Outline by Todd Jensen.
Written by Todd Jensen.
Art by Silver and Foxx Laverinth.
Previously on Pendragon....
MORGANA: I want no apologies from you, Merlin. I only want your death. Yours and Arthur, both. Nothing else will do. Nothing.
~~~Home for the Holidays~~~
* * *
Arthur nodded and stood up, drawing her towards the fireplace. "Kneel before me then, Mary."
The fire in the corner of Macbethís library was crackling quietly. She knelt on the rug before the hearth. Arthur drew Excalibur holding it with both hands so that the blade pointed directly downwards, hovering just above the rug. Griff and Merlin stood up, although Merlin used his cane for support. For a moment only the light from the flames seemed to move.
"Take the hilt of the sword in your hand. And now, repeat after me.
"On this sword do I, Mary Gwendolen Sefton, swear fealty to King Arthur Pendragon and loyalty to those that serve under him; to be dutiful and vigilant in times both good and ill; to watch, learn and obey the ways of the Round Table; to speak and do as commanded and needed, from this hour until my king or my death release me, or I come of age."
Arthur nodded gently and slowly drew Excalibur away. Mary let her hand drop from the sword hilt, and Arthur raised the sword to lay it gently on her left shoulder for a second. Then his solemn expression broke into a smile and he withdrew the sword.
"I accept your oath and return in kind your loyalty; I shall not neglect to guide your industry and reward your diligence. Arise, Mary, my squire."
~~~The Mists of Eynhallow~~~
* * *
ARTHUR: Is this what we shall become? Our cultures will fade and become entertainment for the future?
MARY: Maybe, but isn't that a good thing? I mean, we don't want to be stuck in the past - or the present, all the time. Progress is good.
* * *
The faerie drew a weapon from the folds of her coat, some kind of Roman javelin that she seemed to have sneaked from the exhibit somehow. With deadly skill, she threw it at Arthur. The king dodged aside in a flash, drawing Excalibur from the folds of his coat as he did so.
But the weapon continued on its path, connecting with Mary in the mid-section. It brushed past her, and she tumbled to the ground with a cry of pain.
Molly gave a brief, dispassionate glance at Arthur and the fallen Mary, before dashing away. Arthur did not move to chase her, but headed towards his squire.
"Mary!" he cried frantically, as he tried to revive her.
She turned to him and smiled. "Iím okay, Arthur. That is, Iím not dead."
* * * * *
MORGANA CORNISHíS HOUSE - LONDON, ENGLAND
Morgana Cornish looked over her work with a look of utter satisfaction upon her face.
"There is nothing left that can convince any court of law in the country that I had anything to do with any criminal activity in the past year," she said. "Every last document put through the shredder. Every accomplice stripped of any memories of dealings with me. Itís all done. Now thereís no way that Arthur can ever expose me to the authorities as the Connection. The true identity of that gun-smuggler will remain forever a mystery - and I can resume my life again."
She walked over to the telephone on her desk, picked up the receiver, and began to punch in Sir Nigel Seftonís number. Then she halted half-way through, her finger hovering over one of the buttons. "No," she said to herself, replacing the receiver. "Not yet. Thereís still one thing left to be done."
She walked away from the desk towards the window and looked out. "I can only have peace once Arthur and Merlin are both gone," she said to herself. "Not until then will it be over."
She gazed out into the darkness, brooding. "Merlin is dying," she said to herself. "By the end of the year, he will be forever gone. And once he is no more, I can move against Arthur and send him to join his wizard. All that I have to do is wait."
She began to pace back and forth. "Unless he does find a cure," she murmured to herself. "I hadnít even thought of the Holy Grail when I brewed that poison."
Her face was concerned for a moment. Then she shrugged her shoulders. "It doesnít matter. The Grail will never heal the offspring of the Unseelie Lord. So Arthur can quest for it all that he wants, and itíll do him no good even if he finds it. Thereís nothing for me to worry about."
She paused in mid-pace. "But if I had forgotten the Grail while making that venom, what else might I have forgotten? What if there is another cure out there, one that my poison is not shielded against?"
She walked back to the window and frowned. "I was going to move against Arthur anyway. And maybe itís a better plan to strike now, rather than waste yet more of my life waiting for the poison to complete its task. I want to be free of them both as soon as I can. And I will be free of them both."
* * * * *
SICILY - TWO WEEKS LATER
"Arthur, are you certain that this is a good idea?" Mary asked uncertainly.
Arthur looked down at his squire, currently in her talking wolf shape. The two of them were walking side by side down a rough dirt path through a meadow, that wound its way towards a low range of rocky hills. "I donít think that weíll be gone that long," he said. "This is just an early scouting venture. I want to make certain that there will be no unpleasant surprises in store for us when we return after nightfall, to more properly explore those caves."
"I know," said Mary. "But all the same - it means that weíre leaving Griff and Merlin all by themselves, unprotected. If somebody comes along and finds them before sunset...."
"I doubt that there are any people in this part of the island, other than ourselves," Arthur told her. "And even if someone does discover them, Merlinís hardly in that poor a condition as yet. I believe that heís still capable of defending himself from harm."
"Well, maybe," said Mary. She looked at the mountain in the distance. "So thatís Mt. Etna," she said. "Iím glad that itís dormant at the moment. A volcanic eruption is one trouble that Iíd rather not face."
"I agree with you on that matter," replied Arthur with a smile.
"And I hope that those rumors about the Grail being hidden in one of those caves arenít just rumors," said Mary. "Timeís running out, remember. Merlin canít hold on that much longer."
"We must not give up all hope, Mary," Arthur said. "We will find the Grail yet, somehow."
The two of them continued on. Neither of them looked up to see a few ravens flying above their heads, gazing down intently at them. Nor did they see the birds turn and fly off towards the hills.
* * * * *
Morgana looked through the open contents of the chest before her, sorting through the objects within. It had been some time since she had last visited her secret cave in Sicily, and she needed to familiarize herself again with the various oddments that she had stored within it.
"Perhaps this will do," she said to herself, picking up a golden figurine in the shape of a dragon with outstretched wings and looking at it. Then she shook her head and replaced it. "Only as a last resort," she murmured. "I am not that desperate yet."
She pulled out next an old drinking-horn and looked at it. "No, this will definitely not do," she said to herself, returning it to the chest as well. "I donít know why I still keep it. It certainly wasnít the slightest help to me at all. Although it might have been if I had been keeping a closer eye on my courier and prevented him from being redirected from Camelot to Tintagel."
She shifted the items about a little more until she found something promising-looking near the bottom. She lifted it out and looked it over. "Yes," she said to herself thoughtfully. "Yes, this just might work."
There came a fluttering of wings just then, as her ravens flew into the cavern. They perched upon their roosts, croaking out to her.
"Heís coming this way?" she said to them. "Excellent. Thereís not a moment to waste, then."
* * * * *
The former king of Britain and his young werewolf squire came to a halt as the path forked in two before them. Both branches of the trail climbed up into the hills but in different directions, one heading to the left and one to the right.
"So what do we do now, Arthur?" asked Mary. "Which path do we take first?"
"I think that it would be best for us to split up," said Arthur. "Itíll only be for a few minutes. You take the left path, and I will take the right. We will see where they lead us, and reconvene here in half an hour. After which we must return to where our friends are."
"That sounds fair to me," said the girl. She started up the left path. Arthur watched her go and then headed up the right path himself.
The path made its way up into the hills at a gentle incline. Arthur walked up it, keeping a close eye out for the possibility of caves.
His search was soon rewarded. The path took a bend, and led him directly towards the darkened mouth of an enormous cavern. Arthur halted and drew Excalibur. He doubted that there was any danger awaiting him within, but the swordís blade could provide him with the light that he needed. He held his weapon out before him, and watched as it began to glow.
An evening mist was already beginning to arise about him as he walked into the cave. He had already decided not to go very far inside; he would save that for the full expedition. But a quick look-about would do him no harm. It was odd, though, how the mist appeared to be growing thicker and rising higher. Even Excaliburís light was unable to penetrate it. It was surrounding him on all sides.
"This does not bode well," he said to himself in a troubled voice.
* * *
Morgana stood at the top of the hill, reading aloud from an old parchment scroll in her hand. The Latin words of the incantation echoed faintly about her as she reached the climax.
She had already seen Arthur enter the mist that she had raised, and alone at that. Excellent. So far, her plan was working perfectly.
* * *
Mary had not gone far up her path when she halted and sniffed the air. A faint aroma of a very odd variety had reached her nose, coming from higher up the hill behind her. Feeling concerned, she turned around and began walking in its direction. She quickened her pace as she realized that it was coming from the very path that Arthur had gone up, only moments before.
Perhaps it was nothing, she thought, as she ran up the hill now. But any smell that was unfamiliar to her, she didnít feel comfortable with. And if Arthur was there, it could be a danger to him. She had to investigate.
* * *
Morgana finished reading the incantation and rolled up the scroll. "That will take you out of my life, little brother," she said to herself, an eager smile forming upon her face.
The spell would take a while longer to finish its initial process, but that hardly mattered when Arthur had already been engulfed by it. She could now go searching for Merlin and see if she could hasten his end. True, he wouldnít live out the year, but he was still good for a few more months, and she did not want to wait that long. If she finished him off now, then she could re-assume her life as Morgana Cornish, respected academic and fiancee to Sir Nigel Sefton, all the sooner, without any fear of further interruptions.
She began to descend the hill, climbing down the slope opposite the hillside in which the entrance to the cave yawned. And so it was that she did not see Mary Sefton in her wolf-shape running up the path and plunging into the mist that already obscured the mouth of the cave.
* * *
The mist had thickened to such an extent that Arthur could no longer even see his own hands, could see nothing but swirling mists. He sheathed Excalibur; clearly his sword would be no use to him in this fog. He took a few more steps forward, but it showed no signs of lifting whatsoever. There was nothing to do but to go back.
"Arthur!" called a familiar voice behind him. "Arthur!"
"Mary?" cried Arthur, turning around at once. "Is that you?"
"Yes, Arthur," said the girlís voice. "I canít see you, though. Where are you?"
"Somewhere in this accursed mist," Arthur replied. "Keep on speaking, Mary. Maybe we can find each other by the sound of our voices."
"Yes, that should work," she said. She sounded closer now. "Do you have any idea what happened, Arthur?"
"I fear not," he answered. "All that I know is that this fog arose from nowhere, and I cannot see anything in it."
"Perhaps the Grail really is here," she said, her voice coming from almost right beside him now, "and this is some sort of defense."
"Perhaps," he said gravely. "Come, we need to find our way out of this obscurement, and into the clear light of day again."
Mary let out a sudden painful gasp. "I donít think that itís going to be day that weíll be emerging into, Arthur," she said. "Iím starting to change."
Arthur held out one hand and groped about until he grasped her by the wrist. "How do you feel?" he asked her.
"Better now," she said. "All these months, and Iím still not quite used to it. I wonder if I ever will get used to it."
"With good fortune on our side," he replied, "you will not have to. Now, come, let us find our way out."
The two of them made their way forward, proceeding through the mists. "Arthur, I feel a little - well, strange," said Maryís voice concernedly, after a little bit.
"Strange?" he asked her. "How so?"
"Iím not sure," she replied. "I just - somethingís different with me, and I donít even know what it is."
Arthur frowned. "Now that you mention it," he said, "I feel much the same way. Although just what has changed, I cannot say as yet. Perhaps we will know for certain when we can see again."
Even as he spoke, however, he saw the mists beginning to disperse. They were out of the cave now and out in the open. By the look of the sky above it was just after sunset; the sky was still a darkening red in the west, and the first stars were coming out. Arthur drew Excalibur once again and watched its blade glow. Brighter and brighter the sword shone, until he could see by it as clearly as if it had been a burning torch or even an electric lantern.
