OUT OF THE FRYING PAN
Story by Ed Reynolds
Written by Ed Reynolds
Art by Lain.
Previously on Pendragon…
Jane suddenly reached her other hand to pat Brianna's shoulder. "Ye have nothing to be sorry for, my friend. I should've seen long ago that Henry could never be helped, no matter how much I loved him."
Brianna's tears were now falling freely. "But ..."
Jane squeezed Brianna's hand. "Listen, Brianna ... I should've been the one to be faster." She smiled wistfully, looking up at Griff, who stood at his mate's side. "I still wish my Henry could've been more like you."
~~My Angel Brianna~~
* * *
ARTHUR: I would like to invite Jennifer Camford over here for Christmas if it is all right with you and the rest of the clan.
MICHAEL: I am not entirely certain that this is a wise course to take, Arthur. 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 who’s 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?
~~Home for the Holidays~~
* * * * *
Since Arthur Pendragon had last stayed with the London clan, a fad of redecorating had hit. The principal inspiration was a popular television programme that the clan enjoyed watching, but it had become a project that even the most disinterested and superior of the gargoyles – specifically, Dorcas – could get behind. The gardens were redesigned and the grubby corners of the mansion given a lick of paint and some rearrangement. Plans were being drawn up for new kitchen and common room fittings, with Una being asked to order in many more books on carpentry.
The most radical refurbishment had occurred in the long-ignored quarters of the record keeper. The oak-panelled library had been fitted with low strip lights that were fastened about a foot above the various desks in the dome-shaped room. Although Brock, the badger-like keeper of the London clan scrolls, made sure all the important documents were stowed away elsewhere, it had given him a great sense of pleasure to see the younger hatchlings showing an interest in the library for the first time in a long while. Generations as young as Lucy’s, that once spent their free time idling in the grounds, had been drawn to the new facilities of the library, paid for principally on the back of the windfall profit from the Into the Mystic shop. The Unseelie War might have caused many disasters and placed the world in jeopardy, but the clan had realised that there is nothing like an imminent apocalypse to stimulate interest in the occult.
Brock’s initial pleasure at the attention that he was now receiving had, however, long since dissipated. While he had always been proud of his collection of scrolls and books, he was for the first time getting complaints. The records were written in a hopelessly stuffy and soulless way, the hatchlings complained. While Brock had recorded births, deaths, mating, and the attendance enjoyed on special occasions in the gargoyles’ calendar, there were far more pressing concerns on the minds of his young charges.
"There’s nothing here about the winter solstice celebrations of 1995!" cried Lucy when she realised that her immortal feat of eating all of Perry’s cookies at once on a dare was not recorded forever in the annals of the London clan’s history.
Caspian was dissatisfied as well. "Crompton was a genius with magic; he taught Una everything she knows. But this obituary for him doesn’t have any advice on magic, or any information on his training or temperament or study habits. What about information on his experiments linking laughter to magical spells? Why, it hardly gives an impression of his character at all! It’s a disgrace!"
But it was Perry who really let rip. "Brock, what on earth possessed you to arrange these recipes in chronological order? How am I supposed to find the recipe I want when the files run from 549? This has to be the most hopelessly impractical, slipshod system of arrangement anyone could ever come up with!"
Brock was a gentle-mannered sort of character but his temper gradually rose as his library and his records, nigh on ignored for so long by the clan, became the subject of flippant remarks around the estate. Eventually, he snapped and rushed Aslan and Lucy out of the library just as they were engaged in a complex game involving switching the desk lights on and off in a particular order. Then he slammed the thick-panelled doors shut with such vigour that the tinsel which had been hanging above the door now sailed to the ground.
Having a moment of peace in his reading room, he returned to sorting through a batch of especially old scrolls from the seventh century.
And it was then that he came across something he found very curious indeed.
* * *
"It’s incredibly exciting," Brock was saying as he ushered Arthur and Griff to take seats around one of the desks.
"Slow down, Brock," said Griff. "You still haven’t explained to us what it is that you’ve found. It’s in one of your old scrolls, I take it…"
Brock retorted, perhaps a little stiffly, "It’s in one of my very oldest scrolls; not older than you, Arthur, but old all the same. Seventh century, I think. I can’t believe I’ve never come across it before, but then those ancient scrolls need careful preservation and I try not to wear them out by constantly getting them out and examining them, but… well, well…"
"What have you found?" asked Arthur.
"A lead on your quest," Brock announced, beaming.
He paused for dramatic effect, clearly relishing his first chance to take pride in his library for some time. Then he continued.
"It seems to be a legend of sorts about a gargoyle that was a bit like a griffin… probably an ancestor of yours, Griff. Anyway, he undertook a great quest, carrying with him an object of great religious significance to the humans. Some said it was the Holy Grail, which they believed to be carved from a single emerald.
"Of course, the humans wanted the Grail, or at least wanted the emerald. Whichever it was, they read various legends describing how griffins – for they weren’t best educated on gargoyles, and were unaware of the difference – buried emeralds with their young. So they traced the gargoyle to what was then the clan rookery and looted the place during the day. Then they… they massacred the gargoyle eggs there. A whole generation was wiped out in one swoop. It was a huge tragedy."
Arthur and Griff lowered their heads. Arthur in particular seemed quite upset, his eyes closed and his face extremely grave.
"They would have been only a few generations removed from the gargoyles I knew, those that supported Camelot in its original day," he said slowly. After a few seconds he said quietly to Brock, "Please continue."
Brock nodded. "Well they ransacked the rookery of course, but they never quite found what they were looking for. No gargoyle, no Grail. And their plan totally backfired because then they had no leads left after that. Of course, no human would want to record the history of a dead end Grail quest so the whole event passed out of human lore."
"But not out of gargoyle lore," said Griff proudly. "That certainly does sound like a promising tale in some respects. It would explain how the Grail has been so well hidden… nobody would think that a gargoyle would carry it, we aren’t even remembered in human legends nowadays as sentient creatures. All the same, I’m a little dubious about it. I mean, even you found nothing remarkable about this scroll before, Brock, or you would have remembered it when we were last here."
"I was never looking for the Grail before, though," the bookish gargoyle replied uncertainly. "I may have overlooked it."
"But it still seems like a rather tenuous source. We don’t even know that it was the Holy Grail this gargoyle was transporting, only that the humans briefly believed it to be of religious significance, and that some assumed it to be the Grail. And what became of this gargoyle? Who was he? What do we really know about him? There’s a few things there that seem a bit suspicious."
"On the other hand," said Arthur slowly, "it is entirely possible that this was one of the gargoyles that survived from Camelot. Gargoyles do age slower than humans so the chronology could fit, especially with the special properties of the Grail. And it would be fitting that one of the gargoyles of my first reign, who by and large were good and loyal, would be entrusted to such a task."
Griff shrugged. "Couldn’t hurt to look I suppose. After all, the Grail isn’t in Glastonbury, Aberystwyth, Dinas Bran or the Roslyn Chapel in Scotland. We looked at all those places before Christmas."
"Where exactly was this rookery, Brock?" asked Arthur.
"Exmoor," Brock replied. "I believe I have a map somewhere which should allow you to find it more easily."
"My thanks," said Arthur. "I do not know if this is indeed a location we may find the Grail, but we are fast running out of locations in the British Isles and this may be one of our last hopes."
"There is a problem of course," said Griff cautiously.
Arthur met his knight’s eye. He knew the problem well.
* * * * *
Merlin let out a loud hacking cough before lying back in bed, holding a crumpled tissue, and wearily let his eyelids close: not because he was going to sleep, but because he had not had enough sleep previously to feel comfortable keeping them open. Nonetheless, he still listened carefully as he was addressed.
"We shall not be away more than a day or so," said Arthur, who was standing by his bedside.
The reply came in a faint, breathless voice. "I should be—" Merlin sneezed. "I should be with you… when you find the Grail."
