ORIGINAL FICTION: Second Time Around, Pt. 5

Mama Fisi
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XXII. Down in the dining hall, a hushed and hurried conversation was taking place, such as is often spoken by murder-minded conspirators.

"What do you think is going to happen?" Tornado asked Gronok, who shrugged with a leathery rustle of his wings.

"I can't say. I'll admit this has me stumped. I was hoping that they would find him--but I never expected this. Usually they come after a fellow with swords flashing. Why they sent Morgaine Lafayette is beyond me...."

The horse said darkly, "Perhaps she is telling the truth. Perhaps she wishes to employ a wizard to catch a wizard--?"

Gronok sighed, and looked at the firebird, which was preening its feathers busily.

"If only she could tell us what she was thinking when she fetched those apples," he murmured.

Tornado shifted his feet and pawed the ground. "I don't like it, not at all," he decided with a tremor of his lip. "It's not right...I mean, did you see him? Bucks in rut are more subtle in their intentions. I don't think the little chap has had much experience with women--I don't want her to hurt him--"

Gronok laughed softly, lest it be heard.

"I know Morgaine rather well. She's no man-eater, despite what the minstrels say. Did you see the ring that came here with the firebird--? I have reason to believe that it is an enchanted ring, designed to make our master her slave...."

"And then what?" demanded Tornado. "What will become of us? Slaves of a slave--? I'll freely say that I'm feeling a bit cheated--he promised me a harem of the finest mares in the country--but life here, for me at least, isn't all that bad."

"I know. You are getting quite fat," agreed Gronok.

"Stop salivating, you overgrown piece of luggage. Listen to me for once, would you? I've had quite enough of the clash of arms, I'd like to be retired from war...and warfare here is different altogether than it was out on the steppes. There's no room to run, and running is my only real attribute. I'm just as killable as any nag dropped in a muddy barnyard. And from what you've told me, these fellows think nothing of sticking a sword in a horse's belly just to even up the odds. The last thing I want to do is get sold to or captured by some knight with a quest to acheive. The little bugger may be self-centered and creepy, but I can't say I wish him harm. We've got to warn him, before it's too late--"

"How can we warn him?" asked Gronok, gesturing with a paw. "He won't listen. Men under an ordinary spell of lust seldom listen to reason--and being as Morgaine's got him enchanted, he'll only get mad and maybe turn us into hamsters or something. Don't worry--if we stick together, we'll come out of this all right. Morgaine will look after us."

"I don't trust her," insisted Tornado, stamping a hoof. "And you shouldn't, either. I don't give a load of turds what she said, about trying to save the Faerie realm--these are dangerous times for things like us. I think Morgaine Lafayette has her own agenda, and you and I will be cut loose as soon as she gets whatever it is she wants."

"You don't know Morgaine...what she really is...."

"All I know is that I'm safe and comfortable here, under the little chap," retorted the horse, "and that the world is a big and scary place, full of way too many sharp objects and short tempers. Call me a coward, if you wish...I don't care. For all we know, this Morgaine could have come here to steal us. I know it's supposed to be a knight, or a third-born prince, but who's to say anymore? Morgaine might use her charms to bamboozle the little chap, and then put the grabs on us once she finds out his weakness."

The horse was so upset at his thoughts that he trembled, and Gronok had to admit that his theory could be true.

"I suppose...you could be right," the dragon stated, twiddling the claws of his thumbs, "and that he really isn't such a bad master, as far as such things go...although he's very self-centered, but then that's not such a bad thing, to a dragon's sensibilities...."

"If he'd only release the Princess, everything would be all right," said the horse. "Let the poor thing get on with her life, before it's too late--"

"Well, he can't do that now, can he?" asked Gronok. "He needs her to keep things running smoothly. And frankly, it is too late. She's gone past the charming nubile stage when most princesses are in demand. And her education has been sadly arrested. They'd take her for a barmaid."

The fenix suddenly stopped its grooming, and gave a shout, which echoed painfully in the confines of the chamber.

"Hush--I think she's coming," whispered Tornado.

The Princess dragged into the room with a downcast expression on her face, and Gronok asked her, "Well--? Have they finished breakfast yet?"

The woman shrugged. "I guess so. I don't know. I didn't dare go out into the garden...they were sitting at the table, gazing at each other...."

With a depressed sigh, she threw herself into a chair, her chin sunk on her breast. "It isn't fair...." she muttered gloomily.

The dragon and the warhorse exchanged looks over Vivienne's head.

"What is this, my Princess?" asked the dragon, with a courtly laugh. "Do not say that you are jealous--!"

"What? No--oh, no! Not of him--God, no!" exclaimed the Princess with a shudder of revulsion. "I hate him. I would kill him if I could find the nerve. After all, he killed my father, and stole my birthright...."

She looked at Gronok. "I've forgiven you for your part in all that, because you have been kind to me, and have expressed remorse...but never once has that warlock shed so much as a single tear over what he's done. I hope Morgaine Lafayette drags him off to Annwn and ties him to an anthill."

She folded her arms and stared grimly at the fire.

"Well, then," asked the horse, "why so glum?"

The Princess sighed. "Because it just isn't fair...! He has made me suffer so much, and he gets to enjoy himself as though he were a true king...while we all know he's a bully and a coward. I would do anything to see him punished."

"Anything?" queried the dragon. "Even helping Morgaine snare the wizard Merlin?"

"Yes," decided Vivienne.

"You despised the thought, when Kazhi suggested it," pointed out the horse.

"Well, that was when it would further his ambitions!" the Princess cried. "If I could be freed of that usurper and his dark threats, I should gladly seduce Satan himself if that is the exchange!"

"Careful what you wish for," said Gronok.

"What more do I have to fear?" demanded Vivienne, rising and swinging her arms. "I am living in hell, am I not? At least Satan grants his followers magical powers--has that monster ever showed me so much as how to bring water from stone, so that I do not have to break my back hauling it from the well? I cook and keep house for him--alone, when my father required an army of servants--and he never so much as mutters a 'thank you.' My castle is falling to ruins around me, and I shall die an old and bitter broken woman, and he will go merrily on his wicked way--"

Vivienne, as she had been ranting, began to turn red in the face, and now she collapsed in tears, burying her eyes in her callused hands. "I hate him!" she wailed. "I hate him, I hate him, I hate him!"

The dragon and the horse looked awkwardly at her. Neither could really offer comfort to a human woman, and, since they were both still his allies, Vivienne might spurn them. But the fenix, looking distressed, crooned in its softest voice, like a rusty gate-hinge, and sprang from its perch to land on the floor beside the Princess. The bird, clucking earnestly, nibbled at her apron, and tried to lay its head on her lap.

Sniffling, Vivienne looked down at the bird, and gently stroked its golden crest.

The Firebird then turned, and, in an aerodynamic feat unparallelled in the annals of natural history, flew up the great chimney, bursting out of the soot-blackened stack like Vesuvius awakened. Her feathers blazed against the blue of the sky, which she split asunder by her raucous screaming.

The fenix then folded her wings, and swooped down like a comet straight at the table where Kazhi and Morgaine sat staring up at her in surprise and puzzlement. The great bird extended her talons, and, with a deft flap of her wings, checked her plummet and snatched the basket of golden apples from between the two magicians. Cackling in glee, the fenix stroked the air powerfully, and lifted the basket up and away.

She carried the basket up to the roof of the tallest tower, and landed awkwardly, scrabbling for a foothold while still clutching her prize with the other talon, and flailing her wings against the harsh law of gravity. Once she had attained a tenuous perch, the fenix threw back her head, and howled in triumph.

Kazhi was furious.

He leaped from his chair, glaring fit to kill, and snarled, "Why, you wretched--" as he searched the ground for missiles to hurl at the impertinent bird.

"Don't hurt it," said Morgaine in a calm, almost detatched, manner. "That's it's nature."

"But the little thief stole the apples, right out from under our noses!" retorted Kazhi.

"Now you see how it feels, eh?" mused Morgaine blithely.

Kazhi was so angry that he would have glared at Morgaine if he could have, but her demeanor was like oil on troubled water. Instead of snarling, he pouted.

"Well--we must get them back," he told her. "I will go up the tower--"

"You'll do no such thing," said Morgaine, rising. "The bird listens to Princess Vivienne--you stay here and keep an eye on it, whilst I go fetch her."

"I'll go fetch her--"

"No," said Morgaine, quite firmly, "You frighten her. You stay here, I'll go get her."

So saying, the enchantress gathered her skirts and hastened off to the kitchen, leaving Kazhi to hurl stones and insults up at the laughing bird.

"You wanted to see me, your highness?" asked Morgaine as she entered the room. Vivienne, at first startled, immediately took possession of her wits.

"Yes, great madame." She bowed low, as her father had once instructed his courtiers to do in the presence of the fairies. "You honor my house with your presence. You must know how sorely my kingdom has been afflicted, lo these many years...my father may have done wrong, in offending your people, but I swear that I shall make amends, if only you will aid me in regaining my birthright."

