THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING PART TWO
Written by Todd Jensen
Outline by Todd Jensen and Jonathan "Entity" Cotleur
Previously on PendragonÖ
"We retrieved this footage from the security camera in the warehouse that those men robbed," said Security Service Agent Robert Samuel Braddock, turning from the image of the man who had been addressed by his followers as "Mr. Pennington" on the television screen to the three men seated at the desk before him. "Iíd say that it proves beyond a doubt who our ĎConnectioní is."
* * *
"Is anything wrong, sir?" asked Winslow.
"Arthur Pennington appears to believe that heís King Arthur," said Braddock.
"The King Arthur, sir?" said Winslow. "The one from Camelot with the Round Table?"
"Exactly," said Braddock. "And here I was, thinking that we were dealing with just another criminal mastermind. Instead it seems that heís a lunatic as well. The place for him is Broadmoor, not one of Her Majestyís prisons."
"So whyís he doing all that smuggling?" Winslow asked. "It doesnít sound like the way King Arthur acted in the books, after all."
"It seems that heís bent on reclaiming his throne from the ĎSaxon usurpersí," said Braddock. "By which he means the Royal Family. According to this report, this Mr. Pennington wants to restore Britain to rule by its people, the Britons, and with himself as their leader. And with all the arms that heís been smuggling into the country lately, he apparently believes that heís ready to give it a try soon."
* * *
"Wedding?" asked Mary startledly. "What wedding?" But even as she spoke the words, she could expect the answer already. She knew in her heart what her fatherís reply would be. It explained everything.
"Morgana Cornish and I are engaged," said her father. "Weíre to be married in a monthís time."
* * *
"I hope that we will become better acquainted with each other, in the time to come," said Morgana. "Hopefully, once your father and I are married, we will have opportunity enough for that. But we can at least make a beginning now."
She gently brushed Maryís forehead for a moment. The girl felt another odd tingling sensation just then, this time in her head, but it passed in a moment, before she even had time to wonder what it was. A sudden look of astonishment appeared on Morganaís face, but it quickly passed. She got up.
* * *
"I have no wish at all to be you," said Arthur, his teeth set.
"Pull the other one, it plays ĎJingle Bellsí," said his double. "I know better than that. Think about it. What did those moral standards of yours do for you, anyway? You did all that preaching about justice and right, and look what came of it. You wound up having to send your own wife to the stake. And when your best friend came to rescue her, you had to go to war with him, even though you knew that it would tear the kingdom apart. Camelot wouldnít have fallen if youíd broken your own law and let Lance and Jenny go scot-free. But you went after them, and gave your enemies the opening that they needed. While your dad, on the other hand, ruled Britain like a tyrant, and died safely in bed."
"Yes, and crippled with a wasting illness that prevented him from rising for his last years of life," said Arthur, although with an almost uneven voice. "If you have anything better to do than mock what I stood for, whoever you are, then declare it now. But I will hear no more of your cynical words. State your true purpose."
"Right-ho, then," said the man. "It can be summed up in just one word. GOTCHA!"
Arthur and the others stared at him for a moment, bewilderedly. But then in the silence, they heard the sound of police sirens approaching. All four of them spun around, to stare at the opening to the warehouse, but could see no sign as yet of the police. When they turned back, however, the flippant stranger was missing, vanished without a trace.
* * *
Morgana turned to Seabairn as their car drove away through the night from Nigel Seftonís house. "Well?" she asked. "Did everything go according to plan?"
"Oh, splendidly," replied Seabairn, with a wicked smile. "Just swimmingly, auntie."
~~~The Once and Future King Part One~~~
* * * * *
Camlann, Southern Britain - The Early 6th Century A.D.
It had been a disaster. On a single day, the finest knights in all Britain, the flower of chivalry that would be the admiration and wonder of Christendom for over a thousand years, had fallen upon the battlefield. The Round Table was broken forever, past restoring. The dream of Camelot was shattered.
Arthur Pendragon stood upon the battlefield, leaning wearily upon Excalibur, as he gazed bitterly upon the carnage. The bodies of his knights lay intermingled with the remains of Mordredís renegade Britons and Saxon and Pictish allies. The looters from the camps and the nearby villages would soon be out upon the field to help themselves to the goods of the fallen, and to hurry along to the afterlife those men who had not quite given up the ghost yet. The High King of Britain frowned grimly at the sight of it all.
He had come so close to averting this terrible battle. His scouts had found the secret roosting place of those gargoyles that had survived Mordredís usurpation in Camelot and attack upon its resident clan, and alerted them to his need. If he had been able to delay the opening of the battle until after nightfall, they could have come to his aid and routed the army of rebellion with far less loss among his followers. So he had met with his false son that morning, parleying with him to buy himself time. And it might have succeeded, if only a knight had not drawn his sword to slay an adder and both sides mistaken it for an act of treachery. And so the slaughter began. The sun was setting now, and the gargoyles would be awakening from their stone sleep, but they would come to the field too late now. It was over.
He became suddenly aware of a knight making his way between the bodies that littered the battlefield, moving slowly towards him. For a moment, Arthur began to raise Excalibur, in case it was one of Mordredís own. But then as the knight drew closer, Arthur recognized the blazon on his surcoat and shield, and noted also his missing hand, and knew him to be Sir Bedivere, one of his own knights. He lowered Excalibur, feeling much relieved.
"Arthur?" asked Bedivere, lifting his visor. "Is that you?"
"It is," said Arthur. "Are there any others left of the Round Table besides you, my friend?"
Bedivere shook his head. "I am the only one left, my lord," he said. "The others are all slain."
"I had feared as much," said Arthur sadly. "Then it is over. The fellowship of the Round Table is no more."
"Do not say that, Arthur!" cried Bedivere at once. "True, our losses are high, but Mordredís army was broken. Heís no longer a menace to us. And we can rebuild. There must surely be enough likely squires and young knights left in Britain to -"
Arthur held up his hand, staying him. "No," he said. "It is over, Bedivere. Mordredís army is broken, true, but there were many among our enemies who were not here today, who were canny enough to stay away from the battle. Think of Maelgwn of Gwynedd, Vortipore of Dyfed. Theyíve long chafed under my rule; once word of this wicked day reaches them, theyíll exploit it at once. And many of the Saxon chieftains were absent from the field, as well. Theyíll be moving westwards now, knowing that the army that broke their shield-wall at Mount Badon no longer exists. The days of Camelot are at an end, my friend. It is too late to bring them back."
"Then what is left for us?" Bedivere asked, almost despairingly. "Return to Camelot and sit behind its walls, waiting for the end?"
"I do not know," the High King replied. "But there is still one thing left for us to do. Something that must be done, before we quit the field." His face became grimmer. "Where is that traitor Mordred who has caused all this misery? Is he among the fallen?"
Bedivere shook his head. "No, my liege," he said. "He still lives. There he is."
Arthur turned to look in the direction of the knightís finger, and saw his son, standing alone amid a heap of the dead, leaning on his sword. "Then it is time," he said, in a grim voice. "Time to make an end."
Bedivere must have easily divined his kingís purpose, for he spoke up in an alarmed voice. "Sire, you canít possibly be planning to do this!"
"Indeed I am," Arthur replied, lifting Excalibur.
"My lord, let him be," the last knight of Camelot protested. "We have won the field, even if it has been a Pyrrhic victory; the two of us are still alive, while Mordred has no followers left upon the field. And therefore, if you leave off now, this terrible day is past!"
"No," said Arthur. "Mordred will recover. I feel certain of it. And he will surely make a fresh head for himself now, unless we stop him. There is something dark about that man, darker than my other enemies. Maelgwn, Vortipore, Cynglas, all of them are cruel and corrupt men, but at least they are ordinary tyrants. But Mordred has something else about him. I do not want to even imagine what life will be like in Britain under his rule. He has to be slain. And we may never have another opportunity such as this one."
"Then God speed you well," said Bedivere, in a resigned tone of voice. And he said nothing more.
Arthur made his way through the slain to the place where Mordred stood. As he neared that spot, his rebellious son turned and raised his visor, to see him approach. A wicked smile curled across Mordredís lips.
"Hello, father," he said. "Come to pay your respects to me, I suppose?"
"This is your doing, Mordred," said Arthur, in a dangerously even voice. "So many deaths today - and for what? My throne? Was that prize worth this cost?"
"They were only people, father," said Mordred, with a shrug. "Thereís a great many more where they came from."
"Your own followers are gone," Arthur continued. "Slain on the field, or fled. Youíre without an army. Even your own advisor has deserted you." He did not say this last sentence with any lightness of heart. He had never met Mordredís mysterious counsellor, but what he had heard from those who had sighted him, such as Lancelot, had long made him feel uneasy about the man. He was glad that the man, whoever he was, had abandoned Mordred. "What will you do now?"
"I will manage somehow, father," said Mordred. "So, did you come here to talk or to fight? Because I can do either just as well as you can."
"I came to punish a traitor to the kingdom of Britain," said Arthur. He raised Excalibur up high. "Your death-day is come."
He brought the enchanted sword down upon his son. At the same time, however, he felt a sharp pain in his side, as Mordredís own blade struck home. It had not been a mortal wound, fortunately, or at least, it did not seem to be, but it felt close to it. Arthur staggered back, but managed to remain on his feet. Mordred was not so fortunate. He slumped to the ground, dying. But as he did so, he looked up at his father.
"Oh, youíre not going to be rid of me that easily, father," he said to the High King of Britain. "Weíll meet again, and I donít mean in the next world. You can be certain of that, father." And then he fell back and the light went out of his eyes.
Arthur stood upon the field of Camlann, gazing down upon the face of what had once been his deadliest enemy, before the pain of his own wound became too great for him to stand, and he fell forward himself.
* * *
London - The Present
"Theyíre closing in!" said Leba, listening to the cries of the police and the sound of their running footsteps. "It looks as if weíre trapped!"
Arthur and his companions halted on the pavement corner as it became clear from just those sounds that the way ahead was blocked. The Once and Future King looked about him on the city street for some exit that the police had not already discovered, but could find none. Neither could his three followers, Leba, Rory, and Dulcinea.
"It seems that you are right," he said. "Well, what do we do now, since we can neither flee nor -" - he looked sharply at Rory as he said those words, in case the young Irishman was harboring the notion of becoming Cuchulain again - "- fight?"
"That pretty much removes all of our options," said Dulcinea. "It could take a miracle to save us now."
"Would you settle for a few gargoyles, then?" called down Griff, landing on the roof above. Brianna, Faulconbridge and Imogen alighted beside him.
"Griff!" said Arthur, staring up at him. "Where are the others?"
"Providing a diversion," said Griff. "Theyíre going to keep the police busy long enough for us to get you out of there."
