The Sleepers

Written by Greg Bishansky and Todd Jensen

Story Concept by Todd Jensen

Previously on Pendragon...

On shore a lone figure stood concealed among the flotsam of the waterfront. It watched with satisfaction as the constables marched the gunrunners into a pair of waiting vans for transport to Scotland Yard.

~~~Seeds of Change~~~

* * * * *

As the police drove off with Marter, a cloaked and hooded figure crept out of the shadows, a raven perched on her wrist. She watched the police cars leave, then glanced up at the sky, just in time to see the two winged shapes heading away from the shop vanish entirely. Nodding in satisfaction, she walked straight towards the shop.

She placed her hand gently on the door, and murmured something in Latin. The door swung open of its own accord, and she walked inside, closing it firmly behind her. A few minutes later, she re-emerged, with one of the books clutched tightly in her hands.

"We have it," she said to the raven in a low voice. "Let us hope that the recipe in those pages is intact."

* * *

The hooded and cloaked woman thumbed her way through the book that she had taken from the "Into the Mystic" shop. At last, she found the page that she had been looking for.

"Ah, excellent," she said. She read over its contents carefully, silently reviewing them, then spoke again to the raven roosting at her elbow. "Yes, I have everything that I need for it. Except for the bones, and I know where to look for them. The procedure will take some time, but that we have enough of."


* * * * *

The Sleepers

Sergeant Winslow opened the door to the office of Security Service Agent Robert Braddock, and entered it with a stack of papers in his hands. He placed the stack on Braddockís desk and pulled up a chair.

Braddock looked up from the report that he was reading. "Ah, Winslow," he said, as the sergeant sat down and began going through the papers. "Any news on Arthur Pennington?"

Winslow shook his head. "Not a trace, sir," he said. "We've made contact with police in every major city in Britain. No sign of him."

"And Interpol and the FBI's reports have been negative as well," said Braddock. "Which means that he can't have fled overseas to the Continent or the States."

Winslow nodded. "Seems that way, sir," he said.

Braddock frowned. "What about that young ward of his, Emrys Hawkins?" he asked. "He might be able to lead us to Pennington."

"Yes, sir, if we could find him," said Winslow. "But heís gone missing as well. We visited that school that heís been attending, Mons Carbi Comprehensive, and spoke to the headmaster there about him. But Mr. Wynn - thatís his name - hasnít heard anything from Master Hawkins lately, and hasnít seen him in classes at all, not since the search for Pennington began. He had a few stories about his being difficult in classes, but nothing that could help us."

"Blast," said Braddock. "The man certainly knows how to make himself scarce. How he can do it is amazing. Well, we can always question his other known associates. Mr. Marter wasnít much help, but perhaps some of these other people on the list might know something."

"They might, sir," agreed Winslow. "But we canít find any of them either. It seems that theyíve pulled off disappearing acts as well."

Braddock shook his head, in near exasperation. "I donít like the sound of this at all, Winslow. Weíve got a dangerous man loose in Britain, suspected of being the most dangerous gun-runner in the nation, and all of our leads have suddenly dried up. This is frustrating. And all the more so given that not only could this Pennington fellow be anywhere, doing goodness knows what, but weíve still got Nigel Sefton and his crowd breathing down our necks, wanting the Connection behind bars, for their own purposes." He spoke those last few words with a strong tone of disgust in his voice. Both he and Winslow were all too well aware that the real reason why their superiors wanted Arthur Pennington apprehended was to divert the publicís attention from the recent bizarre events that had plagued London for the past two years, particularly the unnatural winter that had swept not only the United Kingdom but the entire world, and from the Governmentís failure to provide convincing explanations for these events. And Braddock could not consider himself at all pleased with such an attitude, although he was not as yet ready to inform Nigel Sefton of this to his face.

"Theyíre not letting up at all, sir?" Winslow asked.

"Not at all," said Braddock. "But thatís not the worst of it."

"What is, then?" Winslow inquired.

"Iíve been having these strange feelings lately," explained Braddock. "Completely irrational ones, of course, but I just canít shake them off. I keep on having the oddest sensation that somebodyís staring over my shoulder, watching every move that I make."

"Indeed, sir?" asked Winslow. He seemed astonished himself by his superiorís admission.

"I know that there canít be anything in it," said Braddock. "After whatís been going on lately, itís easy to get a little paranoid, and start to imagine things. Thatís what I tell myself. And yet, I still find myself feeling that Iím being spied upon. I tell you, Winslow, I donít like it one bit."

* * *

The figure shrouded in a dark hood and cloak nodded thoughtfully, as she listened to the Security Service Agentís words. She was standing over a silver basin filled with water, upon the surface of which the image of Braddock and his office appeared.

The woman waved one hand over the basin, and the image at once faded away from the waters. Then she sighed.

"I must confess, Robert Braddock, that Iím feeling more than a little disappointed in you," she said. "One of the finest law enforcement officers in the country, and you still have not found your quarry. Not even after the clues that I arranged for you to find." She shook her head. "Youíre an observant man, Braddock; that much I must say about you. But still that hasnít proven enough."

She turned and walked away from the table upon which the basin sat, over towards a perch upon which a raven sat, preening its feathers. "I may have to put a little more effort into this than I had expected," she said. "Maybe Iíd allowed myself to become a little overconfident. When you pause to consider it, it is almost beyond belief that a normal human like Robert Samuel Braddock cannot bring down that accursed Arthur Pendragon. Itíll take more than civil servants to destroy that man. I will simply have to take more drastic measures."

She turned back to the silver basin, and held her hand over it again, concentrating hard. "I want the so-called Once and Future King, and his half-demon advisor," she said, in an authoritarian voice. "Where are they? Show them to me!"

The surface of the basin clouded over, as the waters within it swirled wildly about. When it cleared, a fresh scene appeared before the womanís eyes. It was a grassy hillside, over which three figures were walking. One was Arthur Pendragon, dressed in modern clothes rather than in knightly armor, but with Excalibur still by his side. The second was the rejuvenated Merlin Ambrosius, spawn of the Unseelie Lord. But the third - . The womanís eyes widened in astonishment at what she beheld accompanying the two of them. It was a young grey wolf, trotting alongside the pair of fugitives.

"A wolf?" she asked the raven, lifting one eyebrow. "An odd choice for a pet, I must confess, Cornix. And all the more so since I had thought that there were no wolves left wild in this land. Still, no matter. At least they seem to have cast off their gargoyle companions. That will make them all the easier to dispose of, without any interference coming from those stone monsters."

