ORIGINAL FICTION: Second Time Around, Pt. 4

Mama Fisi
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XVII. With the coming of spring, new shoots of grass began to tint the meadows with the vibrant color of the emerald, and in the woods the flowering trees began to don their mantles of blushing white. For the first time in months, the air was a pleasure to breathe, as sweet perfume wafted on the warm, moist breeze.

It was about this time that the Firebird disappeared.

The Princess was inconsolable. Not only had she become rather fond of the noisy creature, but she had let it outside for the first time only that morning, and the fabulous bird, with a chattering cry like a great wood-pecker, spread its wings and soared away over the castle walls. By nightfall it was still gone, and the Princess dreaded having to inform the wizard (or warlock, as she had taken up calling him) that his prize had literally flown the coop.

To her extreme relief, however, the Firebird returned the following mid-morning. Kazhi apparently had no idea it had gone, for he had been absorbed in some experiment or other. The Princess thought that she might not have to tell him at all about what had happened. However, it might be difficult to conceal the golden apple which the bird had brought back, clenched in one talon.

The Princess, as she now was in the habit of doing, went to consult with the dragon over this mystery. The apple appeared to be made of solid gold, although it had a very peculiar soft texture, like wax; she remembered that the dragon had initially induced Kazhi to get the Firebird precicely in order to obtain some golden apples from a distant land, over the western sea.

A look of concern passed over Gronok's scaley face when the Princess showed him the apple. It had an amazing, lush fragrance, sweet beyond description, and its smooth, burnished skin fairly glowed as it lay cradled in Vivienne's cupped hands. There could be no question about its being magical.

The dragon had no easy answer for her. He had been putting Kazhi on, in his attempt to rid himself of the odious little man--and now here was one of the famous Golden Apples of the Hesperides, brought to him by the fenix. For her part, the Firebird seemed rather smug and pleased with herself, and sat on her accustomed perch in the tall tree, preening her feathers til they gleamed in the sunlight.

"Just put it away somewhere," said Gronok quietly, "and let's not mention it to you-know-who."

But the next day, the Firebird took off again, and returned with another apple. This continued for nearly a week. And then the Firebird didn't come back at all.

By this time, Vivienne was so nervous that she could not disguise her emotions. She was certain that Kazhi knew all about the golden apples, and that he was keeping silent in order to entrap her into exposing her deceit; for was she not intercepting the magical pommes and hiding them? She trembled and she jittered, and if he spoke to her, she would jump. At last, he snapped, "What's gotten into you?"

Without being able to raise her eyes, in a voice of abject terror, the girl mumbled, "The Firebird...she's...gone...."

Kazhi scowled. The pentrating nature of his pale eyes could have unsettled a brave knight, never mind a weak-willed princess. "Gone--? What do you mean, gone? Out with it, wench!"

Twisting her apron in deep chagrin, the Princess said, "I let her outside, a few days ago--and she's flown off." It wasn't a lie, he couldn't see through it--but it wasn't the entire truth, either.

To her surprise, the wizard did not seem at all upset at this news. "Oh, really--? Good. Maybe I can get some sleep around here now without that maniac giving me a chiarivari."

The Princess blinked.

"You're...you're not angry--?"

He glanced at her. "Why should I be angry? I was thinking of inducing some poor sap to attempt to steal the damned thing...unless--there's something else you're not telling me...?"

Vivienne shrank back. "No. No, my lord." she murmured.

Kazhi took her at her word, although the look in his eyes indicated that he suspected otherwise.

Three days later, the Firebird returned. This time she did not have an apple, but around her ankle was a golden ring, set with a brilliant red stone, like the finest garnet on the face of the earth. As Fate would have it, Kazhi was out in the courtyard as the fenix came winging back, and there could be no concealing from him what it was the bird brought back with her this time.

What was more, the Firebird looked, if not exactly chagrined, then embarrassed--if a bird could look embarrassed, that is. Some of the feathers in her glorious tail were pulled out, and she seemed rather dishevelled. She alighted on the roost Vivienne had constructed for her, and, drooping, made a series of plaintive keening noises, which drew the other inmates of the neglected castle around her.

The stone winked and dazzled in the bright April sunshine, revealing a depth and clarity unlike anything seen in this world. Kazhi instantly suspected sorcery, and yet, as he gazed at the ring, he felt irresistably drawn to it, fascinated by it; it reminded him of the Philosopher's Stone which he had accidentally made as a by-product of his Time-machine. It was the exact color, like cranberry jelly, and of a sleek cabochon cut, and the gold setting was worked with exquisitely fine Celtic designs.

Kazhi reached up, to touch the ring, but the fenix snapped at his outstretched fingers, her ivory bill missing him by scant inches. He drew his hand back.

"Catch this bird," he ordered the Princess, over his shoulder, never taking his eyes from the ring.

The bird always obeyed Vivienne, and now she was able to gently wrap her arms around it and draw it--with a little protest--from the perch, cradling it on its back. Kazhi carefully siezed the leg which wore the ring.

"Careful, chief," said the dragon, with a furrow of his brow. "This smells like a trap."

Kazhi hesitated. One does not lightly dismiss the words of a dragon, especially where possible enchantments are concerned. But the attraction of the ring was too strong.

"I can manage it," said Kazhi, and worked the ring off over the fenix's clawed foot.

At first, it wouldn't come, and the bird gave a squawk of protest. "It got on somehow--surely it will come off," the wizard assured everyone, gritting his teeth. The fenix did not help matters by flailing and kicking, but eventually, with the judicious application of some soap, the ring came free.

As Kazhi, with a gloat of triumph, held it in his hand, he could fairly feel the crackle of its magical aura. He was only dimly aware of his companions watching him with expressions of concern. He could not see the look on his own face, almost half-mad with a kind of avarice.

"This is a ring of power," he stated, with conviction.

"All the more reason to leave it be," Gronok advised him.

"It came to me-- it is mine," said Kazhi with an almost childlike petulance, watching the play of light on the bauble's polished surface.

"Someone had to put it on the Firebird's leg," said the warhorse, who had only now come up. "Forgive me, Mage, but I don't think that--"

"I'm not asking you to think," snapped Kazhi, turning the ring over in his palms. "I shall claim this ring, and I shall unlock its secrets--I have every confidence that I am meant to be its rightful owner."

And, as if to prove his point, Kazhi slipped it onto his trembling finger. The ring was a perfect fit.

He laughed, and brandished his newly-adorned hand. "See? Nothing happened! I'm still visible and in human form--!"

In his covetous haze, Kazhi did not notice that the ring instantly reduced in size, if only incrementally, so that it was now impossible for him to remove it. Nor did he notice that what he took for mere Celtic designs, were actually ornate and arcane letters, which, in a language more ancient than mortal memory, spelled out--
BIND MY HEART TO THY WILL.

He snapped his fingers at the others, and walked with a bit of a swagger. "You forget how great a wizard I am!" he sniffed. And then he went away, humming, admiring his new jewel with the single-minded concentration of Narcissus bending over a forest pool.

The others watched him go.

"This bodes ill," Gronok was certain. "He forgets that there are other magicians in these lands, magicians far more powerful than he--magicians, furthermore, who take their magic seriously, and who might be interested in punishing some alien upstart who horns in on their territory."

"We ought to warn him," thought Vivienne.

"He won't listen," replied Gronok.

"Wait a moment," interrupted Tornado, with a flick of his ears. "I thought you two wanted to be rid of him--"

"Not on our home ground," said the dragon, with a kink of his long neck. "It's one thing to send him off to hunt a snark and hope he never gets back--quite another to have a necromancer or a powerful fairy come here to annihilate him. We could get killed in the cross-fire, you know--killed, or taken prisoner. I don't know how you feel about it, but I for one don't relish the thought of being chained up in some drafty dungeon. I've had enough of that already. Before this bloke came along, I was doing hard time in the castle of Broceliande for pillaging. I had an iron colar bolted round my neck. Then the king of this castle--sorry, milady, but it must be said--made an enemy of a certain very powerful enchantress, who happens to live in a palace beneath a magic lake not far from here. She asked for my services. She said that this mortal king was behaving like a beast toward his vassals, and so to show him a lesson she would unleash a real beast upon him. I don't think she expected the matter to turn out quite the way it did."