"Diversion?" asked Arthur. "I trust that they wonít let themselves be seen, Griff. My need is not great enough for your clan to reveal itself to the world at this point, my friend."
"Oh, itís nothing that drastic," said Griff. "But youíd be amazed at the uses that you can put some laundry to, particularly when itís left out on the clothesline at night."
There was the sound of muffled protests from both the street behind and the street ahead, to illustrate the griffon-like gargoyleís words. The four gargoyles quickly leaped down to the pavement below. "Climb up, Arthur," said Griff. "Once we get to the roof, we can easily take you back to the estate."
Arthur nodded, and clutched hold of his knight by the collar of his jacket as Griff began his climb up the wall of the nearest building. The other gargoyles were giving similar rides to his human knights. By the time that the police had extricated themselves from the clothing that had been dropped upon them, Arthur and his followers were all safely atop the roof of the building.
"Itís good that we brought you along with us," said Arthur to Griff and the other gargoyles. "Thank you, my friends."
"Not at all," said Griff, nodding. "Well, did you find out anything, Arthur? Anything that could help us?"
Before Arthur could reply, Caspian and Rosalind landed on the roof to one side, Cervus and Weller on the other. "I think that weíd better head back to the estate now, Arthur," said Caspian hurriedly. "That fallen laundry wonít hold them for long, and if they see us up here on the roof -"
"Yes, a good point," said Arthur. "Let us leave this place, at once."
The gargoyles scooped up their human companions, and took off from the rooftop, gliding away westwards towards their secluded home.
* * *
Braddock gave a sigh of utter exasperation, as he reviewed the just-concluded train of events. They had almost cornered Pennington at last, and then both teams of police under his command found themselves suddenly struggling to get out from underneath a shower of laundry that had just happened to choose to land on their heads as they were closing in upon their quarry. And by the time that they had gotten out from underneath it, Pennington had disappeared, escaped once again, and that vanishing act just as unexplained as before.
"How does he do it, Winslow?" he asked in frustration. "How does he manage to always evade us like that? Iím starting to think that he must be part-Houdini as well as part-Moriarty."
"It is a mystery, sir," said Winslow. "But he canít just wriggle out of our traps forever. Weíll have to catch him sooner or later."
"I know," said Braddock. "But all the same, Iíd like it to be sooner. I want to find out just how he does it all. In fact, there are a lot of questions that I want to ask him, and I can only get the answers once weíve caught him.
"Step up the search for him, men," he said, now addressing his team in general. "Scour all of London for him, if you have to, but I want Arthur Pennington caught, so that I can finally get this mystery solved."
* * *
"Well, you canít say that we didnít warn you, Arthur," said Colin Marter with a sigh, back at the estate. The gargoyles had left the council room to take up their posts about the ruined manor-house, dawn being close at hand, but the humans were still seated at the Round Table, discussing the events at the warehouse, Arthurís encounter with his mysterious double, and his narrow escape from Agent Braddock. "You definitely put your freedom in your hands, returning to London like that."
"True," said Arthur, nodding. "It would indeed appear that you were correct on that. But at least we know something about this person who is Ďframingí me. Although our discovery has, if anything, deepened this mystery."
"I must confess," Colin continued, "that that double of yours is indeed an enigma. I wish that we knew more about him, and particularly since he knows who you really are."
"Thatís what troubles me, as much as his appearance," said Arthur. "The worst of it is that he reminds me of somebody, but I still cannot quite give a name to him. I wish that I could." He turned to his old counsellor. "Merlin, do you have any suggestions?"
"Hmmm?" asked Merlin, looking up in surprise. He had been deep in thought still, as he had been since the council had begun, staring at the surface of the Round Table and moving his fingers about in odd outlines upon the wood. This was the first time that he had spoken since sitting down at his place at the table, in fact. "Sorry, but could you repeat that question again, Arthur, if you please? Iím afraid that I wasnít listening."
"And what is so important that youíve been ignoring Arthurís words all this time?" Dulcinea asked.
"I'm still looking for that loose end that I mentioned earlier," said Merlin. "I know that I've missed something, but I still haven't worked out what it is. But I may be able to find it soon."
"Letís hope so," said Colin Marter. "Timeís running out."
* * *
"Timeís running out," said Mary Sefton troubledly to herself, as she changed from her nightgown into her familiar hiking clothes. It was drawing close to dawn, and her transformation would be occurring soon. And she had yet to break the news to her father about what she had become at Rivencroft. Her secret could not last much longer.
There was only one thing to do, and although she still felt very much afraid of it, she knew that it was the only course open to her. Her father was going to learn about her nature eventually; this way, at least she would have some control over how he learned. She finished getting dressed, and quietly left her room, walking softly down the hallway to her fatherís bedroom.
She knocked gently on the door. "Father?" she asked, in a diffident voice. "Are you awake?"
"I am now," said a grumpy voice on the other side of the door. "What is it, Mary? What do you want this early in the morning? And while youíre answering that, why canít you wait until a more decent hour?"
"Iím sorry, Father," said Mary. "But this is really important, and I need to tell you now. May I please come in?"
"Oh, very well," said her fatherís voice. "Just a moment."
A couple of minutes later, he opened the door, standing there in his dressing gown. "Now, this had better be something extremely important to justify you waking me up before dawn," he said. "Donít you have some sleeping to do?"
"Not this morning, Father," said Mary gravely, as she entered his bedroom. "Something happened to me, while I was up in the Lake District, and itís the reason why I couldnít come home or even ring you up and let you know where I was. I was afraid to tell you until now, but - well, thereís just no putting it off. I have to tell you after all."
"Tell me what?" her father asked. "What did happen to you?" He looked at her suspiciously. "For your sake, it had better not be anything that could really create a scandal. Your running away was bad enough, but if it turns out that it was because youíd met a boy or something like that -"
"It wasnít like that at all, Father," said Mary quickly - perhaps a little too quickly. She stopped herself from blushing at his last words, and did her best not to think about Merlin. There certainly had been nothing the least bit indecorous going on between them ever, from the time that they had first met, and yet, she felt certain that her father wouldnít approve of him. "Itís - well, itís worse than that."
"Worse?" asked her father. "Exactly how - worse?"
Mary swallowed hard, and spoke. "Iím a werewolf," she said.
Nigel Sefton stared at her in utter disbelief. "A werewolf?" he repeated.
She nodded. "I - I became one up in the Lake District. I turn into a wolf each morning when the sun comes up, and stay that way until it goes down. And I havenít found a cure. Oh, Iíve made some friends, who were doing their best to help me - they know a lot about that sort of thing - but they just havenít found a way to get me back to normal. And I finally realized that I couldnít go on hiding any longer. So thatís why I came back. I just didnít know how to tell you until now."
Her father was silent for a long moment, merely continuing to stare straight at her. At last he spoke.
"If youíre going to make up stories about why you ran away, you might as well make up a more convincing one!" he snapped. "That was the most ridiculous explanation that I could have imagined! Werewolf, indeed!"
"But Iím not making it up, Father!" Mary protested. "Itís all true!"
"And I think that just because youíve heard about all that rubbish in the papers about monsters cropping up all over London last year, you thought that you could get away with that ridiculous tale!" Nigel Sefton retorted. "Well, you havenít fooled, me, child! Not one bit! Now, letís have the real story out of you, and letís have it out now!"
Mary sighed. "This is the real story," she said. She crossed over to the nearest window, pulled the curtains aside, and peered out. The sun was just about to rise above the horizon. In a moment, it would begin. She let the curtains fall, and turned back to face her father. "If you donít believe me, then just watch this."
Outside, the first rays of the sun lit up the eastern sky. As they did so, Mary doubled up, moaning. Her hands turned into front paws, and the all-too-familiar bushy tail sprouted from her backside. As she went down on all fours, her clothes changed into a furry coat, and her face changed into a wolfís. In another moment, the metamorphosis was complete. She lifted up her head, looking straight up into her fatherís eyes.
He was staring at her motionless, an expression of utter disbelief and shock upon his face. He said nothing, merely gaping at her. Then he staggered backwards, and sat down upon his bed, still staring at her.
"Now do you believe me, Father?" Mary asked him.
"H - how did this happen to you?" stammered Nigel Sefton at last. His face had turned even paler than hers with horror and confusion. "Tell me, Mary, now!"
"Itís a long story," she said, looking up at him. "But basically, I came to this village in the Lake District, where everybody turned into something really strange in the daytime, because of this magical statue of some old hag from Norse mythology, and I had to smash it to remove the curse from them. But that wound up with the curse landing on me. I know that this is rather hard to believe, but itís what actually happened to me."
"A magical statue?" asked Nigel Sefton, incredulously. "Thatís ridiculous! It sounds like something out of an American television cartoon series!"
"But you saw me turn into a wolf in front of you, Father," said Mary. "If you can accept that, canít you accept magic as well?"
"And why should I think that thereís magic involved?" asked her father. "This could be some sort of complicated genetic manipulation. Iíve heard rumors about a geneticist named Sevarius whoís said to be quite capable of that sort of thing. That could be what turned you into this - this creature." His eyes were now filled with horror and revulsion as he gazed upon her.
"I donít know anyone named Sevarius," Mary protested. "And, honestly, father, this really is magic! Why canít you believe me?"
"Well, whatever that is, that still leaves me with a problem," said Nigel. "And that is, what Iím going to do about you being a freak."
"Freak?" repeated Mary, shocked.
"Yes, freak," said her father coldly. "What else can I call someone who turns into an animal in the daytime? Do you realize what could happen the moment your condition leaks out? If the Opposition finds out, or the tabloids? Do you realize what that would mean? It would mean scandal and ruin for me! Thatís what it means! My political career would be over, and just as Iím about to receive my knighthood this very night! I could lose my seat in Parliament! And you could spend the rest of your life in a laboratory, with experiments being done on you! Itíll be the end for us both!"
He stopped short, suddenly aware of just how loudly he had been speaking, and glanced about him nervously. "You havenít told anybody else here about this, have you?" he asked. "The servants, or Morgana?"
Mary shook her head. "Just you, father. Well, you and the people whom Iíve been staying with for the last few months. But theyíve kept quiet about it."
"And who are these people, anyway?" asked Nigel suspiciously.
"I canít tell you, Father," she replied. "Iím sorry, but - they keep quiet about my being a werewolf, and Iíll keep quiet about them. They have their own secrets, and they donít want too many people knowing about them."
"We are going to need to discuss this later," said her father, after a momentís uncomfortable silence. "And discuss it at very great length. But thereís still whatís to be done about you." He got up and began to pace back and forth in the room.
