THE DRAGONíS TREASURE
Outline by Todd Jensen and Nicodemus.
Written by Todd Jensen.
Art by Silver.
* * * * *
Previously on Pendragon....
ARTHUR: I, Griff, Merlin, and Mary will go abroad to search for the Grail beyond Britain's shores, and I still both hope and pray that we shall find it.
DULCINEA: Where are you going first, Arthur?
ARTHUR: I understand that there are tales that the Grail was once kept in a castle in the Pyrenees known as Montsalvat. Perhaps that castle still stands, and if that is so, then we may find the Grail there.
DULCINEA: Then with your permission, I'd like to come with you for the first part of your journey. I've decided that I should go back to Spain for a little while to pay my respects at my old mentor's grave. And if you are going to the Pyrenees then our paths lie together.
~~~The Godslayer - Part Two~~~
* * * * *
It was late in the evening and almost all of Darien Montroseís employees had gone home for the day. The corporate building was almost empty, its darkened rooms and corridors silent.
One light still shone, however, in Darien Montroseís office. Darien sat behind his desk, quietly waiting. At last he heard the footsteps approaching outside his door, and then a loud knock. He sat up at once.
"Come in, Mr. Quince," he said.
The door opened and a man entered. He was fair-haired, with a short, neatly-trimmed golden beard, and was dressed in a white trouser-suit. He bore a small briefcase in his hand. Darien Montrose rose to greet him, offering his hand.
"Iím glad that you could make it," he said. "So, did you find those documents that you were looking for?"
"Yes, I did, Mr. Montrose," said Thomas Quince. He placed the briefcase on the desk in front of his client.
"You must understand," he said, "before I proceed any further, that the legend about the dragon and his treasure that you wished me to investigate is most likely nothing more than that - a legend. There are numerous tales about it, of course, ancient writings, old ballads about the fabled hoard. Stories that claim that the gold that this mythical beast watched over - and still watches over, some people claim to this day - could equal or surpass the Nibelungsí treasure that Fafnir guarded before he was slain by Sigurd of the Volsungs. But there is no absolute proof that itís anything other than a fireside tale, the product of the imaginations of the villagers in that region of the Pyrenees."
"Never mind the disclaimers," said Darien impatiently. "What do you know about the treasure? Were you able to find out just where itís supposed to be?"
"Yes," said Mr. Quince. "I merely wished to point out to you, Mr. Montrose, that it would be best not to raise your hopes too greatly over the existence of an actual treasure. After all, the mere presence of a dragon in the old tale is enough to cast doubt upon it."
"Iím not quite ready to accept stories about dragons as being true," said Darien. "But the treasure - well, it could be real. Certainly the people that I consulted gave me good reason to believe that the gold and jewels could be real, even if the guardian isnít. Thatís why I hired you to research it for me, remember. After all, you are the foremost expert on Iberian legend and folklore that I know of."
"Very well," said Mr. Quince. He glanced at the chair before the desk as he spoke.
"Sit down, by all means," said Darien, cheerily. "Make yourself at home. Just view this as Liberty Hall - well, except for the fact that itís in an office building rather than a private house." He gave an overly hearty laugh.
"Thank you," said Quince. He seated himself in the chair and continued.
"In essence," he said, "the legend goes as follows. Somewhere in the western half of the Pyrenees there is said to lie a hidden cave within which dwells an ancient dragon. This cave is filled with all manner of marvels, they say. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra himself drew upon these wondertales when he wrote about the Cave of Montesinos in Part Two of his Don Quixote."
"Yes, thatís fascinating," said Darien, in a voice that sounded anything but fascinated. "But Iím not interested in the sources of inspiration for literary classics, Mr. Quince. Iím interested in the treasure."
"I am getting to that," said Quince. "Now, the dragon is a familiar part of the folklore of the villages in that region of the Pyrenees. Admittedly, fewer people believe in it these days, but there are still those who claim to have even seen it flying about the mountains at night. What it is that they actually have seen, I do not know. But those who believe that it exists believe also in the treasure that it guards. A hoard of unsurpassed wealth, even greater than the riches that are supposed to be buried beneath the foundations of the Alhambra to the south."
"And do you have some means of narrowing down the precise location?" asked Darien Montrose, leaning forward. "You indicated that you had found something that could help."
Thomas Quince nodded. "Here it is," he said. He opened the briefcase, took an ancient parchment scroll out from it, and gently unrolled it upon the table. "The precise region of the Pyrenees that the cave is reputed to lie in. Treat it carefully, by the way; itís very old. It was penned during the reign of Philip II."
Darien looked over the map before him and pointed to a particular opening in the side of a mountain, over which there flew a dragon in faded red ink. Beneath it were scrawled a few words in Spanish. Darien looked at the words intently, secretly wishing that he had spent more time on his language lessons at school. "I suppose that this means ĎHere There Be Dragonsí?" he asked, in a would-be jovial tone of voice.
Thomas Quince shook his head. "A more accurate translation would be, ĎLet sleeping dragons lie,í" he said. "If I believed in the old tales Iíd consider it sound advice, Mr. Montrose," he added with a slight smile.
"Well, I certainly donít believe in dragons, Mr. Quince," said Darien, leaning back in his chair. "But lost treasure - thatís a different story. Thereís supposed to be a lot of that in Spain, isnít there? Left over from the wars with the Moors, and then all the gold that the conquistadors brought back from the Americas?"
"So Iíve heard," said Quince. "But I still must warn you that we have no definite proof on the matter. I just thought that I should tell you this, before you find yourself at the receiving end of a considerable disappointment."
"Itís worth an expedition, anyway," said Darien. "And an expedition is just what I intend to lead. Iíve already begun making the arrangements, in fact - hiring the assistants, purchasing and constructing the equipment. You can come along with us as our guide. We could certainly use your help on this venture. And I promise you this, you wonít find me ungrateful at all. I can be very generous, after all, to those whoíve done me a considerable service."
"So I understand, Mr. Montrose," said Thomas Quince, nodding thoughtfully.
* * * * *
RONCESVALLES, SPAIN - TWO WEEKS LATER
"In a couple more days, if we continue travelling in this direction," Dulcinea said, "we should come to the village of Baratario. Thatís where weíll part ways."
Arthur Pendragon and Griff looked down at the map which she had laid out before them. "Iím afraid that I donít see it there," said Arthur at length.
"No, it generally doesnít get on the maps," Dulcinea agreed. "Except for the really detailed ones, and those are almost impossible to find. Itís a very out-of-the-way place and doesnít have too many visitors. My mentor was one of the few who ever went there. Heíd visit it regularly every summer."
"He had a fondness for it, then?" Arthur asked.
"Well, yes, he did indeed care deeply for it," she said. "The valley that it was in was very beautiful, probably one of the loveliest places in the mountains. But what actually drew him there was its local legend."
"Local legend?" asked Griff.
Dulcinea nodded. "Thereís an old story," she said, "that thereís a dragon living somewhere in the mountains nearby. My mentor used to come there and go hiking in the mountains, to see if he might catch a glimpse of it. He actually believed that it existed and hoped that he might see it some day. He never did, but even to the day that he died he remained certain that it was there."
"I wonder if it really does exist," said Arthur thoughtfully. "I know that it may seem strange in these times to believe in dragons, but having seen a few even after I first left Avalon, I am not entirely disinclined to wonder if one might live in these mountains. I would find myself quite tempted to search for the creature, indeed, if Merlin's condition was not so pressing."
He, Griff, and Dulcinea all glanced across the field in which they were encamped, a little ways outside the village of Roncesvalles. Merlin was standing in the middle of the field, talking to a seated Mary Sefton. Dulcineaís horse Rosinante was grazing close by.
Merlin had recently become the girlís semi-official tutor. This had come about as a result of some brief telephone conversations between Arthur and Sir Nigel Sefton earlier that year, not long before they had left Britain. Sir Nigel had explained to Arthur that he had made arrangements to temporarily withdraw Mary from her old school, due to "health reasons", but had requested that Arthur see to it that she undergo some sort of home-schooling. Merlin had wound up with the job of teaching her, on the grounds that he had the most experience in that area (as Arthur could certainly attest); while, by his own admission, he was not the most ideal tutor where mathematics were concerned, he could certainly handle history very well. He had been regularly instructing her since they had departed from Britain; Brock had helped a little while they had stayed at the London estate, although his own time had been limited due to his duties towards instructing Lucy and her rookery siblings.
At the moment, the discussion between the two youngsters had gotten quite lively, judging from the gestures that Merlin was making. All of a sudden, the boy left off and walked over towards Arthur and his knights. Mary rose to her feet and followed him.
"Is anything wrong, Merlin?" Arthur asked, as his advisor limped up to him.
"Well, not exactly wrong," said Merlin. "But I thought that maybe you could back me up on something."
"And what is this matter that you wanted my counsel on?" Arthur asked.
"Well, I was focusing this eveningís history lesson on Charlemagne," said Merlin. "I suppose that the present location had something to do with it, as well as the fact that weíve only just left France a couple of days ago. I was giving her all the usual information about him - the wars that he fought, being crowned by Pope Leo III as Emperor of the Romans, the Carolingian Renaissance, and so on. But she particularly wanted to know about the Battle of Roncesvalles and Rolandís last stand, since weíre just where it took place."
"Ah, yes," said Arthur, nodding. "I thought that it would arise at some point."
"Well, thatís when we got into the little disagreement," said Merlin.
"To be precise," said Mary, joining them, "Merlin thought that Roland was a pig-headed fool, and was openly puzzled as to how he ever wound up as one of the greatest heroes of knightly romance."
"Well, itís only natural," said Merlin. "The man is trapped by a Moorish army that hopelessly outnumbers him and his own followers, and instead of blowing his horn and calling for reinforcements, insists on fighting them to the last man. The result: he and all his men are massacred. He only sounds a blast on his horn when itís too late for Charlemagne to do anything for them other than give them a proper burial. I donít see how you can treat that as anything other than utter stupidity."
