The Reluctant Thief
Outline by Nicodemus and Mandi Ohlin
Written by Carolynn Marie
* * * * *
Brianna: "You... live with humans? How can you trust them?"
Caspian: "Well, the Marter family has been protecting our clan for centuries. They were our friends when the whole world was against us. If you can find friendship in a human's heart, trusting them is easy."
Brianna: "I dinnae know. My clan doesn't have anything to do wi' humans. I dinnae know if I can be friends wi' a human."
Caspian: "Just try to keep an open mind about it."
~~~My Lady Fair~~~
"Uncle...!" Umbriel's eyes were pale and wide, the blood rushing from his face. "Please, no...!!"
Madoc curled his lip contemptuously at the feeble plead for mercy. He channeled all the rage and pent-up fury meant for Goliath and Elisa upon his nephew. Silver flames sprang up from the ground, engulfing Umbriel as arcs of hot white energy coursed over him. Umbriel's body tensed, his mouth open but without the breath to scream, tears escaping from clenched eyelids. Madoc's eyes widened eagerly as he relished the agony on his nephew's face. Then the last wave of arcane flames swept over him, and Banshee caught a final glimpse of Umbriel's terrified face before they became blinding in their intensity. When the light faded, all that remained was a mound of ashes at the Unseelie's feet.
"No....." Banshee lowered her eyes, ceasing her struggle against Garlon's hold.
Garlon laughed softly in her ear. "Your turn," he purred. Certain that the Banshee had lost her will to fight, he relaxed his grip and lowered the blade from her throat.
Unfortunately for him, Molly's baser instincts took over, and Banshee grabbed Garlon's wrist, twisting the knife away following it up with an incapacitating knee to the stomach. She tossed him aside and glared at Madoc.
"Go on! Conquer Avalon an' do battle with Oberon if you must! But you'll be doin' it without me!!" Banshee cut loose with a heartfelt shriek of mournful regret that sent Madoc and Garlon stumbling back on their heels long enough for her to scoop up the still warm ashes of what was Umbriel in her skirt and teleport herself away.
Griff: "Well, this is a pretty pickle. What else have you found?"
Leba: "More information, and none of it good. He's gathered files on all of us. Well, those of us who are humans. Myself, Emrys, Rory, Dulcinea, Kevin, the lot."
Rory: "How on Earth did they find all that out?"
Kevin: "This is the Government that we're talking about, here. They know everything."
Griff: "Not quite everything."
Arthur: "Well, at least we know something about what I am accused of doing. Now we just need to find a way to prove my innocence."
The Reluctant Thief
* * * * *
London Police Headquarters
Leba squinted into the inky darkness. "Rory? What did you do now?"
"I think I just sat in a ... 'tis a wastebasket. Keep your shirt on; I'll be out in a sec." A second later, there was a loud ring as a metallic something collided with the floorboards. "Oh, double blast. I fell over." She heard his boots scramble to prop himself against something. "What're you waiting for, all of Britain to catch us? Get a move on."
The silky-blonde minstrel flicked on the flashlight she had brought for the occasion and raked the beam across the walls. It was too dangerous to use the electricity, what with security right outside the building.
Her eyes dilated as they struggled to see in the dark. The office was already in shambles, even before she and Rory had broken in. Stacks of files lay tangled amidst cold cups of tea. A tie and pair of slacks were thrown over a straight-backed chair, as if the owner had been interrupted in the midst of getting dressed. A bulky, old computer sat on a clean space of desk, its dead monitor staring at her with a dejected expression.
The beam illuminated Rory's startled eyes and rough-shaven face. "Rory!" she sighed. "Get your bum out of the wastebasket and help me look. Honestly, you act as if Arthur's reputation isn't resting on this."
He twisted free. "If I were Arthur, I'd worry more about Scotland Yard than his reputation," he muttered, turning to open a filing cabinet. "This Hathaway lad better have something to clear Arthur. "
"Elementary, my dear Rory." Leba puffed an imaginary pipe, grinned, and settled herself behind the computer. "Well, lessee. On switch ...." The monitor flickered and booted up with a droning, bee-like hum. "Password? Rory?"
"Hmph, interesting magazines he's got." Even the dark couldn't hide Rory's amused expression. "The summer issue, no less! And this man's married?" He cleared his throat at her baleful stare. "Er, try someone's name. His wife's, perhaps? A little bird tells me-" Rory swooped up a letter, scanned it with squinting eyes, and said, "-it might be Marjorie."
She typed it in, but got an Error message. "A no go. Try again."
"I don't know!" He threw up his hands in disgust. "Try .... try .... oh, his wife's name, backwards. 'Tis stupid enough to work."
Marjorie. Eirojram. It was stupid enough to work. Leba punched the air above her head and whistled. "Lumme! Rory, you little Irish genius! It worked!" The entire hard drive at her fingertips, she flew through several files and screeched to a halt at the folder entitled 'Reports'. She clicked on the tiny blue icon and was overcome by a tidal wave of legal mumbo-jumbo she'd never understood. Most of it was old fluff: files dated from months ago, shady deals and petty thieves, and other names she didn't recognize...
Oh, lumme. She couldn't believe it.
"Rory," Leba whispered thinly, "watch the door." Tearing through the desk drawer, she uncovered a blank disk, buried and forgotten beneath a layer of unpaid bills and speeding tickets. She popped it into the drive, pulled out Save As from the File menu, and began the download.
Nothing made sense, she mused, amused that she’d have use for anything she’d been around at home. The reports on Arthur had to be corroborated by Hathaway. For one thing, the dates on the reports didn't match up with the date of the last revision. For a second, it didn't look like a supervisor had approved them; the writing was a poor rough draft, too sloppy to have gone through a higher authority. It was too shabby. It was too bizarre.
Leba knew she was looking at a big piece of the puzzle.
* * * * *
"…so you and Imogen are going to be, what's the human expression? 'Tying the knot?'" Cervus grinned and added, "I say, they make getting mated sound like a hanging."
Faulconbridge snorted and tucked his wings around himself. The chilly London fog was seeping into his aching bones, and he was anxious to leave. It had been half an hour sitting on that damp rooftop, making sure Rory and Leba in the next building over weren't caught in their search. It had been over two hours since he had been indoors, and three hours since he and his rookery brother had been talked into this mess.
He sighed. "Imogen certainly thinks so. Tonight was the second time she chased me out of the pantry just because I wanted to help with supper. Hmph. Females."
"Funny. Adding Cajun pepper to the soup pot is your idea of helping?"
The avian gargoyle could feel his beak turning a brilliant crimson. "I thought it was ginger root," he mumbled.
Cervus looked ready to twist the knife even further, but something in the street below caught his attention. His slender buck-head reared up in alarm. "Oh, blast! The bobbies!"
"Are you blind? There! There!"
Faulconbridge swung his head around and squinted into the swirling fog. Down below, three uniformed men with their clubs were at the building's back, hissing and arguing as they fumbled with what sounded like keys.
Both males froze in momentary panic. Amongst all the careful planning, no one had considered the possibility that security would be bumped up that night, nor had they planned on anyone entering through the back door. How could they warn Rory and Leba without being spotted by the humans?
Now the back door was opened and the humans were entering, and they were going to catch Rory and Leba. And it would be all his and Cervus' fault.
"Oh, blast, blast, blast, Cervus!" He shoved his rookery brother. "We need Kevin, chap. Get him to swing the van around. I'll get 'em out of there." Cervus muttered impatiently as he dashed from the roof and rocketed down the street.
Falconbridge groaned. He'd have to follow the bobbies in through the back-way and hope they didn't spot him.
Flaring his wings, the avian gargoyle scampered across the icy concrete. The chasm of the alleyway lay dead ahead. He'd have to jump it. Luckily, he reminded himself, gargoyles were built for this kind of thing.
With a bounce off the fire escape, he came to a humiliating crash-down on the backstairs. Well, most gargoyles were built for this kind of thing. His now-out of sight rookery brother had always said his feet worked as if they had been screwed on backwards.
He picked himself up, dusted his leathers off, and grabbed the doorknob. "Well!" he whispered victoriously, wheezing hard. "That wasn't so hard after all!" The door refused to budge.