"I canít send you off to school, not in that condition. Thereís no way that I can keep your turning into a wolf in the daytime secret there. I could send you out of the country, but to where? Whom can I tell about this? Thereís nobody that I can trust with the information that my daughterís a werewolf. Nobody!"
He turned about, and walked back to her. "Thereís only one thing left to do. Youíre going to stay in this house - and preferably, in your room - for the rest of your life, or until you get back to normal, whichever comes first."
"Father!" Mary protested.
"Donít argue with me about this, young lady," Nigel Sefton retorted. "Thereís no other alternative. You are not leaving this house while youíre a monster, and that is final."
"But Iím not a monster!" Mary protested. "I just turn into a wolf by day!"
"And thatís more than enough for me," snapped her father. "I donít know what Iím going to tell Morgana, but Iíll work something out. And, for your information, this is for your own good. Do you want to wind up some scientistís guinea pig? Because thatís just whatís going to happen to you, once the Government find out about you. Even I wonít be able to hold them off. And furthermore -"
But the telephone rang at that point, breaking off his tirade. Nigel walked over to it and picked up the receiver.
"Nigel Sefton speaking," he said, barely concealing the anger and frustration in his voice. "And this had better be important." He listened for a moment. "What?" he said. "Not again! Listen, Hewett, I donít care what it takes, but I want that Pennington apprehended and quickly, before things really get out of hand! And if heís managed to slip out of Braddockís grasp twice now, then maybe itís time that he got replaced with a more competent officer. But I want that troublemaker behind bars as soon as possible! And thatís my final word on the matter."
Mary froze as she heard the name "Pennington". Up until now, she had been so concerned with her own troubles that she had forgotten about Arthur still being a wanted man. But her fatherís telephone conversation had reminded her of that. And he was one of the people who believed Arthur to be a criminal and was striving to put him in gaol. And as if that hadnít been bad enough, now it seemed that Arthur had barely managed to escape capture again. She found herself wondering where he was and how he was doing now, and, for that matter, how Merlin was doing. For a moment, she wondered whether she should tell her father about Arthur, but then decided against it. In her present condition, she was hardly in any position to convince him.
Her father turned back to her again. "Now, to your room, Mary!" He snapped. "At once! And stay there! Do you understand?"
"Yes, father," said Mary. And she walked out of the room, her head hung low and her tail drooping.
* * *
"And in other news this morning," Regina Fitzwalter was saying on the television screen, "we have learned that Arthur Pennington, the man now held to be the infamous criminal mastermind and gun-smuggler known as the ĎConnectioní, was sighted by Security Service Agent Robert Braddock in the warehouse district of London last night, and pursued, along with three as yet unidentified accomplices. Unfortunately, Pennington and his associates escaped, but the police are still resolutely searching for him."
Morgana la Fay hurled the just-opened champagne bottle into the fireplace. The bottle shattered and the wine spilled into the flames, making them erupt in fury. But Morganaís fury was greater still.
"Again he lets Arthur escape!" she shrieked, leaping up from the comfortable armchair in which she had been watching the morning news. "This is the second time that heís done it! And the manís supposed to be the best of them all! How can he let this happen, Seabairn? How?"
"Well, auntie," said James Seabairn, lounging against the wall, "this is King Arthur that weíre dealing with here, not your run-of-the-mill scofflaw. Of course heís going to escape. Heís got a knack for it. And letís face it, your own track recordís not so good."
Morgana turned towards him, a dangerous light flashing in her eyes. "What do you mean by that, Seabairn?" she asked.
"Oh, come now, auntie," said Seabairn. "Letís review, shall we? All your schemes to get rid of him failed. The Accolon business with the fake Excalibur, Cousin Morfydd and that magic cloak, that ambush of yours at Tintagel, the Stone of Destiny caper, and even those Sarmatian ghosts. You still havenít scored a single goal."
"I was able to convince the authorities that he was a criminal," said Morgana.
"True," said Seabairn, with a slight yawn. "But what good does that do if they canít even nab him? Not a lot, Iíd say."
"I was counting on my brother being in a prison cell and unable to interfere before we went on to Phase Two," Morgana continued, returning to her pacing. "But now it seems that thatís not going to be possible. What we do has to be done tonight, and thereís little hope that heíll be arrested by then."
"Donít worry, auntie Mor," said Seabairn. "Yes, Arthur and his pet gargoyles are still at large. Thatís the bad news. But the good news is that the police are still after the ĎOnce and Future Kingí, and thatíll keep him so busy, he wonít have time to find out what youíre up to and stop it. Thatís something good, isnít it?"
Morgana halted, and pondered the manís words for a moment. Then she nodded.
"You may be right, nephew," she said. "And we have come too far to turn back now. Besides, once tonightís business is concluded, the authorities will be doubly determined to capture Arthur and have him put away for good. The deed could very well provide them with the incentive that we need - if all goes according to plan." She turned to face Seabairn again. "You are clear on what you are to do, arenít you?" she asked him.
"You worry too much, auntie," replied Seabairn breezily. "Trust me, now. Iíve got it all in hand."
* * *
"So here is what we know now," said Arthur, to the assembled human company at the Round Table. "Last nightís adventure has verified that there is indeed a man capable of impersonating me roaming abroad in London, and he is either the one who Ďframedí me, or else in league with that villain. Furthermore, he knows who I am. I mean by that that he knows who I really am. And that raises the question as to how he knows."
"Thatís not all," said Leba. "He also knows how to disappear, in quite a hurry. Are you certain that itís not another Unseelie, Arthur? That would explain quite a bit."
"I very much doubt it," said Arthur. "This doesn't feel like one of the Third Race to me. This is a man, a man like myself. But who is this man, and how does he know who I am?"
"Thatís going to be difficult to find out," said Dulcinea. "Particularly since Iím certain that the police will be searching for you even more than ever. Itíll be all but impossible for you to return to London for any further investigations after last night."
"I agree," said Rory. "Pity that you couldnít have found the Mantle of Manannan at Castle Rushen, Arthur. If somebody hadnít stolen it, you could have used it to turn invisible and hide from the police."
Merlin suddenly sat up, and turned towards Rory, a strongly interested look in his eyes. "Could you repeat that again, Mr. Dugan, if you please?" he asked.
"I was just saying that if somebody hadnít gotten to Castle Rushen first and stolen Manannanís Mantle -" Rory began.
"Yes," said Merlin triumphantly. "Thatís it!" He sprang up from his chair, and rushed towards the door.
"Whatís it?" asked Arthur. "Merlin, would you please explain to me what this is all about?"
"Not now," Merlin replied, almost out the door. "Iíll do it later. Just continue without me, please." And with that, he was gone.
Arthur and the others stared after him for a moment. Leba spoke at last.
"What do you suppose has gotten into him?" she asked.
"I donít know," said Arthur. "Maybe heíll explain it to us later. In the meantime, we need to decide on a fresh course of action, what to do tonight."
The council continued, without Merlin.
* * *
"I canít believe that I took me so long to realize it," said the halfling wizard, pulling the hazel wand that he had crafted in the Lake District out of his desk drawer in his room. "Thank goodness that Rory said what he said, when he said it. Now that gives me something to work with."
He scribbled down something on a note, still talking to himself. "I should have realized that something was wrong when we left Castle Rushen! The Mantle had been stolen before we got there, but not long before we got there. It wasnít Lucius who took it, so it had to be somebody else. And it would have had to have been somebody who knew about those properties. And now we know that that somebody must be in London."
He darted out of the room, and raced down the stairs, having left the note behind him on the surface of his desk. "Well," he said to his wand, tapping it, "Iíd say that itís time for us to do a little Treasure-hunting again."
* * *
Mary paced back and forth in her bedroom, and checked the clock on her bedside table once more. It was a little past noon. Still some hours to go before sunset and her transformation back into human form.
"Iím going to be glad when winter comes," she muttered to herself. "At least the sun isnít in the sky for quite so long then."
But that seemed almost trivial, now, compared to the two problems that she found before her. It looked as if she was going to be spending the rest of her life practically locked away in her fatherís house, sequestered from the world, because of her being a werewolf. And furthermore, Arthur and Merlin were in more danger from the police. Her own father was putting pressure on the search for them, doing all that he could to have them arrested. Or Arthur, at least, but if he was in danger, it wouldnít be long before Merlin would be in danger as well. And she had to do something to warn them.
But how? She knew in her heart that this was still the wrong time to let her father know about her having met the man suspected of being the "Connection"; nothing that she said would be able to convince him at this point that Arthur had been wrongfully accused. So what did that leave her?
There was no telephone in her room, and she wouldnít have been able to work it with her wolf-paws even if there had been. Which meant that there was only one thing left to do.
She walked over to the door, pushed herself up onto her hind legs, and did her best to work the doorknob with her front paws. Nothing happened. She ruefully reminded herself that her father had locked her in, with the statement that heíd be bringing her her food at noon, and only unlocking the door then. Her transformation was something that he couldnít even trust the servants with as yet. He was going to be handling things alone, and personally.
Noon was not far off, either. And she found that she had an idea forming now in her head....
* * *
Nigel Sefton shifted the food bowl over to his left hand as he pulled the key to the door out of his pocket with his right hand. He did have to admit, to himself, that he didnít feel entirely happy about serving his daughter lunch in such a dish, as if she was nothing more than a pet dog. But then he reminded himself, firmly, that he had no other choice. In her wolf-form, she would be unable to handle human utensils. No, he was just going to have to use this method.
He unlocked the door, and prepared to speak. "Mary, your lunch is here," he began - and found himself suddenly knocked off his feet as something grey and furry rammed hard into him. By the time that he had picked himself up, the wolf was already all the way down the hallway, and running down the stairs.
"Mary, what do you think youíre doing?" he cried, in shocked disbelief. "Come back here!"
But his daughter was already at the foot of the stairs, well away from him. Nigel ran after her. By the time that he was at the head of the stairs, though, there was a crashing sound from outside, as if a window had been broken. Nigel ran frantically down the stairs, to almost collide with his butler Gargrave.
"Sir, was that a wolf that ran into the living room?" the butler asked, regaining his balance and staring at his employer in bewilderment.
"Iím afraid so, Gargrave," said Nigel, with a groan. He ran past the butler straight for the living room. It was just as he had feared. The front window had been shattered, and a grey furry shape was rushing down the front lawn towards the edge of his property.
"Sir?" asked Gargrave, standing behind him. "What is a wolf doing in the house?"
"I donít want to talk about it, Gargrave," said Nigel Sefton gloomily. "And if anybody asks you, you donít know anything about this." And with that he turned and went to his study, leaving the butler staring bewilderedly after him.