"You need rest, Merlin. This cold you picked up is obviously affecting you much more severely than usual because of the poison. We don’t even know if the lead is legitimate so it would be foolish to drag you out to Exmoor in the middle of winter on a wild goose chase."
"Yes," said Merlin slowly, his head dropping on the pillow. "Geese… are…" he muttered before letting forth a soft snore.
Arthur pulled the covers up slightly and dimmed the bedside lamp before walking out of the room quietly. Mary was in the corridor holding a bowl of soup.
"Is he awake?" she asked.
Arthur shook his head, but Mary was already continuing to speak. She spoke in quick and frantic tones but her voice was dull and she took to rambling more and having to clarify her meaning equally quickly. Thick bags hung under her eyes and her hair flew every which way over her face and across her shoulders. Arthur had a suspicion that she was wearing the same clothes from the previous night and had not had a chance to change after her most recent transformation.
"Oh, good," she was saying. "Hopefully if he can get some good sleep he’ll be able to recover quicker." She placed the soup down on the table. "That?" she added quickly, indicating the bowl. "Oh, I’ll have it. Best keep my strength up too in case I come down with whatever it is and then I can’t look after him as well. Perry practically has a vat of it, mostly boiled up from the Christmas – or winter solstice, I should say – leftovers. He must have caught it when we were staying with Father over Christmas – Merlin, I mean. I shouldn’t have suggested he come with me. Now even if this bug doesn’t kill him it will make him weaker and all the while that poison is working away and—"
Arthur placed his hands on Mary’s shoulders and looked her in the eye with a stern but open expression. "You are doing a fine job, Mary," he said quietly. "Now I order you, go and get some rest."
Mary nodded quietly and smiled. "Yes, that would be nice. I should get some sleep before the sun rises since Tiberius won’t be able to look in then. Thank goodness Captain Marter volunteered to check in on him during the daytime while I’m in wolf form or we’d be in terrible trouble. Oh, Arthur… what did you want to see Merlin and me about?"
"I was just going to inform you that Griff and I are going to investigate a Grail lead that Brock found for us. We shall leave for Exmoor this afternoon, as soon as it’s dark."
Mary’s eyes widened. "Oh… I should come with you, prepare maps and… do my squire duties… But…"
Although her tired voice was losing its coherency, her long glances towards the door of Merlin’s room, still ajar from when Arthur had left it, explained everything Arthur could want to know.
"There is no need for that, Mary. Griff and I shall go alone."
"Are you sure? I mean, I want to stay and Merlin might need help but… I’m your squire now. I should be with you."
"In this case, I believe I need you looking after Merlin during this dark time. You can also use any free time to research other Grail leads in case this one turns out to be false."
Mary opened her mouth to protest but then nodded and gave a wan smile. "I’ll see if I can arrange some food before you go. And transport—"
"Kevin has already agreed to pick us up as soon as it is dark tomorrow."
"Right. Well, then… okay. Good luck, Arthur. And… thanks."
She smiled, her face seeming even paler than usual when contrasted with the darkness of her eyes.
"Not at all," said Arthur. "Now: sleep."
Arthur watched as she moved down the hall towards the spare room that the London clan had found for her; her shoulders were hunched with exhaustion. He took one last glance through the opening of the door to make sure that Merlin was still asleep and then drew it to a close.
* * * * *
The oak on the estate’s gardens rustled in the morning air. The light of a crescent moon filtered through the barren branches, creating a blotched effect on the ground below where Griff and Brianna were sitting, Brianna leaning into Griff’s wings.
"Why do ye have to go?" Brianna whispered softly. "Ye only just got back, and there was me not around."
"Yes, you were busy with Jane trying to negotiate better legal protection for the Caledonian clan’s homelands, weren’t you? How is that coming along?"
"Not bad at all. Jane has a contact in the… what did she call it now… the LSE. London School of Economics or some such place. Anyway, the clan has a collection of herbs and various plants that ye just don’t find anywhere else nowadays. It’s a good a place as any to start arguing our corner. Gives me a headache though, the jargon does."
"I can imagine. I’m just happy I got to go into a line of work I’ve always loved. I’d hate to be doing the books at the Soho shop or something like that."
"Well, it won’t be easy. The clan wants none of the attention, and a part of me agrees. But the humans aren’t to be trusted. Any chance we have to keep ahead of them is good in my book. And using their own laws against them seems a good a way as any. At least, it keeps Jane occupied and her mind off… other things."
"How is she?"
"Getting there, I think, but every now and then she’ll say things she misses about that rat Henry, would you believe!"
"She was with him a long time and stuck with him for a long time in spite of everything. Perhaps it’s only to be expected."
"I suppose so but it makes my blood boil to even think about it. Anyway, don’t think yuir little trick threw me off there, Griff. I still wish Arthur could make someone else do his dirty work for once."
"We both have responsibilities that keep us apart. Arthur needs me, Bri," Griff replied, in the same hushed tone: affectionate, but resolute. "I’m his first knight. With Merlin in the condition he’s in, I cannot abandon him. Anyway, Leba and Rory aren’t due back from Northern Ireland for another few days and Dulcinea has been volunteering at the local stables just lately so I’m also his only knight at present. I’m not sure if any in the London clan would be willing to help… although given what’s been said about him, I suppose not."
"Ah yes, the ‘Worry Wart’ cartoons that have been circulated with Arthur spending his time moaning and pinching money off Marter and the London clan? I’d love to see what he’d make of that if he knew."
"Well it’s not so far off the mark, is it?"
"It’s very far from the mark. Anyway, Michael has said that Arthur is welcome to stay."
"He’s being polite. Ye know he’s getting jumpy at the thought of Arthur attracting attention. And him bringing his human friend to dinner here at that."
"Oh, have yuir way then, I should have known ye’d stick up for him."
"Look, Bri, I know you’re upset at my leaving. But it won’t be for so long. Only a couple of nights, I expect."
"It’s not just that. Ye’ve already spent so long away looking for the Grail so far, and if it is a dead end ye’ll be off again. Even if ye find the Grail, sooner or later there’ll be other quests to take ye away? I just want ye here, Griff. Here safe and well."
"And you know there’s nothing I’d like better than to be here with you. But I can’t. I have responsibilities."
Brianna wriggled forward slightly, causing Griff to loosen the folds of his wings. She sat forward. Her eyes glistened with tears in the moonlight as she spoke. Her voice was brittle.
"Ye always were an adventurer, Griff. I know ye’d not stay around here long if it could be helped, me or no. Yuir heart is always on the horizon, looking to the next adventure. This summer when Arthur and Merlin went on the run, ye were miserable as sin not able to go with them."
"Bri," Griff began in a pained tone.
"I know ye love me, Griff, and I love ye too. But it’s hard. Hard watching ye go from danger to greater danger, not knowing when ye’ll be back when ye’re gone and not knowing how long it is until ye’re off when ye’re here."
"You could… come with me?"
"I always thought ye’d ask sooner."
"I just assumed…"
"There’s so much to do here… I canne travel too far from my clan, and with Jane how she is at the moment… she’s doing a lot for me and I ought to return the favour. At least she’s staying with family this Christmas. But no, it wouldn’t be right for me in truth. I just… I’m not a wandering heart like you, Griff."
"Anyway… I don’t really know what good I’d be on a quest for some holy human trinket anyway. I know ye’re loyal to Arthur, Griff, but their ways and ours will never be the same and I couldn’t really support a quest like that. I don’t even know how ye can."
"As far as I understand, the quest is an all-or-nothing deal so that makes sense. I can support the quest because I do believe that the Grail is out there and because I owe it to my friends to stick by them. But you have other things on your plate of course."
"I just hope yuir blind loyalty doesn’t lead you into more trouble than ye can manage. Ye might be a hopeless romantic, Griff, but I never was all that sure ye had common sense."
Griff smiled and placed his taloned hand on her shoulder and gently turned her around so that they were face to face and he could look her directly in the eye.