She studied the hillside again closely, noting the way that the grass grew upon it, and the nature of the flowers and other plants, and the color of the sky above. Then she nodded. "I knew that some good would come from my spending so much time in the north of this island," she said. "I know the land there well enough that I can recognize it by sight. They are in that part of Britain that men once called Rheged. And indeed, that particular hillside is not far from -."

She eagerly broke off, and rushed to the bookshelf leaning against the left wall of her study. She snatched a book down from it, and thumbed through its pages, before finding what she was looking for. "Yes!" she said, reading over the passage. "The Cave of the Sleepers is close at hand."

She whistled to Cornix, who flew over to perch upon her waiting wrist, like a hawk upon a falconerís arm. "Come, my pet," she said. "We have some new allies to recruit."

She chanted some words in an archaic form of Welsh, and both she and the raven vanished in a cloud of writhing green smoke.

* * *

The woman and her raven reappeared at the mouth of a cave, set on a lonely rocky hillside. Only a few hardy plants sprouted in this remote, desolate location. The sky was darkening now, as the sun set in the west, and the first stars would be out before long. But the woman did not pay any attention to the beauty of the heavens above. Instead, she held her right hand up high, chanting as she did so, "Luminus venite."

A glowing orb of crimson radiance sprung from her hand, and floated before her in the manner of a will-o-the-wisp, shedding light before her. She followed it into the depths of the cavern, until she emerged into a great chamber.

This was no natural cave, but a hall shaped by human tools and stonecrafting. Upon the walls were engraved scenes of warriors on horseback battling wild-looking skin-clad men on foot, the riders armed with swords and mighty lances. Latin inscriptions, only lightly weathered by time, stood out beneath them, almost like captions for these depictions. Against the foot of the walls were arranged twelve skeletons, clad in rusty chainmail, laid out with care and reverence. But the womanís attention was drawn to the center of the chamber. There stood a great stone table, shaped almost like an altar. It was covered with dust, but two objects lay upon it, clearly visible to her eyes. One was a mighty sword, sheathed in its scabbard. The other was a battered but still sound war-horn.

The woman nodded. "The means for their awakening are still here, and still undisturbed, Cornix," she said to her raven. "And all the better for us.

She reached out and seized the sword by its hilt, drawing it from the scabbard. Then, shifting it to her left hand, she snatched up the horn, and raised it to her lips. She sounded a mighty blast upon it, that echoed through the chamber. Then she placed the horn back upon the table, and waited.

She did not have long to do so. As the echoes of the hornís blast died away, a high, shrieking wind sprang up, whistling about the hall. It stirred her scarlet tresses, her black cloak, and Cornixís feathers. As the wind grew louder, the skeletal bodies began to glow. From each one there arose a transparent shape which floated upwards, to swirl about above the stone table. Then the forms descended, and began to resolve themselves into figures on horseback. By the time that the wind died down, there stood twelve spectral riders, clad in chainmail and bearing lances in their hands. Each one had a sword at his belt, and one bore a great standard from the top of which hung a dragon-shaped banner, fashioned in the manner of a wind sock.

Silence fell in the chamber. The ghostly figures blinked, while their horses pawed the ground and snorted. Then, their leader rode forward, and stared down at the woman.

"Who dares awaken us from our slumber?" he spoke, in a hollow, echoing voice. "Speak, stranger!"

"My name is not important," said the woman calmly. "But my need is. I take it that I am addressing the leader of the Sleepers?"

The rider nodded. "I am Batraz, who once served Lucius Artorius Castus, Prefect of Camps in the Sixth Legion," he said. "And these men are my followers, bound by the same spell that binds me. What business have you with us?"

"I seek your aid against a great evil in the land," said the woman. "There is a man who has done Britannia a great wrong, and committed many crimes. The rulers of this island that reside in the town of Londinium to the south sought to capture him and punish him for his offences, but he fled their justice, and came here to the north. He now roams this part of Britannia, armed with an enchanted sword, no doubt seeking even now to wreak further woe upon the innocent who dwell in these parts."

Batraz and the other riders frowned, as they listened. "You have awakened us to deal with a mere outlaw, woman?" he asked. "Surely the binding spell that our shaman placed upon us was woven with a much greater fulfillment in mind than that."

"This man is no mere outlaw, my lord Batraz, I assure you," said the woman. "As I told you, he bears a sword forged with the aid of black magic, a sword which makes him invincible in battle against mere mortals. And he is accompanied by a false sorcerer with demonic blood in his veins, who takes the form of a stripling boy. Their power is great, and has outstripped that of the authorities duly appointed to govern this island. The living can no longer withstand against them; only you, the Sleepers, can defeat them now and deliver Britannia from their evil."

Batraz nodded, in response. "There is much that I find strange about your tale, woman," he said. "That I cannot deny. But I and my companions have been bound to re-awaken when we are needed most, to complete our task in protecting Britannia from its enemies and keep it safe from harm. And if you speak the truth, then the appointed hour may well have come."

"Aye, my lord," said one of the horsemen behind him. "Say but the word, Batraz, and we shall ride forth to hunt these evil-doers down."

The woman gestured, and an image of Arthur and Merlin formed in the air before the Sleepers. "These are your foes," she said to them. "I show them to you, that you may recognize them when you come upon them."

Batraz stared closely first at the conjured image, and then at the woman. "You are a practitioner of the magical arts as well, then," he said, frowning suspiciously. "Is that not the case?"

The woman nodded. "I cannot deny it," she said. "But I am more akin to your shaman than to the pair of wicked enchanters that I have awakened you to fight. I use my powers merely to protect Britannia from those who would do it harm, even as do you."

Batraz was silent for a moment, then nodded. "Very well, my lady," he said. "We will do as you urge us." He turned back to the warrior in his following who had spoken earlier. "We ride at once, Sozryko," he said. "Forward!"

With a series of cries, the Sleepers spurred their mounts, and galloped out of the chamber, like a cold wind. The woman stood by the table, and watched them depart. When they had gone, she placed the horn down upon the table, and smiled coldly.

"Theyíve taken the bait, Cornix," she told her raven. "Just as I had hoped that they would. Now come, my pet. We have other matters yet to attend."

She raised her hand, and both she and her bird vanished in another cloud of churning green smoke.

* * *

"Well, Merlin?" Arthur Pendragon asked concernedly, as he stood by the campfire.

