CARBONEK: PART TWO
Outline by Todd Jensen.
Written by Todd Jensen.
With additional material by Ed Reynolds and Sir Thomas Malory.
Original artwork by Foxx Laverinth
Previously on Pendragon....
LEONARD CAMFORD: Something is coming... something powerful.
* * *
DUVAL: The Holy Grail is about to appear in southern Hertfordshire - and not just appear, but fully manifest itself, on a scale that it has not done for the past fifteen centuries.
* * *
SYBIL: If you want to defeat Arthur, you'll have to abandon your 'surgical strike' policy. You'll have to get rid of them all. His knights, his squire, those gargoyles that he's allied with, and all the rest of them. Clear the entire modern-day Round Table at one blow. Then you'll win.
MORGANA: I still don't think that it's necessary. Just two deaths. That's all that it'll take.
* * *
MARY: We're sorry, Merlin. We couldn't find the Grail. We failed you.
* * *
MARY: Father, you mustn't marry Morgana Cornish. She's evil. She's a witch, and she's tried to murder Arthur several times.
* * *
MORGANA: I'm afraid that it's the truth, Nigel... I really am Morgana la Fay.
* * *
NIGEL SEFTON: This - is going to take some getting used to. But - I suppose that I can learn to live with it. Indeed, it appears that I will have to.
* * *
DUVAL (to the Illuminati): We leave at once.
* * *
DUVAL (sotto voce): Forgive me, Arthur. Again.
* * *
TANABURS (to Arthur): My name is Tanaburs, and I am the seneschal of Carbonek Castle. The Fisher King has sent me here to speak with you.
* * *
ARTHUR: The Grail is coming here? Then the Quest was not in vain? Merlin will be saved?
* * *
TANABURS: The poison that Morgana la Fay used upon Merlin is an especially potent one. The Grail can cure it, but a great sacrifice must come with it, a sacrifice of love and courage to pay for Merlin's renewed life... To save Merlin's life, you must sacrifice Mary's in exchange.
~~~Carbonek Part One~~~
* * * * *
"Sacrifice Mary?" cried Arthur, staring horror-stricken at Tanaburs. "You cannot mean what you say!"
"I most certainly do," said Tanaburs, nodding quietly. "This is no jest, Arthur. Those are the terms."
"Mary must die?" Arthur asked.
"Yes, and by your own hand and sword," said Tanaburs. "I am sorry, Arthur, but these are the rules of the Holy Grail, rules which I have no authority to change. It is the necessary price for Merlinís life."
"Galahad and his companions never had to pay such a price," Arthur protested.
"Galahad and his companions were not seeking the Grail to save the life of a friend," said Tanaburs. "Different purposes require different trials. And one of them did have to make a similar sacrifice, if you will remember."
Arthur looked down at Mary, standing by his side. The girl had stared in a shocked silence at Tanaburs ever since he had named the cost. She looked mutely up at him. At last he spoke.
"And I must choose between them?" he asked. "I cannot make this decision! No man should have such a choice imposed upon him."
"The choice is yours," said Tanaburs, "but not yours alone. She must choose as well. Mary must yield up her life of her own free will, voluntarily laying it down so that Merlin may live, for her sacrifice to be valid and acceptable." He turned to her. "Are you willing to do just that?"
"I - Iíll need some time to think it over," said Mary, her voice shaking. "I want to make certain that I understand what it is that Iíll have to do."
"Donít worry, my child," said Tanaburs, speaking gently to her. "You will have the time that you need. You do not have to choose before tomorrow evening."
He walked down the end of the hallway, Arthur and Mary following him. He paused by a small slit-like window, and pointed out through it at the woods outside, beyond the London clanís estate. "Tomorrow night," he said, "go into the forest. A path will appear. Follow it, and it will lead you to a clearing, within which rests an ancient altar-stone. The two of you must go there and bring Merlin with you. And there, Arthur, you must declare your choice. If your choice is for Merlin to live, then you must slay Mary upon the stone, releasing her life so that Merlinís may be restored. If your choice is for her to live, then declare it aloud. And if you do as you are required, Carbonek and the Grail will appear and Merlin will be cured."
"But why must it be Mary?" Arthur asked, placing one arm about the girl and drawing her closer to him.
"She has given her heart to Merlin already," said Tanaburs, "more completely than has anyone before in all his life. Thus only she may carry out the sacrifice of love."
He looked at both of them, deep sympathy in his eyes, and nodded. "I will await the three of you in the forest tomorrow night," he said. "Until then, farewell."
He bowed low and vanished in a glow of white light. Arthur and Mary watched him disappear, then turned and looked closely at each other in a stricken silence.
* * * * *
"Good night, Morgana," said Nigel, kissing her on the doorstep of his house. "I'll see you tomorrow, then."
She was about to walk to her car, but hesitated. "Nigel," she said in an uneasy voice, "I believe that we still need to talk. About my other life, the one that I have kept secret from you."
"This isn't the time for it," he said at once. "We have a wedding to prepare for, my dear. These matters can wait for afterwards."
"So you still mean to go through with it?" Morgana asked hopefully.
"Of course," he replied.
She smiled, and walked off. Nigel went back inside, closing the door behind him. He prepared to walk back to the drawing-room but then paused. An uneasy expression passed over his face, wracked with doubt.
The last few guests from the reception were stepping out into the hallway as he stood there, preparing to go home. Nigel spotted Agent Robert Braddock among them, who was just finishing a conversation with the Starkhams. He walked up to him and spoke.
"Braddock, might I have a few words with you?" he asked. "In private?"
"Certainly," said Braddock, with one last nod to Mr. and Mrs. Starkham. He followed Sir Nigel into the study.
Nigel shut the door behind them, then spoke. "I understand that MI5 engages in surveillance upon the spouses of prominent politicians," he said.
"Well, yes, it does happen," said Braddock. "It's mainly done to make certain that nobody on the Cabinet's married to a spy for Russia, or the CIA, for that matter. I don't think that you need to be concerned. In case you're wondering, Ms. Cornish is clean. There's never been anything at all untoward about her, nothing to suggest that she's anything other than an upstanding citizen."
"Ah, thank you," said Nigel. Then, just as Braddock had placed one hand upon the doorknob and was beginning to turn it, he spoke again. "One more thing. Has that Connection business been straightened out?"
"Oh, yes," said Braddock. "The case has been closed for months now. Everyone who was a part of that operation is safely behind bars. Nothing to worry about at all."
"Thank you again," said Nigel. He saw Braddock to the front door. "Good night," he said, as the officer left.
After he closed the door, he headed upstairs, a thoughtful frown upon his face.
* * * * *
"I wonder if we should tell him," said Mary. She and Arthur stood by Merlinís bedside, looking down at him. He was asleep again, and looking more peaceful this time, although his face still was thin and wan. "I mean, this really is all about him, isnít it?"
"Yes," said Arthur. "But heíd never allow us to make that choice. Heíd stop resisting the poison and let it kill him at once if he knew what the price of his cure was to be."
"So weíll have to leave him out of it for now," said Mary. "But weíre still going to have to tell him, in the end."
"I know," said Arthur, placing one hand upon her shoulder. "I know, Mary."
She sat upon the stool again, her head bowed in grief. Arthur turned and walked from the room, closing the door gently behind him, leaving his squire to wrestle with the terrible decision that lay before both of them now. He walked alone down the hallway, his own face turned down towards the floor.
"Arthur?" asked a voice just ahead of him.
Arthur looked up. Griff was standing in the corridor; Arthur was relieved to see that there was nobody else with him. The griffon-like gargoyle knight looked at his friend expectantly. "So how did it go?" he asked.
"Iím glad that I found you," said Arthur. "Thereís something that I need to discuss with you, away from the others."
* * *
"So that's what he said you have to do," said Griff, some minutes later. The two of them were standing in a remote corner of the manor-house, where nobody else was likely to come upon them.
"Exactly," said Arthur in a heavy voice. "In order to save Merlin's life, I must take Mary's. I must slay an innocent under my protection." A horrible thought struck him. "I must do the same thing that the White Knight did."
"Yes," said Griff concernedly. "You certainly will."
"What am I to do?" Arthur asked. "Let Merlin die? Or save him by abandoning everything that I had stood for, the very principles upon which Camelot was founded?" His voice was beginning to break. "I sacrificed my beliefs for the sake of expediency once before, where Mordred was concerned. I cannot do so again!"
"You know, there's one possibility that you haven't considered so far," mentioned Griff. "How do you know that Tanaburs really is from Carbonek? Oh, he says that he is and that the Holy Grail sent him, but that doesn't necessarily make it so. I recall that your knights on the original Grail Quest ran into a few imposters as well; maybe Tanaburs is another one of them. I very much doubt that anybody sent by the Grail would ask you to do something like that."
"I had thought of that possibility myself," said Arthur. "I wish indeed that Tanaburs was a deceiving demon, attempting to turn me from the right path. But he was different. There was a certain something that clung about his person, something that only one truly in the service of the Holy Grail could achieve. No, I believe that he truly did come from Carbonek."
"Then that makes things a lot tougher," said Griff, frowning.
"Indeed it does," Arthur replied. "I can save Merlinís life or Maryís, but not both. I must choose between the two of them, and how can I do that? Merlin is my oldest friend, without whom I would never have become King. And Mary is almost a daughter to me. How can I choose oneís life over the otherís?"
