Outline by Todd Jensen.
Written by Todd Jensen.
Artwork by Lain.
* * *
Previously on Pendragon....
Mary's ears picked up the whistling noise only too late. A dart embedded itself in Merlin's left shoulder just as he was a few feet away from the door to the Mystic shop. He staggered back, a shocked look on his face. Mary rushed forward with a cry and caught him in the nick of time.
* * *
UNA: The poison was clearly magically strengthened, to give it its full power. It has been rendered proof against any antidote that I could produce.
~~~Out of the Blue~~~
ARTHUR: It is clear to me that the only way Merlin may be cured is for him to drink from the Holy Grail.
~~~The Mists of Eynhallow~~~
ARTHUR: There are a few locations in Wales that seem likely places to visit on our quest.
~~~Choices Part Two~~~
DINAS BRAN, NORTHERN WALES - A FEW THOUSAND YEARS AGO.
He was dying. Bran the Blessed, High King of Britain, lay in bed, with his seven followers, the sole survivors besides himself of the terrible battle with the Irish in which he had received his fatal wound, gathered about him. They gazed down at him in silence, their faces solemn.
Taliesin the bard stood to the left of his kingís head, his harp cradled in the crook of his arm, ready to play a lament upon it for Branís death the moment that he breathed his last. Opposite him and across the bed stood Manannan son of Llyr, the High Kingís own brother. The remaining five - King Pryderi of Dyfed, Glinyeu son of Taran, Ynawg, Gruddeu son of Muryel, and Heilyn son of Gwynn - were grouped in a semi-circle by the foot of the bed. All seven of them stood still, waiting.
Branís eyes opened, and he looked up at them. In a low voice, he spoke, breaking the silence with a cough.
"My friends," he said, "I have not long to speak. I know that I will soon depart this world forever. But before I die, there is a request - nay, a command - that I must impart unto you. Listen closely, my friends, for what I have to say is of great import to you all."
"Speak, then, my lord!" cried Heilyn at once. "Tell us what we must do!"
"Patience, Heilyn," said Bran, smiling slightly at the man. "Haste was ever your weakness. Attend, now, and I will tell you what you must do.
"When I die, you must cut off my head, and then dip it once in the waters of my cauldron." He raised one feeble hand, and pointed to the great iron cauldron standing in a corner of his hall. "Once you have done that, you must take it to the White Hill by the river Tamesis, and bury it there, in such a way that it will be facing across the Narrow Sea, towards Gaul. Bury it, and leave it where it is, without disturbing it. For so long as it remains there, no enemy from abroad may ever come to Britainís shores and conquer it. So long as my head is buried beneath the hill, this island will be safe. Will you do as I bid you, my friends?"
"Yes, my lord," said Manannan, nodding in agreement. And "Yes, my lord," said Taliesin, and the other five friends of the dying king, speaking and nodding as one.
"I thank you," said Bran. And with that, he closed his eyes again. A moment later, his breathing ceased, and his eyes opened again, sightless.
The seven men bowed their heads to mourn their king. Then Manannan raised his head, and, tears still running down his cheeks, drew his sword from its scabbard. He raised it high above his brother, ready to deliver the blow that would clear his head from his shoulders. As the others watched in silence, he brought it down.
* * * * *
DINAS BRAN, NORTHERN WALES - THE PRESENT.
Fragments of stone wall, the remnants of the proud castle that had once stood here, crowned the top of the lonely hill. The late afternoon wind whistled about them, bitingly chill. It swept about the two figures, a brown-haired, brown-bearded man dressed warmly against the cold, with a great sword hanging from his belt, and a young grey wolf by his side, as they stood amid the ruins, gazing about them.
"So this is Dinas Bran," said Mary Sefton, in a thoughtful voice. "It doesnít look particularly impressive."
"Perhaps not," said Arthur Pendragon, looking down at his squire with a gentle smile. "But then again, you are hardly seeing it at its best. The castle here was built long after my time, of course, but in its day, it must have been a splendid sight to behold."
"At least the viewís not bad," she said. "You can probably see a lot of the Vale of Llangollen from up here." She looked about her, then continued, "Arthur, do you really think that weíll find anything about the Holy Grail here?"
"I cannot say for certain," Arthur replied. "But it is a likely place to search, at least."
"So was Glastonbury," said Mary, "and we didnít find any sign of it there. And then there was that museum at Aberystwyth on the way here, where they had that old cup - the Nanteos Cup, didnít you call it? - on display, and we found out that it definitely wasnít the Holy Grail at all. What if this place isnít any different?"
"We can only know for certain if we search here," replied Arthur. "For this quest, every possible lead is important. We cannot afford to overlook any possible location for the Grail."
"I understand," she said, nodding her shaggy grey head. "But whatís the connection between the Grail and this place?"
"Well," said Arthur, "long ago, before my time, before even the coming of the Romans, there stood atop this very hill the chief stronghold of Bran the Blessed, who was High King of Britain in those days, and whose very name the hill bears to this very day. Even when I was king, his name had already faded into legend, but the bards still sang of him and preserved his memory. So the old tales about him were familiar to me.
"Bran was a mighty king, but also a wise and peaceful one, and under him Britain knew health and prosperity and justice, and a surcease from the wars that had plagued it before his reign. He may well have had some of the blood of the Third Race in his veins. He was of great size; some say that he could wade across the sea from Britain to Ireland as though it were nothing more than a shallow ford, although I believe that that was merely an exaggeration of the poets. But on this all the stories and songs agree: Britain thrived while he was king, until his death."
"How did it happen?" asked Mary.
"He gave his sister Branwen in marriage to the High King of Ireland," said Arthur. "But the people of Ireland, because of skillful lies and slanders woven by the enemies of Bran and his sister, came to hate and fear her, and made their king put her aside, sending her to work in his kitchens as if she was nothing more than a slave. When word of this reached Branís ears, he went to Ireland with his men, hoping to rescue her and avenge her shameful treatment. A terrible war broke out, in which Bran was mortally wounded and all but seven of his followers slain, although they also inflicted great damage upon the Irish before they fell. Branwen died of grief over the sufffering that she had unwittingly and unwillingly helped to bring about, and as for Bran, the survivors of his war-host brought him back here, so that he might die in his own home."
"But what does all that have to do with the Grail?" Mary asked.
"There are tales," replied Arthur, "that, buried somewhere within this hill is a magical cauldron that Bran once kept in his possession. It was said to have been possessed of great healing powers, to such an extent that it could even restore life to a dying or dead man. Legend also has it that it could bestow upon whoever came to it any food or drink, unless he was a coward or a traitor. And those two virtues both sound very much like those possessed by the Grail. For it also could bestow fresh life upon the dying, and gave those who came to it whatever food and drink they most desired in the world. Perhaps it is truly the Grail that lies within this hill, somewhere."
"I donít quite understand, though," said the young werewolf. "I mean - I thought that the Grail was supposed to be a cup or a chalice or something like that. Thatís what it is in everything that Iíve read about it. How can it be a cauldron instead?"
"That is a good question," said Arthur. The truth of the matter is, nobody was ever quite certain as to the true nature of the Grail - except for Galahad, Percival, and Bors when they achieved it in my day. And of those three, only one ever came back to Camelot, and he would say little about just what the Grail was. The story that you mention, that it was a cup, is the most common, it is true. But there are also those, I understand, who believe it to have been a dish or a serving-platter, or even a great stone fallen from the heavens."
"But donít you know for certain, Arthur?" asked Mary. "I mean, didnít you see the Grail once yourself?"
He nodded. "It was at the feast of Pentecost, when Sir Galahad came to Camelot and seated himself in the Siege Perilous. Then the Grail appeared briefly at the Round Table, filling the hall with its radiance and bestowing upon every knight there the food and drink that he most enjoyed. But the veil of samite that lay upon it so concealed its outlines that I could not discern its true nature. So I do not know, any more than do you, Mary."
"But in that case," she asked, "how will we even know what the Grail is when we find it, if we donít know what it looks like?"