He then looked down at himself and gasped in disbelief. "What sorcery is this?" he asked aloud.
His modern-day clothes had somehow been transformed back into the armor that he had worn during his final battle with his son Mordred at Camlann, the armor that he had slept in for all those centuries on Avalon, in which he had fought against the Archmageís forces following his reawakening, and undertaken his quest for Excalibur: plate armor, a surcoat with the dragon badge that had been the symbol of his family ever since his father Uther had seen the dragon-star in the heavens and assumed the name "Pendragon" in memory of it, and a long blue cloak. He was also certain that he was wearing his old crown again; he could not see it, but he could feel it against his forehead. It had been years since he had dressed like this. So how had his old attire returned?
"Arthur?" asked Mary, her voice filled with awe. Arthur turned to her at once and found himself staring all the more when his eyes fell upon her.
For her garments had also changed. Instead of her regular shirt, jeans, jacket, and hiking boots, Mary now was dressed in an elegant-looking blue tunic and white breeches, with a long hooded cloak and pointed shoes, the very garb that a young squire would have worn back in his day. A short sword hung from her belt. Her hair had suddenly become much longer, probably waist-length if it had been falling loose, and was coiled about her ears in two great braids.
The girl stared down at herself and let out a gasp. "How on earth did we wind up like this?" she asked him.
"I do not know," he replied. "But there is magic at work here. There can be no other explanation for it."
"Well, at least you definitely look a lot more like yourself," said Mary, studying the Once and Future King more closely. "I mean - you really do look the way that I thought youíd be dressed. Itís very nice, really."
"In truth, it is the way that I did dress when I returned from Avalon," said Arthur. "Although that does not explain your change in apparel. After all, you were not native to my time."
"I know," she said, running her hands over her tunic and cloak, and then raising one hand to her head and feeling her altered hair-style. "So why am I got up for a historical pageant?"
"I wish that I knew the answer to your question, Mary," said Arthur. "But unfortunately, I do not."
"Well, maybe Merlin can tell us," said the girl. "Weíd better find him and ask him about it."
"I quite agree," said Arthur. "Griff should be awake by now, as well. Which gives us all the more reason to return to them."
"Arthur, what on earth is that doing there?" cried Mary suddenly.
Arthur turned and looked in the direction that she was staring. Some ways off to their left, a great stone castle loomed in the twilight. It was a magnificent sight to behold, with whitewashed walls, and banners atop the towers, fluttering in the evening breeze. But it had not been there when the two of them had first come to these hills, and both of them knew it.
"There is only one way to find out," said Arthur. "We had better have a closer look at it."
"Arthur, are you certain that this is a good idea?" asked Mary, following him as he began to walk towards the castle. "I mean - if it just springs up out of nowhere, then there has to be some sort of magic at work there as well. What if itís a trap?"
"The possibility had crossed my mind," he replied. "But we must learn all that we can about what has brought about these changes, Mary. And also, a true knight may not refuse any adventure that has been sent his way."
"Very well, then," said Mary. She laid one hand upon her sword-hilt, though, frowning cautiously.
A quick walk brought them to the moat which surrounded the castle. The drawbridge was raised, but a couple of men-at-arms stood at sentry duty upon the battlements overhead. One of them called down to them in a loud voice. "Who goes there? State your business, travellers!"
"My name is Arthur Pendragon," said Arthur, lowering Excalibur but not sheathing it, "and this is my squire, Mary Sefton. We come in peace, and would gladly speak with the lord of this castle."
The two guards over the battlements started. The one who had spoken earlier found his voice first. "Go tell Sir Alain about this, at once!" he said. As the other sentry ran off, the first guard called down, "Lower the drawbridge! Open the gates!"
Mary looked concernedly at Arthur. "Arthur Pendragon?" she asked. "Are you certain about this?"
"It seemed appropriate," Arthur replied. "And, truth to tell, it is something of a relief to no longer be hiding behind that assumed surname."
Before Mary could reply, the drawbridge came down with a loud thud and a rattling of chains, only a few feet from where they stood. The portcullis behind it rose with a clanking sound and the wooden gates behind it swung back, revealing the courtyard behind them. Arthur and Mary quickly passed over the drawbridge and through the open gateway. Once they were inside the courtyard, the drawbridge was raised again behind them, and the gates slammed tightly with a thud.
A dark-haired young man in his late teens, dressed in the same sort of squireís garb as Mary, proceeded across the courtyard from the castle keep, accompanied by a guard bearing a torch. He stared at the girl for a moment in astonishment, but then caught himself and delivered a low courtly bow to Arthur. "Welcome to Castle Beaurepaire, my lord," he said. "I am William de Courcy, squire to Sir Alain de Beaurepaire, the lord of this castle. If you would please follow me to the keep, to speak with his lordship?"
"We thank you, sir squire," said Arthur gravely. He and Mary followed the youth to the keep and up the flight of narrow stone steps that led to its door. As they proceeded inside, Mary turned to Arthur and said to him in a low voice, "All these names here sound French."
"I had thought as much," said Arthur, nodding.
"And thatís just what I donít understand," said the girl. "Whatís a French castle doing here in Sicily? And for that matter, whyís everybody here dressed up like itís still the Middle Ages? Including us? Unless - have we gone back in time?"
"That might be a possibility," said Arthur thoughtfully. "It would certainly explain much."
William led them from the small entrance room of the keep into the great hall. Arthur looked about it and could not help but feel impressed. It was hardly equal to the great hall at Camelot which he still remembered even after almost fifteen centuries, but it was impressive to behold all the same.
Brightly woven tapestries hung upon the walls, depicting scenes of hunting and war and knights courting fair ladies. Heraldic banners fluttered overhead, dangling from the rafters. At the far end of the hall was a raised dais with two high-backed wooden chairs, ornately carved. Upon them sat a handsome brown-haired brown-moustached man and a lovely raven-haired lady, her hair braided and coiled like Maryís, both dressed in elegant medieval attire - a tunic and breeches like Maryís for the lord, a long gown for the lady. Behind them there hung a great banner, colored blue, with a golden chalice emblazoned upon it. Both rose to greet Arthur as William conducted the former king of Britain before them.
"My lord," said the squire, with a bow, "may I present Sir Arthur Pendragon to you?"
"Thank you, William," said the lord of the castle. Turning to Arthur, he said, "Welcome to my castle, sir knight. I am Sir Alain de Beaurepaire, and this is my wife, the Lady Blanchefleur."
"I thank you for your hospitality, my lord," said Arthur, bowing himself to the lord and lady in the proper courtly fashion. Mary followed suit at once.
"Now, sir, knight," Sir Alain continued, his voice now clearly filled with awe, "did I hear your name correctly? Are you indeed Arthur Pendragon?"
"Yes, that is indeed my name," Arthur replied. "And this is my squire, Mary Sefton, the daughter of Sir Nigel Sefton in England. My lord," he added quickly, "there is no need to kneel before me."
But kneeling was precisely what Sir Alain was doing, his eyes filled with wonder and eagerness. "Arthur Pendragon?" he said. "Le Roi Artus de Bretagne? It is indeed you?"
"Yes, it is," said Arthur, feeling more than a little astonished. "You - know who I am, then?"
"Mais, oui, messire Artus," said Sir Alain, rising to his feet again. "Your bearing, and even your great sword, proclaim you for what you are. You are most welcome to my castle, you and your squire as well. So you have awakened at last and returned!"
Arthur nodded. "I apologize if I am imposing upon you, Sir Alain," he said. "But my squire and I had lost our way and hoped to find some answers to our whereabouts here."
"There is no need to offer any apology, Your Highness," said Sir Alain. "In truth, you honor me, in entering my home. And I am more than grateful for your presence, especially in these troubled times."
"Which reminds me," said Arthur. "May I ask, Sir Alain, what year it is?"
"Mais, certainement," said Sir Alain, nodding. "You must only just have been awakened, of course, so you would not know. But it is the Year of Our Lord 1310."
1310? Arthur kept himself from expressing his astonishment, and merely nodded instead. "I thank you, Sir Alain," he said. He noticed that Mary looked nothing short of consternated, although she was also keeping silent with a considerable effort.
"Your presence turns tonightís supper into a veritable feast of honor to welcome you to my castle, messire," Sir Alain said. "I must apologize for the relatively poor fare that must be set before you - we have had no time to prepare for your coming, alas. If you remain with us long enough, however, that may be remedied."
Lady Blanchefleur stepped down from the dais and walked over to Mary. "By your leave, messire Artus," she said, "I would like to help your squire prepare for the banquet. I mean you no discourtesy, but she should have proper raiment for the feast."
"Very well, then," said Arthur. "Go with her, Mary," he said to the girl.
Mary nodded and followed Blanchefleur from the hall. Once both were gone, Sir Alain spoke again.
"I am much relieved that you have returned at last, even if I had not expected you to set foot in my own lands. After all, it was to England that you were to return, was it not? But perhaps it does make sense. After all, if the tales are true, you were sleeping within Mount Etna for all those centuries, waiting for the time when you must awaken and resume your reign."
"I fear that you have been misinformed, my friend, on one matter," said Arthur to him, in a gentle voice. "Asleep for centuries I have been, but on the isle of Avalon rather than here. Indeed, this is the first that I knew of anybody believing that yonder mountain was my place of rest."
"I see," said Sir Alain, nodding. "And I will admit, in fact, that I have heard of this Avalon from the poets, even if not so often. But it does not matter. What matters is that you are awake at last. I had half-hoped that you came hither to aid us in the coming battle, although it would seem now that you know little or nothing concerning it," he added sadly.
"Coming battle?" Arthur asked. "Are you at war, Sir Alain?"
"Not precisely yet, messire Artus," said Sir Alain. "The enemy has not reached our gates. But he soon will, and we are already preparing for him. It is a long tale, in truth."
"Tell it to me anyway, I pray you," said Arthur. "I would gladly hear it."
"Very well, then," said Sir Alain. "Pray seat yourself, my lord, while I tell it to you."
Once Arthur had sat down on a chair that William de Courcy had brought for him at his liege lordís command, Sir Alain began.
"My household and I were originally from Provence, in the south of France," he said. "However, we were forced to flee here only two years ago, from our king, Philip the Fair."
"How did that come to pass?" asked Arthur. "What caused the king to become your enemy?"
"King Philip is a ruthless and greedy man, who will do anything to strengthen his power and expand upon his holdings," said Sir Alain. "In particular, only three years ago he brought heavy charges against the Knights Templar, the sworn defenders of the Holy Land from the Saracens. He falsely accused them of heresy, blasphemy, and practicing the black arts, so that he might seize upon their wealth and fill his coffers with it. Even now, nearly every Knight of the Temple of Solomon in France is held prisoner, awaiting trial and sentencing, even their Master, Jacques de Molay - and the end that awaits them is clear enough. The order is doomed.
"But a handful of Templars managed to evade arrest for a time, and took flight with an ancient treasure that their Order had uncovered in Jerusalem almost two centuries ago, which they had become guardians of. It is this treasure which King Philip particularly covets, and which he must not have. Knowing that they could not keep it long from him, not with the kingís men pursuing them, they delivered it up to me, asking me to keep it safe for them. To this I agreed, and have held it in my custody since.
"But I could not remain in France for long. King Philip and his Chancellor, William de Nogaret - a like-minded man to his royal master - have spies everywhere, and it was only a matter of time before one of them learned what had actually befallen the Orderís ancient treasure. For this reason I removed my household from Provence, and came here to Sicily, outside the Kingís reach. And here we have kept the treasure since.
"But I do not know for how long. Already, from what I have heard, King Philip is now certain that we keep this secret treasure in this castle, and is turning his attention hither. How he learned of it, I do not know. The Templars who entrusted it to me were captured not long afterwards, and it may well be that he extracted the information from them under torture. But whatever the case may be, report has it that he is sending an army to Sicily, to seize the very relic that he so desires. Which is why we must prepare for war."
