By nature, mankind had tended to make God in his own image. Whether this was born of human arrogance or just the human paranoia of needing as many reassuring icons as possible - which is to say, to feel worthy of the all-powerful's attention by being as similar to the all-powerful as possible - had never been judged with any certainty.
What was certain was that it would be a sorry omen for all of humanity if any God looked anything like as pitiful as John, King of England. John, or "Lackland" as he was still cruelly referred to by some of his courtiers (though never to his face of course), or "Softsword" as he was referred to by many of his other subjects (again only while his attention was elsewhere), was large but stocky and looked perpetually shaken, as though he'd just completed a three year horse-cart ride along the Via Appia, chased by a thousand Turkish highwayman in a strong gale. It wasn't that he was ugly or anything, it was just that he might as well have been. He was forever staring out at the world about him with nervous darting eyes, his mouth pulled backward and downward in a drooping frown, his lips wobbling and quivering as if his thin beard offered his broad face scant protection from the cold.
He was paranoid. Well, let's not understate things, he was to confidence what the Roman Empire had once been to hard work - it just didn't go there. No underhand secrets or hidden behaviour, no ulterior pattern, no absurd pretence, it just didn't apply when it came to King John of the Royal House of Plantagenet. His paranoia was legendary all around the Angevin Dominion of France and England.
Not that it was the sort of legend that the Anglo-Normans wanted. They wanted to look to the legends of King Arthur, Alfred of Wessex, Edward the Confessor, or William the Conqueror for their inspiration, for their driving force. (Most of these icons, interestingly enough, were not Normans at all - what does that tell us about them that we didn't already know?) And some of them, to be fair, had succeeded. For instance Richard the First, "Lionheart" as he was proudly proclaimed to be around all of Europe for his heroism in the Crusades, was not only a mighty King but a brave and pious Christian soldier, or at least that's what he'd made damn sure that everyone he fought against believed. All right so he'd butchered three thousand Turks when he burned Acre after they'd dared not to surrender to his army instantaneously. No big deal, it was the Lord's work, and at least Richard had done it all very gallantly. Yes, he was a hero of the Angevin Empire, even to most of the (misinformed) Saxon communities of England.
Not his younger brother John though. No. Not poor little King John. Not poor helpless little King "everybody's-out-to-get-me-so-I-think-I'll-execute-the-chef-just-in-case-he-decides-to-poison-my-leg-of-horsemeat" John. Pitied by his Father, Henry II, despised by his mother, mocked by his elder brothers, including Richard, and hated by his subjects. His arrogant oppression of the Anglo-Saxons had made him every bit as unpopular with common Englishmen as any of his Norman ancestors, while his incompetent loss of the territories of Normandy and Anjou had completely destroyed his standing among the Norman barons as well.
Other than that, things had gone swimmingly for him since his succession to the throne seventeen years earlier after his brother's untimely death at Limoges (when a crossbow bolt wound to the neck turned sceptic and took the life of the monarch through a virulent case of gangrene).
Well, not exactly swimmingly. There was that recent invasion of England by the army of John's former ally, Louis VIII of France, but that's a matter we'll leave for just a moment.
The fact that he'd even lived long enough to succeed was something of a small miracle in itself. His previous, unlawful occupation of the throne as Regent during Richard's absentee reign should have led to a bloody feud between the two brothers, surely culminating in John's brutal death. Instead Richard saw that the worst punishment he could inflict on him was making him live with the humiliation of publicly returning the throne to its rightful ruler. The belittling words of "reconciliation" as Richard had called them - "Fear not, my brother, you are but a child led astray by evil councillors" - were what had hurt most of all. John had, after all, been twenty-seven years old at the time.
Only after rising to succeed his brother in the years that followed had John finally grown to live down the political emasculation - and even then only just. The truth of his reign was it was the worst disaster to grip England since the Conquest of 1066. The horror of knowing that his own incompetence and cowardice had been exposed to the whole of the Norman Empire had forever tarnished his view of his dominion, and of himself. It made him see every success as no more than the delay of disaster, every ally as no more than a future conspirator, himself as no more than a pale shadow of his own brother.
