be a wolf forever even if I canít find a means of undoing the curse. If my theoryís right, then you should be shifting back any moment now."
"And what do you mean by that?" Mary asked. But just then, the sun set. The young wolf suddenly moaned again, and began to straighten up, standing on her hind legs. The fur receded from her face, which altered to become the face of a human girl. Her fur reverted to clothing, her front paws to hands, and her tail vanished. In just a couple of minutes, she was fully human in appearance again.
"What happened now?" she asked. "Am I - am I cured?" She looked the young wizard straight in the eye. "Well, answer me!"
"Not exactly," said Merlin. "This is something that Iíve been suspecting when I began to really ponder it, but Iíve only got the proof for it now. When the Angurboda figurine affected all those villagers, it transformed them into monsters during the daytime, and they shifted back to human form at night. Remember?"
Mary nodded. "So, Iím going to be a wolf in the daytime, and a human at night?" she asked. "Is that what youíre trying to tell me?"
"Exactly," said Merlin. "Technically, youíre a lycanthrope now. In laymanís terms, a werewolf."
"What?" the girl cried. She advanced upon him, her eyes blazing furiously, grabbed hold of him by the front of his shirt, and hauled him to his feet, shaking him. "Then you turn me back right away, Merlin!"
"Itís not that easy, as I said," the boy protested. "Youíre not a generic werewolf, after all. That I can handle. But a werewolf whoís a wolf in the daytime rather than one at night during the full moon, and who can still talk even in her wolf form, thatís a different matter. It could take quite a while to find a cure."
"Quite a while?" asked Mary. She released him, and stepped back, a troubled look upon her face. "As in - weeks? Months? Years?"
"I honestly donít know," said Merlin. "I donít even know if there is a cure."
"But - but I canít go back home like this!" cried the girl, almost wailing. "My family will probably disown me once they find out that I turn into a wolf during the day! Iím a freak now! And itís all your fault!"
"My fault?" cried Merlin. "Now, see here, young lady, you were the one who smashed that statuette, so Iíd say that you brought it upon yourself."
"But I wouldnít have had to smash it if youíd found a way of handling it yourself," she retorted. "So what do you say to that, O Merlin the Great?"
"That is enough, both of you!" broke in Arthur. "We do not have time for such bickering now." He then turned to Mary.
"At present, we seem to have no way of restoring you to your true nature, my lady," he said to her. "However, we can offer you shelter with us, until the time that we discover a cure for your condition. Your secret will be safe with us, I assure you; we are familiar enough ourselves with such matters. What say you to this, Mary?"
Merlin stared at Arthur in alarm. "Arthur, we canít do this!" he cried. "Weíve enough problems already, and bringing her along is only going to make matters worse. Do you understand the complications that are going to arise from having a female werewolf travelling with us?"
"Merlin, we cannot do otherwise," said Arthur sternly. "We cannot simply turn her backs on her, not in her hour of need. Remember one of the primary laws of chivalry: we must always do whatever we can to aid a woman who requires help. You made that clear enough to me when you were teaching me as a boy, remember."
Merlin sighed. "My own words turned back against me," he said. "You learned your lessons well, Arthur. But I still have my reservations about this."
"If it makes you feel any better," said Mary to him, "Iím not feeling particularly delighted about spending so much time in your company. But it seems that weíre both stuck with it, so weíll just have to put up with it."
"Then it is decided," said Arthur. "Let us leave this place, and continue with our journey."
"And just where are we going, anyway?" Mary asked, following the former High King of Britain and his wizard as they left the clearing.
"We havenít decided as yet," said Arthur. "But we will find the way in time."