Morgaine listened impassively.

"And what do you think I can do?" she asked when Vivienne had finished speaking.

The Princess lifted her eyes up to the fair face of the great Faerie Queen. "Your power is mighty, in both this world and the other," Vivienne said, "and there is not a man who does not tremble at your name. I know not the reason for your coming here, but I beg you, as your anointed god-child, to help me now."

Morgaine Lafayette sighed, and touched her fingertips to poor unhappy Vivienne's flushed cheek.

"Long ago, I came upon your father at a cross-roads," the enchantress said softly. "He had unwisely pursued one of my sister's creatures deep into the forbidden forest. He spoke well to me, and begged for my aid much as you are begging now; I agreed to help him, if he would honor our borders, and consecrate his next child to my service. I thought, even then, that I might someday have a use for a mortal, be it wench or wight; and now, once more, his blood and mine meet at a cross-roads, with a fabulous creature as our quarry. Only this time, I am seeking to ensnare it, and it is your assistance I must seek."

Morgaine lifted Vivienne and held her fingertips, as women often do when they are sharing a secret. "Know you this wizard well?" she asked the Princess.

"I could speak many things of him," agreed Vivienne, in a low and meaningful voice.

"Hush now. Is he good, or is he evil?"

"He is most evil, milady Morgaine."

Morgaine paused.

"You hate him so much--?" she then asked.

"With all my heart and all my soul, milady Morgaine," said Vivienne fervently.

The enchantress pressed her lips into a thin line. Something of the coquette went out of her face, and a grim, almost martial, expression took its place.

"I know well the evil he has done to you," she stated. "He nearly boasts of it. I will make you a bargain. I will remove you from his influence, if you will assist me in eliminating the Briton seer."

Vivienne, quivering, said, "I shall help you in any way I can, milady Morgaine."

"You are not afraid--?" queried the sorceress.

"Death is preferable to life in bondage," replied Vivienne, stoutly.

Morgaine stroked the Princess's hair, and smiled. "Even the most placid dog will bite, if kicked often enough," Morgaine murmured. Then, so that Vivienne could hear, she added, "Good. I will ask the wizard to grant you to me, as a handmaiden. Fear not, he will give me whatever I ask of him. Did you mark the ring he wears now--the ring the fenix brought back with it from my realm?"

"Yes, milady," said Vivienne. "I have never seen its like."

"It is a rare gem indeed. It is called a heart-stone, and it was made from the blood shed by Adonis as he lay dying. This--" and she held up her own ring, "--is set with a crystallized tear, shed by the grieving Aphrodite when she found his body. The wearer of this ring can make the wearer of the other fall madly and helplessly in love with her. But the wearer is immune to the passion felt by the victim of the heart-stone.... I will teach you in all the necessary feminine wiles, Vivienne, and then I will provide you with similar rings, which you will give to the mage, Merlin. He will fall madly in love with you, and you will lead him away. You will tease him and flatter him, but you will hold your person aloof from him, until he gives you the secret of his undoing. Then you will have him prepare a chamber, ostensibly to be used as your trysting-place, and, when he steps inside--you will seal it up with the same unbreakable spell which he had taught to you. Can you do this, Vivienne?"

The Princess caught a glimpse of her own reflection in one of the pots hanging from the wall. Standing next to the gorgeous Morgaine, she was as frumpy and dishevelled as a fishmoger's wife.

"I...I am not certain," the Princess stammered. "How can I make a wizard do these things--? I am nobody...."

"That is precicely what will be your strength. Merlin knows me well, and he can feel those of my court. He will not suspect you at all. Fear not, my child...by the time you get to Camelot, you will rival the rose for beauty and allure."

Vivienne trembled with hope.

"And then--then what?" she asked. "Once I succeed in capturing the wizard--?"

Morgaine smiled prettily. "Then, you shall have your castle back--and a court as well, if you like; I will have the younger children of my fairy friends surround you with such splendid company that the bards will sing of you."

"And the dragon, and the horse--" pressed Vivienne, nervously, "--and the Firebird; what of them?"

"You may keep them all with you, if you wish--and if they wish to stay."

Vivienne nodded, and then, in a very low voice, asked, "And...the warlock? What will you do with him?"

Morgaine tipped her head to one side. "That is not up for me to decide," she admitted.

"You must be cautious," said Vivienne, leaning very close to the enchantress's ear. "He claims to be immortal...."

Morgaine gave a little jerk, and studied Vivienne's earnest face.

"Does he--?" she asked. "And, do you believe him? Or can it be a ruse to decieve you?"

Vivienne now looked troubled. "I...I...I don't know. The dragon couldn't kill him--"

"Perhaps he and the dragon were in league together," suggested Morgaine.

The Princess suddenly looked very miserable, and wrung her hands. Morgaine gently patted her plump arm.

"Have no fear. I will see to everything. The wizard's fate should not concern you. I must go--and you must tell me how to coax the fenix down from the roof. She has made off with the golden apples."

Hearing this, Vivienne gave a sigh, and apologised to Morgaine for the bird's mischief. She went with the sorceress up to the garden, where Kazhi had worked himself into a frightful state, whilst the fenix blithely chirped and squalled from its safe perch.

Kazhi rounded on the women, and Vivienne ducked behind Morgaine. "I'd kill it if I could!" he spat, jutting an arm up at the bird. Then he turned and shook his fist. "You just wait, my pretty!" he snarled. "I'll get you yet--! I'll follow you to Egypt and I'll snuff out your pyre before you can emerge!"

"Impressive threat," smiled Morgaine. "What will you do--dribble on it? She is not due to immolate herself for another two hundred and eighty years."

"I can wait," growled Kazhi under his breath, eyeing the fenix darkly.

Morgaine stepped over to him, and lightly touched his arm. Kazhi gave a shudder, all his anger melting away like dew, and seemed to lean toward her, as a flower follows the sun--the alteration in his expression astonished Vivienne. His glare she was accustomed to. This face was something different, almost childlike, and she saw that the stone in his ring was glowing with a ruddy light.

"Never mind the bird," said Morgaine. "It is only being playful. Give it to me--I will take it back to Avalon, and it will plague you no further...."

Kazhi drew away from her now. "Give it to you?" he asked sharply. "I can't do that."

"Why not?" asked Morgaine, looking hurt.

"Well...because...because the Firebird doesn't belong to anybody," he told her, remembering what the Dragonmaids had said to him. "It goes where it wills...and the only reason it's staying here is on account of the Princess." He pointed at Vivienne in disgust. "She's the only one who can do anything with it."

Morgaine smiled. This was like shooting fish in a dry barrel. "Well, then," she said, "let me take Vivienne away with me, to my sister Nymue's house...the Firebird will follow, and you will have no more--distractions."

She cast him a very special little glance, which washed the protest from his face much as a wet sponge washes equations from a slate. "And you know that we shan't be needing distractions...."

Kazhi looked at Vivienne. To be rid of her sulking face would be a delight. He would have set her free long before this, if he did not fear reprisal.

"Sure--you can take her," he said coldly, "as long as you promise me this--she won't be turned loose, to come back on me with armed warriors--"

Morgaine looked deeply injured. "Why would I do that?" she inquired. "Why would I do anything to harm you, my friend--?"

"You wouldn't," replied Kazhi, "but she might."

Morgaine turned to look at Vivienne. "I will keep her safe, and she will not harm you," she assured him. Then she returned her attention to Kazhi, and in a voice which could have melted glaciers, added, "And I will come here, every day, and instruct you in the ways of magic...until you will become the most powerful sorcerer in the world."

Kazhi licked his thin, dry lips. He could not determine what he wanted more--immense power, or Morgaine Lafayette. To have both....

"What will I do for a housekeeper?" he asked suddenly. "I'm too busy to waste my time chasing cobwebs and feeding the animals."

"All will be taken care of," Morgaine assured him with a soothing croon. Then she snapped her fingers, and the tablecloth cleared itself and folded itself back into a tiny square. "I must go, now, and speak to my sister Nymue--if she agrees, I will come for the damsel on the morrow--"

Vivienne went pale. "Can't I go with you now?" she coughed.

"It is not meet, my dear," said Morgaine gently. "My sister has her many moods, and to have a mortal dropped on her doorstep...no, preparations must be made." She looked up at the roof. "And you must convince the fenix to give you back my apples."

She turned to Kazhi, and took his hand between both of hers, and stroked his fingers in a manner that made his nerves tingle. The parts of him that should have been hard, suddenly went soft, and the reverse became true....

"Til the morrow, my friend," sighed Morgaine sweetly. And then she changed into a painted bunting and fluttered off into the sky.