The others were quiet, except for the fenix, who purred uneasily.

"And so--you think that this ring might have been sent by this enchantress?" asked the horse.

"It's as likely as anything. Real sorcerers have a way of knowing what is going on in the world, just by bending their thoughts...someone might finally have taken notice of our friend with the white eyes."

"Well--what are we going to do?" asked the Princess, wringing her apron. "Lord and Mary, if a witch comes here, too--if it's the witch who was angry at my father--he was a tyrant, 'tis true, but I shan't wish to suffer on account of my kinship--" And she dissolved into terrified tears.

"All that was ten years ago," Tornado pointed out. "Surely, this enchantress would have noticed what was happening here before now--!"

Gronok bit his lip. "Time moves differently in the Faerie realm," was all he could say, and rather lamely at that. "She might have noticed the outcome, and found it acceptable. But now this fool has managed to attract attention...." He gazed sadly at the Firebird. "When I charged him with the quest that brought you and the fenix to us, I never dreamed it would go this far--"

And he quickly explained about the golden apples.

The horse listened with a grave expression on his face, and then decided, "Well, if you hope to avoid a battle, you had best show him the golden apples and get him to understand that there are forces far more powerful than he in this world."

"No...no...." whimpered the Princess. "He will be very angry, that we hid the apples from him...."

"Well, then," said Tornado, grimly, "I advise you both to wear iron, and barricade yourselves in a secure location...because by the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes."

XVIII. Three days later, on the first of May, when all the world is dancing and gay, a lone rider approached the neglected castle. The trees in the orchard were all thickly mantled with clouds of fragrant blossoms, and the very air was vibrant with bees and the symphony of birds, so much so that one could not possibly shut oneself off from the teeming opera of joyous life.

The rider was a woman, clad in a gown of blue and gold, and wearing a veil of snowy white silk held in place by a delicate golden crown, in the form of a wreath of ivy. A large diamond sparkled from the center of this crown. She was mounted on a high-stepping palfrey as bright as a new coin, whose polished hooves flashed from under immaculate stockings. His mane was braided with jewels, sapphires and topazes, and his tail swept the ground. She bore no weapons of any kind, but upon her finger was a golden ring, set with a milky white stone, and adorned with ancient characters which read:

BEND THY HEART TO MY WILL.

She came to the castle gate, which happened to be closed. She reined in her horse, and raised her hand. The drawbridge obediently descended and the portcullis clattered up all of its own accord. Nudging her mount's glossy sides, the lady rode over the drawbridge and into the main courtyard of the castle, which was deserted save for a few common pigeons which were accustomed to beg for scraps there. These birds started up in alarm at the sudden advent of the damosel on the golden steed.

The lady sat quietly for a short time, waiting to be noticed. When no one came, she idly rubbed the ring on her finger with the tip of her thumb. Under her veil, her lips moved silently.

The shutters in one window of the keep slammed open, and Kazhi leaned out. He blinked painfully in the bright light and scowled down at the strange maiden in his courtyard.

"You, there--!" he snapped, "How comes you to be in my castle?"

"I go where I will," replied the lady in a strangely melodic voice. "Wheresoever the Sun can cast his eye--there go I."

Kazhi's frown deepened. "Well, access to this castle is by invitation only--and I don't recall sending any out to you."

"Oh, but you did. You possess a magical bird who has been raiding my orchard. I have come to seek restitution." said the lady. "I should desire to parley with you, if you truly should be the lord of this castle. Although, I am given to believe that the lord of this castle was somewhat older, more portly, and given to merriments."

"Yeah, well...I've sublet the place," Kazhi muttered. He withdrew his head, and irritably wrung the hand on which he wore the magic ring. His hand--his whole arm, in fact--was tingling as if it had fallen "asleep." He had a rather nauseous feeling, which made him light-headed, and he supposed that bending over his grimoires for so long had caused his circulation to slow down. He glanced back out the window. The damsel hadn't moved.

He supposed that he would have to go see what she wanted. He suspected that it was the ring she had come to claim. If that was so, then he had better not let her see it--

He tried to pull it off, but to his surprise, and slight horror, the ring stuck fast to his finger, so fast that it hurt to try to remove it. Kazhi felt a tingle of foreboding, and decided to put on a pair of gloves, despite the warm weather.

As he left his study, he jerked on the bell-pull to summon his staff. Down in the hall, four sets of eyes swivelled up to regard the jangling bell as though it were mounted on the carriage of Death.

"What did I tell you?" murmured Gronok.

Kazhi went out to meet the intruder. He did not bother to change out of his dressing-gown and soft velvet cap, which he always wore when he was studying, and so he presented a picture of careless indifference which contrasted sharply with the exquisite attire of the veiled lady. He put his hands on his hips, and was about to make a rude comment, but something about her bearing quite robbed him of his thoughts. The blue of her gown was so brilliant that it almost hurt his eyes, and the golden yellow of her underskirts fairly dazzled in the sulight. Patterns were embroidered into the cloth with golden thread, and the silk of her veils shimmered like mist. Kazhi was stricken mute. The air around her vibrated with magic.

"Forgive me, milady," he murmured in a voice that almost trembled, putting a hand to his chest, "I...did not realize that you were...Fee...."

"So," said the damsel, with a smirk in her voice, "You are a wizard, then...?"

She lifted her veil, and exposed a face which was at once both beautiful and cruel, like a fine Greek sculpture. Her eyes were black as jet in a marble complexion, and the hair which fell over her shoulders and down her back was ivory, which shimmered with an unearthly brilliance. She looked directly at Kazhi, and he felt his knees go weak, and his heart contracted with a painful lurch, like a rearing horse which topples over backwards from the unbalanced weight of its rider.

"I am Morgaine Lafayette," said the damsel, "Queen of the Isle of Avalon."

Kazhi could not take his eyes from hers. He could scarcely breathe, and there was a strange buzzing in his head, as if a tribe of hornets had made his skull into a hive.

"M-M-Morgan La Fay--?" he stammered.

The maiden smiled ever so slightly.

"You have heard of me--?" she inquired.

Despite his three thousand years, Kazhi's voice squealed like an adolescent's as he replied, "Who hasn't--? The powerful enchantress, disciple of Merlin, sister of King Arthur--"

"I am not his sister," the damsel interrupted, with a sniff, "although he thinks I am. I have set myself to watching over him. From the moment he was born, I have tried to protect him from those who have evil designs for him. And it was I who persuaded my sister Nymue to give him the sword Excalibur. Only with such a blade could he hope to combat the dark forces which assail him."

Kazhi blinked like an owlet, not certain if he properly comprehended her words.

"I'd thought," he said, slowly, "that you were trying to destroy Arthur...."

And then he realized what a blunder that was, by the way the damsel bent her gaze upon him. He melted before those piercing black eyes, he could feel them excavating his thoughts, ransacking the innermost chambers of his soul. He swayed on his feet. Here was power far greater than anything Kazhi had ever encountered, a power that radiated from the slender being of the maiden, and engulfed him and burned him with the heat of the sun.

"I?" she asked him, "Destroy Arthur--? How could you possibly think that? I am trying to save him, to protect him from the dark machinations of the demon-born mystic who would use him as a pawn to control the world--!"

She graced Kazhi with a look of lofty disdain, as if she doubted that he could grasp the full import of her words. "There are matters afoot, of which you mortals know nothing," she stated. "There are beings far older than your conscious thought, who are engaged in a struggle to maintain the order of the universe.
We exist on the margins of your society, subtly interacting with you in the guise of seers or mages, banned from outright combat by the decree of the Elder Gods. You call yourself a wizard, so you must have some notion of these things...."

She raised an eyebrow, and Kazhi murmured, "Yes, milady...indeed, I do."

She turned her horse about, and Kazhi, his eyes averted, could see golden sparks striking from the animal's hooves. "Arthur is of an ancient bloodline," Morgaine Lafayette continued. "He can trace his ancestry back to immortal roots--on both sides. Such a concentration of magical blood is rare and highly dangerous, should it fall under the influence of evil. A double-dragon can rule the world--or destroy it--"

"Double-dragon?" Kazhi blurted, and instantly regretted it, for the enchantress narrowed her sable eyes at him, and sighed in mild aggravation.