"Well, maybe it wasnít very practical," said Mary. "But I still thought that it was very brave of him."
"Brave, maybe," said Merlin. "But also unbelievably foolish. Heíd have lived if heíd sounded his horn much sooner."
"Perhaps," said Arthur. "But I believe that we are dealing here with something more profound than mere intelligence. Granted, his act did indeed lead to his death. But it was based on who he was. Standing to face the foe himself, rather than calling for help - it was part of the code of honor that he lived by, the very foundation stone of his character. He could not do otherwise and remain true to himself. It was not prudent, I agree - but there are times when honor is a greater thing than prudence."
"Arthur has a point," said Griff. "Maybe he was being reckless, but he still died being faithful to what he believed in. Back in 1940, I knew that if I went up against the German bombers over London, I might wind up getting killed - and Leo and Una certainly wouldnít let me forget it whenever they talked with me over it. But I knew that I had to take a stand. Goliath knew it too, when he joined me in the Battle of Britain. Just as he kept his clan in Manhattan even when the Quarrymen were overrunning the place; maybe heíd get them all killed by staying there, but he had taken an oath to protect the city, and thatís what he did."
Dulcinea nodded. "I believe that my mentor would have certainly agreed with this," she said. "Perhaps it was foolish of him to keep on coming back to these mountains, year after year, looking for a dragon that might not even exist - but he kept faith with his quest until the end of his days."
"Well, I suppose," said Merlin. "Maybe Iím just biased here - after all, Iím the only one of us whoís not a knight - or a knight-in-training," he added, glancing at Mary, who was standing beside him. "Wizards arenít exactly known for tilting at windmills. And even I havenít been all that practical sometimes. After all, here I am, accompanying you on a quest for a legendary chalice that may not even exist on this earth any more, as the one hope of saving my life. So I suppose that Iím not quite suited to playing Oliver myself."
Dulcinea nodded. "Itís a pity that heíll never know about our own quest," she said to Arthur. "My mentor, I mean. I believe that he would have found it very much to his own liking."
"Maybe," said Arthur. "I would very much have liked to have met your teacher, Dulcinea. It is unfortunate that I cannot accompany you all the way to his grave in Seville."
"Maybe not," replied the Spanish equestrienne, "but at least you can come with me to Baratario. You can find some trace of his presence there still, Iím certain. And it wonít be going too much out of your way, either. Who knows? Maybe somebody in the village has heard something about the legend of Montsalvat."
"Let us hope so," said Arthur.
* * * * *
TWO DAYS LATER
Afternoon was turning to evening as they made their way down the pass into the valley below. Mary led the way in her wolf-form, intently sniffing the air, so that she could detect anything potentially hostile and warn the others. Arthur and Dulcinea came next, leading Rosinante together, with Griff in his stone sleep strapped carefully upon the horseís back. Merlin took the rear, still leaning on his cane when he felt particularly tired.
"Thatís Baratario," said Dulcinea, pointing to the small village in the center of the valley, surrounded by brown fields and bare woods. "Itís a pity, actually, that weíre coming here in February rather than in the summer. When I came here with my old mentor during the summer months, it was one of the most beautiful places that I ever saw. It was lush and green even when the rest of the area was gripped by drought."
"The climate does seem very pleasant," said Merlin thoughtfully. "Rather mild for a mountain valley in February. Of course, Iíve never been to Spain before, so I canít be certain."
The sun sank below the west at that point, and Griff awakened from his stone sleep with a roar, fragments of his stone skin flying apart in all directions. At the same time, Mary shifted back into her human form, with a mild gasp. "Funny," she said. "Changing back didnít hurt quite so much this time."
"Good evening, everyone," said Griff, climbing down from Rosinanteís back. "So this is the place, I take it?"
Arthur nodded. "I donít know if the villagers here will be able to tell us anything about Montsalvat, or if theyíve even heard of it," he said. "But at least it will be a pleasant place for us to stay for a couple of days."
They continued down the mountain path. As they passed a few trees, Merlin glanced at them and saw that the buds on their branches were already beginning to open.
"Thatís certainly early, considering that it isn't even spring yet," he murmured to himself. "I wonder...."
* * *
"Youíd better find a good place to hide," said Arthur to Griff. "The rest of us will enter the village and see if we can find a place to stay." He turned briefly in Maryís direction, and added, "And donít forget, youíll want to hide during the daytime as well."
Mary nodded. "So do you have any recommendations about this place, Dulci?" she asked.
"Well, the last time that I was here was a little over ten years ago," said Dulcinea. "Things may have changed since then. But weíll see if we can find a place somewhere. My mentor and I always stayed with the village curate on our visits; the two of them got along quite well, even if they did have some fairly notable differences of opinion about certain matters. If itís still the same man, I could persuade him to put us up for the night, although Iím not certain how weíll explain Mary to him."
"Weíll have to take it one step at a time," said Arthur.
Leaving Griff in the woods some distance from the village, they continued on down the path. The village of Baratario consisted of perhaps twenty or so houses, grouped around the local church. The streets were already deserted, thanks to the lateness of the hour. Dulcinea led Arthur, Merlin, and Mary up to a house standing next to the church and knocked on the door.
Footsteps drew closer, and then the door opened. A grey-haired man stood there, wearing a dressing-gown and rubbing his eyes sleepily. He looked at Dulcinea, blinking uncertainly at her. "Might I help you, senorita?" he asked, in Spanish.
"Father Perez?" said Dulcinea. "You may not remember me, but my name is Aldonza Ramirez. I used to come here each summer, when I was younger, with Senor Alonzo Gutierrez."
"Ah, yes," said the curate, nodding. "Senorita Ramirez. It has been quite some time. And Senor Gutierrez - how is he these days? He hasnít been by here for over ten years."
"Dead, Iím sorry to say," said Dulcinea. "He died in 1987."
"Iím sorry to hear that," said Father Perez. "He was a good man. Not particularly practical, of course, but still, I will miss him." He suddenly saw Arthur and his two young companions standing behind Dulcinea. "But you seem to have some new company with you," he added.
"These are friends of mine from England, Father Perez," said Dulcinea. "This is Mr. Arthur Pennington. And this is Emrys Hawkins, his ward, and Mary Sefton, his assistant. They had business of their own in Spain, and so are travelling with me for now."
"Ah, I see," said Father Perez. He turned to them, speaking now in English. "Well, come in, all of you, by all means."
A few minutes later they were gathered in the curateís living-room, seated in a few odd chairs that he had about, except for Dulcinea, who was putting Rosinante up in the stables adjoining the house for the night. "So, Senor Pennington," Father Perez was saying, "what business brings you here to Baratario?"
"My friends and I are investigating a legend in these parts, actually," said Arthur. "I understand that there are tales about a castle hidden somewhere in these mountains, which is said to house the Holy Grail. Can you tell us anything about them, Father Perez?"
The curate stared at him for a moment, and then began to laugh. "Forgive me, Senor Pennington," he said, when he had quite regained control of himself. "I did not mean any disrespect to you. It is just - you reminded me at that moment of Senor Alonzo Gutierrez, and travelling as you were in Senorita Ramirezís company, the resemblance only appeared the stronger to me. He also came here, as Iím certain that she must have told you, in quest of a legend - if not the same as the one that you seek, Senor Pennington."
"Yes, Dulcinea told us about that," said Mary. "The dragon thatís supposed to be living somewhere in these parts."
"Dulcinea?" asked Father Perez, looking puzzled.
"Itís what she calls herself these days, actually," said the girl quickly. "Thatís what we call her, too."
"So evidently something of Senor Gutierrez has rubbed off on her, more than I had expected," said the curate with a smile. "Don Quixote was his favorite book. I always found it appropriate - he was almost a kindred spirit with the Knight of the Mournful Countenance. True, he had no Sancho Panza to travel with him, and I certainly never saw him mistake windmills for giants or a barberís basin for an enchanted helmet, but there was that same striving in him as in Cervantesí Don, a yearning for the old knightly code of honor. His search for the dragon was certainly part of that. And here you are yourself, Senor Pennington, on a quest of your own for the Holy Grail like your legendary namesake."
"But do you know anything that can help us?" Arthur asked.
"I am afraid not, Senor Pennington," said the curate. "I have never heard any tales of the sort that you mention in this region. Our local legend is the dragon."
* * * * *
"How much further is it?" asked Darien wearily. He was walking his pack mule along the mountain path cautiously, doing his best not to look at the long drop below. Behind him, the small team of assistants that he had assembled were staggering under their own heavy loads, grumbling in muted voices. Only Quince, who was leading the way, seemed in a pleasant mood still - probably, the businessman suspected, because he had the least amount of baggage with him.
"Well, according to the map," said Quince, checking the parchment in his hands again, "weíre very close. We only have to round this corner ahead, and then we will be at the place where the entrance to the cave is supposed to be."
"Supposed to be?" Darien asked him sharply.
"Well, as I have reminded you, sir," said Quince, "there has never been any proof that the legend of the dragon and its treasure is anything other than that - a legend. We do not even have any firm evidence that the cave itself exists."
"No firm evidence?" Darien protested. "But what about the map?"
"There is that, yes," said Quince. "But remember, the mapmakers of the 16th century were prone to flights of fancy. Youíve surely seen yourselves some of their work elsewhere, with sea monsters depicted swimming about in the far reaches of the Atlantic, and a few fabulous isles that sober geography no longer recognizes. This could be the product of another such imaginative cartographer, for all that we know."
"It had better not be," said Darien. "Because if we came all this way for nothing, then Iím deducting ten pounds from your pay for each bunion that Iíve received so far."
They rounded the corner in the path. Before them the mountain wall drew back, while the path itself grew wider. Soon Darien and his assistants no longer had to walk in single file. The mountain trail broadened even further, until it became a small bay, nestled in the foot of a high cliff that soared up into the clouds above. The cliffís wall itself was featureless and as smooth as could be expected from the side of a mountain. There was no trace of a cave to be seen.