The inevitable collapse of the Norman Empire had set in after just a handful of years of his chaotic rule, to such eternal irony that all that remained of the mighty Angevin dominion, which had once stretched from Hadrian's Wall to the Mediterranean Sea, was England - poor, battered, down-trodden England, the land that for more than a century had itself been no more than the enslaved colony of the Norman oppressors. Now, thanks to John's failures, England was the only country the Normans had left. And he had spent the last ten years desperately battling to defend even that from his former countrymen, the French, and Scottish raiders attacking from the North.
In order to bring the Norman barons back onto his side against King Louis' armies, he'd been forced into the most humiliating climb-down yet - agreeing to the terms laid out by the barons in the Magna Carta, effectively restricting his own powers and making him less than a King.
With all this in mind he was in a humourless mood this morning. He had slept scarcely a wink, and had a crick in his neck, while his head throbbed desperately from the two flagons of claret he'd drowned his sorrows in the previous night.
"Folly?" he called feebly.
A giggling Saxon in a red-green outfit and harlequin make-up came prancing into the throne room, performed a preposterously low bow, then waved at the King cheekily. "Your Majesty?"
Folly had been, until a couple of years ago, jester to an irritating Saxon Lord in the far North. One of John's numerous unsuccessful plans to keep the rebellious Northerners under control was to undermine their most powerful representative, the sanctimonious Lord of Dunshelm. To this end, he had attempted to "poach" (bothersome word for a Norman, that one) Dunshelm's staff. This was probably his most futile plan of all, chiefly because as it turned out, Dunshelm didn't have much by the way of staff, and in any case the only people who had accepted his offer of work at the Royal court were a juvenile serving maid calling herself Gretel, and this unctious ninny calling himself Folly. It would be an exaggeration to say that the plan had actually backfired, but John found the pair of them so aggravating that he couldn't help suspecting that Dunshelm was grateful to finally see the back of them. In any case, word had it that Dunshelm had had no trouble in finding replacements for them, re-employing a new jester who had once served as his equerry at the Tourney of Alvingham, and a maid who had served food at the same Tourney.
But there was something about this jester, this Folly, that aroused John's suspicions. He couldn't say what it was, but there seemed to be real meaning in his apparent madness, a perverse logic, even wisdom. Something that might just make him useful, perhaps? He was undeniably a source of useful information about what obstacles to John's reign might emerge from the North.
"Tell me, Folly," the King commanded, "tell me of this one you call Morghanna."
"Morghanna, sire?" said Folly, blinking in surprise. "There remains little to say of her. Last word that I received from Lord Treguard was that she retreated to Scotland after a dispute with her former mentor..."
"Hmm?" Folly looked surprised to be interrupted. "Oh, your friend Mogdred, sire." Was there a note of disapproval in the jester's tone? "I doubt that Morghanna will return without his consent, and Mogdred is not the sort to forgive and forget."
King John allowed his expression to collapse again. He could no longer be bothered to hide from his courtiers the strain he was feeling. "No," he commented quietly. "No. That he is not."
Somewhere in dungeons deep and caverns dark, a mocking sorcerer sneered as he saw in his crystal ball the dishevelled figure of a beleaguered Norman despot.
"Why do you draw my attention to this?" demanded Mogdred. "What difference does it make? He has always been less than a King. This 'Charter' of the Barons merely puts it in writing."
His companion was sat on the other side of the ill-lit, decrepit little chamber. She was a woman in dark robes, the blackness of hatred almost glowing in her eyes. A huge burnt scar on her forehead, the fiery branding of an unhappy recent tangle with a Dungeoneer, tainted her otherwise beauteous appearance.
"It is not the consequences for the King that concern me, my Lord," answered Malice.
"Then what does?"
"This Charter has been forced upon the King by Norman Barons and Saxon Gentry, my Lord," explained Malice. "Not by one nor by the other, but by both. They are both united as seekers of the liberties of England. Do you not see what that means?" The unspoken challenge in Malice's tone was not lost upon Mogdred. She was implying that she was more observant than her mentor, that she was powerful enough to see things that he could not.
"Tell me," said Mogdred slowly, dangerously.
