HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS.

Outline by Todd Jensen.

Written by Todd Jensen and Ed Reynolds.

Art by Revel.

Previously on Pendragon....

MERLIN (to Mary Sefton): It's you this time! It's really you! You are real!

Mary said nothing, but put her own arms about him. And then, simultaneously, their faces drew closer together. Their lips met in a brief kiss.

~~~The Once and Future King Part Two.~~~

* * *

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.

~~~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.~~~

* * *

MERLIN (to Surtur): 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.

~~~Dinas Bran.~~~

* * *

JENNIFER: Well, if there's going to be something between us, then I must demand you have no more secrets from me.... Arthur, if we are going to stand together, then we must share the dangers together. If we do not, then what sort of relationship do we truly have?

~~~Iris, Lily, and Rose: Part Two.~~~

* * *

LEBA (to Arthur): You should talk to Jennifer while you have the chance.

~~~Ride the Wild Winds.~~~

* * * * *

The December wind blew chill about the little lake on the London estate. Bare trees stood by its shores, their leaves stripped from their branches by the onset of winter, beneath a darkening sky.

Mary Sefton sat pensively by the lakeside, the wind ruffling her thick furry pelt. There was much about her wolf-form that she was still not quite at peace with, but at least she could stay warm during the daytime in the winter. That, she supposed, was some comfort. But that was not what weighed most upon her thoughts at present.

Behind her, she could hear footsteps drawing closer, treading upon the frozen ground, the crunch of grass beneath soled feet. Obviously it was not one of the gargoyles; none of them would be awake for some minutes yet, and they did not wear shoes, anyway. Which could only mean that it was one of the humans. She did not have to guess which one, either; the scent that came to her nose as the footsteps drew nearer, and their limping gait, accompanied by the slight thud of a walking-stick, made it clear enough who it was. She turned around to face him.

"Hullo, Mary," said Merlin, looking down at her. He was wearing a thick overcoat, heavy scarf, and cloth cap over his regular attire, leaning on his hawk-headed cane. He appeared well enough, but Maryís eyes caught a lock of greying hair straying over his forehead. It had begun to change color shortly after his disastrous battle with the Unseelie Surtur at Dinas Bran; they had all had a strong suspicion as to just why that was. "Dulci said that Iíd find you here. Couldnít sleep?"

She shook her head. She usually slept during the daytime, had preferred to do so ever since leaving Rivencroft, even if it had forced her into a nocturnal cycle. It still felt a bit awkward, but since it allowed her to spend her waking hours as the human that she had once been, and still should be, she had clung to her new schedule tightly. But this particular afternoon, she had felt increasingly restless, so much so that she had simply had to go outside and wander down to the lake, which was where she had been until Merlin had come up to her.

"I thought as much," he said. "Somethingís been weighing on you lately, Mary. Iíve noticed that. Is it anything that you want to talk about?"

She hesitated, then nodded. "Itís a number of things, actually," she said. "Iím not sure where to begin. Of course, part of it is probably the Grail. Weíve been searching for it for two months now, anywhere in Britain that looks as if itís got any sort of connection to it. And so far, we havenít found any trace of it anywhere. Not at Glastonbury, not in Wales, not even in that old chapel in Scotland. Iím starting to wonder if weíll ever find it."

"I see what you mean," said Merlin, as he seated himself beside her, in a somewhat awkward fashion. "Yes, Iíll admit that it is a bit worrying. Especially since weíre running out of Grail-linked sites to investigate in these parts. Of course, weíve got the rest of the world to search, and I suppose that itís a bit illogical to assume that the only place where the Grail would ever be found would be here in Britain. Arthur found Excalibur in New York City, after all. For all that we know, the Holy Grail might turn up in the United States too. Or, at least, somewhere abroad."

"True," she said. "Assuming that itíll turn up somewhere. But we canít go on searching for it forever, Merlin. I mean - if you die before we can find it, then itíll all be for nothing. And that grey in your hair..."

"I donít worry about it," said Merlin. "Not all that much, at any rate. This isnít the first time that Iíve had it, after all."

"But you were a grown-up all those other times," said Mary. "Now youíre a boy my age. That means something, doesnít it?"

"Yes, I suppose that it does," he replied. "But - the quest isnít the only thing thatís weighing on you, is it, Mary?"

"Youíre right about that," she said. "Thereís something else. Itís Father."

"What about him?" Merlin asked.

"Well, itís almost Christmas," said Mary. "And Iíd realized something. Heís going to be spending the holidays all alone. I mean, mumís been dead for years, and Iím here with you and Arthur. And I found myself thinking that itíd be lonely for him."

"Good point," said Merlin thoughtfully. "He does have the servants, but I suppose that itís not the same."

"We havenít been all that close lately," Mary went on. "Of course, a lot of it is that he was spooked about my being a werewolf - he looked almost petrified when I turned into a wolf in front of him, in fact. Heís probably still afraid of me, too, because of that. And thereís also the fact that he was spending more and more time in Westminster since mum died."

"Burying himself in work as a means of dealing with her death," said Merlin thoughtfully. "Yes, I suppose that something like that would happen."

"The truth is," Mary said, "lately this place has been feeling more and more like home. I mean, with you and Arthur and everyone else. Itís certainly been a lot more fun here since everyone started preparing for the holidays than it was back home with father last year. And in fact, Iíd rather stay here during this time. But - I think that my father might need me with him at Christmas, just for a little while. Just so that he wonít be so lonely."

"Youíre probably right about that," said Merlin, nodding. "I agree that nobody should be alone at this time of year."

"So do you think that I should go home for the holidays?" she asked. "At least, until Christmas is over? I could come back here by New Yearís, after all."

"Yes, I believe that itís a good idea," said Merlin. "Especially since for you, spending Christmas with your father is a realistic possibility. It was certainly never an option for me." He looked down at the ground in a brooding silence.

"Iím sorry, Merlin," she said. "Iíd forgotten."

"Itís all right," he said. "Truth to tell, I never even considered the possibility of Christmas with my father for a split-second, in my entire life. So itís not quite the loss that you might think. But anyway, I think that you're doing the right thing in going back. Who knows? Maybe when you go back there, he might be able to adjust better to your being a werewolf. Youíll certainly want to address that issue with him sometime, and the holidays are probably the best time for it."

"Yes, youíre right," she said. "But still - well, the real problem is, itís not going to be just a matter of my being away from here this Christmas. Itís that it could be the last Christmas that you might ever have. The only Christmas that weíll ever have."

"Donít talk that way, Mary," said Merlin at once. "You mustnít lose hope. Arthur might find the Grail yet before the poison runs its course. Weíve still some months to go. And even if it is my last Christmas - well, Iíve experienced about fifteen hundred of them already. Well, maybe less than that, given that period in the mid-seventeenth century when Cromwell banned the holiday, but still, Iíve seen a great many, a lot more than most people ever do."

"I know," said Mary. "But this would be the first Christmas that weíd ever have together. One year ago, we hadnít even met."

"True," said Merlin. "From that angle, all that I can say is that itís a pity that you canít be in two places at once. And before you start getting any ideas, Iíd better point out that thereís no magic that I know of that allows you to do that sort of thing safely, and -"

"Donít worry, Merlin," said Mary, her face suddenly brightening, and her tail beginning to wag eagerly. "Iíve got a much better idea than that."

"What is it?" he asked.

"Well, Iíll have to tell Father about you sooner or later," she said, as she began to dash excitedly about him. "And maybe nowís the best time. Come on!"

She ran back across the frozen field towards the manor-house. "Mary, wait!" cried Merlin, struggling to his feet. "I canít keep up!"

She halted, turned around, and then walked back to join him. "Iím sorry, Merlin," she said. "I forgot about that. Here, weíll go back to the house together."

They walked side by side away from the lake as the sun sank closer in the west, and the shadows grew longer.

* * *

The sun had set by the time that the two youngsters arrived at the ruined manor, and the gargoyles had left their perches with the coming of night. Merlin and Mary, the latter now back in her human form again, passed several of them bustling about in the courtyard, preparing for their own festivities. While gargoyles paid little attention to Christmas as a human holiday, they had their own ancient rites and ceremonies to mark the winter solstice, and the clan was now busy making ready for that annual event.

The two adolescents made their way into the great hall itself, which was now adorned with holly and ivy for both Christmas and Solstice Night. Ranger and Treacle plowed past them, both of them barking eagerly, with a small crowd of gargoyle hatchlings in Lucyís generation following after them. Mary managed to pull Merlin out of the way just in the nick of time, to avoid the stampede.

"Well, I suppose thatís another good reason for you to be spending Christmas with your father," said Merlin with a smile. "Itís likely to be a lot more peaceful there."

She nodded, as she walked to the phone in a corner of the hall, and picked up the receiver. As she did so, she dialed her fatherís number, and listened. It rang at the other end a few times, and at last a voice answered. "Sefton residence," it said.

"Hullo, Gargrave," said Mary. "This is Mary. May I speak with my father, please?"

"One moment, Miss Sefton," Gargrave replied. There was silence for a few minutes at his end, while Mary settled down to wait. Merlin sat down in a chair that he had pulled up, to wait with her. "Just what is this idea of yours?" he asked.

"Youíll see," she replied.

Her fatherís voice spoke just then. "Mary?" it asked. "Is that you?"

"Yes, Father," she answered. "Thereís something that I need to speak with you about."

"Where are you calling from?" he asked her. "Youíre not still traipsing about the countryside with Arthur, looking for the Holy Grail, are you?"

"Not at the moment," she said. "Weíre back in London, taking a breather. And since weíre going to be here during the holidays, I was wondering - Father, is it all right if I come back home for a couple of days, to spend Christmas with you?"

"That depends," said Nigel; although she could not see her fatherís face over the telephone, she felt certain that he was frowning uneasily at that moment. "You donít - still have that problem, do you?"

"Iím afraid that I do," she answered. "But I can keep out of the way of Gargrave and Sophia during the day. I can stay up in my room until itís dark, and they wonít know."

"I certainly hope that you will," he said. "But, I suppose that itís possible. Very well, then. You can come."

"Thereís something else," she went on to say. "Is it all right if I bring a friend with me?"

"A friend? You donít mean Arthur himself, do you?"

"No, not him," said Mary. "Itís his ward, actually. His nameís Emrys Hawkins, and heís my age." Merlin started, but said nothing. "I thought that maybe youíd want to meet him."

"Hmm..." said Sir Nigel. "A boy your age, you say?"

"Yes, Father," she replied.

"Then I definitely want to meet him. Yes, you can bring him with you. In fact, Iíd say that youíd better, now that youíve told me about him." There was a momentary, uneasy pause. "Does he know about your condition?"

"He does," said Mary. "And he doesnít have any problems with it, either."

"Well, thatís one less thing to worry about, then," said Nigel. "Just so long as he can be discreet about it. The last thing that we need is a full-color article about you on the front page of one of those blasted tabloids. So, when can you come over?"

"Iíll need to speak with Arthur about it, actually," said Mary. "Iím still in his service, after all, as his squire. But Iím sure that he wonít mind. Iíll just go ask him, and then tell you what he says."