For some time now, he had been pacing back and forth beside it almost impatiently, waiting as his young-old advisor sorted his way through the books that he had taken from the ruins of the Lord Sorcererís castle at Rivencroft. Ever since they had left the place, Merlin had been reading through the long-departed English wizardís tomes on magic, scanning every single page intently. So far, he had uncovered nothing, and Arthur was beginning to wonder whether perhaps they should have left the Lord Sorcererís books behind after all. They had certainly not produced anything useful to him as yet.

"Give me a moment, Arthur," said Merlin in a testy voice, as he turned over another page. "I may be on to something here, but I need to make certain of it first."

"On to something?" asked Mary Sefton, looking over the youthís shoulder. With sunset, she had once again reverted to her original human form, although once again, her condition would only last the night; come dawn, she would become a talking wolf once more, as had been the case with her ever since they had left Rivencroft. "A cure for my condition, I hope."

"Donít be so self-centered," said Merlin to her sharply. "As if your lycanthropy was the only problem that we had!"

"Well, itís a very big problem!" she said. "Do you realize how many burrs Iíve picked up while I was a wolf today? Not to mention itís only a matter of time before I start attracting fleas as well, and I can tell you that Iím not looking forward to that at all!"

"That is going to have to be your problem, and not ours," said Merlin, reading over the passage before him.

"Well, maybe," said the girl. "But when you suddenly discover that youíre itching all over, donít say that I didnít warn you."

"Just what have you found, Merlin?" Arthur asked, hoping to change the subject. He supposed that he couldnít entirely blame Mary for her sharp-tongued comments aimed at Merlin; suddenly finding herself a werewolf could not be at all enjoyable for her. But all the same, after listening to her complain repeatedly about her condition to both of them, and even during the day while she was in a wolfís body, he felt ready to welcome a change of subject himself.

"Itís a passage about the Thirteen Treasures of Britain, written by Brihtric himself," Merlin explained. "It seems that he took quite an interest in them. I hadnít even known that. Itís amazing, the surprises that you can find searching through another wizardís writings sometimes."

"The Thirteen Treasures of Britain?" Mary repeated. "What are they? Iíve never heard of them before."

"Well, Iím hardly surprised about that," said Merlin. "They never did get quite as much publicity as Excalibur or the Holy Grail, after all. At any rate, the Thirteen Treasures are a group of magical artifacts that I used to keep in my Crystal Cave on Bardsey Isle, for several centuries. They are the Sword of Rhydderch Hael, the Food-Hamper of Gwyddno Garanhir, the Drinking-Horn of Bran Galed, the Chariot of Morgan Mwynvawr, the Halter of Clydno Eidyn, the Knife of Llawfrodded Farchawg, the Cauldron of Tyrnog, the Whetstone of Tydwal Tydclud, the Tunic of Padarn Beisrudd, the Pan and Platter of Rhegynydd Ysgohaig, the Chessboard of Gwenddolau, and the Mantle of Manannan."

"Show-off," commented Mary, sounding not the least bit impressed. "So what do these have to do with us, anyway?"

"Well, some time ago, I rather carelessly scattered them throughout the British Isles, in a bungled spell of mine," said Merlin, a trifle sheepishly. "Arthurís recovered one of them - the Food-Hamper of Gwyddno Garanhir - but only one of them. The other twelve are still out there somewhere."

"I thank you for your reminder, Merlin," said Arthur. "But I scarcely think that now is the correct time to be hunting for the rest of the Treasures. We have larger concerns at present, after all."

"Yes," said Mary. "Like getting me back to normal, for example."

"Oh, I think that this is relevant to our current situation, Arthur," said Merlin. "You see, Iíve been thinking about one of the Treasures, the Mantle of Manannan. As I recall - and as the Lord Sorcererís notes reminded me - whoever wears it becomes invisible. Something like that could be very useful to us, donít you think?"

Arthur frowned thoughtfully. "It might indeed," he said at last.

"Why?" asked Mary. "Whatís so important about becoming invisible, anyway?"

"Itís - complicated," said Merlin uneasily. He glanced at Arthur as he spoke, as if to urge him against saying anything to Mary about the precise reasons for why they might need the Mantle. Arthur nodded, although somewhat troubledly. It did not strike him as being particularly honorable to conceal the exact nature of their plight from their new companion, and a part of him still felt that they ought to inform her about just why he and Merlin were wandering about the British countryside, far from the major towns. But he understood, at the same time, the reason for staying mum. It was still too soon to tell whether it was safe to inform the girl that he was suspected by the highest law enforcement authorities in the nation of being the most notorious criminal in the United Kingdom. So he said nothing.

"Well, never mind about that," said Mary, apparently - and to Arthurís relief - not inclined to pursue that question at present. "So you want a magic cloak of invisibility. Weíre still going to need to find it."

"As it happens, I have a pretty good suspicion of mine as to where we can locate it," said Merlin. "You see, Iíve been doing a great deal of thought over that scattering spell of mine, ever since you made that little visit to Ys, Arthur. It struck me that my magic had sent the Hamper of Gwyddno Garanhir to that drowned city. It particularly interested me, in light of the fact that Gwyddnoís own kingdom, Cantrev y Gwaelod, was similarly destroyed by flooding. And that got me wondering. What if my dispersing the Thirteen Treasures followed some sort of pattern? What if I landed them in places that they were - well - thematically connected to, somehow?"

"Itís certainly quite possible," said Arthur. "Although I will have to trust to your judgement on that, my friend. You know far more about such matters than I do."

Merlin nodded. "Now," he said, "in such a case, the logical place for the Mantle of Manannan to have gone under the spell would have been the Isle of Man. That was where its first owner and creator, Manannan mac Lir, once ruled. Most likely, itís somewhere on that island."

"So we merely have to go there and find it," said Arthur.

"Yes, but thatís going to be a lot easier said than done," Mary commented. "In case youíve forgotten, Merlin, weíre talking about an entire island here. That means a lot of ground to cover."

"True," said Merlin. "But I have an idea for a solution to help us out here."

"Indeed?" asked Mary. "And just what might that be?"

Merlin got up. "I just need to find the right tree for the job," he said. "Follow me, if you will, please."

Arthur and Mary walked after him, as the young-old wizard walked towards a nearby grove of trees. "I thought that Iíd seen the right sort of tree for the job," he said aloud, as he reached it. He halted in front of a hazel tree, then pulled out a small knife from his belt, and carefully cut one of the smaller branches off it.

"What are you doing?" asked Mary puzzledly, standing next to him to get a closer look.