"Yes, itís definitely a problem," said Griff. "I do have some idea of what itís like, of course. I had to go through something similar with the Green Knight, remember. But still - when you put it like that, I really donít know what to tell you."
Arthur nodded sadly. "I wish that the Grail had simply turned its back upon me altogether," he said. "I wish that I did not have to choose."
"And what about Mary?" Griff asked. "Isnít it her choice, too?"
Arthur nodded. "Yes, it is," he said. "But in the end, it is also mine, and even if she agrees to it, I must still make the final decision."
* * *
Mary sat by Merlinís side, staring down at him. She held the locket that he had given her last Christmas in her hand, clasping it tightly. A tear splashed upon its surface and rolled down onto the bedclothes. Merlin stirred, mumbling something unintelligible, then settled down again.
* * *
"Iím sorry that I couldnít give you more advice, Arthur," said Griff, as he and Arthur walked back down the hallway leading to the courtyard outside. "But itís getting close to dawn, and Iíll have to take up my perch. I donít suppose that whatever I told you will be enough?"
"Itíll have to do, I suppose," said Arthur. "But thank you, my friend. At least, no matter what comes, I will still have you by my side, and I am glad of it."
"Thank you," said Griff. "Hullo, whatís this?" he added as they entered the great hall. Several of the gargoyles, including Michael and Brock, were standing there in the middle of a conversation with Colin Marter.
"Crickley's just been evacuated," said Faulconbridge, turning to Arthur and Griff. "There's a whole crowd of strange humans swarming about there. Leba, Rory, and Dulcinea went to investigate."
"I'm still wondering if it has something to do with our home," said Michael, also turning in Arthur's direction, and not appearing at all pleased. "Where is the human whom you brought with you?"
"He left," said Arthur.
"We never saw him go out," said Brock puzzledly. "I must admit, that is unusual."
"I don't think that this is about the clan," said Colin Marter quickly. "There's been a fair amount in the news lately about odd things going on in this area. Maybe the connection's there."
"I've been wondering about that myself," said Griff. "This Tanaburs chap said that the Grail was on its way here. That could explain it. That could explain all those odd things, in fact."
"So could these other humans whom Faulconbridge and his rookery siblings reported seeing be after the Grail?" Brock asked thoughtfully.
"The Illuminati," said Griff. "It must be them. I knew that they werenít likely to hold off, once it showed up. This is certainly going to complicate things."
"As if they were not bad enough already," said Arthur dejectedly.
The others looked at him puzzledly. Griff quickly spoke up. "Well, I suppose that we'll just have to wait for Leba and the others to get back and give their report. In the meantime, it's getting close to dawn. It's about time for us to take our places."
"Is anything the matter, Arthur?" Colin Marter asked, looking at the former king closely. "You seem troubled."
"Iíll explain later," said Arthur.
Without another word, he followed the gargoyles out into the courtyard and watched them mount the walls with the rest of the clan. Griff turned and nodded sympathetically in his direction, just before taking up his post next to Brianna.
* * *
"Is anything wrong?" asked Michael to Brock. The clan's record-keeper was sniffing the air as he perched upon his regular roost, a concerned look in his eyes.
"I don't know," Brock replied. "But there's something different in the air. I don't know what it is, but it makes me feel as if...."
"As if what?" Michael asked.
"As if something's on its way," said Brock. "Something that we've never encountered before."
Michael turned to stone, along with the rest of the clan, before he could ask the archivist just what it could be.
* * *
Arthur and Colin Marter stood in the courtyard, looking up at the petrified gargoyles for a moment. Then Colin turned to Arthur. "Iíd better make a few inquiries," he said. "I might be able to uncover some things." A sudden thought struck him. "Since itís daylight now, Maryíll be a wolf again. Perhaps you could send her over as well. Theyíd be less likely to notice her - theyíd probably mistake her for a stray dog, or something like that."
"No, I think that Iíll let Mary stay here," said Arthur. "She has - certain matters to consider today, and I think that itís best if I let her alone to handle them."
"Very well," said Colin. He looked closely at Arthur again and appeared about to say something more. He changed his mind, however, and went back into the manor-house instead. Arthur stood alone in the courtyard, his head bowed.
* * * * *
Mary felt the change from human to wolf come over her, as the sun rose. While the usual pain accompanied it, she barely noticed it this time. What she found herself thinking of instead was a far more important matter. This could be the last morning that she would ever see, and the last time that she would assume her wolf shape.
She lay down on the floor by Merlinís bed and closed her eyes. It was the day of the wedding that she had been so keen on preventing the night before. In only a few hours her father and Morgana would be married. Only twenty-four hours ago, she would have given a great deal to stop it. But now, after Tanabursís visit, it no longer seemed so important.
* * * * *
"I hope that I am not being overly intrusive, sir," said Gargrave, "but you seem - troubled about something."
Sir Nigel Sefton sighed as he straightened his tie. "You're right," he said to his butler. "I - learned something about Morgana last night, something that surprised me. It's made me see her in a different light. I'll have to resolve those issues with her."
"Would you like me to make arrangements to postpone the ceremony then, sir?" Gargrave inquired in a deferential tone. "It could be easily done."
"No," said Nigel at once. "That won't do at all. It would arouse too much talk."
"Very well, sir," said Gargrave.
Nigel decided to change the topic to something less worrying. "Where is Powell, anyway?" he asked. "I would have thought that heíd be here by now. He was on the invitation list."
"I just heard from Mr. Powell, sir," said Gargrave. "And he sends you his apologies. It seems that something unexpected has arisen which he must attend to, forcing him to cancel his original plans."
"Oh, well," said Sir Nigel. "At least everyone else came. I wonder what heís up to, though."
* * * * *
William Powell stepped out of his car and walked up to the small pub in the center of Crickley. He knocked on the door twice, followed by a third time. The door swung open and he entered.
The Illuminati Society had requisitioned the pub for its operation headquarters. Several members of the Inner Circle were gathered around a large map of the immediate area, with markers set up to represent unit placements, reports of Fortean phenomena which could be linked to the Holy Grailís imminent arrival, and other relevant matters. Some technicians had set up monitoring equipment just under the dartboard and were now manning it. Three black-uniformed officers were standing by the bar, the captains of the paramilitary teams that had been dispatched to the area.
"Welcome to Crickley, Powell," said Mr. Duval, looking up from the map. "So weíre all here now."
Powell nodded. "Do we have the area of manifestation pinpointed yet, sir?" he asked.
"Our technicians are at work triangulating the position," said Duval. "They should be delivering their results shortly."
"Ah, excellent," said Powell approvingly. "Have they set an estimated time for the Grailís arrival?"
"Theyíve only been able to determine that itíll take place close to midnight," said Duval. "They havenít been able to narrow it down to the precise minute, or even the precise hour, however."
"I see," said Powell. "Well, tonight is good enough for us."
He walked across the room to confer with a few of the other Inner Circle members. Duval watched him go, then shook his head and sighed. He had a strong suspicion as to just what they were talking about.
* * * * *
ST. EDMUND'S CHURCH
"The weather's looking a bit odd today," commented Mr. Starkham. "I hope that we're not in for a major downpour. Not on your wedding day."
"No, I hope not," said Nigel Sefton, as he stood by the altar.
"I must admit," Starkham went on, "that I'm glad that you were able to find love again. I mean, after that business with Fiona - if you don't mind my mentioning it."
"Yes," said Nigel. "Morgana is very special indeed. A very remarkable woman."
The organ music began. Morgana entered the church in her bridal gown and veil, walking up the nave to the altar. Her bridesmaid was accompanying her - Sybil Norgales, Nigel recalled her name was.
"There's no one to give her away?" Starkham asked in a low voice.
"Her father's dead," answered Nigel. He decided that it was just as well not to go into details. He didn't think that Starkham was ready yet to learn that Morgana's father had been a Cornish duke fifteen hundred years ago. In fact, he was still having difficulty grasping the concept himself. It was so hard to imagine outliving your parents by so many centuries. It was certainly something that sounded anything but pleasant to him. As he contemplated it, he found himself beginning to feel all the more for her predicament. Had she really been alone for over a thousand years? Did he have the right to reject her, and thereby condemn her to further solitude?
She reached the altar and stood by him. He smiled at her, if in a forced manner.
"Dearly beloved," he could hear the vicar saying, "we are gathered here today...." But he was too distracted by his worries to pay much attention to the man's words.
All right, so Morgana Cornish was really Morgana la Fay, who had a reputation of being a villainous sorceress. But was she really one? She certainly hadn't behaved like one, all the while that he'd known her. Mary had claimed that she was one, but she could hardly know her stepmother-to-be as well as he did. And it was not impossible that her reputation had been exaggerated. He had been in politics long enough to know that smear campaigns can transform a relatively innocent man or woman into a veritable monster. Perhaps Morgana had been merely the victim of Arthur's public relations staff, so to speak.
And what about Fiona, for that matter? Many of her relatives had certainly been anything but normal. There was her grandmother who had been involved with those rumors about living gargoyles in Paris shortly after the First World War, not to mention those three cousins of hers who had blown up a police station in New York City - and he was still grateful that Fiona's family link with them was not public knowledge. But she had never been anything other than the soul of propriety herself; he certainly could not imagine her taking part in such actions. A pity that the same couldn't be said for Mary these days; he still felt uneasy about the way that the girl had turned into a magnet for bizarreness. He wondered if it was not too late to change that.