XXIII. Vivienne was deeply troubled.

She had seen the look which had passed between the enchantress and her gaoler, and she feared that if he could not bring himself to kill her, then he would foist her off on someone who could. Enchanters were not to be trusted--respected and honored, yes, but never trusted. They dealt in such mysterious things as could warp mens' minds and present imaginary things as if they were real. Kazhi could not kill her, for she was his hostage, his insurance-policy, held against possible attack--but if she were to be kidnapped, say, and then slain--well, there was no real dishonor in that. How better to be rid of her, than to summon one of his colleagues and pass her on like an unwanted puppy?

Vivienne knew well how cruel fairies could be, twice as cruel as they were kind. They were fickle, and ever ready to take affront from the slightest mortal blunder. Forget to invite one to a christening...forget to leave out a bowl of sweet milk...forget to take any one of the hundreds of superstitious little precautions attendant on everyday life, and it was a sure bet that some fairy creature would see to it that you regretted your mistake. Had not Morgaine's sister Nymue sent the dragon to punish Vivienne's father?

If anyone could speak of the mysterious Queen, then surely Gronok could. Vivienne had truly forgiven him for his involvement in her miseries. She understood, now, that it was nothing personal, that he had simply been following orders, and that once a person got to know a dragon, they could be really charming company. Gronok was far down the scale, as far as the hierarchy of dragons went--he described himself as a sort of baronet, which is to say that he was one step above a common Wyrm, on account of his having wings. Still, Gronok knew a lot of entertaining tales, and, alone in the castle, cut off from all other companionship, Vivienne relished the diversion the dragon provided. And also, when she actually thought about it, it was quite a remarkable thing, to be friends with a talking dragon.

Vivienne sought him out now, where he had taken his bed on the cool stones in the outer courtyard. The fire in his belly could be quite a comfortable thing in the winter, but in warmer weather, it made him miserable. Had he been free, he would have found himself a cool cave, perhaps along the seashore, but he had to make the best of things. When Vivienne found him, he was just polishing off a sheep.

"Pickings are getting slim," he told her glumly. "No one likes to let their stock stray too near a haunted castle. And I don't dare raid close to any village. I daresay His Nibs doesn't have the magic to repel an army of angry farmers."

Vivienne sat down on the dragon's paw, and began to pick wool from the ragged edges of his claws. "Do you believe the wizard really can work magic--or is he only bluffing?"

The dragon thought about it.

"I think he's genuine," he said at length. "Otherwise Morgaine Lafayette wouldn't give him the time of day. But I will say this much--I don't think he realizes how powerful he is."

Vivienne shuddered.

"Do--do you think he is immortal, then?" she next asked.

Gronok considered this carefully. "I have been asking myself that question from the very first time I met him...he frightened me, by being impervious to my weapons, but now I think that he must have hedged himself around with powerful spells. As far as being immortal goes...I cannot say. I have been told that only gods are immortal, and if that man in there is a god, then we are all in trouble...and yet, I have also heard stories, from the lands to the east, of creatures which are neither dead, nor alive...that give every appearance of being alive, but yet are only animated by some necromancer's incantations...or a pact with the Devil. They are known variously as ghouls and vampyres, and they shun the light of the sun, hiding themselves in darkness, and eating living flesh and blood for their sustenance--"

"Oh, do stop--you are frightening me!" whimpered Vivienne.

"No, you must hear, because you asked. These creatures are capable of many things, such as changing their form, and flying through the air unseen...they are demons made flesh. Even we dragons fear the undead, for we are powerless against them."

"Is there no way to stop them?" asked Vivienne plaintively.

"There is--but it is fraught with peril, for one must draw very close to the demon, and should your aim fail, then you will certainly be killed, sucked dry like a spider drains a fly, and your husk then animated by the same foul magic to do the bidding of the necromancer."

Vivienne was shivering, and drew closer to the dragon's warm shoulder. "What must I do?"

Gronok had heretofore felt sorry for the unfortunate damsel; now he admired her courage.

"There are several things which are known to dispel black magic. The first, of course, is white magic--but you are not trained as a witch, and it is dangerous to play with things you don't understand. The second thing is to douse the demon with holy water--but I fear that it would be difficult to obtain the necessary quantity on such short notice. So that leaves us with the third...."

The dragon, thinking he heard a small noise in the twilight, looked back over his shoulder, his glowing eyes piercing the shadows. Satisfied that they were alone, he drew a wing over them to shelter them, and murmured quietly to Vivienne, "Iron protects mortals against spells, but silver is the weapon of choice when one Fee wishes to slay another. In the far north country, where the dwarven smiths have withdrawn, they forge a sort of hybrid alloy, which they call mithril, which is both strong and light, and guaranteed to slay any monster, or deflect any mortal point. They say King Arthur's sword Excalibur is made from mithril--but I know that it is not; it is not of mortal make, it was forged from pure starfire, and belongs to...."

He paused. "No, I mustn't say. It is not important to you now, anyway...I am not whiling away the hours with a fable to amuse you. We have no mithril, so plain silver will have to do. You must find a silver dagger, and wash it in running water...and dry it in cloth which has never been cut. Then you must go into the warlock's chamber, as quietly as you can, and with one blow plunge the dagger into his heart--"

Vivienne gasped and hid her face on her hands.

"It is the only way. If he is undead, you will destroy him--and if he is only mortal, you will kill him. Either way, we will be rid of him, and I daresay none shall condemn us for it."

"But Queen Morgaine--" Vivienne began in a tremulous whisper.

"I would not worry about her. I think she is playing her own game with him, taking his measure. I know Queen Morgaine rather well--and I know what she is, and who she serves; it is not possible for her to really fall in love with anything with blood in its veins."

Vivienne remembered the ring, and believed what Gronok said.

"But she will be angry, that we killed him," Vivienne insisted.

"You let me handle things. But you must not lose courage, Princess--if you leave here tomorrow, and he is not dead, he will only grow in power. We should have struck long before now, but there is still time--Morgaine may not take him as her consort, but, if he begins to grasp the scope of his abilities, I fear that there will be no stopping him. The horse and I have foolishly bound ourselves to him by oaths which our laws will not allow us to break; you are bound by no such oath. You must do this thing."

Vivienne looked terribly unhappy. "But how will I get near him?" she asked. "He is a light sleeper--"

"I will show you an herb to put into his meat which will make him as drunk as a lord. The fool has it growing in the kitchen garden, because he thinks you are too ignorant to know of its use."

"Won't he be able to detect it?"

"Ah, you will mask it with other herbs. Have faith in me, Princess. I once served a powerful witch, on an island off Sicily, and if there is one human skill I know, it's cookery. Of course, I still prefer all of my food smoked...."

"And what about the door?" asked Vivienne, too overwrought to catch this joke. "He locks himself inside his chamber...."

"I will lift you in through his window. You can stand on my head and step over the sill."

In the end, the dragon dismissed all of Vivienne's concerns, and the plot was set in motion. He showed her the soporific weed, which she tied into a bouquet garni for the stewpot, and she had to stay outside in the fresh air, for the vapours rising from the kettle made her sleepy. She betrayed no emotion as she delivered Kazhi's tray of supper to the bench outside his door, and left it as was the custom. And around midnight, after the time had elapsed which Gronok estimated would be sufficient for the poison to take effect, Vivienne washed and dried her father's ornamental silver dagger, dressed herself in a very plain old frock which she had found in the servants' quarters, and joined the dragon in the yard.

The beast had been standing with his paws against the wall, peering in through the window of Kazhi's bedchamber, which looked out onto the garden. "He's asleep," the great animal whispered as he lowered his head for the Princess to step onto. She did so with a deep breath, and grasped the curving horn which grew there, holding the dagger close to her breast. The ground fell away, and the lurch of Gronok's rising head nearly made her swoon. But she held on to her wits, and then stepped in through the window.

She had gone to the old chapel, to pray for absolution, for if Kazhi was not a demon then she was about to commit murder. The man lay sprawled on his bed, and tossed fitfully, which nearly loosed Vivienne's bowels. It took her an eternity to creep over to him. And, when she reached the side of his bed, she stood there, quite motionless, staring at him.

He looked so frail, so helpless, hardly a great and fearsome sorcerer, and for a moment Vivienne almost repented of her task. But then she thought about her father, whose room this had been, and about the courtiers and men-at-arms, the servants and the peasants, whom Kazhi had slaughtered in cold blood; and with a smile of pure hatred curling back her lips, Vivienne raised the dagger, and struck.

It bit in between his ribs, up to the hilt, and she felt his blood gush out hot against her hand. His pale eyes shot open, and he gasped a great and sucking gasp of pain and shock, his left hand locking on her wrist with a grip of iron.

Then he sat up.

The Princess shrieked like the wind howling through the rafters on a stormy winter night, and tried to tear loose from the wizard's grasp, but he held her with the ferocity of a war-dog. Panting, he looked down at the jewelled dagger, sticking out of his breast, at the bright red blood staining his white linen nightshift, and then he looked at her with such loathing and hatred that Vivienne began to weep.