"Never before have Anglo-Norman and Anglo-Saxon been this close," continued Malice. "The division in English society could be bridged. The Saxons will be slaves to the Normans no longer, they will be enemies of the King no longer. The two peoples of England could become one."
Malice looked puzzled by her master's puzzlement. "My Lord, do you not see? What of our own position?" No answer was forthcoming from the necromancer as yet, so Malice decided to elaborate. "As soon as he heard that the Gruagach was destroyed and Knightmare Castle had fallen back into Saxon hands, the King gave us - you - the Governorship of the North. Yours to keep as long as you kept the threat posed by Treguard's new power in check..."
"I am aware of that."
"This new Charter, this Magna Carta, threatens all that, my Lord!" Malice just barely avoided shrieking, such was her exasperation at her mentor's apparent obtuseness. "It would make Treguard the King's ally. And as Lord of the mightiest stronghold in the North of England he will become Governor."
"Have you quite finished?"
Malice went silent. She hated these moments. She'd gone through them so many times since becoming Mogdred's apprentice - whenever she realised she'd missed the key detail in a plan, whenever she'd failed to see the big picture, whenever she'd misunderstood the plan within the plan... and then had it explained to her in withering tones by the dark master what the reality was, leaving her quaking with embarrassment.
"You really are such a limited creature aren't you?" boomed Mogdred resonantly. "Did you honestly think that the approval of that snivelling Norman coward was in any way significant to my plans?"
"We have answered to him for years..."
"Nonsense!" thundered Mogdred so loudly that the walls trembled slightly. "His co-operation was required at the outset to establish my authority within the Dungeon! That was done years ago, as was his usefulness in the same moment." Mogdred walked over to his throne and seated himself on it. He continued a little more calmly. "With the Plantagenet's help I was able to take command of the lowest level of Dunshelm. As soon as I was established within the Dungeon my powers were reborn in their fullest, in their darkest. What possible need did I have for King John's imaginary authority in the face of my limitless power? It suited my purposes to maintain the pretence of compliance, if only for the sake of convenience. But after all these years, after all my glorious successes, and after all his misbegotten failures, what value can he be? To anyone?"
Mogdred snapped his fingers and in his bony hand there materialised a golden goblet filled with the darkest red wine. He sipped from it and smiled.
"Let him make Treguard a Governor," he sneered. "What is that? Just a word. It will change nothing. I can still restrain that malodorous cell-mucker with just a thought any time he dares use his paltry magic to gaze upon my countenance!"
"The Northguard could be reborn with the co-operation of the King," protested Malice, "especially with the Scots becoming so restless on the border once again. The McGrew clan alone have caused countless troubles with their forays South, and the King will want them stopped. How many extra troops could Treguard obtain from the Norm-...?"
"Let him!" repeated Mogdred acidly. "In this realm of unreality, as you well know, a thousand such troops would mean nothing. Under my subliminal guidance, the Dungeon has spread far and wide across the North of England, and my influence has thus spread with it." Mogdred smiled again, more deeply. "You must have so little imagination, if you see the King's decline as a problem, Malice. Far from it. It is an opportunity. One obstacle fewer between myself and the throne."
"But the people will side with him if you rise against him..."
"Which is why I have not made such a move yet," continued Mogdred with calm assurance. "Even before the Charter was signed, the people would have sided with him against any necromancer. Such is there superstitious fear. But have you considered this? This Charter has given the people of England hope for new liberty. But it is in the nature of the King to go back on his word. If he did so after all this, he will turn the people against him again, more so than ever before. So much so that by that stage they would even tolerate a wizard on the throne. If I were to overthrow him then I would even be proclaimed a hero and liberator by the people of England."
Malice stared at her Master in astonishment. She hated to admit it to herself, but her speechlessness was as much about admiration for the clarity of his thinking as it was about fear of his power. "You... you had all this in mind from the outset?" she managed to stammer.
"Of course," answered Mogdred smoothly. "If I were opposed to this Charter, do you really think I would have allowed it to happen?" He settled back and smiled. "Yes, let this run its course. Be patient, my dear, wait for our opportunity. The throne will be mine almost by default."