"That is a very good question," Arthur replied. "And the truth of the matter is, I do not know. We will simply have to hope that we will know what it is when we do find it."
Mary nodded, then suddenly halted. She sniffed the air, a troubled look appearing in her eyes. "Thereís somebody here," she said to Arthur, in a low voice, barely above a whisper. "Somebody besides us."
"And itís not one of my knights?" Arthur asked her.
She shook her head. "No, itís a new smell. Whoever is up here is someone that Iíve never met before - but definitely human."
"It might be an innocent tourist, here simply to look at the ruins," said Arthur. "Although I am not quite certain of that. Weíve seen no sign here so far of any visitors apart from ourselves."
"I know," said Mary. "Thatís whatís worrying me. Should we investigate?"
"That sounds wise to me," said Arthur. He loosened Excalibur in its scabbard. "Can you lead me to the source?"
She nodded, sniffing the air and the ground intently. Then she rushed off towards one of the ruined walls. Arthur ran after her.
"The scentís getting stronger!" she called up ahead. "I think that weíre almost upon him! Just around this corner- ."
She rounded a turn in a wall-fragment, and halted. Before her was more grass and the weathered remains of the castle. But there was no sign of any human about. Arthur ran up to join her.
"Well?" he asked her.
"Iíve lost the scent!" she cried in frustration. "I canít believe it! It stops here, and doesnít continue anywhere! Itís as if this person simply sprouted wings and flew away!"
"Well, I have seen stranger things before," said Arthur. "It is a mystery all the same, though. Iíll allow that."
"I hope that Iím not losing my touch," said the girl concernedly. "I know that this hasnít happened to me before, not since Rivencroft. This is the first time that Iíve ever lost a scent."
"Weíll just have to speak to the others about it, when we rejoin them at the camp," said Arthur. "Merlin may have some explanation for this unusual event. I hope so, for I do not feel comfortable about this. Someone is at this place besides us, and I fear that whoever this person is, he is not our friend. Certainly he must possess some unique talent to elude us so effectively."
"You donít suppose that it has anything to do with the Illuminati, do you?" Mary asked. "I mean, I shouldnít be too surprised if they were following us about, after what happened in Glastonbury."
"I hope not," said Arthur. "I had hoped that L - Duval would restrain them, as he had promised at the Tor. But there are no doubt others who would take an interest in what we seek, besides them. And there may even be those who have an interest in this hill for other matters besides our quest. But whatever the answer may be, we will need help in discovering it. Which is why we must go back to the camp."
Mary nodded, and accompanied him down the hillís slope.
* * *
When they were out of hearing range, a shadowy figure peered out behind the wall-fragment, and stared after the man and the young wolf. He looked the man over, and his frown deepened.
"So," he muttered to himself, in a soft, low voice. "Heís come here."
* * * * *
The sun was setting just as Arthur and Mary reached the campsite that their companions had pitched. Rory, Leba, and Dulcinea had been hard at work raising their tents, while Merlin dozed uneasily beside the stone Griff. He dozed, that is, until the combination of pieces of gargoyle stone skin showering the ground all about him, an awakening roar from Griff, and Maryís slight moan as she shifted back into her human form jolted him fully awake. He sat up, rubbing his eyes, and shivered slightly.
"Welcome back, Arthur," said Leba. "So how did the scouting mission go?"
"Not quite as well as I had hoped," said Arthur. "We have company at the hill top, my friends. Mary caught his scent."
"Company?" asked Rory. "Who was it? Do you know, Arthur?"
"Iím afraid not," Arthur replied. "We searched for him, but Mary lost his trail by one of the walls. She was left completely baffled by its disappearance."
"You can say that again," said Mary. "I certainly donít like it. Whoeverís up here, he must be good at covering his trail, if he can hide it from my nose."
"So what do you think could be behind it?" asked Leba. "Magic?"
"Quite likely," said Arthur. "But the question is: magic from whom?"
"Morgana, perhaps?" asked Dulcinea. "She obviously wouldnít want Merlin to be cured; she could be following us, so that she could stop us from finding the Grail."
Mary shook her head. "No, it wasnít her," she said. "Iíd have recognized the scent if I had. Itís somebody that I havenít met before. Of course," she added, "that probably doesnít narrow down the field much, given that there are a lot of people in the world whom I haven't met. It could have been somebody that you had trouble with before I joined you."
"That is a good point," said Merlin. "The big question is, though, who would be here at Dinas Bran. And also, why are they here? Is it because of our quest, or does he or she have another reason for being here, one that has nothing to do with the Holy Grail, or us?"
"Well, that is one mystery that we will have to find the answer to," said Arthur. "Mary and I will go back to the top of the hill for another scouting around, to see if we can discover who is behind this. Perhaps this time we can find him."
"Are you certain that thatís a good idea, Arthur?" asked Leba. "I mean, just the two of you up there? After all, if whoever is up there isnít friendly, and is a lot more formidable than we were expecting, you will need some extra help."
"She does have a point, Arthur," said Merlin, standing up unsteadily. "Dinas Bran is a place of ancient magics, and ancient magics attract - well, unusual people. Even with Excalibur on your person, and Mary by your side, youíd no doubt want some extra help along with you. Iíll come with you."
Arthur shook his head. "No, Merlin," he said. "I believe that you need your rest just now. The hill is steep, and I do not consider it wise to let you overtax yourself in making the climb. Especially not since you have been tiring easily lately."
"Oh, come off it, Arthur!" said Merlin in disgust. "Thatís not true, and you know it! I am starting to get tired of everybody treating me as though Iím an invalid."
"Yes," said Griff to him, in a kindly voice, "but just now, Merlin, an invalid is what you are. Itís not a good idea to overexert yourself in your present condition."
"Will you please stop that?" cried Merlin, striding forwards. "I can handle this; just you watch!" He took three steps towards the hill, when his legs began to buckle beneath him. He clutched his cane tightly for support, gasping, while Rory and Dulcinea quickly rushed to his side and gently helped him sit down again.
"Very well," he said with a sigh. "You win, Arthur. Iíll wait here. But do be careful while youíre up there, all the same."
"I will," said Arthur. "Thatís a promise, Merlin." He turned to Leba. "Youíre with me and Mary," he said to the minstrel. "Griff, Rory, Dulcinea, stay here with Merlin. There is the possibility that whoever lurks upon that hilltop, if he is indeed our foe, may come down here, and I want our camp well-defended in such an eventuality. Hopefully, this scouting errand will not take long. We should be back again soon."
With those words, he set off back up the hill towards the ruins, Leba and Mary following close behind him. The others watched them fade into the gathering darkness, as they settled down to wait.
Merlin pulled his coat closer about him and shivered. "This place feels colder than a frost giantís mead-hall," he said, his teeth beginning to chatter. "I donít know about you people, but I could use some extra warmth here."
"It doesnít feel all that cold to me, actually," said Griff, turning his head from the hillside, where Arthur and his two companions had almost faded out of sight. "But, then again, Iím a gargoyle, and weíre pretty good at withstanding this sort of weather. What do you think?" he asked Rory and Dulcinea.
"I suppose that a fire wouldnít be a bad idea," said Dulcinea thoughtfully. "Thereís no shelter close at hand, and we really canít let Merlin freeze. Letís see if we can get one going."
"Good idea," said Rory. "Letís see if thereís any dead wood around that we can use for kindling." He set off, Dulcinea following close behind him. "Griff, watch over Merlin," he said. "We should be back soon."
Griff nodded, as the two humans left the camp, and squatted down by Merlin. "So howís it with you?" he asked.
"Iíll be all right," said Merlin, though his teeth continued to chatter. "Just a passing weak moment, nothing more than that. I just wish, though, that Arthur would let me go with him. For all that I know, he could run into trouble of some sort up there, and might need my help."
"Yes, it can be difficult, when your friends have to face danger and you know that you canít help them," said Griff. "I know that Iíve had to go through that myself a few times. Remember when you and Arthur were away in the north, when Braddock was after you, and I wasnít able to come?"