"I am sorry to hear of your troubles, my friend," said Arthur. "And I swear upon my honor as a knight that I will do whatever I can to aid you against this tyrant."
"I thank you, messire Artus," said Sir Alain, sounding much relieved. "And with you by our side, there is hope for us."
* * * * *
"And you actually serve him as his squire?" Lady Blanchefleur asked, as she brushed Maryís hair. She had already uncoiled and unbraided it, and it fell loose to the girlís waist now. At Blanchefleurís insistence, Mary had also already changed out of her clothes into a long white under-dress, prior to donning some more feminine garments, and now sat on a stool while the lady of the castle attended to her.
"Yes, my lady," said Mary. "Iíve been serving him for a few months now."
"Well, I hardly know what to make of it," said Blanchefleur. "Arthur Pendragon may be the greatest king that Britain has ever known, the founder of the Round Table, and one of the Nine Worthies to boot, but I still question his choosing a young maiden like yourself for his attendant. And allowing you to dress like a boy at that. Itís nothing short of disgraceful."
I suppose that this really must be the Middle Ages, Mary thought. Iím going to have to be a lot more ladylike while Iím here, if I donít want to draw attention to myself. Assuming that I wonít already when they find out about my being a werewolf.
"So how did you come to enter his service, anyway?" Blanchefleur asked.
"Well, itís complicated, my lady," said Mary. "All that I can say is that he made me his squire after I helped him out with some trouble that we ran into in the Orkneys. And Iíve been travelling with him and even fighting by his side ever since."
Blanchefleur made a tut-tutting noise, shaking her head. "And your father permits this - unseemly behavior?" she asked.
"Yes, he does, my lady," said Mary. "Heís not really all that keen on it, but heís accepted it. He even gave me my armor." She indicated her tunic, now lying on the floor beside her. It was lined with chainmail on the inside; she supposed that this must have been what her kevlar sweater had metamorphosed into.
"Well, I should have a few things to say to him as well, then," said Blanchefleur, shaking her head. "Permitting his daughter to travel about the countryside in tunic and breeches - and armor, as well. It's scarcely fitting for a damsel of good breeding. What could he possibly have been thinking? But Iíll let that rest for now. Let us see whether this gown will fit you for the banquet."
* * * * *
The servants had set up the tables on trestles in the hall, the high table for Sir Alain, his family, and Arthur himself as their honored guest, on the dais, and two tables for the lesser members of the court in the main part of the hall, at a right angle to the high table. Most of the household had assembled themselves and taken their seats, amid a great deal of murmured conversation. Word of King Arthurís arrival had quickly spread throughout the castle, evidently; Arthur suspected that, by now, there could not be anyone left within the walls who did not know of his presence.
He could not help but wonder over the fact that everyone had so readily accepted that he was really King Arthur, without even a trace of scepticism on their part. Perhaps it was because this was a part of the Middle Ages, even if not the part that he had hailed from, he thought. Or maybe it was because they had seen Excalibur and the magical light shining from its blade. All the same, it still remained a puzzle to him.
But that was not the only thing that perturbed him. An even larger question was how he and Mary had suddenly found themselves here. The mist must have had something to do with it, sending them back in time by almost seven centuries, but what had caused it? Was it some natural phenomenon, if one that he did not understand? Or was there magic indeed behind it? Arthur frowned as he searched for a possible explanation.
"Arthur?" asked a voice from behind him.
Arthur turned around to see Mary walking up to him. She wore a long blue gown now, much like Blanchefleurís if smaller, and a small gold band in her hair, which now flowed loose over her shoulders, still hiding her pointed ears. She halted and curtsied before him.
"Ah, Mary," said Arthur, smiling. "I see that youíve been prepared for the occasion."
"I feel a little awkward in this dress, actually," she confessed. "But - well, I suppose that it wonít attract as much attention to myself. Lady Blanchefleur really didnít approve very much of my being dressed up like a boy."
"Yes, I can imagine," said Arthur, smiling slightly.
"So," she said, speaking to him in a lower voice, "do you have any idea as to how we got here? I mean, how we went back in time?"
Arthur shook his head. "The mist must have had something to do with it," he said, "but I know no more than do you on the matter. In truth, the only way that I ever heard of that could allow someone to travel through time was by making use of the Phoenix Gate, and since it has been destroyed, this cannot be its doing."
"Well, I suppose that weíll just have to stay here until we find a way of getting back to our own time," said Mary with a sigh.
"It may not be as simple as that," said Arthur. "Our host is facing attack from the army of a tyrant king, and I have promised to help him."
"Arthur, are you certain about this?" Mary asked, looking more than a little alarmed. "I donít think that itís such a good idea to get - well, tangled up in things here."
"I have given my knightly word to aid him," said Arthur. "I can do no less without forfeiting my honor. The code of chivalry, and the oath that I swore at the foundation of the Round Table, both demand that I remain by his side in his hour of need."
Mary sighed. "I know," she said. "Forgive me, Arthur. Itís just that I canít help feeling a little worried about this. I mean, what if something happens to us here? Then we wonít be able to help Merlin."
"He wonít be alone," said Arthur. "He has Sir Griff to watch over him. Perhaps Griff will be able to find the Grail and thereby save Merlinís life, even if we never rejoin our friends."
"I hope that youíre right, Arthur," said the girl, a troubled expression still on her face.
* * * * *
Griff burst out of his stone shell, letting out a loud roar. Merlin started awake and sat up.
"Good evening, Merlin," said the gargoyle, looking down at the boy. "So how are you feeling?"
"Reasonably well, under the circumstances," said Merlin, climbing unsteadily to his feet. His infirmity had returned ever since they had left the part of the Pyrenees where Quetzalcoatl the Plumed Serpent dwelt and with it his salutary influence; he needed his cane once more to walk about. He looked about. "No sign of Arthur or Mary about anywhere," he said, frowning.
"I suppose that they went out to do a bit of reconnoitering, while we were both asleep," said Griff. "Theyíll probably be back soon enough."
"I hope so," said Merlin. "But all the same, Iíll feel much easier when they actually do return."
"Iíd give them ten more minutes," said Griff. "If we see no sign of them by the end of that time, then I say we go and search for them."
"That sounds like good advice to me," Merlin said, nodding.
* * * * *
"A toast, my friends," said Sir Alain de Beaurepaire, rising from his chair and lifting his goblet up high. "To our honored guest, le Roi Artus de Bretagne, who has come to help us against King Philipís army!"
The other knights in the hall cheered, raising their goblets high in answer. Arthur looked a little embarrassed, but nodded graciously to acknowledge their acclaim.
Actually, he had felt quite comfortable at this feast from the start. After wandering about in an unfamiliar new world for a few years since leaving Avalon, a world that had altered almost beyond recognition, there was something refreshing about actually being seated in an old stone castle, dining at its lordís table in a fashion so much like that of one of the banquets that he had presided over once at Camelot or Caerleon, and even wearing his knightly armor again. It felt as though he had actually come home. It was true that this castle was in Sicily rather than in Britain, and that it was eight hundred years after the time of his reign, but all the same, it felt like home.
He glanced over at Mary, who was seated to his right. The girl had been silent during most of the banquet, most likely, he supposed, because she found its accomodations as strange as they had felt "normal" to him. She was certainly still coming to grips with the fact that there were no forks at the table and that for plates they were using trenchers made from bread that had been sliced in half. Still, she seemed to be adjusting quickly enough. He wondered just how it must be for her, and made a mental note to ask her about it after the feast was over.
Sir Alain had seated himself, and the evening entertainment of minstrels and jugglers had just resumed, when there came the sound of running feet from outside the great hall, and then the doors were flung open. All talk and music halted as a weary-looking man in travel-stained garments ran in, heading straight for the high table. "My lord!" he cried, halting before Sir Alain.
"Speak, man," said Sir Alain. "What tidings do you bring us?"
"Very ill tidings, my lord," said the messenger. "King Philipís forces have landed in Sicily, and are on their way here even now."
"That is bad news indeed," said Sir Alain gravely. "How far away are they?"
"Three daysí journey, my lord," said the messenger. "They cannot travel swiftly, for they bring a heavy train of siege engines with them. Sir James MacLeod is leading them."
"Sir James MacLeod?" asked Sir Alain. "Are you indeed certain of that?"
"Forgive my ignorance, Sir Alain," said Arthur, "but who is this Sir James MacLeod?"
"He is one of King Philipís greatest knights and generals," said Sir Alain. "And he is also a man most worthy of his master. Sir James was banished from Scotland for his various crimes four years ago and came to France, where he rose high in King Philipís favor and now serves as one of his chief officers. Certainly he has participated in some of the Kingís foulest acts since that time. King Philip has almost paid us a compliment by placing him over the army that he sends against us."
"Then I have all the more reason to remain here," said Arthur. "You will need all the help that you can find against this foe."
* * *
"So you really are staying here," said Mary concernedly, when the meal had ended. They had found a quiet corner of the great hall to speak, out of ear-shot from the rest of the assembled company.
Arthur nodded. "It is as I told you before," he replied calmly. "I cannot desert these people, not in their hour of need. I would only be false to my knightly vows otherwise. However, you are free to leave, Mary, if you wish."
She shook her head. "No, if youíre staying, then so am I," she said. "After all, Iím your squire. And even if I wasnít, I donít know where else to go. Weíre stranded in the early 14th century, remember. Griff and Merlin arenít here yet, so I canít rejoin them. In fact, Griff hasnít even been hatched, and Merlin must be up in England or Scotland somewhere, and wouldnít know me if we met. And I donít have the faintest idea how to get back to modern times. So what else can I do?"
"I do not wish to place your life in danger, Mary," said Arthur, "and if you remain here, it most likely will be. However, I am glad of your presence."
"Thank you, Arthur," she said. A sudden thought struck her just then. "I wonder if Iím still a werewolf," she said. "I mean, I havenít broken the Angurboda Figurine yet, so maybe the curse doesnít affect me any longer."
"That might be the case," said Arthur. "But until we know for certain, I would not make any assumptions."
She nodded. "Iím not certain just how weíre going to explain that to all these people here," she said. "I just hope that their favorite pastimes donít include werewolf hunts."
"I will speak to Sir Alain on your behalf," said Arthur. "Hopefully he will understand, and do you no hurt."
* * * * *
It was early the following morning. The sun had not as yet risen, but already the sky in the east was growing paler as the dawn crept closer. Sir Alain was walking alongside the battlements upon the catwalk, Arthur and Mary following him.
"We will be taking all the usual procedures in preparing for a siege," he was saying to the Once and Future King and his squire. "Fortunately, I had been expecting such an act from King Philip ever since we came to Sicily, and so have taken the proper precautions. The storehouses and cellars are filled with all manner of foodstuffs, in the event that Sir James intends to starve us into surrendering, and the well in the keep is deep and filled with water. We are well supplied with arrows and crossbow bolts and have skilled archers in the garrison to make use of them. Iíve sent word already to the nearest villages, warning them of Sir Jamesí approach; the villagers and their beasts will take shelter here within the walls. Also, weíll be raising hoardings along the battlements."
"All wise and good measures," said Arthur, nodding approvingly.
He glanced at the eastern sky, then back at Mary, who was already beginning to look a little ill at ease. The girl had changed back into her squireís outfit, although she still wore her hair down as she had done at the banquet. She looked at him concernedly and he understood and nodded. He then turned back to Sir Alain.
"There is something else that you must know," he said. "Something pertaining to my squire. She is presently laboring under a curse, a curse that strikes her at dawn and lasts until sunset each day."
"And what might that be?" asked Sir Alain.
"She turns into a wolf," said Arthur. "A wolf that can speak and still think as a human, I assure you, and one who means no harm to you or to any of your people. But I felt it best to warn you now."