Maybe Morgana would be able to help. She really did care about the girl, and maybe she was just what Mary needed to help her settle down again. His daughter would come around eventually. She hadn't spoken to him for a month after Fiona had died, but she had still come around.
The vicar's words broke in upon his thoughts. "Do you, Morgana Cornish, take Sir Nigel Sefton for your lawfully wedded husband, to have and to hold, till death do you part?"
"I do," said Morgana, in a joyful tone of voice.
"And do you, Sir Nigel Alistair Sefton, take Morgana Cornish to be your lawfully wedded wife?" the vicar asked.
Sir Nigel hesitated for a split-second, then nodded. "I do," he said.
"Then, by the authority invested in me," said the vicar, "I now pronounce you husband and wife. You may kiss the bride."
Nigel turned to Morgana and lifted her veil. Even as he bent his face forward to kiss her, however, he looked at her uncomfortably. She, on the other hand, appeared relieved as she accepted his kiss.
* * * * *
"So theyíve taken over Crickley," said Colin Marter, laying a map out on the table in the great hall. "How big does this operation seem to be, from what you've seen of it?"
"Iíd say three units, all heavily armed," answered Leba. "And a lot of surveillance equipment. Definitely very high-grade."
"This is looking very serious," said Arthur. "If the Illuminati have brought this large a fighting-force here, then we will need all the assistance that we can find. We cannot match them in weaponry, but if we can persuade the London gargoyles to help us, we might have some hope of succeeding."
"We'll have to wait until sunset to talk to them," said Colin Marter. "In the meantime, we can decide on some plan of action. Do you have any thoughts, Arthur?"
"A few," said Arthur. "But first, I will need to know more about their strength. Leba, approximately how many soldiers would you say that they have?"
* * * * *
Jennifer heard the door open behind her, and turned around. Darien Montrose was standing in the doorway.
"What are you doing here?" she asked him sharply.
"I heard about your father," he said, in a tone of voice that sounded not so much sympathetic, as more expressing a desire to be thought sympathetic. "I just thought that I'd come and pay my respects to him. We may not have been friends, but at least he was a worthy opponent in the business field."
Jennifer said nothing as he walked in. She had little fondness for him, but somehow the troubles that she had had with him seemed less important at this moment. And at least he had shown some respect for her father in coming, though she suspected that it was more for the sake of appearances than anything else.
Darien looked down at the sleeping Leonard for a few moments, then walked over to the window and gazed out at it. The sky overhead was overcast, the clouds casting the world below into shadow. At times, it appeared for a moment as if patterns were actually forming in them, but they always broke up before their shape became distinct and clear.
"Odd sort of weather that we're having," he commented. "I hope that we're not in for anything like that extra-harsh winter that we had last year. The way that things have been going, you'd think that the end of the world was just around the corner."
"It is not the end," said a voice. Jennifer stared down at her father, who had opened his eyes and was staring up at the ceiling. "It is a beginning."
"A beginning?" asked Darien, looking puzzled. "A beginning to what?"
Leonard made no reply, having closed his eyes again. Jennifer gazed concernedly at him, wondering about his words as well.
* * * * *
"So these are the most likely positions that the Illuminati's soldiers will take up," said Arthur, marking the places on the map. "At least, they are the places where I would position them, if I was commanding them. Duval will most likely do the same. He learned much about strategy and the art of war from me when he still called himself Lancelot; I only hope that I did not teach him too much."
He rose from his chair and walked towards the door.
"Wait!" cried Colin. "Where are you going, Arthur? Shouldn't you at least help us work out some plan for dealing with them?"
"You should be able to devise some plan without my help," Arthur replied. "I have faith in you four. But I have something else to deal with." And he left the room.
"What was that all about?" asked Dulcinea.
"I don't know," said Colin. "He's been acting like this since that visit from this Tanaburs fellow that I told you about. Believe me, I'm as puzzled about it as you are."
* * * * *
Arthur sat by the window in his room, gazing out at the woods outside. His eyes rested upon the trees but he barely saw them. He was lost in his troubled thoughts.
"This does not make any sense at all," he murmured to himself. "If there is one lesson that I have learned upon this quest, it is that the ends cannot justify the means. I heard it again and again, at Glastonbury, in Antarctica, on Oak Island. And now I must ignore all of that, and achieve the Grail by shedding the blood of a young girl? Why would the Grail make such a retraction, as if telling me to forget everything that I had learned while seeking it?
"Whenever I strayed from my principles before, it led to ruin. I yielded to my fears and tried to drown Mordred when he was a baby - and nothing but evil came of it. Why should it be different now? Why must it ask me to do this? Why must Mary die so that Merlin can live? Is the Holy Grail not as pure and holy as I believed? Are its standards really no different than those of Duval or the White Knight? Was all that I had heard about its sanctity a lie?"
He stood up and paced back and forth in the room, wrestling with his thoughts. "She has done nothing to deserve this. Why must it call for her death? What great crime has she done that her blood must be spilled?"
A dreadful thought then stole over him. He thought back again to the order that he had given to drown the babies born on May Day. "Perhaps it is not she who is being punished after all," he said to himself. "Perhaps it is I instead. I tried to drown my son because he would grow up to become my enemy, and now I must pay the price by killing the girl whom I have come to view as a daughter, who has been one of my greatest allies on this quest.
"But it still makes no sense," he continued, his voice almost angry now. "Why must she die because of my sin? The innocent should not pay for the deeds of the guilty! If I am to be punished for my act, the punishment should be on my head alone! And how can I make amends for one crime by committing another? This is madness!"
His thoughts were interrupted by a scratching noise at the door. "Arthur?" asked Mary's voice in the hallway outside. "May I come in?"
"Certainly," said Arthur, opening the door to admit her. "So Tanaburs' words are weighing heavily upon you as well?"
"Yes, they are," she said, as she lay down opposite Arthur's chair by the window. "I've barely thought of anything else since he left. And - well, I found myself remembering something. There was a passage in Maloryís book about the first Quest for the Grail, something about the death of Percivalís sister."
"The Lady Dindrane," said Arthur, nodding. "Yes, I recall her fate as well. And I read about her death in Malory myself; it was indeed quite accurate, based on what Sir Bors told me concerning it when he returned to Camelot."
"Could you read that passage to me, Arthur, please?" she asked him. "Iíd do it myself, but, in this form, Iím not quite up to turning pages."
"Very well," said Arthur. He took down the copy of Sir Thomas Maloryís Le Morte díArthur that he kept on the shelf in his room, and, after searching through it for a while, found the page that he was looking for. As Mary looked up at him, he began reading the section aloud to her.
"And so they entered into the castle, and when they were alighted they made great joy of them. So within a while the three knights asked the custom of the castle, and wherefore it was used.
" ĎSir, what it is we will say you the sooth. There is in this castle a gentlewoman, which both we and this castle is hers, and many other. So it befell many years agone, there happened on her a malady, and when she had lain a great while she fell unto a measle. And no leech could remedy her, but at the last an old man said, an she might have a dishful of blood of a maiden, and a clean virgin in will and in work, and a kingís daughter, that blood should be her health for to anoint her withall. And for this thing was this custom made.'
" Ď Now," said Sir Percivalís sister, "fair knights, I see well that this gentlewoman is but dead without help, and therefore let me bleed.'
" Ď Certes,' said Sir Galahad, 'an ye bleed so much ye must die.'
" Ď Truly,' said she, 'and I die for the health of her I shall get me great worship and soul health, and worship to my lineage; and better is one harm than twain. And therefore there shall no more battle be, but tomorrow I shall yield you your custom of this castle.'
" And then there was made great joy over there, more than was made tofore, for else had there been mortal war upon the morn; notwithstanding she would none other, whether they would or not. So that night were these three fellows eased with the best, and on the morn they heard Mass. And Sir Percivalís sister bade them bring forth the sick lady. So she was brought forth, which was full evil at ease. Then said she, 'Who shall let me bleed?'
" So one came forth and let her bleed. And she bled so much that the dish was full. Then she lifted up her hand and blessed her and said to this lady, 'Madam, I am come to my death for to heal you. Therefore, for Godís love, pray for me!'
" And with that she fell in a swoon. Then Sir Galahad and his two fellows sterte up to her, and lifted her up, and staunched her blood, but she had bled so much that she might not live. So when she awaked, she said, 'Fair brother Sir Percival, I die for the healing of this lady. And when I am dead, I require you that ye bury me not in this country, but as soon as I am dead put me in a boat at the next haven, and let me go as adventures will lead me. And as soon as ye three come to the city of Sarras, there to achieve the Holy Grail, ye shall find me under a tower arrived. And there bury me in the Spiritual Palace. For I shall tell you for truth, there Sir Galahad shall be buried, and ye both, in the same place.'
" When Sir Percival understood these words he granted her all weepingly. And then said a voice unto them, 'Lords, tomorrow, at the hour of Prime, ye three shall depart everyone from other, till the adventure bring you unto the Maimed King.'