Quince stared down at the map again and frowned. "Well, according to this," he said, "if there is a cave, it should be right before us. But I donít see any trace of it here at all."
"What?" cried Darien. "So all this expense, all this walking, was all for nothing?"
"Iím afraid so," said Quince, with a sigh. "I am sorry, Mr. Montrose. If it makes you feel any better, Iíll declare all of my services that I have performed for you on this little expedition free of charge. You can even feel free to charge me for those bunions that you had mentioned just now."
"There has to be something here!" protested Darien, barely paying any attention to him. "A cave-in, or something like that!" He turned to his men behind him. "Search the mountain side," he ordered them. "See what you can find!"
"With all due respect, Mr. Montrose," said Quince, as Darien Montroseís assistants swarmed forward on his orders, "you do appear to be grasping at straws here. I certainly have seen no sign of any collapse or other geological catastrophe here; the mountain walls appear untouched by such events. Iím afraid that youíll have to accept the fact that the legendary cave and its contents do not exist and never did, save in the imaginations of the people in these parts."
"I am not turning back now!" Darien retorted. "In the meantime, check that map again, Mr. Quince! Maybe you simply misread it. Maybe we went north when we should have gone west, or something like that. But after everything that I put into this, I expect to see some results."
Quince sighed, and seated himself on a nearby rock. "Itís going to be a long day," he murmured to himself.
A few minutes went by, as Darienís party looked over the walls, tapping them closely, inspecting every last portion of them within reach from the ground. Darien paced back and forth, glancing sharply in their direction. Quince had pulled out a book from his pack and was peacefully reading it, ignoring all the commotion about him.
At last, two members of the team broke away from the others and approached Darien. He recognized them as a pair of mercenaries that he had employed to lead the rest of the hirelings and give them some proper training and discipline. "Well?" he asked them. "What did you find?"
"Youíd better come here and take a look at this, sir," said one of them, a stocky-looking fair-haired man. "Or rather, a listen."
"What are you talking about?" Darien asked.
"Just come and listen, sir," said the other mercenary, a red-haired woman.
Darien followed them to the base of the cliff. Quince put down his book and followed him. The fair-haired mercenary signalled to the workmen, who tapped on the wall loudly with their picks. The wall echoed loudly in response.
"Did you hear that, sir?" said the male mercenary. "It sounds as though itís hollow in there."
"Hollow?" asked Darien. "Then that must mean that there is a cave here."
Quince looked astonished. "Thatís quite a discovery, I must admit," he said. "But I should add that it also quite puzzles me. After all, weíre not dealing with a rockfall that could have blocked the entrance to the cave. The mountainside looks as though itís been undamaged for centuries. Of course, Iím not a professional geologist," he added, "and so I could be wrong."
"We also found something else that might interest you, sir," said the female mercenary. "Look down here."
Darien walked up to the foot of the mountain wall and stared down at where she was pointing. Only a few inches above the ground a set of odd signs and symbols had been carved into the rock. Darien bent down and stared at them.
"Now weíre getting somewhere," he said to Quince, standing up. "What do you make of these?"
Quince bent down in turn to examine them more closely. "Nothing, Iím afraid," he said. "Of course, we mustnít jump to conclusions, sir. These could be idle scratchings made by past visitors, after all. There may not be any great significance to them; at least, we have no definite proof of that."
"Set up camp, you lot," said Darien to his team. "It looks as though weíre going to be here a while longer than we were planning." He turned to Quince and asked "Whereís the nearest village?"
"That would be Baratario," said Quince thoughtfully. "Itís just a mile or so from here, Iíd say."
"Good," said Darien. "Weíll need to purchase some extra supplies there. We may need to be here for a few days. Come with me, Quince; weíre going grocery shopping."
"The two of us?" asked Quince. "I believe that weíd need more than that to carry back whatever provisions we might purchase there."
"I know," said Darien. "But the trouble is -" He looked about him cautiously for a moment, to make certain that none of his hirelings could overhear him, then continued. "Nothing personal about my team, but they look too obviously like thugs and mercenaries. Which, of course, most of them are, but I don't want them drawing attention to us. I want this to be as covert an operation as possible."
"I see," said Quince.
"And for that matter," Darien went on, "I'm going to need to disguise myself before we go down. After all, there's no telling who might have corporate spies in these parts, and I especially don't want Xanatos Enterprises or Nightstone Unlimited finding out about my interests in the area. I'm having enough trouble keeping up with them as it is. Just give me a moment, and Iíll be more - ah - presentable."
"Very well," said Quince, leaning back against the cliff and waiting.
* * * * *
"Not a bad place, actually," said Merlin.
He, Arthur, and Dulcinea were seated on a couple of benches outside the church, a little before lunchtime. Merlinís cane lay on the ground in front of his feet.
"It is a pity, though," said Arthur, "that nobody could tell us anything about the Grail here. Nobody seems to have even heard anything about Montsalvat before we came here."
"Maybe weíre just looking in the wrong part of the Pyrenees," said Dulcinea. "Remember, this is a fairly wide mountain range. Perhaps you might make inquiries in the eastern end of it."
"Perhaps," said Arthur.
"I donít know for certain, Arthur," said Merlin. "I mean - well, doesnít this place seem a little - unusual to you?"
"Since I have never travelled in Spain before, I am hardly in a position to answer that question, my friend."
"This isnít just about Spain," said Merlin. "Iíve been noticing things ever since we arrived. The trees are budding earlier than usual. The weather is much milder and more pleasant than I would have expected for this time of year and this climate. And - well, Iíve been feeling better myself since we came here. I mean - the poisonís still there - it hasnít gone away - but it appears to have slowed down."
Arthur and Dulcinea both looked closely at the boy. Some of the color had come back into his face and his eyes looked much brighter and less exhausted. He had not looked so healthy since before he had been poisoned the previous autumn.
"There must be something at work here," said Merlin. "I donít know what it is, but - could it be that weíre closer to the Holy Grail than we thought?"
Arthur frowned thoughtfully, then turned to Dulcinea. "What do you think?" he asked her.
"Well, when my mentor and I came here during the summer months," she said, "it was always a very healthy place. The animals were fat and thriving, the crops and orchards always seemed to yield a great bounty, and barely anyone ever appeared to fall ill. Even the old people were in good condition. But I never gave it any thought. I suppose that I just thought it was a case of good mountain air, rather than some sort of miraculous influence. Are you certain that youíre not reading more into this situation than is there, Merlin?"
"Yes, I suppose that itís possible that I am," said Merlin. "But Iíd say that whateverís behind this must be working on a subtle scale, so as not to draw attention to itself. Bringing just enough health to this place to make things better, without screaming ĎMagical Influence at Work Here!í to anybody who comes by. I think that that could be a sign."
"But nobody here has heard anything about the Grail being close by," said Arthur. "Weíve questioned just about everybody in the village this morning, as well."
"Maybe they simply donít know," said Merlin. "If the Grail is in these parts, it might be acting in a deliberately low-key manner, so that the people wonít start to notice. That might be whatís at work here."
"What do you think, Dulcinea?" Arthur asked.
"I suppose that itís worth looking into," said Dulcinea. "Perhaps weíve simply been using the wrong words, Arthur. Instead of asking about the Grail, we should be asking these people as to whether theyíve seen or heard anything unusual in general. If the Grail has been manifesting itself here, maybe itís been doing so under a different name."
"Iíll go and tell Mary," said Merlin. The young werewolf was out in the woods, having slipped out shortly before dawn to hide there so that the villagers would not find out about her condition, and was presumably standing watch over Griff in his stone sleep just now. "You two see if you can make some fresh inquiries." And with that, he rose from the bench and walked off.
"Merlin!" cried Dulcinea. "You left your cane behind!"
The boy looked down at his hands, then back at the walking-stick lying in front of the bench. "You know," he said, with an odd smile on his face, "I hadnít even noticed."
* * * * *
"So this is Baratario," said Darien as he followed Quince into the village, glancing at the houses about him. "Definitely a one-horse town if I ever saw one."
"I rather like it, myself," said Thomas Quince, glancing back at his employer. Darien was now wearing a fake moustache and beard, cut in much the same style as Quinceís own but with a darker coloring, and a false head of reddish-brown hair. He had even donned a fake pair of glasses of the pince-nez variety. "Itís quite a peaceful place," Quince went on. "The sort of village where nothing ever happens, and people like it that way."
"Well, letís make our purchases - assuming that this place actually has a grocery store - and go back to -" Darien halted and stared ahead at the church. More specifically, he was staring at the brown-haired man and the dark-haired woman who were talking outside it. "What on earth are they doing here?" he gasped in a low voice.
Quince looked in the direction that Darien was pointing. "Do you know those people, Mr. Montrose?" he asked.
"Unfortunately, yes," whispered Darien. He pulled Quince into the shadow of a nearby house at once, before either the man or the woman had the opportunity to turn and see them. "That man is Arthur Pennington," he said.
"Arthur Pennington?" asked Quince, both looking and sounding interested. "Not the same Arthur Pennington who was involved in all that commotion about the Connection and the attempted Royal assassination last year?"
"The same," Darien replied. "Iíve had a few problems with him, too, before all that took place."
"And the woman?"
"She was my personal exerciser for a while last year," said Darien. "But if sheís here, and with him then they must be working together. I wonder if she really took that job to spy on me for him. Yes, she must have. I hope that this doesn't mean trouble."
"Truth to tell," said Quince, "I wouldnít entirely mind meeting Mr. Pennington. Iíve been a bit intrigued by all that talk about whether heís really the legendary King Arthur or not. Perhaps if I were to have a brief conversation with him, I might be able to find out for certain."
"You donít understand!" cried Darien, then looked nervously about him, before speaking in a lower voice. "Penningtonís a regular thorn in my side. He did a lot of poking his nose into my business, back when he was a private investigator, before he had that bother with the law. And heís very close with Jennifer Camford, whoís one of my leading business rivals. If he finds out that Iím here, there's no telling what he might do!" He groaned. "Itís bad enough that he plagues me in London - but must he follow me about everywhere that I go? Heís almost as bad as that gargoyle."