"Very well, then," said her father. "You just do that, and call me back."

"I will," said Mary. "Good-bye."

Once she had hung up the receiver, she turned to Merlin. "Letís go have a word with Arthur now, shall we?"

"This is your plan?" asked Merlin, as he limped along after her on his cane.

"I thought that it was a good solution," she said. "I mean - well, that way, I can spend Christmas with both you and Father. And I didnít think that heíd want to come here - for one thing, I really donít think that heíd get along that well with the gargoyles - so this seemed like the best way of handling it. As I said, heís going to have to meet you sooner or later."

"Yes, I suppose that youíre right," said Merlin. "I just hope that I donít wind up regretting this."

"Well, weíll see what Arthur has to say about it all," said Mary. "Wherever he is."

* * *

"My cookies!" cried Perry, staring in horror and fury at the blackened baked goods that lay on the tray that she had just removed from the oven. "You let my cookies burn!"

"Madam, I most deeply apologize for my negligence," said Arthur to the angry gargoyle, as she turned towards him. "I allowed myself to become distracted, and failed to hear the oven timer when it sounded. It was most remiss of me."

"Iíll say that it was!" she retorted. "Your nameís Arthur, not Alfred! Now, out of my kitchen!" She snatched up a broom, and began to brandish it as though it was a halberd. "Shoo! Scat!"

Arthur quickly retreated from the kitchen, amid further apologies on his part. As he moved further away from her, letting her continued tirade fade into the distance, he heard approaching footsteps in the corridor behind him. He turned around, to see Mary Sefton standing there, Merlin following her.

"Arthur, is this a bad time?" Mary asked.

"Well, from Perryís perspective, I would say so," he replied. "I have the feeling that I am no longer welcome in her kitchen, after this particular incident."

Mary nodded. "I can smell the smoke from here," she said, with a slight smile. Then her face grew more serious. "Arthur, I was wondering something. Might I spend Christmas with my father, please? I mean - he really oughtnít to be alone at this time of year, and so I thought that I could visit him for the holidays. Iíll be back after Boxing Day."

Arthur smiled. "That seems quite reasonable to me," he said. "I give you permission, Mary."

"Thank you," she said. "And - might Merlin come with me, please? I want him to meet Father - and vice versa. And that way, we can still spend Christmas together without Father being left on his own. Will that be all right with you?"

Arthur turned to Merlin. "What are your thoughts on this matter, Merlin?" he asked. "Are you happy with it?"

"I suppose so," said Merlin, nodding. "Iím not entirely certain that Iím looking forward to meeting Sir Nigel Sefton myself, but itís an ordeal that Iíd have to face sooner or later. So I might as well get it over with - and as Mary said, it certainly does serve as a nice solution."

"Then I approve," said Arthur. "Have a good Christmas, Merlin. And donít forget to call us up while there, my friend."

"We wonít," said Merlin, as he and Mary turned and walked off towards the great hall. "And thank you, Arthur."

"Yes," said Mary, chiming in. "Thank you very much, Arthur." Then she paused, as though a thought had struck her. "Was that ever a problem for you, when you were our age? I mean, having to meet Guinevereís father for the first time?"

Arthur smiled slightly. "Less than you might think," he said. "I actually first met him some time before I met her herself. King Leodegrance of Cameliard was among the nobles assembled at London, when I drew Excalibur from the stone, and one of the few kings who were willing to swear allegiance to me at the time. Then, not long afterwards, his lands were invaded by King Rions, an Irish chieftain who had the particularly barbaric habit of shaving off the beards of the kings that he had defeated in battle and used them to trim his mantle. Rions had one empty space left upon his cloak, which boasted no beard at all, and thought that Leodegrance could supply him with it. I quickly came to Leodegranceís aid as soon as I heard the tidings, routed Rions and his forces, and saved Cameliard. I first met Guinevere at the victory celebrations that followed, by which time, of course, her father and I had come to know each other well. So it was not so nerve-wracking an experience."

"I see," said Mary, looking quite interested indeed. "And Ms. Camford? I mean, when we met at Berwick, I did have the understanding that there was something between you and her. Did you ever have to meet her father, too?"

Arthur nodded. "Only briefly," he said. "Both Jenniferís parents came to visit her at All Saints Hospital, while she was recovering from her encounter with a basilisk, during the Second Unseelie War. It was a very strange experience, as well. Remind me to tell you about it some other time, when you and Merlin return."

She nodded. "Iíll go talk to Father again," she said, and walked off, Merlin following close behind her.

Arthur watched his squire and his mentor head back towards the great hall with a gentle smile upon his face. "Have a pleasant Christmas, both of you," he said to them, although he was not certain as to whether or not they had heard him.

Even as he smiled, however, he could not help but reflect that the manor would seem a little emptier this Christmas. He had already heard from Rory and Leba, and learned from them that they would be spending the holidays in Ireland with Mr. Dugan. And now Merlin and Mary Sefton would be away as well. At least he still had Griff and Dulcinea for company - and the rest of the London clan, even if he was not particularly close with its members apart from Griff and Cavall. Then an idea stirred in his head, prompted by Mary's words.

It had been some time since he had last seen Jennifer Camford. Indeed, they had not crossed paths since she had come to his aid after he had been captured by the Illuminati and held prisoner in the Manor Hotel. Since then, he had been so busy, first dealing with Morganaís continued attempt to frame him as the Connection, followed by his public exposure and then the search for the Holy Grail, that he had scarcely had time even to call her up on the telephone. It was an understandable lapse, but still, he had been neglecting her. And it was time for him to remedy that.

"And I know just what to do, as well," he said. With that, he set off, to look for Michael and the other clan elders.

* * *

"You want to what?" Michael asked, staring at Arthur in a not quite approving fashion.

"I would like to invite Jennifer Camford over here for Christmas," Arthur explained again. "If it is all right with you and the rest of the clan."

"I am not entirely certain that this is a wise course to take, Arthur," said Michael. "Having your friend here presents - well, a very grave risk. We have survived so long as we have on the outskirts of London in part by maintaining our secrecy. Until a few years ago, the only humans who knew the true nature of this estate were Colin Marter and his family. Of course, we were able to make an exception for you when you arrived, since you had Griff to vouch for you, and were able to convince us that we had nothing to fear from you. And then there were your friends, even that young girl whom you met at Rivencroft, the one whoís supposedly a werewolf. But still - with each human who learns of us, the danger of a general exposure only grows. How long will it be before we are at last revealed to the world, I wonder, if this continues? I mean, itís bad enough that Griffís mate Brianna befriended that Scottish human - what was her name again, Brock?"

"Jane Nelson," said the badger-like records keeper, standing beside Michael, alongside Griff and Boz.

"Ah, yes," said Michael, nodding. "Thank you. At any rate, Brianna potentially endangered the clanís secrecy by meeting regularly with this Jane Nelson, and yet at least she did not bring her here, or even seek to do so. But for you to actually invite your lady here, even to celebrate your own human holiday - well, it could place the clan in greater peril."

"I understand your concern, my friend," said Arthur. "However, Jennifer is not a complete stranger to gargoyles. She met Sir Griff and Cavall when we ourselves first crossed paths, during the quest for Merlin, and understands their true nature. She even helped me rescue them from the Illuminati. I believe that she can be trusted with the existence of your home."

"Perhaps," said Michael. "But she is your lady, Arthur. Are you certain that your feelings concerning her are not blinding you to her nature?"

"Speaking for Arthur," said Griff, "I would like to say that I can vouch for her, having met the lady myself. I certainly believe that sheíll respect our secret."

"What do you think, Boz?" Michael asked, turning to his second-in-command.

"I know little about the human of whom Arthur speaks, Michael," said the walrus-like gargoyle. "But I do know this. We wonít be able to conceal ourselves from the outside world much longer. The revelation of Goliath and his clan in New York has certainly ensured that. Now that the humans know that gargoyles really do exist, itís only a matter of time before they start suspecting that they exist in places other than New York City. How long will it be before the customers at the Into the Mystic shop realize that its proprietors are not actually wearing masks? And the fact that some of the younger gargoyles have been patrolling London at night ever since the Second Unseelie War began means that the possibility of our discovery is only increasing. How long will it be, I wonder, before, even if we admit no further humans to this place, they learn about us some other way?"

"That is a good point," said Michael, nodding apprehensively. "And that is why I am so concerned over Arthurís request. If this female human were to help bring about the end of our centuries-long secrecy -"

"That is not quite what I meant," said Boz. "What I meant was this; our exposure will take place eventually, sooner or later, no matter what we do. That being the case, would it not be wiser to prepare for it? The best way to do that will be to convince those humans whom we do come into contact with that we are not their enemies, that we mean them no harm, and that we only wish to live in peace, undisturbed. Then when the time that we are dreading finally does come, they will be able to speak up on our behalf, and that will do a lot to offset any possibilities of organizations like the Quarrymen forming in London. Letís face it; the reason why the humans have treated us as they have done is because they know so little about us. If we can teach them the truth about us, perhaps they will not be as likely to fear us, or hunt us."

"I hope that youíre not going to follow that up with a suggestion that we reveal ourselves to the entire country by inviting Regina Fitzwalter over here for a live television interview," said Michael.

Boz shook his head with a smile. "I agree that that would be overdoing it," he said. "But my point is that it now seems high time for us to reach out to the humans more. Every human who knows what we are really like is one less human who will be taking part in riots and hate groups. And this Jennifer Camford would be a step in the right direction. Sheís shown herself already to be discreet about us. I believe that we can trust her."

"And you, Brock?" asked Michael. "What are your thoughts?"

"I hold with Boz," said the records keeper. "From what I have read in our annals about the dark days when nearly all the clans in England were destroyed, except for our own, the humans carried out these violent acts because they knew little about us, and were thus easily deceived as to our true nature by the few who genuinely hated us. The real reason for the problem that weíve had with humans all these centuries is their ignorance, and the only way to cure ignorance is with knowledge. Let the woman see what we are really like. Then at least she will know the truth about us."

Michael thought it over for a while, then turned back to Arthur. "Very well," he said. "You may invite her here, provided that she agrees not to lead anyone else here or to breathe a word about what she has seen, until we give her permission to do so."

"Thank you, my friend," said Arthur.

* * * * *

 

"No way!" Jennifer Camford said firmly, as she balanced the cordless telephone on her shoulder and drew the blinds to the office. The bright winter sun was blocked out.

As she returned to her desk, she glanced at a stack of cards on top of a filing cabinet. She got a lot of Christmas cards, of course, from acquaintances and business contacts, and those that were friends of her father. She had even received a card from Darien Montrose, with cursory seasonís greetings printed on the inside. She pondered the irony as she spoke to the person on the other end of the telephone line once more.

"I will not fire the furniture division on the week before Christmas. I donít care if Montrose pays people to take his wares from him. No, thatís my final word on the subject, Terrence. Yes. Yes, get back to me the moment the brokers arrive. Yes, goodbye."

Placing down the telephone, she sighed heavily. While her filing cabinet had a stack of cordial Christmas cards lying on their backs, only two cards adorned her desk, propped up on a childhood picture of her with her parents. One was from her mother, and a second was from a friend that she had met at University.