"Then asked she her Savior, and as soon as she had received Him the soul departed from the body. So the same day was the lady healed when she was anointed with her blood. Then Sir Percival made a letter of all that she had helped them as in strange adventures, and put it in her right hand. And so laid her in a barge, and covered it with black silk. And so the wind arose and drove the barge from the land, and all manner of knights beheld it till it was out of their sight."
Arthur looked down at Mary, who had been listening in silence to the tale throughout. At last the girl spoke.
"She was very brave, giving up her life like that for another," she said in a faltering voice. "Am I that brave?"
"Mary, I -" Arthur began. He found himself unable to continue, but it hardly mattered, for she was still speaking.
"Maybe I should have seen it coming all along," she said. "Dindrane was the only woman on the first Quest, just as I was on the second. Perhaps it was supposed to be this way all along. And I never even thought that her story might be telling me something."
"Mary, is this what you really want?" Arthur asked.
"I donít want to die, Arthur," said Mary. "Iím still not enjoying all this business of being a werewolf, but Iím not feeling all suicidally depressed over it. I want to live, Arthur, I really do. But - I want Merlin to live, as well. And not just for his sake, either. No matter what he says, Arthur, youíre going to need his help. And he can do a lot more for you - a lot more for the world, in fact - than I ever can."
"You really intend to go through with it, then?" Arthur asked.
She nodded. "Yes," she said. "Iím willing to make the sacrifice." Though her voice was still sad, there was a strong note of resolution in it now. "Iíll do it."
"Itís not your choice alone," said Arthur. "Mary, you must know this. I want Merlin to live just as much as you do, but not at this high a price."
"But itís the only way," Mary said. "You heard what Tanaburs told you, Arthur. I have to die, so that Merlin can live. Thereís no other hope for him. And if we donít go through with it, if we reject the Grailís offer, then that means that the entire year that we spent questing after it really was for nothing. Itís something that I have to do, Arthur, just as Dindrane did. Why canít you accept it, the way that Galahad and the others did?"
"Galahad and his companions were not the ones called upon to take Dindraneís life," said Arthur. But he was weakening before her words and he knew it. He stared down at her in a long silence before speaking again.
"Is there anything that you wish to do before this evening?" he asked her somberly.
"There is one thing," said Mary. "I need to make a telephone call."
* * * * *
"Is anything wrong, Nigel?"
Sir Nigel Sefton looked up from the carpet on the drawing-room floor that he had been giving his full attention to ever since they had come home from the church and the wedding ceremony there, and turned to look at his new wife. Morgana was staring at him concernedly.
"Yes," he said. "There are still a number of things that are troubling me about all of this. I mean - I suddenly find out that youíre some mythical sorceress from the Middle Ages. I didnít even think that youíd ever really existed, let alone that you were still alive and in London, until last night. And, well - thereís all those other matters tied in with that. You knew that that boy Emrys was really Merlin all along, didnít you?"
She nodded. "I should have told you before, Nigel," she said. "But I knew that you wouldnít believe me then. I know that this must all be very confusing for you still."
"Not to mention the other implications," said Nigel. "If that boyís Merlin, and if Nicholas Maddox was his father - then what was Maddox really? You must know that, as well. You must know so much - and you didnít even share it with me until now. I - I donít know what to believe about you any more."
Morgana looked at him sadly. "Iím sorry, Nigel," she said. "If you will only hear me out -"
There was a knock at the drawing-room door. "Please forgive me for interrupting, sir," said Gargraveís voice. "Your daughter is on the telephone, and wishes to speak with you."
Sir Nigel stood up and sighed. "Very well," she said. "Iíll see what she wants." Turning to Morgana, he added, "And then weíll talk about this after Iím done with her."
* * *
Arthur held the telephone receiver close to Maryís head, while inclining his own head close enough to it that he could hear the forthcoming conversation. At last Nigelís voice came over the receiver. "Mary?" he asked. "Is that you?"
"Yes, father," she replied, speaking in a sad, solemn tone. "Father, I have - something very important to tell you."
"Well, what is it?" he asked.
"I - I wonít be coming back home, father," she said. "Not ever."
"What? Why? If this is about Morgana -"
"Itís not about her," said Mary. "It - itís something else. I - I just wanted to say goodbye to you, father. I love you."
Arthur quietly replaced the receiver on the phone for her, while Mary bowed her head low.
* * *
Nigel came back into the drawing-room, looking definitely perturbed. Morgana stared up at him. "What did she say, Nigel?" she asked.
"She said that she wonít be coming back home," he answered. "She seemed very distraught about it, too. All that I could tell was that it didnít have anything to do with you - or at least, thatís what she said. I really donít know what to make of it."
Morgana rose up from the couch. "Nigel, I - I have to leave," she said. "This sounds urgent."
"Wait!" cried Nigel. "Let me come with you! If Mary's in some sort of trouble, then I should be there."
"I'm sorry, Nigel," said Morgana slowly, turning back to him for a moment. "But this is something that I need to handle by myself."
"What do you mean?" asked Nigel. But she had already gone out through the front door and had shut it behind her.
Sybil was standing on the doorstep in front. "Morgana," she said. "Iím glad that I found you. Listen, something very important is on its way. Iíve been checking the latest reports about all the signs and omens that have been happening in Hertfordshire. Theyíve been multiplying by the hour. There has to be a reason for it, and we have to find out what it is."
"Thatíll have to wait," said Morgana. "Sybil, listen. Somethingís very wrong with Mary. I donít know what it is, but we have to find out. How soon can we send out the ravens?"
"Theyíre ready now," said Sybil. "I made certain that theyíd be ready to do their scouting before I came here; I thought that weíd need their help."
"Very good," said Morgana, as the two of them climbed into Sybilís car. "Then we dispatch them at once."
* * * * *
The sun drew closer to the horizon. The shadows of late afternoon were lengthening into evening, as the Illuminati continued to mull over the maps and charts inside the pub. Outside, in the village streets, the paramilitaries that they had brought with them paced about restlessly, looking over their equipment one last time. Many of them were eyeing the sky above. The clouds were growing thicker, casting heavy shadows upon the world below, almost as if a major thunderstorm was on its way.
"Weíve got a fix, sir," said a technician, pointing to a spot on the map in front of Duval. "Right here. Thatís where the Grail will manifest itself."
Duval nodded. "Thank you," he said. "Then it is time to move our troops into placement." He shifted three markers on the map to surround the location that the technician had indicated, motioning to the three captains at the same time to come over. "Brunning, take Team Alpha here," he said. "Kendrick, position Team Beta here. And Stebbins, you and Team Gamma will go over here. Take up your positions by sunset, but do nothing more until I give the order."
The three captains nodded. As Duval continued giving his instructions, Giles, who had been standing just behind him, spotted Singleton moving away from the rest of the Inner Circle members, over to the telephone in the corner of the pub. He watched as the man began to dial a number, and then looked back at Duval. He was about to clear his throat to speak, but then decided against it. He continued to watch Singleton closely, his face growing more and more concerned.
* * * * *
Arthur and Mary entered the courtyard. Colin Marter, Leba, Rory, Dulcinea, and even Aidan were gathered outside, watching as the sun lowered in the west.
"Itíll be dark in less than an hour," said Colin. "Then the gargoyles will be awake, and weíre going to need them. Itíll probably take the whole clan to help us out here - or close to it, at least."
"Captain Marter," said Arthur. "My friends," he added, turning to his three knights. "There is something that I need to tell you."
* * * * *
"Was it that man from the surface, Sarah?" Flynt asked, as the dark-haired woman shut off the cordless phone that Singleton had given her.
"Yes, it was," she replied. "Heís given us all the information that weíll need about the Grail. Where itís going to appear, the obstacles and competition, everything. Itís time for us to move out now. Letís go."
The other vampyres followed her as she set off down the tunnel, heading westwards.
* * * * *
"I still canít believe it," said Dulcinea. "Thatís what you have to do, to save Merlin?"
"It is the price which the Holy Grail has dictated," said Arthur, in a pained voice. Mary stood by him, looking as saddened as he was by it, though also fully resigned to what she was about to undergo, quietly accepting it.
"And thereís no other way," said Leba.
Arthur shook his head. "None," he said. "Which is why we have agreed to it. At least, Mary has."
"And you?" Colin Marter asked. "Are you willing to do it?"
"I - suppose so," Arthur answered. "I donít want this any more than the rest of us do, but it appears that itís the only way now."
"So what exactly will you do?" Rory asked.
"The trail to the clearing will appear when the sun sets," said Arthur. "I will take Mary and Merlin down it then, and when we reach the spot, we will do what we have to."
"And the rest of us?" Dulcinea asked.
"I cannot ask you to be a part of this," said Arthur. "Itís hard enough that I must do it, without involving the rest of you. But, if what youíve discovered about the Illuminati is indeed true, then I may need your help for a different purpose. Iíll explain once Griff and the others awake."
"And Merlin," said Leba. "Does he know?"
"No," replied Arthur. "Not yet. Iíll have to tell him afterwards. Itís best if he hears it from me."
"The poor boy will be devastated," said Dulcinea.
"I know," said Arthur, nodding sadly.
None of them saw the two ravens, perched upon the battlements by the stone gargoyles, fly off into the afternoon shadows.
* * * * *
"She what?" Morgana cried, staring down at the birds in disbelief.