"I refer to matters at which few mortals guess," she told him, "and of which it is best not to speak aloud. The Gods have servants, and from time to time, these servants choose to become mortal, and bear children. Artorius, The Many-gifted, High King of Britain, is descended on both sides from such stock. Merlin knows this. Merlin helped to ensure it. And it has been my personal charge to prevent Merlin from exploiting this."

Kazhi's heart gave a sudden leap in his chest, a very painful leap, as he realized what it was that Morgaine Lafayette was alluding to.

Whether Kazhi said it aloud, or whether Morgaine was able to read it in his thoughts, Kazhi could not say, but the damsel suddenly sat up very straight in her saddle and stated, "You know of the Dragonmaids?"

"Yes," he told her, slowly, unable to resist her. "I have heard of them...in fact, I was briefly pursued by them, when I first obtained the Firebird which you have seen raiding your garden."

He winced. The words just came out, without his willing them to, and he thought that he had never felt so wretched before in his entire life. He could not lie to her--he could not even think about lying to her--all his legendary arrogance had completely dissolved before her, and he was left writhing like a worm.

Morgaine looked scornfully down at him. "So," she said, "it is as I'd thought."

She did not choose to explain her meaning, for then she looked up, over the top of his head, and stated, "You have quite an odd assortment of familiars, for a wizard.... Come, little ones, there is no need to be afraid of me. I shall not harm you."

Kazhi half-turned to see his servants timidly straggling out into the courtyard, from where they had been hiding, watching the proceedings. Gronok seemed to be the most reluctant of all, mincing along with his head close to the ground, his neck doubled up like an inchworm, and in a moment it became clear as to why he should look so abashed.

Morgaine smiled. "Ah, Gronok--! Well met. Nymue was wondering what had become of you. We assumed you had eaten King Bawdewyn, but we never heard from you again. You're not the sort of fellow to lie idle for long. Have you then fallen into the thrall of this wizard, or have you truly mended your wicked ways and now chew grass like a cow?"

The dragon sat with his head on the ground, unable to look at the damsel on her golden palfrey.

"I now serve this wizard," he said quietly.

Morgaine took him at his word, and next regarded the Princess, who shrunk back, concealing her work-reddened hands and sweeping fretfully at her unkempt, wiry hair. "Princess Vivienne...! I am surprised to see you here. Are you then a prisoner of this sorcerer?"

"Y...yes, milady," said the Princess in a sulky voice. She hardly dared to hope that this great enchantress might be capable of setting her free, and restoring her birthright to her.

But Morgaine said nothing more to the woman, turning her attention instead to the war-horse. "Ah--! This one I know well! I helped to break your father to the saddle, O great Tornado! Tell me--were you not in the service of the Khan?"

Tornado, the only one so far to show any spark of dignity before the sorceress, replied, "I was--and I now choose to bide my time with this wizard."

Morgaine looked a little impressed. "He must have promised you quite a bit, to obtain your services...."

"That he did, my lady Morgaine," said Tornado, with a sharp look at Kazhi.

Something seemed to pass between the war-horse and the damsel, which Kazhi only sensed, but could not comprehend, and it made him worry. Tornado pawed the ground, tracing blue sparks, and spoke in the language of horses, to which Morgaine's stallion answered back. Kazhi, with the conviction of the paranoid, thought He knows something about her-- And then, He's finking on me....

Morgaine then looked at the Firebird, which was perched on Tornado's rump. "And you," she mused, her lips pursed and her head held to one side. "You naughty bird--! I had heard that someone liberated the fenix from the keeping of the Eastern Dragon King...and that it escaped...I suppose you are unaware of the mischief a fenix can make, when allowed to run free--?"

"I am finding that out," said Kazhi, with a dark look at the fenix.

"That was the reason why it was incarcerated in the Dragon King's court to begin with," Morgaine went on. "The bird is immortal, and therefore reckless, and delights in causing strife and havoc. It cannot be caught, unless it wants to be. Only a living cage can contain it, and bamboo was the best material for the job. It was quite a feat to succeed in liberating the fenix from her keepers--but I wonder if you had any idea what it was you were doing?"

She looked now at Kazhi, and he felt his insides go weak and his guts turn to caterpillars.

"I was following the advice of the dragon, milady," he said in a failing voice, hardly more than a whisper.

Morgaine Lafayette laughed, a sound like bells and running water and everything else that is pleasing to the ears of men, and said to him, "You are a queer wizard indeed, to hold a dragon, yet take its advice--! Tiamat's feathers, I cannot make you out!"

Kazhi swallowed hard, but said nothing, his heart pounding like the pistons of a great steam-liner.

"You are also quite rude," Morgaine went on in a chiding tone. "Surely, there are more pleasant places to parley, than in the hot sunshine--? A lady must protect her complexion...."

Kazhi, as if roused from a drunken slumber, shook his head and, with a sluggish gesture, said, "Forgive me...will you not join us in the banquetting hall?"

The Princess cast him a look of dismay. She had not prepared anything for lunch. All she had was a hunk of cold mutton and some nearly stale bread, and poor beer. Their stores were almost empty, at that time of the year, and her distant memories of grandeur made her soul cringe to think that she could not entertain this great lady in the manner which would be expected.

"No," said Morgaine Lafayette. "I should much rather dine in the cool comfort of the cloister. I am of a sort which does not bide easily within stone enclosures."

She made a motion, to dismount, and Kazhi stepped up to assist her. He did it without thinking, as if it were something he was compelled to do. Morgaine put her delicate, soft hand into his, and the instant that she touched him, Kazhi gave a gasp, as if he had just grasped a bolt of lightning. The pain of it seared through his arm and down his side, and left to earth through the sole of his foot.

Morgaine, for her part, only regarded him queerly, with something like amusement. She slipped from her palfrey like water running over a cliff, her trailing blue skirts rustling with the scent of flowers, and she stood for a moment beside him, quite close, with her hand still resting in his grasp. He was too preoccupied with staring at her to notice the ring on her finger.

"Is it not too warm, to be wearing such heavy gauntlets?" Morgaine inquired with a secretive smile.

Kazhi only stammered incoherently. He struggled to organize his thoughts. He felt utterly intoxicated, robbed of both strength and wit, his senses overwhelmed by this magical little damsel. For Morgaine was little, he could see that now--he was not tall, but she came up only to his shoulder, and she had the delicate build of a songbird. She also was attended by a fragrance of apples, both blossom and fruit, and Kazhi realized, with dismay, that he had started to salivate.

She drew her hand from his numb fingers, slowly, and took up her skirts in one hand, the reins of her horse in the other. She walked toward the inner keep as though she knew her way well. "Come along, children--I shall treat you to a luncheon. And then, when we are feeling quite convivial, I will discuss with you the reasons why I have come here."

XIX. They trailed after her, passing through the darkened keep and into the garden beyond. Morgaine Lafayette seemed to give off a subtle light, which illuminated the passages as she went. Kazhi brought up the rear, slinking like a guilty dog, struggling to understand what was going on inside his head. He was, quite plainly, in awe of her--he had never had occasion to meet the legendary enchantress, but he had heard enough about her, although now he could see how far off the mark the sagas had been. She was not a darksome witch, full of malice and cunning--she was an angel, beautiful beyond words, lissome and dainty, and Kazhi, with a dry mouth and sweating palms, thought that he could tolerate eternity, if he could only spend it prostrate at her tiny, silk-slippered feet....

Kazhi shook his head, shook it so hard that his hat almost came off. Calm down, he ordered himself. Calm down...this has never happened before....

Over the course of his extraordinary existance, he had met hundreds, if not thousands, of women, from all walks of life, from every age--empresses and scullery-maids, scientists and goose-girls. He had regarded them all with detatchment, even the ones who had found him somehow attractive, and had attempted to flirt with him. He had never shown the slightest interest in the fair sex. But now, in the presence of Morgaine Lafayette, his whole body was throbbing in a very disturbing way. He was certain that she could hear his heart beating.