"As that what?"
"Never mind," said Darien at once. "We have to find out why he's here. And we have to make certain that it doesn't have anything to do with the treasure. I can't afford a rival, not now."
"Well, it should not be difficult to find out," said Quince. "I'll simply ask him."
Seeing Darien staring at him in astonishment and alarm, he added, with a smile, "Not about the treasure itself. But I would like to speak with him anyway. I'd been wanting to do so ever since I first heard about his actions at Buckingham Palace and this is the perfect opportunity. And it will be useful to your own interests as well."
"Very well, then," said Darien. "He's all yours."
"I thank you," said Quince. He walked around the corner and off towards the church.
* * *
"Arthur Pennington, I presume?"
Arthur looked up, to see a fair-haired and fair-bearded man in a white trouser-suit and broad-brimmed white hat gazing down at him thoughtfully. "That is my name," he said. "Although I fear that you have the advantage over me, Mr. -"
"Quince," replied the man. "Thomas Quince is my name."
"Quince," said Dulcinea thoughtfully. "The name sounds familiar." She looked more closely at him. "Didnít you write a couple of books about Spanish legends and folk-tales?"
Quince nodded. "Quite true, my lady," he said with a smile. "I am the same man. I must confess, though, that I donít know your name, as I do your friendís."
"Well, my real name is Aldonza Ramirez," said Dulcinea, "but I generally use the name ĎDulcinea del Tobosoí these days; itís what my friends call me."
"Ah, yes," said Thomas Quince. "I recognize the literary reference as well. And I must admit that I find it both amusing and mildly ironic that a man linked to one of the greatest heroes of chivalric romance should be travelling alongside a woman named after a character in the very work that dealt the death-blow to that genre."
Arthur looked at him with a mild frown. "Your interest in me would not be connected to those rumors and speculations circulating about me back in Britain, would it?" he asked.
"Actually, Mr. Pennington," said Quince, "I will not lie to you. You are indeed correct in your suspicion; I am - shall we say, quite intrigued in your situation. Iíd heard all the commotion around you, people wondering if you were the real King Arthur returned from Avalon or just a man who was laboring under the delusion that he was the legendary king. Unfortunately I was not able to immediately seek you out and talk with you at the time - I was in the middle of completing another book and wanted to focus as much attention on it as possible so that I could meet my publisher's deadline - but I found your case interesting. My own familiarity with the Arthurian cycle is rather small, I regret to say - except where it leaks into the folklore of the Iberian peninsula - but Iíve long held an interest in stories about legendary kings returning to their people. I hope that you would not be greatly offended if I were to request to speak with you.
"Not as a reporter," he added quickly, as both Arthur and Dulcinea looked cautiously and concernedly at him. "I can assure you that Iím not linked to any newspaper or media organization. I merely wish to know more about you."
"I see," said Arthur. "In truth, if you are an expert on these local legends, then your presence here may very well be a blessing to us. We are here because we are investigating claims that a castle housing the Holy Grail once stood in the Pyrenees. Have you ever come across anything in your studies in these parts relating to such a legend?"
"The Holy Grail," said Quince, stroking his beard thoughtfully. "Well, I have come across a few general accounts in medieval romance, claiming that the Grail Castle of Montsalvat was to be found in this mountain range. But I regret to say that there are no similar accounts of it in the local folklore. I believe that Montsalvat is a purely literary creation, and one that made no impact on the hearts of the people in these parts. Might I ask why you are so interested in the whereabouts of this castle?"
"It is - a personal matter," said Arthur. "I would rather not discuss it at this time."
"I see," said Quince. "Then in that case, I shall not press you for it. I suppose that it is appropriate, in a sense, given your links to the legendary Arthur Pendragon of Britain. So the two of you have come here to investigate these claims?"
"Well, there are more of us, actually," said Arthur. "But the rest of our party are elsewhere at present."
"I should very much like to meet them," said Thomas Quince. "If that could be arranged, of course."
"Well, it may not be entirely feasible," said Arthur. Merlin would be no problem, and neither would Mary if the meeting took place after dark. Griff, on the other hand, would require a great deal more explanation which he was not prepared for as yet. "Some of my friends - well, prefer to keep to themselves."
"I quite understand," said Quince. "Then Iíll not detain you any further. I hope that we can meet again before you leave. Good day to both of you." He gave them both an elegant bow, then turned and walked away.
Arthur and Dulcinea watched him go thoughtfully. Arthur was just about to speak when Merlin came walking up to them - or, more accurately, running. It was the first time that either of them had seen him run since he had been attacked in London. The boy slowed down to a halt in front of them, steadying himself as he did so.
"Sorry about that haste," he said quickly. "Itís been months since I could do this sort of thing, and I suppose that I simply couldnít resist it. Itís nice feeling healthier again, even if I know that itís not an actual cure. So just what happened here, anyway? Who was that man that you were just talking to?"
"His name is Thomas Quince," said Arthur. "And he had a few interesting things to say to us. It seems...."
* * *
"Theyíre searching for the Holy Grail?" Darien asked.
Quince nodded. "It was just as I suspected," he said. "Well, not that they were actually looking for the Grail itself - although given what I know of Pennington as yet, it doesnít astonish me that much - but that they are not here for the same reason that you are. So thereís nothing for you to worry about."
"That's true," said Darien, a crafty look stealing across his face. "Actually this could be useful to me. Arthur Pennington may be something of a problem, but he also has a history of getting results. Once heís on the trail of something, he wonít stop until heís seen it through. I wonder.... Yes, that could work."
"What could work?" Quince asked.
"I think that he might be able to help us with that door," said Darien.
"And why would he do that?" Quince inquired. "He's here to seek the Holy Grail, not a dragon or its treasure."
"Ah, yes, we know that thatís why heís here," said Darien, smiling. "But he doesnít know why we're here."
* * *
"So what do you think, Merlin?" Arthur asked.
"I donít think that itís anything much that we have to worry about," said Merlin. "For one thing, Iíve heard about Quince. Iíve never actually read any of his books but I do know about them. And itís perfectly natural for a folklorist to be visiting the very region whose legends and customs he writes about. It's also understandable that heíd be interested in you as well, after that flurry of excitement about you. I donít think that thereís a dark conspiracy at work here."
"I don't think so either," agreed Dulcinea. "He seemed an honest man to me. I had the impression that he was merely curious about you, that's all."
"Maybe youíre right," said Arthur. "I suppose that I have been a little too inclined to see a possible threat in every shadow. Yes, Quince most likely is here for perfectly innocent reasons, reasons which have nothing to do with us."
"Mr. Pennington?" asked a voice.
Arthur and his friends turned around to see another stranger looking down at them. He was slightly stooped, with dark reddish-brown hair and a beard of the same color, wearing hiking clothes and tiny pince-nez glasses.
"Two visitors in one day," said Arthur to Dulcinea and Merlin. "We seem to be quite popular all of a sudden."
"Forgive me for imposing myself upon you," said the man, speaking in an American accent, with an occasional cough. "My name is Professor James Weston, from Columbia in New York. Iím travelling in these parts with my colleague, Thomas Quince, whom I believe you have already met."
"Yes, we have," said Arthur. "Although he didnít mention that he had any friends with him."
"I suppose that you simply didnít ask," said Weston, with another slight cough. "At any rate, he was just telling me about the conversation that heíd had with you, and mentioned in particular that you were here investigating local legends dealing with the Holy Grail. As it so happens, I have a strong interest in that particular myth-cycle. Iíve even written a couple of monographs on the subject."
"Iím afraid that they must not have had a very wide distribution," said Arthur. "This is the first time that I have ever heard of your name, Professor Weston, and my friends and I have been studying the Grail for months now."
"Well, they havenít become readily available in Britain or Europe as yet," said Weston hurriedly. "Thereís been some complications in getting them published outside the United States. Unfortunately I donít have any copies with me either. But never mind about that now. Listen, I understand that youíre particularly interested in the Grail, and I should like to offer you my assistance on that. You say that you were searching for evidence about the existence of the Grail Castle of Montsalvat in these parts?"
"Yes, I am," said Arthur.
"What a fabulous coincidence!" cried the professor. "As it so happens, Quince and I, on our way here, came upon a very interesting place, just a mile from here in the mountains. We paused by a cliff which had some very peculiar inscriptions upon its base. These inscriptions, however, were not entirely unfamiliar to me. I had seen them once before, in a copy of a medieval manuscript about the Grail. According to that manuscript, they were supposed to mark a secret entrance leading to the Castle of the Holy Grail.
"Needless to say, I was most excited to discover them here. I would have liked to have studied them longer, but my colleague Mr. Quince was eager to get on with our journey, and so I finally yielded to his wishes and continued on. However, since you share my interest in this matter, perhaps you might be interested in accompanying me back there to take a look at those carvings."
Arthur looked up thoughtfully at him, then nodded. "Thank you for your offer, Professor Weston," he said. "I believe that we shall indeed take you up on your invitation. Preferably this evening, if you do not mind."
"Oh, not at all, not at all," said Weston hurriedly. "Weíll meet back here just after dark. Does that sound good to you, Mr. Pennington?"
"Indeed it does," said Arthur. "And thank you very much for your help, Professor Weston."
"Youíre quite welcome," said the man. He turned around and walked off.
"All right, now that definitely was a remarkable coincidence," said Merlin, staring after him.
"I agree with you on this matter," said Dulcinea. "Funny thing, too. His voice sounded familiar. I couldnít quite place it, though."
"I agree," said Arthur. "But we cannot afford to turn our backs on any lead. Let us make ready, my friends. We have a long climb before us this evening."
* * *
"I still cannot believe that you actually approached him like that, Mr. Montrose," said Quince, shaking his head disapprovingly.