He had been locked out.
* * * * *
"Done yet?" Rory demanded. "Lucy doesn't take this long to sign off, even when she's playing that Super Army Ants or whatever it is she plays-"
Leba's dark eyes now resembled hard slate. "Patience, patience. Men are so impatient-"
"'Tis because women are slower than an afternoon soap." He rolled her chair out from under the desk with a flourish, and she dug her boots into the floor to stop him. Anxiety swelled in his chest, threatening to explode. "Time isn't on our side, you know. We have to-"
"Honestly!" she hissed, eyes flaring red. "You sound like an old woman. The building's locked, the other two are outside on the lookout, and we haven't made a peep. What could possibly go wrong?"
He was about to answer her, but a sudden creak from downstairs answered for him. Even in the dark, he swore her face had turned pale, like the color of week-old porridge.
"Famous last words, Leba." He dashed across the room, ignoring the clatter of his boots on the floorboards. Leba, right behind him, suddenly screeched to a halt and ran back to the computer.
"What are you doing?" he cried.
She plucked the disk from the hard drive and killed the monitor. "I nearly forgot this-"
"Leg it! Interrogation and linkage to Arthur aren't worth it!" The dam broke lose, and the rage in his chest swelled and released in a torrid flood of emotions. "LEBA!"
Whoever was downstairs wasn't concealing their presence anymore. Another creak. And another. And another. Heading for the staircase to the second floor, where they hid, trapped.
There was a crash as Leba tripped headlong over that cursed wastebasket and into his chest, sending them both sprawling on the floor. Shots of blue and red swarmed before his eyes as the wind was knocked out of his chest. Somehow they managed to untangle and get to their feet.
"They're in the corridor." Rory felt her breathe heavily into his ear. "Head for the window."
"No good. 'Tis right under a streetlight." He inwardly groaned. This hadn't been his idea of a relaxing weekend. "We'll be seen."
Squeak. The bloody door was opening. Rory ducked behind it. Leba wasn't as quick though, and just before the hall light fell on her face, he yanked her back with him. Huddled together, they slid slowly down the wall, hearts thumping.
"-Thompson reported something from over here. Said it was a-"
The guard's voice broke off as a piercing whistle trilled from downstairs. Rory's heart nearly exploded out of his chest.
"First floor, mates! Hurry! We'll catch 'em!"
The clomping of men's boots echoed as the guards dashed back down the hallway, down the stairs, and out into the street.
Rory cautiously crawled over to the door, left ajar by the guards' hasty retreat. He peered down at the floor and realized his right hand was quaking ever so slightly. The young Irishman clutched it to his chest and bent double, shaking.
"Rory!" Someone had him by the shoulders. "Rory? Answer me, you all right? They're gone! Hurry, before they come back." He looked up. Leba's slate-cold eyes had softened into twin brown pools. She was watching him intently. "What's up?"
He managed to rise even though his shoes dragged like lead weights. "Let's get out of here," he whispered, tight-lipped. Leba nodded, and together they crept down the corridor and out the same side window they had sneaked in.
* * * * *
Cervus landed on the pavement beside the van, his breath coming out in quick gasps. In the front seat, Kevin jumped at the sight of him and rolled down the window. "Oy, Cerve! Where's the others?"
"Trapped!" he wheezed. "The bobbies are coming for them-"
The cabby started. "And you just left 'em there?"
Cervus shook his head viciously. "No, no! Quick, start 'er up and let's go pick them up. Everything's going to be fine, Kev. Faulk stayed behind-"
"You rang?" His feathered brother plummeted from the sky and hit the ground in one swift, uncoordinated move.
"You were supposed to be watching them!" Cervus exclaimed, horrified. "Faulks, what in the name of the Queen Mum are you trying to do? They're probably already at the station getting asked questions and everything-"
"We're right here, Cervus." The shadows dissipated, revealing an ashen-faced Leba and her flashlight. She and Rory clung to each other, the latter panting as if he just ran a marathon.
"In my jacket pocket."
"Y'know, I do love reunions an' all," Kevin said, "but now's not the time." He looked pointedly down the street where a chorus of sirens rose in approach. Cervus got the hint and nudged Faulconbridge into the car before his falcon-headed friend could protest. The humans followed, and Kevin swiftly put the van in gear.
"We'll go down the south side." He added, "Just in case they see us leave."
Cervus wrestled with his seat belt, which had managed to get tangled up in his wings. Rory laughed.
"Never been in an auto before, eh, lad?" He helped the auto-inept gargoyle wrap the belt around his wings and buckle him in. "There you go. Well, you may not be up to par with some human stuff, but you certainly are quick on your feet."
He blinked. "Come again?"
"Oh, don't be modest, you," Leba said. "If you hadn't whistled and gotten the men's attention, they'd have caught us. It was a brilliant diversion."
"Diversion?" The gargoyles exchanged mystified looks. In the rear-view mirror, Cervus saw Kevin's eyebrows knit together.
He shook his great antlers. "None of us did any sort of diversion. We hadn't any time."
Leba frowned. "Well, if not you ... then who?"
* * * * *
Tucked away in one of the alley's hidden recesses, she watched him leave with the others and sighed. There was her good deed for the night. And after everything else, she would need to perform many more to make it up to him.
The wind whipped bitingly across the alley's mouth, and with a blink she melted back into the darkness.
* * * * *
The Marter Estate, some time later ...
Some time later, after which Cervus slunk off to the kitchen muttering at their progress, Leba slouched in her seat and groaned. "I don't believe this. I simply don't. So close and yet so far..."
"'Tis obvious Hathaway's fixed these reports up." Rory tapped a bold-faced icon. "Try this one."
"I've gone through them, again and again. The file dates don't match and his saved emails mention something about money. I found Arthur's name; it comes up twice in a letter, but nothing believable enough for Scotland Yard to clear him."
Colin lowered himself painfully into an overstuffed chair in the den's corner. Wet weather always bothered his feeble leg, and tonight wasn't a good night for him. "Well, game, set, and match. You know what this means." He sighed at their perplexed faces. "Someone much bigger is paying this chap to frame an innocent man. They want Arthur out of the picture, or at least his name discredited."
"But whatever for?" Leba cried. "I mean, this’d take a lot of resources and inside connections for this."
"There’s that Montrose fellow," Rory suggested. "He owns his own company, after all."
"Yeah," Leba replied, "but this seems a little much. Arthur hasn’t been around long enough in the 20th century to make an enemy out of someone like that, has he?"
"Arthur? He certainly doesn't tell me about his private life." Colin leaned forward. "But I learned several things in Her Majesty's service. First off, the best way to damage somebody is through reputation. You're accused of murder, treason-you name it-and that's it. You're no longer a threat because for the rest of your life, your word against anybody is worth spit." He managed to heave himself up. "Time for tea and supper, I do believe. It'll work the stiffness out of my joints."
Rory, who seemed swamped in his own thoughts, mindlessly jumped to follow. Leba snatched the disk for safe-keeping and trailed after both men.
The great white-stone manor had been in the Marter family's possession for several centuries now, that much Leba knew. From the outside, its sleek polished brick and curling ivy tendrils gave no hint of what lay inside, and even she hadn't seen the entire house. Colin led them down a winding staircase into the manor's bowels, past a heavy oak door, and into a downstairs kitchen. It must have been a storage room at one time and then gotten converted; rusted iron hooks still hung from the ceiling and a grain bin protruded from the south wall.
Through a second door Leba saw an old cast-iron stove. Imogen was cooking something while Faulconbridge appeared to be trying to help, which always gave his mate-to-be a headache. The silky-blonde minstrel couldn't imagine what it would be like when it came time for Faulks to help with offspring. Imogen would go insane.
Several of Lucy's age-mates milled about Cavall’s feet, eager for treats. Others, around Caspian's age, lolled about the pantry and chatted. Leba thought she saw a pack of cards and dice making rounds among the older group, with a few playing look-out for the leader, Michael, who surely didn't approve of such games.
Colin took a seat and poured himself tea from the old chipped pot on the counter. "May I offer you some?" He held a cup to Leba and puffed out his chest, for a brief moment a young gentleman again.