He jerked her arm, and she fell to her knees. "You fool--!" he hissed at her, and, with his other hand, he grasped the knife, and drew it out. The bright silver blade dripped with blood, and Kazhi, with his teeth gritted tightly together, hurled the dagger across the room, and then ripped open the front of his shirt, so that the ghastly wound was perfectly visible, a two-inch slit in white flesh pasted with gore.

"Watch--!" Vivienne heard him snarl, and, before her terrified eyes, the wound ceased to pulse blood...it scarred over...it sealed itself up--

"I told you," he growled in a low and nasty voice, as his fingers tightened painfully on her wrist,
"You can't kill me...no one can kill me...not even the Gods can kill me--! I am Kazhi the Deathless!"

He laughed, and hurled her away. "You traitorous bitch," he sneered at her. "And here I'd thought we were getting along rather nicely...I'd never imagine you to be the sort to try to kill a man in his sleep. I wondered why you put that opiate into my food...I can't imagine you concocted all this on your own. Tell me--if you value your life--who put this idea into your head?"

Kazhi rubbed his wound, because it was still smarting, and glared at Vivienne, whilst the Princess crouched miserably against the wall, anticipating her own death. She was so paralysed with fear that she could not speak.

"Was it Morgaine?" Kazhi demanded. "Was that the bargain she made with you?"

"No, my lord," whimpered Vivienne miserably. "I spoke to Gronok...he said you had to be a vampyre, and that sticking you through the heart with a silver blade could kill you, just as sticking a silver needle through a pearl will kill a dragon...."

Kazhi's eyes narrowed. "Is that so--? When did he tell you this?"

"A...a little while ago."

"And you believed him, did you?"

She sighed, but said nothing.

"You ought to know better, than to trust the word of a dragon...have you ever actually seen a dragon-pearl?"

Wretchedly, Vivienne whispered, "Yes. Gronok gave his to me, as a gesture of good faith...."

Kazhi became angry. "Did he--? Well, he's a cunning weasle--! That pearl is not his death-talisman--it is mine. I had given it to him to guard, while I was away on that quest of his. I feared someone might do harm to it while I was gone. And you say he gave it to you? And then he told you that rubbish about vampyres and silver daggers, and sent you in here, knowing you would fail? Well, he has played a trick on us both! Where is that pearl--I demand you give it to me--"

Vivienne stared spitefully at him, then swiftly dipped her hand into her pocket, and drew out the kerchief in which she kept the precious pearl. The needle was thrust through a corner of the fabric. When she believed that it held the fate of her friend, she would not let it out of her keeping, but now, she staggered to her feet, slipped the needle from its sheath, and held the luminous orb up so that the hateful sorcerer could see it.

"Here it is!" she snarled with unholy triumph, and swiftly plunged the needle through the pearl.

A terrible roar of pain and anguish shattered the night, a roar which faded to a confused and mournful whimper, and then the whole castle shook to its roots. Kazhi sat on the edge of his bed and laughed a bitter, scornful laugh at the horrified Princess. The violated pearl crumbled to dust in her hand.

"Morgaine can have you," he sneered, "But she will know that you just killed a dragon. That won't sit well with her, I'll guarantee that."

Through a haze of furious tears, Vivienne flew at Kazhi, who deftly caught her by the wrists and held her as one might hold off a spitting kitten.

"Do not annoy me further," he advised her calmly. "For my promise to Morgaine Lafayette will not bind me should you provoke me to anger."

Kazhi then snapped his fingers, and the locks on his door scrabbled open, and the door swung back. "Get out of my sight," he ordered. "And if you so much as cross your eyes at me, I'll make the rest of your life so nasty that you'll wish you'd stabbed yourself instead."

The Princess scurried out, and Kazhi heard her fleeing down the spiral stairs, weeping uncontrollably. He caused the door to slam again, and fixed the locks; then, with a gasp of agony, and clutching his chest, he sank back against his pillows.

"Damn it," he whispered with a dry and rasping swallow. "Damn it all...."

He might have been immortal, but he was still subject to pain.

XXIV. The next morning, Queen Morgaine arrived at the old castle to find Vivienne weeping inconsolably over the corpse of the dragon Gronok, while the war-horse and the fenix huddled in a corner, looking bereft and terrified. Kazhi, for his part, was busily levitating Vivienne's baggage out through her window and piling it up in an unceremonious heap near the castle gate. He held his left arm close to his side, making all of his gestures with only his right. His pale face was set and grim, and seemed to be shining with exertion.

Morgaine rode in over the drawbridge, and she was not alone. Accompanying her, astride a short-coupled dappled palfrey with a rippling white mane, was a grey-eyed lady dressed in flowing garments of blue, green, and grey. She wore her fair hair wavy and loose, tumbling over her shoulders and down her back, and there was a chaplet of river-pearls set upon her head. A bluish diamond of remarkable size was mounted in the center of this chaplet, and winked in the light as she came trotting over the moat. At her neck she wore a slender pectoral of Celtic fish, done in glowing enamel-work, each figure seperated by a pearl and two uncut aquamarines. They seemed to swim as she moved.

The two women reined in, and gazed for a while in the silent grief of mourners who learn of the death of an old friend, long out of touch. Only the heaving, broken-hearted sobs of the Princess made any sound.

"What happened to him?" asked Morgaine Lafayette at length.

"He got a bad sheep," snapped Kazhi, guiding the last of Vivienne's cases to the ground, where he intentionally let it drop. Wiping the sweat from his eyes, he glowered at the dead dragon and added, "The farmers round about here will sometimes leave out a poisoned carcass, to kill wolves and bears and other such marauding things. He probably picked up one of those without thinking about it."

The two ladies on their horses exchanged glances.

"That's a dragon for you--always thinking with its stomach," Kazhi went on, putting his right hand on his hip, and keeping his left arm close over his ribs. He winced a little. "Now I've got to clean up the mess, as usual, and believe me, I'm not looking forward to it. Not in this heat, at any rate."

The lady in blue dismounted, slipping easily from her horse, and went over to the head of the dragon. There was an expression of intense agony frozen on his dead features, a grimace of pain and betrayal which distorted his face into an even more horrific mask, his tongue lolling out from his locked and gaping jaws, and a pool of foamy, blood-tinged gorge staining the flagstones under his plated cheek. A faint mist steamed up from where the acids were dissolving the stone. The lady looked down sorrowfully at the dragon, and then, bending, reached out to caress its snout.

"Poor Gronok," she said softly, "he didn't deserve this."

"My sister, Nymue," said Morgaine from her horse. "Known to mortals as the Lady of the Lake."

Kazhi felt a little chill ripple down his back. The fairy looked up at him, and there was a strange sort of expression in her dark grey eyes--not exactly contempt, but it left no doubt in Kazhi's mind as to what this lady thought of him.

"I came prepared to ransom him from you," she stated, straightening. She was taller than Morgaine by a good margin, and thin as a willow-wand, but whether she looked old, or young, was impossible for Kazhi to determine. She had high cheek-bones and long, slender fingers and bore herself with the proud posture of one born to the purple, cool and detatched and just a little bit dangerous.

"He...was your dragon," Kazhi mumbled, wanting to find some excuse to leave the courtyard lest the fairy, in her affront, change him into a newt.

"No one owns a dragon," replied Nymue icily. "Gronok was under my charge. He was supposed to be learning self-control. I had been asked to look after him by the other dragons, for his wild ways were bringing the enmity of humans upon all of his race--many of whom wish for nothing more than to be left alone." She looked again at the rigid corpse. "I suppose some lessons can never be learned."

At that time, hoofbeats sounded on the drawbridge, and two pack horses appeared, led by a young man dressed in green, with black hair cropped at his shoulders, sharp dark eyes, and a lantern jaw which spoke volumes about his stubborn and fiery soul. Kazhi was a little surprised to see this servitor.

"Case in point," he heard Nymue murmur, as she turned from the dragon towards the youth.
The young man stopped in his tracks at the sight of the dead dragon.

"What adventure is this--?" he exclaimed, in a Gallic accent.

"That's Lance--always thinking of adventures," sighed Nymue, stepping over to him.

"I see a dragon--I see a maiden," the young gallant persisted, then looked at Kazhi, "And is this then the Knight who slew the beast?"

Kazhi swallowed hard.

"No," he said, "Indigestion. Dragons and cows...they bloat, they die."

"Lance--load the baggages of the Princess onto Elflock," said Nymue, blocking the youth's stare with her own person, to force him to pay attention to her. "Then assist the Princess in mounting Aminita.
I shall be along directly, as soon as I help the wizard dispose of the dragon."

"A wizard, is he?" said Lance, with an unpleasant twinkle in his dark eyes. "I didn't think he had the bearing of a Knight." He critically eyed Kazhi's slight form, and his snort said what his lips did not. His own tunic was stretched tight over his muscular chest and arms.

"What use have I for swordplay," asked Kazhi in a tempered voice, "when with a flick of my fingers, I could crumple you up like a piece of paper?"