Indeed, she could. He could not see her face, as they walked through the castle in a straggling single-file, but Morgaine Lafayette was smiling--smirking, really, and she gently rubbed the band of her magic ring where it encircled her slender finger. As she did, Kazhi felt very light-headed, giddy, almost, and his feet nearly failed in their purpose.

Morgaine heard him blunder into a stool, and chuckled softly, a sound echoed by her palfrey.

They came out into the inner courtyard, which Princess Vivienne was now happy to have spent so much of her idle time keeping up; on that May Day it was a dazzling burst of color, decorated with beds of bulbs the dragon had brought back from his forays in distant countries, and overhung with flowering trees.

"No monastery has a finer collection of herbs and simples, Princess Vivienne," said Morgaine Lafayette in a genuine tone. "You are quite the gardener."

"I do my best, milady," said Vivienne modestly, putting her roughened hands into her smock. "Mon seigneur requires herbs for his enchantments...and I like to have something pretty around to look at. I don't have much use for embroidery these days, so...."

She let her thoughts trail off. She used to be very proud of her skill with a needle. Now her hands were too stiff to perform the delicate tasks required by fine needlework.

Morgaine turned, and regarded the Princess with a critical eye, a fingertip against her creamy cheek. The Princess blushed, making her face even redder than it was, and Morgaine reached out to touch the Princess's unkempt hair, as though she were fingering raw fabric in a bazaar.

"Hmph," said Morgaine, "we shall have to amend that. It is not meet for one of such ancient noble lineage to waste herself slaving away in the service of a wizard who cannot appreciate her finer qualities."

The Princess stood, trembling, with her head bowed. Morgaine turned from her, and took from a pouch at her girdle a small, carefully-folded handkerchief, made of a fabric so white and fine that it could be passed through the eye of a needle. She took it by two corners, and gave it a flick; the napkin magically expanded like a sail caught in a sudden breeze, and settled down to become a long dining-table, set with exquisite plates and cutlery. Morgaine then waved her hand, and a glorious feast appeared, cold slices of beef and fresh vegetables and fruits of such varieties as dazzled the eyes of poor Princess Vivienne, who had never seen tomatoes, or potatoes, or sweet corn swimming in butter; but Morgaine glanced at Kazhi, and something in his lack of wonder seemed to give him away.

"Come," she said, "won't you join me in my repast?"

There was a platter of roasted chickens, for the dragon; and two large trenchers of mixed grains for the horses. The Firebird happily settled down to a bowl of steamed rice and dried dates, while the others, seating themselves in chairs summoned from nowhere by Morgaine Lafayette, began their own meal.

Vivienne timidly picked up a small tool which resembled a trident, made of gold, with enamelled Celtic designs on the handle. "What's this?" she asked.

"It's a fork," said Kazhi absently. "You use it to spear your food with--"

Again, he caught a peculiar, knowing look from Morgaine Lafayette. He felt his spine prickle.

"Is it warm out here?" he then asked with petulance, flapping the lapel of his dressing-gown.

"It is delicious," said Morgaine, raising her bejewelled cup to her rosy lips. "It is spring. You have hidden yourself away from the sun for too long, my friend."

The way she said my friend made Kazhi feel like jelly.

The reader might guess what was happening, but he would be off the mark; Kazhi was not so much falling in love, as he was falling under Morgaine's spell. For it was a spell, a most dangerous one at that, and being a spell it robbed him of the ability to understand it for what it was. And Morgaine, like her ancestors Medea and Circe before her, was confident in the eventual outcome. She would make this so-called wizard her slave. Wizards could not be permitted to roam about loose in the world, not when there was so much at stake....

She lightly clapped her hands, and sweet music began to play, coming from the shrubs in the garden. Then she took a little nibble from her salad, which was cottage cheese in a tomato cut in the likeness of a flower, and said, "I could waste the afternoon, discussing politics and banalities with you, but the Sun does not stands still in his progress; so I will get right to the point. If you are the wizard I believe you to be, I need you to help me accomplish a great endeavor...."

Kazhi slowly chewed his bread, unable to take his eyes from her, except when she happened to glance his way--then he snatched his gaze to some neutral point, such as the ice sculpture of the swan which ornamented the middle of the table.

"You must know that the forces of magic are not imaginary," the lady went on, "and that there are beings who share the world with mortal men, beings who have their origins far back in the mists of antiquity. But the world is changing...the minds and hearts of men are closing...the old gods are being turned into demons, and their adherents are persecuted as heretics. The time will soon come when all commerce between the realms of Man and Faerie will be cut off, not because Man cannot see, but because Man will not see. But just because they no longer believe, does not mean that such things shall cease to exist...."

Morgaine paused to refresh herself from her goblet. "Do try the chicken salad," she advised Kazhi, "it is particularly succulent."

Obediently, Kazhi helped himself to the indicated bowl. He would have eaten raw nails had she invited him to do so.

"Those who can work real magic," Morgaine continued, "are becoming few and far between. My sisters and I fear that it is because of the Round Table--"

"What?" interrupted Kazhi, rousing himself from his idyll by the absurdity of this statement.

"Indeed," said Morgaine. "You see, the Knights which Artorius has gathered around himself, spend their days slaying anything which has the faintest glimmer of magic about it. They have nearly cleared Britain and the Isles of everything Fee, save in the most remote reaches of Scotland and Ireland, for the kings there resist the Knights of the Round Table and are deemed traitors; now Artorius has turned his eyes to the Continent, and has already begun to make forays of conquest. I am rather surprised that he has not sent an emissary to this castle, seeing as how Bewdewyn was one of his early supporters--"

"My father broke with Caerleon," said Vivienne, "and was banished from the Court."

"Ah, yes. Part of the reason why my sister sent Gronok to harass him," Morgaine nodded, touching her brow. "Sometimes I must keep track of so many things that a few of them slip into the corners and out of sight. Where was I?"

"Conquest," said Kazhi dreamily, watching the play of a shaft of sunlight on the cornsilk of Morgaine's lustrous hair.

"That's right. You ought to be on your guard, Faustus, for when word gets out that there is a dragon in this keep, as well as a damsel in distress and an enchanter with a magic warhorse, every knight with a name to make for himself will be beating down your door."

Morgaine watched Kazhi closely; she watched as a shadow passed across his face; but if he found it odd that she should call him Faustus, when he had not introduced himself to her as such, he chose to keep it to himself. The others also looked nervously at Kazhi. He held their fate in his hands--any enemy of his could be a danger to themselves as well.

Morgaine resumed her narrative, the diamond in her coronet sparkling like the morning star. "We cannot allow them to destroy the realm of Faerie. It is Artorius, the Double-Dragon, who guides the Knights--and it is Merlin who guides and protects Artorius. Merlin has the gift of Sight, and he knows that Artorius is destined to be slain by his own son. He has done everything he can to protect the King. Two sons have been born to him and his Queen, Gwynwhyfar--and both were suffocated by Merlin's magic even as they drew their first breath."

"How awful!" gasped Vivienne, who would have loved to have had several babies of her own, and whose frustrated maternal heart ached for such a dreadful crime.

"Indeed. But Merlin is a desperate man. I was able to slip into the Queen's chamber, when she first took to her couch, and I spirited off her first-born son. I gave the babe to Arthur's half-sister Morgause to raise. She is the wife of King Lot of Orkney and Lothian, who stands in defiance of the Round Table, and defends the last wild fastness in Scotland to which the Fee creatures have withdrawn. Merlin did not realize that Artorius had seduced Gwynwhyfar at her father's castle before he won her to wife; the babe came two months too early, and I was there to save it. Much as I had stolen Artorius himself away, when he was born to Ygerne of Cornwall, and hid him with the family of Sir Ector."

"You did that?" said Kazhi, astonished.

"Yes. Merlin took the credit for it, of course, after the fact, claiming to be saving the Pendragon Heir from the anarchy he knew would come; but if he truly hoped to maintain the monarchy which he had done so much to create, why on earth would he hide the young Prince, unknown even to his poor mother? He created the sword in the anvil in order to flush Artorius out; he was as lost as any of them. I wove around the boy such charms of concealment as none but a God could penetrate. But there can be no avoiding destiny, I fear. Merlin knows that, too."