She grinned. "Well, I can't refuse such a chivalrous fellow, can I?"
Several cups were pushed in Rory's direction, but he just shook his head and went back to daydreaming. Leba let him. The poor bloke looked like he needed it after the night's festivities.
"What do we do now?" She looked pointedly at Colin, though she addressed the question at all those present.
"Easy," Cervus piped up. "Continue on with what we’ve been doing, while Arthur tries to keep himself from London or anyplace else the bobbies are likely to look for him."
She started. "What?"
"What else is there to do? It's obvious he's being set up, but until the time comes when we can prove his innocence, it's too dangerous for him."
"Agreed," Colin said. "For the time being, Arthur needs to stay away from London. It's only for the best, and he can take care of himself, I’m sure. Gracious, he's been away for 1500 years. Another couple of months won't hurt." He glance around. "Unless someone else has an idea."
"A few of the regulars at the Eagle and Dove might know something," Leba volunteered, though not enthusiatically. "The place has people who’ve seen just about everything there is on the street. Though they’re not necessarily going to be there."
"Well, it’s something to go on, at any rate." Cervus raised an eyebrow at Colin. "You know, if we're to pull this off..."
Leba caught Rory out of the corner of her eye. The young Irishman sat hunched on a stool by the windowpane, mutely watching the back lawn and the fireflies. He was usually so, as Cervus said, chipper; easy-going and bold, the very spirit of Cuchulain. But ever since their narrow escape, he'd been unnaturally aloof.
She edged her chair close to his. "You keep that gob open any longer and you'll be catching flies," she warned. He snapped his mouth shut and smiled. "Something troubling you?"
The smile faded. "No. Just thinking. Remembering, actually."
"More of the good old days?" She arched an eyebrow.
"Not that old," he said, catching her hint. "Back before I knew ... who I was." He looked down at Luin and twisted the gnarly oak staff betwixt his fingers. "I wasn't much of a hero then."
"So what were you?" she asked with genuine curiosity. He hesitated as if afraid. "Come now ... you've told us many a story about Cuchulain. I'd like to hear a bit about Rory for once."
He sighed. "A thief, actually. I was done with school, hadn't learned a trade, Da was on the dole ... it seemed like the natural thing to do. Molly made it look so easy."
"Ah, right, I remember. Your best friend."
"Ex-friend," he corrected her.
"She pulled you into it?"
"It was all a game to her, and I enjoyed it from time to time ... but I wasn't really happy that way. Stealing, running from the Guardai, for what? A coat? It never felt right. And yet it felt perfect at the same time."
"Rory, you're not a thief," Leba protested.
He shot a glare at the staff in his hands, apparently listening to whatever Luin had to say, before responding. "That's just it. I know why we have to do this, but I'm just sick of the running. It feels like I'm back to being a thief again, back when Da was disappointed in me." He looked down. "Da had a rough life, and he wanted the best for me. I think, when I failed that, I failed him."
She clasped him by the arm. "Rory, the good thing about your past is, that's where it stays. It's no good slapping yourself up over old things. Relationships are one of the few unbreakable things in this world."
"Well, she broke it pretty good, I’m thinkin’," he said, still sullen. "Last I heard, she’d shacked up with the same crowd we fought earlier this year."
""You mean she was a Minion?" Leba asked curiously.
Rory kicked himself for letting out too much. "Sort of," he said, trying to backpedal.
An ear-splitting screech from the kitchen saved him the effort. Imogen stomped into the room, chicken feathers and bits of egg plastered to her apron front. Faulconbridge shuffled close behind, cake batter dripping from his long peregrine feathers and looking like a muddy, mistreated dog.
"Look at this!" Imogen growled. "How can I cook with you hanging over my shoulder? Look at this mess!"
Colin looked amused, but had the sense not to show it. "I say, what's all this? Where's dinner?"
"He's wearing it!" She flung a reproachful finger at the culprit, whose beak was now a fiery crimson beneath the ooze. "'No, no, I can mix the cake. Oh, yes, I've done it before, I know to keep the mixer in the bowl so the batter doesn't splatter', he says, and look what happens. Now there's gunk dripping from the ceiling fan."
"I can't help it if you startled me." The expression on his face screamed aggravation, and he looked pretty close to screaming, himself. "A chap can't be expected to make a nice meal with females sneaking up on him. And no offense, Luv, but you ought to keep out of the way when I'm helping out..."
Imogen was puffing up faster than an indignant rooster.
"We can do without your kind of help!" It came out like a deflating balloon, and Leba could tell the spat was over. Sure enough, Imogen stormed back the way she had come, fangs bared and hackles stiff.
Leba rested a gentle hand on Rory's shoulder. "See?" she said quietly. "Relationships are unbreakable, even for those two." She cracked a grin. Rory didn't smile, but she thought his shoulder muscle's felt less taut than they had been a moment ago.
Cervus and the youngsters were laughing into cupped hands, and Colin shook his head. "The first year," he said decisively. "Every new couple goes through it."
Faulconbridge wiped the batter from his eyes and laughed. "Pulling my leg?" he asked. "It's like we're already mates!"
Everyone broke down laughing as a dishtowel flew from the kitchen, catching him in the back of the head.
* * * * *
At the Eagle and Dove ...
"Sherlock Holmes made it look so easy!" Leba slunk further into the booth and massaged her neck. The thick polo-neck sweater she wore chafed.
Rory had to admit, it felt weird being in London so soon after the little excursion to Hathaway's. Paranoid about being identified, Leba had swept her silky-blonde tresses into a ponytail and pulled on the sweater, along with an anorak and some trousers that used to fit Colin's younger son. Well, clothes supposedly made the man, so Rory went along with it and found a knit vest and undershirt. He prayed no one recognized him in these clothes; they made him feel like some sort of color-blind computer geek.
"Nothing of significance?"
Leba closed her eyes in frustration, and he took the opportunity to steal a peppermint humbug from her plate. "Nobody's seen anything loopy since the Fimbulwinter. Nothing much stranger than a winged shadow in the sky every now and then." She bit her lip. "The bobbies are dead-set on finding someone to blame. My contacts heard about the 'madman' they're after, but haven't heard much else."
Rory peeped over his shoulder suspiciously, then leaned towards her. "I've done me some looking around. Followed Hathaway around yesterday, but I didn't see any sign of who might be paying him off."
"How long did you follow him for?"
"Not long." He sighed. "They must've found his office out of order. Security was hyped up and he got to having doubts when he saw me twice in one afternoon. I decided not to push it."
She grimaced. "Pushing it is right. We can't be linked to Arthur, or else ... well, what if they backtrack to the Estate? Colin would go mad. You know, Rory, I was thinking about what you said night before last ...." Her slate-gray eyes softened, but he only looked away. Did she think him weak?
"I'm almost sorry I brought that up," he said softly.
"Why? Better to talk about it than let it fester."
"It's all in the past, Leba." He stared out the tavern window. "Like you said. But I can't forget about it."
There was an awkward silence, then, "Well, I'll get us another round from the bar, if you don't mind." She wrapped the anorak tighter and flounced off.
Now he truly wished he had never brought it up. If the past always comes back to haunt you, then he was in Purgatory. He'd had odd dreams two nights running, all involving a strange woman with blazing red hair. And before he woke up, Da was there, sitting by the fire as always and smoking his pipe. He never said anything, but the look in his eyes held so much disappointment and shame. Rory would wake up then, slick with sweat.
So lost in his own thoughts was he that he nearly missed it, and by that time the slender figure was already disappearing from the window.
Rory dashed outside, ignoring the dampness in the air. He saw what he was looking for, heading down the street. He took his chances and tackled the figure around the waist, and together they hit the concrete.
For a moment, he almost thought he’d made a mistake, the older, more adult face throwing him. But she had the same green eyes and upturned nose, and more importantly the same attitude. "I knew it was you. What are you up to?"
Throughout their old friendship, Rory thought he had never seen Molly so indignant. Without a word, she shoved him off and got to her feet. He was amazed to find that his anger was dissipating and replaced by a warm, familiar emotion he couldn't name.
"I'm not 'up to' anything," she hissed. Her eyes flickered to behind him, and Rory turned to look. A guard was watching them with wary eyes, apparently concerned with the tackle. Molly took Rory by the lapel of his vest and led him into the alley.