Treguard allowed himself a pleased grunt as he swung the Dungeon door shut. The clang of metal and stone reverberated for a moment as the Dungeon Master resumed his seat. The Quest Season had now ended. To say that it had been a little different to past Seasons would be like saying that the ground is a little way below the stars. He'd never imagined that the Dungeon could have grown so far, spread so thin beyond Knightmare Castle that it now reached the other distant ruined fortresses of the former Northguard such as Dungarth and the Tower of Dunswater. The game, if game it was, had changed. There was something that disturbed him deeply about it. He couldn't help feeling that there had to be significance to this, a deeper reason for the changes than he had so far fathomed. He decided he would have to discuss it with Merlin at the first available opportunity. That, he realised, might be difficult now that the path was closed. In fact Merlin had only been there a moment earlier, wishing a Merry Christmas to the last team of the season, before wandering off to wherever it was he usually chose to hibernate while the Dungeon was reforming.
"For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost," said Treguard heavily.
Pickle, as was his wont, was sat on the table, legs crossed, eyes closed, head bowed. His eyes suddenly shot open and were redirected toward the Dungeon Master in elfin surprise.
"Nothing, Pickle," answered Treguard, suddenly feeling the exact type of exhaustion most people feel on the last day of work before their holidays begin. "I just wanted to discuss something with Merlin before he left that's all."
"To talk about nails?"
"No, sprite, not to talk about nails. It was just a saying."
"A saying?" Pickle brightened, gaining interest in the discussion. "Why, my people specialise in that industry. We could teach you many..."
"Oh good," said Treguard with a quick finality that on the one hand begged explanation, and on the other invited nothing but an end to the discussion. Pickle, being half-elf-half-imp, and thus entirely a faerie creature, was blind to any path other than one that would feed his curiosity.
"What was the saying, Master?"
Treguard sighed, making a mental note never to say anything interesting-sounding in Pickle's presence in future. Being trapped on this occasion, he answered.
"For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost. It's an abbreviated cause and effect chain."
"Ah," said Pickle, nodding wisely to himself. "Ah." He nodded a little more slowly and thoughtfully. "Has this got anything to do with those 'bicycle'-things that Dungeoneer was telling us about...?"
"No, not that kind of chain..." Treguard shook his head. How did he manage to get stuck in these conversations? "Look, it goes like this... For want of a nail, the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe, the horse was lost. For want of a horse, the rider was lost. For want of a rider, the message was lost. For want of the message, the battle was lost. For the loss of the battle, the war was lost. For the loss of the war, the kingdom was lost." He sighed heavily. "And all for the want of a nail."
"Ah," nodded Pickle again, this concept apparently more familiar ground. "I see. Yes. And this is how Merlin left was it?"
"By horse I mean? As opposed to by bicycle? I must say, neither sound much like him, he usually just disappears with a flash of lightning..."
"No Pickle," growled Treguard, "I told you, it's just an expression. I mean there may be problems because I haven't had a chance to talk... gah! I don't know why I even mentioned it, it's not even relevant. Just forget it."
"As you wish, Master," nodded Pickle obediently.
Treguard turned to look at the great dungeon door. He really needed to get a proper portcullis to cover the portal some time, it was dangerous with all these goblin patrols, both within the dungeon and without. With the depths of winter drawing in, and drawing the bitterest cold in with it, the temptation for the savages of the supernatural wild to seek shelter indoors, with or without invitation, was considerable. Treguard was not immune to generous impulses of course, but they didn't extend to everyone, and the thought a few dozen goblin hunters putting their feet up in front of his fireside was not going to draw out the best in him.
He shaped to resume his seat...
Taken aback, Treguard sprang upright again and turned around to find someone was already sat there. Someone old, someone shrunken and hunched, dressed in a dark, musty, oversized cloak, and with a large hooked nose like a melting candle. Pickle looked up sharply at the sound of the shout and leapt from the tabletop, effecting a nimble forward somersault in mid-air, before landing in front of the chair, crouched in a defensive position. He moved his arms from side to side in contained chopping motions, as though daring the unexpected visitor to attack.