"Iíll answer your question in a moment," said Merlin, a trifle testily. He was now peeling the bark off the hazel twig with his knife, until it presented a smooth surface. "There," he said at last, nodding with satisfaction. "I believe that thatís done it. Now for the final touch."

He held the stick up, and pointed it towards the east. At the same time, he cried out, in a commanding tone of voice, an incantation, half in medieval Latin, half in Old Welsh. There was a flash of light, forcing Arthur, who was standing and watching from slightly further away, to momentarily shield his eyes. When he opened them again, Merlin was looking down at the hazel twig in his hand. His hair was standing up on end, and sparking slightly with static electricity. So was Maryís, which probably explained why she was glaring straight at him.

"I suppose that there was a point to this, Merlin?" she asked him sharply.

"I was turning this branch of hazelwood into a proper magic wand," said the youth. "There were some unexpected side effects, of course, but on the whole, Iíd say that it looks like a success."

"I could do without the side effects, thank you," said Mary, smoothing her hair down. "And if this is the way that all of your spells go, then Iíd say that your reputation really has been seriously overrated."

"Now listen, Miss Sefton," said Merlin, sounding more than ever like a cantankerous old man trapped in an adolescent body. "Yes, I do have some problems controlling my magic properly thanks to this rejuvenation, but once I get fully straightened out again, Iíll be back to normal. And I can do without your wisecracks, if you donít mind."

Arthur had been watching in silence the while; he had himself avoided the humiliating side-effects through having kept his distance. But he had noticed something about Mary Sefton's ears when her hair had stood up on end. At first, he had not been quite certain that he had been seeing them correctly. But now he spoke.

"Your ears, Miss Sefton," he said. "It might have been my imagination, but when I glimpsed them just now, they seemed different. Almost pointed at the ends."

"What?" cried Mary. She lifted her hands to her head, and felt her ears carefully at the tips. "They are getting pointed!" she cried. "What's going on here?"

"Oh," said Merlin. "I should have mentioned this before, but it slipped my memory. It's one of those side effects of being a werewolf. Your ears get like that when you're in human form."

"Oh, wonderful," said Mary in disgust. "So I'm going to look like a freak even when I'm myself? This werewolf business is getting worse all the time!"

"It's not as bad as all that, you know," said Merlin. "Besides, you wear your hair over your ears anyway, so nobody will notice. It always worked with my ears."

"But it's different with you!" Mary protested. "You're a wizard, so that sort of thing's all right for you! But I'm a normal person! I can't go around with ears like that!"

Arthur decided that it was high time to draw their attention back to the task at hand. "We can dispute this point later," he said. "Now, Merlin, what precisely is this wand supposed to do?"

"Iím going to use it to search out the Mantle of Manannan," Merlin explained. "You see, the wand has been set to search out and locate the remaining Thirteen Treasures of Britain. You might call it a Treasure Tracer."

"A Treasure Tracer?" Mary asked, rolling her eyes. "So what do we win if we can come up with a better name?"

"I believe that we should give this notion of Merlinís a try," said Arthur at once, before Merlin could make any retort. "At least, it does strike me as better than nothing. We need a goal for our quest, if we are not merely to wander aimlessly about Britain, and the Mantle will provide us with just that. I say that we should take it, and set our course for the Isle of Man."

"I agree, Arthur," said Merlin. "So letís be on our way, shall we?"

"If you say so," said Mary with a shrug. There was a look on her face as she spoke the words, best described as "What am I doing here?" But she walked alongside them as they left the grove, and continued westwards.

* * *

"When we reach the coast, weíll need to find a ferry to take us to the island," Arthur was saying to Merlin and Mary, as they walked on towards the sea about half an hour later. "That will be the difficult part, of course. For one thing, there is Mistress Maryís condition to concern ourselves with."

Merlin nodded. "Weíll have to think of something before we get there," he said. "Some way of solving that problem. Maybe -"

He broke off suddenly, however, as the noise began behind them. It sounded like a distant rumbling from the east, but drawing steadily closer. The three travellers turned around, to see a silvery mist rise up from the horizon and begin to rush towards them.

"What on earth is that?" Mary asked. She turned to her male companions, both of whom surely knew more about such phenomena than she did. "Do you know what that is, either of you?"

"I do not know," said Arthur, frowning as he gazed towards the mist. Shapes were beginning to emerge from it, shapes like men on horseback. "But I do not think that this bodes good for us."

"Neither do I," said Merlin. "Iíd say that itís trouble."

The riders were drawing closer, and Arthur could make out their features much more clearly now. They were mounted on mighty horses, and wore coats of mail in the old Roman style, back in the days when Britain was still part of the Empire, before the legions left. But they had an insubstantial look about them, a transparent quality. Even without their attire, Arthur felt certain that these were not living men.

"Run!" he shouted to his companions. "Now!"

The three of them fled, but to no avail. Their pursuers were on horseback, and were able to overtake them easily. At a motion from their leader, six of the twelve riders spurred forward to pass Arthur and his companions, cutting them off, while the remaining six came up behind them. They surrounded the three wanderers in a ring, their lances lowered and pointed at them.

Arthur looked closely at the warriors who had trapped him and his friends. Their faces, showing pale in the night beneath their pointed helmets, were set and grim. While their glowing forms were enough to proclaim them ghosts, they nevertheless seemed to have enough presence to them to discourage him from simply walking through their circle. Their horses pawed the ground and snorted, although Arthur could not feel their breath upon him. He glanced concernedly at his companions. Mary looked terrified, although she was doing her best to stay calm, while Merlin was staring at the ghost riders with a mixture of worry, surprise, and interest in his eyes.

The horsemen did not move, and Arthur felt that it was up to him to take the next step. He pulled back his coat and drew Excalibur from its scabbard. He then held out the magic sword before him, which shimmered in the moonlight in the same eerie fashion as his challengers.

"What business have you with us, strangers?" he asked them. "I would have you answer me. Declare yourselves."

The leader of the horsemen rode forward, until his spear-head was only a few inches away from Arthurís chest. "I am Batraz, of the Twelve Sleepers," he said, in a hollow, echoing voice. "And you are the man whom my followers and I have sought."

"Have sought?" asked Arthur. He was not certain that he liked the sound of that. "For what purpose?"

"Long years ago, my fellow Sarmatians and I served Rome, and fought its battles in this island," said Batraz. "We swore to protect Britannia from its foes, and stood against the savage Caledonian tribes who harried the north, turning them back in many a fight - until at last we were slain. But our souls remained in this mortal world, to lie waiting for a time when we were needed once more to defend Britannia from those who would do it harm. And now, it would seem, that time has come."