"Why does Merlin seek to destroy Faerie?" asked Kazhi, "I thought he was a wizard, himself--"

"That he is--and a powerful one; but he is an exile, a renegade. He dabbled in such arts as are forbidden any but the Gods, and he transgressed the laws of nature; for this, he was exiled. They say his father was a demon, but I have not found any who will own up to it; and his mother was a priestess of the Druids. His sister, Gwynedd, is their priestess now, though she is older than he; the longevity of these two leads me to think that they are, indeed, of immortal blood...."

Kazhi felt faint.

"When the apples started disappearing from my orchard," said Morgaine, twisting a lock of her hair, "I at first suspected that it was perhaps Merlin, up to his old tricks...for there are fruits in the gardens of the Elder Gods which convey longevity, as well as wisdom and eternal youth.... So I caught the fenix, and slipped a ring onto her leg, by which I could track her back to her roost. I must say that I am surprised to find not Merlin, but you, Faustus, at the end of the clew. It is something of a gift to me in my endeavors to find someone I hope I can make into an ally."

You can make me into anything you want, thought Kazhi fervently.

"You...did find a ring, on the leg of the fenix--?" Morgaine then prompted. Kazhi now winced.

Guiltily, he drew his glove from his hand, and the blood-red stone blazed out on his white-knuckled, bony finger. Morgaine smiled craftily.

"Keep it," she said, sweetly. "It may be of use to you."

"Use to me?" Kazhi repeated dully, regarding the ring. "Is it magic, then?"

"Of course it's magic," said Morgaine Lafayette. "And you may discover that its power can be quite--illuminating."

Morgaine took another sip from her goblet, and Kazhi imagined, for one dizzying moment, what it would be like to be the rim of the chalice as her exquisite lips pursed against it.

The dragon Gronok took notice of the wizard's helplessly stupid expression, and glanced sideways at the magic warhorse, who returned his look with one of his own; but neither said anything. Gronok alone saw the way the stone in Kazhi's ring sparkled and flamed, much as the stone in Morgaine's ring glowed with a subtle golden light, and he felt that his liberty was very near to hand, if only he could be patient, and play his part. He also knew something about Morgaine Lafayette which he could not, would not tell to Kazhi--something which Morgaine had asked him not to reveal, by touching his mind with her own. Gronok was, after all, a dragon, and therefore had certain loyalties which transcended all other earthly compacts.

"Now that I have found you, Faustus," Morgaine said with a coy lilt, "I hope that I will be able to count upon your assistance. You, and your retinue, will be of immeasurable use to me."

"Howso?" asked Kazhi.

"Well," said Morgaine, steepling her fingers, "we must remove Merlin. Without the magician to guide him, Artorius will be vulnerable. Merlin's gift of clairvoyance has kept the King from making several blunders--has given him an unfair advantage, you might say. Has tipped the balance in his favor. It should be enough that Artorius is armed with a divine sword, and protected by a magic scabbard--as well as carrying the blood of dragons in his veins--but, to know the outcome of any encounter, in advance, is just too much. Arthur cannot be deprived of Excalibur while he lives--unless he gives it up willingly--and no one guesses the worth of the scabbard, which protects him from harm. So it is Merlin who must be put out of the way."

"That is funny," said Vivienne, "as mon seigneur has been lately entertaining thoughts of inducing this wizard to come and instruct him in the magic arts--"

Kazhi shot Vivienne a look so black that it nearly turned the poor girl to ashes; and Morgaine shot Kazhi a look of deep reproach, bordering on horror.

"You must not know Merlin very well," she scolded, "to wish to learn at his feet. I can teach you all you wish to learn."

Kazhi now felt a peculiar pain in a place where such pain ought not be. "My lady," he said in a quavering voice, "that is more than I could ever hope for."

Morgaine rested her brow against her fingertips, and sighed wearily. "There is a battle raging," she said, "beyond the sight of mortal men--who are but pawns for those who wage it. Our weapons are our innate craft, our armor made of incantations, woven tight and impenetrable. You must have a care, young Faustus, and not permit yourself to be deceived by appearances."

For Morgaine to call Kazhi young was amusing, as he looked to be about thirty, and she, no more than sixteen. And furthermore, he knew how old he really was. So much for being decieved by appearances!

XX. After this, the conversation turned away from the dark subject of magical conflicts, and the afternoon seemed to speed by. Kazhi neither saw nor heard anything but Morgaine, even though the enchantress did her best to include the others in the discussion. As evening approached, with its deepening purple shadows and its sherbet-colored sky, Morgaine rose, and said, "I must not tarry. I must go."

Kazhi, with a spasm of anxiety at the thought of being seperated from the lovely damsel, blurted, "Surely, you can stay the night here--! We've got dozens of rooms--"

"I must not bide within these walls," explained Morgaine with a little alluring shrug.

"But--but it's getting dark!" was Kazhi's next gambit. "These woods are not safe for a woman alone--"

"I do not fear the dark," said Morgaine, with significance, "nor do I fear what is in the dark. The dark, instead, may have much to fear from me."

She was quite set in her mind, and nothing Kazhi could stammer could change her intention. She only smiled over his protests as she gathered up her magic cloth and fitted it into her wallet, then took the reins of her palfrey and headed for the castle gate.

"It is duty which calls me away," she told him. "I am chatelaine of my sister Nymue's castle, and even though it stands beneath an enchanted lake, it still must needs be locked up at eventide, lest its lights cause men to wonder and dash themselves to death in trying to reach it. Have no fear--when the sun is fairly risen, I shall return on the morrow, and we shall discuss the terms of the task I must ask you to do."

With that, she sprang lightly into the saddle, turned her horse, and with the barest tap of her heel, set the marvellous steed into a headlong gallop, which bore her out of the castle and into the dusk so rapidly that the sound of its hoofbeats vanished to abrupt silence only moments later. And then the last glimmer of light faded from the sky, and Kazhi was left in complete darkness, for no one had bothered to light the torches.

After Morgaine had departed, Kazhi felt himself returning to his senses, as though some sort of violent fever had left him. Only his hand still tingled, the hand on which he wore the magic ring Rubbing it, he sighed, the long, drawn-out sigh of the man who knows he loves in vain--even though Kazhi did not yet realize that he loved at all.

He noticed that the drawbridge was still down, and with a grumble about good help being hard to find, he went and hauled on the windlasses to bring it up, and dropped the portcullis. Morgaine's warning about errant knights coming to sort him out still murmured in his ears. He had lived unmolested in Bewdewyn's stolen castle for so long that he had begun to imagine that the world had forgotten them. And it was a good castle, too, built by the Romans of stone, not one of the sort which looked like grandiose log cabin forts. A man would have to be a fool not to try to take the castle for himself, believing it derelict. Of course, the rumors that the castle was haunted by a devil helped a lot to keep wandering knights, itenerant peddlars, and evangelists from Kazhi's doorstep. Knights had enough to worry about with other knights trying to knock their heads off without having to go harassing the Prince of Darkness.

He returned to the garden. The sweet fragrance of the apple trees instantly reminded him of her. She was just like an apple-blossom, he rhapsodized--her lips as tiny and pink, her skin as blushing white, her hair as golden as the pollen, her eyes as black as pips....

He did something he hadn't done in a very long while. He threw himself full-length on the grass, and gazed up at the indigo sky, where the first glimmering stars began to emerge. He sighed, several times, listening to the tinkle of the little fountain. Then, he reached out, and plucked up a flower, and began to pull the petals from it in a very deliberate manner.

"She is very beautiful."

Vivianne's voice, coming from out of the darkness of the cloister, startled him, and he sat up with an angry, guilty glower. The Princess came out into the light, and sat down on the edge of the little well.

"Years ago, my father used to entertain the fairies," the Princess went on. "On Midsummer Eve, he would host a great party for them. They came from far and wide, and they were very kind to us on account of Father's generosity. Then he joined with the young King Arthur, and converted to Christianity. He stopped hosting the Midsummer fete. The fairies grew angry with him. They sent Gronok to punish him. He broke with the court of Camelot, but it was no use. Fairies cannot ever be satisfied by mortals. They are as ferocious in their anger as they are kindly in their love."