Merlin nodded. "I take it that you didnít like being left behind then, either?" he asked.
"Exactly," said Griff. "But the point is, we canít always be with those that we care about, no matter how much we want to. Sometimes duty demands that we be elsewhere, and we just have to accept it. Thatís part of what being a knight is all about, after all."
Merlin nodded. "Yes, that teaching sounds familiar enough," he said. "Youíve learned well from Arthur, I see." He looked closely at the griffon-gargoyle. "You werenít speaking just about Arthur, were you?" he asked.
"Sharp lad, arenít you?" said Griff, with a half-smile forming on his beak. "And, yes, itís true. Very perceptive of you, as well."
Merlin nodded again. "You live for over fifteen hundred years, you learn to notice things," he said, with a half-smile upon his face.
* * *
"Blasted wind," muttered Rory, striking another match, only to see it be snuffed out by the chill blast before its tiny flame could come anywhere near the kindling that he and Dulcinea had piled in the middle of the campsite. "Weíll never get a fire goiní at this rate."
"Here," said Merlin, standing up again. "Let me have a go with it."
"Thanks, Merlin, but I think that youíd better be leaviní this to the grown-ups," said Rory. "Besides, weíre almost out of matches, anyway."
"Oh, you donít need any matches," replied the youth, with an eager gleam in his eye. "Not while Iím around. Now, stand back, all of you. Then youíll see just what Iím capable of doing."
As Rory, Dulcinea, and Griff withdrew from the camp-fire, Merlin stood over it, lifting one hand over it in a dramatic gesture. He then cried out, in a commanding tone of voice, "Ignite!"
A pillar of fire roared up from the wood at once, shooting upwards almost to the sky, or so it seemed. Sparks shot out in all directions, setting the grass alight. Rory, Griff, and Dulcinea began to frantically beat the flames out before they could spread, while Merlin stared at the conflagration in horror. "No, no, no!" he cried. "Douse! Douse! Douse!"
A dark cloud formed over the fire, and cold rain burst from it, quenching the out-of-control campfire with a hiss. Merlin almost became drenched by it himself, but Griff pulled him away in the nick of time. When all the fire was out, the three knights looked down sternly at the adolescent wizard.
"I say, Merlin," said Griff at last, "youíll want to go easier on the pyrotechnics next time. Itís a bit late for Bonfire Night, you know."
"That wasnít me," said Merlin quickly. "Or not entirely me, to be more precise. The basic spell was mine, yes, but there was some interference at work. That was what caused it to overcharge."
"And youíre certain of that?" Dulcinea asked.
"Absolutely," replied the youth. "Youíre forgetting whom youíre talking to, Dulci. I may not be up to full strength in ability these days, but I can still tell when something goes wrong with magic, and why. Thereís something else here besides me, with a good deal of magical strength, and that something made my spell go wrong."
"But what was it, then?" asked Rory. He then looked up the hill, and frowned. "You think that Arthur and Maryís mysterious stranger had somethiní to do with it?" he inquired.
"Well, I donít want to make any definite statements before Iíve examined more of the facts," Merlin replied. "But, yes, Iíd say that it is a possibility."
* * * * *
"This was where we were when I lost the scent," said Mary, standing by the shattered wall with Arthur Pendragon and Leba. "It broke off, just like that, without warning."
"Very strange, I must admit," said Leba. She bent down and inspected the ground closely.
"Well?" asked Arthur, standing beside his squire and watching. "What did you find?"
"Nothing, yet," she replied. "But there has to be a clue here, of some sort. Itís just a matter of knowing what to look for."
"And what are you looking for, Leba?" Mary asked her.
"I donít know, Iím afraid," said the minstrel. "But if we keep on at it long enough, we might find something."
"I certainly hope so," said Arthur. He joined in, stamping on the ground here and there. Mary felt the side of the wall, sniffing at it all the while, then shook her head. "Nothing here," she said. "If thereís an answer, itíll have to be on the ground."
Leba nodded. "Wait a minute," she said suddenly. She stepped back a pace. "I thought that I heard something. And felt something, too."
"What did you hear?" Mary asked.
"Listen closely," said Leba. She tapped her foot upon the grass. "Do you hear that?"
"It sounds hollow," said Mary, pricking up her ears. "Almost as if thereís a secret passageway beneath. But - is that possible? I mean, if we were in a regular old castle, Iíd be ready to believe it. But out here, in the middle of nowhere?"
"I know," said Leba. "But still, that is what I heard."
"Then let us see if we can open it," said Arthur, bending down over the piece of turf that had sounded different from the rest.
The three of them felt all over the grass, tapping it with their hands and feet, until at last, Leba pressed her foot down in a certain spot. At once, part of the ground slid down - though, fortunately, a part that none of the three were standing upon at the time - to reveal the entrance to a tunnel, descending into the earth.
"Yes!" said Leba, nodding. "That explains it all! Whoever was up here must have gone down there. That must be how you lost his scent, Mary."
"Then letís go down there," said the girl, "and find out who he is and what heís up to."
Arthur cleared his throat. "I will go first," he said. "For one thing, our quarry may be a dangerous man, if hard-pressed. I have my sword; I can withstand him best of the three of us."
The two women nodded. "Very well, Arthur," said Leba. "But weíll be right behind you."
Drawing Excalibur from its scabbard, Arthur entered the tunnel. Mary followed just behind him, sniffing the air still, and occasionally bending down to sniff at the ground as well. Leba took the rear.
The three of them were fortunate in that the tunnelís ceiling arched high enough over their heads that none of them, not even Arthur, had to duck. It was dark, all the same, and Arthur had to call upon the light from Excaliburís blade to illuminate the secret passageway. As they proceeded onwards, Mary spoke again.
"Iíve picked up his smell again," she said, in a low voice, almost a whisper. "And itís stronger than before. He canít be too far away."
"Then we had best go cautiously," said Arthur, also in a whisper. "Stay behind me, both of you. If thereís trouble to be encountered, I shall face it."
"We shall face it," replied Leba firmly.
As they continued on, the tunnel began to widen before them. Periodically, a shaft would appear to one side or the other, admitting fresh air from some unseen opening above. The odor that Mary had detected was growing steadily stronger, although she was still the only one who could sense it. Arthur tightened his grip on Excalibur, hoping that he would not have to use it.
Up ahead, the tunnel made an abrupt turn towards the right. They were almost at the curve, when a figure stepped into view from around the bend, and stood there, blocking their advance. The three of them halted, to stare at him. It was a tall, middle-aged man, dressed in rough clothing, a patched and weather-stained jacket, sturdy-trousers, and heavy boots. His hair was almost shoulder-length, a mixture of brown and grey, and his face was lean, almost ascetic-looking, with stern, keen grey eyes and a craggy nose almost like an eagleís beak. He bore a Celtic-style harp in the crook of his left arm.
"This place is forbidden to you," he said to them, in a stern voice, with a slight Welsh accent. "You must turn back."
* * * * *
"So what do you think, Merlin?" asked Dulcinea. "Should we go up to the hill-top?"
Merlin frowned thoughtfully, creasing his youthful brow. He stood there in silence for a few moments, then shook his head. "No," he said. "I wasnít able to learn much about the interference, but this I was able to pick up. Whoever was responsible for it wasnít at the top of the hill. They were somewhere down below."
"Below," repeated Griff. "Are there any caves in these parts, Merlin?"
"I honestly donít know," replied the lad. "Iíve never been here before. But maybe I should try again, and see if I can locate whatever was behind it."
"Youíre certain that thatís a good idea?" asked Rory. "I mean, we donít want you overstraininí yourself, Merlin, not in your condition."
"Itís just a simple spell," Merlin protested. "I should be fine. The poison hasnít taken that much hold on me yet, after all." And before any of them could argue with him, he closed his eyes, and began to concentrate hard.
For a minute, nothing happened. Then Merlin suddenly let out an anguished cry, and staggered back, opening his eyes. Dulcinea caught him just as he was about to lose his balance and topple over.
"What is it?" asked Griff, leaning closer to Arthurís wizard. "What did you see?"