"Indeed?" asked Arthur. "And what has this to do with us?"

"Our awakener has warned us about you, both you and the youth who travels in your company," Batraz replied. "She said that you were both dangerous and evil men, who threaten the peace of this province. It is thus our duty to hunt you down and deliver Britannia from the peril that you pose to it."

"What?" cried Merlin, lifting an eyebrow. "Thatís a lie! We are no threat to this island at all! Who has been telling you these tales?"

"The woman who woke us from our sleep," Batraz answered. "It was she who told us about you both." His eyes fell upon a still speechless Mary as he spoke, and he and his companions seemed bewildered at the sight of her. "Although she had not informed us of the maid that travels with you, or of her intent."

"Woman?" asked Arthur, suspiciously. "What woman?"

"We do not know her name, or aught concerning her," said the ghostly rider. "She came to us garbed in a dark hooded robe, and roused us from our slumber, then spoke to us of you."

"What did she look like?" Arthur asked. He was beginning to have an uneasy feeling about this.

"She had hair as red as fire," said Batraz. "More than that, we do not know. Her features were kept veiled from us, by her hood."

"A red-haired woman," said Merlin uneasily to Arthur. "Thatís sounding all too familiar, Iíd say." Arthur nodded in agreement.

Batraz broke in upon their words once more. "Our summoner would have us destroy you both," he continued. "And if I was a hasty man, I would have fulfilled her demand now, with far less speech to either of you. But there was much about this woman that did not seem entirely right to me. I would know more about you first, before I and my followers fulfill our mission."

"My name is Arthur Pendragon, and I am no enemy to this fair isle," Arthur answered. "Indeed, I was its High King once, and protected it from its foes, even as you did. And I have returned from an enchanted sleep of my own, like yourselves, to defend Britain once more."

The Sarmatian horsemen murmured among themselves in astonishment at this, although not once breaking their ranks or taking their eyes off their three prisoners. One of them spoke up at last, to Batraz. "My lord, surely this must be some trick, some piece of deceit," he said. "I know of no king by the name of Arthur, and certainly no high king over all Britannia. He must be attempting some stratagem, to turn us from our purpose."

"I am not so certain of that, Sosryko," said Batraz, shaking his head. "The man may indeed be speaking the truth. He has much more the light of honesty in his eyes than did the woman who awakened us; perchance she was the liar, and not he. And also - also, his name and face both have a certain familiarity to them." He turned back to face the Once and Future King again. "What did you say your name was, again?"

"My name is Arthur Pendragon," Arthur replied.

"Arthur," said Batraz, pronouncing the name carefully. "Arthur. It does indeed sound familiar to me. And your face - were it not for your long hair and beard, you could almost be a twin to our commander, when my fellows and I were living men."

"Your commander?" Arthur asked.

"Lucius Artorius Castus, Prefect of Camps in the Sixth Legion of Eboracum," answered Batraz.

Merlinís face lit up at that. "Of course!" he cried. "Lucius Artorius Castus! It all makes sense now, Arthur!"

"Not to me, it doesnít," said Mary, speaking up at last.

"Nor to me either," said Arthur. "Explain yourself, Merlin."

"Lucius Artorius Castus was your several-times-great-grandfather," said Merlin calmly, "on your fatherís side of the family. Your own name was derived from his, in fact. ĎArthurí is simply a watered-down form of ĎArtoriusí. Yes, that does explain a lot."

"You are our old commanderís heir?" asked Batraz to Arthur. His voice was incredulous, but he seemed almost half-ready to believe it.

"Merlin would know that more than I do," Arthur confessed. "In truth, I know almost nothing of these matters." He turned towards Merlin. "You certainly never spoke of this to me before now," he added.

"Iíve never had any reason to do so before now," said Merlin. "But Iíve known this for some time. I know more about your bloodline than you think, my friend."

"Weíre all reasonable people," said Mary, nervously breaking the silence again and doing her best to sound bold. "Iím certain that we can find a way to work this out, if we just try hard enough." Then she took another look at the grim faces of the mounted warriors, and felt less certain of her words.

"So what do we do now, our leader?" asked Sosryko. "For my own part, I still believe that we should slay them, here and now, and be done with it."

"Nay, Sosryko," said Batraz, shaking his head. "We will not do that - at least, not yet."

"But the woman -" another warrior began.

"As I already said, Soslan, that woman had a certain suspicious air about her," said Batraz. "It is more than possible that she was the one who spoke falsely, and lied to us when she accused these two."

"But how do we know whether this ĎArthurí speaks the truth or not?" asked yet another horseman. "There must be some way to answer the question."

"I believe that there is, Urysmag," said Batraz. "We shall hold three tests, to determine the nature of this man. From them we may gain his measure, and see if he is truthful or not. Then we will know what to do about him and his companions."

The other Sarmatians murmured over this, then nodded as if to indicate that they accepted this solution. Batraz turned back towards Arthur. "Come with us, both you and your friends," he said.

Arthur nodded in agreement. With that, the entire company set off, the Sarmatians riding both before and behind the three travellers, to watch them closely. Mary turned to Merlin.

"Youíre just going to let them take us?" she asked him and Arthur. "Without even a fight?"

"I donít think that theyíre truly our enemies," said Merlin. "From the look of things, Iíd say that somebodyís duped them into going after us, framed us. All that we have to do is prove that Arthurís innocent, and theyíll probably let us go."

"Well, maybe," said Mary. She did not sound particularly convinced. "But who are these Sarmatians, anyway? Iíve never heard of them before, either."

"They were a nomadic tribe that used to live in Hungary," Merlin explained. "Back in the time of Marcus Aurelius, the Romans transferred a large number of them to northern Britain, to serve as auxiliaries for their troops. They settled down here, and became a part of the country. And it seems that some of them stayed here much longer than Iíd really thought."

"And do you really think that Arthur will be able to pass their tests?" the girl asked.

"Weíll just have to see," Merlin replied. He glanced at Arthur, who was proceeding onwards in silence, his face set. "I sincerely hope so."

* * *

After some time walking, the three travellers and their mounted escort at last reached the ruins of an old Roman temple. The walls were crumbling, and the roof had long since succumbed to time, leaving the building open to the night sky. But one feature still remained unweathered by the elements. It was a great stone altar in the center of the temple.

Batraz halted his horse, and signalled to his men to do the same. Then he turned to Arthur and spoke.