Kazhi was quiet and moody. Vivianne had never told him any of this before--not that he would ever have been interested. He wondered, although he imagined the reason, why she was telling him this now.

"Morgaine is one of my godmothers," Vivianne continued, in a hushed voice, as though fearful of being overheard. "Father became lost in the enchanted forest one day, and Morgaine showed him the way out. He was pursuing a unicorn. Because he spared its life, when it had been run to ground, Morgaine spared his. She showed him the way home, and Father was so grateful that he asked her to stand as one of my godmothers. I was not even born yet. Morgaine agreed, but that was the last time she ever came to our court. The fairies came often, but Morgaine Lafayette is something other than a fairy--something greater than a fairy...."

She hesitated, and picked at her skirt. "Father once told me that Morgaine Lafayette is an ancient goddess, Matrona, the Lady of Horses. And that she has taken a human form to better watch over her people."

She glanced uneasily at Kazhi. She could see his eyes glittering in the muted light from an inside window, and it made her nervous. She had started to despise him less that afternoon, as he was being so charmingly sweet and convivial, but now that Morgaine had gone, his serpent nature seemed to return.

"Her sister, Nymue," Vivienne added hastily, with effort, like a child confessing another's crime, "is the Lady of the Lake, which lies in a meadow not far from here. But it is deep in the Enchanted Forest, a place where few dare to venture...even the Romans could not penetrate its mysteries, and left it alone. They said the grove was sacred to Diana, the Triple Goddess, and forbade anyone to hunt in it."

"I see," said Kazhi, rubbing his chin. "I have heard much of this, after a fashion...distorted by the bards, who make up what they cannot remember, no doubt...but I am curious; Morgaine said that she came on account of some stolen apples, which she claimed the fenix took from her island." He looked sharply at Vivienne. "Do--you know what she's talking about?"

As Kazhi found it impossible to lie to Morgaine, so Vivienne found it impossible to lie to Kazhi. Squirming, she told him, "The bird...had brought back apples, golden apples, real and yet not real...I was afraid to tell you--"

"Why? Because you feared I would take them from you?"

"I feared you would get angry," said Vivienne. "You get angry over the slightest thing. I didn't know what to do--!"

Kazhi regarded her coldly.

"Do you have these apples?" he asked in a mild voice.

After a long hesitation, Vivienne admitted, "Yes. I put them in a basket in the pantry."
"Bring them here."

The Princess rose, and did as her master bid her, bringing him a willow basket loaded with a half a dozen gleaming apples, which seemed to be made of burnished gold. But their fragrance bespoke of their living apple-ness, and Kazhi was mystified to look upon them.

"I'll be damned," he murmured. "The dragon sent me after the fenix, to fetch him some golden apples from the Hesperides...and here they are!" He touched one lightly. "Did Gronok eat any of these?"
"No, milord."

"Why not?"

"He said...he said it was no longer necessary."
Her voice quavered, and Kazhi heard it, but he made no sign of understanding why. "That's good," he said, "for now we can give Morgaine Lafayette back all of her stolen property. She cannot hold it against us, if it was a bird who took a notion to steal; we didn't ask it to. Animals cannot be found guilty for obeying their natures."

Even as he spoke, he longed to take one of the apples, to examine it, to cut into it...and then, yes, to eat it, for it was obvious that these were wonderful, magical fruits indeed. The peach of longevity which Springstar had given to him looked like an ordinary peach, except that it did not decay; these apples were of a different order entirely. Were they the fruit of the Tree of Wisdom? How could it possibly hurt him, to try one--

But then something caused him to draw back his hand. Morgaine would not be pleased, he heard himself saying, even as the hand on which he wore the magic ring begain to throb painfully. He took it into his other hand, and, rubbing it, told Vivienne, "Take those back to the pantry, and put them in a safe place. We shall give them to Morgaine when she arrives tomorrow."

And secretly he hoped that she would be so delighted that she would offer him a taste.

The next morning, he had them awaken him at sunrise, so that he could prepare to greet Morgaine Lafayette in a more dignified style. Not that he got much sleep. He tossed and turned the whole night, haunted by dreams of her and her lovely dark eyes. Now, as he regarded himself in the mirror he'd conjured, for the first time in his life he wished he'd been born with a better face and figure. He was a walking boneyard, he saw that now, as pale and frail as a spider who spends its entire life in a cave. If he sucked in his stomach, just a little, he could count every rib. He could even see a number of the blue veins which ran beneath his sallow skin.

He dispatched the mirror with a wave of disgust, and climbed into his bath. It was a real bath, in a large, porcelain tub, not one of those pathetic pitch-tarred water butts which explained why most people bathed but once a year in those times. Kazhi was dimly aware that he was breaking the laws of time and space by bringing back such futuristic comforts, but he didn't care. He couldn't imagine that the Nine would make him do eternity hanging from his ankles for wanting a clawfoot bathtub in his mediaeval keep. Didn't they have bigger things to worry about--like rogue giants and nuclear proliferation? Besides, the Romans had bathtubs, so this wasn't all that anachronistic....

He wondered, idly, as he scrubbed himself with a luffa, how Morgaine came to know the Dragonmaids. Probably a professional contact. If she was, in fact, the Celtic goddess Matrona, then she probably had to attend the Congress of the Immortals--and there you are. He recalled, with a shudder, that gathering of deities, which had condemned him to destruction. Then he wondered why someone like Merlin was allowed to run around free--

The soap shot out of his hand. Merlin wasn't being allowed to run around free--Morgaine Lafayette was going to hunt him down and remove him from the world stage....

He wondered now about Merlin, about his mysterious antecedents, about what was real and what was legend. From what Morgaine had told him, their lives seemed to be on parallel tracks. Then Kazhi laughed one of his half-mad laughs, thinking wouldn't it be a hoot if Merlin is me in another go-round?

The laughter instantly died in his throat as the possibility of this thought next occurred to him. How many times could he be condemned to repeat the past, growing a little older each time--? After all, wasn't Merlin capable of seeing the future? Like Kazhi, what if he had already lived that future?

Kazhi grew very cold, and thought it best to quit his bath, and dressed himself, fumbling with the lacings of his costume. He knew how he had been made immortal--was it possible that Merlin was there, too, in Tiamat's cave that fateful afternoon? He calmed himself only slightly by reminding himself that he had seen Merlin as a young boy, in the court of King Vortigern, and in the court of Aurelius who replaced him as High King. Merlin had aged, and was now a hoary-headed old man of above sixty years, while Kazhi, at something over three thousand years, had been frozen at the moment when he had been bathed in Tiamat's blood. He could barely grow a moustache. No, Merlin had to have come by his powers through another route--unless he was assuming the guise of an old man--

Kazhi felt sick, and would have crawled back into bed, if the thought of seeing Morgaine again did not carry him forward. He would ask her, that was what he would do. Morgaine would clear things up. But he would have to be very cautious, in the way he asked, lest he reveal anything about himself which might paint him in a bad light. If she was one of the Gods, and had been present at the Council which had condemned him, she might just take it upon herself to haul him in, as well. For all Kazhi knew, Morgaine Lafayette could be the Witch-hunter General for the Court of the Immortals.

The truth, of course, was far worse.

XXI. Morgaine Lafayette was already in the garden when Kazhi came down, although no one told him of her arrival. She had spread her magic tablecloth again and was presiding over a bounteous breakfast of such things as Kazhi had not expected to see again for ten centuries--french toast in maple syrup, bagels and cream cheese, waffles, strawberries in fresh whipped cream, and, wonder of wonders, coffee!
Kazhi also noticed, with a tremor, that they would be dining alone.

Morgaine today wore a gown of all the colors of the dawn, mostly peach with washes of pink and lavender rippling through the silk, almost as though the fabric itself was alive. Her hair was caught up in a thick braid, which was woven through with gemstones on colored ribbons, and upon her head she again wore the chaplet of ivy-leaves with the diamond on her brow. She looked like the very soul of springtime, and Kazhi was struck mute and numb as he beheld her, sitting there with her diaphanous skirts spread prettily on the grass.