"Bri, nothing is going to happen to me," he said. "This new lead may not even be anything special, but even if it is, Arthur and I can deal with it. And that’s how it’s going to be: the bad guys will come and we’ll fight them off and win. I’ll be back before you know it, Brianna, and I promise that wherever I go, my heart will be with you, and I will always come back to you."
She sank back into his arms and they held each other tenderly, tears welling up in their eyes, until the sun peeked over the horizon for the day and they turned to stone, still wrapped in each others’ arms.
* * * * *
Night had long since fallen by the time Kevin’s black taxi reached Exmoor. Eventually, the taxi parked and Arthur and Griff dismounted, the latter extremely glad of the chance to stretch his wings after four hours of travelling in the back seat of the vehicle.
"Good job there’s long nights at this time of year," said Kevin cheerfully. "Well there you go, your majesty. You want to sort out a time for me to come and pick you up now?"
"Yes," said Arthur. "I think tomorrow midnight would be best. That would give us a day of exploration time and hopefully we’ll be able to ascertain whether or not the site is worth investigating further."
"Fair enough," nodded Kevin. "I must say, I’d rather be indoors in this weather. Bloke could freeze to death just walking down the pub."
The winds were indeed perishingly cold, and although there was no snow, this simply made the landscape appear bleaker and more depressing in a way. Arthur had dressed in a thick duffel jacket with several layers underneath to keep him warm. He wore a green rucksack of army issue that was cheaply available in the local shop, which had sufficient supplies for the night. Even Griff had packed a pair of old mittens and a woolly hat, just in case.
"Gargoyles can pretty much withstand the cold," he explained a trifle defensively. "But I wouldn’t mind it a few degrees warmer all the same."
"Let’s hope it clears for New Year’s Eve," said Kevin. "I wanted to see the fireworks in Trafalgar Square. Anyway, you’ve got other business so I’ll let you get on with it. Good luck, both of you!"
"Thank you, Kevin," said Arthur graciously.
"I’ll see you tomorrow!" he shouted through the window of the taxi as he turned and drove away.
Arthur and Griff watched the lights disappear down the road and off into the distance, obscured from sight. They flicked on their torches, the thick red home emergency type with extremely powerful bulbs.
"I believe we should be heading east a little way," said Griff, his head nodding between a point on the horizon and the compass that he was cradling from the wind. "Good thing we practised orienteering when we were hatchlings – comes in dead handy at times like these."
The pair wandered off across the moor. They soon found that it was easier not to talk. The winds had begun to howl intensely and when they had to consult the map that Brock had drawn for them, they had difficulty enough opening it without it being blown away. For some time they simply wandered trying to find adequate landmarks that would allow them to gauge the distance they had travelled. On two occasions, Arthur declared that they must surely be lost, but Griff’s buoyant optimism seemed to be infectious as he determined that they were not lost but merely had suffered a ‘temporary directional setback.’ This turned out to be more than a good-natured but euphemistic attempt to excuse their situation as by midnight they did stumble across an indentation in the ground that seemed to fit the description they were given. Arthur suspected this was more luck than judgement but did not mention it.
Griff felt around in the dark to where the large rock was and rubbed his hands along. There were thin scratches in the side of the stone that looked like very faint claw marks in torchlight.
"This must be it," he said excitedly. "These marks must have been left by the gargoyles all those years ago. And now if I can just lift this stone up, we’re in business."
The pair managed to pull the large rock up with some difficulty. It had become depressed into the ground and so Griff had to dig some of the earth away, and scrape off the moss, before he could get a sufficient grip to lift it. Eventually though, the stone rolled aside and Arthur and Griff peered down into the space below. It was pitch black.
Arthur flicked his torch down until he saw a stone floor. "Hello?" he cried.
"Well, nothing else for it," said Griff, shrugging his shoulders and leaping into the cave.
He landed with a bump and instantly flicked his torch around. The cave seemed to swallow the light whole and gape for more. Arthur dropped in alongside him, offering a second beam of light but still there was little to be seen. He drew Excalibur and held it over his head. As it had done on a few occasions before, a light slowly shone down the blade until eventually it seemed to explode into a brilliant beam of radiant white light. Arthur and Griff had to look away from it but for a moment as they were totally dazzled.
The shadows retreated to the edges of the chamber, the walls of which seemed principally green-grey or muddy hues of green. Some moss was clinging to one of the walls where a small rivulet trickled down from the sealing. A few mice scurried into the corner on sight of the light, and cobwebs decorated the corners. It seemed that the room was nearly circular, but had a raised central platform. Its entire size could not have been more than twenty square feet.
"Granite," mused Griff as he went to touch one of the walls. "Albeit a bit stained."
"Is that strange?" asked Arthur.
"Well I’m no geologist but I did think that Exmoor was made up more of sedimentary rocks. I must have been mistaken. Or perhaps the gargoyles that lived here brought the granite from nearby."
"Either way, it looks like a dead end."
"Yes… if this is the site of the rookery, it certainly appears to be long abandoned. Maybe when the sun rises you’ll be able to look around a bit more and see if there are any clues."
"I suppose," said Arthur glumly, taking a seat on a slightly raised section in the middle of the floor. "If Brock’s account is true, there is really no reason to assume that the gargoyle that is thought to bear the Grail is anywhere nearby. This was the scene of a great massacre after all. He may have wanted to go far away rather than hang around to be hunted again."
"But if we can’t find clues here, where can we look?"
"I don’t know," sighed Arthur, lowering his sword (leaving the light to fade rapidly so that he needed to prop his torch on his lap to see what he was doing), opening his rucksack and pulling out a thick flask. "I just don’t know."
"What’s in the flask?" asked Griff absently as he propped the flashlight beside him and reached for his own pack.
"Tea, I believe," said Arthur with distaste as he fastened the zip on the rucksack again, and turned to unscrew the top of the flask. "Mary kindly prepared it for me. I would rather it was prune juice of course, but…"
He looked surprised as he opened the flask and the smell that greeted him was the unmistakable smell of prune juice. Griff noticed it too, because he laughed.
"Looks like Mary knows you better than you think!" said Griff. "I never cared for tea all that much myself. Una and Leo drink cup after cup, though, when they’re minding the shop. And it’s better than that coffee stuff, I suppose."
"Yes, I must thank Mary when we get back," said Arthur, taking a swig of the prune juice. "She has had a very hard time the last several months with her curse, Morgana’s engagement to her father and now Merlin being poisoned."
"Mmm," said Griff as he munched on a sandwich. "She does have a lot on her plate. Let’s just hope nobody connects her to you. It’s bad enough that there’s all this hype surrounding you since the Buckingham Palace incident, but if you were connected to Sir Nigel’s daughter it would raise some very awkward questions."
"Certainly. We have been lucky so far: our exploits have been confined to remote areas or late night so we’ve never really needed to risk the glare of public attention. Admittedly, I did get a few strange glances at Glastonbury but nobody actually came out and said anything to me about it."
"It would be a bit embarrassing for most people to come up to a total stranger and say ‘’ere, are you King Arthur?’ I suppose."
"All the same, the press seems to have taken the whole matter in its stride."
"I guess all that business with Goliath’s clan and the Unseelie Court getting up to no good has softened them to this kind of story. Plus it didn’t help that Peter Morwood-Smythe and Lydia Duane have done a lot of research into the matter and are coming up with solid archaeological proof of your reign, such as Merlin’s scrolls."
"Perhaps, although the truth is that there seems to be a lot of fiction mixed in with the fact as well. Merlin was telling me about a film version he saw where I was called ‘Wart’ and we both turned into fishes and squirrels."
His voice took a disapproving tone, but Griff only chuckled and took another bite out of his sandwich.
"Perhaps we should contact those archaeologists again?" mused Griff. "When the Grail quest is over? You might be able to help them with their research, and it would definitely help you gain a bit of credibility. Then again, in a way you don’t want to be any more famous."
"There’s the bind. I know I have a greater mission to fulfil and I cannot skulk forever in the shadows, waiting for my turn to come, imposing myself upon my allies for shelter and funds. Although they are too polite to say, I know that I have stretched the bounds of their charity. But unveiling myself to the world has so many inherent problems. I still know quite little about its politics and geography, and the world seems so much bigger than it was in the time of my original rule."