"It got the job done, didnít it?" said Darien Montrose, with a smile. "Now Arthur will be helping us out in finding a way of getting inside that cave - even if he doesnít know that thatís what heís helping us enter. It all works out perfectly. Heíll stop at nothing to find a way inside. For that matter, if there really is a dragon in there and not just treasure, he might be able to handle the dragon for us as well. Better yet, the two of them will finish each other off and save me a lot of trouble."
Quince sighed. "You still have that matter of your associates up there. I very much doubt that Mr. Pennington will remain deceived for long as to your true nature if he sees them encamped before the markings."
"Iíve got that covered," said Darien, pulling his cellular phone out of his pocket. He punched in a few numbers and then, after listening briefly, spoke.
"This is Darien Montrose," he said. "Now listen to me, you two. Iíve found somebody who can help us break into that cave. But I donít want him or his friends setting eyes on you lot. So I want you to stay out of sight when he comes up this evening. Yes, remove everything from the spot, and stay behind the rocks to the left. I donít want a peep out of you lot until heís done. Understand? Thanks, I knew that you would."
He switched off the phone and returned it to his pocket. "Itís all falling into place," he told Quince with a smile.
Quince sighed, but said nothing more.
* * * * *
"Iíve got to agree with the others on this one," said Mary to Arthur, as they stood alongside Merlin and Dulcinea by the church, a few minutes after sunset. She had informed Griff directly after changing back into a human about what Merlin had told her, and rejoined the others in the village immediately afterwards. Griff himself was now perched on the churchís roof, pressed low against it so as to avoid being seen and watching them below carefully and protectively. "It really seems a very extraordinary coincidence. How do we know that this isnít a trap? Maybe this ĎWestoní is working for the Illuminati."
"It is a possibility, I agree," said Arthur. "Certainly I found him a suspicious character in some ways. But I also know that we cannot afford to turn our backs on anything that could possibly lead us to the Grail. Not as long as Merlinís life hangs in the balance. And besides, accompanying Weston may be our best way of finding out just what his intentions are."
Dulcinea nodded. "We do have Griff with us for a back-up, in case he has a few dirty tricks up his sleeve. Although I still wish that I could identify his voice a little better. I know that Iíve heard it before."
Footsteps approached from the shadows just then, and James Weston and Thomas Quince walked up to the foursome. "All of you here?" asked Weston in a jovial tone of voice, while Quince continued to frown troubledly. "Splendid - um, whoís the girl?" he added, as he suddenly noticed Mary. "She wasnít here before."
"This is Mary Sefton," Arthur explained. "Iím sorry that you didnít meet her earlier. She has certain - health problems that do not allow her out during the daytime. And this is Emrys Hawkins, my ward," he added. "I donít believe that youíve met him as yet, either."
"Iím afraid not," said Quince, shaking hands with the boy. "But Iím pleased to meet you both." He kissed Mary on the hand in an elegant gesture.
"Thank you," said Mary, smiling.
"Well, letís be off now, shall we?" said Weston, holding up his battery-powered electric lamp. "Weíve got quite a long journey before us, so letís get started."
The six of them set off towards the mountains. Up above, Griff jumped off the church roof and glided after them.
* * * * *
"Here it is," said Professor Weston, standing in front of the almost-blank face of the wall. "These are the carvings that I told you about, my friends. Perhaps you can make something out of them?"
"Let me have a better look at them," said Merlin, stepping forward.
Weston held the lantern down so that the youth could examine the symbols carved upon the mountain wall all the better. Arthur, Dulcinea, and Mary stood close by, watching in silence. Quince stood between them and Weston, a concerned expression upon his face.
"Very interesting," said Merlin, looking over the inscription. "Although quite odd, too. This isnít the sort of thing that Iíd have expected to see at any place linked to the Holy Grail, in fact."
"What díyou mean by that?" asked Weston sharply.
"I recognized one or two of these symbols as Toltec glyphs," said the boy. "Iím not quite certain of their meaning - my knowledge of ancient Mesoamerican writings isnít all that good - but itís definitely not something that one associates with the Grail. I must admit, Iím finding it quite peculiar."
"But you can uncover their meaning, canít you?" Weston asked.
"Yes, but itíll take some time," said Merlin. "This is outside my area of specialty. Now if it was written in Ogham, say, then itíd be different. But Iíll see what I can do with it."
"Your young friend is very learned for his age," said Thomas Quince to Arthur. He had been watching Merlin with increasing astonishment as the lad had gone to work in examining the writings. "I had scarcely expected a boy of his years to even recognize Toltec pictograms."
"Emrys is - a very talented young man," said Arthur. He wondered for a moment if perhaps he should have a few words with Merlin about taking better care to hide his centuries-old knowledge around those not aware of his true identity.
"Heís got a point, though," said Mary. "I mean - these Toltecs - they were from ancient Mesoamerica, like the Aztecs, right?"
"They preceded the Aztecs by several centuries," said Quince. "But, yes, they did live in that part of the world."
"So what are carvings by them doing here in Spain?" asked Mary.
"Maybe Emrys will find the answer when he deciphers the inscription," said Arthur. "Let us hope that he can."
Several minutes passed by. James Weston began to pace back and forth, with an expression of increasing impatience on his face. "Havenít you finished yet?" he finally shouted at Merlin.
"Patience, Professor Weston, please," said Merlin. "I still think that what you need is an expert on pre-Columbian America for this project. As I said, I really donít know much about this particular writing system."
"Well, hurry it up!" protested Weston. "I havenít got all night, you know! And I -" He let out a sudden sneeze at that moment. "This night air isnít particularly good for me," he said. "I should be inside, where itís warm."
"Yes, it is rather chilly up here," said Merlin. "Maybe we should halt work for now and go back to the village. We can come here tomorrow."
"No, we are not!" cried Weston. "I want that inscription translated now, kid, before I -" He suddenly sneezed again. This time his moustache and beard fell off under the impact of the sneeze.
"Darien Montrose," said Dulcinea, recognizing him at once. "I knew that there was something more than a little suspicious about your story. An expert on the Holy Grail whom weíve never even heard of before just happens to show up in the village that weíre staying in and just happens to have a tip on where it is. Youíre after it as well, arenít you?"
"Most certainly not," Darien retorted. "I donít care one bit about your Grail; youíre welcome to it as far as Iím concerned."
"Then what is this all about?" asked Arthur, drawing Excalibur. "Tell us now, Mr. Montrose."
Darien looked nervously at Excaliburís blade beneath the night sky and shivered. Then he spoke.
"If you must know," he said, "this has nothing to do with the Grail. Yes, I lied. This inscription isnít connected to your Holy Grail at all. Itís the entrance to a dragonís cave filled with treasure! Treasure that Iím after! Which is why I want to find a way into this cave, now!"
"I should have known," said Arthur. "Your usual display of avarice and deceit, Darien Montrose. Well, we will not provide you with any help, now that we know what your true objective is."
"Exactly," said Merlin, standing up and facing the London businessman, a sharp look in his eyes. "Stealing a dragonís treasure never does anybody any good. Iíve come across the consequences of it enough times. Somebody breaks into the cave, steals something from the hoard - a cup, say - and then the dragon wakes up, finds the cup missing, and goes out looking for it and the thief, burning up everything in its path until the local hero has to slay it. Iím certainly not about to contribute to this pattern."
"But - if you really are King Arthur," protested Darien, "you ought to be helping me. I mean, slaying dragons is what you and your knights do, isnít it? The old St. George routine?"
"Slaying dragons because they are ravaging the land and endangering innocents, yes," said Arthur sternly. "Slaying dragons so that a greedy man can plunder their treasure for his own gain, no. We will not be your pawns or your hirelings, Darien Montrose."
"All right," said Darien. "I hadnít wanted it to come to this, but if youíre going to be this uncooperative...." He made a rush at Mary, shouting as he did so, "If you donít want anything nasty to happen to the girl, youíll - ow!" Mary had neatly kicked him in the shins before he could grab hold of her, and followed it with a quick elbow-jab in the ribs. Darien staggered back, long enough for her to rush over to Arthurís side.
"Choose your would-be hostages with a little more care, Mr. Montrose," said Dulcinea. "Theyíre not all as helpless as they look."
"Help!" shouted Darien, still limping about. "Reinforcements, now!"
At once, a small group of thuggish-looking men and women, about twelve in all, burst out from around the corner of the path. "Donít just stand there!" Darien yelled at them. "Grab those four!"
The two mercenaries in front suddenly halted as they took a closer look at Arthur. "Wait a minute!" said the blond man. "Didnít we run into that guy before in New York, a few years ago?"
"Yeah," said the red-haired woman. "And Yorkshire, just a year after that. And didnít he have a gargoyle with him?"
"Indeed he did," said Griff, swooping down from his hiding-place to stand next to Arthur. "Say, you two do look familiar. You were working for that Maddox chap the last time we met. I must admit, you never did show much taste in employers."
"What are you doing, standing around there like that?" shouted Darien. "Get them!"
"But, sir!" began the blond mercenary. "Thereís a gargoyle, and that guyís got a sword, and -"
"You outnumber them two to one, and two of the lot are just kids!" shouted Darien. "Take them down now, before I cut your salaries in half!"
"Oh, well," said the blond man with a sigh. He and the others charged forward at Arthur and his party.
"Merlin, Mary, stand back," said Arthur at once. "Griff, Dulcinea, to me." He raised Excalibur high and ran at the small team of thugs with his two knights straight behind him.
"Stop!" cried Thomas Quince, holding up both hands. He walked straight for Darien Montrose, while Darienís mercenaries and Arthur and his knights all halted, staring in the folkloristís direction. "Mr. Montrose," he said, "I cannot tolerate your behavior. In just a few minutes, you have attempted to take a young girl hostage and ordered your followers to attack these people. Our agreement is now over."
"You keep out of this, Quince," retorted Darien, grabbing hold of the man by the arm. "Iím in charge here."
"I beg to differ with you, Mr. Monrose," said Thomas Quince, in a quiet, grave voice.