"Something must have been hiding down below us all this while," said Merlin, between frantic gasps of breath as he struggled to recover his strength. "Lurking deep underground. Just what it is, I donít know yet, but Iím very much afraid that I may have disturbed it just now."
"And was it behind the campfire going out of control?" asked Dulcinea.
Merlin nodded unhappily. "It must have half-sensed that spell of mine as I started on it, and interfered. Not too seriously, mind you - from what I could tell, its action was more like a sleeping man swatting at an annoying fly. But what I did just now, in attempting to locate it - I may have woken it up."
As he spoke, a low rumbling noise began, coming from deep below the ground. It quickly drew nearer, however, and the earth began to tremble beneath their feet. Rory wiped some sweat from his brow. "Is it just me," he asked, "or is it gettiní a lot warmer up here all of a sudden?"
"I know," said Griff. "First itís almost freezing cold, and now weíre getting a heat wave. The weather canít make up its mind over what it wants to do."
"I donít think that itís the weather," said Merlin, his eyes widening in terror, as the rumbling swelled closer and closer towards a climax. "I think that itís something much, much worse."
* * * * *
"Let us pass, sir, I pray you," said Arthur, lowering Excalibur. "We come in peace."
"Oh, indeed?" asked the stranger, looking at him sharply. "I find that highly unlikely. You are trespassing here, prying in places where you are not wanted. Grave robbers, with no respect for the dead! Now go!"
"Itís not like that at all," said Leba at once. "Weíre not grave robbers or anything like that. Weíre only looking for -"
"I do not know what you seek, and it makes no difference to me," said the man. "You have no business in this place. Now go, and I will forget this intrusion."
"I am sorry, sir, but our need is too great," said Arthur. Reluctantly he raised Excalibur again. "I have no desire to wield my sword against an unarmed man, but - ."
"Unarmed?" replied the man, with a flicker of a smile passing briefly over his face. "Hardly that."
With that, he ran his fingers across the harp-strings, playing a few brief strains. Excalibur went flying from Arthurís hand as if struck from it by an invisible blow, and embedded itself in the wall to the right. "I have treated you generously," the man continued, "since you have so far committed no violence against my person, and for the sake of the maiden among you. But continue to provoke me, and I will show less gentleness towards you. Now go!"
Mary had been sniffing the air intently from the moment that the man had first come into sight, and now suddenly spoke. "Youíre him!" she cried. "I mean, you were the person watching us on the hilltop, the one whose trail I lost."
"Quite so," said the man, smiling briefly again, if with an astonished look upon his face as he did so. "You have a keen nose, my child. Under other circumstances, I would ask about that, but now is not the time for such a question. I bid all three of you, once more, to depart."
"But who are you?" asked Leba, as Arthur retrieved Excalibur from the tunnel wall. "What are you doing here? And - how did you do what you just did? Are you a wizard, or one of Oberonís Children?"
"A little of both, actually," the man replied. "In truth, I am a halfling, a mixture of the two races. And my name - well, I have had many names over the centuries, but the one that you would recognize me by most quickly is that of Taliesin. You at least would know it, Arthur Pendragon."
"You know who I am?" said Arthur in astonishment. To which he then added, looking even more amazed, "And you are Taliesin?"
Leba was staring at the man, a look of awe in her own eyes. Mary, however, merely looked puzzled. "I donít understand," she said. "Who is Taliesin, anyway?"
"He was a bard in my time," said Arthur. "In fact, he was perhaps the most famous bard in all of Britain then. Iím afraid that I didnít know him especially well, though; he seldom came to Camelot. Most of his time he spent serving as court bard to King Urien of Rheged, Morganaís husband."
"But," said Mary, staring at the man, her voice quavering with wonder, "that would mean that youíd have to be over fourteen hundred years old." She broke off just then, and shook her head. "I canít believe that Iím still feeling surprised over that," she said. "Not after already knowing at least three other people whoíre that old."
"Actually, I am much older than Arthurís reign," said Taliesin, appearing to thaw a little as he turned to the girl. "I can remember how this island was, well before the Romans came. I sang at Dunwallo Molmutiusís king-making, and accompanied Belinus and Brennius when they marched upon Rome. I fought by the side of Alexander of Macedon when he overthrew the Persians, and journeyed with him to the borders of India. I have seen more kings come and go, empires rise and fall, than the three of you have fingers upon your hands."
"You have certainly changed much over the centuries," said Arthur. "I did not even recognize you, my friend, until you declared your name."
"I am not your friend," retorted Taliesin, coldly and stiffly. "And your words have changed nothing. What lies beyond me is still forbidden to you. Go back to the surface, and trouble me no more."
"But we have to go on," protested Mary. "Weíre looking for the cauldron of Bran the Blessed, and we think that it might be here."
"So you indeed are intending to desecrate this place," said Taliesin sternly. "I was right."
"No!" said the girl at once. "Itís not like that at all. We donít want to sell it, or anything like that. We just need it because we think that it might really be the Holy Grail, and Merlin needs it."
"Merlin?" said Taliesin, looking genuinely startled. "Merlin is here?"
"Yes," said the girl. "Heís very ill, and only the Grail can save him. If we donít get it to him, he could die. Please let us through."
"Merlinís life is in danger," said the bard, frowning concernedly. "This is grave tidings indeed. He and I are old friends, and shared many secrets with each other once. I was the one who taught him how to regenerate, in fact." He was silent for a moment, but then the stern look returned to his face. "I wish you well, in your quest to find a cure for him. But you will have to seek that cure elsewhere. There is no help for you here."
* * * * *
"Itís almost here," said Merlin, anchoring himself with his walking-stick, while the three knights about him tensed for battle. Some yards before them, cracks were beginning to form in the ground, and smoke arose through them. The air had grown uncomfortably warm now, and the air was rippling up ahead. Merlinís hair was plastered damply to his brow, and more sweat ran down his face.
The cracks grew wider, and something began to climb out from them. It was a tall figure, manlike in shape but much taller than any man. Flames roared about it, and its hair crackled and blazed as though it was living fire. In its right hand, it clutched a great sword, which gleamed with an evil light amid the darkness.
Merlin stared at the fiery form in utter terror. "Oh, no," he said, his voice quavering. "Oh, no, oh, no, oh, no."
"Do you know what that is, Merlin?" asked Dulcinea.
"Unfortunately, yes," said Merlin. "Itís Surtur."
"Surtur?" asked Rory, one eye upon the boy and one eye upon the flaming creature. It had climbed out of the fissure, which had closed up behind it, and now stood there, gazing about it, almost as though it was searching for something.
"One of the most deadly of all the Unseelies," said Merlin, a truly miserable look upon his face. "The leader of the fire giants or the Sons of Muspell, and one of my fatherís chief lords in the Unseelie Court. Heíd disappeared after the war, and I had hoped that heíd been slain in the fighting. I should have known better. He must have come here to recover from the defeat, and now heís awake again. I should have known that it was him from the start. Who else would be likely to tamper with any spell involving fire in that fashion?"
"All right, so weíve got an Unseelie on our hands," said Griff. "We defeated them before, we can do it again. Although we could do with a bit more cold iron here."
Merlin shook his head, as Surtur turned towards them. It was clear now that the Unseelie had detected their presence, and now knew where they were. "You donít understand," he said. "Surtur is one of the worst of the Unseelies. I mean - well, the Norse myths were exaggerating when they said that heíd someday destroy the entire world with his flames at Ragnarok, but they werenít exaggerating by that much. If my father hadnít been slain in the final battle, Surtur would never have been routed. He may be alone here, but there's only a handful of us, and we donít even have any of David Xanatosís high-tech equipment to ward him off."
"So how do we stop him?" asked Dulcinea.
"You donít," said Merlin, a grim look upon his face. "Iíll have to be the one to do that."