She noticed him, and smiled with her delicate little blossom-pink lips. "My--you clean up nicely," she told him with a gently mocking smirk. He had put on his best tunic, the burgundy one edged in gold and sewn with jewels, and had taken great care in fastening his intricately laced boots over his leggings. He had a short cloak thrown over his shoulders--its folds made him look a little more muscular--and had fixed it with a beautiful Celtic circle-pin, in the shape of an oroboros serpent, with the actual pin being made in the likeness of a tiny sword. He had even put on his head a circlet of gold, which he had found in one of the treasuries, and which (he hoped) conveyed to his high brow and receding hairline an aura of dignity and nobility.

"Forgive me for my appearance yesterday, milady," said Kazhi with a bow so deep that he almost lost his circlet, "but your sudden advent caught me in my deshabille. We are not in the habit of entertaining guests here."

"I can see that," said Morgaine, gesturing for him to sit with her. "You do know that it is rumored that this castle is haunted--?"

Kazhi slipped into a seat near her--but not too near, lest her fragrance intoxicate him--and shook out his napkin before tucking it into his collar. "Is that so? Then that's good. I hate interruptions."

"Might I ask what it is that you do here?" was Morgaine's next comment, as she flicked a fingertip and filled Kazhi's glass with heaven help us orange juice. "And mind you, I could look into your thoughts, and learn the answer for myself--but I would rather be a lady and let you tell it."

If there was one thing Kazhi wished to avoid, it was letting Morgaine Lafayette look into his thoughts. Especially at that moment.

He shrugged, fixing his attention on his plate. "I'm a wizard. I do wizard stuff."

"Wizard stuff," she repeated, with an amused purse of her divine lips.

He shrugged elaborately, unable to look at her, lest she see the beads of perspiration on his lip and brow. "You know what I mean...incantations, conjurations, a little bit of scrying just for funzies--"

Funzies, he winced. Shut up now or you'll give yourself away.

She already knows, he hissed back. She's trying to draw you out with all this anachronistic food--

"--but I'm really just learning," he added lamely. "That's why I thought to summon Merlin, to teach me how to be a proper wizard...."

She conveyed a neat square of french-toast to her mouth, and ate delicately. "Well. You don't need him," she said when she finished chewing. "You aren't a charlatan, I can tell that much--I can sense the energy in you. Yesterday, when you took my hand...you winced as though I had stung you; that was the discharge of the magic which gathers about you. You have a gift, Faustus, a gift rare among mortals, a gift, in fact, such as I have not seen since Merlin himself." She studied him keenly. "You intrigue me, my friend. I like to think that I am aware of every magical entity in this world--but I have not yet encountered you. How is it that you have hidden your light under a bushel for so long--? You are, what--thirty summers old?"

"Thirty-two, actually," said Kazhi, flinching to compare that number against her own apparent age. In those days, thirty was the borderline of dotage, and a maiden of sixteen would hardly give a glance to such an advanced swain.

But Morgaine isn't an ordinary mortal...Morgaine could be just as old as you are...what is age, after all, to an immortal being?

"Thirty-two, then," said Morgaine, nibbling a strawberry. She made an umm and plucked up another, holding it out to him, with whipped cream thickly coating it. "You must try this," she urged.

Half-swooning, wanting to demur, unable to resist, Kazhi leaned toward her, and accepted the strawberry from her fingertips as obediently as a unicorn lays its head in the lap of a virgin. He bit down slowly, carefully, and the bright crimson juice trickled down over his lips, and stained the snowy tablecloth.

"Good, huh?" asked Morgaine, her black eyes sparkling.

"Dewishus," agreed Kazhi, through a full mouth.

Morgaine lovingly gave the tablecloth a caress. "This was a present from my sister Leilas," she told him. "She knew how much I like to entertain, but hate to cook. One has but to think of it, and the cloth will grant your every desire--"

Kazhi desperately tried to block out the image which sprang into his mind at that moment. He beat it back into the closet with clubs and slammed and bolted the door.

"Your sister--is she dead?" he asked through his orange-juice.

"No. I don't think so," said Morgaine, looking vaguely troubled.

"You said knew. I thought she might have passed away since she gave you this cloth."

Morgaine sighed. "Passed on, but not away," she said cryptically. She bowed her head, and the diamond glittered like sunlight on water.

Kazhi saw that this was a painful subject, and sought to divert the conversation. He looked around. "I wonder where the others are--? It isn't like them to miss a meal."

"Oh--I didn't think they'd be comfortable, here, listening to our talk," said Morgaine, with a modest dip of her eyes, "so I prepared them a breakfast in the dining-hall, and asked them not to--interrupt us."

The beast in Kazhi's closet began to howl like a thousand were-wolves. It clawed at the door until he was shaking violently.

"Oh...really?" he asked in a weak voice. "Ha, ha, well...that was thoughtful of you, eh?"

"I saw how unhappy they seemed, yesterday, to be forced to endure our company," Morgaine replied. "I have often noticed that mortals seem very uneasy in the presence of ones such as ourselves."

"Oh, it was probably just me," said Kazhi. He stuffed a piece of waffle into his mouth. "They hate me, you see. Hate me, fear me, loathe me--"

"Why is that? Are you that cruel a master?" asked Morgaine with endearing simplicity.

"Me? No, no...at least, I don't think I am. I give them the run of the castle...the duties are light...in fact, there practically are no duties. No, they hate me because...well, I suppose it's because I tricked them, into pledging to serve me. Except for the Princess. I kind of took her hostage."

To Kazhi's surprise--not to say, relief--Morgaine did not find this admission distressing. "I see. I supposed it was something of the sort. A man cannot conquer a dragon, and obtain a Champion Horse, by sheer force of strength. What I am wondering, though--" And she paused to sip her coffee, which she took black, "--is how you managed to get the Firebird to stay with you. The fenix is wilder than the wildest unicorn, for it is the only one of its kind in the world, and immortal...."

Kazhi almost said, "Birds of a feather flock together," but he saved himself just in time by stuffing another piece of waffle into his mouth. That would have been too awkward, and would have required too much explaining. Instead, he told her, "I'm as puzzled as you. I think it's fond of the Princess, which is why it stays--but I believe it originally wanted to harass me, which is what brought it here to begin with. She would sit outside my window and set up the most Godawful cacaphony. I ran out of things to throw at her. After a while, I got used to it, and it lost interest--it wasn't amusing anymore, I guess--and now it's just kind of nice to have around, something to look at, you know, like a scarlet peacock...."

Morgaine was chuckling, a musical sound. "Your story doesn't surprise me. The Firebird is a notorious troublemaker. Some maintain that it is the god Loki, changed into a bird by the Great Gods as punishment for all his crimes--"

"But the Firebird is a female," said Kazhi.

"The Firebird is neither male nor female. It has no sex. It doesn't need it, being as it is the only one of its kind, and that it renews itself by fire. Its end is its beginning. Much like that brooch you're wearing."

And she touched him on the shoulder, and Kazhi again felt the burst of electricity pass from her fingers into his body. This time, though, there was a sort of pleasure in the pain.

"My, you build up quite a charge," said Morgaine, without so much as a flinch. "We must find you an outlet for all that energy. As soon as I have dealt with Merlin, I shall take you under my wing, and teach you all my secrets...."

Kazhi did not hear anything for several moments after this; his ears were too busy being stuffed up and buzzing with the leaping thunder of his pulse. He blushed furiously, he could feel his face go hot; and he hid his emotions by angrily skewering a slab of french-toast and dragging it to his plate, where he cut it into tiny pieces and consumed them savagely.

"I didn't mean to upset you," said Morgaine. "I'm not accusing you of stealing the apples--"

He then realized that she had been talking about the fenix and the golden apples.

"What? Oh, that. No, I had nothing to do with your apples, milady--it was a whim of the bird. I didn't even know about them, until yesterday."

"Really--?"