She wondered if she would hear from Arthur at all over the holidays. For all that she knew, he might not even be in the country; the last time that she had seen him was when Regina Fitzwalter had hosted a special documentary tracking his career through the last few years. The reporter had only given her a brief mention in the program, having taken up most of the morning asking questions of a quite personal nature.

The phone rang. If that was Terrence again, she would....

"Jennifer Camford."

"Jennifer? This is Arthur."

"Arthur?" said Jennifer, both sounding and feeling astonished. "Is that really you? I was just wondering when I would hear from you. Well, donít keep me hanging, tell me - where are you calling from?"

"Near London, actually," said Arthur. "I feel that I must apologize first; after all, it has been some time since we last spoke."

"A few months, Iíd say," Jennifer replied. "Not since the Manor Hotel, in fact. What did happen to you, anyway? I mean, first you had to go on hiding after I got you back to London. Well, thatís probably not too surprising, given that the Government was still after you. But then there was that business about you at Buckingham Palace, and the next thing that I knew, you were all over the news for weeks. I tried to reach you several times, but nobody ever answered your telephone. What happened to you, Arthur? You didnít flee the country, did you?"

"No," he replied. "Or not on account of anything to do with what happened at the Palace. Iíve had to attend to some other matters, and so I was in other parts of the country for a while. I promise that I shall explain it all to you later. Oh, and Iíve had to leave my old office for good; Pendragon Investigations is officially a thing of the past now. So I wouldnít recommend your trying to reach me there. Iím surprised that my old number hasnít been disconnected by now, in fact."

"Actually, the last time that I called - just last week - I did indeed get a message telling me that," said Jennifer. "I wish that youíd called me about that earlier, too. I was becoming worried about you, Arthur - you know what I said before about keeping me informed."

"I can only repeat, Jennifer, that I truly am most sorry. Iím afraid that I have been a little distracted lately with other matters. It wasnít just all those newspaper headlines and television broadcasts, either. The fact is - do not laugh when I tell you this, Jennifer, I pray you - but I have been on a new quest with my knights. Weíve been seeking the Holy Grail."

"The Grail?" she asked. "Youíre not serious, Arthur, are you?"

"I am afraid that this quest is of the utmost seriousness," he said. "I will admit that it is a little difficult to explain, and will take a little time."

"Try me."

Arthur sighed, evidently struggling for his words. "Merlin has been poisoned," he began.

"Well, that didnít take long to explain. And it does make sense - you need the Grail to save him, I suppose? But thatís awful news all the same - how is he?"

"He is alive, for now. As you say, his fate hangs upon whether we can indeed locate the Grail before the poison takes its course."

"You must tell me more about this," she said, glancing down at a flashing light indicating an incoming call. "Oh, but, blast - Iím afraid that I canít speak long. You called just as I was dealing with some important matters relating to my company and Darien Montrose."

"Darien Montrose?" asked Arthur. "So he is still scheming?"

"Iím afraid so," she replied. "And it appears that heís got his eye on the Camford Corporation - as in, planning a hostile takeover. But perhaps we could have lunch together soon. I really do want to learn more about this. I may even be able to help."

"Yes, that would be the best solution," said Arthur. "Shall we meet at the Savoy again? Hopefully I can keep a low enough profile that nobody else there will recognize me, and start that madness up again."

"That would be lovely," she said. "The day after tomorrow, at 12:30, shall we say?"

She put a line through a meeting with Terrence in her diary. Terrence could wait for once.

"I shall very much look forward to seeing you there, and to giving you some proper explanation over what has taken place in the past few months."

"And not before time!" she said, in what she hoped was a light-hearted tone of voice.

But as they said their goodbyes and she placed down the telephone, she did not feel light-hearted at all. This news about Arthur and Merlin was yet one more concern to be added to those that already pressed heavily upon her. The phone rang again, only a minute after she had replaced it.

"Jennifer Camford. Ah, Terrence."

* * * * *

THE FOLLOWING EVENING

"Here you are," said Kevin, halting his cab outside the gates to the grounds surrounding Sir Nigel Seftonís house. "Out you both go."

"Thank you, Kevin," said Mary, climbing out. It was just after sunset and so she had just resumed her human form. She helped Merlin out. "Tell Arthur that we arrived safely."

"Will do, miss," said Kevin. And with that, he drove off.

Mary escorted Merlin down the walk leading from the gates all the way to the front door of Sir Nigelís Victorian Gothic mansion. "So this is your home," he said, looking at it thoughtfully.

"Well, it was my home," she said. "Iím not so certain that it is any more. Not after everything thatís happened lately. Oh, and one thing, Merlin," she went on quickly, before he could ask her about her last remark. "I hope that you donít mind, but youíre going to need to answer to ĎEmrysí all the time that youíre here. I havenít told Father yet about you really being Merlin. I mean, heís still adjusting to the fact that Iím a werewolf and that Iím serving as King Arthurís squire. I think that Iíd better wait until heís managed to come to terms with those two things."

"I suppose that it makes sense," said Merlin. "And Iíve gotten used to the name, as well. It wouldnít do any harm to go by that during this visit."

They reached the front door, and Mary rang the doorbell. A couple of minutes later, Gargrave opened it. "Miss Sefton," he said, looking down at his masterís daughter. "And your friend?" he added, looking at Merlin.

"This is Emrys Hawkins," said Mary, speaking up at once.

"Ah, yes," said the butler, nodding. "Mr. Sefton told me about you, Master Hawkins. Well, come in, both of you."

He ushered them inside, and closed the door behind them. "Your coat, Master Hawkins?" he asked, holding out one hand.

Merlin removed his overcoat, and handed it to Gargrave. The boy was neatly dressed for his visit, wearing a long-sleeved white shirt with a sweater over it, carefully-pressed slacks, and well-tied shoes. His hair had been combed down and he had shaved off what little peach fuzz that he had. He still had his walking-stick with him, which he clutched tightly in one hand.

"The master is in his study," Gargrave continued. "Iíll lead you to him."

"Thank you, Gargrave," said Mary. She and Merlin followed the butler down the hallway until they came to a closed door. Gargrave knocked at it gently. "Sir?" he asked, in a deferential voice. "Your daughter and Master Hawkins have arrived."

"Bring them in, Gargrave," said Sir Nigel, on the other side of the door.

They were ushered into the study. Sir Nigel was seated behind his desk, looking over what appeared to be a number of extremely official-looking government papers. He rose from his chair as they entered the room.

"Ah, Mary," he said. "And this is your friend," he continued, looking closely at Merlin. "Emrys Hawkins, I take it?"

"Yes, sir," said Merlin, nodding.

"Thank you, Gargrave," said Sir Nigel. "You may go now." He sat down as the butler left the room, and looked the boy over closely. Merlin felt grateful that he had carefully gone for an extremely clean-cut, presentable appearance before leaving the estate with Mary.

"So," said Sir Nigel, "you are Arthur Penningtonís ward, I take it?"

"Yes, sir," said Merlin, nodding.

"And you and my daughter are - friends?"

Merlin nodded again. "Yes, sir," he said.

"And your parents? How was it that Arthur Pennington became your guardian?"

"Well, my parents are both dead, sir," said Merlin. "My mother died some years ago, and my father died in May."

"And you entered Arthur Pennington's guardianship after that?" Nigel inquired.

"Actually, sir, I was living with Mr. Pennington even before that," said Merlin. "I never lived with my father at all. He abandoned my mother shortly before I was born." He felt uneasy at admitting this, since it was exactly the sort of thing that would be likely to prejudice Maryís father against him; it certainly did not suggest a very flattering picture of his family background. But he needed to explain his family circumstances, and was unwilling to make anything up. Technically speaking, he supposed that he was engaging in a small falsehood by holding back information, but he doubted that Sir Nigel was ready yet to find out that his father was really an ancient faerie lord who had seduced his mother fifteen centuries ago.

Sir Nigel frowned. "That certainly does not sound very encouraging," he said, looking at the boy sharply. "I must admit, Mary, that you have somewhat disappointed me here. I mean, associating with a boy with such a questionable family background."

"Emrys's not like his father," said Mary quickly. "And Mr. Penningtonís been doing a fine job with him, bringing him up."

"We will see," said Sir Nigel, giving Merlin a dubious glance. "And what is the meaning of that cane?"

"He isnít in the best of health at the moment," the girl explained. "He needs the cane to get about."

Nigel looked over Merlin again, and seemed about to say something, but then apparently changed his mind. "Well, I will be able to decide about him better after I come to know him better," he said. "In the meantime, there are one or two other matters which we must discuss, Mary.

"For a start, I want you to keep out of sight of the servants during the daytime. You know the reason for that as well as I do. I strongly advise you to stay in your room while youíre - in your unusual situation. Iíll find something to explain to Gargrave and the others. And not one word about it to anyone while youíre here. You are only to leave your room between sunset and sunrise. Is that perfectly clear?"

Mary nodded. "Yes, Father," she said. "It is."

"So youíll stay during the daytime in your room in the west wing of the house," Sir Nigel continued. "Master Hawkins, youíll be staying in one of the guest rooms, in the east wing. Gargrave will be showing you there." He looked at the boy more closely, and in a lower voice, said, "And I take it that you know about Maryís - problem?"

"Yes, sir," said Merlin. "And I don't find it all that disturbing, either. Mr. Pennington doesn't, either."

"I see," said Sir Nigel. "Supper will be on the table in an hour, Mary. I trust that youíll be presentable by then?"

"Yes, Father," she said.

"Very well," he said. "I hope to see you both there, on the dot."

* * *

An hour later, Merlin stood by the foot of the stairs, still leaning on his cane. He had freshened up a little in his room and rested briefly; he still found himself becoming tired easily these days. Then, when it was almost time, he had come downstairs and was now waiting quietly for Mary to join him.

He checked his watch. "Just about time, Iíd say," he murmured to himself. "I hope that she wonít be late."

"Here I am, Emrys," said a voice from the top of the stairs. Merlin looked up - and then found himself staring in utter amazement.

Mary had changed from her regular tough and sturdy travelling clothes into a long-sleeved white blouse and an ankle-length green skirt. Her hair had been neatly combed, with a green hair-ribbon in it, and he was more than half-certain that it had been styled into gentle ringlets, though still hiding her ears as usual. A pair of black shoes over her white stockings completed the ensemble, transforming her from the tomboyish hiker that he had first met in Rivencroft into an elegant young lady.

"You might want to close your mouth," she told him, as she descended the stairs, looking at him amusedly. "If it opens any wider, people might start feeling tempted to try throwing things into it for target practice."

"Sorry," said Merlin, who had not even realized how much he had been gaping. "Itís just that - well, Iíve never seen you in a dress before. Actually, Iíve had difficulties imagining you in one."

She nodded. "Well, I obviously couldnít show up for dinner here in jeans now, could I?" She reached the bottom of the stairs. "You look presentable yourself. So, shall we?"