"Merlin, are you certain that thatís a good idea?" said Griff. "I mean, even if you werenít poisoned -"
"Itís our only hope," protested Merlin. Surtur was now beginning to stride towards them, swinging his flaming sword about and snorting fire from his nostrils. Wherever he trod, the ground charred and smoldered. "Iím a halfling, remember, and not just any halfling, either, but Madoc Morfrynís son. He commanded Surtur - maybe I can make use of my legacy to turn Surtur away." A troubled look passed over his face as he spoke. "I only hope that that feat wonít come at too heavy a cost."
Before any of the knights could argue with him further, he stepped forward, standing before the advancing fire demon. "Go back!" he shouted, raising one hand while the other clutched the head of his cane tightly. "Go back, Surtur, and fall into the abyss that has already claimed your master! Trouble us no more!" His voice now rang out clear and bold, as Surtur continued to approach them. "Begone!"
Surtur halted, and stared down at his youthful challenger for a moment. Then, with an almost contemptuous snort, he shot a blast of fire straight at the lad.
Merlin managed to ward off the flames with a hurriedly-raised shield of blue light, but the sheer force of the blow was too much for him, although he had escaped being burnt. He was hurled off his feet, to fly past the three knights and strike the ground. Griff and Dulcinea rushed to his side at once, and picked him up.
"Out cold," said Dulcinea with a sigh, looking over him and shaking her head. "I should have known that he wasnít up to a battle in his condition."
"Well, it looks as though weíll need some other way to stop the Unseelie," said Griff, frowning. "Anybody got any suggestions?"
"I have one," said Rory grimly. "I will simply have to take him on myself."
Before either Dulcinea or Griff could stop him, the young Irishman raised his staff up high. Lights swirled about him as his form began to change, for the first time since the terrible battle with the Minions at Trafalgar Square, some months before. And then, Cuchulain, the greatest hero of ancient Ireland, stood before Surtur, the Gae Bolga in his hand. Uttering a long-forgotten Gaelic war-cry, he hurled his spear of lightning at the Unseelie.
Surtur parried the Gae Bolga with his sword, and shot a fresh blast of flame at Cuchulain, who neatly dodged it, while catching his spear in his hand as it returned to him. He shouted again, and threw the Gae Bolga at the fire demon a second time, with the same results as before.
"This is definitely serious," said Dulcinea. "Rory hasnít dared become Cuchulain ever since he went berserk at Trafalgar Square. If heís actually forgotten his fears of losing control of himself again, and assumed his older form again, then that must mean -."
"You donít have to say anything more," said Griff, nodding in sympathy and concern. "I hope that this doesnít turn into one of those situations where we were better off with Surtur."
"Youíd better go and find Arthur," said Dulcinea. "Tell him about Surtur, so that he can join us. Weíre going to need all the help that we can. Oh, and youíd better take Merlin with you. This is no place for him until he recovers."
Griff nodded, shifting Merlin wholly into his arms. "Donít worry," he said. "Iíll be back with Arthur before you can say Jack Robinson." And with that, he rushed up the hill, glancing back over his shoulder at the battle. So far, it was still looking even, with Cuchulain and Surtur having locked each other into a stalemate, neither one yielding any ground to the other. He wondered just how long it would last. Dulcinea was watching concernedly behind Cuchulain, clearly wondering how she could help out. He quickened his pace, bearing Merlin towards the top of the hill.
* * * * *
"I still donít understand," said Leba to Taliesin. "Why are you being so uncooperative? I mean, you could give us some help."
"If you want an answer to that question," Taliesin grimly answered, "then you should speak to your friend Arthur about it. After all, heís the one to blame here."
"What do you mean?" Mary asked. "What did Arthur ever do to you?"
"Nothing to me, personally," said the bard. "But to Britain - that is another story."
"Arthur never did any harm to Britain at all!" protested Leba. "If anything, he was its greatest king and hero ever! He defended it from harm, united its people, brought it peace and justice! How can that be harming it?"
"Then the very place where we are now means nothing to you?" asked Taliesin. "Does not the name of this hill remind you of your shameful deed, Arthur Pendragon?"
"Dinas Bran," repeated Arthur, musingly. Then suddenly his eyes widened, as comprehension dawned in them.
"I understand now," he said to his two companions. "I should have remembered it sooner. The head of Bran the Blessed. So that is what this is all about."
"What do you mean?" asked Mary, staring up at him in utter bewilderment.
"It was the part of the story that I forgot to mention on the hilltop to you earlier," he explained. "Before Bran died, he asked his followers to cut off his head and bury it beneath the White Hill - youíd know it as Tower Hill in London, where the Tower of London now stands. He told them that as long as it remained there, no enemy could ever invade and conquer Britain, that it would keep the entire island safe. And that was where it remained for a great many centuries, until...."
* * * * *
LONDON, BRITAIN - THE LATE 5TH CENTURY A.D.
"And now to our final piece of business," the young Arthur Pendragon, not long crowned High King of Britain, said to his advisors, as they sat around the council table. "I would like to call your attention to the head of Bran the Blessed."
"Branís head?" Sir Kay, Arthurís foster-brother and seneschal said, rolling his eyes a little. "Arthur, surely we have better matters to discuss at this council than some moldy old head. I certainly doubt that we have the luxury to speak about it while we have a rebellion by King Lot and his allies in the north, Saxon raids in the east, and a pending alliance with King Ban of Benwick to deal with."
"True," said Arthur. "But this is still a matter that requires attention, I believe. Attend to my words, my friends, and listen.
"You all know the legend, my lords. So long as Branís head remains within the White Hill in its place of burial, below the very foundations of the Tower of London, facng out across the Narrow Sea towards Gaul, Britain cannot be conquered by any foreign foe."
"So the story goes," said Sir Ulfius of Ridcaradoch, the Lord Chamberlain. "But what does that have to do with this council?"
"Because I have decided to uncover it," said Arthur.
Merlin, who had been seated to Arthurís right, apparently only half-listening to the conversation, suddenly started. "Arthur, is that true?" he asked. "I hope that this is nothing more than a jest on your part."
"Hardly, Merlin," Arthur replied. "It is something that I have been considering for the past few weeks. And I believe that the time has come for me to announce my intent, and to act upon it."
"But why do you intend to do just that?" Merlin asked, staring at his pupil concernedly.
"Because we have no need of it," said Arthur. "We have the finest band of knights in all Europe, and Excalibur, the greatest sword ever forged. And we even have you, Merlin. With all of that, we can do without Branís head. We do not need it to protect Britain. And I will prove it, by uncovering it."
"Well, I certainly agree with that," said Sir Kay, nodding. "I fail to see what use it ever was to us. Living heads are far better defenses than dead ones."
"I hold the same opinion," said Sir Baudwin of Brittany, the Lord Constable. "In truth, Iíve long been concerned over the effect that that tale has been having on the citizens of London, at the least. Iíve seen many who are so convinced of the magic of Branís head, that they will no longer take up arms in defense of the city, or provide for the upkeep of the walls, even though the Saxons are less than ten leagues away. Theyíve become overly dependent upon it. Removing it might force them to take a more active role and learn some discipline."
"Thank you, Baudwin," said Arthur, with a smile. "And you as well, Kay. So, we have heard two voices in favor of my resolution. Are there any here who feel otherwise?"
Sir Ulfius and Sir Brastias, the Warden of the Northern Marches, both shook their heads, indicating that they approved of the plan as well. But Merlin looked concerned.
"I believe that this is dangerous, Arthur," he said. "Have you thought this out carefully? Have you considered the consequences first?"
"Indeed I have, Merlin," said Arthur. "And I believe that this is the right path to take."
"I am not so certain," said the old wizard, frowning. "Arthur, there are some things that it is better not to disturb."
"I know how you feel about this, Merlin," said Arthur gently. "But this is one occasion when I prefer not to submit to your counsel. We need to show our people that we can defend this island ourselves, and have no need for ancient heads belonging to long-dead kings, to perform that task. And the rest of my councillors are in agreement with me."
"Well, not quite all of them," said Sir Ector, Arthurís foster-father, seated beside his son Kay. "Arthur, are you certain that this is the right path to take? I do not know whether the old tales concerning Branís head are true or not, and perhaps it does not actually matter. But what I wish to know is this. Are you certain that this is why you are doing this? Why you seek to have the head removed?"