Treguard looked at the intruder with annoyance rather than fright. "Mildread!" he growled at the old crone. "You've always had a nerve, but to dare to come in here uninvit-..." His voice cut short as he began to find Pickle's strange defensive posturing too distracting to ignore. "Pickle, stop that."
The elf-imp looked abashed. "I'm just trying an ancient protective ritual developed by my people thousands of years ago."
"Really?" said Treguard skeptically.
"Yes," insisted Pickle. "No disrespect, Master, but as a mortal, you wouldn't understand."
"The elfin traditions of combat that I am proudly adhering to..."
Treguard glowered suspiciously. "You're not, are you?"
"I am!" repeated Pickle. "I am, really!"
"No you're not," repeated Treguard. "One of the Advisors recently mentioned to us something she was learning in her own Time called 'Martial Arts'. You were trying it out, weren't you?"
"Even though you don't know anything about it," continued Treguard derisively. "You're fantasizing again aren't you?"
Pickle was about to protest, but then looked away in embarrassment. "Well, maybe a little. Oh what's the harm, Master? The mortal spoke highly of that 'Car-rarty' thing she was learning, I just thought I'd see if it would be useful..."
"The harm is that you have received no tuition, Pickle," explained Treguard, not noticing the dizzied looks he and Pickle were getting from Mildread as she tried unsuccessfully to follow the conversation. "If this intruder were to pose a threat and you were to attempt to defend yourself using a combat art in which you have no previous experience you would be defeated, perhaps worse. It's naive in the extreme to..."
"Excuse me?" interjected Mildread. "Can we have that blazing row now please? I mean, you started yelling at me just now and I'd rather you got on with it - I haven't got all year."
Treguard blinked several times to clear the confusion of carrying on two separate conversations at once. "Never mind that, I think you got the drift. What are you doing back here? Last I heard of you, you'd retreated to Ireland."
"Oh yesssss," slurred Mildread, her oversized tongue distorting her speech more than ever. "Lovely place. Ideal holiday for a tired old witch. Hills as green as emerald, winding rivers, hardly any of those blasted Normans around, and best of all, the last descendants of the druids still worship there."
"Is that why you went there?" asked Pickle. He had heard of Mildread, and though he'd never met her of course, he knew enough to realise that she was a devious piece of work.
"Of course," nodded the crone, her beady little eyes lighting up in a strange kind of grimy cheer, "they hold a ritual at dawn during every Spring equinox. At that time of year the sun can be touched by earthly magic, you see. And the ritual draws on the energies of the sun to recharge their powers. They let me join in the last couple of years - it added ten years to my life."
Treguard clearly didn't share Mildread's joy at this particular turn of events. "Yes. Well thankfully no one lives forever."
"Oh, is that any way to greet an old friend and comrade after all this..."
"Spare me your pseudo-ironic bunk, Mildread," snapped Treguard. "You still haven't answered my question. If you found Ireland so agreeable why did you come back?"
"Oh, nothing to be so suspicious about, Dungeon Master," cooed Mildread. "Anything but."
"Usually I don't give a damn what happens to you, of course," continued Mildread, "But this time it affects me just as much as you. I've got a warning for you, Treguard." Her eyes narrowed slightly. "And for all our sakes you'd better take it very seriously."
Motley sniffed the alepot cautiously. It smelt real.
He ran his finger slowly, tenderly, lovingly down the delicately seductive curve of the side of the alepot, and shivered with desire. It felt real.
He then closed his hand around the alepot, lifting it gently but firmly from the surface of the table, whisking it swiftly to his lips, which smoulderingly caressed the rim. It was real. This was the real thing! The alepot was like putty in his hands, he was in control. Suddenly, he was like an animal, roughly lifting the alepot and freeing its contents from their revealing confines, ecstasy rushing through him as he swallowed, his larynx rhythmically undulating back and forth, faster and faster and...
Splosh! Huge pools of ale gathered on the table top, spillages from Motley's drunken romp. He looked at the alepot, which suddenly looked to him miserable, used and incomplete. He frowned at it apologetically. "Damn," he muttered unhappily, glancing down at the mess on the table in shame, "why does that always happen to me?" He looked embarrassed and glum as he propped his face up with his hands, his elbows resting in the pool of ale, which slowly started soaking into the material of his costume.