The ravens croaked back to her. Sybil, standing on the sidelines, raised an eyebrow. "Fancy that," she said. "I had no idea that either of them had it in them."
"I cannot believe that my own stepdaughter would do this!" Morgana cried. "I should have stopped her from rejoining them, gotten Nigel to keep her in the house. Now sheís going to undo everything that I worked so hard to achieve, foil my vengeance!" She clenched her hands in fury.
"Thereís only one thing left to do," she said. "I must stop her from making the sacrifice at all costs, do whatever I can to prevent her. Iíll turn her to stone for a hundred years, or send her to the very ends of the earth if I have to, but she must not die so that Merlin can live! Iíll kill her myself rather than let her do it!"
"So is there anything that I can do to help?" Sybil asked.
"Yes, there is," said Morgana, after a moment's pause. "Keep Arthurís allies occupied. I can't have them interfering. Do whatever you have to in order to stop them."
"Does that mean what I think it does?" asked Sybil, a hopeful look in her eyes.
Morgana nodded bleakly. "It does," she said in a dead voice. "No mercy this time."
"Thank you," said Sybil, nodding approvingly. "Youíre finally taking the sensible approach."
Morgana made no response to that. Instead, she walked over to the chest in the corner of the room, opened it, and pulled out a figurine shaped like a golden dragon.
"Is that what I think it is?" Sybil asked.
"Yes," said Morgana. "One of the two statues that Uther Pendragon made to commemorate the dragon-star that heralded his coming to the throne. The one that he took about with him on his campaigns is lost, most likely destroyed after his death. But I found the other one in Winchester. I believe that it will meet my needs."
* * * * *
The sun set, and the London gargoyles broke out of their stone shells with a loud crackle, stretching and roaring. Mary, standing by Arthurís side in the courtyard, shifted back into her human form with a painful cry.
"Are you all right?" Arthur asked her.
She nodded. "At least Iíll be spending the last hours of my life in my rightful shape as a human," she said.
Griff alighted in front of Arthur. "So - have you made your decision yet, Arthur?" he asked gravely.
"Mary has," said Arthur solemnly. "Sheís willing to lay down her life for Merlinís sake."
"And you?" Griff asked, looking Arthur straight in the eye.
"I suppose that I must - do what must be done," he said sadly.
Griff looked at him concernedly. In the end, however, all that he said was "Do you want me to come with you?"
Arthur shook his head. "While in most cases Iíd welcome your company, my friend," he said, "this must be an exception. We already know that there are others who seek the Grail - the Illuminati, at least. More than likely, they will wish to interfere with us for that reason, seeking to remove their rivals from the board. I need someone that I can trust to lead my knights and allies against them, to keep them from reaching us. For that reason, I am placing you as captain over them in my absence. With you leading the others, I will feel more certain that we can carry out our journey unhindered tonight."
"Well, if you insist," said Griff. "What precisely do you want us to do?"
"We know that the Illuminati are encamped at Crickely and that they have a small force of fighting-men with them," said Arthur. "No doubt they will attempt to storm Carbonek as soon as it appears. I believe that the Grail Castle can defend itself, but they could still endanger myself and my companions. For this reason, I need you to do whatever you can to stop them. Leba, Rory, and Dulcinea can fill you in on everything that we have learned so far about the Illuminati's movements. You can use that information to plot your strategy."
"We'll do whatever we can to delay them," said Griff. "And - best wishes to you, Arthur."
"Thank you," said Arthur. "And I wish you the same, as you command your first battle."
He turned to Mary. "Come, my squire," he said. "There is one last thing for us to do."
* * * * *
Arthur pulled back the bedcovers and lifted Merlin up out of his bed. The boy had lost enough weight during his illness that he was astonishingly light. Arthur placed him gently in the wheelchair that Mary had brought into the room. As he did so, Merlin stirred, then opened his eyes and looked at Arthur.
"Mmph?" he said. "Whatís going on here?"
"We have found where the Grail is at last, Merlin," said Arthur in a soft voice. "Itís not far from here. Mary and I will be taking you there now."
"Really?" said Merlin, looking astonished. "The Grail's here? But - how?"
"Iíll explain to you later," said Arthur. "Now come, my friend. It is time for us to go."
He pushed the wheelchair down the corridor. Mary walked alongside it and gazed down at her boyfriend. Gently she took his right hand in both of hers, and said in a barely steady voice, "I love you, Merlin. Always remember that."
Merlin looked at her, his eyes troubled. "Is there anything wrong, Mary?" he asked.
"Weíll explain later," said Mary. "Donít worry about it for now."
Merlin frowned, but said nothing more. He closed his eyes and half-drifted off again.
Out in the courtyard, the gargoyles and humans had assembled to see them off. Griff stood by the gates, silent and grave. He shook hands with Arthur in the traditional warrior's grasp, then silently embraced Mary. The girl looked up at him, her eyes beginning to moisten, but said nothing. She turned to join Arthur.
The path that Tanaburs had spoken of had appeared in the woods, running through the trees out of sight. It was level enough for Arthur to move Merlin's wheelchair over it without jolting it even once. The Once and Future King and his squire turned one last time to look back at the company assembled in the courtyard and wave farewell to them. Mary stared at them long and hard before turning away.
"Three will leave," Arthur murmured to himself, "but one will not return." He paused, and then said, in a still lower voice, that not even Mary could overhear, "And I still do not know for certain who that one will be."
* * * * *
Nigel stood by the window of the living-room, looking out into the gathering gloom. "Where are they?" he asked himself. "And just what are they doing?"
* * * * *
Griff stood on the battlements over the gates, watching his three companions disappear into the woods. He then jumped down into the courtyard, where Leba, Rory, and Dulcinea were waiting. Dulcinea was already mounted upon Rosinante. Aidan was standing close by Rory.
"Well, it looks as though we're all ready," Griff said to them. "Arthur's counting on us, so let's do our part and hold off the Illuminati."
"There's still one thing missing," said Leba. "We're outnumbered, remember. We're just four people, and the Society's got almost a small army encamped at Crickley. We're going to need an army of our own to be able to stop them."
"Yes, you're right," said Griff. "Fortunately, we have one right here. I hope."
"Captain Marter told Michael about what's going on as soon as he woke up," said Rory. "He's called all the gargoyles into the council room for a big meeting."
"Very good," said Griff. "He must be rallying them to the cause. I'll tell him that we're ready whenever he is."
He headed indoors, while the three human knights and the squire continued to wait outside.
* * *
Griff pushed open the double doors to the meeting room, and entered. The assembled gargoyles turned around to face him.
"Well, Michael?" he asked. "Are we ready?"
Michael looked uncomfortable as the griffon-like gargoyle stood before him. He cleared his throat and spoke.
"We have discussed the matter thoroughly," he said. "And we have come to this decision. We cannot come with you."
"You're joking, aren't you?" Griff asked, staring at him incredulously. "You can't really mean it!"
"Indeed we do," said Michael. "Griff, this struggle that you are seeking to enlist us for is not a clan problem. This is a quarrel between human factions over a human artifact. It has nothing to do with gargoyles. It is not our battle."
"And you're going to sit it out, just like that?" Griff protested.
"A few have agreed to help," said Michael. "Leo and Una have volunteered, and so have Cervus, Imogen and Faulconbridge. But that is all that we can offer you. You must understand, Griff. If the Illuminati see a full flight of gargoyles in these parts, they will be certain that we live close by. How long will it take them to track us down after this? We cannot endanger the clan, not even for the sake of your friend. I'm already doing much - maybe too much - by permitting those who offered to fight by your side to do so."
"I can't believe you!" cried Griff. "London is our protectorate! We have a duty to it! And what about Arthur? He has done so much for our kind! He's one of the few human friends that we have! Are we just going to desert him now, when he truly needs us? There is a battle for the Holy Grail about to break out at our very doorstep! Has this clan learned nothing from the Battle of Britain all those years ago?"
"I am sorry, Griff," said Michael. "But as the leader of this clan, I must put its well-being first. And a battle would place us all in great danger from the Illuminati. You may have chosen to adopt the ways of a human knight, but that is not the path that we follow. Why is it that we are the only clan left in England, when all the other clans were destroyed over a thousand years ago? Because we have hidden ourselves, kept secret. There are so few of us left. We must protect what remains of our race."
Griff stared at him in silence for a moment. "And nobody else is going to help me?" he asked. He looked meaningfully at Brianna, and then at Brock. "Nobody at all?"
Brock fidgeted uncomfortably but said nothing. It was Brianna who spoke.
"I'm sorry, Griff," she said. "I know how much ye care aboot Arthur. But this isna our battle. It may be yuirs, but it's nae ours."
"Yes, it is," said Griff. "It's about all of us, Brianna. Arthur is our ally and our friend."
"Hmph!" said a young voice in the crowd. Griff recognized it as belonging to Dorcas. "Your friend, perhaps, but not ours. What's he done for us, anyway? Nothing, except drawing a lot of attention to us."
"It's nae as though we've turned our backs upon him entirely," said Brianna. "We've given him and his knights shelter here for four years, offered him a roof over his head, even aided him in battle before. But this is different. It's about the Grail and his quest for it. He's seeking it to save a human friend of his, nae to do anything for gargoylekind."