"This was the temple where my men and I once worshipped the war-god of our tribe," he said. "And it is also the place of our first test. Your sword, Arthur Pendragon, if you please?"

Arthur held up Excalibur to him obediently. He doubted that Batraz would be able to grip it by the hilt, not considering his spectral nature, but decided against making any protest. He would simply wait and see what would unfold.

Batraz gestured, and the sword rose up out of Arthurís hands, to hover over the altar. With a sudden whistling noise, it plunged downwards, to embed itself in the stone block, just as it had done in the Stone of Destiny in London fifteen centuries before.

"The war-godís altar has accepted your sword," said Batraz. "Now it will only yield it up if it judges you worthy. Take the sword by the hilt, Arthur Pendragon, and free it from the stone, if you can."

Mary lifted her eyebrows in astonishment. "Oh, come now!" she said. "They canít be serious about it, can they? I mean, hasnít he already done this before?"

"True," said Merlin. "But there is a certain sacred significance about it. The Sarmatians worshipped their war-god in the shape of a sword thrust into a stone or a platform. I never thought about this before, but maybe there was a reason why the test that I set up for Arthur to claim the throne with Excalibur all those centuries ago took the form that it did. Almost as if it was echoing his heritage." Then he fell silent, and watched as Arthur stepped up upon the altar, and grasped Excalibur by the hilt.

Even as he had done fifteen hundred years ago, now Arthur withdrew his sword from the stone once more. He raised it high above his head, as flickers of energy arced about the blade for all to see. Batraz stood in awe and wonder for a moment, then nodded approvingly, as did some of the other Sarmatians.

"Well done, Arthur Pendragon," he said. "Your sword indeed vouches for you. But this is only the first test. The other two will be far more difficult."

"I am ready for them, whatever they may be," said Arthur.

"Very well, then," said Batraz. "Follow us."

* * *

The Sarmatians led the three travellers from the ruined temple, and towards the woods. As they drew nearer to the edge of the forest, the trees began to ripple and shimmer, almost as though they were beginning to change. A spring of water sparkling in the moonlight gushed up from the ground, to form a peaceful pool. Then, from out of the trees, a silvery-coated unicorn emerged, its spiralling horn glinting with a faerie radiance. It halted by the pool, and lowered its head to drink from it.

Mary gave a gasp of wonder and delight, her eyes staring at the noble animal. "How lovely," she said, in a tone of voice very different from her usual sharp-tongued manner. "I didnít even think that unicorns existed these days. Not even after meeting you people."

"Actually, there arenít supposed to be any unicorns left in Britain at all," Merlin said to her. "If you want my opinion, I donít think that this is quite real. I believe that the Sarmatiansí presence may be affecting the landscape. The magic that has preserved them is now altering reality about them, making this part of Britain more attuned to them."

As he spoke, the unicorn finished drinking from the pool, and returned to the forest, disappearing into the shadows of the trees. Batraz paid it no heed, however, and neither did Arthur. The Once and Future King looked up at the Sarmatian leader and spoke to him.

"So, Batraz," he asked, "what is my second test?"

"Not far from here to the east, there lies an ancient burial mound," said the horseman. "You must go there, Arthur Pendragon, alone. Within that barrow lies a golden cup, buried there by my people long ago, when we first came to this island. You must take it up and deliver it to us."

"That doesnít sound so diffficult," said Mary. "A piece of cake, in fact, Iíd say."

Arthur nodded, frowning. "The young damosel speaks the truth," he said to Batraz. "There is more to this task, is there not?"

"Indeed there is," said Batraz. "The cup has guardians dwelling close by the barrow. A flock of winged serpents that breathe fire."

"Winged serpents?" said Mary. "You canít be serious!"

"We most certainly are," said Batraz to her gravely. "That is the task."

"But it sounds - well, dangerous," said the girl.

"Such quests are intended to be dangerous," he replied. "If there was no peril involved, how could this man prove his worth by achieving this task?"

"It still doesnít sound good," said Mary.

"I agree," said Merlin. "Maybe Iíd better come with Arthur, to help him out."

Batraz shook his head. "No," he said, in a firm voice. "You must remain here. Both you and the girl."

"Whatever for?" Mary cried. "Weíre not hostages, are we?"

"It is not that," Batraz answered. "If you were there to aid him, you would make the quest too easy for him by your presence. The man must go alone, in order to properly prove himself."

"He speaks the truth, Merlin," said Arthur. "Do not worry over me, old friend. I will manage, I assure you."

"Then all that I can say to you," said the young-old wizard, "is to be careful, Arthur."

"Oh, I shall, my friend," Arthur replied. "I shall." And with that, he walked alone towards the forest and beneath its eaves.

It was not easy going for him. The influence of the Sarmatians had apparently worked some sort of metamorphosis upon the woodland, changing it back from the relatively tame clump of trees in modern-day England to the dark and tangled forests that had covered so much of Britain back in his day. Not since he had returned from Avalon had he encountered such growths, except a year before when he and Angela had dared the perils of a transformed Epping Forest to rescue Merlin from its depths. The trees were twisted in a manner evocative of the Forest Sauvage that had surrounded Sir Ectorís castle where he had grown up, and the undergrowth snarled and sprawled about in an almost treacherous fashion. He was kept busy clearing the way with Excalibur, slicing through the obstructing foliage with his keen blade.

It was slow moving, but at least he met with no ill adventure along the way. He heard the occasional cry of a hunting owl, or the tramping of a badger through the woods, but saw nothing more threatening than that. At last, he emerged into a clearing open to the starry sky above. He halted there, and examined its contents closely.

The clearing was dominated by the ancient barrow, a grassy mound rising above the ground. It was quiet and still, with no sign of any flying snakes about. Nor did Arthur see any sign of the golden cup that Batraz had spoken of. But he scarcely found that at all surprising. He knew enough about such places to know that the cup would be within the mound itself, and that to find it, he must find a way in.

He walked up to the barrow, and circled around it, eyeing its sides with a scrutinizing eye. At last, he found what he was looking for. Framed by two great standing stones, an opening yawned in the side of the barrow to the north. Arthur held Excalibur before him, silently willing its light to shine forth from its blade once again and illuminate the path before him. Then he plunged into the ancient burial mound.