"You were thrown into the deep end before, when you found out you were king of course. And you’d have your knights alongside you to – hey!"
"What?" Arthur turned to see Griff’s face crease with delight, the shadows of the low torchlight casting strange shadows across his beaming face.
"Just an idea that occurred to me just now. I was thinking of the things I used to learn as a hatchling. I used to spend quite a lot of time in the library then, mostly reading adventure stories and acts of gargoyle bravery past. Anyway, I remember reading that some gargoyles had placed secret entrances to the true parts of their rookeries to deter spies. If there was a gargoyle here once then he would certainly have wanted to make himself scarce after the terrible fate of his younger generation. The entrance usually was accessible through some kind of weakness in the wall."
Griff was now pacing up and down the wall, torch in hand, studying it carefully. "Look… yes, it seems like this part of the wall is coloured differently from the rest. It’s a very slight difference. Probably the weakness in the wall is low – yes, see, there’s a small hole. And if I reach through…"
Arthur could not see especially well with the only sources of light zooming around the room as Griff held the torch between his teeth. Nonetheless he waited and before a few seconds had passed he heard a long slow crunching sound, like thick rock giving way after a long period of being sealed. He slung his pack over his shoulder and pointed the torch forward.
"A doorway," he gasped. "Splendid work, Griff! This must be the entrance to the rest of the cave."
Griff took his torch and also pointed the light in. "Yes… bit dark, though. Oh well, shall we go in?"
The pair stepped forward and managed to fit into the tunnel. They had to go single file, with Arthur going first, holding Excalibur aloft once more. Its light shone a good way ahead.
"I can’t see an end to it," Arthur said.
"Let’s just hope it doesn’t get any narrower, or lower. Gargoyles can move pretty quickly on all fours but I don’t suppose humans can."
"Thinking about it, it is strange that we did not notice the difference in the wall’s colouring when we first entered the cave."
"How do you mean?"
"Well, when you pointed it out, it was quite clear that the rocks were of different shades. But when we first cast our eye around the room we must have completely missed it."
"Perhaps. But then, why look a gift horse in the mouth? Well, unless you happen to be the Trojans at any rate."
"It does seem a little easy though. I wonder if there will be guards and suchlike. In fact, I think I see something… no, someone… coming out of the darkness."
Griff peered over his shoulder, while Arthur brought his sword closer to him, so that its light was not quite as far reaching, but he was also ready to fight if needs be. They looked to see a figure hobbling down the corridor before them, and waited with silence only broken by the sound of their breathing.
But the figure did not approach any closer and even the powerful light of Excalibur could not penetrate far enough down the corridor to make out the distant figure. Arthur shouted out in a clear but earnest fashion, speaking slowly so that the echoes did not drown out his speech:
"Greetings, friend," said Arthur. "My name is Arthur Pendragon, former king of Britain, and this is my loyal knight Sir Griff. We are on a quest, seeking the—"
"I care not what you seek for," came a loud sneer down the tunnel, echoing around to drive the message home. The voice was cold and the hollow repetition lent it a cruel edge. "Do you really think I would sit and bandy words with the likes of you, intruders?"
"If you are the gargoyle our scrolls speak of, then I understand how you may feel. But—"
"You know nothing. But all the same I shall put you to the test if that is your wish. To the ultimate test."
Arthur and Griff shared a look that was both hopeful and nervous: it appeared that they were on the right track at least. After hesitating a moment to let the echoes fade, Arthur shouted out down the tunnel once more.
"What kind of test?"
There was an even longer pause as Arthur heard his words bounce back to him. Then, loudly, there came the single word reply, heard again and again as it vibrated down the corridor:
Arthur let out a scream of pain as his body seemed to be charged with a kind of electrical energy. He found his grip on Excalibur loosening. The sword clattered to the floor, the shadows crouched under its sheath glumly. Griff gave a shout but then it seemed that Arthur had tumbled through the very floor as in moments, he had disappeared out of sight.
Griff fell to the ground and felt along the rock, but there was no trace of an entrance at all. He gasped and looked down the corridor, although the figure was now almost impossible to make out with the only source of light being Excalibur, which was on the ground where Arthur had dropped it, rocking to and fro, casting strange light effects across the gnarled and ancient walls.
"Wh-where’s Arthur?" he cried.
"Forget about your king, gargoyle, for he is beyond your help now," the voice sneered.
* * *
Arthur gave a brief cry of pain as he fell to the hard floor on his hands and knees. He got up, feeling a stinging wetness along his hands and he knew had grazed them without looking. Instead, his attention was caught by something else.
He was in a square room, a narrow cell of sorts clearly made out of thick slabs of rock. If he stretched his hands out he could touch both walls, and on either side there were thick flaming torches mounted on the walls. There was no apparent ceiling to the chamber; the light simply failed to penetrate after a certain distance. Arthur could not remember how far he had fallen. He felt that it could not have been too far given the relatively minor state of his injuries, but he had little time to ponder the matter. As he looked straight ahead of him to where, in a normal cell, the door might be, he saw something that put the matter quite out of his mind.
The figure standing there appeared black in the torchlight. He was wearing thick traditional metal armour that covered his entire face and body, and by his side were two sheathed swords. The newcomer took a step forward.
Arthur flinched, expecting a fight. If only he still had Excalibur…
* * *
Griff had his head pressed to the ground, trying desperately to hear something below. Very vaguely he heard what sounded like a muffled scream, but then there was nothing more. He looked back down the corridor.
"Who are you?" he cried. "Why are you doing this? If you think Arthur’s bad because he’s human or something daft like that, then you’ve got totally the wrong end of the stick!"
Slowly, the figure seemed to approach. Griff tensed himself, ready to fight if needs be, but also continued to shout out as quickly as he could without his words being garbled by the echoes.
"Arthur is a good man! Please, free him now!"
He had opened his mouth to speak again, but then he stopped as the figure finally came into view.
It was a gargoyle. A griffin-like gargoyle for that matter, Griff considered, and perhaps he would appear like an older version of Griff if only his feathers were not a darker shade and his beak a dark muddy-green that curved in a slightly cruel fashion. His eyes were bloodshot and cold.
"Expecting somebody else?" the gargoyle sneered. "A human?"
"No, not really. We learnt before we came that there were gargoyles here long ago. And this is a gargoyle rookery, isn’t it?"
"Yes. You will know then that over a thousand years ago, humans seeking what your friend is seeking broke in and murdered dozens of eggs before they were even hatched!"
"Can you imagine the pain of that? The misery?"
"You were there?"
"Of course I was."
Griff’s eyes widened with excitement. "But that was so long ago. You must have found a way to sustain yourself… which means…"
"Enough talking!" cried the gargoyle. "I am through with you, human-friend!"
With a deep growl, the elderly gargoyle seemed to leap upwards and clutch the ceiling. Griff had readied himself for an assault but now paused briefly, unsure what to make of this strange form of battle.
And he still was not sure what to make of it when a moment later the ground began to shake and he heard a terrible gurgling before a torrent of water blasted straight through the narrow tunnel at him, forcing him backwards. For a moment he gasped for breath before he was overcome completely and felt his feet take off the ground as the force of the water pulled him back.
Seconds later he felt air on his face as he found himself in the main rookery chamber. He was drenched and gasping for breath but the torrent of water had ceased and there was simply a thin layer in the larger circular chamber. He leapt to his feet and moved towards the door where he came from but his cold and wet talons fell clumsily against hard rock.
Excalibur had been in the tunnel and now was gone. Griff had no light to see by at all except for brief glimpses of the stars from behind the grim cloudy night. He felt desperately around for the false wall, but after a few moments he realised that his failure to find the entrance was not because he could not see it and was feeling in the wrong place. It was because the entrance had ceased to exist.
He took a step back, shivering as the frigid water lapped against his feet. There was silence except for the silent gurgle of water as it lapped around the room.