"Don't you know it's bad form to go making boastful threats in the presence of your peers?" asked Morgaine, as her horse tossed its head.

Kazhi, bowing slightly, said to her, "I'm sorry. I'm not much used to being in the company of my peers...or of taking abuse from one of their mortal protegees."

"Where do you come from?" the young man next asked. "You don't sound like a Bretagne--"

With a sigh, Kazhi replied, "I come from a place so far away that it may as well be in another time."

"Oh--a riddler, too?" smirked Lance, folding his arms. "You are right, Mistress Nymue--magicians must be guarded against for the trickery of their tongues!" He narrowed his eyes. "Well, riddle me this, sorcerer--'A man with two names, and two maids with one name--the first gave the one in love, and the one left the other in deceit, and the discarded name shall become the greatest of all--!' There! What do you make of that?"

Nymue and Morgaine shared a pained look, and Kazhi, who was really not in the mood to deal gently with this hot-headed young cavalier, said in a rather peremptive way, "Your mother, Elaine, gave you the name Galahad, but you took the name of Lancelot; and you will someday meet an Elaine, and leave with her another Galahad, who will be a greater Knight by far than you."

Lance staggered back as though Kazhi had landed a square punch on his large chin, his eyes blinking and watering a bit. Even the two fairy queens seemed astonished.

"You'll have a great career," Kazhi went on, savoring his little coup, "if you learn to keep your anger in check...oh, and your fly fastened. Especially around Queen Guenevere."

The Faerie queens both bared their teeth in a horrified wince, as Lancelot, deeply offended, groped at his side for the sword which wasn't there. "How dare you give calumny to my leige-lord's gracious
lady--!" he spat, and Kazhi, his foul mood whetted, merely glared at him with utter contempt.

"Don't get me started," he sneered. "And don't you dare play the virtuous Knight with me. I could tell you things about yourself that you thought were just between you and your God--"

"Enough!" barked Morgaine, with a searing glower at Kazhi. "No man should know his destiny. I forbid you to speak further, and Lancelot--you are not to listen to this enchanter! He speaks in such a manner simply to test you, to beguile your thoughts and to sow the seeds of doubt into your determination."

Lancelot pouted, his prominent chin thrust out even more, and Kazhi smiled at him like a cat.

"Another test," muttered the young knight. "When my father asked the lady Nymue to tutor me, I never expected half so many tests."

"Mountains are not climbed in a single bound," said Nymue, "nor cities built in a single day--"

Kazhi rolled his eyes, but did not give voice to what he was thinking. He didn't wish to vex Morgaine by pointing out to Nymue that magic could enable a man to do both things, and still have time left over for a game of golf.

"You have learnt all that you could from the masters in your father's court," Nymue went on, "but you still required more refinement. The wizard, I must say, speaks the truth--however coarsely he expresses it; you must learn self-control, young Lancelot, for if you cannot master your ownself, then all of your other victories will be made hollow mockeries. Now, load up the Princess's baggages...I do not much care to ride in the heat of the day, and the sun is rising fast."

Lancelot, grumbling, moved toward the pile of cases and sacks, and, as he passed Nymue, she delivered a lightning slap to the back of his head, making his hair flip forward.

He squealed in outrage, but the lady said, "Be glad it wasn't a sword." so coolly that Kazhi was very glad he wasn't going to spend time at Nymue's court.

Morgaine had dismounted, and was assisting Vivienne to rise. She said something softly to the girl, in confidence, and the Princess nodded, brushing feebly at her dishevelled hair. Meanwhile, Lancelot looked critically at the pile of baggage, and at the two small ponies, and said in despair, "All this truck will never fit on one horse...."

"Never say never," stated Nymue.

"Well--it can't--!" Lancelot protested.

"And never say can't," Nymue added in the same cold tone. Kazhi thought that maybe she was actually a fish in human form. It would make a sort of sense.

"I'm sorry," said Lancelot, steadily, "I have learnt my sums, and I have learnt how to apportion gear--and this much baggage will kill the horse who bears it. And I for one will not be party to such cruelty! Is it necessary for the Princess to bring all of this with her?"

He eyed the Princess, and his expression clearly showed his doubts that she had any real claim to such a title. "Can't she make do with a change of linen and a few combs--?"

"Do as you're told," said Nymue, "and don't argue."

With an unhappy grunt, Lancelot begain to affix the packages to the frames on the pack-horse's back, showing his rebellion by jerking at straps and loudly fastening buckles.

Then Morgaine said, "Load the gear onto both horses."

Lancelot looked even more unhappy. "What? My lady, then the damsel shall have to walk, for I daresay she would not care to ride posillion on my mule." The look on his face silently added that he would not relish such a thought, either.

"She can ride upon the wizard's war-horse," said Morgaine simply, and Tornado, forgotten in the corner, perked up his ears.

"What?" said Kazhi, Vivienne, and Lancelot together, only with differing inflections.

"Surely. The wizard cannot begrudge this boon--as he is not employing the mighty steed at present...and as we might have a few goodly mares who would be glad to make him welcome," Morgaine answered in a sweet and insidious tone, turning such a smile on Kazhi as clouded his vision and chopped at his legs. She was, of course, burnishing her ring with the end of her thumb as she spoke.

Tornado heard the word "mares" and came trotting over. "I'm all for that!" he assured them, and then, catching himself when he remembered Lancelot, he added, "Er...huoynymmnnm!"

"The horse can talk," gasped Lancelot, his eyes as big as eggs.

"Of course the horse can talk," snapped Nymue. "My stars--! You live in a castle under an enchanted lake, and a talking horse astounds you? Will I never be done with your education?"

"Softly, sister," said Morgaine, "he is but a mortal, and some mortals take longer than others."

Then she turned to Kazhi, and put herself so near to him that he could feel the energy quivering in the air around her and between them, but she did not touch him. He was dimly aware of Nymue's disapproving look. That harridan was probably weaned on a pickle, he thought absently as his attention became focused entirely on the lovely enchantress beside him.

"You have no objection to allowing the Champion Horse a little holiday--do you?" she enquired of him in a honeyed purr.

"Hell, no," said Kazhi in a thick and dreamy sigh. "Take him. Take 'em all. Take the dragon, too, if you can...there's got to be a knacker-man somewhere who'll give you a couple of shekels for him...."

"Don't blaspheme," said Nymue, and her voice was like a cold shower. "A dragon dead is nearly more valuable than a dragon alive. Each and every part of him can be rendered into a magical potion--"

"Except for that little bit above the liver," Morgaine reminded her, "we still haven't figured out what to do with that, yet--"

Nymue cast her sister a very unpleasant look. "The dragon must be disposed of in the proper manner," Nymue went on, and, walking over to the corpse, she extended her arms, and her lips moved in an incantation. Her palms began to glow, softly at first, and then with greater light, until an arc of brilliant white lightning leaped from her hands to the dragon, engulfing him in a snapping, sparkling web.

The web began to constrict, and within it, the dead dragon shrank, until he was no larger than an eft; the light retracted into Nymue's hands, and, with reverence, the Lady of the Lake bent over, and gently lifted the limp little body, and slipped it into the leather pouch at her belt.

Then she said to Lancelot, who was staring in awe at this latest manefestation of his tutor's powers, "Don't dawdle, boy, or I'll do the same to you--! Come, Princess Vivienne--you and I shall ride ahead."

The Princess, who was having serious second thoughts about the arrangement, stood rooted to the spot. "But--but Tornado isn't caparisoned--"

"Then you ride my horse," stated Nymue, with a sigh, "and I shall ride the other."

Tornado was not wearing his magic bridle, and had not worn it for some time. Kazhi smirked to himself as Nymue approached the Champion Horse, half wishing that Tornado would throw her for presuming to ride him without the special tack to restrain him. But of course, the beast would be contrary, and he lowered his fine head and snuffled eagerly at Nymue's palm as she stroked her fingers through his mane and forelock.

"I knew your father well," she said to him softly. "I used to ride him--in our language he was called The Storm."

"Mmmm...Lady Nymue...!" sighed the horse in a rapture of delight. "Often have I dreamed of running in your fields, sporting with your white-maned horses...I used to think it was but a story told to us young colts by our aged fathers...a sort of prize awaiting us after a glorious career...."

"Well, my friend...you shall see for yourself," smiled Nymue fondly, and, with a light spring, landed on the great stallion's back, and twined her fingers in his mane in place of a rein.

Kazhi gnashed his teeth and narrowed his eyes, in a pang of genuine jealousy.

"He's only on loan, mind you," he said as the nymph rode past him, "I'm going to want him back, you know...he chose to serve me, of his own free will--"

Tornado lifted his tail, and dropped a steaming pile of dung.

"Consider that my notice," he said, without looking back.

XXV. "I didn't know that you had the Sight," said Morgaine quietly as she and Kazhi watched the party depart over the drawbridge, the fenix winging lazily ahead of them.