Arthur nodded. "Iím very certain," he said. Then he arose from the table.
"Well," he said, "we have four voices in favor of it, two voices against it. I would say that the former course has won out, therefore. Kay, assemble a band of workmen. We will need to carry out this plan as quickly as possible. And now, this council is over."
The seated nobles arose and left the room. Merlin and Sir Ector looked at each other uneasily as they departed, but said nothing.
* * *
A few days later, Arthur and his nobles and knights watched in the courtyard of the Tower of London as the laborers under Sir Kayís command, heaving with all their strength, dragged a great head out of the pit that they had dug, pulling all the while on the ropes that bound it. Branís craggy countenance, grey and grim, stared up with sightless eyes at the sky above. The workmen tugged it over the edge of the pit, and onto the surface of the courtyard itself. Arthur stepped forward, to stare down at it, Sir Kay and Sir Bedivere, his closest friends apart from Merlin, standing by him.
"It reminds me of a gargoyleís head," said Bedivere, looking down uneasily at it.
"Donít talk such nonsense, Bedivere," said Kay, shaking his own head. "It looks far too human for that."
"I know," said Bedivere. "But thereís something about the way that it looks. The way that it stares so. It even looks as though it was carved from stone."
"Yes, that is peculiar," said Kay thoughtfully, looking over the head more closely. "I would have thought that thereíd be naught left of it by now save a decaying skull. It certainly has been very well preserved."
"Well, whatever the case may be," said Arthur, "we have uncovered the head. Let us find somewhere to lay it to rest, but with dignity and honor. It was a kingís head, after all."
Sir Kay nodded, and barked some fresh commands at the laborers, who dragged the head away, out of the courtyard and through the gates of the Tower of London into the city outside. "Weíll find someplace to bury it," he told Arthur, before heading off to join them and continue to supervise the operation. "Probably not a churchyard - I doubt that consecrated ground is the proper place for it - but somewhere secluded. In the meantime, we should get that pit filled in before somebody falls into it and gets injured."
Arthur nodded, then turned to Merlin, who had joined them. "Well, Merlin?" he said with a smile. "I would say that we had nothing to fear by disinterring Branís head. No ominous portents, no earthquakes or rains of blood, no cataclysms at all. Britain will survive this deed. Does that make you feel any better?"
Merlin shook his head gravely. "Iím afraid not, Arthur," he said. "Trouble has not come yet, it is true. But the head has only just now been removed. It will be years before we can judge the wisdom of your act."
Arthur laughed good-naturedly, and turned his attention to directing a fresh group of workmen in filling up the hole in the castle courtyard.
* * * * *
"You should have heeded Merlinís words, Arthur," said Taliesin, "and left Branís head where it was. But instead, out of your own youthful arrogance and rashness, you removed it, and left Britain open to her enemies."
"But Arthur followed up that action by fighting the Saxons, and defeating them," said Leba. "That hardly sounds like leaving Britain defenceless to me."
"Aye, there are the twelve battles, from the mouth of the Glein to Mount Badon," said Taliesin, nodding grimly. "But you forget what happened afterwards. When Arthur was mortally wounded at Camlann, and taken away to Avalon, then the trouble began. The Saxons regained their strength, moved forward again, and conquered most of the island, advancing all the way to the banks of the Severn. Britain was lost to them forever, and was transformed into England. This would never have happened if Arthur had left Branís head where it should have remained.
"But that is not all. The Saxons had only barely settled down in Britain and become part of the land when the Danes came next, harrying the coasts, burning villages and monasteries, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. A Danish king even conquered England for a few yearsí time. And then, just as their incursions in turn were ending, the Normans came under Duke William, and conquered the island anew at the Battle of Hastings. All of those invasions came about, Arthur Pendragon, because you uncovered Branís head! All of the slaughter, the misery, the ravagings that accompanied them, are upon your own head!"
"But the last of those conquests was over nine hundred years ago!" said Leba. "And Britain hasnít been conquered by anybody since. Not to mention that what Arthur did was fifteen centuries ago. I know that youíre upset, Taliesin, but, isnít it a little much to be holding a grudge against him for things that happened so long ago?"
"The fact that an event happened a thousand years ago does not make it any less valid than one that happened yesterday," said Taliesin. "Regardless of your words, my lady, you cannot deny that Arthur acted rashly, and that Britain had to pay the price for his deed."
Mary spoke up just then, looking puzzled. "Thereís one thing about all this that I donít understand," she said. "Branís head was buried at the Tower of London - well, where the Tower of London is now - thousands of years ago, before the Romans. Did I hear that right?"
Taliesin nodded. "You did indeed, child," he said.
"And Arthur came after the Romans," Mary went on. "So that must mean that Branís head was still buried there while the Romans conquered Britain. Why wasnít it able to keep them out? I mean, they not only took over the island, but they stayed there for almost four hundred years. Why didnít the head stop that from happening?"
For a moment, Taliesin appeared genuinely at a loss. He stared hard at the girl, and looked about to speak, but then said nothing. It took him a while to recover his voice.
"It - doesnít matter," he said at last. "What matters is that Arthur dug up the head because he didnít think that heíd need anybody else to keep Britain safe. He thought that he could do it all on his own. A callow youth, proud and overconfident, unwilling to share the glory with anybody! That is what is important here."
"You canít talk to Arthur that way," protested Leba, Mary nodding vigorously to second her words. The minstrel turned to the former king, who had been listening to the conversation in silence since completing his tale. "Tell him that heís wrong, Arthur. Come on!"
Arthur shook his head sadly. "No, Leba," he said. "Taliesin is speaking the truth here."
"What?" Leba and Mary both stared at Arthur in disbelief. "You canít be serious about that, Arthur, can you?" asked Leba.
"Indeed I can," he replied. "Taliesin is right, and I was the one who was wrong. What I committed was indeed an act of youthful folly and arrogance, and for that I am sorry. I was young then, not much older than Mary here, and overconfident. I had defeated King Lot and his allies in battle at Caerleon not long before, and was so flushed with my victory that I believed myself to be invincible. So much so, in fact, that I thought that I needed no help from anyone in protecting Britain. Maybe I even feared, then, that as long as the head remained where it was, even if I were to clear every last Saxon out of the island, it would be Bran who received the credit for it, and not I myself. I say this only as an explanation, not an excuse. There is, indeed, no way that I can justify my deed.
"But I have learned better now, over the years. I know that what I said in New York was true: no king can lead without his knights. Without my friends and allies, I would have never lasted as long on the throne of Britain as I did. And I owe my life throughout all the adventures that I have experienced since my awakening on Avalon to the loyal companions that I have made, such as you both." He looked at Leba and Mary Sefton as he spoke. "It is one of the greatest lessons that any king - indeed, that any man - must learn. And it is one that I have certainly learned.
"I know that there is little that I can do to make amends, Master Taliesin. Branís head is long since dust; I cannot return it to its place of burial. But were you to name any other task that I may carry out as an act of contrition, and lay it upon me, that would I gladly perform."
Taliesin listened to Arthurís words with growing astonishment on his face. "It appears that you have learned much indeed, Arthur Pendragon," he said. "More than I had expected from you."
He looked about to say more, when Mary spoke. She had been sniffing the air for the last minute or so, and frowning as she did so. "Is it my imagination," she asked aloud, "or do I smell smoke outside?"
"I do not smell anything as yet," said Arthur. Then a whiff of something burning reached his nostrils, if only faintly. "You are right, Mary," he said. "There is an odor coming from above. We had better see what that is."
The three of them turned and headed back up the tunnel, the way that they had come. Taliesin watched them go, then followed them. "I might as well see what this is about," he commented. "I had come back here because I felt something in the area, something that I did not like, but could not say why. Perhaps whatever it was that drew me here is the cause of this commotion."
They reached the entrance to the tunnel and stood once more in the open air above. Leba spotted the blazing fire down below, at the bottom of the hill, with smoke rising from it. "What on earth is that, Arthur?" she asked, pointing to it. "Did a campfire get out of control?"