"Well, that’s torn it," Griff muttered to himself. "Arthur’s gone and so is the entrance. There must be a way around this situation… although what, I’m not sure. I’m starting to wish we’d brought Bri or one of the other gargoyles after all… some help would be very useful right about now."
And as he stood in thought, he thought he heard a sound from above, and the shouting of a female voice that sounded terribly familiar. Griff’s heart leapt in his throat and feeling the blood pounding against his skin with excitement as he leapt out of the chamber in a big a bound as he could manage, he felt sure that the voice he heard was…
And as he stood on the moor there was the unmistakable figure of Brianna, holding one of the thick torches and grinning broadly at him. "I thought ye might want some help," she said.
Griff rushed and swept her up off the ground, whirling her in the air in a moment of delight. "It’s like a wish come true!" he cried. "But how did you know to follow us, or where to come?"
"I didn’t know there’d be trouble, I just figured that my business in London could wait for a while after all. After Kevin left I thought, ‘Why should I let ye have all the fun’? So I glided along behind ye. Took me a while to find ye on the moor, but Brock let me look at the map too before I left. Gave me enough of a hint as to where I needed to go to keep track of ye and Arthur."
Griff beamed for a moment but then his demeanour hardened and became more professional again, pulling away from his embrace with Brianna. "Arthur has been taken," he explained. "Somehow the gargoyle who was thought to be guarding the Grail has survived all these years and he seems to blame Arthur because humans destroyed his eggs."
"Wouldn’t you?" said Brianna darkly. "I canna altogether blame him for that opinion after what humans have done to him."
Griff’s body stiffened and he pulled away from Brianna further. "Of course I understand that it’s difficult to trust all humans after the problems we’ve had between our species," he said, somewhat ruffled. "But we’re talking about King Arthur here, and he’s always been a great ally to gargoyle-kind. Chances are this gargoyle was in the egg in or not very long after Arthur’s original reign. He should know better than this!"
"That’s no reason for him to believe Arthur’s claim! He never saw Arthur in the flesh until now and probably never even knew about his return. And to be perfectly honest, Griff, ye always have been a bit soft in the head when it comes to humans, especially Arthur. The only reason my clan survived as long as it did was by giving the humans a wide berth and that’s the best way to stay safe."
"But, Brianna, I thought all that business with Jane Nelson—"
"Jane may be an exception, it’s true, but I can’t help how I feel, Griff. One or two good humans doesn’t say much for a species any more than one or two bad gargoyles say much for our lot. It’s a fact that when humans and gargoyles meet, gargoyles tend to end up dead."
"Brianna, it- it’s Arthur we’re talking about here!"
"I don’t know Arthur all that well, Griff, but I know he’s done some good things. But he also is dragging ye off to far corners of the country when ye’ve got no business helping him on this mission to help his friend—"
"Not just his friend! And Bri, where is this coming from? It’s not as though there’s a great divide between gargoyle problems and human problems. Arthur has fought against threats to both species – giants, members of the Unseelie Court and—"
He paused, and took a deep breath. "Look, we don’t have time to argue. The fact is, we’ve got to stop that gargoyle before he makes a terrible mistake and does away with one of the staunchest human allies gargoyle kind has had in the last two thousand years."
Brianna nodded sullenly. "So, any plans then?"
"None yet. The gargoyle’s lair is underground but it seems to have some kind of magical properties. Wherever he is, Arthur—"
"Arthur?" came a rumbling voice from nearby.
The gargoyles turned to see another figure crossing the landscape, barely visible except in that he smothered the starlight with his enormous size. Brianna cast her torch up doubtfully to get a better view. It seemed to be twice the size even of Griff, and perhaps taller still, with greasy hair and clad in animal skins. It leered with rotten teeth as it trundled towards the pair of gargoyles.
"Is that a giant?" she asked.
"I guess so," said Griff grimly.
"Arthur Pendragon," the giant snarled. "That was his name. That was the name of the little man that killed my brother and scurried away when I last woke from my slumber. Orgoglio will smash!"
"Watch out!" cried Griff, pushing Brianna aside as a massive club was brought down on the ground, leaving a huge crater in the moss.
The gargoyles took to all fours and dashed away, but Orgoglio gave chase. He was not as fast, but his giant strides allowed him to thunder forward, while his roars carried wide over the empty moors.
"Who is that?" cried Brianna.
Griff called back loudly over the sound of Orgoglio’s enraged snarling and bellowing. "I take it that’s Orgoglio, the leader of the Giants of Geen. I never met him myself but I understand Arthur had a run-in with him last summer when he was on the run from the law."
"But what’s he doing here?"
"I don’t know. I thought he was on the Isle of Man, still asleep after his last encounter with Arthur. Something very strange is going on tonight."
They were dashing around in a circle now, determined to remain close to the rookery entrance, but managing to keep far enough ahead of Orgoglio that they did not have to turn and do battle.
"Well we’re not getting younger and the dawn isn’t getting any further off," said Brianna as she cast her eyes back.
"We’ve definitely got to take that giant down. Listen, you see if you can sneak behind him and catch him off balance."
"But what are you going to do?"
"The old-fashioned way, of course – hey, ugly!"
Griff turned and bellowed at Orgoglio. The giant had seemed quite happy – for a giant – chasing and shouting various insults at the gargoyles. Now he stopped in utter shock, his huge puffy face seeming to quiver in the near-blackness. So focused was his rage that he did not notice Brianna sneaking away.
"You dare to defy me, little man?"
"I’m not a man," said Griff matter-of-factly. "I’m a gargoyle. Now look here, all this running about and causing havoc has got to stop. You know what they say – it’s all fun and games until someone loses a—"
"Die!!" cried Orgoglio, bringing down his club inches from Griff’s rapidly retreating figure. "Come here… I’ll pluck you clean and gnaw on your bones, little bird-man, come here."
"Not the most thrilling invitation I’ve ever had, actually," said Griff. "But since you asked so nicely…"
Griff leapt to all fours again and charged straight at Orgoglio. The giant was caught by surprise and raised its club again. But Griff had come too close for the giant to get a good aim and Orgoglio nearly toppled himself as he slammed the club right under his legs, still missing Griff.
"Ye’re the knight here, Griff!" Brianna cried. "What do ye suggest we do?"
"Not a clue at the moment," admitted Griff. "But I dare say if we keep walloping it we’ll come up with a solution sooner or later."
"Genius, that," the Scottish lass muttered, before shifting her position to make a jump.
Brianna leapt at the giant’s head with such force that Orgoglio, more in surprise than because he was in genuine danger, collapsed to the ground.
"Bri!" shouted Griff, rushing over to her and delivering a swift blow to Orgoglio’s face.
The giant writhed on the ground for a moment but before Griff could make out Brianna’s shape in the moonless night, Orgoglio rose, his fury now having transcended the ordinary violent speech of his kind and now literally shaking his voice as he bellowed.
"You shall pay for your treachery, snivelling worm!" he cried. "Pay with…"
But as Orgoglio lunged forward, Griff noticed a small shape that he just about could recognise in the starlight, lunging at Orgoglio’s legs with fury until they buckled. Orgoglio screamed and collapsed again, head first, onto the ground. Brianna disentangled herself from the ankle of the creature and rushed to embrace Griff once more.
"Brilliant, Brianna!" cried Griff. "You’d make a rather good knight yourself, I suspect!"
"I’d rather not be one of Arthur’s knights even if it does mean being with ye," said Brianna bashfully. "But thanks all the same."
Griff nodded calmly. "Still, I don’t think we should wait around… the ground is frosty but it’s not hard enough to keep the giant down for long!"
"Er, ye’re quite sure about that?"
Griff followed Brianna’s gaze and looked back over his shoulder. What he saw startled him: Orgoglio was disappearing in a puff of smoke. In seconds, the black lump that was sprawled across the grass had vanished completely and all that was left was a few wisps of smoke trailing across the sky. Griff broke away from Brianna to look in awe.