He nodded, gave a courtly bow to her, and held out his hand. After she curtsied back to him, she took it, and let him lead her into the dining room. The table was already set, with a long white tablecloth, and three places with expensive-looking golden silverware and crystal goblets. Sir Nigel was standing by the head of the table, waiting for them.

Mary led Merlin over to the chair to her fatherís left, and pulled it out for him. Merlin looked a bit taken aback at this.

"Thank you, Mary," he said. "But, shouldnít I be doing that for you, instead?"

"I donít think that youíre quite up to it," she replied gently, helping him to sit down, and then pushing the chair back into place. "I hope that you donít mind." She then proceeded to the chair opposite his, on her fatherís right, and seated herself in it.

"Well, good evening, Sir Nigel," said Merlin, turning to his host.

"Good evening, Master Hawkins," said Sir Nigel. Turning to Mary, he said, "Iíve given strict instructions to the staff not to use the silver while youíre here, not in light of what happened last time. I take it that that particular incident was due to your - condition?"

She nodded. "Yes, it was," she said. "And thank you, Father."

He nodded in return. Then the maid began to bring the dinner in.

After a couple of minutes of quiet eating, Sir Nigel spoke again. "So, Master Hawkins, where do you attend school? I understand from - those records pertaining to you and your guardian during the recent Connection unpleasantness, that you were enrolled at Mons Carbi Comprehensive. Is that still the case?"

"Well, it was until I became ill three months ago, sir," said Merlin. "I wasnít able to attend classes afterwards, due to poor health. Ar - Mr. Pennington had to withdraw me because of that, as a matter of fact."

"I see," said Sir Nigel. "Well, I canít say that I have the highest opinion of comprehensive schools - certainly theyíre no match for Eton or Harrow. But since it was your guardianís choice, I canít say that I can comment much on it.

"Now then, I understand, also, that you were reported to have spent some time in New York City, during the ĎMay Eve Madnessí. It was something that came up, again, during that investigation into your guardian some months ago. Would you mind explaining, Master Hawkins, just how you came to be there?"

"Not at all, sir," said Merlin. "I was kidnapped, and wound up being brought to New York by my abductors. I managed to escape, though, and finally managed to return to London."

"I see," said Sir Nigel. "Those same sources, incidentally, stated that you were at the Eyrie Building at that time. Is that also the case?"

"Yes, sir," said Merlin, nodding again. "It was."

"I must admit that I find that piece of information redounding much less to your credit," Sir Nigel continued, speaking now in a very grave voice. "The Eyrie Building is the headquarters of Xanatos Enterprises, and Mr. Xanatos, despite his great wealth and influence, does not enjoy an especially wholesome reputation. He has spent time in prison, and so has his wife, for that matter. And I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if they were still engaging in unethical schemes, even if they've been able to avoid being arrested for them now. Not to mention those rumors in the tabloids - although I place little stock in them myself - about the company that they keep in their home."

Merlin did not have to be told just what Sir Nigel had meant by that, and had to stop himself, with a supreme effort, from standing up then and there and launching into an impassioned defence of Goliath and his clan. While he didnít know for certain just what the man thought of gargoyles, that last remark of his had strongly indicated that he was not especially fond of them, and speaking up on their behalf would only have degenerated the dinner into a particularly ugly argument. Which, of course, was just what he didnít want.

"Well, it was something of an emergency," he said. "I mean, with the ĎMay Eve Madnessí already taking place in Manhattan, I had to find shelter quickly, and couldnít be too choosy. And they were very kind to me while I was there. I even did a little baby-sitting for their son."

Much to his relief, Sir Nigel apparently decided not to pursue that line of questioning any further. "So, Master Hawkins," he continued, "do you have any plans for your future?"

That was one question that Merlin considered to be particularly bad timing, given the fact that it was still genuinely uncertain as to whether he had a future extending past the next year. But he wasnít ready just yet to tell the man about the full nature of his illness. Instead, he said, "Well, Iíve been giving serious thought to an academic career. Particularly something relating to early medieval Welsh history and literature. Itís something that Iíve studied up a lot on already - my mother was Welsh, actually - and I have a real knack for it. I definitely want to write a few books on the subject when I grow up. Iíve already noticed that there are a number of alarmingly widespread popular misconceptions concerning those matters, and feel that itís time to set the record straight on them."

"That certainly sounds like an astonishingly ambitious goal for a boy your age," said Sir Nigel, looking at him with a slight frown. "Almost presumptuous, in fact."

Merlin felt like kicking himself as he realized that he had probably said a little too much already. Certainly he couldnít explain at present how it was that he knew about all those popular misconceptions, not without revealing that he was far older than he looked. "I really am going to have to think these things out much more carefully in advance," he whispered to himself, too low for Sir Nigel to overhear him.

* * *

Mary looked sympathetically at Merlin, as he faced her fatherís latest question. She supposed that she couldnít really blame him for being so inquisitive - after all, it would be like him to want to know more about her new friend, especially given that the circumstances under which they had met had not been too favorable. But still, Merlin did seem a bit ill at ease as he answered them. And she knew herself that many of those questions were ones that it would be almost impossible to answer without revealing much more about himself than he was ready to, just yet.

It came as almost a relief to her when her father turned in his chair to face her. "So, what about you, Mary?" he asked. "I understand that for the past few months, youíve been travelling about with Mr. Pennington, searching for this - Holy Grail, and actually serving as his squire. Even given those rumors about the man, I still find this - well, alarmingly anachronistic."

"Itís true, though," said Mary. "I mean, we have been seeking the Holy Grail together. We havenít found it yet, though."

"I donít suppose that youíre willing to tell us about your experiences upon it?" he asked her.

Mary frowned. That was definitely going to be something of a problem. After all, what could she tell him? That she and Arthur (along with Merlin and Griff) had visited the isle of Avalon, and had actually met Oberon and Titania? That they had faced hauntings and apparitions of the most unsettling variety on one of the Orkneys, alongside a still-alive Macbeth who hadnít died in battle after all, and had walked the earth as a reluctant immortal for nine hundred years? That they had done battle with a Norse fire demon in northern Wales, assisted by a Welsh bard even older than Arthur or Merlin? It was bad enough for him that she was a werewolf now, but if he found out about all those other adventures....

"Not just yet," she said. "Iím sorry, Father, but - well, a lot of the things that have been happening to us are the same sort of thing as my - condition. Really strange, I mean."

"I see," he said, frowning. "Well, perhaps later, then." Clearly he didnít quite want to hear them yet, either. Mary breathed a silent sigh of relief at that.

* * *

"Well, I suppose that you canít really blame him," said Mary, as the two of them went up the main staircase together some minutes later, after supper was done. "I mean - well, he still isnít that happy about some of the changes that have happened to me in the past few months. And since youíre part of those changes, he naturally is going to have a few problems with you."

Merlin nodded. "I only wonder what heís going to think when he finds out that Iím fifteen hundred years older than I look," he said, in a low voice. "Thatís not going to help matters at all."

"I know," she said, nodding. "Well, maybe heíll thaw to you a little by Christmas itself. Weíll just have to wait and see."

* * * * *

 

THE TEA ROOM AT THE SAVOY

"It feels so long since we were last here," said Arthur to Jennifer Camford, as the two of them sat at their table. "I know that it was less than a year ago, but it seems so much longer than that."

"I know what you mean," she said. "Things have been - well, more than a little hectic lately. For you especially, I gather."

"All too true," he agreed. "Hopefully, this time at least Dame Fortune will not conspire against us at this outing."

"I hope so as well," she said stiffly, with a half-smile. "One encounter with a basilisk was more than enough for me."

"And more than enough for myself as well," he echoed in the same tone of strained formality. He averted his eyes from her, desperately trying to think of something to say to break the ice.

They were silent for a moment. The waiter arrived with tea and cakes. As he left, Jennifer opened her mouth, trying to find the words that she was looking for.

"So much has happened in our lives over the past few months, Arthur, that I donít quite know where to begin." She hesitated, and finally said, in a tone of voice both apologetic and incredulous, "Youíve really been on a quest for the Holy Grail?"

Arthur nodded. "Itís true," he said.

"I must admit," she commented, "that Iím still surprised that even you would be doing something like that these days. I mean - is the Holy Grail even still around? Wouldnít it be long gone by now?"

"So some have claimed," he replied. "But I have reason to believe that it still exists upon this earth."

"And is Griff going about with you, clapping coconut shells together?" she asked next, a twinkle appearing briefly in her eyes.

"He accompanies me, yes," said Arthur, "but certainly not carrying out any act so farcical as that which you mention." He spoke a trifle stiffly. "My apologies, Jennifer - I must confess that I had difficulty appreciating that particular film when I saw it."

"Iím sorry," said Jennifer. "I should have realized that." She looked down pensively at her tea.

Now it was Arthurís turn to be left struggling for words. He spoke slowly and earnestly, never breaking his gaze from Jennifer.

"Believe me, Jennifer, when I say that the Quest for the Holy Grail is our last resort, and that if we do not find it, then Merlin will surely die. The mortal science or sorcery available to us, we either cannot or dare not use to save his life, although our allies have sought for a cure in this way. We have journeyed to the enchanted isle of Avalon, home of Oberon and his Children, and asked for help, but they could offer none. When the magic of Avalon guided us to the island of Eynhallow in the Orkneys, I came to realize that the Grail is the solution I desired - the only solution available to us, I fear. It is a desperate mission, perhaps even a futile one, but nevertheless, it is the path that we must take."

"I see," replied Jennifer. "I see. Iím sorry, Arthur; I didn't mean to make light of your errand. I know all too well the stress that a dying loved one can place on you."

Arthur smiled, and reached across the table to take her hands in his. "It is a grave matter," he agreed. "But, my dear Jennifer, it was not because of the Grail that I contacted you."

"Why did you wish to speak to me, then?" she asked, a little surprised.

"Because it is the Christmas season, my lady," he said. "And this is a time when those who have been apart for too long should see each other again, and take comfort from the burdens that have been placed upon them for a while. I wish to invite you to my home for Christmas."

"Indeed?" she asked, looking both astonished and interested. "But just where is that, Arthur? I mean, I understand that you had to abandon your flat after what happened recently, and with all the wandering that you seem to do, I donít have the faintest idea where your home might be now."

"It is true that I could not remain in my former abode," he said, lowering his voice, to make certain that they would not be overheard by any possible eavesdroppers. "However, I am currently living on Captain Marterís estate; for now, it serves as my home. Griff is there as well, along with the rest of the clan; they have lived there for many generations, in secret." He spoke those last words to her in a particularly low voice.

"So youíre inviting me there, where they live?" she asked. "Is that - all right with them? I mean, Iím sure that they donít want that many people knowing where they are, and if I were to come there, well, that might make things awkward for them. I know that I wouldnít say a word to anybody, but they might not know that."

"Iíve spoken with them about it," he said, "and they are willing to permit me to have you for a guest, as long as you keep their secret. And in truth, it would not be so bad were you to meet the rest of the clan, besides Griff and Cavall. The gargoylesí best hope for making peace with our race is for us to learn more about them, and what their true nature is."