"I've been practicing," Kazhi lied. "I told you I do a little scrying on the side. I keep seeing that chap in my visions...but I had no idea who he was, until today. He is under Nymue's protection?"

"Indeed. Part of our plan. I am to remove the wizard Merlin, and Lancelot is to be our spy."

Kazhi winced a little. "Ooh. You think that's wise?"

Morgaine looked at him, seemingly a bit affronted by his doubting her.

"You see some difficulty?" she inquired.

"No, no...it's just...well, he didn't strike me as the most, you know, tractable chap...."

Morgaine turned her face back out the castle gate. "Great things are prophesied for Lancelot," she sighed. "His father, Ban of Benwick, was one of Arthur's earliest adherents...and his mother, Elaine, was the sister of Queen Morgause, and daughter of Arthur's mother Ygerne...."

"Ah," said Kazhi. "I think I see, now. You are planting the seeds of discord...."

Morgaine looked at him sharply, and fire flashed in her black eyes, like lightning in a night sky. "Do not meddle in things you don't understand," she warned him.

Kazhi lifted his good hand, in a gesture of pacification. "All right--I'll stay out of it. It's none of my concern, anyway."

He turned, and in doing so, brought a spasm of pain to his wound, and with a wince, he bent over slightly, with a sharp breath. Morgaine saw this, and her face changed. "What's the matter--?"

"Nothing," said Kazhi, with some stress. "I...I injured myself a little, yesterday, trying out a new spell."

Morgaine regarded him as though he were a naughty little boy. "You silly man...! Let me see--perhaps I can do something for it--"

Kazhi drew back as quickly as he could from her reaching fingers, guarding his side with both hands. "No--no, that's all right!" he barked, "It's nothing--just a bruise--it'll go away in time--!"

"I'm skilled at healing," Morgaine pressed, "I could fashion you a poultice which would take away the pain in an instant--"

"I'm fine--!" Kazhi squealed angrily. Morgaine looked hurt. "I've already taken a decoction of willow-bark. It's nothing, really. Now, please...let's not fight, milady." He sighed and rubbed his face. His head ached and his sudden, sharp movements had brought a fresh wash of pain to his wounded side. The lingering, deep ache worried him. He had spent the whole night writhing in a fever, and, in the morning, had inspected Vivienne's blade. He detected no poison, but there was a magical aura emanating from it, and he imagined that, if he were not immortal, he would certainly have succumbed to the magic of the silver. He had no regrets about tricking the Princess into murdering the dragon. A wizard could permit no betrayal.

He was also afraid to let Morgaine see the wound. Never mind the sexual implications of allowing her to look upon his naked chest--which was just a little too much for him to think about at that moment--he had a fear that the enchantress would instantly perceive that this was no ordinary wound, and then he would have to tell her everything that had transpired. It was not anything which Kazhi wished to boast of. To begin relating the tale might bring up other matters which he wished to keep private. Therefore, it was not to protect Vivienne, but to protect himself, that Kazhi had decided to conceal the truth.

"Let's not fight," he repeated, in a weary, soft voice. Morgaine was still looking at him as though she were a child whose father had just smashed her favorite toy for no apparent reason. He massaged the wound with his fingertips, tried to smile, and said, "There's nothing more dangerous than two wizards at loggerheads. My lady Morgaine, I must beg your forgiveness--"

"For what?"

"In advance; a preemptive strike, so to say. I have been on my own for so long--for so very long--that I am not used to being polite. You might say I've grown a bit curmudgeonly."

"Alone--? But you had companions--"

"Not of my equal, I assure you. And their presence made me paranoid. Do you have any idea what it's like to have to sleep with one eye open, lest someone try to plant a sword in your chest?"

Morgaine quietly regarded him. "These are dangerous times," she agreed. "You are wise, not to put faith in anyone."

"I'm not wise," he assured her. "I'm a coward. A rank and lily-livered coward. Why do you think I took up sorcery, eh? I've neither the build nor the guts to become a warrior, nor the piety for the priesthood."

"There is always a position at Court," Morgaine pointed out, "A man of your obvious intelligence would make a good advisor to any duke or king--"

Kazhi was shaking his head. "There would always be some cunning bastard just a little more clever than me, or a little less scrupulous, with a relative in the pharmacy," he told her, with a smile of experience. "No, my dear...for a man such as myself, the best trade is to set up as the local shaman. You never break a sweat bamboozling a bunch of credulous peasants."

They were passing through the keep, and out into the garden now. Kazhi reflected to himself that it was a fortunate thing that the dragon had not died there, as he would have crushed everything to bits.
The garden on that morning seemed even more splendid and pretty and so full of May that it could make a man weep for the lack of words to express the joy of looking upon the sight. Moved by the moment, Kazhi plucked a sprig of lilac, and presented it to Morgaine--taking care that their fingers did not touch. He relished her nearness, but not the shock of searing electricity which always seemed to attend contact with her, like some punishment from a jealous God for his unchaste thoughts.

She accepted his offering, although there was something vaguely mechanical in her gesture as she first sniffed the cluster of blossoms, and then tucked it into her hair. "Then why are you sequestered here?" she asked him. "Why are you not plying your 'trade?'"

"I used to," he told her, hooking a thumb into his belt, whilst keeping his left elbow pressed close to his side. From time to time, as the injury throbbed, his smile became set and tense. "But then that dragon came up with the story about the Firebird, and I've not had much interest in going out since. I've made my money, I have no need to go attracting any more attention."

Morgaine pressed her lips together, and the jewels at her throat winked and sparkled as she breathed. Her gown was white, with a blue stomacher and under-skirt, and embroidered with silver leaves and scrolls, and she reminded Kazhi of the cloud-strewn sky.

"I have other business, now," he added.

"What business?"

"Your business. This scheme of yours to be rid of Merlin and destroy the court of King Arthur."

"Don't call it a scheme. That's an ugly, sneaky word. And we are not intending to destroy it; simply to take away its unfair advantage." said Morgaine, with hauteur.

"Then why introduce Lancelot? Why use a double-agent?"

"A what?"

"Someone who pretends to work for one faction, but who is really working for the opposition," explained Kazhi, as he eased himself down onto a bench. He squinted a little as he looked up at Morgaine. Her face was partially obscured by the nimbus of the sun, whose disk was blocked by her head. A more religious-minded man might have imagined that he was addressing a vision of the Virgin Mary.

She fiddled with the tassled end of her sash as she explained, "Lancelot is of Arthur's bloodline. When we saw that Arthur was going to turn against the very forces which set him in his exalted place, we searched around for someone whom we could train up to take his place, should the need arise. Arthur is not a bad man--he is really very sweet and simple...too simple. He tends to listen to the advice of the last man spoken to--"

Kazhi blinked. Where had he heard that before....?

"--so naturally he doesn't rule so much as organize things and validate them. He could fall prey to unscrupulous advisors. Merlin has been shielding him thus far--"

"But you're going to get rid of Merlin...."

"Yes; and insert our own man, so that when the time comes, he can assume the reins of power."

"What about Mordred, Arthur's son and heir--?"

Morgaine sighed as if in pain. "He is still but a boy. And, I fear, a bit of a disappointment. Morgause bears a terrible grudge against her half-brother, and has been filling the child's head with the most horrible ideas. We cannot rely on him. We can only hope that, when the time comes, he can fulfil his destiny--kill Arthur--and then Lancelot can marry the Queen, and such is the custom that the husband of a Queen is automatically the King. And then he can execute Mordred as a regicide."

Kazhi whistled.

"Check and mate," he murmured in appreciation. "You seem to have considered everything."

"It is our business to govern the affairs of mortals," said Morgaine coolly.

"And you think you can get Lancelot to do your bidding--?"

The Queen regarded her white ring. "I'm fairly certain that we will be able to excercize certain influence over him," she replied in a mysterious, sing-song way. She glanced at Kazhi. "I'll admit, he is a hard case, and I am ever so relieved that he did not choose myself as his tutor--I was a bit miffed at the time, as I am by far the most powerful of my sisters...when we had convinced his father to let us train him, we took him to a magic grotto, where the four most senior of us stood before him, and we made him choose which of us would be his teacher. Of course, rather stupidly, we used the term mistress, as the feminine form of master, not thinking that the boy would take it the wrong way. He has some paladin-like notion that one must be pure and virginal in order to work miracles...which, of course, is true. He resisted us for a while, but finally we were able to get through to him, and he chose my sister Nymue, because she promised him a life of ever-changing adventure and excitement."

Kazhi thought of Nymue, and wondered if her idea of excitement meant anticipating a beating from the left side, or the right.

"What did you promise him?" Kazhi asked, trying to sound casual.

Morgaine drew her mouth into a sly smirk. "Power," she told him softly. "I promised him power. For when one has power, one can obtain everything else."

"And he turned you down?" asked Kazhi, raising his eyebrows.