"I'm not 'up to' anything," she repeated, louder this time, and flicked her grown mane behind her shoulder.
The suspicion returned. "So, you've got your voice back." He was surprised to see a genuinely pained look overtake her.
"For all the good it's done," she murmured.
Suddenly, she wasn't that cursed Banshee, but the old Molly, back when everything was simple and free from magic. But she still was that: the Banshee. He couldn't forget that, or what she had done. Still, she looked willing to talk.
"I have nowhere to go, ye see," she started, then stopped. Gauging for a reaction. Found it favorable. "I ... Umbriel's dead-" At the confused look, she added, "A friend. Someone I should have helped, but ... I don't know how much Oberon knows of me betrayal, but Titania probably has a decent idea, so I can't go back to Avalon. And I have nowhere else to go."
"So you came to me, is that it?" he asked.
"Oberon might have something worse than a simple muzzle for me this time, but I abandoned Madoc and his followers." Now she looked frightened. "Don't ye get it? I'm stuck like this, unless I want to revert to my true form and attract any fay's attention. I've been legging it all over Britain and ended up here. London's the only place I have left, really."
"And you just happened to walk by the pub I was sitting in?" he asked, eyes narrowed.
She matched the look. "What do ye mean by that, Mr. Dugan?" He didn't respond. "Oh, I see. If it makes ye feel any better, aye, I am 'up to something', but it has nothing to do with ye or yuir friends." She turned away, but he caught her roughly by the arm.
"We're not finished," he argued. "Ye just show up out of nowhere, after everything that's happened, and act like 'tis normal."
"I'd love to stay and hash this out with ye, Rory dear, but now's not the time. I'll meet ye right at the corner here tomorrow. Come at dusk." He refused to let go, and she sighed. "I hate to do this, but 'tis for yuir own good."
She brought her leg up, kicking him in the back of the knees. They collapsed underneath him just as his fingers released their grip. When Rory staggered up from the pavement, she had vanished.
The young Irishman limped to the alley-mouth and scowled. "'Tis my reward for listening to her silly wiles," he muttered. His legs screamed agony all the way back to the tavern.
* * * * *
Meanwhile, above the city ...
The stars lay scattered across the sky like fallen diamonds. Several of them framed the outline of the moon's face, and together, the moon and stars shone brightly on Brianna's flushed cheeks.
"When I was a wee thing, we would chase the falling stars, me an' Kirstie an' Tori." She laughed and puffed out her wings to catch an updraft. "'Tis verra beautiful, like diamonds."
Griff chortled. "Somewhat less expensive, I'd imagine. Look at that cluster there, Luv." He held out a sleek, sinewy arm for her to latch onto, and they glided gently along together like a couple strolling through the park. "Remember that song you liked?" Her hopeful expression urged him on. "Ahem. Picture yourself in a boat on the river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies!
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly a girl with kaleidoscope eyes..."
Her own lovely eyes grew. "... cellophane flowers o' yellow an' green, towerin' over yuir head ..."
"Look for the girl with the sun in her eyes and she's gone. Lucy in the sky with diamonds!" He bellowed in a great baritone finish, his hand reaching up to delicately cup her chin.
"You should sing that to Lucy sometime, if she's not too busy watching that stupid Cyborg thing!" Caspian glided up beside them, his forefinger in the process of probing his ear. "Yikes, Griff," he complained. "Trying out for Albert Hall?"
"Did we always nag your dad this badly before I got mated?" his uncle retorted. The golden unicorn-headed gargoyle gave a toss of his mane and grinned impishly. "Where's Rosalind?"
Caspian's cheeks burned like shined gold. "Still talking to Imogen," he muttered. "After the theater, she and Faulks started getting' all snippy, so they're having a girl talk. Last I saw, they stopped behind that art store Rosalind fancies." He gave an equine snort. "Sometimes I think she'd get mated to those blasted paintbrushes, given the chance."
Griff laughed at the idea. "Give her time, chap. Goodness knows, she gave you plenty with your books!"
The scream took them all by surprise. Caspian squinted but it only screwed up his eyes. "Somebody's in trouble!" He folded up his wings and dove.
"Verra eager, isn't he?"
Griff sighed. "Leo says he's a mite like me sometimes. It's a tad frightening."
* * *
"Oh, no, you don't!"
The slim young woman twisted her hips and kicked one of her attackers in the knee. He groaned and collapsed, and she realized she had aimed too high. Well, one down, three to go. Jane Nelson tensed her legs, ready to flee, but there was nowhere to go. The trio encircled her clutching their nightsticks. Each wore a dark hood as if he was the Reaper. This hadn't been her idea of a night-out. Buried under research and work, she had hurried to the office, always cautious about muggers.
I guess I wasn't careful enough, Jane thought.
"I have nothing!" she yelled, tearing her gaze from empty purse, now abandoned on the sidewalk.
"You do," one murmured. "Maybe you just don't know it. Cooperate and it'll be easier on you."
"Likewise, dear chap."
The man flew through the air with a startled cry, hitting the pavement with a wet smack. The others recoiled. Jane started at the creatures, a golden unicorn and an eagle-headed gremlin of sorts. The eagle creature dusted his hands off and smiled at a tiny light green female at his side, her thick green hair tossing wildly in the wind. Jane pursed her lips; work had made her familiar with the Second World War gremlins, but older reading had pointed to a different source.
"Oy, mates, Finch!" another man roared. "Get 'em!" He launched himself at the unicorn.
Unfazed, the creature neatly shoved his body beneath the man and flipped him up and over his back, sending him spiraling into the other three. The unicorn grinned roguishly. "Any other takers, chums?"
The quartet glanced at each other, apparently decided in the negative, and bolted down the street. The creature aimed to follow, but the eagle restrained him with a hand on the shoulder.
"Here now." The eagle retrieved her purse and tucked it into her hand. Jane stood, slack-jawed. "Are you all right, ma'am?"
Her voice muscles began working again. "Y-yes." What else did one say to gremlins...or rather what she felt they really were?
The unicorn gave a brisk salute, and he and the older male dashed up a telephone booth and hopped into the sky. The female gave her a curious stare as if Jane was as alien to her as the other way around, then skittered after the other two.
Jane stood rooted to the spot, watching the trio grow smaller and smaller and finally disappear. "Gremlins, perhaps," she whispered. "But my money's on gargoyles." Then, remembering that Henry would be furious if she was late, she trotted back the way she had come.
* * *
"Did you see that?" Caspian pulled off a swift barrel-roll in his joy. "Hear ye, world! Caspian is no longer a mere fighter, but a rescuer! Rosalind never did believe I helped you and Dad take on those Vampyres last year." He flashed a pearly white smile at his uncle.
"Ho, ho!" Griff chuckled. "We have a future knight in our midst! Sir Bookworm the Brave!" Caspian snorted, but nevertheless looked amused by the title. "Well, the name needs work."
"What'd you think, Brianna?" The golden unicorn grinned. "How was your first taste of crime-fighting in cheery ol' London?"
Her dulled eyes brightened at the sound of her name. "Ah, what? Oh, verra interesting. A little ..." She fidgeted. " ... dangerous. It seems I always meet the most wretch'd o' humans."
Caspian guffawed. "A minor setback. You grow to love them. That woman didn't seem so bad, am I right?"
"Hmph." Griff flared his nostrils. "It makes me wonder what those ruffians were after, anyway."
His nephew shrugged and did a clean, crisp back-flip, still working off the excess energy. "Who knows, Uncle? Ten to one, it was just a botched robbery. I'd bet my money on it."
* * *
Finch ripped the mask from his face and doubled over. Morgan was vomiting into a dustbin; that tart had hit him harder than he'd thought. Perkins' face had gone the color of pale marble and he sat hunched at the mouth of the alley and tried to keep from passing out.
"What do we do now?" Adams demanded, sweaty blond hair matted to his forehead. "She's gone."
Finch took a furious kick at the dustbin, nearly kicking off Morgan's nose in the process. "She's also protected!" he spat. "We can't do anything with those monsters watching out for her. Wait a few days, then try again." He turned angrily to Adams, who was shaking his head slowly.