Mellisandre quickly hurried up to his table with a cloth that she started mopping up the mess with. She sniffed, as though she felt offended, even let down, but when she spoke she sounded reassuring. "It's alright, Motley," she promised, "it happens to everyone at some time. Nothing to be ashamed of." She suddenly brightened. "Tell you what, I'll bring you another one in a minute, and you can try again."
The maid walked away, leaving Motley to sulk drunkenly over his empty alepot. He'd been waiting weeks for his next visit to the Crazed Heifer - unsurprising, considering that in King John's time, a jester's wage was not high when employed by a mere Saxon Lord. But now that he'd finally got his groping hands on his long lusted-after pot of ale, he'd shot the liquid down prematurely.
A large, strong, but also elegant, hand protruding from a broad scarlet sleeve took a firm grip on Motley's shoulder. Whoever it was who had accosted him, the jester knew not, but he turned to look up at him, and missed by no more than four inches.
"Greetings, Fool," muttered the gravelly tones of Hordriss the Confuser. "One trusts that your voice is in good working order this fine day?"
Motley looked at the bearded figure resentfully. "No thanks to you," he answered, sourly recalling once being deprived of his voice by a spell that Hordriss had cast on him as a punishment for rudeness. He'd ended up needing help from a Dungeoneer to get his voice back on that occasion, so he knew that he'd have to handle this conversation very cagily. That was what his head said anyway. The pint of ale currently swilling around in his stomach told him to carry on being spiky, and having spent the last few moments beating his brain around, there was no danger of the pint being overruled from that direction. "What do you want, goat-features?"
Hordriss looked indignant. "Have a care, Fool," he brayed dangerously. "Your assistance would be convenient on this occasion, but it is hardly necessary. And one is more than capable of depriving of you of the use of various body parts other than just your voice box."
Motley's hands reflexively moved to cover a certain sensitive region to be found (by those with despairingly poor taste in habits) below his belt.
"One was referring to your legs as a matter of fact," sniffed Hordriss disdainfully. "Under any circumstances, one would never regard those particular appendages, which you are currently making so laughable an attempt to protect, to be worthy of one's attention."
Motley didn't really follow any part of this labyrinthine string of words, but did guess correctly that Hordriss was insulting his manhood. "Bog off," he suggested and looked back at the tiny quantity of ale that still remained in the pot.
"You are a messy drinker, Motley," continued Hordriss, seating himself without invitation in the seat opposite the jester, and eyeing the pools of spilt ale with distaste.
"You're a messy hairdresser," Motley bit back nastily.
Hordriss decided that the best way to avoid losing his temper over this remark was to just ignore it. "One has a message for your Master."
"Why don't you tell 'im it yourself?" said Motley moodily.
"With the Dungeons now out of phase," explained Hordriss, "communication is rather more difficult than usual. And it is not in my interest to attend Knightmare Castle itself in person. But one has a small pact to offer the Dungeon Master. Ask him to meet one on the outskirts of Dunsholm village at dawn in two days time, when we can discuss the matter."
Motley looked at him supiciously, then marvelled at Hordriss' athletic talent - in all his life Motley had never seen anyone simultaneously sitting at either end of a thirty foot corridor that they weren't even present in. Motley then suspected that he really shouldn't have drunk the whole pint so quickly, it was playing tricks on his mind.
At this point Mellisandre returned with a fresh pot of ale, and all such regrets were swiftly forgotten.
"Tha's it?" he slurred in Hordriss' direction. "Tha's all you want me to tell 'im?"
"Indeed," nodded Hordriss, resuming his feet. "One would encourage haste on your part. However, by the same token, one would be grateful if you at least waited until after you have sobered up." He turned and stalked quietly toward the exit.
"Alright," Motley belched toward the warlock's retreating back, "I'll tell 'im first thing in the mornin'." He then turned his slavering attention toward his free drink. "Well not first thing obviously," he added, more to himself than anyone else, "I'll be in no shape for business in the mornin'. Not after drinkin' this."