"And don't forget," piped up Dorcas again, "that that human friend of his is Madoc's son! Why should we risk our lives helping out the Unseelie Lord's kid, after all the trouble that the Unseelies caused us?"
The gargoyles next to her shushed her, and Perry at least was looking at her sharply, though she said nothing. Brianna continued as though there had been no interruption.
"It's as Michael said," she said. "There are so very few of us left. The future of our very race is in jeopardy. We've already lost three valiant warriors in the last battle that we fought, with the Unseelie Court. This fight may cost us even more - perhaps the entire clan. I am sorry, Griff. But this is nae our problem."
Griff looked over the gathered gargoyles long and hard, saying not a word. Michael was silent, his face impassive. Brianna hung her head in sorrow, not daring to meet his eyes. Leo, Una, Cervus, Imogen, and Faulconbridge all looked at him hopefully, but did not open their mouths, as if they were waiting for him to do something. Lucy also looked at Griff with widened eyes, an imploring expression in them, as she sat by the gargoyle beasts. Boz and Perry looked saddened, but made no move. Brock's face was doubtful, looking between Michael and Griff, but not resting his gaze on either one. Colin Marter stood by the door, the only human in the room, looking expectantly at Griff.
"Not our problem?" Griff said at last. "Not our problem? I suppose that it's true then. The more things change, the more they stay the same."
He stared at them for a moment in silence before continuing.
"None of you really remember the last war. Some of you hadn't even hatched yet. And those of you who had didn't see it as your fight."
Leo and Una bowed their heads. Griff continued speaking, however, without pausing.
"But Goliath, when he visited London during the Battle of Britain, understood differently. He told us, 'Human problems become gargoyle problems.' And he was right. If the Nazis had won, if they had conquered Britain, how long would we have survived? Years? Months? Weeks? What hope would there have been for us if Britain had fallen to them? And if they had conquered Britain, how long would it have been before the rest of the world had met the same fate? We were all in danger. Goliath understood that and so did I. That was why we fought alongside the humans when they defended London from the Nazis. And although neither of us were there to see the end, Britain won the battle and, thank goodness, won the war.
"But there are other threats facing us today. The Quarrymen in New York, the Unseelie Court, and the Illuminati Society. The Illuminati treat human leaders like puppets, pulling their strings for their own ends. They help human criminals. And they have threatened us more than once. I was captured by them, but fortunately Arthur came to my rescue. And let me tell you this. If this entire clan was attacked by the Illuminati, Arthur would stand by us, just as he stood by our ancestors fifteen centuries ago. Don't take my word for it. Ask Brock. He has the records."
Brock nodded uneasily, though he said nothing.
"When Arthur was King of Britain, he helped us, protected us. Humans and gargoyles lived in peace under his reign. It was a time of mutual understanding, co-operation, trust. The time of Camelot was just as surely a golden age for gargoyles as it was for humans. And even after Camelot fell, our alliance with Arthur has never wavered. Until now."
He paused. The clan watched him, all eyes fastened upon him.
"We helped him when he came to us, four years ago. For all that time, he has searched to find a new role in this world, to define the part that he is to play. I can relate to that. When I first joined him as the first of his knights, neither of us knew what lay ahead of us. The future was dark, and we were confused.
"But all that has changed. We have travelled about the world, and visited every continent. We have encountered humans, gargoyles, dragons, and the Fair Folk. We have seen the great task before us. The task to help the world once more. We believe it is our calling. We believe it is our Great Quest.
"In only a few hours, the Holy Grail will arrive, almost on our very doorstep, and when it does so, the Illuminati will seek to lay claim to it at once. Arthur may be one of the greatest warriors that the humans have ever known, but even he cannot fight an army by himself. And if he fails, this clan will suffer. His problems will become our problems. Are we going to abandon him then, in his greatest hour of need?
"Never! I say never! I say that it is time for all who believe in honor, justice, and truth to fight alongside him! And if we fail, the world will suffer for it."
He paused, then continued in a quieter voice.
"It will not be easy. But we must fight because we must protect the ones we love. We must fight because nobody else will stand against our enemies, and Arthur's enemies, if we do not. We must fight because it is right.
"So now I beg you. Do not surrender to fear, or think that Arthur's quest is no concern of ours. Join our struggle. Help us protect the ones we love, help forge anew the bonds of trust that humans and gargoyles once shared. Let us stand united, so that we may together rebuild what was lost."
Cervus, Faulconbridge, and Imogen leaped to their feet, cheering and applauding. Leo and Una joined them. Lucy let out an eager whoop, while Cavall, Ranger and Treacle barked excitedly. Colin Marter applauded from his place. And one by one, the other gargoyles rose to stand by those who had already declared their support for Griff. At last Michael did the same.
"Well spoken," he said. "And you are right. Forgive me, please. Thank you for reminding us of what we truly are, of what the gargoyle way is. We will go with you and help Arthur. And we have wasted enough time delaying already. We must go now!"
He and Griff shook hands in the traditional warrior's grasp. Then Michael turned to the rest of the gargoyles. "Follow me, all of you," he said. "Take your places on the battlements. Be ready to depart."
He left the room in the direction of the courtyard. Boz was right behind him, followed by Brock and Perry.
Colin Marter walked over to Griff with a smile. "I don't know if that one was equal to the St. Crispin's Day Oration," he said, "but it definitely did the trick. Well done."
Griff nodded in return, while the retired captain joined the crowd. Lucy and her rookery siblings rushed past Griff, accompanied by a still enthusiastic Ranger and Treacle; both gargoyle beast puppies bounded about as though they were about to take flight if they only had wings. The sole exception was Dorcas, who was standing in one corner, scowling. She seemed about to say something more, but then realized that she was by herself. She turned around and crept out of the room in the opposite direction, without a word. And Griff was left alone, except for Brianna.
She walked up to her mate and looked into his eyes. After a moment's hesitation, she spoke.
"I still dinna agree with yuir words, my love," she said to him, a worried expression upon her face. "But I love ye and respect the decision that ye have made. I will go with ye."
"Thank you, Brianna," said Griff slowly. They embraced, before leaving the room together.
* * *
"So why can't I go with you?" asked Aidan.
"Because this is going to be a very dangerous battle," said Rory. "And we don't want you getting hurt. You're staying here, and this time you are not sneaking off to join us."
"Arthur took those two kids with him when he left, and they're not that much older than me!" protested the Irish boy. "And one of them's a girl! If they can go, why can't I?"
Rory, Leba, and Dulcinea looked at each other without saying a word. They knew that they would have to tell him about Merlin and Mary, and especially about Mary's forthcoming fate. But it was equally clear that none of them were ready as yet to do so.
"Besides, if I'm your squire, then shouldn't I be going into battle alongside you?" Aidan persisted.
Before Rory could answer, the adult gargoyles emerged into the courtyard, and climbed up onto the battlements, preparing to launch themselves from the battlements. Colin Marter limped out after them, Lucy and her rookery siblings (apart from Dorcas) accompanying him. Michael paused as he was on the stairs and looked down at the retired captain.
"Captain Marter, look after the clan's children," he said. "See to it that no harm befalls them."
"I won't let you down," said Colin.
Cavall trotted up to Rory, who was still standing by the gates with Leba and Dulcinea. He whimpered slightly.
"Yes, boy," said Rory, patting the gargoyle beast on the head. "This time you can come with us."
Cavall barked eagerly, panting and wagging his tail.
Colin Marter turned to Aidan. "I'll need some help in defending the clan's home," he told the boy. "Would you be willing to assist me in that duty?"
Aidan hesitated. Rory nodded approvingly. "Good idea, Captain Marter," he said. "The young gargoyles will need some stout champions to protect them."
"All right," said Aidan. "I'll stay."
"And if any trouble comes this way," piped up Lucy, "we'll make it wish it had left us alone!"
"That's the spirit!" said Colin Marter, with a smile on his face.
The adult gargoyle warriors were lined up now upon the crenellations. Griff addressed them.
"Now here's the plan," he said to them. "We keep in groups, and we stay out of sight until we have to attack. Just remember this. England expects every gargoyle will do their duty!"
He led the first line of gargoyles, a still doubtful-looking Brianna at his side. Michael followed with the second, then Boz with the third. Leo and Una led the final column. Spreading forth their wings, they glided into the night.
The three human knights and the gargoyle beast headed out together towards Crickley, while overhead a flight of gargoyles filled the sky, Griff and Michael at the head.
Dulcinea spurred out of the gates on Rosinante's back, with Rory, Leba, and Cavall following her. Colin, Aidan, and the young gargoyles were left in the courtyard, watching them as they left.
The London clan had gone to battle as one, for the first time in a thousand years.
* * * * *
"Do you know how far it is to the clearing?" Mary asked Arthur as they made their way down the thickly wooded path. The branches of the trees arched over their heads, blotting out the night sky above. Merlin had nodded back off to sleep for the moment, a much more peaceful look on his face than had been generally the case for the past few months.
Arthur shook his head. "Iíve never been this way before," he said. "We will just have to follow the trail to the end, I suppose."
"I just hope that itís not too long," said Mary, looking up at him with a worried expression in her eyes. "I mean, I want to get this over with quickly, before I can start having second thoughts about this."