He would have said more but the sun rose at that moment. Mary gasped, doubling over, as a wolfís tail sprouted from her backside. Sir Alain stared at the sight, crossing himself. "I had heard that the English have tails," he said, his voice unsteady, "but I never thought that there was truth in that story!"
Maryís hands turned into paws, her squireís garments metamorphosed into a thick furry pelt, and her head altered shape. Before the two men there now stood a young grey wolf, little more than a pup. Sir Alain stared down at the sight, gripping the merlon next to him tightly.
"Itís all right, sir, really," said the wolf in Maryís voice. "I donít bite, or anything like that. Iím still a person - well, on the inside."
Sir Alain finally found his voice. "How - how did this happen?"
"Mary and I came upon a village where all the people were under a similar curse, and she broke the talisman that had afflicted them," Arthur explained. "It lifted the enchantment from them, but at the cost of it befalling her instead. We still hope to find a cure for her, but so far have not yet discovered one."
"Itís true," said Mary, looking up earnestly at Sir Alain. "Um - your people donít believe in going after werewolves with silver objects, do they?"
"Have no fear, mademoiselle," said Sir Alain gently to her, looking slightly more recovered now. "I have never beheld a werewolf with mine own eyes before, but I have heard songs about them. And not all the werewolves in them were of an evil nature. Perchance, while you remain here, one of my troubadours could recite for you the lay of Bisclavret, by Marie de France. Hearing it may well reassure you on that matter."
"Thank you, my lord," said Mary. She would have bowed or curtsied if her wolfís body had allowed her to do so. As it was, she merely graciously nodded her head.
"In any case, the fact that King Arthur himself has vouched for you allows me to trust you," said Sir Alain. "But I will still need to explain this to the rest of my household. Yet I believe that they will understand, just as I do."
"Thank you," said Arthur.
* * * * *
"Itís been ten minutes already," said Merlin, checking his watch. "No, make that eleven. And still no sign of them. Griff, Iím beginning to get worried."
"Truth to tell, so am I," Griff admitted. "I think that itís time that we went out and looked for them."
"So where do we start looking?" Merlin asked. "Do you have any ideas?"
"Well, Arthur mentioned something about a few rumors that heíd come across relating to those hills over there," said Griff, looking in the direction of the rocky hills in the distance. "There were supposed to be caves in there, and supposedly the Grail might be in one of them. He was hoping to investigate that."
"Then thatís where weíd better begin our search," said Merlin. "Come on!"
He and Griff started off down the path, leading towards the hills.
* * * * *
"You have clearly been teaching your squire well, Arthur," said Sir Alain, as he and Arthur stood on the catwalk overlooking the part of the courtyard which served as an exercise yard. "She shows much skill."
It was after dark, but a few of the squires were getting some training done in that part of the courtyard, by torchlight. Each of them was riding full-tilt at the quintain set up there, hoping to score a hit upon it without being struck by its shield. Mary had joined them, and had just neatly struck it in the middle of its forehead. William de Courcy was applauding loudly, although most of the other squires appeared more than a little discomfited that a young girl had fared better than they had upon their rides.
Arthur nodded. "Sheís indeed doing well," he said. "Iím pleased with her over it."
"Tell me, my lord," said Sir Alain, turning to Arthur and looking thoughtfully at him. "What are your plans, if we weather the storm that King Philip sends against us - as, with you and your sword Excalibur being present, we shall? Do you intend to return to England, and reclaim your throne, as the legends say?"
Arthur frowned thoughtfully. Ever since Merlinís poisoning, he had given little thought to that matter - indeed, he suspected that he had almost welcomed the quest for the Holy Grail that he had embarked upon as a means of avoiding the need for dealing with that issue. But he could not evade his hostís question. At last he spoke.
"I fear not," he said. "I believed at first that that was what I was to do, that my place would be in Britain again, as its king. But now I am no longer so certain of it."
"I know that there is another who sits upon Englandís throne in your place," said Sir Alain. "But I would certainly consider you a considerable improvement over him. King Edward the Second, from all that I have heard of him, is a disgrace to his fatherís crown. He is weak and timid, and places far too much trust in that upstart favorite of his, Piers Gaveston. Thereís likely to be a great many in England who would welcome you were you to replace such a pitiful excuse for a king as he."
"Nevertheless he is King of England, crowned and anointed for that purpose," said Arthur. "I have no right to depose him. No, I believe that whatever my role is in this new time, it must lie elsewhere than in resuming the old life that I once led."
"And what might that be?" Sir Alain asked. "I have heard often the songs of how you would return someday, awaken from your enchanted sleep, and do great things - but they always said that you would return to Britain and rule over it again. They never offered a different path, a different fate."
"I know," said Arthur. "But the truth of the matter is that I was awakened early, before the intended time. And maybe that has changed my destiny."
"Awakened early?" asked Sir Alain. "How did that happen?"
"Itís a long story," said Arthur. "But I shall tell it to you, all the same."
* * *
"Not bad, mademoiselle Marie de Sefton," said William de Courcy admiringly, as Mary dismounted from her horse. "You tilt well."
"Thank you," said Mary with a smile. "Actually, I hadnít thought that Iíd do this well in handling a quintain. I guess that Arthurís really done a good job of training me for this sort of thing."
"You are clearly as bold and skillful as you are lovely," said William. "King Arthur has chosen his squire well."
"Lady Blanchefleur doesnít seem to agree on it," said Mary. "She still seems a lot more concerned over my dressing this way," - she glanced down at her squireís apparel as she spoke - "than she is over my being a werewolf."
"Neither of which disturb me in the slightest, mademoiselle," said William smiling. "In truth, youíve done us great service in your shape by day. I never thought to see a wolf herding sheep before."
Mary nodded, recalling how she had helped out when the villagers had brought their flocks of sheep into the courtyard, only two days before, when they had begun preparing for Sir Jamesís forthcoming attack. She had taken up the duties of a sheep dog, helping to keep the sheep in order and prevent them from straying, and had performed so well in that task as to dispel any remaining doubts about her in the hearts of Sir Alainís people. "Yes, I must admit, I never dreamed that Iíd be doing such a thing myself."
"Would you care to take a walk with me in the herb garden, now that we are done here, mademoiselle?" William continued, a hopeful look in his eyes.
Mary frowned, looking at him closely, and then understood. "Iím sorry, William, but Iím afraid not," she said. "Iíve already given my heart to another."
Williamís face fell. "You are betrothed, then?" he asked her.
"Well, not exactly," said Mary, fingering the gold locket that Merlin had given her for Christmas as she spoke; it had gone unaltered by her transition across the centuries, except that the photograph of Merlin inside had changed into an illustration of him that looked as though it had been cut out of an illuminated manuscript. "But we are very close, all the same."
"I am sorry, then," said William, looking saddened. "I had not known."
"Itís all right, really," said Mary quickly. "Iím certain that youíll find someone else." It sounded like an utter platitude, she realized as she spoke the words, but it was the best that she could come up with at the moment. I should probably have realized this much sooner, she thought. I suppose that I was too busy adjusting to life here to notice it.
"Thank you, Mary," said William. But he sighed all the same.
"Here, Iíll make it up to you," the girl began. "You could teach me a little more about jousting tomorrow evening, and -"
There came a horn-blast from the battlements above, interrupting their conversation. Both squires quickly turned and rushed to the stairs leading up to the catwalk to see what had prompted the sound.
* * *
King Arthur and Sir Alain de Beaurepaire stood side by side on the battlements over the gates, watching as rank upon rank of torches appeared below, moving from the horizon towards the castle walls.
"Sir Jamesís army," said Sir Alain, frowning. "Heís arrived at last. I had not expected him to drive his troops so harshly, though. He even has them marching by night. Is he a madman?"
"I do not know," Arthur replied gravely. He could make out the shapes of soldiers now in the gloom, knights riding on horseback, footmen trudging beside them, archers and crossbowmen and siege engines being tugged along by work crews. Several banners appeared among them, all bearing a black raven, wings outstretched, set against a crimson field.
"He wonít even regard the laws of heraldry!" said Sir Alain, shaking his head in disgust. "A color upon a color; even the humblest clerk knows that to be a grave error. Although I should have expected no less from a man with his dark past."
Mary and William joined their lieges just then at the battlements. "Is that Sir Jamesís army?" Mary asked Arthur.
He nodded gravely. "It has arrived at last," he told her. "Now we shall be put to the test."
Most of the army halted just out of bowshot from the walls and began pitching camp for the night. The one exception was a small, slightly-built figure mounted on a shaggy pony, its features hidden by a hooded cloak pulled about itself. It rode towards the castle gates, bearing a branch with green leaves in one hand.
"Heís sent someone to parley," said Sir Alain. "Well, weíll see what Sir James and his royal lord wish of us - as if we did not already know."
The rider halted at the far edge of the moat and threw back its hood, revealing the pale face of a young girl around fourteen, with a mass of wild black hair that tumbled loose, falling over her eyes. Mary stared down at her in disbelief.
"Arthur, thatís the Morrigan," she said in a low voice. "In her ĎCorbieí form, I mean. Whatís she doing here?"
"Itís not impossible for her to be here," Arthur replied. "Itís still almost seven centuries before the Second Unseelie War, so she would be still roaming the world at this time. Although, from what Merlin and Rory have both told me concerning her, I would have thought Ireland to be a more likely place for her than Sicily."
The girl tossed her hair back from her face, and called out to Sir Alain in a loud voice. "I am Corinne díEire, squire to Sir James MacLeod, líEnfant de la Mer, envoy to His Royal Highness King Philip of France!" she cried, speaking with a slight but still noticeable Irish accent. "On behalf of my master Sir James, I deliver this message to Sir Alain de Beaurepaire and all within his walls."
"Speak, then," said Sir Alain grimly. In a lower voice, turning to Arthur, he said, "Has it suddenly become the custom for young damsels to serve as squires?"
"Not as far as I know," Arthur replied.
"Sir James MacLeod bears you this message from King Philip of France," said Corinne. "It is known to King Philip that you hold within your castle, Sir Alain de Beaurepaire, a treasure received from the heretical and accursed Knights Templar. He commands you to yield up this treasure at once. Surrender it and you will receive pardon from him. Refuse our request and defy us, and you will suffer the sack of your castle; fire and sword will be the fate of all within your walls, with neither mercy nor quarter. What do you choose?"
"Tell King Philip and Sir James that I will not yield that which has been delivered to me for safe keeping by the unfortunate Knights of the Temple of Solomon who have been falsely accused and imprisoned, and especially not to men such as they," said Sir Alain grimly. "That is all that I have to say."
"Fool!" cried Corinne, a look of almost unholy delight glittering in her eyes as she spoke. "You are doomed, all of you! Sir James will crush your castle open like a nut!"
"That he will not," Sir Alain replied. "For we have with us King Arthur of Britain himself, awakened from sleep to fight beside us, Excalibur in his hand! Against him, the forces of a false and recreant knight such as Sir James shall never prevail!"
Corinne shifted her gaze to see Arthur standing beside Sir Alain, and stared at him, looking momentarily discomfited. Then she recovered and smiled again.
"Then he is doomed as well," she replied. And with that she turned her horse about and rode back the way that she had come. Mary stared after her, making a slight growl in her throat before catching herself.
"Well, the siege has begun," said Sir Alain. "Let us see now if we can weather this storm, my friend."
"Together we will," replied Arthur, drawing Excalibur. "This I promise you, Sir Alain."
As he and the others climbed down from the battlements, however, he was frowning concernedly. "It doesnít look that good for us, does it?" Mary asked him.
"I will admit that we are outnumbered," Arthur replied, "but the castle is strong enough to make the difference. I was outnumbered by the Saxons at Mount Badon as well, and still won the day. But that is not what is troubling me."
"What is, then?" she asked.
"She called Sir James by the title of ĎlíEnfant de la Merí," Arthur replied. "Where have I heard that name before?"