"Well, if theyíve agreed to that," said Jennifer, "then I accept. Iím afraid that I wonít be able to come on Christmas Eve - Iím having dinner with my family that night - but Christmas night could work."

"Christmas night would be splendid."

She smiled radiantly, and squeezed Arthurís hands. "Thank you, Arthur," she said. "I could not have hoped for a more wonderful Christmas invitation."

* * * * *

THAT EVENING

Merlin escorted Mary Sefton all the way down the stairs this time, in even more properly gentlemanly fashion than the evening before. "So, did you sleep well?" he asked her.

She nodded. "There wasnít much else to do, actually," she said in a low voice. "Fortunately, the day wasnít all that long. Thank goodness for these long winter nights."

He nodded, as they reached the foot of the stairs. "I napped most of the day as well," he said. "I suppose that I could use the rest. At least Iím not feeling all that poorly at the moment."

Sir Nigel Sefton was standing in the main hall. "Ah, there you are, Mary," he said. "Master Hawkins," he added, with an overly formal nod. "I have news for you."

"What is it, Father?" Mary asked.

"Morgana is coming over for dinner tonight," he replied. "Sheís been away for a while, and for one reason or another, sheís had to ask me to postpone the wedding. Itís probably just as well, given how busy weíve all been in Westminster and Whitehall after that - um, unfortunate event in Buckingham Palace some months ago. Fortunately, things are settling down a bit more for both of us, and we may be able to arrange a fresh day soon. But we decided, in the meantime, that it was time for another dinner here, especially since sheís been wanting very much to see you again."

"Sheís coming here?" Mary asked, doing all that she could to stay calm. Merlin looked just as alarmed and unsettled, though he said nothing.

"Yes," he replied. "She should be here in just a few minutes. Now, during dinner, not one word about your problem, Mary, please. She doesnít know about that, and Iíd like to keep it that way for a while. Thereís no telling how sheíd respond to it if she found out about it. So, both of you keep quiet about it while sheís here. Iím still working on a way of breaking the news to her, eventually, but until then, I donít want her finding out at all. So is that clear? Can I count on both of you?"

"Yes, Father," said Mary, nodding, stifling a sigh.

"Yes, Mr. Sefton," said Merlin, also nodding uncomfortably.

"Very well," he said. "You two go to the sitting-room, and wait there. Iíll send Gargrave for you after she arrives, so that you can present yourselves to her."

"I canít believe it," said Mary, with a sigh, as they entered the sitting-room, and shut the door behind them. "I mean - sheís coming here? For dinner? With us?"

"I feel the same way that you do, Mary," said Merlin, sitting down in an armchair by the fireplace, looking utterly dejected. "Maybe even more so. After all, Iím the one whom she hates. And for good reason, too. After all, I helped Uther seduce her mother."

"I know," said Mary. "But you were only doing it so that Arthur could be born."

"That doesn't change things in her eyes," said Merlin glumly, staring at the floor. "And I've often wondered over the centuries whether she doesn't have a point. Believe me, you don't know how many sleepless nights that act of mine has cost me. Nights when I wonder whether I did the right thing or not. Yes, it was for the greater good, but that doesn't change what I did. Can all the good that Arthur's done make up for that? I've often wondered that."

"That still doesn't justify her poisoning you," said Mary fiercely.

"To her it does," Merlin replied.

* * *

The doorbell rang, and Gargrave went to answer it. "Professor Cornish," he said, upon opening it and seeing Morgana Cornish standing outside. "Come in, please."

"Thank you, Gargrave," said Morgana, stepping over the threshold and into the house.

Nigel came into the main hall to greet her as the butler put away her coat and hat. "Morgana," he said, happily, walking forward. "Thank you for coming. Itís been much too long."

"I agree, Nigel," she said, nodding. "Iím sorry for being away for so long myself. I hope that weíll be able to remedy that problem soon."

Gargrave left the hall for a moment, heading towards the sitting-room. He returned a couple of minutes later, Mary and someone else behind him. "Miss Mary Sefton, maíam," he said, in his usual stiffly dignified voice. "And Master Emrys Hawkins."

Morgana only just managed to remain calm as she saw her hated enemy standing beside her stepdaughter-to-be, dressed in a white-collared shirt, a bright sweater, and carefully-pressed slacks. She had almost forgotten about Maryís feelings for that accursed wizard, the meddler who had helped destroy her family. Now he was actually here, with her. It was a marvel, when she thought over it afterwards, that she had not let out a magical blast at him then and there. But she knew why. She couldnít reveal her true nature to Nigel. Not yet.

Still, there was one consolation as she looked down at the youth. He was still standing, but he needed the help of his cane to do that. A lock of his hair, falling across his forehead, was greying, a very good sign. And there was a look of near-exhaustion in his eyes, one that a casual observer would have missed, but which she herself could clearly see. The poison might be working its way through his system much more slowly than she had hoped, but it was beginning to have the upper hand.

"Master Hawkins," said Gargrave, speaking to the boy, "Professor Morgana Cornish."

"Good evening, Professor Cornish," said Merlin, looking at her uneasily.

"Good evening, Professor Cornish," said Mary, in a stiffly formal tone of voice.

"Mary," said Morgana, suppressing her anger and embracing her stepdaughter-to-be warmly. "Itís so good to see you again. And you look very lovely tonight."

"Thank you, Professor Cornish," said the girl, almost woodenly.

"And good evening to you, Master Hawkins," said Morgana, in an equally wooden voice to Merlin.

Sir Nigel watched the proceedings with a look of puzzlement upon his face, but said nothing. Clearly they had not told him anything yet, Morgana decided. Well, that was just as well. It would save her a considerable amount of trouble. Still, this evening was going to be much less pleasant than she had been hoping. Once again, Merlin, she thought, you bring me nothing but heartache and misfortune. At least you will not be plaguing me for much longer.

* * *

Supper that evening was a hushed affair. Neither Mary nor her young friend uttered more than a few words during the entire meal, and nearly all of what they did say was requests to pass this food or that. They answered any questions that Nigel or Morgana put to them, but would only speak the answer and then fall silent again. Sir Nigel felt very much relieved when the two youngsters were excused from the table, and went back to the sitting-room, while he remained to talk with his fiancee.

"Is anything wrong, Morgana?" he asked her. "Youíve seemed - well, a bit subdued this evening."

"Iím sorry, Nigel," said Morgana, in an apologetic tone of voice. "Itís - well, general matters. Things relating to work. Nothing more than that."

"I see," he said, nodding in an understanding way. "I wonít press you, then. And I hope that you can find a way of resolving those matters soon."

"Thereís something else, actually," she went on. "That boy with Mary. Emrys Hawkins was his name, wasnít it?"

Sir Nigel nodded. "Her boy-friend," he said. "Heís spending the holidays here with us. I understand that heís Arthur Penningtonís ward."

"Oh, dear," said Morgana. "I thought that he looked familiar. But I didnít know that he was associating with Mary."

"Is there something wrong about him?" Nigel asked. "I mean - do you know him, Morgana?"

"Not very well, actually," she replied. "Weíve crossed paths a couple of times in the past, though. Nigel, I do know a little about this boy, though. What did he tell you about his family?"

"Only that his parents are both dead, and that heís being looked after by Mr. Pennington," said Nigel.

Morgana nodded. "Yes, I suppose that he wouldnít have mentioned it to you," she said, in a troubled tone of voice.

"Mentioned what?" asked Nigel. "Do you know his family?"

"I met his father, once," said Morgana gravely. "Nigel, I assume that youíve heard of Nicholas Maddox?"

"The CEO of Maddox Technologies who was involved in arming the Quarrymen in New York?" he said. "Not to mention all those reports that he was somehow involved in the ĎMay Eve Madnessí? Yes, Iíve heard of him." He paused, as he began to understand just what she had been hinting at. "Do you really mean that this boy Emrys is Maddox's son?"

She nodded. "His natural son, to be precise," she said.

"Yes," said Nigel, nodding with a troubled frown forming upon his face. "He did tell me that his father abandoned his mother when he was just a baby. It does fit. And, now that you mention it, those features of his do look rather like Mr. Maddoxís. How did you find out, anyway?"

"I had dealings with him once," said Morgana. "He needed some information from me. I didnít trust him at all - it was before the news broke that heíd been working hand in hand with Mr. Castaway and his followers in New York, supplying them with arms, and all the rest - and I was quite glad when we parted ways afterwards. But I learned about Master Hawkins being his son in the process. I hope that you donít mind my mentioning it, but I felt that it was something that you needed to know."

Sir Nigel nodded. "Thank you, Morgana," he said, his frown deepening. "Yes, Iíll definitely need to speak to Mary about this."

* * *

" ĎThe most famous man of all those times,/ Merlin, who knew the range of all their arts,/ Had built the King his havens, ships, and halls,/ Was also Bard, and knew the starry heavens;/ The people called him Wizard.í"

Mary lowered the leather-bound copy of Tennysonís Idylls of the King that she had been reading aloud from and turned to look at Merlin, who was seated on the sofa in the sitting-room beside her. "So," she asked him, "just how accurate was that, anyway?"

"Well, the words that you just read," said Merlin thoughtfully, "Iíd say that theyíre accurate enough. The rest of the poem, though," - here he glanced at the title of it on the top of the page - "definitely wasnít."

"So Vivien didnít actually lock you up somewhere in the forest of Broceliande?" she asked.

"Her name was Nimue, actually, not Vivien," said Merlin. "Tennyson got the name wrong. I really should have spoken to him about it, but I never got around to meeting him then. And - well, she did do it, and it was in Broceliande, but thatís about as accurate as the poem gets. She certainly wasnít the evil sorceress that the poem makes her out to be."

He looked at the book more closely. "First edition, Iíd say," he said. "It definitely looks Victorian. Though a bit on the dusty side; it must not have been read much before us."

"Weíre probably the first people to have been reading it for over fifty years," said Mary. "I canít believe that itís been disused for so long."

"I suppose that it was up on the bookshelf more to impress guests than to actually be read," said Merlin, with a shrug. "Iíve known a number of people who treated books like that. Itís quite a shame, really, since if youíre not planning to actually read them, then thereís no point in their actually being there. You might as well be using fake bindings in that case."

Mary was about to reply, when there came a knock at the door. "Miss Mary?" asked the butlerís voice.

"Yes, Gargrave?" she asked. "What is it?"

"Your father wishes to speak with you in the study," said Gargrave. "By yourself, if you please."

Mary sighed. "Iím coming," she said. She stood up, handing the book to Merlin. "Iím sorry about that," she said to him. "Hopefully this wonít be long."

Merlin nodded uneasily. "I suppose that itís obvious what prompted that summons," he said, in a glum voice.

"I thought so too," agreed Mary, as she left the room.

* * *

Sir Nigel was seated behind his desk in the study when Mary entered, by himself. There was no trace of her stepmother-to-be in the room, much to the girlís relief. Just now, the last thing in the world that she wanted was an interview with her.

"Ah, Mary," said her father, nodding to her. "Sit down, if you please."

She sat down in the chair opposite his. "What did you want to talk to me about, Father?" she asked.