"Like you said, she's protected," he said.
"Then what do you expect us to do?"
"We find our information through other sources."
* * * * *
The following night, King's College London ...
Jane pulled down a heavy tome from the top shelf, and in the process caught her reflection in the small mirror beside her laptop. Eyes, green as polished emeralds, stared back at her from a white porcelain face. The cherry-red lips pursed in frustration.
Abashed, the young research librarian lowered her gaze and swept her chestnut curls over one shoulder. Several all-nighters, coupled with the recent mugging-attempt, had left their mark; bags hung heavily beneath her eyes and the bruise on her throat hadn't gone away yet.
From that point on, she was careful to avoid the mirror's demeaning stare.
"Any progress on my little ‘project’?"
Jane jumped. One of the more recent clients framed the University office doorway. "Hello, Ms. Fadiman. I didn't hear you come in." She gave a sunny grin; she'd handled impatient customers before, but this one was different. "Might I offer you a scone? It's past tea, but there ought to be some left in the-"
"Another time, perhaps, Ms. Nelson." The woman dismissed the offer as she entered the room, the slight lisp in her voice drawing out the s’s in her words. "I’m more interested in what you may have found up to this point. After all, I’m paying you by the hour for your services, am I not?"
Jane nodded warily. Like men and money, this woman, whose every movement seemed to have a predatory grace, was a mystery. The clothes she wore, always bright crimson and the height of aristocratic fashion, seemed only to heighten her arrogant, bestial nature.
When she had come to Jane several weeks ago, she had asked for information on an English legend unfamiliar to the younger woman. Despite countless hours combing the University's literature collection, little about the fay king Avallach, or his honor guard had surfaced. Jane had heard the name as a girl in Scotland, but that was the extent of her knowledge on the subject at the time.
She thought she'd try again. "The Gryphon Knights, ma'am, if they existed at all-" Jane put careful emphasis on that fact. "-left few clues behind. Few Anglo-Saxon writings have been found, save for Beowulf and the Exeter Book, and most scholars have denied these Knights even lived."
"So you’ve found nothing at all?"
The woman's intent gaze unnerved Jane slightly. It always did. Those sapphire eyes set in a Arabic face seemed to size up and dissect everything they looked at, and Jane didn’t appreciate being the object of their attention now.
"Very little, I'm afraid," she replied, shaking her head wearily.
A fatigued look came over the woman, and she began to massage the spot betwixt her eyes. All Jane knew about the woman was that she had been referred by 'an old client' (names were not given, even after inquiry), she had an inkling that Fadiman wasn't even the woman's real name.
Momentarily lost in her thoughts, a yawn nearly tore Jane's head in two.
Giving a toss of her blonde hair, which seemed out of place almost with her tanned complexion, the other woman narrowed her eyes. "I am sure you are aware that this is quite important to me. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I have a...’vested interest’ in this matter, you see. I am paying you well to read old books and-whatever is that?"
Off guard, Jane's hand fluttered to her throat. "What?"
"That bruise. May I see?" Before Jane could answer, Fadiman pried the hand away and hissed at the discolored skin. "Ah, nasty. Nasty." Jane could almost swear the other woman liked what she saw.
"I ... I ... had a run-in, last night." Unbidden, the embarrassment flushed her cheeks. "Several men attacked me on the street. It was nothing. I'm fine now, really-"
"Men?" The voice dropped several degrees.
"Aye. I couldn't see beneath their masks, but it was nothing. Please. I gave the police my statement, so it's all cleared up. They- the men, I mean - they didn't even take my purse, and-"
Ms. Fadiman cut her off sharply. "Did they say what they wanted?"
Jane was too flustered. What kind of a question was that? "One said I had something they wanted." She blushed again. "I ... I think they were English. The one that told me sounded like he was from Lancashire. Wait, where are you going?" Had she offended her?
"I have remembered I have business to attend to elsewhere. In the meantime, I wish you well on your endeavours. For your sake." The slender blonde clenched her fists as she regally made her way out the door.
Maybe it was the lack of sleep, and the woman was wearing gloves, but Jane could have sworn the woman's pressing nails drew blood on one hand.
* * * * *
The Marter Estate ...
Leba slapped her pen down in annoyance. "I swear, Rory Dugan!" she growled. "If you don't stop pacing, I'll call Scotland Yard myself! At least then you'll be chained down."
The rogue Irishman flopped down on the bed next to her, almost crushing the sheet of music she was working on. He didn't even smile. The silky-haired minstrel eyed him in alarm.
"Rory, what's up? You haven't smiled all day. You didn't even laugh when Imogen and Faulks had that jello fight in the pantry." She smiled at the memory. Rory's face remained stiff. "Rory? Please!"
"What would ye do," he started, shifting his weight against the bedpost, "if ye met up with someone ye thought ye'd never see again?"
She tapped the pen against her lip. "Hmm. Depends on who this old person was. An old friend of the family, and I'd tackle them and give 'em a hug. An old professor, and the only tackling I'd be doing was to give 'em a right good kick in the bum."
"Not a friend."
"Then what's the problem?"
"An old friend."
A light went off in her head. "Ahhhh ... I see. Does this have anything to do with that old girl friend of yours? Molly?" He said nothing, but his face told all. "All right, I see now. Spill it."
He hugged his legs to his chest, and for a moment, he didn't look like the reincarnation of Cuchulain or even Rory, but a small boy. "While ye were getting our drinks yesterday, I saw Molly outside the pub," he said. "I ran outside and caught her and asked what she was doing spying on me. She was older by a few years; I haven’t _met_ her in a while, mind. Her hair’s a little longer, too, down to the shoulder. But it was Molly, no doubt about it. She said she's been lookin' for me for a long time, trying to contact me after all the troubles we went through, and she wants to meet me tonight. Then she ran off." A lump appeared in his throat. "I don't know whether I should or not."
"You still like this girl."
Rory's impassive face curdled like sour milk. "What?"
"If you didn't, you wouldn't be agonizing over this."
He scowled. "We were friends once, Molly an' I. Half o' me hates her for all she's done. And though she claims she's not up to anything involving me or ye or the others, I have suspicions."
Leba didn't know why Rory hated that girl so much. He'd never gotten much into the details, but from his tone, it sounded like a betrayal had torn the friendship apart at the seams. "Then don't go."
"Half o' me misses her. I guess I just want to see what she has to say. But I'm not sure what to do."
She laughed. "Then go."
"What?" He blinked.
"Rory." She spread her arms wide in a welcoming gesture. "Don't you listen at all? Remember what I said night before last? No matter what, relationships are unbreakable."
"But what if ye lost your friendship?"
She sighed. "You certainly can lose that, Rory. But you misunderstood me. Even after breaking apart, you're still connected to that person to some extent. It's a bit of a gift, in a way; it means you always have a chance to fix things. Go to her. What's the worse that can happen?"
She reflected for a second, then added, "Well, if you're to go to London, just make sure Scotland Yard doesn't see you. But other than that, what's the worst that can happen?"
* * *
Molly's eyes lit up as he approached her, face hidden in the high collar of his trenchcoat. "I knew ye would come," she clucked triumphantly.
Rory looked around anxiously at the evening crowd. "Let's walk." He quickened his pace and she had to jog to catch up to him.
"No need to run, Rory!"
"Mind not yellin' my name too loudly?" he said sharply. "I'm not exactly a beloved celebrity to the bobbies at the moment."
Her eyes flashed eagerly. "I heard about your Arthur in the Ulster Times. 'The Mysterious Madman of Britain'."
"He's not a madman, Moll."
"He's not an average one, either."
"Did ye want to talk or makes with the bad jokes?" he demanded.
Her eyes glazed over. "I didn't mean to offend ye," she murmured. "'Twas just like old times, me teasing and ye a laughin'. 'Tis simple sport, Rory." She gave a flick of her hair. "Like the new look, do ye?" She'd seen his curious stare.
Rory had to admit, he did like it. ‘Molly’ had become a rather attractive young redhead, and even though she still wore more or less the same outfit as he’d remembered, she seemed more...mature than she had when he’d known her last.
"Interesting. No more of the teenage punk Molly?"