"I don’t get it," he said. "Orgoglio can’t just turn into mist like that. So it can’t have really been him. But who—"
Brianna screamed and as Griff looked back towards his mate he gasped. A pillar of fire had blasted from the rookery cave and a lumbering figure had briefly leapt out to grab Brianna. Before Griff could even shout, he saw her pulled kicking and screaming into the inferno by a figure that was all too familiar.
"Surtur!" he cried, as well as: "Bri!"
His cries were to no avail. By the time he had rushed to the edge of the rookery, she had gone. The flames were an intense white and the heat forced Griff back from the edge, his eyes watering with tears both from the fire and from pure shock and grief. He felt his throat tighten until he had difficulty breathing.
"It’s Surtur," he gasped to himself, struggling to process the information. "He must have recovered from Taliesin’s spell. I suppose now he wants revenge for his defeat at Dinas Bran. Orgoglio, even the gargoyle in the tunnel must have been just illusions to trap us."
He stared grimly at the fountain of flames that was bursting out of the ground now. All around the moorland was beginning to ignite, and as the surface frost evaporated in the heat, the fire spread, crackling through the undergrowth in a circle. Griff had no choice but to flee before he too was caught in the growing fire.
"Think, Griff, think!" Griff muttered to himself as he struggled to put out of his mind the last image of Brianna disappearing into the inferno. He muttered desperately, hopelessly. "Maybe if Surtur is here then Taliesin will still be tracking him and can help… maybe…"
He knew it would be no good even as the image of the weather-beaten Welsh bard crossed his mind. Taliesin had assumed that Surtur was defeated or at least crippled for a good long while after the battle at Dinas Bran and had no reason to head to the middle of Exmoor, far from his home of Wales. And what could Griff do against Surtur, totally alone? The last time they fought, the combined force of Arthur’s neo-knights and Merlin was unable to slow him down. Maybe if Surtur made enough of a racket, it would bring the attention of the Weird Sisters who were still patrolling for Unseelie survivors, but Griff knew that it would do no good for Brianna – or Arthur, if he was still down there.
As his thoughts became more desperate, the sound of a song reached his ears. "It can’t be!" Griff said aloud in shock.
But there was no mistaking the lilting Welsh accent pronouncing a song that Griff did not understand but nonetheless seemed to him epic and powerful. "Taliesin," he breathed.
A magical blast of blue energy shot past Griff and hit the ground behind him. Blue sparks rose from the ground and the fire that was chasing Griff paused behind him as the ground was frozen with ice once more. The shot came from Taliesin, who was still holding an ancient harp in the crook of his arm.
"Taliesin! It seems my luck’s really in tonight," said Griff, although even as he spoke he could not help feeling that it seemed a bit good to be true. "Surtur is back – he’s the one that’s responsible for the Windsor Castle impressions."
"I know. He was once one of Madoc Morfryn’s Unseelie lords and although he has spent the last month hiding in the dark and miserable places of the earth, he is hardly likely to be dispatched by anything as routine as my last spell."
"Well, even that would be a bonus right now! We seem to be running out of options to defeat him."
"Yes – I can perform the last spell again if only I can have access to Excalibur for a moment. I need its ancient energy to channel my magic."
Griff growled in frustration. "It isn’t here… Arthur dropped it when he was attacked in the rookery. Now Surtur is in the rookery which means that…"
He trailed off, but Taliesin finished the sentence for him thoughtfully. "… Surtur now has Excalibur? That is bad news… very bad news indeed."
"Can’t you just conjure up a rainstorm?"
"I don’t have the power to take on an Unseelie lord without a greater magical conduit than I have."
Griff looked around as the burnt area spread around them, the ground left blackened underneath. The world was still lit up by the white hot flames that Surtur was creating. His mind moved quickly as he glanced from Surtur to Taliesin and a momentary glimpse of inspiration struck him.
"I say," he said clearly, "the person we really need here is Thor."
He waited as Taliesin gave him a quizzical look. But Griff put his finger to his lips and looked out over the fire-lit moor. And sure enough, out of the horizon came a figure in an ornate red chariot of Norse design, drawn by two gargantuan billy-goats – not quite as big as Orgoglio but large enough to startle Griff. The figure leapt from his carriage, and Griff saw that cyan electricity was crackling about him. His beard was shockingly red and bristly, standing out as far as it could go giving the impression of a man that was being electrocuted. His eyes were thin and penetrating, and his body broad and muscular, clad in furs. In a gloved hand he clasped a hammer that crackled with electrical energy. Griff shuddered instinctively at this sight.
The newcomer gave an uproarious shout as he charged straight past Griff and Taliesin, and dived unflinchingly into the pillar of fire that still rose from the old rookery.
"Thor, I presume?" said Griff.
"Well it isn’t Little Tommy Tucker, I can guarantee you that much," Taliesin muttered knowingly.
Griff gave him a brief glance of curiosity but did not have time to ask any further. A tremor passed through the ground beneath them, followed almost immediately by a second. A large crack spread from the entrance to the rookery and the rock that was covering the entrance was blasted clear away over the blackened desolated area. From the rookery there now came not only torrents of fire but also bursts of electricity that forked through the sky and even created sparks on the ground.
Then one tremendous explosion saw the rookery and much of the area immediately surrounding it blown into the air, turf flying every which way and energy seeming to pour out from the centre.
"I think we should get away from here," said Taliesin. "Those two are ancient enemies and pretty powerful. Shows you how easily Oberon and Madoc’s fraternal tiff could have been so devastating around the time of the First Unseelie War, doesn’t it?"
Griff nodded as they walked back, but from being grief-stricken he was now puzzled and slowly as he began to eye Taliesin and glance back towards Thor, he was rethinking the night’s events.
"All the same," he said, "there’s something fishy about this. And no offence, Taliesin, but you’re—"
"Not what I seem?"
"I thought Surtur was the villain of the piece here, but someone’s been manufacturing perils – and solutions – by eavesdropping on us. In fact, it must have started back in the cave when Arthur said he’d rather have prune juice than tea. It allowed me to find the door, and brought me Brianna when I wanted help…"
"So… I think I’d like to locate Arthur now."
"Yes," said Taliesin. "I should have known you’d figure it out sooner or later. Well done. You’re not quite the nice-but-dim chump I’d credited you for… not quite, anyway!"
His voice was not warm any longer and did not even have the lilt of Welsh. Rather, it sounded terrifyingly familiar. Griff watched as the world around him seemed to change. The fire disappeared but a green glow from no particular origin began to emerge in a circle around Taliesin and himself.
But Taliesin was changing too, and as he broke out into a cruel and insane laugh, his shape changed until Griff was staring at the gargoyle from earlier.
"You again," said Griff coldly. "So this was all your doing."
"But of course. I hadn’t really expected you to survive long enough to work out what was going on." His voice was mocking rather than congratulatory. "You’re a very, very good first knight, Griff."
Griff looked around the area. The ground seemed to have been restored to how it had been before Surtur’s fire scorched it, but the circle of green light now seemed to be some kind of energy field. He knew instinctively that it was unlikely that he would be able to escape.
"Well what I want to know is, where’s Arthur?" he said at last. "I asked to see him and since you’ve arranged Unseelies and giants to attack me, I think it’s the least you could do to arrange this."
"But of course. Here he is…"
And there Arthur was, appearing in a flash behind the griffin-like gargoyle. He was unconscious, his head lolling forward. Two large knights wearing thick armour of what seemed to be a black colour against the blue light of the energy field were holding him. His hands and legs were shackled, and he was left hanging between them as they held the ropes. His clothes were muddied but unharmed, although Griff noticed that his hands appeared to have some blood on them.
Griff frowned. "Is he…?"
"He’s alive for the time being," the old gargoyle replied.
"Well in that case… as a knight of the Round Table I demand you release my king immediately."
"If only it was that simple."
His beady eyes stared at Griff intensely and he began to chuckle expectantly. Griff gritted his teeth but ultimately felt that he had no choice but to play along.