* * * * *
"There!" said Griff, stooping down low over the ground. "Wolf-tracks. Mary must have been this way very recently."
"And Arthur, too," said Merlin, studying the boot imprints in the earth that ran alongside them. "Yes, theyíve definitely come this way."
The griffon-like gargoyle and the boy continued on, climbing up the path as it wound further into the hills, following the footprints. At last they reached the mouth of a dark cave set in the hillside and came to a stop.
"The footprints just stop here," said Griff, frowning. "I canít make anything out of it, Merlin. Where could they have gone to?"
"I donít know," said Merlin. "But I think that weíd better take a look at that cave. Maybe we can find the answer to our question in there."
He hurriedly pulled out his flashlight and switched it on. "I suppose that I could use a light spell instead," he said to Griff, in a slightly apologetic tone, "but I really donít think that Iím quite up to something of that sort at the moment. Iíd better conserve my strength for now."
Griff nodded. "Yes, good idea," he said. "I donít think that we want a repeat of what happened at Dinas Bran."
They entered the cave, Merlinís flashlight illuminating the way before them. At first they saw nothing about them except for bare rock. It was not long, however, before they both began to notice what looked like furniture ahead. Merlin and Griff came to a halt, examining their surroundings.
A few chests sat to the right of the cave, filled with unusual-looking objects of various sorts. On the left, there sat a battered-looking wooden workbench with a chair drawn up beside it. Scattered across it were such odds and ends as pieces of alchemical equipment, ancient-looking leather-bound books, shapeless lumps of wax with drooping wicks that had evidently once been candles, and cuttings of various herbs.
"The place looks like some sort of wizardís laboratory," said Griff. "Iíve seen a few things like this back at the Mystic shop."
Merlin nodded. "Yes, I recognize a lot of this as well," he said. "But that still raises the question of whom it all belongs to."
"At least weíve got some idea as to what happened to Arthur and Mary," said Griff. "Whoever lives here must have cast a spell on them of some sort."
"Yes, Iím starting to suspect that myself," said Merlin. "The question is, what sort of spell? After all, there are a great many enchantments that could have been cast upon them that could have accounted for us not being able to find them. Anything from turning them invisible and inaudible to banishing them several miles from here to disintegrating them into piles of dust to even turning them into newts or something like that. I hope that itís none of that, especially a transformation spell. Something like that could be dangerous to Mary, given that she undergoes regular magical changes already."
"The Ďmixing magics is not a good ideaí clause?" Griff asked.
"Yes, thatís what I was thinking of," said the young-old wizard. He suddenly halted, his eye caught by something in the middle of the workbench. He reached over and picked it up. "This looks interesting," he said, holding it out in front of Griff.
Griff nodded, gazing at the snow-globe in the boyís hand. A snow-globe was perhaps not the most appropriate term for it, for there was no actual sign of any snowflakes inside the glass sphere. However, there was a small landscape within it, dominated by a splendid-looking medieval castle. "Itíd certainly make a good paperweight," he said. "Although I suppose that thatís not what it was made for."
"It feels magical," said Merlin, looking it over closely. "Though I canít tell as yet what its function is." He handed it to Griff. "Hold onto this for me, while I see if one of these books has something to say about it."
Griff nodded, while Merlin opened the book nearest to him and began gingerly paging through it, taking care not to break any of the musty yellowing leaves. It was not easy going, for the ink on the pages was fading already from age and the handwriting poor. He frowned as he looked over one paragraph after another, studying each one closely.
Griff stared closer at the small globe in his hands. "This thing really appears to be quite clever," he said. "There seem to be people on the battlements. I believe that theyíre actually moving, too."
"Let me see," said Merlin, turning away from the old book. He walked over to where Griff was standing, picking up a magnifying glass from off the table along the way, and leaned his head forward to look at it.
"Youíre right," he said. "Those do look like people, going down the stairs into the courtyard." He squinted his eyes slightly, holding the magnifying glass carefully so as to see the globeís contents the better. "And two of them look -" He swallowed hard, and handed the magnifying glass to Griff at once.
"Is anything wrong, Merlin?" Griff asked.
"Theyíre in there," said Merlin. "Look through the glass and see for yourself."
"Who are?" inquired the gargoyle.
"Arthur and Mary," said the lad. "Theyíre trapped inside it!"
Griff looked through the magnifying glass at the part of the castle that Merlin had indicated, and his eyes widened. "Youíre right," he said, looking up at the boy. "But how did they get in there?"
"I donít know," said Merlin. He went back to the book. "But there has to be an answer in here, somewhere," he continued, a resolute look in his eyes. "And Iíll keep on searching until I find it."
* * * * *
Arthur fell back just in time as a large boulder struck the battlements a few yards away, smashing into them with a loud roar. He turned to Sir Alain, who had just joined him with a couple of knights, all in full armor.
"Sir James is either impatient or mad," said Sir Alain, looking grimly at the damage that the catapult stone had caused, "or else both. One attack after another, without respite! What can possibly have possessed him, to act thus?"
"I share your bewilderment, my friend," said Arthur, nodding gravely. "I know that his king wants whatever it is that you received from the Knights Templar, but even that cannot explain the ferocity with which he has carried out his assault."
For the past three days Sir Jamesís army had hurled almost everything that it had had at the castle. Catapults, mangonels, and trebuchets had all bombarded the battlements with heavy stones, while the foot-soldiers had attempted to scale the walls with one wave after another of ladders and grappling hooks. They had been turned back each time, but still they returned, again and again, showing no signs of discouragement.
"He never seems to have even considered starving us into surrendering," said Sir Alain, shaking his head. "Not that it matters, of course, for our stores are well-stocked enough to last for months. But why has he ignored such a common tactic in siege warfare?"
"Itís as though heís driven by something," said Arthur gravely. "Sir Alain, does Sir James have any personal quarrel with you?"
"We have never even met," said Sir Alain. "Certainly I have never done him or his kin any wrong. If he does bear a blood-feud towards me, this is the first that Iíve heard of it."
"It must be something else, then," said Arthur. "But what can it be?"
He was interrupted from his thoughts by cries to his left. Some of Sir Jamesís soldiers had just reached the top of the battlements in the corner and were climbing over the wall, engaging the garrison gathered there in hand-to-hand combat. "Follow me!" shouted Arthur, raising Excalibur up high and dashing along the catwalk towards the fight.
He arrived just as the men-at-arms of Beaurepaire were beginning to be driven back by the assault. Sir Jamesís men were just getting a foothold on the walls when Arthur charged into their midst. He struck out at them with Excalibur, and with each blow or thrust a sword or spear or axe was cloven in half. Sir Alain and his knights were right behind him and joined into the fray, while the castle guards, now that the legendary Arthur was present in their midst, recovered heart and fought back valiantly against the foe.
Soon Sir Jamesís footmen had been driven back from the wall, forced to retreat. Arthur leaned upon Excalibur with a sigh. "It was a very near thing," he said to Sir Alain, in a troubled voice.
Sir Alain nodded. "Thank you, Arthur," he said. "Had you not been here today, they might well have taken the castle. I am truly glad that you are here with us."
"They will not take Beaurepaire, save at a heavy price, so long as I help you defend it," said Arthur. "That I promise."
"Unfortunately, Sir James seems determined to put that to the test," said Sir Alain, gazing out over the enemy camp. "Look!"
Arthur looked in the direction which he indicated. A siege tower was beginning to rumble towards the walls.
"We must destroy the malvoisin, before it comes close enough to assault us," said Sir Alain, staring at the approaching gargantuan shape.
"A sortie?" Arthur asked.
Sir Alain nodded. "I was thinking the same thing myself," he said with a smile.
* * *
Arthur mounted his horse, and looked down at his young squire. "Iím sorry that I canít do more to help you," said Mary apologetically. "Until the sun sets, Iím afraid that I canít exactly hand you a helmet or a lance."
"Iíll make do," replied Arthur. "Stay here until we return."
She nodded. "Come back safely, Arthur," she said, looking up at him.
"That I will," he replied. "I promise you that, Mary."
Sir Alain rode up to him, followed by a group of his knights, all mounted and fully armed. "Are you ready, Arthur?" he asked.
"I am," Arthur replied. "Let us go forth."
Sir Alain signalled to the guards at the gates, who at once began to turn the winches at their stations. The portcullis rose with a grating clamor and the drawbridge came down with a thud. Sir Alain and Arthur Pendragon thundered across the bridge, Sir Alainís knights behind them, swords drawn and shouting.
"Make for the malvoisin!" shouted Sir Alain, forcing his way through Sir Jamesís troops towards the siege tower.
Arthur charged alongside him, Excalibur blazing in his hand with a radiance of thirty torches. He noticed with some satisfaction that he barely had to wield it in the sortie. The light from his swordís blade dazzled the eyes of the knights and foot-soldiers before him, causing them to turn and flee, few of them even daring to strike a blow. And as if that had not been enough, he heard many of them shouting his name and Excaliburís, in utter terror. Evidently word of his presence at Beaurepaire had quickly spread through Sir Jamesís army, and finding themselves facing a legend had been too much for them. It appeared that this sortie, if it accomplished its purpose, would indeed be a bloodless victory, or close to it.
He and Sir Alain drew closer to the siege tower. Its crew had abandoned it and scattered to their tents, leaving it defenceless. In only another minute or so, they would be upon it, and then....
A knight in full armor, his visor lowered so as to conceal his features, rode up from the left just then, blocking their approach. He reined in his horse and sat there, facing them. His shield bore a black raven displayed upon a red field. His squire Corinne rode up beside him, mounted on her shaggy pony, an eager look in her eyes.
"Sir James MacLeod," said Sir Alain grimly.
"I would not come any closer were I you, my friends," said Sir James to them, without raising his visor. His voice was muffled by the helmet over his head, but Arthur thought that it sounded almost naggingly familiar. If he could only place it.... "It is hardly courteous to destroy another manís tower, after all."
"So you deign to face us both upon the field of battle," said Sir Alain, couching his lance.
"Why not?" asked Sir James. "I wanted to meet this new ally of yours." He looked closely at Arthur. "So the legendary King Arthur Pendragon has come forth to serve as the champion for your cause. Very impressive - or is it? How do I know that this is the true Arthur, and not some cunning mountebank using an eight-hundred-year old name to advance himself?"
"He bears the sword Excalibur," said Sir Alain at once. "Did you not see how it struck terror in the hearts of your lackeys, Sir James?"
"Excaliburís been in this island for over a hundred years, ever since King Richard Coeur-de-Lion gave it to King Tancred of Sicily on his way to the Holy Land," said Sir James with a shrug. "Your friend could have obtained it from one of Tancredís descendants. Still, no matter. Truth to tell, I am more than a little pleased that you decided to make this sortie, Sir Alain. I had been looking for some proper fighting, of a form more dignified than climbing up a ladder. And now youíve decided to bring it to me. How thoughtful of you."
"Very well, then," said Sir Alain. He turned to Arthur and spoke. "Stand aside, I pray you, unless I call for your help. I cannot ask another man to take on my quarrel while I stand idle, not even if that other man be you, messire Artus."
"I understand," said Arthur. He drew his horse to one side and watched as Sir Alain rode straight for King Philipís general.
The two of them came together with a mighty clash, each unseating the other from his saddle, both falling to the ground with a clamor. Sir Alain was first upon his feet. He drew out his sword while Sir James pulled his mace out from his belt. The two of them circled each other, each seeking an opening in the otherís defences. Arthur watched from the sidelines, frowning. There was something so familiar about this Sir James, not only in his voice, but even in his stance, the way that he had ridden, his fighting movements. But it did not make sense. This Scottish knight had lived during his long sleep on Avalon; they could not possibly have met before. So why should he be triggering a half-memory like this one?