"He is young," sighed Morgaine, "and he doesn't yet understand...power, passion, comfort, respect, wisdom, harmony, wealth, and fame...these are all esoteric concepts to a young man not yet bearded--"

There was a slight hesitation as Morgaine's eyes flicked to Kazhi's chin, and its pitiful little tuft.

"--but adventure--now there's something that will appeal to him! But he didn't know what he was letting himself in for, because Nymue is a tough drill sergeant, and she has been scourging him into the finest fighting man in all the world. When she's through, the others will get a chance to polish him up--make him properly courtly, and not just a bloodthirsty barbarian, like those Rusviks she adores--in short, we will mould him to be the perfect King. Until then--we'll just have to keep our fingers crossed."

Kazhi started to chuckle, and Morgaine frowned, ever so slightly. The sun went behind a cloud, and he could see her face clearly.

"What's so funny?" she asked.

"You know what this sounds like--?" he replied, "The Judgement of Paris. Surely you know of your ancient mythology--? You'd best have a care, my Queen--that didn't turn out so well, did it?"

A blush quickly overswept Morgaine's face, and she seemed strangely insulted.

"This is entirely different!" she told him sharply. "There will not be a war--there will be no need for war! Just a knife in the darkness...a presumed bastard son, hoping to claim his tainted birthright--and they will give the crown gladly to Lancelot, by virtue of his purity and valor."

"If you say so."

"You doubt me--?"

"I'm just saying that men are still men, and you can't trust them to behave exactly as you want them to," Kazhi explained gently. Morgaine seemed quite annoyed, to have her carefully-crafted, infallible plan mocked by this outsider. So he spoke very soothingly to her, in his most persuasive tone. "Listen. I'm sure you've thought of everything...but I've been around the block a few times, and I feel it's my duty to warn you that men are not like dogs, you can't train them to do tricks to your whistle--"

"Oh--?" said Morgaine, folding her arms and hunching her fine shoulders.

"All right--maybe you can," Kazhi hastily corrected, "but just take it on advisement--have a care. The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry."

The storm-clouds faded from Morgaine's face, and she became a dainty damosel once more. She sat down on the bench beside him, neither too near, nor too far, and said, "I thank you for your candour, Ewain. As you are not used to being polite, so I am not used to people speaking their minds. It is almost amusing, how I terrify people--"

"You? Get out."

"It's true," she sighed ruefully. "The nobles bow and scrape for fear of me, and the common folk--they flee like rabbits when they hear of my approach. They tell the most outrageous tales about me.... Sometimes I find it easier to go about in disguise, for those who do not fear me, beseech me of some benison or boon...." She plucked at one of the gemstones sewn into the trim of her overskirt. "Sometimes I think...that I could give it all up...retire, you know...."

"I did not realize that witches could retire. I thought it was a lifelong thing."

"Do not mock me, Ewain, and do not call me a witch. You have no idea...." Morgaine sighed. "I wouldn't mind looking after Avalon for all eternity...but such is the nature of my calling that I must needs walk among mankind. And my nose is so full of the stench of the mortal world--!" A look of revulsion passed over her face, as if the air were really thick with the smell of decay and corruption. "You cannot smell it--the stench of living--until you have been to Avalon, and breathed its pure, sweet air...heard the music of silence...partaken of food which has willingly surrendered itself to you, not been wrested by force...."

She faded off into a longing sigh.

"I can imagine," said Kazhi, gently, wanting so very much to put his hand over hers.

"No. You can't. You can't possibly ever know. Avalon is a place...neither heaven, nor earth...but a little bit of both. A place of unending peace and contentment, where there is never any strife or pain...and where nothing matters, but for the pure and unalloyed joy of being."

"It sounds like Eden."

She looked sidelong at him.

"Oh--so, what are you saying? That God is an Englishman then?" he chuckled.

"You speak so queerly," observed Morgaine, "you must be a true wizard."

Kazhi sighed. "What I want to know," he said to her, "is how a girl who relishes power, can be so forlorn about a place of peace and contentment...."

Morgaine's black eyes flashed like cut obsidian.

"True power," she informed him, "is knowing when to use it. Power without mercy is tyranny. Power without wisdom is brutality. Why did the Greeks make their war-goddess female?"

"I'd always thought it was because women fought dirty."

"I should turn you into a swine, like my auntie Circe used to do," said Morgaine, rising to her feet. "Come. I want to show you something. Lancelot might not have been able to appreciate it, but I have a feeling you might."

Kazhi rose, and winced again as the muscles pulled; his wound throbbed like someone was running a dental drill behind his ribs. He made his face a mask against the pain. That she had referred to Circe as her auntie made him rather uneasy. No wonder she flared to anger when he mentioned the Trojan War and Greek mythology! Of course, she could have just been teasing...but something warned him not to take anything Morgaine said for granted.

"Close your eyes," she told him.

"No," he told her.

"I'm not going to do anything unpleasant to you," she insisted.

"I'd rather keep them open. I'm paranoid, remember?"

"Fine, then. I'll just have to stick my thumbs into your eyeballs--"

Her hands moved toward his face, and Kazhi ducked his head back, with a movement that brought fresh waves of agony to his chest and side. "Whoa--! What are you on about?"

She pouted prettily, hands on her hips. "I'm going to gate us to a hill not far from here," she told him, "where the concentration of magical energy is very strong. I told you I'd teach you some magic, if you agreed to assist me--we may as well start your first lesson now."

Kazhi was still nervous. "What--before lunch?" he asked, with a petulant laugh.

"I left my cloth with Nymue," said Morgaine. "She's got a house to feed. Now, are you going to do what I tell you to do, or am I going to have to make you very small?"

Kazhi, making no effort to disguise his reluctance, closed his eyes. He felt Morgaine press her thumbs against his eyelids--with a lot more pressure than he thought necessary, for in the blackness red and gold stars sprang out and swirled like goldfish in a painted Chinese bowl. But, strangely, there was no concussion of energy searing through his body this time, which is what he had really been dreading. Only an odd tingling, as if he had been lowered into a vat of champagne, and then a dizzy sort of lurch, with a sensation of very sharp cold momentarily on his face. Then Morgaine took her thumbs from his eyes, and said, "Okay. You can look now."

He had to blink to clear and readjust his vision, but saw that they now stood on the top of a broad, high hill, completely grassed, and that there was a well-made ring of standing-stones crowning its summit. In the centre of this ring was a heavy table, made of oak, and stained with a matter Kazhi refused to speculate upon.

"Be forwarned," said Morgaine in a whisper, "you stand upon sacred ground."

The wind was brisk and damp here, and he could see, it seemed, for miles. As the wind passed among the stones, it set up an unnatural keening, which a more superstitious man might take for the moaning of ghosts. Scientist and magician though he was, Kazhi shuddered all the same, and put his hand to his wound, for it suddenly began to sting sharply.

"The people you know as Druids," Morgaine was saying, "were the thirteenth tribe of Israel. They came here in a time before time, and they practiced their ancient ways...but also they absorbed something of the religion of the indigenous people, until they created something unique. And they learned from the Elves that there are places where the power of God is strongly manifest--and that is where they built their temples. They saw that the oak drew this energy down upon itself, and they made it sacred, the living image of God, who lives forever...."

Kazhi was only half-listening, for his brain was becoming clouded with pain. "Are you a Druid priestess, then--?" he asked thickly.

"No," said Morgaine, almost with disdain. "My lineage is far older. My ancestors fought on the plains of Troy, though mortals thought them Amazons...pay attention, Ewain, if you expect to learn anything! The universe is permeated with energy, which surrounds and penetrates all things in greater or lesser degree. Ordinary mortals might stumble across these things, in the form of static electricity, or when they dowse for water...but magicians seek to use them, to tap into the stronger channels, and harness the power. That is why many wizards carry a staff--for the wood of certain trees, when naturally found, not cut or shaped by tools, acts as a sort of conductor, which--"

Her words began to slur and garble together, and Kazhi blinked hard to try to clear his head. His side was burning up, and it seemed to him that the stones were emitting a shimmering aura, and that the wooden table, the sacrifical altar, was beckoning to him, squatting like an enormous and hungry toad, licking its chops. He gasped sharply and tugged at his collar, as if his shirt had suddenly become too tight.

"--but you will not need such a staff, for I sense that you have a rare talent, for drawing the energy into yourself--you don't need to use artificial means to touch it--it channels through you, like the lightning through the oak--"

And now there was whispering in his head, gross and unintelligible murmurs, sinister and threatening, as if the stones themselves were speaking. Kazhi began to hallucinate, that the stones were armed warriors, cruel battle-maidens, and he was a victim, vanquished in combat. They were debating his fate in ever more strident voices, and, with a sickened sigh, Kazhi noticed that the number of the standing stones was nine--

"--teach you; for such raw talent cannot be left to its own devices. I must confess that my sister Nymue thinks that I am making a mistake, and that there is a danger in teaching you how to use your gift; but I feel that you will have the good sense to work with us, not against us--"

Kazhi's heart was thundering now, thundering like a lamed horse, almost bursting out through his ribs. He couldn't breathe. Gasping, his face waxen, he clutched at his chest, and slowly, ever so slowly, sank to his knees. Blood began to seep out through his curled fingers.