"What’s the catch?" said Griff.
"No catch really, it’s quite a bonus. You see, I have something that was given to me long ago to guard and keep safe until it would be required once more. Years passed and although its stock rose in legend, my part was all but forgotten by the outside world as the race of gargoyles faded into distant memory among many of the humans."
He reached into a large pouch that was strapped behind one of his wings, and drew something out. Griff’s breath caught as he saw a glint of gold, and then out was pulled a chalice that seemed to shine radiantly as it was held aloft. It seemed to Griff as though an incredible feeling of warmth swept through his body.
"The Holy Grail," he whispered.
"Yes," said the gargoyle in the same tone of hushed reverence.
He was no longer laughing cruelly. His voice was soft and his features seemed to melt. For a moment, Griff could see not just the wizened and bitter face of an old gargoyle but a younger person. Griff was very much reminded of himself in fact, and felt a pang of deep pity as he watched the Grail Keeper regard his greatest treasure with pure childlike awe.
"I don’t believe you’re the keeper of the Holy Grail," said Griff.
"Is it really so hard to believe? After all the sins committed by the humans, would you still expect one of them to be its keeper? Think again. The treasure of virtue and purity could never be carried by the blemished Second or Third Races. After all, even your precious Arthur is hardly a saint – he drowned babies and tried to burn his own dear wife. If this is the greatest that humankind can produce then it’s a pretty miserable reflection on the lot of them. But gargoyles? Gargoyles are well known to be proud and noble: protectors, a peaceful race save for a few corrupt exceptions. It was perhaps inevitable that while the Holy Grail is treasure coveted chiefly by humans, the only truly safe guardian for it would be a gargoyle.
"And so it came to me to guard and protect, passed to me as the leader of a valiant clan. I knew that it would one day be claimed but only the true and just would ever find it. Naturally, it was not merely the true and just who looked, and I foolishly visited the rookery of my kin and unhatched eggs paid the price.
"I should never have agreed to it. It was misery running from my clan and grieving the children that were lost. Nonetheless, I hid to do the duty that had been assigned to me, waiting long years until a worthy claimant would seek me out. Well done, Sir Griff, your quest has been achieved."
"It… it has?" said Griff, quite astonished.
"Well, nearly. The Grail is a great gift and great gifts always come at a great price. There is one more matter for you to attend to. For you to claim the Grail, you must kill King Arthur."
Griff did a double take. He shook his head and stuttered for a second before he could find the words to express the numb shock and fear that rushed through his body.
"Kill King Arthur."
"I don’t understand… that’s insane! Arthur is—"
"—A force for good in a troubled world," mimicked the Grail Keeper, a trace of his earlier cynical attitude creeping back in as he looked down at Griff with what could only be described as utter disgust on his fact. "I know your naïve prattlings by rote now. But I am not responsible for such things, it is simply the way it is. Arthur’s blood shall win you the Grail."
Griff’s breath caught as he stared at the unconscious figure of Arthur and for a moment he felt a tear well in his eye. He blinked it back, and glanced around. The energy circle was still in place so he knew he could not very well attack the keeper. It would not really do to try and claim the Holy Grail by force in any event. He lowered his head and finally said glumly:
"I can’t do that, I’m afraid. I cannot kill my king."
"If you do not, you will bury your not-so-young friend, Merlin. He already lies grievously ill in London. How much longer can you keep this charade of a quest going?"
"As long as we have to. As long as it takes to find another cure."
"There is no other cure."
Griff said nothing. His face hardened as he prepared to make his decision. "Then we shall journey in hope of finding one or in no hope at all, until we do. I will not claim the Grail if it means killing Arthur," he said finally.
"I see," came the reply. "How disappointing. But really, Griff, you might as well have chosen to take the Grail… since now I’m going to murder Arthur anyway."
Griff’s eyes blazed white and he prepared to attack but he found his outstretched arms gripped by powerful metal-clad arms, and tugged back. A sharp kick to his back made him fall momentarily to the floor. He realised that he too had been captured by the black knights.
"You get a front row seat for the murder of your friend, Sir Griff," said the old gargoyle courteously. "And as you watch, consider that you had the chance to save one life out of two and chose to save none."
"Wait!" Griff cried. "I have another solution!"
"The rules surrounding the ancient Holy Grail cannot be debated or discussed. Silence yourself at once."
"I’m sorry, Grail Keeper, but I cannot stand by while you commit a despicable murder. If you must kill someone tonight then I beg that you kill me."
The reply came out nearly as a roar. "Kill a fellow gargoyle?"
"Yes. My life for Arthur’s."
"Your offer is beneath contempt. Why should I trade a murderous human for you?"
"Because Arthur has so much more to accomplish. He is the Once and Future King and I believe that he will soon find his path once more and do great good in the world. He’s an inspirational leader to the humans though he has had a difficult time since his reawakening, and has proved a staunch ally to the gargoyles. If a gargoyle must lay down his own life on Arthur’s behalf to convince you of his worth then so be it."
"He is a liar and a fraud, and you are a fool. You think grasping at straws will save you both, do you? And yet, I cannot defy such a brave, if misguided, offer. Very well, Sir Griff, you shall meet your end tonight. Knights – off with his head!"
The knights forced Griff to the ground and from nowhere a block of wood appeared. Griff placed his head sideways against the clammy wood, and closed his eyes. No tears appeared in his eyes now, but he said:
"I want to see Arthur freed before I die. I want to see that he is okay."
The Grail Keeper laughed once more, this time with the cold insanity that had marked his speech before the Grail was encountered. He crescendoed into fits of hysteria as the knights locked Griff’s arms behind his back with a steely grip and made sure that his head was firm against the chopping block ready for the death blow.
"Oh, Sir Griff, your naïveté knows no bounds. I said you shall meet your end, but made no promise regarding Arthur. And you know," he leaned close to whisper harshly to Griff, "I think I’ll kill him too."
"Really? Right then, in that case…" said Griff, yanking his head up as much as he could given the knight’s grip.
The knights however were not quite ready for the sudden movement and Griff was able to headbutt the Grail Keeper rather successfully; he staggered back with a shout of surprise and pain. They momentarily lost their grip on Griff and he used their momentum as they clutched to bring the gargoyle back to the chopping block to roll forward, throwing his whole body onto the chopping block, so the knights found themselves pushing Griff further still. They became unbalanced and were easily sent to the ground as Griff kicked out with his legs.
He leapt to his feet, eyes blazing and addressed the Grail Keeper. "You’re not fit to guard the Grail. You’re hateful and short-sighted and have lost sight of what it means to be true to a quest and a mission."
"Yes, I expect that’s right," said the Grail Keeper in a bored tone of voice before muttering something under his breath.
Griff screamed with pain as electrical energy coursed through his body. He staggered forward in agony, trying to right himself but the black knights had recovered and threw him once more onto the chopping block. His joints felt numb and he struggled to try and move but realised that whatever spell had been used against him was preventing that.
As his head was on its side he had a clear view of the Grail Keeper. He had retrieved a large black axe of a Celtic design and now moved gleefully towards Griff. He lifted it up over Griff’s head ready to deliver the final blow.
"Goodbye, Sir Griff," he said and swung the axe downwards. "I’d like to say it’s been a pleasure…"
* * * * *
Sunlight filtered in through the slit windows of the green-walled cave. It was not even really a cave but a clear construct of stone with a plain prayer room fashioned out of a crag of rock. Now it was not being used for prayer however but for banqueting. Arthur sat alone at the high table, his hand bandaged and his face bruised but otherwise healthy. He sipped some wine thoughtfully and tucked into the assortments of meats and vegetables that were expensively laid out on the table. It was a banquet fit for a king in his time and it felt familiar.
"I take it the food is to your satisfaction?" came a voice from the entrance to the room.
Arthur turned and saw the aged green gargoyle. "Very much so. Your hospitality has been most kind, sir knight. But time is getting on and I wonder…"
"Yes indeed," the gargoyle said gravely. "You are free to go, but you remember that your freedom was not lightly won."