Once inside, Nigel sat down at his desk, picked up the telephone and was about to ring up Animal Control, when he halted. "No. Too many complicated questions to ask, and thereís no way that Iíd be able to keep this secret for long, if I got their help. Itís too late to get her back that way now. Only one thing to do. Iím going to have to hope that sheís extremely discreet."
He sank his head into his hands. "Why did it have to be today? Why couldnít she have waited to run away until after I got knighted?"
* * *
That afternoon, drawing close to evening, Morgana and James Seabairn stood in the study of Morganaís town house, looking over some plans carefully on the table.
"I canít leave anything to chance," Morgana said. "With Arthur at large, I still have to find some way of keeping him from interfering with our plan. And knowing him, I doubt that heíll be cowering in his lair, wherever it is. So we have to set up a diversion. Something that will keep him as far away from you tonight as possible."
Seabairn nodded. "The rioters?" he asked.
"Heíll want to do something about them," said Morgana. "I know that he will. And their claims will assist our ultimate objective all the more. If this goes well, we shall be laying to rest more than just Arthur tonight."
"Pity that itís more of those illusions like that Cyngen boy you used back in Henry IVís time," said Seabairn.
"I know," said Morgana. "But if we use them correctly, the public will never realize that they werenít real. And it canít be helped, anyway. Weíve little time to employ real humans for this task, and it would only make things the more complicated. No, the temporaries will have to suffice."
"Right, then," said Seabairn. "Iíll just collect my equipment, and then off to the Palace. It should be a busy night for me, auntie. Donít wait up."
"I wonít," Morgana replied abstractedly. As he left the study, she continued to stare down at the plans before her.
"I've been plagued by your memory for too long, Arthur," she said, bitterly. "I want an end to it all. Nothing left to remind me of you and all the misery that you and your family have visited upon me and mine. And tonight, the nightmare will end. I'll be free of you and your name forever."
* * *
"I canít believe that heíd run off like this again," said Arthur bewilderedly to his human followers. They were standing in the great hall of the ruined manor-house, waiting for the sun to set and the gargoyles to awaken. "He knows that we need his help in solving this problem, and yet he disappears again."
"Calm down, Arthur," said Dulcinea in a reassuring tone of voice. "It canít be all that bad. I mean, yes, Merlinís done it again, but we know that heís not in so great a danger as before. His fatherís dead, after all. And whoís out there besides Madoc Morfryn that had a grudge against him?"
"Not many others, I would think," said Leba. "But the police know that Emrys Hawkins is Arthur Penningtonís ward, and they have his appearance. If they see Merlin, theyíre likely to snatch him up for questioning at once."
Arthur looked over the note that Merlin had written again. "Why couldnít he have shared his thoughts with the rest of us, gotten our help, instead of striking out on his own? Why did he have to be so secretive?"
"Weíd better send out another search party for him," said Colin. "Good thing that itís almost sundown. In a moment, the gargoyles will be awake, and -"
A grey wolf suddenly dashed into the hall, and came to a halt just in front of Arthur. They stared down at it as it finished panting, and regained its breath.
"Mary?" asked Arthur astonishedly. "What are you doing here?"
"I had to get back here, to warn you," said Mary. "Arthur, this is important. My fatherís gotten fed up to the back teeth about Braddock not being able to catch you. I heard him say so on the phone. Heís demanding that the police go all out to capture you. Something must have happened last night to get him that upset - I donít know what it was, but he sounded really angry."
Arthur nodded, with a frown. "I should have suspected that something like that would happen after our latest brush with the police," he said. "And you came back to tell us that?"
Mary nodded. "Oh, and Iím afraid that I had to tell my father about being a werewolf. He didnít take it too well, and heís probably going to shut me away for the rest of my life, as if I was a mad wife or something like that. And -" She stopped short and looked about her. "Whereís Merlin?"
"Gone into London," said Arthur. "Heís got some idea that whoeverís been framing me has the Mantle of Manannan. Remember, how when we got to Castle Rushen, we found that somebodyíd been there before us and stolen it? Heís gone out to look for it."
"On his own?" cried Mary.
"Exactly," said Leba. "So we need to find him before the police do, or somebody else. In fact -"
Her words were interrupted as the sun set in the west. Mary let out a cry of pain as her wolf-form shifted back into her human girl-form, and then pulled herself to stand upright. Roars sounded from outside, and then the London gargoyles descended into the great hall, shaking the last fragments of stone skin from themselves as they alit.
"Ah, good," said Arthur, nodding to greet the gargoyles. "Youíre all awake. Now, let me tell you whatís happened since dawn."
* * *
"So here it is," he concluded. "Leba, go into London with Mary. The two of you see if you can find Merlin, but stay out of sight as much as possible. Based on what she has told us, I very much suspect that Miss Sefton will soon be the object of a few search parties herself. And, to be on the safe side, Imogen, Faulconbridge, I want you both to accompany them. And make certain that you yourselves are not seen."
"You can count on us, Arthur," said Faulconbridge. "And donít worry," he added, turning to Leba and Mary. "Weíll protect you."
When the four of them had departed to search for Merlin, Arthur turned back to the others. "Now, in the meantime," he said, "we still need to decide upon some course of action for tonight. Now, I know that London is a perilous place for us at present. But the answer to this mystery lies there. I know it. And that means that we may have to venture back there tonight."
"The news should be on shortly," said Griff. "Perhaps weíd better watch it, and see if thereís any new developments there."
"That does seem like a wise way to begin," said Arthur, nodding. "Perhaps we had better see what the television has to report."
Only a few moments later, the television set on the estate had been switched on. Regina Fitzwalter was reporting.
"On our top story for tonight, rioters are besieging the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, as part of some new organization called the Sons of Pendragon. These people claim that the legendary King Arthur has either awakened from his sleep on the isle of Avalon, or is shortly due to do so, and is ready to reclaim the British throne."
The television set quickly shifted to a crowd of roughly-dressed people crowding about the pseudo-Gothic structure of the Houses of Parliament, bearing signs and shouting. "Down with the Saxon usurpers! Long live King Arthur! Britainís rightful ruler!"
Arthur stared in shock and astonishment at the image on the television screen. "If these are my supporters," he said at last, "Iíd as soon do without them."
"I wonder if your doppleganger has something to do with this, Arthur," said Griff concernedly. "I mean, it does seem like something of an incredible coincidence otherwise that theyíd be talking about you returning to Avalon just when youíve actually done that. I wouldnít be the least bit surprised if heís been organizing them."
"Do you think that he wants to usurp the throne?" asked Rory. "I mean, this double of yours? That heís impersonating you for that reason? I mean, given the way that he was talking last night, Iíd say that heís got some royal ambitions in there."
"I doubt it," said Leo. "Whoíd want the job these days? The monarchyís got no real power left. All thatíd be in it for him would be to lay a few foundation stones, open flower shows, and make speeches in Parliament. And thereís even the question of how long heíd get to do that, given how a lot of the humans in England arenít even sure they want a monarchy any more."
"What I feel puzzled by," said Arthur, "is this business about ĎSaxon usurpersí. Those kings and queens descended from the Saxon chieftains of Wessex might fit the description, but according to what Iíve heard, after William the Conquerorís triumph at Hastings nine hundred years ago, thereíve been no Saxon rulers of this island. Those riotersí slogans are outdated."
"Not that much, actually," said Colin Marter. "After all, the Saxons were German, werenít they?"
"They were in part from the lands called Germany today, yes," said Arthur, nodding.
"And for the last three centuries, the Royals have been German," said Colin. "Ever since they brought George I over from Hanover to become King in 1714. And the kings after George I were even more German than he was, thanks to all that marrying of German princesses they were doing. Why, even Queen Victoria had more German blood in her than British. The only reason why more people donít know that is that the Royals had to change their name to Windsor during the First World War so as to distance themselves from Kaiser Wilhelm a little. But the German bloodís still there, and no doubt thatís close enough to Saxon for some."
"And they really think that Iím to depose the present Queen and take her place?" asked Arthur.
"It seems that way," said Griff. "But in the meantime, hadnít we better be doing something about that lot?"
Arthur nodded. "My thoughts precisely," he said. "Let us be off there at once."
* * *
"I donít believe it," said Braddock, as he hung up the telephone.
"Not another anonymous tip-off, sir?" asked Sergeant Winslow.
"Yes," replied Braddock. "The caller said that she'd glimpsed Arthur Pennington in that crowd of rioters over at Westminster."
"Two anonymous calls in two nights?" said Winslow in astonishment.
"My thoughts exactly," said Braddock. "I smell a rat here." He frowned.
"So, what do we do?" Winslow asked.
"We go to Westminster anyway," said Braddock. "This may be just another trick, but the only way that I'm going to get to the bottom of this blasted conundrum is to go there and see if I can find out exactly what is going on here."
* * *
Merlin came to a halt outside the large stone house, holding the hazel wand firmly in his hand. The signal had grown stronger as he had approached it, until a couple of minutes ago, when it had suddenly weakened. Now, judging from the way that the wand was presently tingling in his hand, the signal was coming from further away, towards the west.
"Well, it was here for a while," he told himself. "And now itís gone. I suppose that I ought to follow it. But first -"
He moved cautiously up the steps to the front door, and held his left hand close to the knocker. "Open," he said in a low voice. A click on the other side of the door indicated that it had unlocked, and then it swung open before him. Merlin quietly went inside, and closed the door behind him.
* * *
"He went this way," said Mary, sniffing the pavement closely.
"You can tell that?" asked Leba. "Just by bending down and smelling it, and in your human form?"
"I think that I must have a little bit of wolf in me even when Iím human, now," said Mary, frowning as she straightened up. "Fortunately itís a part that doesnít show. But my sense of smell is a lot keener now than it used to be."
"Well, Iíll take your word for it," said the musician. "Lead the way, Mary, and Iíll follow."
* * *
Merlin made his way cautiously into the study of the house, closing the door as silently behind him as possible. He looked about him, at the well-stocked bookshelves, the desk cluttered with papers, and the piles of various odds and ends in the corners. He stole quietly to the desk, and began looking over the papers, occasionally glancing at the door to make certain that it didnít begin to open.
"Well," he said to himself, "whoever you are, I know that you were behind the theft of that mantle. Now letís see what else youíve been up to."
He picked up the first paper, and began to read over the handwritten notes upon it, his eyes narrowing. "Castle Rushen," he read aloud. "Must reach it before Arthur does. Mantle of absolute importance."
He read further down the page. "Remember to make more use of Hathaway. Weak and easily led. Very helpful in blackening Arthurís name." He frowned at the implication of those sentences. "I knew it," he said to himself. "The Mantle and the real Connection are linked. Now letís see what else you have to tell me."