"I'm still listening," said Treguard testily, pointing firmly at the floor.
Mildread tutted as she realised that he was gesturing to her to get out of his seat. With an unfit grunt and some stomach-turning clicks from her joints, the old crone pulled herself upright, limped over to the table and parked herself on one of the uncomfortable wooden benches usually reserved for Dungeoneering Advisors. She then pulled a small scroll from her cloak and put it down on the table. Meanwhile Treguard sat on his seat, and ignored that typical nagging discomfort he always felt upon sitting on a chair that was still warm from someone else's backside. Pickle picked up the scroll and carried it over to the Dungeon Master.
Treguard took it from Pickle, peeled off the ribbon cautiously, and opened it out. He perused the symbols on the scroll in bafflement. They appeared to be a series of hastily-sketched hieroglyphics, representing a long understood practice of the natural world - the process of the caterpillar maturing into the butterfly.
"What exactly is this?" demanded Treguard.
Mildread slurped a gasp of air between tongue and teeth, and pointed a crooked, long-nailed finger in the direction of the Dungeon Master. "I hoped you'd know. I'm not sure. All I can tell you is that while I was sleeping one night on the coast of Leinster, I dreamt. I dreamt long and I dreamt fearfully, Treguard. Oh yes, I could hardly remember any of it when I wokes up. Dreams is like that, but I found this scroll by my side."
Pickle looked at Treguard, and found his own blank look being reflected back at him. "What do you mean, you found it?" asked the elf. "How did it get there?"
Mildread looked down at her own hands. "I thinks I cast a spell in my sleep. It was sub-... subth-... subs-... subconth-..." She let out a frustrated sigh at her own lack of coherence. "I thinks I did it by accident. A spell to transfer my dream to paper so I that could remember it in the mornin'. Being magic, you can't rely on it to be clear on the meaning. But I'm sure it was a premonition, and this scroll..." She pointed once more at the parchment in Treguard's hand, "...is some kind of symbol of it."
"You can't remember anything of the dream at all?" pried Treguard, looking down at the scroll gravely.
"Only fear," hissed Mildread. "Only the fear I felt. I'm sure that you and Mr Spock over there was in it," she added, gesturing towards Pickle, who looked over his shoulder to see if she was referring to someone else in the room, "And Merlin, and loadsa others. And that we was all dying just before I woke up."
Treguard looked up at her sharply. "Dying? What caused that?"
Mildread looked impatient. "Like I says, I don't know!" she snapped. "Some kind of great and terrible change lies ahead, and that will lead to our deaths. That seemed to be the gist of it."
"A great change, Master?" murmurred Pickle nervously. "What could it be?"
Treguard looked down at the images on the parchment again. Caterpillar to butterfly. Well that was a change obviously, but he somehow doubted that it could have anything to do with something so unremarkable. But then, hadn't Mildread implied that this was only a symbol for something more?
"Most disturbing," he nodded, "if you're telling the truth."
"Course I'm tellin' the truth!" spat Mildread.
"How do we know that for sure?"
Mildread looked at him knowingly. "You know." Her stare was firm, unwavering. Yes, she was telling the truth. It made very little sense otherwise anyway - Mildread may have had a childish sense of humour, but even she wouldn't come all the way back from Ireland just to play a practical joke.
This premonition was worrying though. "Is there anything else you can tell us?"
Mildread seemed to pause for thought. "The only other thing I remembers is a phrase. Something someone said to me in the dream. It seemed to stick in my mind after I woke up."
"Don't keep us in suspense, Mildread," insisted Treguard irritably, "Tell us!"
"Well there's a problem," she replied. "It sounds back-to-front like."
"Back-to-front?" said Pickle. "What is it?"
Mildread looked bothered, then answered. "I thinks it was, er..." She cleared her throat. "It was 'The key to defeat lies in victory.'" She shrugged.
Treguard considered this. He didn't know why but there was something about this that really made him shiver.
"Yes that does sound backwards, Master," Pickle suddenly interjected. "The key to defeat? People on the verge of victory do not look for ways to fail."