As he spoke those words an eerie glow surrounded him and he began to grow. At the same time his shape began to alter. His legs fused together into a tail and his arms erupted into a pair of feathered wings. His hair and beard vanished and his face became covered with scales. Darien Montrose was suddenly dangling a couple of feet above the ground, grasping hold of a brightly-colored feather growing from the wings of a magnificent-looking giant serpent.
He stared the creature in the face, then screamed. The serpent shook him gently, dislodging the feather that Darien was holding and thereby causing Darien himself to land on the ground on his backside with a slight thud. The London businessman jumped to his feet almost at once and, still clutching the feather tightly, ran in terror past Arthur and his companions down the path towards the village below.
The winged serpent watched him go, then turned back to look down at the small team of mercenaries under his command. "I suggest that you follow him," it said in Thomas Quinceís voice. "That is, if you donít want to stay for dinner." It licked the air with a long forked tongue.
Darienís hirelings promptly ran after their employer with the same undignified haste, and were quickly lost to sight. The serpent turned towards Arthur and his four companions and stared down at them thoughtfully.
Although quite startled, Arthur and his friends held their ground. Merlin seemed the most interested, as he looked up at the great feathered serpent. "So there really is a dragon up here," he said. "I must admit, youíre not quite what Iíd been expecting."
"You donít seem as afraid as they are," said the creature that had been Thomas Quince. "Nor need you be. I certainly have no hostile intent towards you."
"Yes, that much we had gathered," said Arthur, lowering Excalibur. "You certainly proved yourself to be on our side, when you helped us against Mr. Montrose and his people. But who are you, really? I take it that ĎThomas Quinceí is not your real name."
The serpent shook his head. "Youíre quite correct there," he said. "That was just an alias that I used after I assumed human form. My real name is Quetzalcoatl."
"Quetzalcoatl?" said Merlin, raising his eyebrows. "Well, it does make sense, when you stop to think over it. The Toltec engravings, your current form - it all falls into place. Although the location is a bit more surprising. I would have thought that if you were anywhere in the world, it would be Central America instead."
"You know of this particular dragon, Merlin?" asked Arthur, turning to his teacher.
"A lot of people do, actually," said Merlin. "Though I can see why you donít. He was after your time, after all - and in a part of the world that nobody in Britain knew anything about back when you were High King. But - well, Quetzalcoatl was a legendary serpent-god who lived in Mesoamerica about a thousand years ago."
"Then heís -" Mary began, then, remembering that Quetzalcoatl was present, changed her words to "-youíre one of the Third Race?"
Quetzalcoatl shook his head with a slight smile. "Thatís where youíre mistaken, Iím afraid, Miss Sefton," he said. "Iím actually a dragon. I simply have the ability to assume human form when I need to."
"A dragon?" asked Mary, frowning. "Merlin, are you certain that weíre not still in danger? I mean, after what you told me about all those other dragons in the Godslayer business, such as Apep -"
"Not all of us dragons are hostile towards the other races, Miss Sefton," Quetzalcoatl said, still sounding good-naturedly. "Every race is made up of individuals, dragons no less than humans - or gargoyles, or the Fair Folk. And not all of my kind agreed with the designs of Apep when he sought to spread his shadow over the entire earth. Some of us wished to live in peace with the other races. I was one of them, and still am.
"But this is a cold and windy place, not appropriate for a civilized conversation. Come in here with me, I pray you."
With that, he raised his tail and tapped the cliff wall with it. The mountainside rumbled and then parted in half, revealing the entrance to a vast, dark cave behind it. Quetzalcoatl waved a wing in its direction and a gentle golden light filled its interior. He then slithered inside. "Well, donít just stand there," he said. "Come in, come in."
They followed him inside, gazing up at the vaulted ceiling high above them, the magnificent stalactites dripping down overhead, and the occasional stalagmite cropping up here and there. "Welcome to my home," said Quetzalcoatl, as he coiled the lower portion of his body into the serpentine equivalent of a comfortable sitting position.
Mary looked about her. "Itís quite empty for a dragonís cave, isnít it?" she commented.
"In other words, youíre wondering where the treasure is," said Quetzalcoatl. "And the truth of the matter is, there never was any to begin with. Only myself, the dragon. But you know how most humans are. They simply canít accept the fact that there can be such a thing as a dragon living in a mountain den who doesnít have a rich hoard of gold and jewels to lie upon."
"So Darien Montrose came all this way for nothing," said Merlin with a smile. "I canít say that I feel all that sorry for him, though."
"I must admit, Master Quetzalcoatl," said Arthur, as he sheathed Excalibur, "that I had not expected such hospitality from you. Not that I am at all ungrateful for it."
"Well, I have a few reasons for receiving you," said Quetzalcoatl. "One is that you clearly did not approve of Darien Montrose attempting to rob me - not that thereís anything here for him to rob, as youíve seen. Thereíve been few humans who have ever taken such a stance - and I rather like it when I do come across them. And also - well, I suppose that we beings of legend must stick together. And I know that at least three of you are such. King Arthur, a gargoyle - and although you hardly resemble your old form, I know who you truly are, Master Emrys Hawkins - or should I say, Master Merlin?"
"Yes, I am," said Merlin. "Quite sharp-eyed of you, I must admit."
"And for that matter," Quetzalcoatl continued, "we do have much in common, Arthur Pendragon. I was once a king like you, in fact. About a thousand years ago I assumed human form and came to rule over the Toltecs, who were one of the leading peoples in Mesoamerica at that time, as Merlin explained earlier." He flicked the tip of his tail in the direction of the cave wall behind him, which began to shimmer. Then images began to form on its surface as he spoke. Arthur and his companions seated themselves before Quetzalcoatl, to listen and watch.
"And just as you chose to do with the Britons," Quetzalcoatl continued, as there appeared on the wall a picture of a man in a white robe and feathered headdress, standing upon a dais and surrounded by a crowd of people in ancient Mesoamerican garb looking up to him, "I sought to bring civilization and a better way of life to the people that I ruled over. I taught them how to plant and grow corn or maize, for example." The image of the younger Quetzalcoatl in his human form changed to that of a flourishing cornfield. "I taught them the art of writing, and I even gave them a calendar." The scene on the wall now became an ancient-looking round stone calendar. "And, perhaps most importantly, I persuaded them to end one of the darkest customs that they observed before my reign. Human sacrifice."
"Human sacrifice?" asked Mary, with a mild shudder. "Did they really do that?"
Quetzalcoatl nodded. "Iím afraid so," he said. "It was one of their religious traditions before my reign." The scene on the wall behind him now changed to that of a struggling man laid out upon a stone altar at the summit of an ancient step-pyramid, while another man, arrayed in formal robes, raised an obsidian knife in both his hands. "The Toltecs engaged in regular sacrifices of that sort to their gods. They believed it necessary, for they feared that if the gods were not given these offerings they would die and the world revert to chaos. But I abolished that practice and had them sacrifice flowers to the gods instead."
"Well, that certainly sounds like an improvement," said Mary. "I know that I wouldnít fancy being one of those people whom they were sacrificing."
"Unfortunately," Quetzalcoatl continued, with a sigh, "my reign, like yours, Arthurís, came to an end, and a sad one too. I had a brother named Tezcatlipoca, a thoroughly corrupt and Machiavellian person, with a love for strife and discord." The scene on the wall behind him now changed to a man wearing padded armor in the style of an ancient Mesoamerican warrior, with a sort of hooded cloak that appeared to have been made from a jaguarís hide, and a mirror made from obsidian tucked into his belt. He bore a cunning smile upon his face. "He stirred up a rebellion against me, and led the Toltecs to overthrow and depose me, simply because it amused him to do so. I was forced to leave Mesoamerica, now that he ruled in my place, but vowed publicly to someday return.
"And after I did so, I resumed my old form that you see me in now, and flew across the sea in the direction of the sunís rising, until I came here to these mountains. And there I settled down in this cave, to brood alone.
"The events that follow afterwards, I must confess, are not pleasant ones. Even today, I cannot look back upon them without regarding them with shame. But I was bitter and angry at Tezcatlipoca for driving me out. I wanted to strike back at him, somehow. And when I observed the humans that dwelt to the south of this mountain range, the Spaniards, I believed that they might accomplish the task for me. They were already in rivalry with the Moors over the control of Spain, and I saw that they fought against them with great valor and strength of arms, but much ruthlessness as well. I thought that, with the right nudge here or there, they could serve as my instrument of vengeance. So I settled down to observe them quietly, and to gently prod them into following such a course whenever it appeared necessary - which, fortunately for me (or so I thought at the time), was seldom the case.
"It took over four hundred years for events to unfold as I had hoped, but unfold they did. After the Spanish finally drove the last of the Moors out of Spain, their rulers decided to listen to the words of a Genoese seaman who was hoping to find a shorter route to the riches of Asia by sailing westwards across the Atlantic. What he found, of course - as I knew he would, if he were to undertake such a voyage - was the Americas, and it was not long before others followed in his wake. Meaning that it would be only a matter of time before the Spanish, bent on exploring these Ďnew landsí that Christopher Columbus had told them about, would come into contact with Tezcatlipoca and his people. And by that time they had discovered gunpowder, which would give them the advantage on the field of battle."
"Wait a minute!" cried Mary. "Youíre not saying that you actually got Columbus to discover America, are you?"
"Hardly," replied Quetzalcoatl, shaking his head with a slight smile. "Columbus came up with the idea on his own; all that I did was watch. Likewise, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella chose on their own account, with no prodding on my part, to serve as his patrons. I merely approved of the events. And, for that matter, I did not actually prod Hernan Cortez and his men, twenty-seven years later, to sail to my old homeland and invade it. Although I did accompany them, disguised as a clerk in Cortezís service - and I will confess that I did use a mild amount of subtle handling of events to ensure the precise timing of their arrival."
"Of course!" said Merlin excitedly. "So it wasnít a coincidence after all."
"What do you mean?" Arthur asked him.