"Iíve just been speaking with Morgana," he said, a note of sternness creeping into his voice. "And sheís been telling me a little about your new friend, Master Emrys Hawkins."

I knew it, she thought, doing her best to stay calm. "What did she say?" she asked.

"She said that his father was Nicholas Maddox, the CEO of Maddox Technologies. The same Maddox who disappeared in New York two years ago after they discovered that he was secretly supplying weaponry to that vigilante organization over there, the Quarrymen. Not to mention that he was also reportedly involved in much of the chaos that broke out in both New York and London afterwards, all the way down to the ĎMay Eve Madnessí. That boy is the son of a criminal and a terrorist leader. Were you aware of that?"

Mary felt a strong urge to immediately stand up and launch into an indignant tirade against Morgana for having told her father just that. But she restrained herself just in time, reminding herself that it would only do more harm than good. Instead, she merely nodded meekly, and said, "Yes, Father. Heíd already told me about that."

"He did?" cried her father. He stared at her, looking almost staggered.

"Emrys told me about his father," the girl went on. "And that he didnít approve of what Mr. Maddox was doing. His father actually tried to get Emrys to help him, but Emrys wouldnít. So Mr. Maddox made several attempts to capture or kill him. His gang was even the one that kidnapped Emrys in London, just before the ĎMay Eve Madnessí broke out. So, yes, Emrysís father was a criminal, but he himself isnít. He doesnít even share his fatherís surname."

"I see," said Sir Nigel. He was silent for a couple of minutes, clearly uncertain over what to say next. Evidently he had not been prepared for this particular answer.

"Thereís something else that you should know," Mary went on. "I should have told you about it before, also, but I wasnít certain that it was the right time for it. But - Emrys isnít just ill. Heís dying."

"Dying?" her father asked, staring at her. He seemed even more astonished than before.

"Heís been infected with a very rare poison," she said. "Thereís no known medical cure for it, in fact. And thatís why Mr. Pennington and I are looking for the Holy Grail. Itís the only thing that can save his life."

"Thatís why youíre looking for it?" Nigel seemed positively flabbergasted now. "I must admit - well, that does seem more than a little extreme. Youíre looking for a mythical object to cure an illness? I mean, you might just as well be looking for the Golden Fleece or the Fountain of Youth."

"Mr. Pennington says that it really does exist," said Mary. "And - well, maybe the Grail is mythical, Father, but so are werewolves."

"Not too loud with that last word, Mary," her father said at once, in a voice little more than a whisper, as he looked uneasily about him. "Yes, well, youíve made a good point. I do wish that youíd told me about that a bit sooner, though. I suppose that that does explain why youíre accompanying him on this quest of his."

"Yes, Father," said Mary. "Emrys is my friend, and I have to do something to help him."

"I see," said Sir Nigel. He looked down at the papers upon his desk, and for a while said nothing. At last, he looked up to her. "You can go now, Mary. Weíll discuss this some more later."

"Thank you, Father," said Mary. She got up and left the study.

* * *

After Mary had left the sitting-room, Merlin rose to his feet. He put the copy of Tennyson down upon the coffee table, and, leaning on his cane a little, walked to the door. He opened it and stepped out into the hallway.

He found Morgana in the dining room, sitting all alone at the table. She looked up as he entered, and then stared at him sharply, a look of utter hostility upon her face.

"And what do you want?" she asked him, glowering at him. If looks could do harm, her gaze would have been as fatal to him in that moment as that of Medusa.

"I only want to talk, Morgana," he said, sitting down in a chair at the other end of the table. "Nothing more than that."

"Well, deliver your message, Merlin," said Morgana, "and then be done with it. I have nothing to say to you."

"I've put this off for far too long," said Merlin. "If I'd done this a lot sooner, we might both have been spared a lot of misery and pain over the centuries. But - I am deeply sorry, Morgana, for what I did to your mother. I know that I can do nothing to you now to make amends for helping to deceive her, but still, I am sorry."

"I do not care how sorry you are," she replied at once, her voice seething with cold fury. "I want no apologies from you, Merlin. I only want your death. Yours and Arthur's, both. Nothing else will do. Nothing."

"Morgana, you have reason enough to want me dead, and I won't deny that," said Merlin. "But, for pity's sake, leave Arthur alone! He has done nothing to you."

"It was for his sake that you helped Uther kill my father and take my mother," said Morgana. "So he must die as well. The line of Uther Pendragon must be erased from the world."

"Even if it means more scheming from you?" asked Merlin, his eyes filled with distress. "Morgana, you've already brought a great deal of misery to people who had nothing to do with Uther's treatment of your family in the past year. Do you really want to add to that? To place more burdens on your conscience? Believe me, living with the memories of past misdeeds is not a pleasant experience. I should know."

For a moment, she hesitated, but only for a moment. "I have nothing more to say to you, Merlin," she said. "Go away."

"Morgana, consider this," said Merlin, almost desperate now. "It's the Christmas holidays. The time of peace and forgiveness. Can't you put aside your vengeance at least for a few days, rather than stain this season with anger and hatred?"

"I do not care what time of year this is," said Morgana. "Vengeance should have no bounds."

"And what about Mary?" the boy went on. "I mean, we both care about her, and - ."

"I care about her, you mean," she broke in. "You care about nothing but yourself and your precious pupil Arthur. Mary is far better off without you, and someday, when she learns to see past the lies that youíve deluded the entire world into believing for a thousand years and more, sheíll understand it. Then sheíll actually thank me for ridding her life of you."

Merlin sadly rose from his chair. He was about to leave the room, when he found his legs suddenly buckling beneath him. He frantically tightened his hold upon his cane to stop himself from falling, gritting his teeth painfully. Morganaís face lit up at the sight, her eyes watching eagerly.

"So there you are, Emrys," said Mary, coming into the room just then. "I was just looking-" She broke off as she saw him grabbing the back of the chair nearest to him, and rushed over to his side at once. She caught him just as he was about to fall back, and held him tightly. "Itís all right," she said to him, in a soothing tone of voice. "Iíve got you now."

"Thank you, Mary," said Merlin, looking at her relievedly.

Mary turned to face her future stepmother. "I havenít told my father about what you did just yet," she said. "Heís got enough worrying him at the moment without knowing that heís engaged to a witch like you. But you wonít get away with this! Weíll find a cure for him, just you wait and see!"

"There is no cure," said Morgana. "I made certain of that when I brewed that poison, made every effort to ensure that there could be no antidote to it. Nothing in this world can cure it."

"Not even the Holy Grail?" asked Mary, looking at her proudly.

Morgana stared at her, open-mouthed. Merlin turned to the girl, and said to her in a low voice, "I wish that you hadnít said that. Now she knows about the Quest. And if she knows that, she can start interfering with it, place obstacles in our path. We might never find the Grail now."

Morgana suddenly began to laugh. "You little fool, Merlin," she said. "Believing that you and Arthur can solve everything with the Holy Grail. But you might want to consider this. How do you know that it will help you, even if you could find it? After all, remember who your father was, Merlin. How can you be certain that the Grail will not sense him in you, and destroy you, instead? It has little tolerance for such as the Unseelies, after all, and your father was their ruler. Maybe it will strike you down, reduce you to a pile of dust and ashes, and purge the world of your presence."

Merlin stared at her in speechless horror, and swallowed hard. He turned to look at Mary, the signs of panic beginning to rise in his eyes. An ashen look spread over his face.

"Donít listen to her, Merlin," said Mary at once. "Sheís just saying things like that to scare you. What would a bitter old sorceress like her know about the Holy Grail, anyway? Come on, letís get you back to the sitting-room, where you can get some rest."

Merlin nodded mutely. She led him out of the dining-room, looking at him concernedly all the time. Morgana watched them go in silence.

Once they had left, she turned and walked over to the window, pulling apart its curtains and staring out into the night. "Things are - going well," she said to herself, in a not quite steady voice. "Merlin will soon be dead, and nothing in the world can save him. And once he is no more, he can no longer protect my brother. Then I can hunt Arthur down and destroy him at last, as well. And once he is dead, the wrongs that those two have committed against my family will at last be avenged. I will finally have peace."

She paused, continuing to gaze out into the night, a troubled expression upon her features.

"So why donít I feel happy now?"

* * *

Mary helped Merlin sit down upon the sofa. "There, now," she said to him, seating herself beside him. "Are you feeling better now?"

He nodded. "I suppose," he said. "Iím sorry about that, Mary; it was a momentary attack. At least itís over now. So, what did your father want to see you about?"

"Morgana had told him about your father," she replied. "Just the ĎNicholas Maddoxí side of him, not the ĎMadoc Morfryní side, but it was enough to disturb him."

"Well, I canít really blame him for responding that way," said the boy, with a sigh. "I mean, after all, Morgana does have a point about that as well. My father was a monster, the greatest tyrant to ever walk the earth. He was practically the Prince of Darkness. And Iím his son. How do I know that thereís not something of him inside me, working on me all the while?"

"Donít talk like that," said Mary at once. "Youíre not your father. I never met him myself, but I know that youíre nothing at all like him. Youíre a good person, Merlin. You wouldnít do any of the horrible things that heís done."

"But I have," Merlin began. "I helped Uther deceive Igraine, remember?"

"Well, yes," said Mary hesitantly. "But would your father have ever felt guilty over doing something like that? Besides, you only did it so that Britain would have a king like Arthur, not to benefit yourself. Your intentions were good."

"But the act wasn't," said Merlin. "Maybe Morgana's right. Maybe the Grail will reject me or worse, if we do find it. Maybe this quest is an even bigger mistake than I thought."

"Merlin, it was Morgana who said that," said Mary. "And look at her. Sheís tried so many times to kill both you and Arthur. She set up a gun-smuggling ring, and she even set up an assassination scheme to kill the Royals and make it look as if Arthur was behind it. That hardly qualifies her to be an expert on the Grail, I would think."

"But that doesnít change the facts," he said. "Iím the son of the Lord of the Unseelie Court, no matter who it is that says it."

"That doesnít mean a thing," Mary replied. "Look at Arthur for a moment, Merlin. His father was Uther Pendragon, and you told me what a monster he was. Is Arthur a tyrant like his father?"

"But, how do I know that Madocís legacy doesnít live on inside me?" he protested, barely hearing her words. "And even if it doesnít surface in me - ."

"Yes?" she asked, after waiting a minute for him to continue.

"Mary, thereís something else that I need to tell you," said Merlin. "Two things, actually. First, well - for the past fifteen hundred years, Iíve only twice, before I met you, allowed myself to fall in love with anybody. Nimue was the first one, back in Arthurís reign, and Corbie was the second. And that was it. Nobody else before you. Would you like to know why that was?"

"Well, I suppose that itís a bit difficult to get over your girl-friend sealing you up inside something for several years," said Mary thoughtfully. "Though I suppose that youíd probably have come to terms with it long before that little Unseelie Goth-girl came along."