Sir Alain finally took the offensive, hammering at his opponent again and again with his sword. Sir James parried most of the attacks with his shield but was being forced back, step by step. Sir Alain pressed him back against the very edge of the siege tower, and swung his sword back for one last blow.
Before he could strike, however, Corinne drew out a dagger from her belt, and leaped from her pony onto Sir Alain's back. Arthur gave a horrified cry and rode towards them, hoping to pull the Irish squire off before she could strike. But it was too late. Sir Alain toppled forward with a cry and fell face forward to the ground.
"Well done, Corinne," said Sir James, with a faint laugh. "And now to complete the task." He bent over Sir Alain, rolling him over onto his back, and unlaced his helm. He was just about to draw his dagger when Arthur leaped from his horse and blocked the blow.
"Fight me, false and treacherous knight," he said angrily. "And fight me fairly, with none of your cowardly tricks."
"Sorry, my lord King Arthur," said Sir James mockingly, "but Iíve no time for now." He mounted his horse, and swung it around. "Another day, perhaps?" And with that he turned and rode away. Corinne followed him, laughing gleefully.
Arthur bent over Sir Alain and hauled him up onto his horse, tearing a piece of his cloak off and binding the lordís wound with it. "We had better get you back to the castle, my friend," he said. "There your leeches may attend you." He gazed off in the direction of Sir James, and murmured to himself, "Another time." Then he turned and led the half-conscious Sir Alain back towards the castle gates.
* * *
Mary rushed forward as Arthur rode back into the courtyard, followed by the surviving knights from the sortie. "Are you all right?" she asked him, looking up at him concernedly and then at the groaning man in his saddle.
"Iím unwounded," said Arthur, dismounting. "But I fear that Sir Alain was not so fortunate. He was fighting Sir James himself, when his squire Corinne stabbed him in the back."
Mary growled in disgust. "I should have known that sheíd do something like that," she said. "She has no honor at all."
"My lord!" cried William de Courcy, rushing across the courtyard as he saw Arthur helping a still weak-looking Sir Alain down to his feet.
"Heís been wounded, and badly, as well," said Arthur. "We must have him tended at once."
William nodded numbly, and helped Arthur assist Sir Alain up the steps leading to the keep door. Mary followed close behind.
* * * * *
"Yes!" cried Merlin triumphantly. "I knew that Iíd find the answer if I searched long enough!"
"What is it?" asked Griff, placing the snow-globe down upon the workbench at the boyís elbow.
"It turns out that theyíre not in the snow-globe itself," said Merlin, pointing to a passage in the book open before him. "The globe is only a component to the spell, if a crucial one. What theyíve actually been trapped in is a microcosm. Weíre only seeing them inside the globe because it serves as a window."
"Whatís a microcosm?" Griff asked.
"Well, itís difficult to explain," said Merlin. "Itís something like a miniature parallel universe, but created by magic. Its contents generally reflect the purpose for which it was created - with some modifications depending upon whoís been placed in it. I suppose that it would make sense that the place that Arthurís stuck in would look like that."
"And would that be why heís wearing his old armor again?" asked Griff.
"The spell that transported him and Mary there must have also given them a bit of a makeover," said the boy. "I must confess," he added, blushing a little, "that it did a good job with her, too; she looks rather fetching in her squireís uniform. But at any rate, theyíve been removed there now. Which means that we have to find a way of getting them out, before itís too late."
"What do you mean by that?" asked Griff. "Are these microcosms dangerous?"
"Well, not dangerous in and of themselves," said Merlin. "But if something happens to you in them - such as being injured, or worse, killed - it really does happen to you."
"So you mean to say," said Griff, "that if Arthur is killed in that microcosm, he'll really be dead?"
"Iím afraid so," said Merlin. "Which means that both he and Mary are in genuine danger as long as theyíre trapped in there." He took a brief glance at the globe. "Particularly since theyíre stuck inside a castle thatís being besieged," he added, "and it looks as if the besiegers are beginning to win."
"So how do we get them out of there?" Griff asked.
"Unfortunately, it doesnít say," said Merlin. "Whoever wrote it just trailed off on a long digression about several of the most common mistakes an alchemist can make. Iíll skip through it and see if they do provide instructions on how to free somebody from a microcosm."
"And if there arenít any?" asked Griff.
"Iíd better hope that there are," replied Merlin. "Because, if we canít get them out of there soon, our friends are in serious danger."
* * * * *
Arthur and Mary stood silently together in Sir Alainís bedchamber. Night had fallen and Mary was in human form again. Arthur held her close to him, one hand resting gently upon her shoulder, as they watched the castle physician examine his lordís wound. Lady Blanchefleur and William de Courcy both stood by the bedside, their faces anxious.
"Thereís nothing further that I can do, messire," said the physician at last in a grave voice. "That dagger was coated with a foul poison, the likes of which I have never seen before. And I know of no cure for it."
Sir Alain sighed. "Thank you, anyway," he said in a weak voice.
Blanchefleur buried her face in her hands, weeping. William moved a little closer to the bed. "Is there aught that I can do for you, my lord?" he asked, his voice wavering.
"Yes," said Sir Alain. "Find Father Bartholomew, and bring him hither. I would be shriven by him ere I die."
"Yes, my lord," said William, turning and leaving the room.
"Arthur," said Sir Alain, still in a faint voice, motioning to the former king. "If you and your squire would come this way. I have something to say to you, while I yet live. The rest of you, please leave us."
Blanchefleur and the physician both proceeded out from the chamber. Arthur walked over to the bedside and stood over the dying lord, Mary just behind him. "You have a few last words for me then, my friend?" Arthur asked.
"That I do," said Sir Alain, looking up at him. "I have received my death-wound, Arthur. And I know that Beaurepaire will soon fall; all that we can do is delay the end, but not prevent it. Soon Sir James will breach its walls, and take this castle. There is nothing left to stop him."
"I am sorry, my friend," said Arthur. "I had hoped that I could prevent this deed. I have failed you."
"You have not failed me, messire Artus," said Sir Alain with a slight smile. "You fought valiantly by my side throughout. But I believe that the truth of it is this: Beaurepaire was destined to fall to Sir James, and even had you brought all your knights of the Round Table to its defence, he would still have proven victorious. However, there is still one last task that you can perform for us, that will have ensured that my death was not in vain."
"And what is that?" asked Arthur. "You have but to name it, and I will perform it."
"I told you earlier that we received a treasure from the Knights Templar, which they found in the Holy Land and held in their keeping until they entrusted it to me," said Sir Alain. "That treasure must not fall into King Philipís hands, or Sir Jamesís, for that matter. It must be kept safe at all costs. And to see that it does, I entrust you with its guardianship now."
He reached inside his tunic, and pulled out a key hanging from the end of a chain. "Unlock that chest in the corner," he said, indicating a large chest in the corner of his bedchamber. "Inside, you will find a golden reliquary. Bring it before me."
Arthur did as he had instructed, unlocking the chest with the key. Inside the chest was but one object: the reliquary that Sir Alain had mentioned. It was wrought of gold and many fine jewels were set in it. Upon the lid of the box was engraved the image of a goblet. Arthur bore it over to Sir Alain.
"Within this reliquary," said Sir Alain, "lies the great treasure that the Knights Templar gave unto me. It is the Holy Grail itself."
Arthur and Mary both stared down at it, so awestruck that they could not even speak. They turned to look at each other, seeing the sudden hope rising in each otherís eyes, and then back to face Sir Alain.
"The Templars found this holy chalice and kept it for over a century," he said to them. "King Philip covets it more than anything in this world - and he must never have it. I fear what he would do to it if he were to gain it. I certainly know that the Grail can never be permitted to fall into the hands of a man such as he. He has so little respect for the sacred that he has actually dared take one Pope prisoner, and compelled his successor to remove himself from the holy city of Rome to Avignon so that he might better control him. Not to mention that he has named an excommunicate to the post of Chancellor. The Grail needs a guardian to keep it safe from such blaspheming hands. And I believe that you would make the best possible guardian of any within these walls."
"I - I do not know what to say, my lord," said Arthur. "But I thank you."
"And now, you must both depart," Sir Alain continued. "There is a secret tunnel leading out from the lowest cellar in the keep. It should take you outside these walls and past the siege lines. It is so carefully hidden that Sir James and his men could never discover it, not if they searched a hundred years for it. You must escape through it and be far away from here by the time that the castle falls."
"We cannot abandon your people to their fate," Arthur began.
"I commend you for your loyalty to my household," said Sir Alain. "But the need to protect the Holy Grail is much greater. My people and I know that and will sacrifice ourselves to keep it forever safe. There is nothing further that you can do for us now, except to keep the Grail out of King Philipís reach and so ensure that our brave stand was not fruitless. Go, now, I charge you. You are the keeper of the Grail now."
Arthur bowed his head. "I thank you, my friend," he said in a soft voice. "And I hope that I will prove equal to the solemn duty that you have placed upon me."
* * * * *
"Still nothing," said Merlin, turning over another page.
"Well, keep on looking," said Griff. "There has to be something there, somewhere." He suddenly frowned, pricking up his ears. "Somebodyís coming this way."
"Iíd better read quicker," said Merlin. "See if you can stall whoever it is, Griff. I donít think that weíre dealing with an innocent spelunker or two here."
"How correct you are, Merlin," said Morgana, entering the chamber. "So this is where youíve been hiding yourself. How very impudent of you."
"Morgana," groaned Merlin. "I should have known. After all the illusion-weaving that youíve done in these parts, you should have been a lot higher up on my suspects list. But I was expecting you to just sit back and let the poison do its work."
"I was going to," she replied. "But youíve held out against it for too long. I know that you are doomed, but I want you out of my life now. And with your precious Arthur no longer able to protect you, that is just what I intend to do."
She stepped towards him, but Griff sprang out in front of her to block her path. "Sorry, maíam," he said. "But if you want him, youíll have to get past me first."
"Stand aside," said Morgana at once. "This does not concern you."
"Iím sworn to King Arthurís service and am duty-bound to protect him and his companions," said Griff. "So Iíd say that this definitely concerns me."
"You have no reason to defend him," Morgana protested. "Have you forgotten what Merlinís father did to your kind? All the gargoyles whose deaths Madoc Morfryn brought about? Are you risking your life to protect the son of one of the greatest enemies to your race?"
"Itís Merlin that Iím protecting, not his father," answered Griff calmly. "And I wouldnít use that argument anyway, if I were you. After all, I understand that your father killed quite a few gargoyles back in his day, too."
"Stand aside, please," said Morgana, an uncomfortable expression on her face, speaking her words hesitantly. "I - I have no quarrel with your kind, as I do with Arthur and Merlin. Your race has done me and my family no wrong. A gargoyle of your clan even saved the life of my son Owain, centuries ago. I do not want your blood upon my hands."
"Then youíll have to forget about harming Merlin, and leave him alone," said Griff. "Because otherwise youíll have to go through me in order to get at him."
"Very well, then," said Morgana, speaking more in resignation than in anger. "If that is what it takes." She lifted her left hand in a dramatic gesture and a cold wind began to blow about her. "Know this: I am not the first being of legend to use this cave for a home. Three thousand years ago, Ulysses and his men, on their way home from Troy, came to this cave, seeking shelter and rest on their long and arduous journey. And they found it inhabited then, as well. Now, you will learn by whom. Arise!" she cried, her voice reverberating throughout the chamber.
There was a rumble of thunder outside and the cave began to tremble. Then something began to push its way up through the ground. First came a massive skull, much like a humanís in shape but far larger and misshapen, with but a single eye-socket in its forehead. The rest of the skeleton followed after it, forcing its way to the surface. It held a great staff in its hand.
"Hear me, Polyphemus!" Morgana cried. "Do as I bid thee, and defeat that gargoyle!"
The massive skeleton paused for a moment, turning back and forth this way and that, making a slight grunting sound. Then it began to lumber towards Griff, raising its staff as it did so.