The flame-haired woman gave a shrug. "Makes it easier for me. No more worrying about the guards suspectin' me of playin' truant, and it should throw any o' Oberon's bloodhounds in case they're looking for me. Besides," She batted an eyelash. "Molly's only human. She can't be forever young."
He halted, which caught her off guard, but the crowd surged around them like a river. He pulled her across the street towards the great black iron fence surrounding Hyde Park. Streetlights illuminated the walk around them, but the leafy branches hid them from any watching eyes.
"You don't really expect Oberon to accept you back to Avalon, now, do you?" he asked, trying to keep the sarcasm out of his voice. He failed.
Molly waved her hand in a very flippant human gesture. "Avalon," she said contemptuously. "A paradise to Man, but hardly to me. 'Tis the bane of me existence, it is. I dunnae care if I never see that pile of rock, not for eternity."
He gawked. "'Tis your home, Moll."
"What's that have to do with it?"
"I thought you'd be dying to go back."
Her eyes danced mischievously. "Well, considering I don't have to be worrying about dying ... oh, stop with that sulky look. I understand ye. I just want Oberon and his Court to cease their fruitless hunt for me in particular."
"But to never see your home again-"
"Rory." She said it softly, but that one word silenced him. "Do you love your father?"
He was at a loss for words. Memories of Da and the disappointment in his son were all that had haunted Rory's mind the last few nights. "Of course."
"Do you have fond memories of your childhood home?"
"Yes." His throat constricted.
"Would ye ever want to go back and spend the rest of your life there, now that you know of the wider world?"
The young Irishman didn't know how to answer.
She nodded, taking his silence as the answer she’d been expecting. "'Tis exactly how it is for me. I honestly like it better here on Earth, Rory me dear. And after me muzzling, me kin teased me something fierce. Avalon holds nothing for me now save wicked memories. I won't go there if I can help it. Not till the world cracks in two. You felt that way about your Da, didn't ye?"
"I felt..." His hand clenched around his heart. "... I feel I betrayed him, acting up the way I did like a spoiled little git. I was always a reluctant thief, and lately it's been the same thing, and I loathe it, Moll. The past still holds that for me. Won't Oberon even notice you're gone?"
She chortled. "Only because he won't be able to punish me harshly. His Highness may shed a few tears at my sudden disappearance, but I promise ye, his tears won't be enough to float a hat."
* * *
Leba pulled up another window on the computer. Her minstrel's sixth sense was at work again. Ever since Rory had mentioned Molly's attitude and looks, a nasty thought had begun eating away at her insides. She'd heard about the girl's involvement with Madoc; probably as a Minion of some sort, she mused. But if Molly was that close to the enemy, perhaps she had a deeper reason for searching Rory out.
For the last two hours, she'd pulled up everything she could find on the Net. In the other room, Lucy was wailing about being kicked off the computer again . The youngster's patience was wearing thin fast. Leba would have to speed it up.
All the found news articles related the appearance of a redheaded woman seen at all the Connection-related sites where evidence against Arthur was collected. It wasn't possible, was it?
A suspicion began to form in her mind of who that redhead could be ....
* * * * *
Above London ...
Ever since she had left the forest, Brianna had watched all humans like a nervous rabbit watches a stray dog. Having sensed her reluctance, Colin and Arthur's knights never pushed her to open up. But after a life of isolation and her first humans holding hostage her beloved Griff and his brother, Michael, the wariness she felt had risen a few notches.
Griff had been flippant about the whole thing. "Pish posh!" he exclaimed. "Just some bad eggs, Brianna, my sweet. You can't throw out the whole nest just because of a few bad eggs."
Her Luv was spending the night counseling a desperate Faulconbridge in the art of making up to an irate fiancée. Colin was busy with his wife's hatching day coming up. The gargoyles on the estate were off on their own: Michael and Brock were supervising the young ones with their new chores. Caspian had gone off in search of Rosalind. A smile came to her lips at the memory. He'd been frightfully exhilarated after the botched attack, and had bored Griff to tears with the whole thing until his uncle had suggested thrilling Roz with his heroic deeds.
The golden unicorn-headed gargoyle was considered an adult, but the last few weeks he'd been acting more and more like an excited hatchling, usually whenever Rosalind was within earshot.
Her own Griff's behavior rekindled the fire in her chest. She'd loved the way he sang:
Follow her down to a bridge by a fountain
Where rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies,
Everyone smiles as you drift past the flowers,
That grow so incredibly high ...
Lucy in the sky with diamonds...
A beam of light flashed, startling her. As soon as it appeared, it promptly vanished, then reappeared. It blinked in a definitive pattern: dot, dot, dot, dash, dash, dash, dot, dot, dot. It came from the roof of one of the larger buildings.
Brianna swung low over the manicured trees and sculpted architecture and landed on the roof. She sat on her haunches behind a concave structure and saw a small shadow on the roof's edge.
It was the woman Griff and Caspian had saved. She seemed all right, the gargoyle noticed. No injuries. Now, she stood facing the sky, a tiny contraption which belched the strange light in her hands. If Brianna didn't know any better, she'd say the odd human was doing it on purpose.
"Dunnae be scared now, Bri," she murmured lowly. Griff said not to throw out all the eggs, and this human hadn't struck her as a bad egg. She seemed genuinely grateful at her rescue and pleased, if not nonplussed, by her rescuers.
"Are ye lookin' for someone?"
The woman dropped the strange lighter and whirled around. "Who's there?"
Brianna stayed where she was, cloaked by the shadows. "I saw something here and thought to inspect it."
"Oh." The human found the lighter again. A beam cleaved the darkness, searching hungrily for Brianna. "Where are you? Are you ..." A hesitation. "... one of my helpers?"
The light green gargoyle felt a quaking take over her small frame. She slowly stood up, locking her knees so she wouldn't bolt. "Aye. Ye ... were lookin' for me, aye?"
"Aye, I never thanked you and your friends properly." She stood closer now, taking a much closer look at the shadow. Brianna didn't move as the light swept over her, even as the human's emerald eyes widened. "Oh, it's you, all right. I was afraid for a bit; I didn't think any of you were flying tonight. Jane Nelson."
The gargoyle hesitated. "Brianna."
"I'd shake your hand, but ..." Jane noticed her uncertainty. "I just want to repay your kindness. It was very sweet."
Brianna backed up towards the edge. "I shall take yuir message to me friends."
Brianna jumped at the sudden exclamation, her wariness increasing.
"Please." Jane held her hands to her sides to show she wouldn't attack. "I have to know who those thugs were. The bobbies have enough troubles now with a madman on the loose and Henry's too busy to look into it - he's my husband," she added, seeing Brianna's puzzlement. "I think it has something to do with a mysterious new client of mine."
Brianna sat on the roof edge and twirled a strand of green hair around her talon. "What is yuir trade?"
"Research librarian. But this woman ... she's not normal. And I could tell she knew something when I told her about the attack. If you see anything else, you or your friends, could you give me the message? If they do this to anyone else? Please?"
There was something burning in the woman's eyes, something Brianna couldn't name. It looked similar to Kylie's upon hearing one of her charges was leaving the forest to enter the world of Man.
"I promise," she said softly, then smiled.
Jane opened her mouth, then closed it. Finally, she whispered, "Will I ever see you again?"
"I ... I dunnae know. 'Tis highly irregular... and I'm not verra fond o' humans..."
"My mum always said, ye cannae throw out all the bad apples because a just one rotten core." Jane spread her hands wide, pleased at Brianna's expression. "Born and bred i' Scotland. I keep the accent to meself when I dunnae want funny looks."
Brianna hesitated. "Where?"
"Where would ye like to meet?"
* * * * *
Sodor train station, north of London...
The locomotive gave one last, piercing scream to signify departure. Rory was halfway up the platform stairs when...
"Rory! Rory, stop!"
He narrowed his eyes at the approaching figure. "Leba! What in the world are-"
"I'm so glad I caught you before you went back to the Estate!" She glared at him through the mop of wind-swept blonde bangs. "It's her, Rory! I checked, and there's photographs and reports of this redhead at all sites where Connection evidence was found. Is that girl, Molly, is she about 5'6" or so, with a round face and sort of a pointy chin?"