"Youíre right about that," said Merlin. "Nimueís betrayal was painful, even though I knew from the start that she was only a pawn in it. But there was a deeper reason, one why I never looked for love again for over fourteen centuries. I was afraid. Afraid that if I were to fall in love again, I might eventually have children. And if I did - what if they were to become like their grandfather? For all that I knew, Lord Madocís taint might skip a generation, and manifest itself fully in my own offspring. So I deliberately held myself apart, keeping myself from ever becoming close to anyone, in the hopes that, when I died, Madocís line would die with me.

"And the other matter is this. Do you remember that trouble we had with that vampyre who saw himself as a new Jack the Ripper?"

"Indeed I do," said Mary. "And Iíd still like to forget it, too."

"So would I," said the youth. "But, while I was under his spell, I had a terrible vision. I was grown-up again and had a son, and my father came for him and took him away. And he - my father - called my son his heir and successor. It could actually be possible, Mary."

"You got that vision from an insane serial killer," said the girl. "I hardly think that that gives him any credibility, especially since he was only trying to scare you so much that you wouldnít do anything to stop him. Merlin, youíve got to stop taking so seriously the things that people say about you. Especially when those people are almost as bad as your father was."

"Maybe," said Merlin, with a sigh, not looking or sounding at all convinced by her words. He buried his face in his hands.

"I just wish that there was something that we could do about Morgana," Mary went on, "some way of getting her to give up her feud with you and Arthur. I donít suppose that the old ĎTonight you will be visited by three Spiritsí routine would work on her?"

Merlin shook his head. "I have the feeling," he said in a glum tone of voice, "that not even three hundred Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come will be able to cure her of her hatred."

* * *

"Iím sorry that dinner tonight went so poorly, Morgana," Sir Nigel was saying, as he led his fiancee to the door. "Maybe we could do this again next week, after Mary leaves. Sheíll be going back to Mr. Penningtonís after Christmas."

"Actually, Nigel, I was meaning to speak with you about that," said Morgana. "I really donít think that Mary should be spending time with Mr. Pennington, or his ward. I doubt that theyíre a good influence on her. I mean, Pennington was one of the most wanted men in the country for a while; Mary really shouldnít be exposed to his influence."

"Well, Iím not too mad about Pennington," Sir Nigel replied, "but we do know now that heís innocent. Granted, there are a number of questions that Iíd like answered about him, but at least we know that he definitely wasnít the Connection."

"But there are other concerns about him," Morgana continued. "And about Master Hawkins, as well. Such as Maddox being his father."

"Which Iím not too comfortable with myself," said Sir Nigel. "But - well, from what I can tell, the boy didnít actually participate in any of his fatherís criminal activities. That still makes his parentage a very unpleasant scandal, but - well, even the best families have them, sometimes. I should know. Fiona was a very respectable young lady, with not a thing to be said against her personally, but her grandmother - well, there were rumors about her running amok in Paris shortly after the First World War, and getting mixed up in Ďgargoyle sightingsí. So I suppose that every familyís got its own black sheep somewhere. And at least the boy didnít have a choice over who his father was."

"So youíll let her go back to them?" asked Morgana.

"Iím afraid so," said Nigel. "Iím not entirely easy about it, but - well, sheís going through some difficult times at the moment. I canít say much about them just now, but, well - she requires special care, and Pennington, even if he is a bit on the odd side, can provide it much better than I can. So Iím letting him look after her, until things get sorted out for her."

Morgana looked about to say something more, but then apparently changed her mind; instead, she merely nodded. "Well, I wonít press it further," she said. "Just keep a close eye on her, Nigel. I donít want anything horrible happening to her. Good night!"

"Good night, Morgana," said Nigel. He walked with her to her waiting car. She climbed into it, and her chauffeur started it up. Sir Nigel Sefton stood alone on the driveway, watching her car drive off into the night. Then, with a sigh, he turned around, and went back indoors.

"Iím probably going to regret letting her go gadding about with that Arthur Pennington," he muttered to himself, as he closed the front door behind him. "But when the alternativeís locking her up in her room here - at least he knows how to keep a secret."

And there was something else, too, besides that. He couldnít quite put his finger on it as yet, or maybe he could. Mary had been a tough girl, able to take good care of herself, even before that fateful walking tour which she had come back from as a werewolf, but those qualities of hers had apparently increased since she had gone off on that quest as Arthurís squire. She had actually explained to him, calmly and rationally, about why it was wrong to judge young Hawkins by his father, and he had had to admit to himself that she had made a good point. Perhaps this whole searching for the Grail business in the company of the supposed King Arthur was strengthening her character.

"Just as long as he doesnít let anything happen to her," he said to himself, as he walked down the hallway. "Or else heís going to wish that he was still wanted for arms smuggling."

* * * * *

CHRISTMAS NIGHT

Arthur came out from the semi-ruined manor-house to greet Jennifer Camford as she stepped out from Kevinís cab. "Welcome to my current home, my lady," he said, taking her by the hand. "I will admit, it is a step down from Camelot, but it proves serviceable enough in these times."

"So this is where the gargoyles live," said Jennifer, looking at the old stone building.

Arthur nodded. "You will, of course, keep this place a secret," he said. "I doubt that the rest of Britain is ready as yet to accept the fact that gargoyles live near London, and until we can help it become more ready, my friendsí best hope lies in remaining hidden."

"I promise," she said. "I wonít tell anyone. Although," she went on, with a slight smile, "Iím a bit surprised that Kevin didnít have me blindfolded when he brought me here."

"Well, we agreed that that would be a little extreme," said Arthur, as he escorted her into the great hall. It had been decorated for the occasion with holly and ivy upon the walls, and an enormous wreath hung over the fireplace. There was even a small Christmas tree over to one side, ornaments hanging on its branches. "Trust is at its strongest when it works both ways, after all."

"So where are Griff and the others?" Jennifer asked, looking about.

"Out on the walls perched over the courtyard," Arthur replied. "That is where they sleep during the day. But in a few minutes, they should awaken."

"I see that theyíve prepared for the holiday," Jennifer continued, looking at the decorations adorning the hall.

"Actually, most of these are for their own festivities to mark the winter solstice, the longest night of the year," said Arthur. "Itís an ancient gargoyle traditions. Some of them have a certain interest in Christmas, along with other human customs, but on the whole, the clan tends to leave its celebrating to the humans."

Before Jennifer could reply, Captain Colin Marter entered the hall. "This is the human guardian of the clan," said Arthur to her. "Captain Colin Marter." He turned to the retired captain, and said, "And this is Jennifer Camford."

"Itís a pleasure and an honor to meet you, my lady," said Colin, bowing to her slightly.

"Thank you," she replied, curtsying to him in return.

A succession of roars suddenly sounded from outside, as the sun set. Jennifer momentarily and involuntarily started, then said to Arthur, "The gargoyles?"

He nodded. "I donít know how much youíll see of them tonight," he said. "Many of them are still rather shy around those humans whom they do not know especially well. But I have asked them to at least introduce themselves to you tonight. We will have to see how things go from there."

The gargoyles entered the hall shortly afterwards. Michael led the way, followed closely by Griff and Brianna. Many of them halted, looking at Jennifer uncertainly. Griff, however, walked straight up to her at once, without hesitating for even a moment.

"Ah, good evening, Jennifer," he said. "Itís been quite a while."

"Yes, it has," she said, smiling at him. "Hello, Griff."

"Jennifer, Iíd like you to meet Brianna, my mate," the griffon-like gargoyle went on. "Brianna, this is Jennifer Camford."

"Iím pleased to meet you," said Jennifer to Brianna.

"The same likewise," said the Caledonian gargoyle, a tad cautiously.

"And this is Michael, the clan leader," Arthur said, continuing with the introductions, "and this is Boz, his second-in-command...."

* * * * *

"You wanted to see us, Father?" asked Mary, as she and Merlin entered the study together. Both were looking even more well-groomed than before, although Merlin was still adjusting his necktie a little, not feeling quite at ease with it.

"Yes, I did," said Sir Nigel, standing behind the desk. "For a couple of reasons, in fact.

"The first is that our guests will be arriving in a little over an hour. Itís primarily a grown-up Christmas party, but I would appreciate it if you were to be there for the first half hour or so, to make some polite conversation with them. It shouldnít be that long, I can assure you."

"Of course, Father," said Mary, nodding. "And the other matter?"

"Well, Iíve decided to present you with your Christmas presents now," her father continued. "Theyíre a bit on the late side, but you were hardly in a condition to receive them this morning. Theyíre both things that I believe youíll need on this Ďquest for the Holy Grailí, if youíre going to continue on it."

He opened the closet, and took down a couple of objects from its top shelf. "The first is this," he said, handing the girl a small cellular phone. "Use this one wisely now," he told her, "I donít want to be stuck with alarmingly high telephone bills. This is a state-of-the-art satellite-powered mobile telephone, that will allow you to call me from anywhere in the world. I want to keep in regular contact with you, to be certain that you are safe. You will call me on it when you need to, and keep me informed, I hope?"

"Yes, I will, Father," said Mary, nodding. "Thank you very much. But - Iím not certain how I can manage it during the day. I mean - well, my clothes tend to - blend into me whenever I - well - change."

"I can carry it for her, sir," offered Merlin at once. "Or my guardian can."

"Yes, I suppose that that will work," agreed the girl. "Thank you, Emrys."

"And here is my other gift," said Nigel. "Try this on, if you please. I want to make certain that it fits you."

It was a light blue cardigan. Mary picked it up and pulled it on over her blouse, then straightened it out. "Itís a bit large for me, actually," she said, as she rolled up the sleeves a little so that they would not cover her hands.

"Well, youíre still growing, and I needed to make certain that you wouldnít outgrow it too quickly," her father explained. "This isnít just a new sweater. I had to pull a few strings to get it made, and fortunately the people whom I spoke to didnít ask a lot of questions. Itís actually made from kevlar, designed to look like a girlís sweater, so as not to call too much attention to you. I felt it best that youíd need some additional protection on this journey, given how dangerous itís likely to be."

"Thank you, Father," said Mary, pulling it off. "I just hope that we wonít need it."

"So do I," said Sir Nigel.

* * * * *

Arthur and Jennifer sat by the fireplace, quietly dining. The clan had absented itself from the hall, as had Colin Marter and Dulcinea, after the introductions had been over, so as to allow the two of them some privacy. A Yule-log now burned upon the hearth, the flames crackling and roaring brightly, to add to the atmosphere.

"Yes, Montrose is definitely becoming more of a bother," Jennifer admitted. "Heís no longer competing with me, from what I hear. Now heís actually planning to acquire my company for himself. I donít know how he plans to do it, but Iíve had to upgrade the Camford Corporation security system, just in case sabotage is one of the methods that he intends to use. I certainly wouldnít put it past him."

"Nor I," said Arthur, nodding in agreement.

"I must admit," said Jennifer, "you do seem to be understanding this potential Ďhostile take-overí situation much better than I had expected, Arthur. After all, I donít believe that they had such things in your day."