The green gargoyle motioned and Arthur got up from his seat. He walked out of the door and down a mossy green corridor, the dying sunlight peeking over the clouds visible through the open side of the cave.
He noticed one of the black knights in the corridor but was curious to see that their armour was not black but a dark shade of green. "You only saw them in tinted lighting conditions," explained the gargoyle, noticing Arthur’s gaze. "Consequently, you saw them as black, which suited my purpose."
Arthur opened his mouth to speak but was interrupted.
"Further discussion now must wait," the gargoyle said. "It is nearly time."
Arthur paused with the gargoyle to look and see what was before him. It was a stone statue of Griff propped against the wall, still and motionless. But then sun finally disappeared and cracks appeared in the stone; slowly at first, but then passing along the stone gargoyle’s wings and claws and breaking away.
With a roar, Griff awoke once more and looked around at Arthur and the gargoyle, who were smiling broadly.
"I say," he said.
* * *
Griff brushed the dust from his face and shoulders and squinted at the sight before him. Arthur seemed a little bruised but mostly unharmed, and it certainly did not harm his warm greeting.
"Welcome back, my friend. I trust you had a pleasant sleep, and a great adventure."
The gargoyle Grail Keeper did not seem cruel and harsh any more but he looked as he had when he had first revealed the Grail: almost kind, but no longer pitiable. But as Griff stared, perplexed, the gargoyle’s shape changed.
"I think you have earned the right to see me in my true form now," he said jovially. "You know me as a gargoyle from long ago but my favoured shape is quite different."
So it was. He was humanoid, but still appeared massive and thickly built. He wore knightly regalia of the sort he might expect of the time of Camelot, but his skin was pale green and his beard hung thick as a hedge to as far as his elbows. His armour was green, his shoes were green, his eyes were green, and his cloak was green.
"My name is Bercilak, the Green Knight," the green figure said. "So pleased to meet you properly at last."
Griff was speechless for a good long moment, and it took Arthur’s delighted laughter to break the silence. "I think he will need the explanation as well, Sir Bercilak," said Arthur.
"Yes, I fear so. There is a lot to explain. I am afraid the truth of the matter is there was no gargoyle that received the Grail at all, and in truth I never had the Grail. It was part of a test. The other day on Avalon – a couple of months ago in your time – Lady Titania approached me while I was chopping wood in the orchard.
"She said to me, ‘Bercilak, King Arthur and his knights will soon be embarking on a quest for the Holy Grail. And they will need your help.’
"Needless to say, I was interested in what she had to say. After all, the last person from your lot that I tested, Arthur, was Sir Gawain and he went on to try and achieve the Grail. Didn’t get it, of course, more’s the pity. But I was certainly pleased by the offer of a chance to stretch my legs from Avalon. I asked, ‘What do you want me to do, my lady?’"
Bercilak paused and took a deep breath as he gestured for Arthur and Griff to walk with him. He was clearly relishing his storytelling
"‘It is in the nature of these quests that many tests shall be called for, to prove the fitness of the knights for the Grail. You have tested brave knights before and your judgement may bring them a step closer to achieving their goal and saving Merlin.’
"So naturally I agreed, and came here. The first problem was how to get you out to the Green Chapel. As you see, this place is rather run down and isn’t even visible to the naked eye unless you’re in it."
"I thought the chapel was in Wirral, though?" Arthur asked. "At least, that’s what Gawain told me."
"It was – when I was challenging Gawain. But I like to move it about after completing a challenge so I don’t get too many people seeking me out to prove themselves. At any rate, it’s my home outside Avalon and the place where I’m at the height of my power. So I paid the London clan a visit. Yes, I know where they live… knights like myself who pay attention to these things have known far longer than you can guess, but I will of course keep your secret. Most members of the Seelie Court don’t know or care.
"Anyway, it wasn’t difficult to create a scroll that Brock would find, especially as he was redecorating his library but left it unattended during the winter solstice celebrations. I was a little worried that it might be breaking the non-intervention rule but I do have Titania’s blessing so I suppose I’m just going to have to wing it. Don’t mention it though, will you?"
Griff was still confounded at this new discovery but muttered vaguely that he had no plans to mention it. He was now being walked down towards the banquet hall where the three took their places at the table, which was filled with delicacies from wild boar to roasted pheasant, along with wine and cider in green goblets.
"So I set out to test you, Griff. You’ve probably heard of how I tested Gawain – tried to get him to lose his honour with a lady whose husband had offered him a roof over his head and food in his belly after a hard journey. Gawain was a man rather given to, ah, pleasures of the flesh, so that was his weak spot. You on the other hand, Griff, I didn’t have quite so much time to prepare. Giving you a year to prove your worth like I did with Gawain wouldn’t do much good since Merlin’s time would be up by then. So, I hedged it and did the lot.
"I tested you against temptation, for you could easily have bowed to the wishes of Brianna and happily left Arthur when you had the chance. Your skill in battle was in evidence against Orgoglio and of course I had to find out if a character such as yourself who lives life to the full would really be willing to die. More to the point, the fact that you offered your life in Arthur’s place showed initiative and bravery. I was lying when I said you were naïve and foolish: you are neither of those things, but the finest knight I have put to the test since Gawain all those years ago."
"Well," said Griff a little faintly, for he did not know quite what to say. "But… the last thing I remember, you were about to behead me…"
Bercilak laughed. "Remember Gawain’s encounter with me again if you will. He passed two of my tests but the third was too sore even for him and he relented only slightly. When my axe struck it grazed him slightly for his transgression but passed through him unscathed for his virtue, which was far more abundant. You, Griff, have managed to pass through my test entirely unscathed and so as far as I can say such things, I would call you without reservation a knight worthy of achieving the Holy Grail.
"So tuck in! You have earned a great feast and here it is!"
And sure enough there was food and drink aplenty, and plenty of discussion as the candles burnt low.
* * *
Before midnight, Bercilak returned them to the roadside where they had arranged to meet Kevin. After the warm green glow of Bercilak’s chapel, with wonderful food and drink, it seemed strangely depressing to be out in the cold once more, their breath fogging in front of their faces whenever it caught the light of their torches.
"Farewell, Arthur Pendragon and Sir Griff," he said. "I think it likely that we shall meet again one day."
"Farewell, Sir Bercilak, and many thanks," said Arthur.
"Yes, thanks," said Griff, a little less certainly. "And goodbye!"
They watched as Bercilak faded away and was gone. Once more they were left on the bleak moor as the wind whistled past them, shivering and waiting for Kevin.
"I must thank you for the loyalty and steadfastness you showed, Griff," said Arthur.
"Well I couldn’t just leave you in a pickle like that, could I? I wouldn’t be a very good knight if I did."
"Perhaps not. But Mordred was a knight of the Round Table too and he was not so noble."
"Maybe I should get Brock to write the story up – Sir Griff and the Green Knight. I can see it now! It should satisfy all the nay-sayers in the clan who seem to think his records aren’t juicy and entertaining enough."
They laughed a while as they thought of Brock back in London, but Arthur turned his attention back to the matter in hand.
"You have proved yourself of the highest quality and I trust that shall help us in time to achieve the Grail."
"I suppose," said Griff, but his voice was doubtful. Arthur picked up on it and gave the gargoyle a quizzical look.
"What’s the matter, my friend?"
"Well… I’m glad I passed Bercilak’s test, but… he’s not exactly a very good judge of character is he? Gawain passed the test but never achieved the Grail, and in fact went on to launch a vengeance spree that contributed to the downfall of Camelot."
"That is true," said Arthur cautiously. "But he, unlike you, did not pass the test entirely without fault. And his test for Gawain was not designed to test his worth for the Grail."
"But will it really help us find the Grail?"
"It serves as an indication that we are on the right lines, and that gives us hope for our quest," said Arthur, as he noticed the light of Kevin’s taxi moving along the winding road towards the pair. "We must simply pray that we can find the Grail before it’s too late for Merlin."