He sorted through the papers some more, until he came to what looked like a page torn out of a book. He stared at the title. "I - I donít believe it," he said to himself. "Magic I was expecting, but not this sort of dabbling. What other secrets do we have here?"
He picked up the paper beneath it. It showed a map of southern Britain, with scribbled notes next to a red circle around a spot in the West Country. "The site of Camlann," he murmured. "But why?" He looked over the paper directly beneath it in turn, and his eyes grew still wider. "I had to ask."
He began to turn away from the desk, when a stack of neat papers at the very edge caught his eye. He quickly snatched them up, and then stared at the cover page, even more aghast than before. "Morgana Cornish?" he cried. "Oh, I really have been blind! Letís hope that itís not too late to save Arthur from her!" He began to quickly read through the typewritten pages, clearly created for some sort of public speech.
"The horrible act committed in the name of the legendary King Arthur but a few nights before has shocked an entire nation," he read. "But should it be so shocked as to the identity of the supposed patron of this dreadful deed? Should we be surprised, when it becomes clear how undeserving of his reputation as hero-king Arthur of Camelot truly is?"
He leafed through it, reading excerpts from it to himself. "His own chief advisor, the wizardly architect of his reign, Merlin, is the son of the Devil, begotten to produce a false prophet to delude men and thus further the schemes of the Evil One. Some of the romances claim that he abjured his father and refused to do his bidding. But how correct can these be, when his chief activity was to serve as kingmaker to a tyrant whom the world persists in regarding as a paragon of justice and chivalry, with no true evidence?
"This so-called hero-king is born through the unholy lust of a vicious tyrant, who callously betrayed a loyal vassal upon whom his very throne depended, made war upon him and ruined his land, all for the sake of the wife of that vassal, whom he so desired. With Merlinís aid, Uther forces Igraine to become his, disguised as her husband, while the true Duke Gorlois is being cut down by Utherís thuggish knights. Can this sordid affair be counted a worthy beginning for a flower of kings?
"He commits incest with his half-sister, and then attempts to drown their son alongside a host of hapless infants whose only crime was being born too close to the time of that child. How can anybody admire such a man as this?
"His knights are brigands and bullies, embarking on their quests more for their own glorification than to protect the weak and innocent. The captain of this order spends most of his time engaging in a clandestine affair with his kingís own wife. On the Quest of the Holy Grail, all but three of these knights are barred from the holy chalice that is the object of their quest, and those three exceptions that are admitted to the Grail are knights who were only tenuously connected to Camelot. Their fellows are condemned throughout this adventure by wise and devout hermits as ungodly murderers, a disgrace to the code of chivalry. Far from being the flower of knighthood, Arthur and his champions of the Round Table are nothing more than weeds, although weeds who have deluded humanity for over a thousand years into seeing them as prize roses. But the time has come to reject this myth, dethrone these impostors from the pedestal that they have usurped, recognize them as villains more fit for the company of the Nazis and other scourges of the world than for a pantheon of heroes."
Merlin disgustedly replaced the speech on the desk. "Sheís become even more twisted by her hatred than Iíd thought," he said to himself. "But thereís got to be more to her scheme than even this. She said at the beginning that this speech had something to do with some sort of tragedy, and thereís no prizes for guessing whoíd be responsible for that. But what does she have in mind?"
He began to sort through the papers further, looking for an answer to his question.
* * *
Morgana walked up the steps to her house, having seen Seabairn off. She was just at the door when she halted, and pricked up her ears. Something was present that ought not to be, something that she could sense strongly. She stood still, and concentrated, seeking to identify the intruder.
"You, Merlin," she said to herself. "So you still do have the skill to follow me. Well, itíll do you no good now."
She was just about to open the door and enter, but then paused. "No," she said to herself. "Not this way. I have a better plan."
* * *
"Weíre getting closer," said Mary, straightening up again. "Iíd say that heís very nearby."
"Thatís good," said Leba. "Letís hope that weíre the first to find him, before - look out!"
She pulled Mary back just as a pair of enormous ravens swooped down at them, croaking loudly, from one of the rooftops above. The two great black birds swerved in their courses, then sailed upwards to lunge again. Before they could make a second attack, however, Faulconbridge and Imogen charged at them in turn, gliding down from above.
Leba raised the staff that she used as a cudgel in emergencies such as this one. "I and the gargoyles will fend them off," she told Mary. "Go find Merlin, and bring him here! And hurry!"
Mary nodded, and ran off. Leba and the two gargoyles braced themselves for another assault from the ravens.
"Where did these birds come from, anyway?" asked Imogen.
"Judging from a few stories that Merlin told me," Leba replied, "I believe that I have a very good idea."
* * *
The rioters were throwing stones at the Houses of Parliament, and while things had not gotten beyond that stage as yet, it seemed more than likely, given their mood, that that would soon change. Already a few of them were making ready to charge at the building and break the doors down, if they could find something to serve for a battering ram.
"That Saxon queen has to go!" shouted one of them, raising his "Britain for the Britons!" sign. "Out with the invaders! Long live Arthur!"
"I appreciate your support for me," said Arthur Pendragon, stepping up to him with a drawn Excalibur, "but disapprove considerably of the manner by which you show it."
The rioter stared at the former High King of Britain for a moment, then charged at him, raising his sign as if it were a club. Before he could strike with it, however, Arthur swung his sword, and neatly clove the sign-pole in two. The man stared at the remains of his sign, then turned and fled.
"This is easier than Iíd thought it was going to be," said Rory, not too far away, fending off a couple of bewildered and subdued-looking sign-carriers with the Gae Bolga in its stick form. "I donít even need to change this time. This looks like a walk in the park!"
"You can say that again," said Griff, snatching a couple more rioters off the ground and striking their heads together. Cavall had yet another of the crowd pinned down, growling fiercely at him. "Whoíd have thought that it was all going to be so easy?"
Arthur suddenly felt a chill run down his spine. "It may be too easy," he said. "Look!"
The shouting mob was beginning to turn transparent. First one man vanished, and then another. Even the rioters cornered by the gargoyles and Arthurís human knights, such as Rory and Dulcinea, were disappearing, dispersing into thin air. Arthur stepped back, as the realization sank fully in.
"An illusion! Thatís all that those people were! This has been a trap, a trap made by sorcery!"
Police sirens sounded, and the headlights of approaching police cars shone out in the darkness, converging on Westminster on all sides. "The real Connection has done it again!" cried Arthur. "And this time, there may be no escape!"
* * *
Nigel Sefton stepped out of his limousine and walked up the steps to the front gate of Buckingham Palace. He barely noticed the applause that greeted his arrival from the throng. He was too deep in thought.
This is the night that Iíve been working for for years, he thought to himself. And whatís the use of it all? Who do I have to share this moment with? Maryís run away, and Morgana canít be here tonight. I never thought that my knighthood would be such a lonely occasion.
He paused in his walk for a moment, as something moved past him, a brief cold breeze, or so it felt. He wondered what it was, then dismissed it as his imagination. Iíve problems enough without starting to feel things that arenít there, he told himself. Stop brooding over this, Nigel Sefton. Tonight will be worth it, even if you have to enjoy it all alone.
Lost in his thoughts, he did not even hear the faint footsteps ahead, footsteps without anyone visible to cause them.
* * *
Merlin closed Morganaís door behind him softly, and muttered a locking spell to restore it to the way that it had been before his arrival. Hopefully, thatíll keep her from knowing that Iíve been here, he thought, not even daring to murmur it to himself. Now all that I have to do is find Arthur, and warn him. Letís hope that Morgana isnít nearby. If she is, things could get rather nasty.
He thought it over a bit, then decided that it wasnít likely at all. If she had been in the house at the time, she would surely have heard him moving about in it, at least after heíd accidentally tripped over the branding iron standing by her fireplace. He didnít know why she kept it on the hearth where most people would have a poker, and didnít particularly want to know either. But if nothing had happened following that metal clatter, then he was most likely safe.
He began to walk down the pavement towards the corner, slowly and calmly. It would make him appear less suspicious a figure to anybody who was watching than if he was running. Just take his time, and then - .
"No!" screamed a familiar voice, from around the corner. "Get away from me, you horrible birds! Get lost!"
"Mary?" cried Merlin in surprise. Forgetting his original plans, he ran straight towards the direction that the voice was coming from. He turned the street corner, and then stopped and stared in horror.
Mary Sefton was trapped by a lamppost, surrounded by large ravens, four or five by the look of them. They were circling her, letting out harsh cries and swooping at her. Sheíd picked up a stick from somewhere and was doing all that she could to fend them off, but this hardly seemed enough to hold the birds at bay. Particularly since Merlin had recognized them almost at once.
"Morganaís ravens!" he cried. "Mary, donít move! Iíll deal with them!"
He raised his right hand, and gestured directly at the ravens with it. A bolt of blue fire stabbed from his fingertips, and whistled past the birds, sending them into confusion. They managed to collect themselves after a moment or two, and dove straight for the youth. But Merlin was ready. With a cry, he set out another bolt of blue flame, this one narrowly singing their feathers. After a third one, the birds had clearly had enough. They turned around and flew off into the night.
Merlin rushed to Mary at once. "Are you all right?" he asked her.
She nodded, then suddenly threw her arms about him and began to sob in a mixture of relief and only recently-concluded fear. "There, there," said Merlin, in a reassuring tone of voice, placing his arms around her in turn. "Iím here. Itís going to be all right."
"Indeed it is," said Mary, an odd glint in her eyes. Her brown curls suddenly straightened themselves out, grew longer until they were waist-length, and turned as black as the ravensí feathers. Her form shot up and altered, and suddenly Merlin found himself embracing Morgana la Fay. He gasped in horror, and released her at once, stepping back.
"You!" he cried, hiding his sudden shock and fear as best as he could with anger. "What have you done with Mary, Morgana?"
"I am Mary Sefton, Merlin," said Morgana calmly. "The only Mary that there ever was."
"No," he stammered, trying to keep his voice as level as possible. "Thatís not true! Maryís a real girl! Arthur and I met her in Rivencroft! She went with us to the Isle of Man! I showed her around my old haunts in the Caledonian Forest!"
"That was all me," said Morgana, smiling coldly. "It was so easy to deceive you, Merlin. To win your heart - but not to make it too easy, of course, lest you become suspicious. And to learn all of your precious Arthurís secrets, so that I could counter him every step of the way."
Merlin gripped hold of the lamppost himself now, in order to keep himself steady, anything to withstand the crushing impact of the halfling sorceressís revelations. "But why?" he asked, the tears forming in his eyes. "Why did you trick me like this?"