"The story goes that Quetzalcoatl, before leaving Mesoamerica, said that he would return in the year One-Reed," said Merlin. "That year is equivalent to 1519 in the Anno Domini system, the very year that Cortez and his conquistadors landed in Mexico. Thatís why everyone there believed at first that Cortez was really Quetzalcoatl come back, because of the precise timing. I always thought that it was just an extraordinary coincidence, until now."
Quetzalcoatl nodded. "And the prophecy was indeed fulfilled," he added with a slight smile, "for I was with Cortez, if in disguise, when he landed. So I did indeed return, if only incognito.
"By that time the Toltecs had been replaced by the Aztecs, who now held sway over the land. Tezcatlipoca dominated them as well in secret, and was particularly pleased and amused to note that they carried out the same practice of human sacrifices that I had put an end to in my time - and also that they were a very warlike people, who were hard at work conquering and exacting tribute from their weaker neighbors. In a way, however, that proved to my advantage, for these same weaker neighbors saw Cortez and his Spaniards as deliverers, come to free them from the tyranny of the Aztecs, and helped them overthrow their oppressors, never dreaming that they were only exchanging one master for another. And so Cortez toppled the Aztec empire and sacked it." The image on the wall behind him now became one of Spanish conquistadors battling Aztec warriors against the background of a burning Aztec city. Fire and smoke rose all about them until it obscured the scene.
"I had finally achieved my vengeance upon Tezcatlipoca," said Quetzalcoatl sadly. "But I took no joy in it. The Spanish were even more ruthless and brutal in putting down the Aztecs than I had expected, destroying their cities, slaughtering the people, despoiling their treasure. As I watched, I realized that I had never wanted it to go this far. And also I felt ashamed of myself for seeking such a path. By embracing revenge, I had made myself no better than my brother. And, in truth, I no longer hated Tezcatlipoca. I felt that the feud was simply not worth continuing, not when it had already led to such horrors."
"Yes, that is the way of it with vengeance," said Arthur thoughtfully. "Iíve seen evidence enough of that in my time."
Quetzalcoatl nodded sadly in return. "And so," he said, "I returned to my mountain cave here, to brood over my actions in solitude. And that was where I remained for the past four and a half centuries."
"Not all the time, though, I suppose," said Dulcinea. "I mean, you did assume the form of ĎThomas Quinceí recently. Assuming that the two of you were the same person all along."
"Ah, yes," said Quetzalcoatl. "One does grow tired of being a hermit after a while. About ten years ago, I finally decided, more for a change than anything else, to assume a new human identity, and mainly for my own amusement, to write a book about the legends and folklore of Spain. And another after that. They were fairly well-received, too. Although they had one drawback: they drew Darien Montroseís attention towards me, after he decided to go treasure-hunting in these parts and wanted an expert to consult on the local tales."
"Yes, thatís one part that I donít understand," said Mary. "I mean, itís obvious that youíre the dragon that Mr. Montrose was after. Why were you helping him look for your cave? Wouldnít you be working against yourself that way?"
"So it would seem," replied the plumed serpent, with a slight chuckle. "But I had sound reasons to do so. I had decided that the best way to discourage Mr. Montrose from giving me a great deal of undesired attention was to offer to help him, but then to do so in such a way that he would come to the conclusion that all the stories about a dragon in these mountains, and a fantastic treasure that it guarded, were nothing more than that - stories. Then he would abandon the quest and go back to London, leaving me in peace. Unfortunately, though, it hasnít turned out quite the way that Iíd expected."
* * * * *
"Nice going, boss," said Banquo, as he and Fleance caught up with their employer at the foot of the mountains. "Weíre never going to be getting our hands on that treasure now."
"Yeah," said Fleance. "Great work! Got any more errands that you want to send us on and then mess up?"
"Be quiet, both of you," said Darien sharply. "Iím not giving up just yet. Iíve put too much time and money into finding that treasure to turn back now."
"Yeah, but what are we going to do?" asked Banquo. "I mean, thatís a dragon up there! How are we supposed to get rid of it?"
"With some help," said Darien, looking ahead towards the village.
* * *
Father Perez sat up, rubbing his eyes and groaning, as loud knocks thundered against his door. "Iím coming, Iím coming," he said, as he climbed out of bed, donning his dressing-gown and slippers, and headed to the front door.
He opened it to find a tough-looking yellow-haired man on his doorstep. "Yes?" asked the curate. "Can I help you?"
"Big meeting in the town square," said the man, pointing over his shoulder to the crowd of villagers in their nightclothes, forming around a small, balding, mildly overweight man who was standing on a hastily improvized platform. "Itís an emergency."
Father Perez joined the throng with a sigh. "Do you have any idea what this is all about, Roderigo?" he asked the village barber.
"Iím just as puzzled as you are about it, Father Perez," Roderigo answered. "Some Englishman and his friends go turning us all out of our beds in the middle of the night, making a big commotion about something. At least that other Englishman who came here last night had better manners."
"Well, it had better be important," said Father Perez, with a sigh. But before he could say anything more, the stranger in the middle spoke up.
"Good people of - what is this place anyway?" The yellow-haired man whispered something in his ear, and the speaker nodded. "Thank you. Good people of Baratario! I come before you with grave news. You are all in danger!"
"Danger?" asked Roderigo. "Danger from what?"
"The dragon," said the speaker. "There is a monstrous dragon lurking in the mountains, up there." He pointed to the mountain range looming up in the darkness behind him, in a dramatic gesture. "For many years now, it has slumbered, fast asleep in its lair. But now it is awake, and plans to descend upon you shortly, burning your town to ashes, devouring your children, bringing terror and destruction upon you all! Your only hope of survival is to kill it before it kills you!"
He looked down at the crowd, clearly waiting for a response. What he received, however, was clearly not what he had anticipated.
"Ah, yes," said Roderigo the barber. "And while youíre at it, why not warn us about how the mice and rats in this town are plotting to drive us out and take over our village, and then the rest of the world?" Loud laughter greeted his words.
"I know that I may seem like a madman to you," the Englishman began.
"Youíve got that one right," broke in Roderigo again.
"But itís true, all the same!" cried the stranger. "And if you donít believe me, take a look at what I snatched from the dragonís wing when I met it!" And with that, he held up an enormous green feather almost the length of his arm, waving it before their eyes.
Most of the crowd stared open-mouthed at the feather, amid several gasps. This time, however, it was the curate who spoke.
"I was under the impression," he said, "that dragons generally had leathery wings like those of bats, not feathered ones."
"This oneís different," said the Englishman. "I donít know why, but I do know that itís up there. This feather should convince you that it exists. After all, where else could it have come from? Not even eagles have feathers this size!"
There was much murmuring among the villagers. While most of them had always been sceptical about the old dragon-stories, the enormous feather now being displayed before them had clearly made them much less confident about their being nothing more than a legend. Father Perez turned to Roderigo and said to him in a low voice, "What do you think?"
"Iíd certainly like to know how he got his hands on that feather," Roderigo replied. "I wonder what itís made out of. Plastic?"
"Probably," replied the curate. "I must admit that as far as dragon-obsessed lunatics go, I much preferred Senor Gutierrez. At least he was much more civilized about it."
Although the curate and the barber had clearly retained their skepticism about the dragon, the rest of the village seemed far less inclined to do so now. "What should we do?" one of the villagers asked the orator in an uncertain voice.
"Thereís only one thing left to do," he replied. "We must climb up to that mountain cave and slay the dragon! Whoís with me?"
A deafening silence greeted his words. The Englishman looked over the uncomfortable faces in the crowd and frowned. Then after a moment, he spoke again. "Whoever comes with me will get a share of the treasure that the dragon guards, once we've slain it. Who's with me now?"
Most of the villagers - although the curate and the barber were not among them - cheered eagerly. "Gather what you can use for weapons together," shouted the Englishman. "We leave at once."
The crowd dispersed to their houses to arm themselves for the expedition. Father Perez and Roderigo were left standing almost by themselves, shaking their heads in disbelief.
* * * * *
"Darien Montroseís not going to give up that easily, you know," said Griff. "If itís all right with you, Arthur, Iíd like to go out and keep watch. Iíll report if he looks as though heís coming back."
"A good idea," said Arthur. "We need one sentry to stand guard against his return. Tell us if thereís likely to be trouble, Griff."
"Will do," replied the gargoyle, speeding out of the cave.
"What I donít understand," Dulcinea was saying to Quetzalcoatl, "is why you just stay here."
"But I have not, my lady," Quetzalcoatl replied. "You know already that I have spent some time out of my cave recently."
"Yes, but I thought that youíd be doing more than just writing a couple of books about local legends," she replied. "I mean, you brought civilization to an entire people. It didnít last as long as youíd hoped, but still, you did something. And you must have gained a great deal of knowledge and wisdom over the centuries, too. Why donít you share it with the rest of the world? You could be doing a lot more than just living here like a hermit."
"But you know what I did," said Quetzalcoatl to her sadly. "Or what I helped bring about, at least."
"And I can see why youíd be ashamed of it," said Dulcinea. "I'd feel the same way myself, if Iíd done something like that. But just shutting yourself up here isnít the answer. Why not do something that could help people again, really help them, the way that you did with the Toltecs?"
"And why should I do that?" asked Quetzalcoatl, with a sigh. "I havenít kept myself so aloof from the outside world, my lady, that I am unaware of what humans are capable of doing to themselves. The Toltecs let themselves be manipulated by Tezcatlipoca into overthrowing me, after all. If I were to do again what I had done before, how do I know that it wouldnít end the same way? Itís not worth the effort. Why should I go to all the trouble of helping them, when theyíll simply rise up against me the moment that Tezcatlipoca, or Darien Montrose, or another corrupt or greedy schemer, persuades them to do so. Whatís the point of it all?"