"I understand," said Arthur sadly. He gently placed one arm on his shoulder. "Iím not liking this any more than you are, Mary, I can assure you."
The girl suddenly halted and pricked up her ears, then sniffed the air. "Thatís not good," she said, in a worried voice.
"What is?" Arthur asked. He suddenly remembered Maryís wolf-keen senses. "There are intruders here, arenít there?"
"Yes," she said. "They smell familiar, too. In fact -"
"Good evening, Arthur Pendragon," said a voice that both of them knew well. Lucius Adrians stepped out from the trees to their right, a few yards ahead. Char and Eddie followed him out, with the rest of the Minions after them.
"Step aside, if you please," said Arthur at once, his free hand moving towards Excaliburís hilt. "We have no time for a battle just now."
"Yes, I know," said Lucius. "You want the Grail, Arthur, donít you? Well, so do I. With it, I will be able to accomplish miracles. It will do for me what that confounded spirit refused - help me restore the glories and order of Rome to this world. And I can only be certain of reaching it if you do not interfere."
Arthur drew Excalibur from its sheath. "We will not be so easy to defeat, Lucius," he began.
"Oh, yes, you will," Lucius replied. "You didnít think it through too carefully, did you? Only a pair of youngsters to defend you? No knights at all? We outnumber you, Arthur Pendragon, and that means -"
"Boss, look!" cried Eddie, pointing upwards.
Lucius turned around and cried out in alarm. A flock of ravens was swooping downwards, croaking savagely. The birds dove at the Minions, pecking at them with their beaks. The London toughs scattered, beating in vain at their black-feathered assailants. Only Lucius dared hold his ground.
"Stay where you are!" he shouted to them. "Donít panic! Maintain order! Donít - aaaggghhhh!" Three or four ravens dived at him, raking at him with their claws. Lucius turned and fled into the woods after his followers with unseemly haste.
"Well, that was certainly a surprise," said Mary. "But where did the ravens come from?"
"I fear that I have the answer for that question," said Arthur, as Morgana strode out onto the path from the trees to the left. "And I almost think that we were better off with Lucius and the Minions."
The halfling enchantress stood before them, her beautiful face contorted with fury. "Stand away from those two, Mary," she said in a barely level voice. "Now."
Mary remained where she was. "No," she said. "Iím staying with them."
"Listen to me, Mary," said Morgana. "I know what youíre going to do, and I will not let you do it. I will not let you throw away your life for the sake of that thrice-accursed sorcerer Merlin."
Merlin opened his eyes. "What happened?" he asked. "Are we -" He suddenly saw Morgana. "Oh, no," he said. "Not now."
"Morgana, stand aside," said Arthur. "I have no wish to fight you, but -"
"I have had enough of you both," said Morgana. "Just as I have had enough of waiting. I am acting now." She raised one hand, and spoke in a commanding tone of voice. "Take them both!" she cried.
Arthur raised Excalibur, but the tree next to him suddenly brought one of its branches down upon the sword, sending it flying out of his hand. Before Arthur could recover it, the tree seized him with its limbs and lifted him off the ground. Another tree bent down over Merlin's wheelchair and seized the boy in the same fashion, holding him fast so that he could not move, pinning his arms to his sides.
"Let them go!" shouted Mary, diving for Excalibur. Morgana gestured and the sword slid down the path, straight in front of her. She stooped down and picked it up, then, staring Mary straight in the face, spoke, her voice trembling with mixed emotions.
"I had hoped that you would finally understand how foolish you were being in siding with those two monsters," she said. "I dreamed for so long that you would come to your senses at last, and have nothing more to do with them. But, no, you have chosen to sacrifice yourself to save that half-Unseelie brat."
"Sacrifice?" Merlin asked, staring at Mary. "What is going on here?"
"It doesnít matter, demonspawn!" Morgana shouted, turning on him. "Your last hope has failed! You and Arthur will soon both be dead, and I will finally have you out of my life! But first, to stop you from interfering," she said, turning back to Mary. She cried out in a harsh voice and the ravens flew back down from the trees.
"Seize her," Morgana told the birds, pointing to Mary. "Take her far away from here and do whatever you must to stop her from returning! Now!"
The ravens rushed at Mary, cawing harshly. The girl turned about and prepared to run, but Arthur could see, as he continued to struggle against the branches, that they would soon overtake her. Indeed, they were almost upon her....
Without warning, a net shot out from the shadows to the right of the path and landed on the birds, ensnaring every last one of them. It crackled with electricity as it hit the ground. The ravens cried out once and then fell unconscious.
"Who did that?" Morgana cried, staring at the electric net in bewilderment and fury. "Who is responsible for this?"
"That would be me, madam," said a deep voice with a Scottish accent, one that Arthur had heard many times before, but had never found so welcome before now. Macbeth emerged from the trees.
"You dare to interfere?" Morgana screamed at him. "Stand aside, whoever you are, before I deal with you as well!"
Macbeth pulled a small sphere from the pocket of his greatcoat and threw it at her. As he did so, he cried out, "Immobilis!"
A flash of blue light burst from the orb as it landed at Morganaís feet, breaking asunder. The glow surrounded the halfling sorceress, holding her fast. Morgana froze in her position, unable to move or to speak.
Macbeth turned to Arthur, drawing the Scottish claymore that hung from his belt. With one swift movement, he brought it down upon the branches that held the former king of Britain fast, cutting them asunder and freeing him.
"Thank you, my friend," said Arthur. He walked up to Morgana and pried Excalibur loose from her motionless hands, then joined Macbeth and Mary in freeing Merlin from the tree that held him as well. "But - what on earth brought you here?"
"I heard about the patterns forming here, and had a good idea as to what they must mean," Macbeth replied. "Truth to tell, this isnít the first time that Iíve observed such a thing, which helped me all the more. I had a feeling that you would need my assistance, so I came here - and I see that I arrived just in time." He helped Arthur return Merlin to his wheelchair.
"How long will she be like that, Mr. Macbeth?" Mary asked, looking at Morgana concernedly.
"Not for long," the immortal ex-king of Scotland replied. "Which is why you must be on your way, now. Iíll hold her off for as long as I can. Go!"
Arthur nodded. He and Mary quickly pushed the wheelchair with Merlin in it past Morgana and down the path. Macbeth followed them long enough to make certain that he was standing between them and the enchantress, then halted, facing her.
Morganaís index finger twitched and then the glow surrounding her dispersed. She turned around, and saw him blocking the trail in front of her.
"Out of my way!" she screamed. "Now, before they escape!"
"I am not moving," said Macbeth calmly, "not even if you turn all this forest against me like another Birnam Wood."
"You fool!" Morgana shrieked. "I will make you pay for your meddling!"
"Madam, there is only one person in the world who can take my life," replied Macbeth, bracing himself as she sprang at him, "and with all due respect, itís not you."
* * *
"Macbeth has bought us some time," said Arthur, as they rushed down the path, pushing Merlin in his wheelchair before them. "Let us get to the clearing now, before we are accosted again."
"Arthur, what was she talking about just now?" Merlin asked, looking uneasily up at his former pupil. "Mary was about to sacrifice herself?"
"It - doesnít matter, Merlin," Arthur began.
Merlin stared him straight in the face, then looked in turn at Mary, who sadly returned his gaze. Then he blanched in horror. "No," he said. "You - you canít really mean that, can you? Youíre not going to -"
"Iím sorry, Merlin," said Mary sadly. "But this is the only way that the Grail will save your life. If I give up my life in exchange."
"No!" cried Merlin. "You mustnít do this, Mary! Donít throw your life away for my sake, please!"
"I have to," Mary replied, fighting back her tears. "Iím sorry, Merlin, but I must."
"Mary, Iím over fifteen hundred years old!" Merlin all but shouted. "Iíve had a long life, I can move on! But your life is just starting! Donít give it up for me, please!"
"Donít be silly, Merlin," Mary cried. "Arthur needs you! You have to live, for his sake!"
"Arthur can get along fine without me!" Merlin protested. "Heís done so once before!"
Mary was about to reply, when they emerged into a large clearing. In the center of the glade stood a great altar-stone, looking as if it could easily have been transplanted from Stonehenge, weathered by untold centuries. Arthur and Mary came to a halt and Mary walked towards the stone.
"Mary, no!" Merlin cried, weeping now. "Please donít - Iíll let the poison win! Anything to stop you from dying! I canít let you do this!" He stared earnestly at her. "Please, Mary! Stop and think! You canít give up your life for me!"
"I have to," Mary replied, weeping as well, as she stepped up onto the altar-stone. "Donít you see, Merlin? Itís not just for your sake. Itís for Arthurís, as well! He needs you! And so does the rest of the world! You have to live!"
"Mary, you have to live!" Merlin retorted. "If you wonít do it for yourself, then do it for Arthur! He needs you by his side, more than he needs me!" His voice suddenly took on an echoing resonance and a faraway look briefly appeared in his eyes. "Thereís so much that youíre going to accomplish, Mary," he said. "You canít just throw it away."
Mary stepped down from the altar-stone, walked over to him, and put her arms around him. "Merlin, weíve come all this way to save your life," she said. "If you die now, then we went through all of this for nothing. Everyoneís risked their lives to help us reach the Grail. Even Macbeth has. Are you going to let everything that they did be in vain?"