"You can ask me that?" cried Morgana. The smile was gone from her lips now, and her face was contorted with fury and hatred. "You, who deceived my mother with your magical disguise for Uther? I wanted you to experience the pain that you put her through, all for the purpose of creating your precious Arthur! I wanted you to feel the anguish that she felt, to learn that it was someone other than her love that she welcomed into her arms! Let the punishment fit the crime!"
She stood there for a moment, listening to him weeping; Merlinís heart was too broken now for him to even speak. "And now, for the final judgement," she said, in a cold still voice.
She raised her hand, magical energy crackling about it. Merlin merely stood there, making no attempt to run. What good would it do? Sheíd only follow him - and furthermore, after what he had just learned, he hardly felt like living any more. Itíll be over soon, Merlin. Maybe itís better this way.
Morgana was about to release her spell, when a sudden voice called out, the most welcome voice that the young-old wizard could have imagined on that night. "Merlin?" cried Mary Sefton, standing on the corner of the pavement, staring at the scene. And then, in even greater surprise and alarm, "Professor Cornish?"
Morgana turned about herself, clearly more than a little taken aback by Maryís presence. The built-up magical energy shot out from her hand, but her moment of bewilderment was enough to misdirect it. It missed Merlin by several yards, shattering a telephone box on the other side of the street.
"Professor Cornish?" repeated Mary, approaching the two magic-users. "What is going on here?"
"Mary," began Morgana, stumbling over her words. "I - I can explain all of this. I -"
"What are you?" asked Mary, staring the sorceress straight in the eyes.
"A very dangerous woman," said Merlin, answering for Morgana. The despair had left him, and now he raised his hands. Blue light shot out from his fingertips and coiled about her in a sapphire net. But Morgana cried aloud in an archaic incantation, and the web dispersed. She sent a blast of fire out at him, but Merlin conjured up a shield, which the flames splashed off of.
"Mary, get out of here!" he shouted, as he prepared his next spell. "Sheís only after me, not you! She wonít follow!"
"And leave you on your own?" Mary retorted. "No fear of that!"
She was running towards them even as she spoke. The sorceress was just readying another spell, when Mary pulled her compact mirror out of her pocket, and flipped it open. As a ray of red light sprang from Morganaís right hand, Mary thrust the polished surface of the mirror directly in its path.
The spell glanced off the mirrorís surface, arcing upwards, and struck one of the bars of the lamppost. The bar was severed clean from the post itself, and hurtled down towards Morgana. The sorceress looked up and saw it coming with time enough to dodge it. That moment of distraction, however, was all that Merlin needed.
Crying out a few words in Old Welsh, he sent a fresh net of blue light straight at her. It coiled about her, pinning her arms to her sides so firmly that she could not break free. She staggered backwards, then fell to the ground. She sat up and struggled against the magical confinement, but this time, was unable to dispel it.
Merlin looked at her just long enough to make certain that the web would hold her, then turned and rushed towards Mary. He threw his arms about her, sobbing tears of joy upon her shoulder. "Itís you, this time!" he cried, as he did so. "Itís really you! You are real!"
Mary said nothing, but put her own arms around him. And then, simultaneously, their faces drew closer together. Their lips met in a brief kiss.
A sudden cough from behind them broke the moment. Merlin and Mary turned around, to see Leba standing there, staring at them. Faulconbridge and Imogen had landed just behind her.
Blushing slightly, the two adolescents drew apart and turned towards the newcomers. "Er - hullo, Leba," said Merlin. "Faulconbridge, Imogen. So youíre here, as well?"
"Yes," said Leba. "But who is that?" she continued, looking at Morgana.
"Leba, Faulconbridge, Imogen, may I have the dubious privilege of presenting to you Morgana la Fay, once Queen of Rheged, and one of the most infamous enchantresses in all Britain?" Merlin asked, gesturing towards the bound and pinioned sorceress. "Not to mention, the architect of the ĎConnectioní conspiracy aimed at Arthur, and, no doubt the woman whom weíve been looking for ever since this trouble started."
"Morgana la Fay?" said Leba. "That was her all along? We have been blind!"
"We all were," said Merlin. "I really should have suspected her a lot sooner than this. I donít know why it didnít occur to me before now."
Mary was staring at Morgana in disbelief still. "Morgana Cornish is really Morgana la Fay?" she said to Merlin. "And I always thought that stepmothers were wicked witches only in fairy tales!"
"Stepmothers?" said Merlin puzzledly.
"Iíll explain later," Mary replied. "But hadnít you better explain yourself what this is all about, Merlin?"
Merlin nodded. "I spent enough time in her study to find out what she was up to - well, except for one little thing which took me by surprise for a moment. Gather around, you four, and Iíll share with you what Iíve found. One of the darkest conspiracies that this isle has ever known."
* * *
The police had closed off the entire area around the Houses of Parliament, blocking every exit. Agent Braddock led his men forward, now, straight towards the solitary figure of Arthur outside the building.
"There he is, men!" the Security Service Agent called out. "Donít let him get away! This time, heís going down!"
With his generalís eye, Arthur took a quick look at the oncoming police. There were too many of them for him to battle alone, and even if his companions had not become parted from him in all the confusion, he was hardly about to do battle against these ministers of the law, who were only doing their duty. At the same time, he knew that it would be close to suicide for him to surrender to them.
There was only one course of action to take. The one avenue of escape left was the Houses of Parliament themselves. He rushed for them, burst open the door, and ran inside.
"Surround the building," Braddock ordered his men. "Make certain that nobody gets in or out until this is over."
"What are you going to do, sir?" asked Sergeant Winslow.
"Iím going in after him, of course," said Braddock, his face set. "I am clearing up this mystery of Arthur Pennington once and for all."
* * *
"So this is her scheme," Merlin explained. "She has an accomplice, whoís already got two crucial pieces of equipment. One is the Mantle of Manannan. Yes, thatís why we never found it at Castle Rushen. Morgana beat us to it and stole it. Her assassin has it now, and because of it, heís invisible while he wears it."
"And that would explain how he was able to disappear last night," said Leba, nodding thoughtfully. "Although thatís assuming that that Arthur-impostor and this accomplice of Morganaís are the same person."
"Oh, they are," said Merlin. "Iíll get to that in a moment. The other piece of equipment is an advanced particle beam accelerator designed by Maddox Technologies, stolen from the warehouse that her accomplice robbed while disguised as Arthur a few nights ago. A fancy laser gun, in laymanís terms. Just like her to use something created by my late and unlamented father for one of her schemes against Arthur and myself."
"You said Ďassassiní a moment ago," said Faulconbridge. "So obviously this chapís going to try killing someone with that. But whom?"
"The Royal Family," said Merlin.
The others stared at him. "Itís true," he said. "Sheíd written it all down in her notes. The assassin slips into Buckingham Palace, invisible thanks to Manannanís Mantle, this very night. The magic will render him and his weapon concealed from even the most top-notch security devices in the Palace; nobody will know that heís there. And at the right time, in front of an assembled crowd, heís going to reveal himself, and open fire on the Queen and the other Royals, announcing that heís doing so in the name of King Arthur, Ďrightful ruler of all Britainí."
"My fatherís being knighted tonight at Buckingham Palace!" cried Mary. "Morganaís going to use that for her assassination attempt?"
Merlin nodded. "In fact, the assassinís supposed to shoot the Queen just as sheís dubbing your father," he said.
"But - what if my father gets killed along with the Royals?" Mary cried, now horror-struck. "Heíll be close enough to the Queen that he could get shot that way!" She turned about to face Morgana. "And I thought that you really cared about him!"
"Your fatherís death wasnít part of my plans," said Morgana, in an uneasy voice, speaking for the first time since Merlin had defeated her. She would not meet Maryís gaze as she spoke. "Only the Royal Family. And even then, Seabairn wonít necessarily kill them. A failed assassination, if in the name of my own half-brother, will be enough - although a successful one will do the job better."
"What job?" asked Leba.
"Morgana doesnít just want Arthur destroyed," Merlin went on, his voice grimmer. "She also wants to bring down the whole Matter of Britain. The whole cycle of legends about Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table. I hadnít realized that she hated Arthur that much, although I suppose that itís another thing that I should have seen coming. If I read her notes correctly, sheís hoping that a royal assassination done in King Arthurís name will do a lot to discredit his hero-status. And to make certain that everyone gets the point, sheíd even prepared a little speech on the subject to deliver as Morgana Cornish. I read it in the study as well. With enough careful coordination, she could have wound up putting Arthur in the same category as Richard III and Ivan the Terrible in the popular imagination. Camelot could lose its utopian imagery for a very long time, maybe even forever."
"You wouldnít!" cried Imogen, staring at the sorceress.
"Indeed I would!" Morgana retorted savagely. "People have glorified that tyrantís spawn for too long! How do you think it is for me, listening to them praising the name of that son of Uther Pendragon, the very product of my fatherís death and motherís betrayal, for all those centuries!" She turned to the two gargoyles. "That poet Shakespeare wrote a play that portrayed two Scottish tyrants who massacred your kind wherever they could find them as benevolent saints! How does that make you feel? I have had to witness just such falsehoods for almost a thousand years now! I had to bring it all to an end!"
"And you would deprive this island of one of its greatest inspirations?" asked Leba. "What of the hope that the stories about Camelot have given the people of Britain for all those centuries? The striving for something higher? The dream of a world ruled by justice rather than the sword?"
"I saw no justice in my fatherís murder," Morgana retorted. "This island has other heroes - that archer in Sherwood Forest, for example. Let the people respect them, instead. But Iíll have no more of this honoring of Arthur! Heís brought enough misery into my life, and my familyís! His myth has to die, now! I must be avenged!"
"You must be avenged?" asked Mary sharply. She advanced upon Morgana, her eyes all but blazing. "An end to all that misery? And how about all those people that James Seabairnís going to kill? What did they do to you, that you have to have him murder them? How about my father? He could wind up dead as well! Just because Arthurís father killed your father all those centuries ago, you have to go and kill mine? And after pretending that you really cared about him?"
"You donít understand this at all," said Morgana, her voice wavering again. For a moment, she actually appeared to be at a loss. "The Pendragons have to be punished! Gorlois must be avenged!"
"Your father was killed fifteen hundred years ago!" said Mary. "If Utherís knights hadnít slain him, heíd be dead by now anyway! You are so pathetic. You canít even let go of an idiotic quarrel that everybody elseís practically forgotten! You cause all this trouble, frame your own brother, try to wipe out the Royal Family and my father, and attack Merlin, just because of something that happened over a thousand years ago! And for a while, I was starting to like you. But now, you simply disgust me."
"Mary, please," said Morgana, almost frantically. "I - I didnít want to inflict any of this upon you. I was using your father, yes - I will admit it - but I did not want his death. And I donít want you to be hurt, either. Please, Mary. Listen to me. I lost my daughter so long ago. I had hoped that you could be another one to me."