"Not with the surface trappings that you describe," Arthur replied. "Certainly these corporations are more or less new to me; I suppose that I comprehend them best if I see them as merchantsí guilds, and even that does not seem entirely accurate, from what I have been able to gather. But in truth, at the core of it, it is not so different from the way that things were in my time. Those who are strong and greedy eye the goods of their weaker neighbors, and set out to obtain them, by whatever means they can. Then, it was done by invading those weaker neighborsí lands with an army, laying siege to their castles. Darien Montrose may not be sending out a knight-champion to challenge one of your own knights to single combat before your castle walls, or assaulting your castle with catapults and scaling ladders, but the motives and goals are the same, at their core." He was silent for a moment, then added, with a smile, "Griff was correct. The more things change, the more they stay the same."

"That is a good point," said Jennifer, smiling. "I hadnít thought of it quite like that."

"Your news is troubling, all the same," said Arthur, "and all the more so since I am not certain what I can do to help. Although the principles behind this Ďcorporate warfareí are ones that are familiar to me, the methods by which it is conducted are of a nature that I am not entirely prepared for. And also, I am not certain as to how often I will be here. Until we find the Holy Grail, I cannot spend much time in London. I must continue seeking it, wherever the Quest leads me. And while I am away, I can do little to assist you."

"You neednít worry about me that much, Arthur," said Jennifer. "Darien has his share of resources and dirty tricks, but I still know how to protect myself. However, with regard to the Grail - surely you must have had some leads before? I mean, hasnít it already been quested after?"

"Yes," he said, "though I was not a part of the original Quest; I merely saw it begin. Where it may lie now remains a mystery, however - although I am beginning to be able to rule out numerous sites in Britain now."

"How is Merlin holding up?" she asked.

"Fairly well, as yet," said Arthur. "But he canít hold out against it forever, not without help. That is why I hope that we can find it soon. Merlin means a great deal to me. He was my teacher, who did more, perhaps, than any other man, even my own foster-father Sir Ector, to prepare me for being king. Without his guidance, I might never have survived those turbulent early years of my reign, when half the nobles of Britain fought against me, contesting my claim to the throne. He was there whenever I needed him, and now I will be there when he needs me most. I have to."

"I hope that you can help him, as well," said Jennifer nodding. She was silent for a while longer, as they ate, and then spoke again. "And just what will you do, Arthur, after you find the Grail? Do you have any plans beyond that?"

"That I am still uncertain on," he admitted. "And perhaps that is another reason why I am on this quest. A part of me hopes, I suppose, that in finding the Grail, I will also find the answer to that question. If I can find it," he added uneasily. "I both hope and pray that I will."

* * * * *

Merlin stood ill at ease by Maryís side, as Sir Nigel Seftonís guests stood about in the sitting-room, all around them. Most of them were busy speaking to each other in small groups, mainly discussing politics from what he could tell; nearly all of them were fellow Members of Parliament or other important and influential people from Westminster and Whitehall, and their families. They certainly would be the sort of people that heíd invite over for a Christmas party, too, the lad reflected.

Every now and then, one of them would walk over and greet the two youngsters. Naturally, most of their attention was given to Mary, who seemed to be handling it well enough, although Merlin could sense from her movements that she wasnít quite at home here, either. Just now it was a Mr. and Mrs. Reginald Starkham who were conversing with them.

"Itís been a pleasure meeting you, Mary," Mrs. Starkham was saying to her. "Youíre growing up into such a lovely young lady. But, you look much too pale. You really should get some more sun, maybe spend the rest of the holidays in Teneriffe or some place like that."

"Iím afraid that itís not an option at the moment, maíam," said Mary. "Itís - well, complicated. But thank you, anyway."

The Starkhams moved on, and the two youngsters turned to each other. "Do you suppose that we can go now?" Merlin asked, in a low voice.

"I suppose so," she replied. "Iíd say that weíve carried out as much socializing as we need to. Come, letís go to the library. Itíll be quieter there."

The two of them slipped out of the room, and walked down a corridor to the library. Once they were inside, and settled down by the fireplace, Mary spoke.

"I suppose that this would be a good time now to give you your Christmas present, Merlin," she said. She handed him the small gift-wrapped object that she had tucked under her arm since coming downstairs. "Open it," she said, eagerly.

Merlin undid the wrapping, and pulled out the book that had lain inside. The front cover read The Sword and the Staff: A Book of Merlin, by Jeffrey Robbins, and depicted an old man in druidic-style robes and bearing a staff, standing in the middle of what appeared to be Stonehenge, beneath a starry sky. "Thank you, Mary," he said.

"I thought that it might cheer you up a little," said the girl. "I donít know how accurate it is, but then again, it is fiction. And maybe itís more accurate than that Disney animated movie."

"Almost anything would be more accurate than The Sword in the Stone," commented Merlin, with a half-smile. "Oh, and that reminds me. Iíve got a little present for you, Mary, as well."

He reached into his pocket, and pulled out a small box, which he held out to her. Mary took it and opened it. Inside was a small golden locket, at the end of a long and slender golden chain. Engraved upon the locketís cover were a wolf and a hawk, facing each other, pleasant looks upon their faces. She opened the locket, to find a photograph of Merlin inside.

"Itís beautiful, Merlin," she said. "But where did you get it?"

"Oh, itís one of a few things that Iíve acquired over the centuries," he said. "Fortunately, itís safe - not a trace of silver in it. I added the engraving recently; I thought that it would make it more appropriate. And the photograph, too."

"Thank you," she said, embracing him.

"Youíre quite welcome," he said. But his voice did not sound quite joyful. She looked concernedly at him, and at last spoke. "Merlin, is anything the matter?"

"Well," he said, "I still canít help but think that thereís something almost pointless about this. What if this is my last Christmas? Maybe we shouldnít be acting as though weíve still got a future. Maybe we should be preparing for the end."

"Oh, Merlin, donít talk like that," she said. "Weíve hope yet, and never forget it. Iím certain that weíll find the Grail, if we just keep on looking. Weíre not going to give up, and I know that Arthur wonít either." An idea suddenly struck her. "Maybe we should call him up at the estate, and have a few words with him. It might cheer you up a little."

"Well all right," said the boy, though not looking entirely convinced.

Mary pulled out her new cellular phone, switched it on, and punched in the estateís number, then listened to it as it began to ring

* * * * *

Jennifer rested her head on Arthurís shoulder as they sat together on the sofa, peacefully watching the fire flickering. After a momentís silence, she glanced up at him.

"A penny for your thoughts," she said.

"I was just thinking," he replied, "that after all the trials of this past year, these moments in the company of the fairest lady in the kingdom are truly to be cherished." He gently took her hand and kissed it. "But allow me to repay the penny, my lady; what are your thoughts?"

"My thoughts? Well," she said slowly, her face adopting a sphinx-like expression, "actually, I was just reminded that the movie with the coconuts is on the television later this evening."

Arthur looked vaguely horrified for a moment, until Jenniferís face creased with laughter. Realizing with relief that she was joking, he too found himself chuckling. The two of them were just leaning closer to each other for a kiss, when Colin Marterís head appeared around the door.

"Mary Seftonís on the telephone, Arthur, with Merlin," he said. "Theyíd like to speak with you for a moment."

"Oh," said Arthur. "I will come at once."

He and Jennifer got to their feet, and crossed the hall to the telephone. Jennifer listened as Arthur picked up the receiver and spoke. "This is Arthur," he said.

"Arthur?" said Maryís voice, at the other end. "Itís Mary. I just thought that Iíd call you, so that I and Merlin could wish you a merry Christmas."

"Thank you, Mary," he replied. "Oh, and Jennifer Camford is here with me. She came over for Christmas dinner." He turned to Jennifer, and said to her, "Is there anything that you would like to say to them?"

"Why not?" Jennifer said. "I really ought to get to know them a little better. We didnít have quite as much time to get acquainted at Berwick as we ought to have."

Arthur handed her the receiver. "Mary?" she said. "Itís Jennifer Camford. You remember me, donít you?"

"Oh, yes," said Mary. "Hullo, Ms. Camford. Itís nice to hear from you. How are you?"

"Quite fine, thank you," Jennifer replied. "And you?"

"Weíve been doing well," said the girl. "I just thought that we should wish Arthur some Christmas greetings. Itís been a nice Christmas for us both."

"Thatís wonderful," said Jennifer. "Itís been lovely over here, as well. Arthur introduced me to the other gargoyles in Griffís clan. Theyíre really quite pleasant, when you get to know them."

"Just a minute," said the girl. "Um, Ms. Camford, could you give the phone back to Arthur, please? Merlin wants to have a few words with him."

"Of course," said Jennifer. She handed the receiver to Arthur, saying to him as she did so, "Merlin wishes to speak with you."

"Thank you," said Arthur. "Merlin, are you there?"

"Yes, Arthur," answered Merlinís voice. "Iím here."

"So how are you feeling?" Arthur asked him.

"A bit tired," said the lad, "but still fine, more or less. Mary and I will be coming back tomorrow. Then, once the holidays are over, we can resume our quest for the Grail."

"We look forward to seeing you," said Arthur. "And give my regards to Sir Nigel Sefton, please."

"We will," said Merlin. "I donít know if heíll appreciate it, but I suppose that at least heíll accept it. And thank you, Arthur."

"Youíre quite welcome," the former High King replied. "And good-bye."

"Good-bye to you, Arthur," said Merlin. And with that, he hung up.

"They seem to be doing well," said Jennifer, as Arthur turned back to her.

"Indeed they are," he replied. "Let us hope that the future remains bright for them. For them, and for all of us."

She nodded, with a smile. In the adjoining room, the first chords of music began to play. Arthur and Jennifer shared a curious look, and turned to Griff and Brianna, who were just passing.

"Itís the Winter Solstice dance," said Griff, noticing Arthurís curious expression. "Come, Arthur, join us!"

The two couples entered the hall together. Candles were now stacked around it, and various lights adorned the walls as well as the holly, ivy, and other seasonal decorations. They found that many of the gargoyles were now playing on stringed instruments, showing an aptitude for music that Arthur had not seen in them before. The music was soft and slow.

Arthur held out his hand to Jennifer. "May I have this dance, my lady?"

"Iíd be honored," said Jennifer, taking his hand, and beaming.

And so they began to dance as the gargoylesí melodies filled the hall, and the candles flickered and burned low. They edged their way to the center of the floor; the other gargoyles looked on at them, but Arthur and Jennifer remained unaware, locked in each othersí arms, as happy as they had been in a long, long time.

* * * * *

Merlin switched off Maryís phone, and handed it back to her. "Thank you, Mary," he said. "I suppose that that helped a little."

She nodded, and arose, helping him to his feet. "Iím sure that it did, Merlin." She suddenly glanced up, and smiled. "I do believe that weíre standing under the mistletoe."

He looked up at the white-berried sprig hanging over their heads, and nodded. "Youíre right," he said. "So we are. Well, for the sake of tradition...." And with that, the two of them exchanged a brief, chaste kiss.

Neither of them saw Sir Nigel quietly open the door to the library and look in. He stared at them for a moment, an uncertain expression in his eyes, and looked as though he was about to say something. But then he turned away, softly closing the door behind him, without speaking.

Mary led Merlin back to the sofa, and helped him sit down. "Merry Christmas, Merlin," she said to him, "and a hopeful New Year."

THE END