"--because, you know, there are certain prophesies, which some thought were being fulfilled by Merlin, but now I wonder if--"

Kazhi's nostrils were filled with the scent of damp earth and fresh grass, and he heard, as if from a great distance, perhaps from the bottom of a lake, Morgaine call his name, curiously at first, and then with a shriek of horror.

And then his world went black.

XXVI. Harp music.

Oh, damn. Harp music.

Well, wait...that's a good sign, isn't it? Supposed to be? Fiddle music, now, that might not bode well, but harp music....

Humph. They must not be keeping very good track of things, if I can get into Heaven....

Maybe this is just the waiting-room, and that's sort of like that annoying Muzak they play in elevators and shopping malls....

Kazhi felt himself returning to his senses as though he were climbing out of a deep well. A sensation of coldness fell away, and he gradually became aware of softness, of warmth, and that he was lying on a feather-stuffed cushion under a counterpane. He did not open his eyes for a while, content to listen to the soft melody of the harp, and hoping that, when he did open his eyes, he would find himself in his own bed in the twenty-second century, with the clock-radio tuned to an easy-listening channel, and that it would be the morning of the day before he switched on his time-machine for the very first time. If this proved to be true, he vowed that he would go into his lab, and smash the accursed thing, burn all of his notes and papers, then go to his psychiatrist and have every memory of how to build it brainwashed out of his mind.

All right, lad. On the count of three. Ready? One...two...three--

He opened his eyes. Heavy timbers in the ceiling. Over there, the oak chest, glowing honey-mellow, and behind it, the tapestry with the scene of the fabulous hunt....

He closed his eyes, and sighed.

Damn. Damn, damn, damn, damn....

Gingerly he felt along his ribs with the tips of his fingers. His chest had been bound, snugly, in linen bands, and over the place where Vivienne had stabbed him was a smushy packet, held to his skin, and a delightful sort of warmth was seething from it, and into his flesh. The sharpness of the pain was now gone, dissipated into a general, dull achiness, like the first stages of the 'flu.

A shadow fell over him, as someone passed between his bed and the window. The harp music had ceased, and only birdsong could now be heard. Then there came a sound of splashing water, close by his ear, and a cool, damp compress was placed on his brow. He opened his eyes to see Morgaine Lafayette bending over him.

She smiled. "You're awake," she stated, and sounded genuinely glad to be able to make that observation.

"Am I?" he asked, his voice a broken croak. She seemed different, somehow--no longer resplendent; her hair was plaited back, and she had exchanged her gorgeous gown for a plain linen frock and apron, like Vivienne used to wear. And there was something about her face...it seemed infinitely weary, and old, as though she had not allowed herself a moment's rest during the length of her vigil....

"How long...how long have I been out?" he asked, unable to make his voice crawl above a whisper.

She straightened, but continued to look down at him. "Eight days," she said. Then an expression of mild reproach crossed her face. "Why didn't you tell me that you were stabbed with an elf-dagger?"

Kazhi winced, and writhed slightly, like a lizard impaled on a hawthorn.

"I...didn't know it was an elf-dagger," he replied, when he was able.

"I daresay neither did Vivienne," Morgaine informed him, drying her hands on her smock. "She confessed everything to Nymue. You are very fortunate indeed that her aim was not more true. You came within a whisker of losing your life--Kazhi."

He groaned, and winced again.

"I had to assure her that you would not seek revenge," Morgaine continued, rather primly. "It was the only way we could get her to confess the whole story. She's scared to death of you--she insists you're a vampyre, and that she saw your wound heal up before her eyes--"

"It...was a conjuring-trick," he murmured weakly. "I wanted to frighten her...."

"Well, you've nearly spoiled her for what we need to do with her," said Morgaine. "She's pretty close to swearing off wizards and joining a convent where she'll be near holy water and as many crosses as she could ever need."

"Sorry...but she tried to kill me...."

"And came very close to it. You must be charmed, Kazhi. That power you have for channeling magical energy caused your abcess to burst. The blade wasn't just silver--it was of fairy manufacture, given to Vivienne's father when he was still on good terms with the Folk. Nymue remembered it. And you are doubly fortunate that I was with you, and triply so that Nymue had the necessary simples in her apothecary. Any delay would have been the end of you. As it was, you lay in fever for this past week. And I really don't want to know where you got some of your nightmares from. If a lay-sister had been attending you, she would have had you burned as a heretic for sure. But of course, I can understand magic, and how a true magician can conjure up some very bizarre hallucinations...."

Kazhi felt himself blushing as Morgaine spoke, and blushing all over his body. He could not look at her. "You...you tended to me?"

"Of course. It's what I do."

She made it sound so careless that he became somewhat affronted. "Don't make is sound so simple, milady. You...you saved my life."

He decided it best not to tell her that it was impossible for him to die, and that chances were good that it wasn't her poultices at all which had healed him, but his own peculiar nature.

She smiled a little, and hushed him by pursing her lips, as a mother might soothe her pettish child.

"We'll settle up later," she told him.

Kazhi drew a deep breath, which amazingly didn't hurt, and explained, more awkwardly than he would have liked, "I don't mean to be cranky...and I am grateful to you, for what you've done...it's just that...well, I've never...you're the first...I mean, no one's ever...seen...no lady, I mean...I...."

She touched a fingertip to his lips, and stilled them.

"I won't tell, if you won't," she smiled, and Kazhi felt himself melt away into blissful sleep.

As he drifted off, with a little sigh, Nymue stepped from the shadows near the door--or did she simply materialize? She came to stand beside her sister, and looked down at the sleeping wizard.

She did not look happy.

"I hope you know what you're doing," she stated, folding her arms. "This one is dangerous. I have never met his like before. I fear that there is something about him--something which the Gods don't even comprehend...."

"Be still, sister. I can manage him. Am I not the most powerful of the Sisterhood?"

Nymue seemed to bridle, if ever so slightly. "The Gods give you fair rein, and even I must agree that you are the best there is, Morgaine...but when he was raving, he spoke of such things as turned my blood to ice. Mysterious things...visions, prophesies...he spoke of the Sisterhood...of the Undying Lands...." Her voice dropped to a low murmur, like gentle wavewash on shingle. "He spoke of Her."

"I know," said Morgaine, pensively, watching Kazhi sleep.

"He seems to believe that he was there," Nymue went on, "in the cave, when Marduk slew the Dragon Queen...."

"Men may say such wild things, when in the grip of madness," replied Morgaine. "I once tended to one who claimed to be a Jabberwock...."

"Do not be so quick to dismiss him," Nymue warned. "You know as well as I do that that knife went into his heart. Vivienne is a simple girl, but when she swears that she saw the wound heal of itself--and that he mocked her, and called himself Kazhi the Deathless...it is what Obi Ran, the Eastern Dragon King said, too...."

"Boasting. He is mortal, like all the rest."

"Morgaine--listen to me!" insisted Nymue sharply, siezing her sister by the shoulder, and giving her a shake. She stared deeply into Morgaine's fathomless eyes. "Only we can heal that way!"

"He said it was a conjuring-trick. An illusion meant to frighten the girl."

Nymue drew a sharp, exasperated breath. "You must watch this one," she warned Morgaine. "Never allow him out of your sight. Give him some talisman by which you can track him always--tell him it's a token of affection if you must. And be very, very careful, Morgaine. He is very powerful, even if he doesn't realize it. If he should come to grasp his true puissance...."

And she shook her head.

"He could bring ruin to the world," Nymue concluded, with a resigned sigh.

"You are too fatalistic, my dear," said Morgaine. "He is but a prodigy, perhaps half-elven...there are still such things going on. He said he never knew his father, and that his mother abandoned him as an infant...."

Nymue snorted in bitter amusement. "Imagine, if we take the wrong one," she said. "Here we have been assuming Merlin to be the fulfilment of the doomsday prophesy...we put him out of the way...and it is this chap all along. We could never live it down. Especially if--"

She broke off. Morgaine cast her a sharp look.

"Go ahead. Say it. Especially if I were to take him on as my adept. It would be tantamount to arming the enemy."

She looked down at Kazhi, who was lying helpless in his enchanted sleep. "Well, it won't ever come to that. I will watch him, watch him very closely, take every precaution...if he is a prodigy, I will fashion him into a great magician, one to rival and supercede Merlin...and, if he is...something else...then he shall share Merlin's fate. For we are more powerful than the most powerful mortal wizard, are we not? Do we not act for the Gods, and by their grace? Have no fear, dearest Nymue...I will not permit this one to become some mess for a future generation of Dragonmaids to clean up."

"You had better not," said Nymue, and she dissolved in a sparkle like sunlight on water.