Down the tunnel he walked, until he came to a round earthen chamber. The burial goods of Sarmatian warriors lay about in it, bare white bones garbed in rusting mail-coats, with swords and shields and spears lying beside them, cold and still. But Arthurís attention was drawn to what lay in the center of the chamber. An ornate golden drinking-cup stood on a rough-hewn stone there, still gleaming even after centuries of having been abandoned here. The former High King of Britain picked it up and carefully cleaned it off, studying it as he did so. It indeed appeared to be the object of his quest. And he had claimed it without any encounter with the winged serpents said to guard it. "For that give thanks," he said to himself, leaving the burial chamber the same way that he had entered it, up the tunnel.

As he emerged into the open air, several pairs of gleaming red lights appeared in the tree branches surrounding the clearing. At first, Arthur assumed that they were nothing more than fireflies, and proceeded back towards the woods. But he had not gone more than a few steps when he heard a sudden hissing sound coming from the fiery lights. Arthur halted, and raised Excalibur defensively. He did so just in time, as the winged serpents flew out from the branches where they had been lying in wait all along.

Arthur was not certain as to just how many there were of these creatures; perhaps ten or twelve, but this was no time to count them. They were rushing at him far too quickly for that. He struck with his sword at the flying snake in the lead as it swooped down at him, and sighed in relief as its body fell to the ground to lie still.

But the other winged serpents flew at him, hissing and breathing fire as they came, not at all discouraged by their leaderís fate, it seemed. Arthur knew that he could not hope to fight them all at once, not even with Excalibur. The only thing that he could do was to flee. He rushed towards the trees, hoping to outdistance them if he was swift enough. The snakes followed him, still hissing.

In his haste, Arthur did not even see the log lying before him, not until he stumbled over it. He dropped the cup, which rolled away to halt at the foot of a nearby gnarled old oak. As he clambered up to his feet, the serpents fell upon him, shooting out bursts of flames with their toothy jaws.

Arthur held his sword up to interpose it, using its blade almost as a shield against the fire. The serpentsí fiery breath washed off it, and was thrown back at them, consuming them. When the smoke had cleared, their blackened bones lay upon the ground, smoke rising up from them.

Arthur breathed a silent sigh of relief, and retrieved the cup from its place. Without looking back at his erstwhile foes, he proceeded out of the forest.

* * *

"I should be with him."

Merlin paced back and forth in a frustrated manner, glancing at the darkened woods in the distance every so often. The Sarmatians watched the forest from their horses in silence, never making so much as one small comment; they merely waited. Mary was doing the same thing, her arms folded across her chest.

"Would you mind not doing that?" she asked the young wizard at last. "Youíre making me dizzy. For goodnessí sake, stay in one place, will you?"

"You donít understand," Merlin began. "Arthur is my king, and my pupil. I should be out there helping him, not waiting for him to return."

"Look, this Batraz chap said that you werenít supposed to go with him, and even if he is a ghost, I think that heís got something of a point," said the girl. "It would make things way too easy for King Arthur if he had you along with him - even given the level that your magic seems to be on at the moment. This is about him, you know, not about you."

"The young maid speaks the truth," said Batraz, breaking his silence at last. "Any man can win a victory if aided by a sorcererís arts. All that your friend would be able to prove if you were to accompany him was that he had an able enchanter to aid him."

"I know, I know," said Merlin with a sigh. "Youíre making a good point, both of you. Itís just that -"

But he never finished his sentence. For Arthur now came into view, holding the golden cup in one hand, Excalibur in the other.

"I have brought you the cup," said Arthur to Batraz, lifting it before his eyes. "I have achieved the second of the three trials that you imposed upon me."

"I see," said Batraz, gazing down at the cup. The corners of his lips turned upwards into a slight smile. "Very well done, indeed."

"See?" said Mary, as Arthur placed the cup down before the ghosts. "Heís worthy, and all that. So now can we go?"

"Not just yet, child," Batraz replied. "There still remains one task left to perform."

"I knew it," she muttered. "There would have to be a catch, wouldnít there?"

"Name your task, Batraz," said Arthur. "Name it, and I shall achieve it, even as I fulfilled the first two trials that you placed upon me."

"You will re-enter the woods, and go to the south," said Batraz. "There you will find a small pool. This pool is often visited by a great white stag, which comes thither to quench its thirst. You will slay the stag, and bring us back its head as proof of your deed."

"A stag?" asked Mary, sounding astonished. "I was expecting something more along the lines of a dragon myself."

"So was I," admitted Arthur, raising an eyebrow in disbelief. "But I shall do as you bade me." He then turned to Merlin and Mary. "Have patience, my friends," he said to them. "I shall return triumphant soon enough. And then we shall continue upon our quest."

He turned away, and walked back towards the woods. As he disappeared into the tree-cast shadows once more, Merlin stared straight up at Batraz. "This is madness!" he cried. "Why did you choose that for his final task?"

Batraz said nothing in reply. He merely ignored the youth and stared after the king into the forest, waiting for him to re-emerge from it once more.

* * *

The London Docks

The lorry pulled to a complete stop, and its driver climbed out of it. He stepped out onto the docks, and looked about him cautiously.

"Well?" asked a womanís voice from behind him. "Have you brought them?"

The driver spun around in alarm, only managing to keep himself from crying out in shock and alarm just in time. The speaker was the only person there on the docks other than he himself at that late hour. She was muffled in a heavy dark hooded cloak, obscuring her features entirely and giving her an eerie aura of mystery. In the deserted gloom, she seemed to be more a phantom from the netherworld than a living person.

"Yes, maíam," he said, keeping his voice calm and level, though not without an effort. What was it about this mystery client of his, he wondered, that gave him such a sensation of unease whenever he met her? "Itís in the back of the lorry."

"Good," said the woman. "Let me see it."

He stepped around to the back of the vehicle, and unlocked its doors. He then flung them open, and pulled out a chest, which he picked up and carried over to her. "Here it is," he said, laying the chest down before her. "It was just where you told me it would be."

"Excellent," she said, nodding. She opened the chest, and took a brief look inside. "Itís here, as I had hoped," she said. "You have done very well. Your services shall not go unrewarded." She handed him an envelope, produced from the voluminous folds of her dark mantle.

"If you donít mind my asking you this, maíam," continued the lorry driver, "why are you paying me so much just for - well, that? I mean, whatís in the chest doesnít strike me as all that valuable. Why go to so much trouble for it?"

"That is my concern," said the woman, in a tone of voice that indicated that she was not interested in continuing this conversation any further. "It is of no importance to you. You have been paid; now leave."

The man nodded, and walked back to his vehicle. He turned around once, just as he was almost at its door, and saw to his surprise that both the woman and the chest were gone. They had vanished, without even leaving a trace behind.