"But I -" Merlin began.
"Merlin, you told me once that I could find love again," said Mary gently, looking into his eyes. "So can you. Youíll find someone else, Merlin. I promise that. But I have to do this for you. Please, let me do so."
Merlin bowed his head, silent now. Mary stepped back from him and turned to Arthur. "Itís time," she said. She jumped back onto the altar-stone and lay down upon it. "Do it, Arthur," she said. "Now, before he can argue any further."
"Mary, I cannot -" Arthur began.
"Arthur, please!" Mary cried. "Now! You have to!"
Arthur turned to Merlin, sitting in his wheelchair and looking positively stricken, and then to his squire, lying upon her back on the altar-stone. Mary stared up at him with a look of earnest pleading on her face. At last he drew Excalibur and raised it high above the girlís throat. He bowed his head in silence, tears coming down from his eyes, and then, as Merlinís eyes widened in horror, brought the sword down.
Excalibur struck the rock inches to the right of Maryís neck, sending up sparks as it drove through the stone.
Mary stared at the sword. "Arthur," she began.
Arthur released the sword, leaving it thrust in the altar-stone, and pulled the girl to her feet, clasping her tightly in his arms in a fatherly embrace. "Iím sorry, Mary," he said, his voice shaking. "Iím sorry, both of you," he said, turning to address Merlin now, who was staring at him with eyes as enormous as an owlís. "But I cannot do this."
"Arthur-" Mary began.
"No, hear me out," said Arthur. "I want Merlin to live, Mary, just as much as you do. I want him to be cured. But not this way. Not by murdering an innocent, not even one who will lay down her life of her own choice."
"But, then Merlin -" Mary said.
"I know," said Arthur. "Merlin is dear to me, yes. But so are you. And dearer still than either of you is the oath that I took when I became a knight, and when I founded the Round Table. I will not shed the blood of an innocent, even if it is the only thing that can save Merlinís life. If this is the only way to achieve the Grail, then I renounce the quest here and now."
A sudden sound of hands clapping together arose behind him. Arthur turned around at once, to see Tanaburs standing there, leaning against a tree, applauding. The seneschal of Carbonek Castle was now dressed in tunic, mantle, and hose, with a white rod of office tucked in his belt, and a helmet-like cap upon his head.
"Well done, Arthur," said Tanaburs, smiling. "For a moment there, I was feeling genuinely worried. But congratulations. Youíve passed the final test."
"The final test?" Arthur asked. He released Mary and walked over to the seneschal. "What are you talking about?"
"I must apologize for what I did last night," said Tanaburs. "But in fact, you never actually had to sacrifice Mary to save Merlinís life. It was merely the last trial that you had to face before we could admit you to Carbonek."
"Explain yourself, man," said Arthur, looking at him sharply.
"We were testing you on your commitment to the code of chivalry and honor that you had led your life by," said Tanaburs. "Would you kill a young girl whose life and safety had been entrusted to you, in order to save the life of your oldest friend? Or would you recognize that even saving Merlin could not justify such an act? When the time came, you understood that doing the right thing, living by the moral code that you had pledged yourself to, back when Camelot had been built, was more important, and you spared her life instead of slaying her. It was a test that you had to face before, admittedly - but one that can never be faced too many times. The choice between the right thing to do and the expedient thing to do. And you chose the former."
"And you led me to believe that I had to take Maryís life in order to save Merlinís?" Arthur began, his voice rising angrily. "You put me through such torment and agony for a day - and Mary as well - just for a test?"
"For that I apologize," said Tanaburs. "It was difficult for you both, I understand. But it was all necessary, to determine if you were worthy enough to approach the Grail. Certainly Sir Bors, were he still here, could remind you of how his own trials on the Quest were just as wracking, if not more so."
He then turned to Mary and placed one hand gently upon her shoulder. "And, in truth, you were being tested as well, damsel," he said softly to her. "You really were being tested on your love and your courage, and you passed that test. You were willing to lay down your life for another, the greatest gift of love imaginable. The same gift that he gave you when he endangered himself to rescue you from the mob in Yellow Oak. But, in truth, there is no need for that. The Grail will cure Merlin indeed, but not at the cost of anyone elseís life. Now, come with me. The hour that all three of you have awaited for so long is at hand."
He stepped fully into the clearing, and gestured towards the trees at the far end of it. They parted, revealing another path. Tanaburs walked briskly down it, and Arthur, after retrieving Excalibur from the altar-stone, pushed Merlin in his wheelchair along after him. Mary walked beside them. Merlin looked up at her, a mixture of awe and relief in his eyes. She smiled down at him and held his hand for a moment.
They emerged into the open. Before them stretched a bare heath. The wind was beginning to rise about them, ruffling their hair. Thick dark clouds covered the sky, blotting out the stars, and thunder rumbled. Tanaburs raised both hands and spoke in a loud voice.
"The time is now!" he cried. "Behold!"
Lightning flashed amid the clouds, as something began to take shape high above.
* * *
"It approaches!" cried Leonard Camford, staring upwards at the ceiling, a look of utter ecstasy in his eyes. "It approaches!"
"What's approaching, father?" asked Jennifer anxiously. "Please tell me."
But he made no reply. He did not even appear to have heard her.
* * *
"Whatís happening there?" cried Powell, as he, Duval, Giles, and Singleton, along with a few other Inner Circle members stood clustered about the control board. A high-pitched whining was coming from the instruments, growing louder and shriller.
"I donít know, sir!" cried a technician, staring awe-struck at the dials spinning wildly about before him. "The needleís right off the scale on this one! Iíve never seen anything like this before!"
"Itís happening," said Duval to himself, his eyes widening. "Again."
* * *
Morgana felt the wind rise about her, and heard the roll of thunder. She looked up over Macbeth's head for a moment, and then realized what it meant.
"No!" she screamed. "He's done it! He's actually done it!" She stared at the Scotsman in fury. "You stopped me from preventing this, and you shall pay for it!"
* * *
Griff looked upwards at the heavens in turmoil. "He must have done it," he said to himself sadly, in so low a voice that even Brianna, who was gliding next to him, could not hear him. "He actually must have done it. Poor Mary."
He looked back at the gargoyles behind them and put on a bold face. "This is it!" he called out to them. "It's beginning! Keep on, everyone!"
* * *
A shaft of white light descended from the clouds and struck the earth some yards away. The shape in the heavens above began to slide down it, becoming clearer as it did so. Arthur, Merlin and Mary stared as the great stone castle, banners flying from its turrets, lowered itself to the ground. It settled in place and the gates opened wide.
"Carbonek," said Tanaburs. "The Castle of the Holy Grail."
He strode through the gates. Arthur followed him, pushing Merlinís chair along. Mary walked by his side, her eyes widening with wonder.
They passed through the empty stone-paved courtyard and to the keep. A ramp stretched up from the ground to the front door, about ten feet above the ground. Tanaburs led them up it and into the great hall.
Their footsteps rang on the stone floor as they entered the keep. The hall about them was vast, its vaulted ceiling all but hidden in the shadows. Great stone pillars ran down the center, more evocative of the nave of a Gothic cathedral than the hall of a castle. Two giant statues, carved in the shape of medieval kings, flanked the door, both bearing scepters tipped with fleur-de-lys. But Arthur, Merlin, and Maryís eyes were drawn to the enormous fireplace to the right. An old man, seated in a wheelchair shaped like a high-backed medieval throne on wheels, was gazing quietly at the hearth where a log fire burned. A three-legged silver table stood beside him, upon which sat an object with a covering of white samite over it, veiling the light that shone from it.
"Youíve come," said the old man, turning about his chair to face them. His features were hidden in the shadows, but they could hear his voice, which was soft and gentle, filled with warmth.
"We have been expecting you for a long while, Arthur Pendragon," the old man went on. "But now you have arrived at last. The Quest is ended and your desire will be fulfilled."
"I fear that you have us at a disadvantage, sir," said Arthur. "You know our name, but we do not know yours."
"I am the Fisher King, and guardian of the Holy Grail," said the old man in a soft voice. "And I welcome you to Carbonek."
He wheeled his chair forward to meet them. They saw his features now clearly for the first time. Merlin and Mary both stared at him and then turned to look at each other for a moment. They nodded, each recognizing that they had noticed the same thing about him.
"Is anything the matter?" Tanaburs asked, turning towards them. Arthur had been about to ask the same question, but then looked closer at the Fisher King, and realized just what had seized the attention of his advisor and his squire. And he found himself staring as well.
"Weíre sorry, sir," said Mary. "But -" She paused, then spoke to the old man in the throne. "You - you look familiar, sir."
The old man looked at her in silence. He wore a long fur-trimmed robe, that extended to his ankles. One leg hung stiffly out at an angle. But what the three companions noticed most of all was his face. It was ancient and wrinkled, framed with long white hair and a great silvered beard. His skin was a pale blue, and his ears were slightly pointed at the tips.
"So youíve noticed," said the Fisher King with a gentle smile. "Perhaps it is not so surprising, though, since I bear resemblance to two whom you have set eyes upon. Two who are kin to me."
"What do you mean, sir?" Merlin asked.
"As I said before, I am called the Fisher King," said the old man quietly. "But before I came here, I bore a different name. My true name is Avallach."
TO BE CONCLUDED....