"I am not certain," said Arthur frowning, tightening his grip upon Excalibur by the hilt. "It does not look quite right for a natural fire. In fact, it looks -"
"Arthur!" Griff reached the top of the hills, bearing a barely conscious Merlin in his arms. "Thank goodness I found you!"
"Whatís wrong, Griff?" asked Arthur. Almost at the same time, Mary asked, "What happened to Merlin?"
"Itís one of those Unseelies," Griff said. "Merlin calls him Surtur. Heís some sort of fire demon thatís been hiding here. Merlin tried to stop him, but didnít fare too well. Roryís fighting him right now."
"Not as Cuchulain?" asked Leba, raising her eyebrows.
There was a flash down below, as what appeared to be a bolt of lightning struck the fiery blaze full on. "Iíd say that that answers your question," Mary commented. "Although he doesnít seem to be doing quite as well as Iíd have thought."
"I suppose that itís not that big a surprise," murmured Merlin, his eyes closed still and his voice slurry, yet with every indication of having heard these words. "Surturís from - well, the wrong mythology. Cuchulain wouldnít have any experience with him, the way that he would with Maeve or the Banshee. So he wouldnít know the full extent of Surturís strengths and weaknesses or fighting patterns, and know how to deal with him. Thatíd put him off his performance a little." He groaned slightly, before continuing. "Itís a pity that Roryís alter ego isnít Thor instead."
"Griff, give Merlin to Leba," said Arthur. "Leba, stay here and tend to Merlin; hopefully, heís not too badly hurt. Griff, Mary, come with me. We must go to the aid of the others."
Griff handed Merlin gently to Leba, then turned and leaped down the hillside, his wings catching the air currents as he did so. He glided about Surturís head, just out of range of his fires, looking for an opening. Arthur, Excalibur raised and gleaming in his hand, Mary right behind him, ran down the hillside, to join Cuchulain and Dulcinea, who were battling Surtur below. To be more accurate, Cuchulain was doing most of the battling, while Dulcinea was mainly busy with keeping out of the way of both of them.
"So how are you doing?" Arthur asked, as he joined the Spanish knight.
"Not too well," said Dulcinea. "We still seem to be in a draw, actually. What really worries me is what happens if Rory has another one of his berserk moments."
"I hope not," said Mary. "Merlinís in no condition to be giving him a cold bath this time around." She ducked as a blast of fire from Surtur rushed overhead, a few feet above. "Not that this situationís any better, of course."
* * *
"This does not look good for them," said Leba concernedly, watching from atop the hill, a semi-conscious Merlin still in her lap. Arthur and Dulcinea had joined Cuchulain in the fight with Surtur, but were kept too busy dodging his flames to contribute to any real extent to the battle. Mary accompanied Arthur, of course, as his squire, but took care to stand right behind him. Griff still circled about in the air, but without being able to close in. "I donít think that even Excalibur can handle something like that. For all that I know, Surtur might even be able to reduce it to a molten puddle."
Taliesin, standing beside her, nodded in agreement. "I must admit," he said, "that Arthur does indeed appear overmatched."
"Arenít you going to do anything?" Leba asked. "We could use all the help that we can."
Taliesin said nothing, merely continuing to observe from where he stood.
* * *
Griff alit next to Arthur. "Couldnít even get close to him from above," he commented apologetically. "This is definitely a lot more complicated than fighting German planes over London. At least they only burst into flames after they got shot down." He glanced in Cuchulainís direction, and added, "I never heard him growl like that before. Whatís wrong with him?"
Cuchulain was indeed uttering a low roar, as he faced Surtur, eyes glowing and the hairs of his moustache beginning to flicker as if with St. Elmoís fire. Then, letting out a mighty bellow, and looking as if he was about to start chewing upon the rim of his shield at any moment, he charged at the fire demon, hurling the Gae Bolga at him with uncontrollable rage. Surtur parried the Spear of Light with his flaming sword once again, but only brought his blade up against it just in time. The lightning spear hurtled back into the hill, gouging into it, and jolting several rocks loose. They rumbled down the slope, straight towards Arthur and his companions.
"Out of the way!" Arthur shouted to his friends, rushing out of the path of the approaching rocks himself. "Now!"
Griff, Dulcinea, and Mary did as he had commanded them, but Cuchulain showed no sign of heeding Arthurís words. He merely roared again in savage fury as the Gae Bolga returned to his hand, then placed both it and his shield down, snatched up the largest of the rocks as they sped past him, a large boulder that two strong men would have had trouble moving, and threw it at the Unseelie. Surtur clove it clean through with his sword, shattering it into numerous smaller rocks, flying out in all directions. One of the larger fragments hurtled straight towards Mary, even as she stood up.
Dulcinea saw the rock approaching the young werewolf just in time. "Mary, get down!" she shouted, and then quickly rushed to the girl, pushing her out of the way before the rock could hit her. The rock struck the Spanish knight full in the side, ramming her against the side of the hill. She slumped over, unconscious.
Arthur, Griff, and Mary rushed to her side at once. Arthur bent over her and picked her up gently. "Sheís still alive," he said. "But we must get her away from here, before she receives worse injuries."
"And I think that weíd better all get a safe distance from this fight," added Griff, nodding. "Itís definitely getting far too dangerous to stay around here."
"We canít just let Rory handle that thing alone," Mary began.
"If we stay here, while he remains in his battle-rage," Arthur replied gravely, "he will be fighting it alone. The only question after that would be whether it would be Surtur or Cuchulain who would be responsible for that. Up to the hill-top, now!"
He climbed up the hill, still cradling the unconscious Dulcinea in his arms. Griff followed, carrying Mary. Leba and Taliesin were still standing by the ruins, looking down at the battle below, as the four of them arrived. Merlin was propped up against the nearest wall, still looking more than a little dazed.
"We're not doing too well, are we?" Leba asked them concernedly.
"You can say that again," said Griff. "So far, weíve got two injured, Roryís gone berserk again, and even without all that, Surtur looks pretty much unstoppable. We may be in a little over our heads this time."
"Taliesin," said Arthur, setting Dulcinea down by Merlin, "we need your help. If we are to defeat that fire demon, it must be with your assistance."
"Oh, indeed?" asked the bard. "So you, the man who was once too proud to ask for help, to such an extent that he would uncover the head of my king, now beg for it?"
"My plea to you should be sign enough, Taliesin," said Arthur, "that I am no longer the reckless youth who dug up Bran the Blessedís head in London. And furthermore, it is not just my own life that is in danger here. My friends here are also in peril, and they had no part in my act. Must they die at Surturís hands, or those of a Cuchulain gone mad, as a penalty for it?"
Fresh roars of fury continued to arise from below. Cuchulain was falling back at last, under Surturís relentless attacks, but continuing to fight with all the more battle-rage. Flashes of fire and lightning lit up the hill, so strong as to almost turn night into day. The ground shook beneath the feet of Arthur and his companions. Taliesin looked down, his sharp eyes gazing over the encounter at the foot of the hill. Then he turned back to face Arthur.
"Very well, Arthur Pendragon," he said. "I will help you and your companions. But I myself will need assistance. Give me your sword."
"Excalibur?" repeated Arthur. He hesitated for a moment, then handed the sword to the bard.
"Thank you," said Taliesin. He turned to Leba. "You appear to be a bard yourself, my lady; I can sense the gift in you. Pray assist me as well. Take my harp, and play while I sing. I cannot hold my instrument and a sword at once."
"Of course," said Leba. She accepted the harp from the legendary bard, cradled it in the crook of her arm, and ran her fingers over the strings.
Taliesin raised Excalibur high, point uppermost, and began to sing in a great voice, strong as a winter wind but as melodious as the warblings of birds in spring. His words were in a tongue unknown to any of his listeners, except Merlin, perhaps, but they rang out clearly in the autumn air. Leba played the harp to accompany him. Arthur stood by, watching, while Mary and Griff stood together at the edge of the hill, gazing down at the battle. Surtur was gaining the upper hand, having pushed Cuchulain almost to the very foot of the hill, but the Irish hero was still fighting back, shouting in his berserk fit.