"What?!" The world reeled around him. More than a few people stared nervously before hurrying to their train. The he nodded as the information sank in. "Well, yes, she does. But what does this-"
"Think on it, Rory. She said so herself, remember? She's been legging it all over Britain the last few months. Who's to say she hasn't been at those places? There's nobody to back her up, and it's awfully odd that she just happens to be in London, near Hathaway and you and-"
He pressed her closer to him, noticing the stares, before whispering, "Are you saying Molly's the one setting up Arthur?" She nodded. "No, I don't believe ye. I mean, Molly isn't capable of thinking up something this grand."
"Didn't you say she was involved with those Minions or whatever last year?"
Rory reddened. Leba knew Molly had been a big part of Madoc's forces. She just didn't know how big.
"Yes," he whispered fiercely, "but I thought she'd changed... I believed her apologies ... just like last time."
He growled and headed back down the platform steps.
* * *
Part of survival, Molly knew, was disconnecting herself from humans. Thinking of them as equals made certain things harder to do. Which was why she found herself bolting down the street. The old woman's wailing traveled easily on the chill night air, followed by whistles from the guards and angry shouts of pedestrians.
Molly tucked the woman's purse into her jacket and skirted the corner into Hyde Park. She hid beneath the branches of honeysuckle and pine until the police ran past.
"Run, run, run, ye fools," she chuckled, wiping the sweat from her eyes and checking the purse. The cracked brown leather tore easily. Several notes lay in a heap at the bottom. Molly took those, cramming the money into her pockets before inspecting the driver's license. Perhaps she should hide the license and purse in the shrubbery; it wouldn't do to be found by the guards...
"I can't believe it." A rough hand exploded from the shadows, grabbing her wrist. Molly screamed and dropped both license and purse.
Her mystery assailant dragged her close. The shadows pulled back, revealing Rory's irate face and a girl with a long blond braid, whom Molly didn't know.
"Rory!" she cried. "Stop it!"
"Back to causing trouble again?" His grip tightened.
"Food doesn't appear out o' thin air, me dear," she snapped, nudging the purse with her foot. "Check it for yeself. I only took the notes."
The girl snorted. Rory shook his head. "Ye said only two hours ago ye'd stop making mischief."
"For a coat, yes." She glared at the girl. "Ye can't survive without victuals."
The blonde pulled a torn newspaper from her pocket and pointed to a grainy photograph. "Look familiar?"
Of course it didn't. Were they both nutters?
"What's it supposed to be?" Molly demanded.
"These are sites where all Connection-related evidence against Arthur was found. Doesn't this woman look familiar?" Even Molly had to admit there was a striking similarity, both in the figure and the way it carried itself. "Out with it, Molly. Are you setting Arthur up?"
She drew herself up indignantly. "You're daft! Rory, I already told ye I'm no longer against ye or yuir friends. What cause is there to be?" He refused to look at her. "Ah, I get it. Just because I'm actin' all mysterious, I'm a felon. Ah, ha. Perfect sense, it is, to frame a nutter ol' man out of sheer bordeom," she said sarcastically.
The blonde balled her fists. "Mind the cheek, girl."
"Mind it yeself!"
"Why are you back here, then?" Blondie demanded. "Odd you've been all over Britain and just happen to wander into London when Hathaway's having problems with payments and his office has been broken into. Were you here to meet him or something?"
"I've never heard o' the man," Molly spat. "And that's not the reason I'm here, anyhow."
"Moll! No more evasion!" Rory's grip ran to her shirt, and he shoved her against something. The tree's rough bark rubbed through her shirt, nicking the tender skin of her back. "Start talking!"
"Rory, stop it!" she pleaded. "Don't get mad. Ye remember what used to happen to ye when ye got mad..."
"How do I know ye won't turn on me?" he asked. "Why else would ye have come to me?"
"Because you're me only ..." She bit her lip and looked at the damp ground. The physical pain in her back seemed far away now. "... friend."
Maybe it was the anxiety clouding her mind, but she thought his grip eased a little. Even Blondie froze.
"What?" Rory asked.
"You're the closest thing I have to a true friend right now," Molly repeated, then narrowed her eyes. "If that doesn't tell ye what kind of trouble I'm in, nothing will. I've held nothin' from ye."
"I trust you about as far as I can throw you," Blondie said, but a faded glowing from Rory's side caught both women's attention.
He released Molly and, closing his eyes, held the oak staff tightly to his chest. When he opened them, he whispered, "Luin thinks she's sincere enough." His eyes fluttered closed again, contemplating. Probably recollecting the times they spent together, working the guards double time, getting in trouble, and getting back out of it again. Remembering their less-than-perfect past as foes. Weighing, too, what to do now.
Finally, Rory rubbed his eyes and sighed. "You're some piece of work, ye know that, Moll?"
She laughed nervously. "Well, it did take me a couple of years to come up with this form," she muttered out of Leba’s earshot.
* * * * *
King's College London, 9:32 PM...
The window-frame obviously hadn't been built with gargoyles in mind. Brianna flipped the latch and frowned, then sucked in her belly and pulled her way through. The roughened edges scraped her wings as she entered.
She landed on a spongy floor, similar to that of the magic shop's storage room. Una had called it linoleum. This room, a tiny kitchen, had dust and stains everywhere the light green gargoyle looked. Peeking out the door, she saw the corridor. Jane had said her office was the second door from the left.
Brianna left the window ajar in the event of a necessary quick escape. Hiding from humans while growing up hadn't taught her carelessness.
She rapped lightly, then waited.
The rusted knob squealed as it turned. As Brianna entered, pale yellow light bathed her face and blinded her eyes. Jane sat hunched over some ancient text with a small magnifying glass. The human woman beamed at her entrance. "Oh, I'm so glad you came. I was afraid you'd decided against it. Here, have a seat."
Brianna sat in a straight-backed, overstuffed chair. "I've never been in such a place before. What is it?"
"A university. Younger humans come here for learning important things. I'm just the librarian, but I'm paid to do research in world literature, especially the older varieties. Just last year, I got to study the Exeter Book." She grinned again, showing straight white teeth.
Curiosity overcame her. "What do humans consider important enough they must go to a uni-vers-ity?"
Jane laughed. "Mathematics, science, literature, history, foreign languages. It's just important, is all."
Jane rested her head in her hands and propped her elbows on the desk. "Hmm, well, I'd say it's because ... it's important to know how the world around you works. You can't live your life holed up somewhere, never knowing how everyone else lives or what's come before you. Some things, like history, are stories about your people. Where we've been, and where we're going."
Brianna fiddled with her braids again. The woman's response spoke to the gargoyle's soul: you couldn't hide from the world, bathed in ignorant bliss. "Ye learned this in Scotland?"
"Oh, aye." Jane pointed to a row of picture frames on the windowsill. "I graduated from university there and worked me way through college, where I met Henry." Brianna cocked her head in fascination. Technology still amazed her. On the square pieces of paper, stilled forever, were humans. Humans laughing, humans dancing, humans crying. A little girl wearing faded denim pants and a sunny grin, holding a bouquet of flowers. Her straight smile was identical to Jane's. Other pictures showed an older Jane. Jane singing. Jane studiously reading. Jane in a white dress with foaming, frothy lace and silk, laughing as a handsome young man led her from a church.
"This is yuir Henry?" Brianna smiled. "Ah, he has the same smile of me Griff."
"Your husband?" Jane inquired, passing a plate of cookies. "Take some. Somebody left them in the lounge."
"Aye, me mate." Brianna licked the chocolate frosting, savoring the sugar on her tongue, sweeter than the raw honey the wild bees made in summer. "Och, Henry is so verra handsome, too."
"He's been more aloof lately." Jane shrugged. "Work gets to him sometimes."
"Aye, Griff's had his plate full, too. He's frettin' over a friend of ours who's in a bit o' trouble." She was too wary to use Arthur's name. Jane, though meaning well, might fear he was too dangerous and tell someone.
But to her surprise, Jane smiled again. "Well, tell yuir mate nae to worry," she clucked, switching over to her pleasant Scottish brogue. "Relationships, young an' old, never die, ye know. He's friend will be fine. Another cookie?" She must have seen the desire flaming in the gargoyle's eyes as she stared at the plate.