He blinked in disbelief, and stood there for a moment, in silence. Then, shrugging his shoulders, he climbed back into the driverís seat of the lorry and drove off.

* * *

Arthur emerged from the woods into a fresh clearing, by a clear pool of water, much like the very one that the Lady of the Lake had risen from at the beginning of his adventures so long ago. He halted, standing in the shadows of the trees, his hand resting on Excaliburís hilt, and waited.

He did not have to keep his vigil for long. From out of the woods stepped forth a large and graceful white stag. Its antlers shimmered in the moonlight with a silvery glow. It trod upon the ground so softly as to not leave even a trace of its hoofprints behind it, and without a sound approached the pool. Slowly and solemnly, it bent its head downward, and began to drink from its waters.

Arthur stepped forward, beginning to draw his sword from its scabbard. It would be an easy enough task to perform, to slay the stag and bear back its head to Batraz and the other Sarmatians, barely a contest, in fact. All that he had to do -.

He halted. The stag lifted its majestic head up and gazed at the man, like one king receiving another. No fear or fury showed in its eyes; it merely looked upon Arthur with a quiet and gentle dignity. It stood there, and waited.

Arthur lowered the sword. "No," he said to himself. "No, I cannot do this."

This was not like slaying a ravaging giant or dragon or a creature of the Unseelie Court. The stag was harmless; it had never inflicted any evil upon any living being. He had no quarrel with it, no reason to slay it other than some arbitrary task imposed upon him by the Sleepers. And that was scarcely a good enough reason.

Arthur sheathed Excalibur, and looked up at the stag. "Go your way in peace, my friend," he said. "I shall not harm you." And with that, he turned and walked away from the pool. The stag turned and vanished back into the woods, in the opposite direction.

* * *

"Heís coming," said Mary to Merlin, watching closely as Arthur drew nearer. "But I donít see him carrying anything that looks like a head."

"I know," said Merlin, frowning. "Iím not certain that I like the sound of that, either."

Arthur walked up to the ranks of the Sleepers, and halted. He raised up both hands to show that he bore nothing in them.

"You do not have the stagís head," said Batraz. "Where is it?"

"Where it belongs, as part of the living animal," Arthur replied. "I did not slay it."

"And why not?" Batraz inquired sternly. "That was the very quest which you were assigned to fulfill."

"No true knight fulfills a quest that demands the performance of an ignoble deed," replied Arthur. "That stag was no monster, but a gentle animal. It should be left in peace, not butchered merely for the sake of a trophy to be presented up to you."

The other Sarmatians turned to one another, murmuring in low voices with much consternation. Only Batraz remained calm and seemingly unmoved.

"This is your final decision, Arthur Pendragon?" he asked. "It is not too late for you to change your mind, after all."

"I have spoken my word, and I can do nothing else, short of dishonoring myself as a true knight," said Arthur. "What manner of man would I be to murder a harmless creature? Do whatever you will with me, but let my companions go free."

"Then you leave me no choice," said Batraz gravely. "No choice, but to pronounce your task fulfilled."

"What?" cried Arthur in disbelief. Merlin and Mary echoed his cry, as did many of the Sarmatians.

"Had you truly been the villain that your accuser claimed you to be," Batraz continued, "you would have slain the White Stag without a qualm of conscience. By sparing it even when you knew that such a deed could well cost you your life, you showed yourself to be a man of honor and nobility. It seems that you truly are innocent, Arthur Pendragon."

""Then we are free to go?" Mary asked eagerly.

"Yes, my lady," said the leader of the Sleepers, with a stately bow in her direction. "But before you depart, I would bestow upon you a gift, Arthur."

He flung back his cloak, and gestured. The war-horn from the cave appeared just above Arthurís hands, landing in them. The Once and Future King stared down at it in silence.

"This horn you may use to summon us, should you ever have need of us to fight beside you," said Batraz. "But heed this warning, Arthur Pendragon. You may only wind it once. Then, when we have fulfilled the task that you set for us, we must depart forever, our mission to protect this island fulfilled. Choose the occasion of our summoning wisely."

"I will," said Arthur. "And thank you, my friend." He slung its baldric across his shoulder, letting it hang by his side.

"And now, we bid you farewell, until we meet again," said Batraz. He turned his horse about, and rode off into the night, followed by the other Sarmatian ghosts. They rode into the mist which had followed them since they had first appeared, and vanished. The mist dispersed, and the three travellers were left standing alone upon the grassy fields, which had also reverted to normal.

"Well, thatís over with," said Mary. "Now where were we, before we were so rudely interrupted?"

"Upon our way to the Isle of Man, to claim the Mantle of Manannan," said Arthur. "Let us be off there now."

Merlin frowned, as they continued on their way. "Thereís still one piece to this puzzle that needs solving," he said. "That woman. Iím certain that she had to be the one whom Leba read about on the computer back in London. But who is she, and why is she doing this to us?"

"I have no more idea of her identity than you do, my friend," said Arthur. "But hopefully, we will discover the answer to that mystery in time."

* * *

The hooded and cloaked woman pushed the chest into her workroom, and stared down at it, smiling. She then flung back her hood, and removed the scarlet wig that she was wearing over her own sable hair, tossing it away into a corner.

"The disguise has served its purpose," she said, with a satisfied nod. "It would never have done for anybody to have recognized Morgana Cornish as being present at such suspicious scenes. But now, the worst part of the work is over."

Morgana la Fay lifted the lid of the chest once again, and stared down into its contents. A skull and a pile of bones lay inside, the skull staring up at her with empty hollows where its eyes should have been. The sorceress bent down, and gingerly picked up the skull, placing it upon her desk next to a flickering black candle.

"It took me long enough to find your burial place," she said, resting one hand gently upon the skull. "But I found you at last. And you are going to help me with my vengeance. Youíll like that, wonít you?"

She turned to her raven, perched on its habitual roost beside the desk. "Perhaps we should examine how the Sleepers are faring," she said to it. "Let us see, shall we?"

She filled the silver basin on the table with water from a pitcher standing beside it, and after repeating the correct Latin incantation, stared into the waters. She saw Batraz handing her half-brother Arthur his battle-horn, and then turning to ride away with his followers into the darkness. She frowned troubledly at the sight.

"Batraz has failed me," she sighed. "But still, it is not such a loss. Arthur is still believed by Braddock and his superiors to be a dangerous criminal, thanks to my work, and they will do whatever they can to hunt him down. And so will I." She turned to the skull. "And when the time is right," she said to it, "so will you."