"The point is that thatís who you are," said Dulcinea. "Itís your nature to help people, to teach them, to nurture them, even if it isnít likely to turn out all that well for you. Thatís the nature of a quest. Itís to follow the higher calling laid down before us, the code of honor that teaches us that thereís more to life than mere survival. Itís why Roland fought against the Moors at Roncesvalles, though hopelessly outnumbered, rather than sound his horn for help. Itís why gargoyles take upon themselves the duty of protecting humans, even though they know that so many of the humans are likely to turn upon them and hunt them down. Itís why my old master went looking for you in the mountains, even if nobody else believed that he would ever behold you and though they all considered him a fool for making the attempt. Itís why Arthur is now seeking the Holy Grail. Itís their nature to do all that. Are you really going to go against your own nature?"
Quetzalcoatl looked down at her perturbedly. "I - donít know," he said, speaking the words slowly, in a solemn, troubled voice.
Dulcinea was about to say more, but Griff re-entered the cave just then. "Arthur?" he said, in a concerned voice. "I think that youíd better come see this."
The others followed him out of the cave and looked down in the direction that the gargoyle was pointing. A small troop of people, bearing lights, was climbing up the mountain path towards them.
"From what I can tell," said Arthur, shading his eyes with his hand and staring down, "it seems as though Darienís recruited some more people to his cause. Yes, those look like some of the villagers at Baratario."
"He must have told them all about you," said Merlin, "and even found some way of convincing them that those legends about you were true. And now theyíre on their way here to slay the Ďbig bad dragoní."
"So what do we do now?" Mary asked.
"What I will do, you mean," said Quetzalcoatl, with an unhappy sigh. "I had hoped that Darien Montrose would have had enough after my scaring him off, and not dare to return. It seems as though I was wrong. Well, thereís only one thing for it now." His eyes grew hard and his voice grim. "I will have to stop him from ever troubling me again."
"I donít quite like the sound of that," said Merlin.
"Neither do I," said Arthur. "Darien Montrose may be a scoundrel and a villain, but even he scarcely deserves the treatment that you appear ready to deal him. And what of the people with him? Not all of them are mercenaries, after all. The villagers are no doubt with him only because they believe themselves to be in danger from you. You cannot slay them all simply because they wish to protect their homes and their families."
"Yes," said Dulcinea. "The villagers arenít evil, Quetzalcoatl. They're most likely only frightened."
"That may be the case," said Quetzalcoatl, his voice filled more with sorrow than with anger. "But I must also do what I can to protect myself. I cannot allow my home to be overrun with treasure-seekers like Mr. Montrose, constantly disturbing my peace, intruding upon my solitude. I have to put a stop to them so that theyíll never return. Itís the only way to protect myself and my privacy."
"But you said yourself that you were sorry for having helped Cortez and his men destroy the Aztecs," said Dulcinea. "You said that you didnít want any more blood upon your conscience. If you kill all these people, then youíll simply have more deaths to deal with. Is that what you really want?"
Quetzalcoatl bowed his head. "No," he said. "You are right, my lady. I cannot do it again. But I still cannot let them endanger my home."
"Actually, I donít think that youíll have to," said Merlin. "If you donít mind, sir, Iíve got an idea of my own."
* * *
"Weíre almost at the cave," said Darien, to Banquo and Fleance in a low voice. "Now, once the dragon comes out, we fall back, and let it and the locals fight it out. While itís eating the villagers, we take the time to unpack our gear and give it everything that weíve got. Tranquillizers, particle beam accelerators, the works."
"And what makes you think that we can take it down this time?" asked Banquo.
"Yeah," said Fleance. "Remember what happened last time we met it."
"Thatís because we werenít ready for it," said Darien Montrose.
"Whereíve we heard that one before?" said Banquo.
"Keep on forward," called Darien to the crowd following him, ignoring the mercenaryís remark. "Weíre almost there. And soon youíll see it."
They turned a corner in the path and came to a halt. Darien stared up at the yawning entrance to the cave that now opened where there had only been a mountain side before. He was about to express his bewilderment when he caught himself in time, and turned around to address the villagers instead. "There it is! The cave of the dragon!"
"Cave of the dragon?" asked a voice from behind him, an all too familiar voice. Darien spun around at once, to see Thomas Quince standing in the mouth of the cave and holding up an electric lantern. "Well, itís a cave, certainly, but there are no dragons about, so far as I can tell."
"No dragons?" Darien protested. "But you-" He stopped short, as he realized that announcing that his former guide had turned into a dragon right in front of him, only an hour or so before, was hardly going to convince the locals of his sanity. "But you said that there was one here!"
"I said that the local legends claimed that there was a dragon here," replied Quince good-naturedly. "Thereís quite a difference, Mr. Montrose. Just come inside, all of you," he said, turning to the villagers, "and youíll see that there are no dragons around."
The villagers thronged past Darien in response to Quinceís invitation. Darien followed them, gnawing at his tongue in utter frustration.
Almost the first thing that he saw upon entering the cave was Arthur and Dulcinea, alongside the two kids that they had in tow with them, standing to one side in a decidedly casual fashion. There was no sign of the gargoyle that they had had with them. The second thing that he noticed was that, apart from the four of them and the villagers already looking about through every nook of the cavern, there was nothing else in it. Not even a trace of gold or jewels.
"Where is it?" he asked, turning towards Quince and barely suppressing an urge to grab him by the jacket. "Where is the treasure?"
"Treasure?" asked Quince, good-naturedly. "Iím afraid that youíre taking those legends much too seriously, Mr. Montrose. Thereís no treasure here at all. Not unless you count a lot of interesting cave formations as treasure."
"I donít," said Darien Montrose sharply. "And furthermore, let me tell you that -"
"Hey, you!" The villagers were turning towards him, glowering sharply at him. "Thereís nothing up here but those English tourists! Whereís that dragon that youíre talking about, senor?"
Darien swallowed hard. "Well, itís an interesting story, really. You see -" He began nervously edging out of the cave. The villagers stared coldly and unsympathetically at him as he began to sidle away.
"So what do we do now, boss?" asked Banquo, as Darien emerged from the cave.
"We head back to England now," Darien retorted. "And I never want to hear anything about the Pyrenees or dragons as long as I live. Never again."
* * *
"Iím terribly sorry that you had to come all the way up here in the middle of the night for a false alarm," said Thomas Quince, waving good-bye as the last of the villagers left the cave and trooped back down the mountain path towards the village. "Good night, all of you. Pleasant dreams."
When they were all gone he turned back to Arthur and his companions. "Well," he said, "thatís that."
Griff entered the cave, having climbed down from the crag where he had been hiding from the crowd all the while. "Darien Montrose and his team are heading off north," he said. "None of them look like theyíre prepared to return."
"I hope not," said Quince. "But I must thank you, my friends. Nobody will come back here dragon-hunting, or treasure-hunting, for a long time now. And it was through your counsel that I was able to solve the problem without bloodshed."
"Weíre just glad to help out," said Merlin. "And hopefully you can live out your life here without anybody disturbing your solitude ever again."
"Perhaps," said Quince, thoughtfully. "Or perhaps not."
"What do you mean?" Arthur asked.
"I have been giving some thought to what you said," Quince said, turning to Dulcinea. "And I have found myself realizing that your words were right. Perhaps I need to be doing much more than hiding in a cave in these mountains. It may well be that there are things that I can share with the world, as I shared my knowledge with the Toltecs so long ago. Although I do not know as yet," he added sadly, "just what I might do."
"I might be able to help," said Dulcinea. "Iím going on to Seville for a while, to visit my teacherís grave, but when Iím done there, I can come back here and see what I can do to help you. Perhaps I can offer you some ideas on what to do now."
Quince looked at her thoughtfully, then nodded. "That would not be such a bad idea," he said. "Certainly, I could use the company. I may have been a hermit for much too long."
"Then here our ways must part," said Arthur to Dulcinea. "We must continue with our quest for the Grail - unless, that is," he added, turning back to Quince, "Montsalvat truly is not far away from here."
"And why would you think that?" Quince asked.
"Well, everything seems so much healthier here," said Merlin. "Myself included. And we were thinking that maybe the Grail could be nearby and might be the cause of that."
Quince smiled, and shook his head. "I fear that I am the culprit here," he said. "I have been living in these parts long enough to have had some influence on the region, bestowing much prosperity upon it. It is that which you have seen and felt, not the Grail. I can certainly tell you that, so far as I know, the Holy Grail is not in these parts."
"Then weíll just have to look for it somewhere else," said Griff.
"If I might," said Quince, "would you mind telling me please, Arthur Pendragon, just why it is that you are in quest of the Grail?"
"Merlin has been poisoned," Arthur explained. "The only cure for him is the Grail, and that is why it is so important that we find it."
"And that is all?" Quince asked.
"Isnít that enough?" Mary said. "I mean, this is Merlinís life that weíre talking about."
"I am well aware of that," said Quince. "But you may wish to ask yourselves this. Is that the best reason to seek the Grail? Merely as some form of medicine to heal a sick friend? As a means? Ponder these words carefully, Arthur Pendragon. For I believe that they will make all the difference between fulfilling your quest and failing it.
"But I wish you well upon your adventures," he went on. "And may your return to Britain be far happier for you and its people, than my return was for me and the people that I returned to."
"I hope so as well," said Arthur.
* * * * *
The travellers camped in the cave for the remainder of the night, and slept there during the following day, with Quetzalcoatl silently keeping watch over them until sunset. When dusk fell, Arthur and his companions awakened and made ready to depart.
"Farewell, my friends," said Quetzalcoatl, as they set off down the mountain path. To Dulcinea, he added, "And come again, soon."
"I will," said Dulcinea. She turned to Arthur, and said, "And best of wishes to you on your quest. When we come to Baratario, Iíll be travelling on south to Seville. So I suppose that this means good-bye for us - at least for now. But for Merlinís sake, I hope that you can find the Grail soon."
"So do I," said Arthur. But as he spoke, he found himself pondering over Quetzalcoatlís words from the night before. Is that the best reason to seek the Grail? Merely as some form of medicine to heal a sick friend? As a means?