"Save it for your next performance!" Mary snapped, and turned away coldly from her.
"People, letís not forget something," said Merlin. "While weíre standing here talking, Morganaís accomplice is probably in Buckingham Palace by now, ready to carry out her plan. We have to stop him! And that means, we have to leave here at once!"
"But how do we stop it?" Leba asked. "The Palace is a long way from here. We wonít make it on time on foot!"
"Maybe not," said Merlin. "But we still have gargoyles."
"Shouldnít we find the others as well, and warn them?" asked Imogen. "Arthur has to know about this, after all."
"Yes, youíre right," said Merlin. "But I donít think that heíll be too difficult to find."
* * *
Arthur stood atop the Houses of Parliament, on the very roof. He had climbed up there on his flight from Agent Braddock, but now there was nowhere further to flee. He could only gaze out over the cityscape of London below, lying all about him. Not far away, he could see the spires of Westminster Abbey, the very place where he had first met Griff. How long ago that seemed to him now!
Heavy footsteps sounded on the stairs, and Braddock clambered up onto the roof. "Give yourself up, Pennington!" he shouted. "Thereís no escape!"
"Listen to me, Agent Braddock," said Arthur. "I am not the man whom you seek. Indeed, I want to see him brought to justice as much as you do. Will you not listen to me?"
"I will listen to you, once youíve been brought in to the station, Arthur Pennington," Braddock replied. "There are too many unanswered questions about you, and itís high time that I had some answers for them!"
He lunged at Arthur. The Once and Future King hurriedly retreated, but not far; he was too close to the edge of the roof to go far. He was standing with his back to the parapet now.
"Give yourself up, now," Braddock commanded. "Drop your sword. Itís over, Pennington."
When Arthur made no response, the detective rushed at him. Arthur swerved out of the way, in the nick of time. But Braddockís momentum was too strong for him to halt. He stumbled over the Victorian Gothic battlements, and fell over them.
Or not quite fell. He had managed to grasp hold of one of the ornate spires with one hand, and clutched onto it, as he swayed over the ground far below. But his grip was already slackening. He could not maintain it much longer.
Arthur rushed to the man without a momentís hesitation. "Braddock!" he cried to him. "Give me your free hand!"
Braddock looked up at him and hesitated for a moment. Then he held out his free hand. Arthur grasped it firmly in his own, and pulled him up over the parapet, onto the roof again and to safety.
Braddock took a moment to catch his breath and recover his balance. Then he stared straight at Arthur, an astonished light in his eyes. At last, he spoke.
"Thank you, Pennington. But I must confess, I donít understand this at all. Why is the most dangerous man in all of London deciding to save my life?"
"Because Iím not the man whom you think I am," Arthur replied. "Braddock, you must listen to me. The man who robbed the warehouse and performed all those other crimes is an impostor, disguised as myself. Heís not me at all."
Braddock frowned. "An impostor? How do you know this, Pennington? And who is he?"
"I do not know the answer to that, as yet, I regret to say," Arthur replied. "I have been doing all that I can to find out. That was why I was visiting the warehouse last night where you and your men almost arrested me, to learn the identity of this mysterious person. And I met him there, as well."
"Indeed?" asked Braddock. "Well, itís your word only for that. I will confess that thereís been much about this case thatís been bothering me from the start, Mr. Pennington. You certainly havenít always acted as subtly as a criminal mastermind ought to - no offense, of course. Those leads that we found were a little too convenient. But still, we need to find the real perpetrator, the real ĎConnectioní. And if heís not you, then who is he?"
"His nameís James Seabairn, Agent Braddock," said the voice of a teenaged boy behind them. "And weíve found out just where he is."
Arthur and Braddock turned around to see Imogen and Faulconbridge come in to roost upon the rooftop of the Houses of Parliament. Imogen was carrying Mary Sefton, and Faulconbridge Merlin. Braddockís eyes widened as he saw the gargoyles.
"They - they do exist!" he said, when he had recovered his breath. "And I thought that it was only New York that had them!" Then he took a closer look at Mary. "And youíre Nigel Seftonís daughter, the one who went missing some months ago! Whatíre you doing here? Youíve a fair amount of explaining to do, young lady! If you knew what your fatherís been through since you vanished -"
"He already knows, sir," said Mary. "I told him last night. It was - rather complicated."
"But who is this James Seabairn, Merlin?" Arthur asked.
"Morgana Cornishís personal secretary," Merlin replied, "and also her personal accomplice in this scheme. Youíve already met him, although you wouldnít have recognized him with that wig and false beard. But we donít have that much time to go into this. Heís on his way to Buckingham Palace right now - may already be there. We have to get there at once. Is Griff nearby?"
"Merlin?" said Braddock. He looked sharply at the boy.
"Thatís right, sir," said Merlin. "Arthur Pennington really is King Arthur - thatís the one piece of information Morgana sent your way that was the truth. And Morgana Cornishís really Morgana la Fay, the sorceress."
"There really is a King Arthur?" repeated Braddock. "And heís still alive? Living gargoyles are bad enough, but this -"
"We can worry about all that later," said Merlin. "Just now, we have to get to the Palace to stop Seabairn from assassinating the Royal Family."
"Yes, or Father," put in Mary. She glanced anxiously in the direction of the Big Ben Tower. "He could be at the Palace already."
Braddock still appeared stunned, trying to make sense of all that he had just heard. "Something tells me that this is going to be an even longer night than I was expecting," he said at last. "Youíd better fill me in along the way."
"Not to worry, sir," said Merlin. "We will."
* * *
Some minutes later, four gargoyles alighted just outside Buckingham Palace, although carefully out of sight from anyone who might be watching. Griff and Brianna had joined the others on the roof shortly after Merlin and Maryís arrival, and had provided transportation for King Arthur and Agent Braddock.
Braddock still seemed to be almost reeling from the revelations that he had heard from Arthur and Merlin along the way, but at least he had accepted them. He led Arthur and the two children straight for the palace entrance.
"Iíve alerted Winslow by walky-talky, but Iím not certain how long itíll take him and the others to get here," he told the Once and Future King. "We may have to handle this on our own. But I still want to know who this Seabairn fellow is. Other than that heís Morgana Cornishís secretary, that is."
"Well, itís a bit complicated," said Merlin.
"I saw him when he came to pick Morgana up at Fatherís house last night," said Mary. "And I thought that he looked rather like Arthur. He didnít have a beard, of course, and his hair was shorter and darker, but I still did see a resemblance. Iím sorry, I should have brought it up sooner. I guess I didnít think it had anything to do with this case."
Before any of them could reply, they had reached the palace doors. A pair of royal guards were standing there on duty, and sprang suspiciously to attention at once. "Who goes there?" one demanded.
"Security Service Agent Robert Braddock," said Braddock, pulling out his badge. "Weíve reason to believe that an assassin has forced his way into the palace, with designs on Her Majesty. We have to warn the Queen."
"And who are these with you?" the guard asked, eyeing Arthur, Merlin, and Mary as he spoke.
"These people have discovered the conspiracy, and warned me," said Braddock. "And they can help me identify the would-be assassin."
The guards admitted them inside the palace, after a moment of silently conferring with each other. The four of them quickly made their way towards the throne room.
"Heíll strike there," Merlin said, as they reached it, "and right in the middle of the knighting. Letís hope that weíre not too late."
* * *
Nigel Sefton knelt before the Queen, who lifted the ceremonial sword up high to deliver the accolade. Before she could bring it down, however, a man suddenly appeared in the middle of the throne room, materializing out of thin air, it seemed, as he flung back the hood of a great white cloak and came into view. A youngish dark-haired man, armed with a fancy-looking laser rifle. "Die, Saxon usurpers!" he cried, his eyes gleaming wickedly, as he made ready to shoot at the Queen. "Die in the name of Arthur Pendragon!"
But before he could fire, a man in police uniform burst into the throne room, showing his badge. "Drop that gun!" he shouted to the gun-wielder. "This is the police!"
James Seabairn turned around, and opened fire upon Braddock and Arthur Pendragon both. The particle beam shot out from the gun towards the two men, but before it could reach them, a ball of blue light shot out from Merlinís hand and absorbed it.
"Ah," said Seabairn, looking straight at Arthur, and appearing not in the least disappointed. "Hullo, father. Nice of you to join us."
Arthur stared at Seabairnís face in utter confoundment, speechless for a moment. Then he spoke. "Mordred!"
"I told you that Iíd return someday, didnít I?" James Seabairn replied. "You really ought to have listened to me, you know."
"But - but youíre dead!" cried Arthur. "Youíve been dead for fourteen hundred years! You canít be here!"
"Oh, but I am," said Seabairn. "Iím surprised that it took you this long to realize it, father. Maybe youíve taken longer to recover from that long nap on Avalon than you thought, eh? But Iím a little surprised that the name didnít cue you to who I really was long before."
"Itís not Mordred, Arthur," said Merlin.
"What do you mean, not Mordred?" Arthur asked.
"Thatís the part I was just about to get to when we arrived," explained the young-old wizard. "Itís a very advanced simulacrum. Morgana created it - and she also dug up Mordredís bones at Camlann and mixed them into the brew to make it more Mordredish. Almost a cross between a simulacrum and a clone. It was all in her notes. But itís not the real Mordred. Itís only an artificial creation."
"No!" cried Seabairn, his suaveness and flippancy suddenly banished from his face and voice for a moment. "Iím nobodyís creation! Iím Mordred! The real Mordred!" And he prepared to open fire again.
Arthur moved forward at once, raising Excalibur. "No!" he said sharply. "Whether you be Mordred in truth, or his shadow, you have caused enough evil in the world. No more!" And he brought his sword down upon the gun, cleaving it in half with a shower of blue sparks.
Seabairn stepped back, clutching the remains of his weapon. "Spoilsport!" he said to Arthur, his mocking tone restored. "You really do know how to ruin all my fun, donít you? Well, offing the new Royals is a wash-out now, it seems. But I can still dispose of an old one!"
He threw back his cloak, to reveal a finely-made sword in an elegant leather scabbard, hanging by his side. Quickly he drew the sword, and rushed at Arthur, raising his weapon high.
Seabairnís blade and Excalibur clashed, shedding out more sparks. The two swordsmen circled each other, each one looking for an opening, thrusting and parrying. By now, most of the assembled company in the throne room had scattered in panic. Some palace guards had quickly gathered about the Queen and the other Royals to serve as a shield. Nigel Sefton was standing there, staring in absolute bewilderment. Mary rushed to him.
"Father?" she asked, throwing her arms about him in relief. "Are you all right?"