"So, let's hear some more of that Scottish accent of yuir's."
"Oh, I get too embarrassed. The English look at me too funny whenever I use it."
"Ye taught me 'tis to know about the world around ye. Now I will teach ye something." Brianna took another cookie and was pleased to discover it had an almond center. She snuggled into the overstuffed chair and smiled. "If there was anything me elders ever taught me, 'twas important to remember where you came from."
* * *
"I remember very clearly were you came from, Moll’" Rory said. "And I don’t care much for it."
Molly sighed again. "Please Rory, don’t get inta tha’ again."
They’d been going on like this for quite a while: Molly trying to claim her innocence before Rory and Leba, and the other two disbelieving her. The redhead was getting to the point of giving up and trying to make a break for it.
"Look," Molly tried again, "I know I don’t have the best record with ye lately, Rory. But I havena even thought about hurtin ye or ye’re friends. I’m not working fer anybody, either." She sighed. It seemed that Rory was beginning to believe her, anyway, but that blonde he was with didn’t want to let up.
"Well, there’s still the Minion business to-" Leba began.
Molly shoved her hands away from her sides to indicate she’d had enough. "Look," she said quietly, "I betrayed his trust once. I lied ta him, badly, about who and what I was, and what I had planned fer him. He has a right ta be mad at me fer that, and I’ll not be surprised if he never forgives me. But that was tha’ end of it, I swear on me life it is. Ye can take it or leave it."
Rory started to say something, but a scream from a nearby alley cut him off. They took a moment, then Leba and Rory raced to where the sound had come from. It didn’t surprise either of them that Molly disappeared, but what they saw put the redhead out of their minds.
Standing at the end of the alley was a female winged form in the shadows, holding a limp body aloft. "Brianna, is that you?" Leba asked.
The figure dropped the body, then turned and approached them. Very quickly, they saw it was definitely not one of the London Clan in front of them. The creature was gargoyle-like, with a draconian appearance that reminded them of their lost comrade Drake. But unlike him or any of the other gargoyles, this dark creature, in her close fitting crimson outfit, looked more predator than defender. And now she was looking at them.
"I wasss given to expect only four here," it mused in its hissing voice. Then it shrugged. "I can do sssix."
Before either Rory or Leba could react, the creature flung a bola from her hip at Leba. The minstrel tried to get out of the way, but the wire connected, twined around her, then caused the lead weights to hit her in the chest. The wind knocked out of her, she fell to the ground, out of the fight, as the gargoyle ran for Rory.
He brandished Luin in front of him, which glowed now as the Spear of Light, but attacker had her own staff. And she definitely knew how to use it. Rory found himself doing all he could to keep from getting sliced by the sharp ends of his opponent’s staff, and he slowly was being pushed back to the wall. The gargoyle, on the other hand, didn’t even seem to be working up a sweat.
A well-placed blow behind Rory’s left knee sent him to the ground, and the gargoyle aimed one end of the staff to finish the job...
"Stop it right there," Molly’s voice went through the alley, distracting the creature enough for Rory to roll out of the way and get to his feet.
The gargoyle seemed to eye Molly warily, as though she immediately recognized she was facing something more than human. "What are thessse two to you?" she asked.
Molly looked in Leba’s direction, to make sure she was relatively unconcious, then back at the gargoyle. "These people are under my protection," she said, dropping her accent for the moment. "If you wish to challenge someone, then let it be me." She still looked like Molly, but something indefineable had changed about her mein, and even Rory couldn’t mistake her for a mere mortal now.
The gargoyle thought about it for a moment, then quickly grabbed a small orb from her belt and threw it to the ground. A moment later, a cloud of white smoke flooded the alley, causing both Rory and Molly to choke and gasp for breath for a moment. By the time the gas was gone, the creature and the body it had been holding earlier had vanished.
For a moment, Rory simply stood there, trying to get his bearings again. The momentary illusion of fay magic had disappeared, and Molly was back to being just a plain old person. Still he was uncofortable with what had happened, and it took him a moment to say something.
"Thank ye, Moll’" Rory said slowly as the last wisps of smoke cleared.
"It wasn’t anythin’," Molly said equally uncomfortably. She looked at Leba, still on the ground. "Is she all right?"
Rory quickly went to the blonde and looked her over as he removed the bola. "She looks all right," he said, "though she’s probably goin’ ta be having ta rest in bed for a while."
"Better that than a shattered ribcage," Molly said.
Rory nodded in agreement and stood up. "Why did ye help us, Moll’? Other than th’ obvious?"
"I don’t know," she said, sighing. "I guess because I didn’t care to much for what ye we’re facin’."
"A gargoyle?" he asked. "Ye’re not sore with that Goliath and his-"
"That was no gargoyle, Rory," she said seriously. "Trust me, I can tell."
"Never mind that," Molly said. "I just figured that thing didn’t want ta fight a full-blooded fay, and that it wouldn’t call me bluff. We could have all gotten in big trouble otherwise."
"Well, it worked well enough," Rory admitted. "And...I guess I owe ye a small favor fer this."
"Ye don’t owe me anythin’," she said, looking very tired now. "And I know this doesn’t change a thing between us, really. I’d just be happy if ye’d take me in yuir confidence again, and if ye’d not be chasing me about the city."
Rory thought about it for a moment. "All right," he said slowly. "But if ye so much as steal a lollipop, I’ll run ye in meself."
"Our noble public crusader," Molly said amusedly. Then she turned around and started to leave. "I’ll be seein’ ye around, Mr. Dugan. Ye can count on that." Then she disappeared around the corner.
"I’m sure I will," Rory said to himself as he tried to help a now-awakening Leba up to her feet again.
* * *
"She what?" Leba asked incredulously a hour later, when she and Rory were back in the Magic Shop. Leba had been forcibly lain down on a couch, while Una and Brianna had looked over and bandaged her injuries. There were some bruised ribs, but she’d be back to normal in a couple of weeks.
"Molly saved both of us back in that alley," Rory explained. "She’d gone for the bobbies, and when the sirens started up, I guess that things didn’t want to stay for a real fight."
"But does she have to come here?" she asked.
"Look," Rory said, "Luin trusts her. I...sort of trust her now. We’ll take responsibility if she tries anythin’."
"All right," Leba said reluctantly, seeing that she wasn’t going to win this with him. "But only the Magic Shop. I don’t want her making funny business at the estate until we’ve cleared this mess with Arthur up."
"I think that’s more Arthur’s job than yours, Leba," he said, "but I’m in agreement with that, at least."
"Good," Leba said, and relaxed in the bed. "And Rory, thank for helping me back there. It seems the thief may be more hero than he thought."
"Maybe," Rory agreed, smiling at his friend.
* * * * *
Somewhere in London the next day...
"I highly recommend the trout." The waiter kissed his fingers. "Delicately poached, covered in a saffron sauce, and served with a glass of our finest Cognac, it melts on the tongue."
Ms. Fadiman sighed in a bored tone. "Please." Personally, she would have preferred something more interesting, something that would have squealed upon attack, but she hadn't eaten all day. Father had taught her that one couldn't be picky when desperate.
The eager waiter gave a subservient little bow and waddled off, leaving the woman alone with her newspaper, which she then promptly started looking through.
A slight smile came over her features as she came across a small article about the fuss in north London the night before. She had been going half-mad, restraining herself these last few weeks from lashing out at any of a million minor irritations. Making those four dimwits who’d attacked her researcher take a permanent ‘vacation’ had helped somewhat. The only bad thing had been that fay getting involved; she wasn’t ready to expend that much effort on a relatively minor fight. Maybe later, though.
She turned the pages until she found the article about the ‘Connection’. She read very slowly, paying particular attention to the picture of the alleged criminal. It certainly looked like Arthur.
"Well, if it is you, you should be able to survive this," she said to the photo. "Maybe you or whatever ‘knights’ you have will lead me to Carbonek this time."
Jane’s research, if fruitful, would be more direct, but it would be just as good to see Druon again. And he in turn could lead her to the others...
She smiled to herself as she laid the paper down.
This ‘Arthur Pennington’ would bear watching....