"Too bad Cavallís not here," said Griff to himself, taking up his fighting stance as the Cyclops approached. "Heíd definitely have enjoyed all those bones."
* * * * *
"Iím still having trouble believing it, Arthur," said Mary, as she followed him down the tunnel, clasping the reliquary carefully in both hands. Arthur was holding Excalibur out to light the way for them both; the sword provided much better light than a torch would have done. "After all this searching, and we finally found the Grail! Sir Alain actually gave it to us! And now we can get it back to Merlin, and save his life!"
"I know," said Arthur. "The quest is fulfilled - that is, so long as we can find a way of returning to your time."
"Well, we probably will," said the girl. "I mean - maybe thatís why we were brought here in the first place. So that we could get the Grail from Sir Alain and bring it back to Merlin. Just like what happened to Griff when he got brought forward in time with the Phoenix Gate."
"Perhaps," said Arthur. "But I would not jump to conclusions just yet, Mary. Let us wait until we actually are united with our companions."
Before them faint moonlight shone into the tunnel, filtering through the leaves that covered its exit. Arthur brushed them aside with his free hand, and climbed out, then helped Mary up after him.
They both turned and looked back. The castle of Beaurepaire loomed behind them, and surrounding it, the campfires of Sir Jamesís army. The two of them stood outside the siege lines.
Arthur lowered Excalibur and let its light dim. "Remain as quiet as possible, until we are out of earshot," he told Mary in a low voice, close to a whisper. "We donít want them to hear us."
Mary nodded and pulled her hood low over her head. The two of them crept off silently through the woods.
"The first thing that we have to do," Arthur said, "is to look for the cave where all this began. I believe that it must be the key to our return home. And then -"
There was a sudden loud whinny, and a figure on horseback, clad in full knightly armor, rode from out of the trees to their left, blocking the path before them. "Good evening, travellers," he said. "It is quite late for a stroll in the woods, is it not?"
"Sir James," said Arthur grimly. "How did you find us?"
"That is for me to know and you to find out, Arthur Pendragon," replied Sir James, with a chuckle. "But never mind that. I understand that you have with you the treasure of the Knights Templar. No, do not try to deny it. Your squire bears it in her arms; I have eyes enough to see it. Yield it up to me."
"The treasure is not ours to surrender," said Arthur. "And even if it were, I would never give it up to a renegade knight such as yourself, Sir James."
"Is that so?" asked Sir James. "I thought that you would be particularly stubborn, Arthur Pendragon. Fortunately every problem has a solution. And here comes mine just now."
At his words, a large crow swooped down from the darkness of the trees above. It snatched the reliquary out of Maryís hands with its talons and flew over to Sir James, dropping the box beside him. It then alighted upon the ground and began to change as it did so. Its body grew longer, its wings changed into arms and hands, the feathers on top of its head became a mass of shaggy black hair, and its beak transformed into a pale young face. Corinne díEire stood smiling beside Sir James, as Arthur and Mary stared in shock and dismay.
"Well done, Corinne," said Sir James, ruffling his squireís hair. He then dismounted from his horse and picked up the reliquary. "I suppose that this treasure held a great deal of value for you," he said. He opened the lid and looked inside. "Ah, yes," he said, taking out from the box a beautiful golden goblet, encrusted with jewels of every variety. "The Holy Grail itself. You went to a great deal of trouble to find this, did you not? Such a pity that it was all for nothing." He threw the cup to the ground and brought his mace down upon it, shattering it into fragments.
Mary cried out in horror, while Arthur tightened his grip upon Excalibur. "Do you realize what you have just done, you fiend?" he asked, stepping forward.
"Of course," said Sir James. "You needed it to save a friendís life, did you not? And now heís doomed. Such a pity, is it not?"
"But why did you do it?" Arthur protested. "I understood that your king desired the Grail for himself. That was the very reason why he sent you here: to bring it back. Why would you destroy it?"
"It will be inconvenient for me, Iíll admit," said Sir James. "But Iíll simply tell King Philip that Sir Alain and his garrison destroyed it before I could take the castle. What he doesnít know wonít hurt him - or me, either. And if you must know the truth, frankly, I thought that it would be more entertaining to destroy it in front of you and bring you to the brink of despair, father."
"Father?" asked Arthur, staring at him even more incredulously. "But you are not my son."
"Oh, indeed?" asked the knight. He raised his visor, lifted his helmet off his head, and pulled back his chainmail hood, revealing his features clearly before Arthur and Mary alike.
"James Seabairn?" gasped Mary.
"Mordred!" cried Arthur.
"Surprise!" said Mordred, with an evil smile. The blazon on his shield was already changing from the raven that he had borne as James MacLeod to the golden double-headed eagle of Lothian and Orkney, with a mark of cadency.
"I should have known," said Arthur. "I knew that there was something familiar about you, and had your helmet not both hidden your features and disguised your voice, I would have recognized you sooner. And your title. LíEnfant de la Mer - the Child of the Sea. It all falls into place."
"Indeed it does," said Mordred cheerfully. "Well, well, well, it has been quite some time, father, has it not? Eight hundred years or so, I suppose."
"But you cannot be alive," Arthur protested. "I slew you at Camlann! You have been dead for centuries!"
"The same thingís supposed to be true about you, and yet youíre standing here before me," Mordred replied, chuckling. "Of course, thatís thanks to your having been carried off to Avalon and spending some time sleeping there. But itíll be different this time. This time, you really will be dead. Thereíll be no being whisked off to a remote faerie island for another round of healing sleep. No, it will be over for you. And for her, while Iím at it," he added, looking at Mary.
"Leave her alone, Mordred!" cried Arthur, taking a step forward to place himself before his squire and shield her all the better. "You may have a quarrel with me, but none with her. Let her go free!"
"Really, father," said Mordred. "Do you actually think that I share Auntie Morganaís little weakness of sparing your assistants? No, she dies too. And as for what you said just now - I have a grievance with her, indeed." His flippant expression fled from his face and his eyes hardened. "To you, sheís more than a squire. You look upon her as though she was your own daughter."
Arthur and Mary stared at him, both absolutely speechless now.
"Oh, come now," said Mordred. "Donít play the innocent with me. Iíve seen the way that you look after her, the way that you teach her, see to her safety. Sheís become your surrogate child. Youíve bestowed more love upon her, who shares not a drop of your blood in her veins, than you have on me, your own son, the only child of your body! You tried to drown me at birth, set me adrift in a boat, but youíd never do the same to her. So Iíve decided to kill her as well. But you first, father."
"It will have to be my life that you take first," said Arthur, raising Excalibur and advancing upon Mordred. "For that is the only way that you will ever be able to harm her."
"Then so be it," said Mordred, drawing his own sword.
The two of them ran at each other, fighting each other back and forth, their swords ringing in the night air. Although Arthur had Excalibur, Mordred moved swiftly to dodge every blow and thrust from it, while striking back at Arthur with his own blade. The two of them appeared evenly-matched.
Mary watched the battle, almost spellbound, until she saw Corinne draw a dagger for her belt and creep about towards Arthur, preparing to strike. "Oh, no, you donít!" she shouted, and leaped forward, knocking the Irish girl off her feet. Corinne dropped the dagger and stared up at Mary, who was now standing over her, sword in hand.
"This is going to be a fair fight between them, and youíre not going to interfere," said Mary. "If you want to do battle, then do it with me. Weíve got a little unfinished business, anyway."
"As you wish," said Corinne, climbing to her feet. She whipped out her own sword and lunged at Mary with it as she continued to speak. "Although itís a trifle early to be so hot under the collar, isnít it, Princess Valiant? We arenít supposed to meet for another seven hundred years, after all."
"Then call this a way to keep you from making it into an unfair fight," said Mary, parrying the Irish girl's attack.
* * * * *
"I say, Merlin!" called Griff, ducking as the skeleton of Polyphemus swung its cudgel at him again. "I donít suppose you have anything for getting rid of this thing?"
"Sorry, Griff," said Merlin, not even looking up. "Just now, Iíve got my hands full trying to find a way of getting people out of a microcosm." His eyes strayed again to the globe, which now showed the battle raging between Arthur and Mary on one side, Mordred and Corbie on the other. "Not bad," he said with a smile, as Mary drove an alarmed-looking Corbie back a few paces. "I must admit, thatís very good swordsmanship."
He forced himself back to the book, turning over another page and reading down it. He did not notice Morgana quietly maneuvering herself around Griff and Polyphemusís skeleton, drawing closer to him.
* * * * *
Arthur frowned as he ducked Mordredís latest sword-swing. His evil son, however he had returned from the dead this time, appeared to be an even better warrior now than he had proven to be at Camlann. Even Excalibur had given Arthur little advantage in this battle, for Mordred had been able to dodge it every time, not receiving so much as a scratch. On the other hand, he had already been grazed once by Mordredís own blade, when he had failed to evade the thrust in time.
For a moment, he found himself wondering what the point of it was. After all, the quest had already failed. The Holy Grail was no more. Merlin was doomed. And there was scarcely any future for him anyway. Even if he could return to the late 20th century, he would still be a king without a throne, with no purpose or goals. Perhaps it would be better for him if Mordred did win this time. At least he might find peace then.
"Tiring already, father?" asked Mordred, smiling wickedly. "Such a pity for you. At this rate, my little sister might be more of a challenge, when itís her turn. I hope that she is."
"You will not harm her!" cried Arthur at once, shouting out the words with such vehemence that he surprised himself. And as he spoke, he brought Excalibur down on Mordredís sword, cleaving straight through it. Mordred stared in astonishment at the broken hilt-shard in his hand, then threw it away and reached for his mace. But Arthur followed up with a resounding blow to his sonís shield. Mordred staggered backwards, lost his balance, and fell upon the ground, landing on his back. Arthur stood over him, holding Excalibur only an inch from his throat.
Behind him, Corinne gave an alarmed cry as she saw Mordred at Arthurís mercy. Mary seized the opportunity to bring her sword-hilt down upon the Irish girlís hand, hard. Corinne dropped her sword, clutching her hand in pain. Mary pushed her against the nearest tree, holding her weapon out before Mordredís squire in the same manner that Arthur was against Mordred.
"No!" screamed Corinne almost frantically, her eyes widening. "Donít hurt me!"
"I should have known," said Mary, shaking her head in disgust. "Youíre just a coward."
Mordred looked up at his father and for a moment appeared genuinely frightened himself. But then he recovered his self-control again and spoke.
"So youíve won, father," he said. "What are you going to do now? Kill me while Iím helpless and at your mercy?"
Arthur shook his head. "That you deserve death, I shall not deny," he said. "But I will not violate the code of chivalry and slay a defenceless man, not even if that man be you. Hear my words, Mordred. Go now. Take your squire with you, and never trouble either of us again. Do you swear?"
"I swear, father," said Mordred. "Neither I nor Corinne will ever lift a sword against you or your own squire ever again. Upon my knightly honor, I pledge you my word."
"Youíve little honor to pledge upon," said Arthur grimly. "But still, go in peace."
He stepped back, raising Excalibur, and coughed slightly at Mary. Mary nodded reluctantly and moved away from Corinne. "You donít deserve it any more than he does, if you ask me," she told the Irish squire. "But if Iím going to be a knight some day, then Iíll need to follow the rules, and if Arthur can spare his worst enemy, then so can I."
Corinne hurriedly ran to Mordredís side and hid behind him, peeping out nervously. Arthur walked over to Mary. "Are you all right?" he asked her.
"Not an injury," replied Mary. "And thank you."
Mordred suddenly laughed aloud. "You fool, Arthur," he said. "As overtrusting as ever." He walked over to his horse and took a war-horn hanging from its saddle. Raising it to his lips, he blew a mighty blast upon it. At once a small group of his knights emerged from the trees on both sides, all bearing drawn swords.
"Mordred, you gave me your oath that you would do me no further harm!" cried Arthur. "Are you so ready to forswear yourself now?"