"I have them, in fact; I questioned the Princess about them, after you had gone, and she produced them. She was hiding them, fearing that I would be angry--"

"And why would you be angry, to obtain the Apples of Wisdom? Most men would give their right arm to have one such precious fruit. I am constantly having to guard my orchard against thieves. Not that it is difficult; my island is protected by spells which would deter and destroy a mortal. That, of course, is why the fenix was successful in her raids--she being immortal."

Kazhi nodded with sudden insight. "That must be why the dragon told me to get her in the first place...."

"Yes, I was meaning to ask you about that. Your dragon induced you to steal the Firebird--?"

"Uh, well, yes. But I didn't know what I was getting myself into. He made it sound so simple--he provided me with everything I would need, to find the war-horse, and secure the bird. He said he needed the apples to revive him, some cock-and-bull story about dragons having to eat magic apples every ten years to preserve their vitality...."

"What makes you say it's a cock-and-bull story?"

Kazhi turned away. Her gaze was boring right through him. "Ah, well...I've been told that it isn't the apples, but the peaches that grant longevity...so I assume the dragon was having one on with me."

Morgaine regarded him with a mysterious expression.

"Perhaps," she said, "he knew that the theft of my apples would bring me in pursuit...perhaps dear Gronok was hoping that we would meet...?"

Kazhi now looked at the dragon in an entirely different light. His suspicions melted into gratitude.

"You...wouldn't mind bringing me the apples?" Morgaine inquired. "And please don't try to gate them; they are far too powerful with magic for that."

Kazhi got up, nearly tripped on his chair, snagged his cloak on a rose-bush, and stumbled from the garden. He made his way with unseemly haste to the kitchen, plunged into the pantry, and found the basket of apples; he counted them twice, and winced as he noticed a very small bite, taken out of one of them--but he could do nothing about it. Somewhere there is a mouse expounding the theory of relativity, he thought as he hurried back to the garden.

He considered dropping to one knee, and presenting the basket to Morgaine, but his cynical side told him that he'd probably end up tripping and spilling the lot, so he just placed the basket on the table and made a harmless flourish with his hand, holding the other one behind his back. "Your apples, milady."

Morgaine gazed at them with delight and relief. "Thank you," she said, picking one up to sniff its heady aroma. "I should hate to think of the difficulties which would arise, should even one of these get out into the general population...."

Kazhi longed to ask for a taste, just a little bite, to see for himself what the legendary Apples of Avalon were like; but he did not. If Morgaine offered, though, he would not refuse--

She didn't offer.

He asked, "What's so special about them? I mean, why would it be dangerous for them to get out into mortal hands--?"

She cast him a rather mortified look, as she covered the gleaming fruits with a napkin. "Because mortals are forbidden to partake of this fruit, except by the order of the Gods," she told him. "It is from these apples that the nectar which sustains them is distilled...."

Oh. Applejack. Well, that explains a lot....

"From time to time," Morgaine continued, straightening the napkin with almost obsessive fussiness, "the Gods permit a mortal man to taste this fruit. That is when such remarkable scholars as Aristotle and Plato appear. Men--and women, too--who are so far above their peers that it is a wonder and a marvel to those who come after them. On Avalon we cultivate the fruits which convey certain rare qualities to humans...so that humans can see and feel the fruits, these trees are grafted onto mortal stock, from scions which first came from the Garden of Paradise--"

"Feanor," said Kazhi under his breath.

"What did you say--?" demanded Morgaine, sharply, her glittering eyes fixing intently on his face.
"I said, I'd like to see more of this orchard of yours," he stammered hastily.

"That will not be possible," Morgaine told him, somewhat coldly. "It is a place where mortals cannot go...not alive, at any rate."

Kazhi wanted to tell her everything, to blurt out that he was not mortal, and to beg her to take him to Avalon--but he did not. As muddled as his senses were becoming, he was still too paranoid for that.
Morgaine's sudden change in demeanor was like a cold snap in summer, which usually heralds a thunderstorm. Kazhi struggled to keep his guard up.

"Oh. Well, then...I guess I will just have to imagine what it is like." he murmured. "It sounds lovely...."

"Oh, you have no idea," sighed Morgaine, softening again. "The air is always soft and warm, and the green grass is strewn with all sorts of beautiful flowers...there is no pain, nor sorrow, on Avalon...one hardly even senses the passing of days. It is like one long midsummer's eve. The trees bear fruit and flowers both together, and the lazy hum of bees is the only sound of insects. From time to time, of course, it rains--as it must--"

"Of course."

"--but it is a pleasant sort of rain, the rain one enjoys being caught in. We spend our time looking after the trees, and growing and drying the magical herbs, which we use in our medicines--"

"Oh--you make medicines, too?"

"Yes. We are well-known as healers. We defend the weak and rein in the strong. We speak for the voiceless and promote the balance of order--"

"Sounds like the creed of the Knights of the Round Table, if you ask me."

"That is because they adopted it from us."

Morgaine paused, and seemed to be thinking of something. Then she said, "But enough about
me--tell me something of yourself, Faustus. Satisfy my curiosity."

"What is it you want to know?" he murmured, again feeling a thrill at her unintentional double-entendre. Then he cursed himself, for behaving like a hormone-addled adolescent.

Morgaine rested an elbow on the table, and put the tip of her little finger into her mouth, between her pearly teeth. "Why you won't tell me your real name, for starters," she suggested.

"What--what do you mean?" asked Kazhi, with a jerk.

"Oh, come now. You never told me your name, and you know that. I know of only one Faustus, and, if you are he, then you are older than Merlin, for Faustus was a cleric in the time of King Vortigern. I have consulted with the Dragonmaids, when I first detected the Firebird in my orchard, and they told me that they had freed her from a Western wizard who called himself Faustus. I had my suspicions, and that is why I greeted you with that name. That you did not correct me told me that you found it necessary to continue your ruse."

Kazhi, bridling, asked, "Cannot two men bear the same name?"

"If the name is one like John or Joseph, then yes, I should think so," said Morgaine affably. "But Faustus--? You must admit, that is stretching credibility. And it is my impression that the people of these lands enjoy bestowing truly unique--not to say unpronounceable--monnikers on their children."

Kazhi tried to think fast, but his brain felt as though it were swimming upstream through treacle. The very last thing he wanted to do, was give Morgaine his real name. He had his other self to think about.
His other self, whose unusual name she might have heard at Court.

"You're right," he told her, "Faustus is not my real name. I took it as a sort of alias...I'd heard it somewhere, and liked the ring of it. It sounds much more...manly...than my real name."

"Which is--?" pressed Morgaine, raising an eyebrow.

Kazhi said nothing for a long moment.

"Gandalf," he said at length, with an expiring sigh. It was the first word that leaped into his thoughts.

Then, remembering that Middle-earth was part of Morgaine's cosmology, Kazhi hastily added, "Gondolphus, actually--my family always shortened it."

To his immeasurable relief, Morgaine seemed to take him at his word. "Well, Gondolphus," she said, "I can see why you would want to use a shorter nom de sorciere. Are you, then, related to the Wessex Gondolphins--?"

Kazhi stared at her like a rabbit. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph--!

"Yeah," he said slowly, "yeah, I suppose...though I believe the connection is not quite legitimate...."

That was putting it mildly.

"I'm not really sure who my father is," he then added, choosing to throw in something of his real history. "My mother...wasn't what you would call responsible."

Temple prostitute was the actual term.

"Oh...I'm so sorry," he heard Morgaine saying, "I didn't mean to pry. I only wanted to know the name of my--protegee."

Oh. Well, since you put it that way--

"I never really cared for Gondolphus," said Kazhi, with a curl of his lip. He dared to glance at her. "What if--what if I let you give me a name? Something easy, something that rolls off the tongue--"

The word tongue made him choke, and he coughed politely into his fist.

Morgaine seemed to find this suggestion charming, and she sat back and regarded him carefully. She cupped her chin in her fingers, and looked him up and down and back up again. Kazhi nervously drummed his fingers on the table. Or, actually, on the cloth, for there wasn't really a table under it. It just assumed the shape of a table, and floated in the air.

"I know," said Morgaine at last, with a cheerful smile that melted his bones. "We shall call you Ewain. That should suit you. It means youth. As in, my boy."

Kazhi relaxed slightly. He was grateful that she didn't call him Modred.

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