"Yes, I am," he said. "But I would like very much to know, Mary, what is going on here. What are you doing here, and who are those two madmen?" He indicated Arthur and James Seabairn as he spoke.
Braddock made an attempt to move at Seabairn himself and apprehend him, but Mordredís simulacrum shoved him back with an almost effortless blow from his left arm, and redoubled his attacks upon Arthur. A look of eager confidence was in his eyes.
"Itís over, father," he said, preparing for one last thrust. "Youíve tried to get rid of me before - that boat with the babies in it, then Camlann - and I keep on coming back, just like a cockroach. Youíll never see the end of me. You can be certain of that."
"Oh, no," Arthur replied, with equal conviction on his part. "Believe what you will, Seabairn, but you are not my son. Youíre only a memory of him, a tool of your auntís. You have no reality at all."
A final thrust from Excalibur and Seabairnís sword shattered into pieces. Seabairn lost his balance and fell upon his back. He lay upon the floor, looking up at Arthur Pendragon.
"Well?" asked Arthur. "Do you yield?"
Seabairn shrugged. "What does it matter, father?" he asked. "Slay me, turn me over to Braddock for trial, let me go, itís all the same to me. After all, Iíve barely any time left anyway. Ta-ta!"
And before Arthur could reply, Seabairn suddenly melted away, like a pile of snow , changing to water and losing his shape. Arthur, Braddock, and Merlin all stared down at him in astonishment, as did Mary and Nigel Sefton, who had come up to join them. All that remained of the man was a puddle of water upon the carpet, and a damp white woollen cloak.
"What - what happened?" asked Braddock. "I didnít really see that, did I?"
"As I said, Seabairn wasnít a real person," Merlin said. "Not in the way that we are, at least. He was just a simulacrum, a sort of magical conjuring of Morganaís made to look like Mordred, and even programmed to think and act like him. She needed somebody who looked enough like Arthur to masquerade as him for the right occasions, such as that warehouse robbery, but who looked distinct enough to be able to avoid risking arrest as Arthur. I must confess, she outdid herself. Seabairn actually believed that he was Mordred."
"And what happened to him?" asked Mary. "Is he dead?"
"Not exactly, since he was never really alive to begin with," said Merlin. He had picked up the Mantle of Manannan, and was now wringing it out carefully. "Simulacrums donít last very long, unless youíre extremely careful. Morgana didnít need him for a long while herself. I think that she believed that heíd have done the deed and left by this time, and she wouldnít require him after that. But we stopped him. Or at least, Arthur did."
"Well, Iíve seen enough," said Braddock. "Iíll have to admit now that I was mistaken. Youíre innocent, Arthur - and you saved the Queenís life, to boot. Although how Iím going to explain all of this to Inspector Courtney and the rest, I donít know."
"I still donít know whatís going on here either," said Nigel Sefton. "But Iíve the feeling that Mr. Pennington may not have been our man after all. And Iím leaving this ĎConnectioní business alone from now on. Iíve had one start today already, and a second is more than enough for me. Iím going to talk to Courtney and the others about dropping all charges against Mr. Pennington."
"For that, I thank you," said Arthur, with a gracious nod.
"And now, Mary, if you please," said Nigel. "We need to have a few words."
Mary nodded, uncomfortably, and followed her father away from the small group. Merlin watched her go as he rolled up the cloak and tucked it away, but said nothing. Arthur and Braddock were deep in conversation now, however.
"Well, King Arthur," said Braddock, "what are you going to do now? If you really have returned from that enchanted sleep of yours, are you going to ask for your throne back? I mean - after all this, you shouldnít find it too difficult convincing people as to who you really are. Are you going to become King of Britain again?"
Arthur shook his head. "Seabairn was correct about one thing," he said. "That timeís over. I canít return to it again. I suppose that ever since I woke up on Avalon, a part of me was believing that that was what would happen, but I know now that it canít be. I have to find a new destiny for myself, and whatever it is, it must be a different path. Times change."
"Well, youíve done us a service, at any rate," said Braddock. He held out his hand. "If you ever decide to join us in the Force, Iíll put in a recommendation for you."
"Thank you," said Arthur. And the two of them shook hands warmly.
* * *
Nigel and Mary found a quiet corner of the hall, far away from the others, to speak. For a few moments, they simply stared at each other. Then Nigel spoke.
"I still donít know what to make of all this," he said. "I donít even think that I want to make sense of it. First this - condition of yours, and now - is that man really King Arthur, Mary? Be honest with me."
"Itís true," she said. "I met him at Rivencroft when that trouble began. Heís been looking after me since then."
Nigel was silent for a moment, apparently deep in thought. "Now, I donít want you mixed up in all this nonsense," he said. "If I had my way, Iíd be ordering you to come home and to stay as far away from that man and his associates as possible. Iíve got enough problems already without having a daughter whoís become part of a legendís entourage, and constantly risking her life. I can only guess as to what you must have gone through, travelling all over the country with him. And I donít want to imagine whatíll happen when some reporter finds out and publishes it.
"But your condition complicates things all the more. Iím going to have a difficult time concealing you in the daytime in my house. And if what youíre telling me is correct, then heís got a better hope of finding a cure for you than any scientist that I can contact."
He was silent for a moment, and the next words that he said came to his mouth unwillingly. "So you can stay with this Arthur Pennington, for now," he said. "But stay out of trouble. And when you get cured, youíre coming home at once. Is that clear?"
Mary nodded. "Very clear, Father," she said. "And thank you."
She wondered for a moment if she should tell him about Merlin as well. But then she decided against it. Heíd been given enough to swallow for one day. Perhaps it would be wiser to let him know precisely how she and King Arthurís wizard felt about each other.
Maybe I can tell him next week, she thought. Or the week after that.
* * *
The Into The Mystic Shop - The Following Evening
Arthur, Griff, and Leba sat in the back room of the shop, around a small table. Leo and Una were out at the front, waiting on customers, and Cavall was sprawled out beside Arthurís chair, dozing. Merlin and Mary were looking over a newspaper in another part of the room, talking about something in low voices.
"So when you came back for Morgana, she was gone?" Arthur asked.
Leba nodded. "She must have found a way to escape Merlinís spell. We couldnít find a trace of her. We even asked around, but ĎProfessor Cornishí just seems to have vanished. I think that Morganaís had to discard that identity, after what happened last night."
"Quite a bother, really," said Griff, unhappily. "If we could only have turned her over to the police, sheíd be locked away now, and we wonít have to worry about her again."
"I very much doubt that," said Arthur. "I donít think that any normal prison could hold her for long. Not with her resources. And I canít help but think that perhaps it is just as well."
"What do you mean, Arthur?" Griff asked.
"My father did do her a great wrong," said Arthur, "when he went to war with Gorlois over Igraine, and destroyed her family. And I canít help but feel that Morgana has some cause for grievance against me. The Pendragon family has, one way or another, caused her and her house much sorrow, and if I had seen to it that she had been locked away, it might well be only adding to it."
"Thatís absurd, Arthur!" said Leba. "You canít talk about having Morgana imprisoned for her crimes as if it was on the same level as what Uther did to her parents. Morgana set up a gun-smuggling business, had you framed, and even masterminded an assassination scheme. If you were still High King of Britain, and one of your subjects had carried out a similar train of crimes, would you have pardoned them for those deeds simply because of some sorrows in his or her past?"
"I have to agree with Leba on this one, Arthur," put in Griff. "Yes, what Uther Pendragon did to the Cornwalls was wrong, but that was a long time ago. And she was still acting out of revenge. That has to be wrong itself."
"I know that," said Arthur. "But still, in light of her fatherís fate -"
"And Gorlois wasnít even worth avenging, according to all that Iíve heard about him," said Leba. "I understand from Brock and Merlin that when he built his castle atop Tintagel, he destroyed an entire gargoyle clan to claim it, even the eggs and the hatchlings. And he seems to have been just as brutal and savage as Uther, even towards his fellow humans. Oh, Morgana may see him through rose-colored glasses, and he may have been a good father to her, but he wasnít a good Duke to Cornwall. Heíd have treated any of his vassals much the same way that Uther had treated him, if heíd had the chance. No, he was no innocent. I canít sympathize with Uther myself, but there wasnít much to choose between him and Gorlois."
"Maybe youíre right," said Arthur. "Perhaps that was the mistake that I made before, when I was King. Perhaps I made too many excuses for her and for Mordred."
Merlin and Mary suddenly approached the table, having finished their conversation. "Weíre going out to the cinema tonight, Arthur," the boy said. "We should be back in two and a half hours."
"Both of you?" Arthur asked, looking at him and Mary.
The youngsters nodded. "You might call it our first date," said Merlin, blushing slightly. "And it does look as though itíll be a good film, too."
"If it doesnít have werewolves in it, Iíll certainly agree with you on that," Mary put in. "Well, Merlin, letís go."
As the two adolescents left the room, Arthur, Leba, and Griff watched them go, then turned back to each other.
"So itís actually happened again," said Leba. "Did you expect something like this when they first met at Rivencroft, Arthur?"
"Hardly," the king replied. "It took me by surprise just as much as it must have done you."
"Wonít it be rather difficult for them, though?" Griff asked. "I mean, if she turns into a wolf during the daytime, while Merlinís still human?"
"Perhaps," said Arthur. "But my nephew Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell faced a similar problem, and overcame it."
"Yes, but they donít have access to the means that Gawain used to lift Ragnellís curse," said Leba. "Thatís the problem."
"Unaís still searching for a cure," said Arthur. "And some night, she will find it."
The door suddenly opened, and Rory and Dulcinea entered. "Oh, good, weíve found you," said Dulcinea. "You should come see this, Arthur. Itís quite important."
Arthur got up. "What is it, pray tell?" he inquired.
"Itís on the news even now," said the Spanish woman. "See for yourself."
Arthur followed them into the next room of the shop, where the television set was turned on. Regina Fitzwalter was reporting.
"And we still do not know the true identity of the mysterious man who foiled the attempted assassination of the Royal Family at Buckingham Palace last night," she said. "Nevertheless, the country is all agog as to this stranger, and his undeniably miraculous feats."
The television screen changed to footage of Arthur battling James Seabairn, Excalibur in hand, sparks flying from the blade of the enchanted sword. Arthur and his companions stared at it in silence for a moment.
"Is this really the legendary King Arthur, returned from Avalon to save Britain in her hour of need?" Regina continued. "Are the myths about Excalibur true? We do not know as yet. But we hope to find the answer soon. Join us for continuing coverage this week on this new mystery."
"Well, Arthur, it looks as though youíre not such a secret any longer," said Griff. "What are we going to do about that?"
Arthur gazed soberly at the image of him on the television screen. "I do not know, my friend," he said at last. "I do not know."