"Oh, but I havenít, father," replied Mordred. "I said that I would not lift a sword against you, that is true. But I never promised you that my followers would not do the same!"
He gave a triumphant laugh. "See where your chivalry gets you, father? You should be more ruthless, like me!" He turned to the gathered knights. "Attack!" he shouted. "Kill them both!"
* * * * *
"Oh, no," gasped Merlin in horror, as the knights closed in around Arthur and Mary. "Iíve got to find that counterspell now!"
He frantically turned back to the book, only to discover that it was no longer on the workbench. Morgana was holding it in her hands, just a few feet away from him. "Looking for this, I suppose?" she asked.
"Give that book back, Morgana!" Merlin protested. "I need it!"
"So that you can find a way of rescuing your precious Arthur?" she asked. "I donít think so. Your Once and Future King is doomed, Merlin. Just as you are, as well."
"You trapped him in there, didnít you?" said Merlin. "And heís about to be slain in there by Mordredís men. You planned all that, didnít you?"
"Not the details, no," said Morgana. "I certainly wasnít expecting my nephew to appear, if I heard your words correctly. But, yes, that microcosm was deliberately programmed to kill Arthur, sooner or later. Even if he escapes from whatever peril heís in now, something worse will come along soon to strike him down. Maybe a dragon, or the boar Troit, or even better yet, your father. I just thought that you should know that thereís nothing that you can do to save your friend, before I strike you down myself. And donít expect the gargoyle to help you. Heís a little preoccupied at present."
She glanced over for a moment at Griff, who was still dodging Polyphemusís blows while looking for an opening. The skeleton raised its staff again and brought it down. Griff nimbly leaped to one side as the club struck one of Morganaís chests, reducing it to splintered fragments of wood. Morgana shook her head, commenting, "I really will need to do some redecorating here afterwards."
"I can still take you on," Merlin began.
"Not in your current state," said Morgana. "Use any spell powerful enough to vanquish me, and youíll only speed up the poison and weaken yourself further. And you donít want that, do you?"
Merlin frowned. She was right; after his battle with Surtur, he had evidence enough that what she was saying was true. He really was in no condition to battle her in a duel of magic. But how else could he stop her - and he would have to stop her to rescue the two people whom he cared most about. Arthur and Mary were depending upon him. Mary.
"Just a moment, Morgana," said Merlin. He snatched up the globe and held it out before her. "Thereís something that you should see in there. Take a close look, and then tell me if you see Mary anywhere in this cave."
"What?" cried Morgana. She stared into the globe, her eyes widening as she saw the young girl standing back to back with Arthur, sword in hand, surrounded by a ring of advancing knights. "But - but - sheís not supposed to be there! That spell was only supposed to trap Arthur! How did she -"
"I donít know how she got in there any more than you do," Merlin replied. "But that doesnít matter. What matters is this; if she isnít freed from your microcosm, sheíll die alongside Arthur. Is that what you want? Do you hate Arthur so much that youíre willing to let your stepdaughter die just to ensure his death? Youíve already lost one child through your feud with him. Do you want Mary to share Morfyddís fate?"
"No," began Morgana, stammering, "I - I -" She faltered, clearly uncertain what to do now, torn between her love and her hatred, standing before Merlin in utter confusion.
Behind her the Cyclops skeleton faltered, as if sensing its mistressís lapse of will. Griff noticed it and sprang forward, not directly towards it, but towards the great staff that it held in its hands. He grabbed hold of it and jerked it from Polyphemusís grip, then leaped straight for the nearest cave wall. He hurled himself from it, holding the staff straight before him with both hands, and rammed it into the skeletonís eye-socket. The Cyclops teetered backwards under the force of the impact, then landed upon the floor, bursting asunder into a pile of scattered bones with a loud clatter. Griff landed beside it, looking down at the remains, then commented with a satisfied nod, "I guess that history does repeat itself."
"I - Iíll find a way of getting Mary out of there," cried Morgana finally, "but not before I slay you first, Merlin! I will not let you lead her astray! Iíll -"
Griff took her from behind just as she was beginning to raise her hand and grappled her, pinning her arms to her sides. "Terribly sorry about this, maíam," he said as he did so. "Itís not particularly chivalrous, Iíll admit, but then, this is something of an emergency."
"Thanks, Griff," said Merlin, nodding approvingly.
"No!" cried Morgana frantically, struggling against Griffís hold in vain. "Let me go, gargoyle! Let me go!"
Merlin picked up the book that she had dropped when Griff had seized her, and looked over it. "I still canít find anything in there," he said, "and timeís running out anyway. Thereís one thing left to try." He raised the globe high above his head.
"Are you certain that thatís going to work, Merlin?" asked Griff concernedly. "I mean, the last time that somebody in our little group smashed a magical object -"
"I know," said Merlin, nodding uncomfortably. "This just might backfire, I agree. But - Iím out of options. And after seeing the plight that Arthur and Mary are in - well, things can't get any worse for them." And with that, he hurled the globe to the floor.
* * * * *
"I am sorry about this, Mary," said Arthur, parrying another attack from one of their assailants. Even Excalibur in his hand would not allow the two of them to hold out for long against so many foes, he could tell; they were too heavily outnumbered for it. "I wish that I had not led you here to your death."
"Itís - all right, Arthur," said Mary, trying hard not to weep and failing, as she fought off another knight. "Iím more concerned with Merlin at the moment. Weíve failed him."
"Griff will just have to protect him now," said Arthur. "At least heíll do a fine job of it - for what little time Merlin has left."
Mordredís knights prepared to close in on the two of them, ready for the final assault....
* * * * *
The globe hit the floor and shattered. There was a flash of light and Arthur Pendragon and Mary Sefton appeared next to Merlin, still standing back to back. Arthur held Excalibur in both hands, raising it against an invisible opponent. Their clothes and Maryís hair-style had returned to normal.
The two of them blinked and looked about at their surroundings. Arthur lowered Excalibur, while Mary stared down at her hands, now empty. Then both saw Merlin.
"Youíre safe, both of you!" cried the boy in relief. He wobbled a little on his legs but still managed to keep his balance.
Arthur and Mary both ran to him, Mary folding her arms about him. Then she stood back, tears still forming in her eyes. "Iím sorry," she said to him. "We had the Grail, but then we lost it - forever."
"No, you didnít," said Merlin. "Itís - well, kind of complicated, but you were stuck in a microcosm the whole time. Both of you." Seeing the bewilderment on their faces, he added, "Iíll explain later. But the point is, whatever you came across, it wasnít the genuine Holy Grail. Itís still out there somewhere - I hope."
"But how did we -" Arthur began. He turned around and saw Morgana, still held tightly by Griff. "I should have known," he said.
Morgana said nothing. She was looking not at Arthur but at Mary, her eyes troubled and uneasy. She seemed about to say something to the girl for a moment, but remained silent.
"And now we have to decide what to do about her," said Arthur, looking at his half-sister with a troubled frown.
"Good point," said Griff. "I canít keep on holding onto her forever, after all. I donít suppose that we could turn her over to the local police?"
"I donít know," said Merlin. "They probably donít have the facilities to keep her locked up. Thatís part of the problem."
"Alongside the fact," agreed Arthur, "that we canít even charge her with anything that they can believe. How can we convince the authorities that she is a sorceress, and particularly a legendary sorceress over fifteen centuries old?"
"But what are we going to do about her, then?" Mary asked.
Arthur and Merlin both looked at each other uncomfortably. Before either one could speak, however, - and it was clear that each one was hoping that the other would speak up first - there came a noise like a multitude of wings flapping from outside. Then, a flock of ravens rushed into the cave, croaking loudly, and swarmed all about it.
Arthur and his companions hurriedly ducked as the cloud of avian life surrounded them, wings and beaks everywhere, and in the confusion Griff accidentally weakened his hold on Morgana. She broke free at once and ran, though pausing for a moment to scoop a few things out of one of the chests before she fled. She raised one hand, just as she was almost out of the chamber, and then both she and the ravens vanished in a flash of light, leaving the four friends standing alone in the cave.
"Well, I suppose that that problemís just been solved," said Griff. "Though not in the best way, I must admit."
"At least we foiled her this time," said Merlin. "But sheís still out there, and so weíre going to need to be much more careful from now on."
"So can we go now?" asked Mary.
Arthur nodded. "But first," he said, "we should make certain that these objects are kept out of Morganaís hands, forever. We cannot allow her to use any of these magical devices against us again."
"Iíll find a way of keeping her out of the cave," said Merlin, paging through the book. "Just a small spell, of course. Then Iíll ring up Una at the Mystic shop, and see if she can send somebody over here - Macbeth, say - and pick up these items afterwards, to store them for safe-keeping. But for now, letís be on our way, shall we?"
* * * * *
"It was rather strange," said Mary as she and Merlin sat together back at their camp. "I mean, actually being in the Middle Ages, dressing up like a real squire, fighting by Arthurís side. And - well, I donít think that I really want to go through that again, but at the same time, I suppose that I rather enjoyed it."
Merlin nodded. "Yes, it must have been quite an experience," he said.
Mary was silent for a moment, looking down at the ground, and then continued. "Merlin, thereís something that you should know," she said. "When I first started travelling about with you and Arthur, I always assumed that it was just a temporary situation. I thought that, once I got back to normal again and stopped turning into a wolf in the daytime, Iíd say good-bye to both of you and go back home. But now - well, Iím not so certain. Ever since Arthur made me his squire, things have been different. I know that itís a difficult life sometimes, but after Eynhallow - well, even if I were to suddenly find a cure now and go back to being human all the time, Iíd probably stay with him rather than go back home. Something from himís been rubbing off of me, I believe."
"Yes, Arthur does have that sort of effect on people," said Merlin, nodding. "So you really fancy yourself as a Knight of the Round Table someday?"
"I suppose," she said. "And one other thing. Mordred said that - well, Arthur was looking upon me as if I was his daughter. And, after the way that he looked out for me in the battle - do you suppose that that could be true?"
"Normally, Iíd take anything that Mordred said with a grain of salt," Merlin replied. "But - that is a good point. Iíve been noticing something myself, between you both. It would make sense, too, I suppose."
She nodded, a thoughtful look in her eyes.
* * *
"So what was it like, being back in the Middle Ages?" Griff asked Arthur. "Well, not your part of the Middle Ages, but you know what I mean."
"It wasnít that bad, in fact," Arthur replied. "Thereís something refreshing about returning home, sometimes. Being around the familiar things that you grew up with is certainly pleasant. In truth, were it not for the fact that I could not abandon you and Merlin, Iíd have been more than tempted to remain there. How Mary would have felt about that, I donít know, of course - but there was indeed something comforting about being in a world that I understood, rather than in this strange new one."
"I know how you feel," said Griff. "I sometimes still find it difficult, adjusting to the fact that Leo and Una are about fifty years older than me now. Iíve even wondered from time to time what things would have been like if I hadnít met up with Goliath and the Phoenix Gate - although in light of the circumstances, it could be just as well that I did."
Arthur nodded. "Maybe it was fitting that it was only one of Morganaís illusions that I encountered," he said. "As if to tell me that I cannot truly return to the world that I knew, that I must accept the changes and move on. Certainly, these days, I know that, whatever I am to do, it cannot be merely a repeat of what I did fifteen centuries ago. It wonít fit the world of today. And yet -" He looked up at the stars, watching the Plough as it revolved about the Pole Star.
"Yes?" asked Griff.
"Perhaps there is something that I can do still," he said. "Not a literal castle and knights in armor, of course, not again. But perhaps, when my quest is completed, the Grail has been found, and Merlinís life has been saved, there may be a way for Camelot to be reborn."
"And do you have any ideas on how to do that?" Griff asked.
"Not as yet," he replied, continuing to watch the Plough in its eternal path through the heavens. "But I will."