Overhead, clouds formed in the sky and the wind began to rise. Mary shivered, pulling her jacket close about herself, and huddling closer to Griff for warmth. "What on earth is he doing?" she asked.
"I donít know," Griff answered, looking up, "but I do believe - Arthur, what is he doing?"
"I very much suspect that we will see soon enough," Arthur replied.
The clouds massed directly over the Unseelie and the Irish warrior at the bottom of the hill, lightning flickering at their edges, the wind growing ever colder. Then, a torrent of sleet began to pour down from them, directly upon the combatants, growing stronger and thicker all the while.
Surtur looked up in sudden astonishment, then alarm. He roared in fury at the ice storm and shot a blast of fire upwards at the clouds, only to see it extinguished by the downpour before it could strike home. As the deluge continued, a coating of ice began to form over the top of his head. It spread downwards, increasingly encasing him all the way down to his feet, freezing him in his place. Within minutes, he had been transformed into a gargantuan ice statue, looming in place with an upraised sword.
As Arthur and his companions watched, cracks began to form all across the ice, and a low groaning sound came from it. Then, the statue shattered, sending fragments flying in all directions. The Unseelie fire demon was gone.
Taliesin changed the tune of his song, and Leba quickly altered her harp-playing to fit it. The ice-storm ended, the wind died down, and the clouds dispersed. There was silence once more by Dinas Bran.
"What happened to Surtur?" asked Mary, finally recovering her voice and turning to look at Taliesin. "Is he dead?"
The great bard shook his head. "I fear not," he said. "Surtur is of the Third Race, and their kind may only be slain by iron. What I have done is to disperse him, banishing him for a season. He will regather his form in time, but hopefully by then, we will all be far from this place, and he will return to his state of dormancy. Let us hope that he is not re-awakened from it again for a very long time."
"I donít suppose that we can count on the Weird Sisters showing up for him and dragging him back to Avalon," said the girl hopefully, "the way that they did with the Morrigan?"
"They would have appeared by now had that been the case," said Taliesin. "But Oberon and his Children cannot be constantly watching the outside world. Some of the Unseelies are able to escape their vigilance. And the Sisters do have a particular feud with the Morrigan that would make them all the more likely to hunt her down. They have no similar quarrel with Surtur."
"In the meantime," said Arthur, hurrying down the slope, "we should see how our friend below fares." Griff and Mary quickly followed him to the foot of the hill.
Cuchulain had reverted to his regular form as Rory Dugan, and now sat upon one of the dislodged rocks, his staff by his side, groaning and feeling his head. He looked absolutely drenched, his hair plastered tightly to his head, ice crystals gleaming on his jacket. Arthur and Griff helped him to his feet.
"What happened, anyway?" asked the young Irishman. "Whereís Surtur? And -" He paused, as the realization suddenly hit home. "Oh, no," he groaned. "It happened again, didnít it?"
"Iím afraid so," said Arthur.
"Did - did I do anything to the others, Arthur?" Rory asked.
Arthur nodded. "Dulcinea was injured," he said. "She cracked a few ribs, but she should mend. Sheís still alive."
Rory gasped in horror, and ran up the hill. Arthur picked up his staff, which he had left lying by the rock, and followed after him with Griff.
Leba was tending to Dulcinea when they reached the hill-top. Rory rushed over to them at once, staring down at them in mute shock.
"Sheís not dead," said Leba, looking up at him. "It was a bit nasty, but sheíll recover."
"I know," said Rory. "But she might have died. And because of me."
He bowed his head, staring down at the ground. Leba looked up concernedly at him for a moment, but then returned to examining the Spanish knightís injuries.
Merlin was now seated up against the wall, looking more properly conscious. Mary and Taliesin were bending over him.
"How are you feeling?" the girl asked him. "Better now?"
Merlin nodded, then turned his head to see Taliesin. "Well," he said, "this is certainly a surprise. It has been quite some time, hasnít it?"
"Indeed it has," said Taliesin. "How long has it been now? Six centuries, or seven?"
"Iím afraid that Iíve lost track on that one," said Merlin. "But itís good to see you again, Taliesin. Next time we meet, though, letís hope that it doesnít involve Norse fire creatures running amok."
"The two of you recognize each other?" asked Mary. "But - if youíve both changed since you last met -."
"Those who have the gift of regenerating can always recognize anyone else who has it, no matter what their form," said Merlin, with a smile. "And Taliesin can regenerate, just as I can. He even went through the same case of winding up as a kid that I have, back in Arthurís day. Do you remember?"
"Ah, yes," said Taliesin, smiling himself. "I was quite the mischief-maker then, too. I suppose that youíve discovered some of the more interesting side-effects of regenerating in an adolescent body yourself."
"True," said Merlin. "Not that Iíve given in quite as often to the trickster temptations," he added hurriedly. "I mean, nothing on the Ďblwrm blwrmí level." He suddenly laughed. "I still think that itís a pity that I wasnít there when you did that to King Maelgwnís bards. That would certainly have been a sight worth seeing."
Taliesin laughed in return. "Indeed it was," he said. "So tell me, do you still use your musical skills?"
"Occasionally," said Merlin. "Not as often as I used to, Iím afraid." He smiled again. "Though those wandering minstrel days were rather fun. If you donít mind the occasional mess that Lyre got me into. Lyre wasn't really all that bad when you got to know it, of course, but it was very temperamental. And it had a jealous streak, as well. It got upset if I even looked at another musical instrument." He sighed. "I wonder where it is now. I recall storing it away in one of my caves in Wales after it got too difficult; I wonder if itís still there."
Arthur walked up to them at that moment. Taliesin turned to face him.
"Here is your sword," he said, returning Excalibur to the former king of Britain. "Thank you for lending it to me."
"Thank you for coming to our aid," said Arthur. "We could not have defeated Surtur without your help."
"Then you have gained some wisdom," said the bard, smiling again. "I hope that you never forget it, Arthur Pendragon. It is a lesson that you will need to remember always."
"Since that is the case," said Arthur, "perhaps you would be willing to admit us to the chamber where Branís Cauldron is kept. That way we can learn whether it truly is the Holy Grail, and if so, use it to cure Merlin."
Taliesin sighed. "I have something to confess to you," he said. "The truth of the matter is, I was not barring you from anything worth your time when I halted you in the tunnel below. For the Cauldron is no longer here."
"What?" asked Arthur. "What happened to it? Where is it now?"
"It was removed from this place a few years ago," said Taliesin, "while I was elsewhere. I never could discover what had become of it." The ancient bard shook his head sadly. "It is not the only great artifact to be snatched away and sold on the grey market. It is most likely gracing some rich foreigner's private collection by now."
"So it's just gone?"
"It would do you no good anyway," Taliesin continued, "even if it was still here. For one thing, it most certainly is not the Grail. And for another, the spells neccessary to activate it have long been lost; its power has been dormant since the reign of Charlemagne."
"So we came here for nothing," said Arthur.
"I would not quite agree," said Taliesin. "This visit of yours may have been good for both of us, in fact. It allowed us to make peace over a matter that stood between us for fifteen centuries. And simply because the Holy Grail does not reside here, does not mean that it cannot be found somewhere else. You will have to search for it, of course, search long and hard. But that is the nature of quests, then, is it not? The greater part of them is the striving, rather than the finding - and it is the striving that makes the finding worthwhile.
"In any case, I wish you well upon your travels, Arthur Pendragon. And for your sake and Merlinís here, may you find the Grail, and conclude your quest successfully."
"I thank you," said Arthur, nodding.
* * *
Fragments of ice lay strewn across the ground where Surtur had stood. Slowly, they began to draw closer to one another, flowing together in a semi-liquid form. As they united, they moved as one towards the crevice out of which the Unseelie fire demon had arisen, and sank without a sound into its depths. A brief flicker of flame shone from below, and then was gone again.