"Indeed they do not," agreed Treguard. "Not often anyway. Alright Mildread, we'll assume I believe you for the moment. What should we do? Any ideas?"
"Oh, I've 'ad a good idea all along, Dungeon Master," sneered Mildread. "I'm orff. I ain't stayin' round 'ere for long, no chance. I'm putting as much distance between me and England as possible. I'd head for Spain if I thought it was far enough but it ain't. So I'll probably head for China. Why, I'd consider leaving the planet if I thought I could. You sort it out, whatever it is, and maybe I'll come back."
Treguard frowned. "It would almost be worth dying, if only to prevent you from coming back," he retorted unkindly.
"Yeah? Well that's up to you, Treguard. S'long." Mildread snapped her fingers, there was a loud rumble, a blinding flash of light, and she was suddenly gone.
Treguard cursed quietly. "Typical, leave everyone else to do the dirty work." He gave the scroll another glance and shook his head. "Pickle?"
"Have all the men-at-arms remain on stand by," ordered Treguard. "Just in case."
Mogdred gazed into the crystal patiently. Patience was the key for Mogdred. Patience had been, down the many years, his strongest card. Never move too soon, wait for the opportunity, be prepared to accept small victories instead of insisting on everything at once. Wait for the opponent to show his weakness, then play upon it. Do not move until then, or who could say what damage the opponent might inflict? Patience, patience, patience. This was his very simple equation for success. For the most part it worked very well. A tiny handful of Treguard's Dungeoneers had thwarted him by managing to keep their flaws hidden, but most of them had shown him the chinks in their armour, be it through foolishness, lack of agility, lack of speed, or sheer corruptibility. The painful truth that Mogdred had tried hard to keep quiet was that an opponent without weaknesses was a real conundrum for him, the nature of his own magic was not well-equipped for that. But happily such opponents were so few and so far between that this was rarely put to the test.
Mogdred knew now, as he gazed upon the countenance of the odious King, that the opportunity was not there yet. But soon, soon it would be. This new Charter, the Magna Carta as it was called, had been signed. This had demonstrated King John's political weakness - his isolation, the opposition to him throughout the kingdom, which the Charter was the price he'd had to pay to placate it. It would soon open up his greatest personal weakness - his duplicity. At some point he would go back on the word of the Charter, to try and force the genie of English liberty back into its bottle, and then his position would be untenable.
Soon. All that was required was patience. Mogdred's finest strength.
Dawn over the ghost village of Dunsholm was dismal and dingy. It was deepest winter, frost covered the harsh and scuppered ground. This village had once been a proud and thriving border town for honest cross-border tradesmen, defended ably by the mighty Northguard from Scots raiders. But since the capture of Dunshelm by the diabolical Gruagach, for whom defence of the realm was not an issue, the Scots had virtually had free reign of the far North. After numerous brutal attacks on the peaceful village, its surviving occupants finally upped and departed, leaving it a deserted and battered monument to a past oasis from Norman avarice.
Treguard rode along a gravelly path down the hillside toward the village, astride his horse, Black. The horse was getting very old now, but Treguard still trusted it implicitly, and would never dream of travelling with any other. At the foot of the hill, with a gentle tug of the reigns Treguard pulled Black to a halt. He looked from side to side warily. "Hordriss!" he called out nervously. "Hordriss, you insisted on this meeting, now where are you?"
"You sound edgy, Dungeon Master."
Treguard looked over his shoulder sharply to see Hordriss the Confuser suddenly standing behind him with his usual regal arrogance, his red-white hair barely moved by the dull morning breeze.
"Do I?" asked Treguard, betraying no surprise at this premeditated display of sinister obscurity.
Hordriss sidled his eyes in either direction, then looked back at Treguard. "One knows not whether to commend your courage, or condemn your recklessness, coming here alone. Why are you so sure you can trust me?"
Treguard was impassive, just stared at him for a moment, then replied. "Of course I can't. And if you think I'm foolish enough to leave myself unprotected..." He didn't finish his sentence, but pointed up to the crest of the hill. Hordriss looked in the direction indicated, and noted without surprise or admiration that Pickle was stood there, armed with a longbow. Nocked in the bow was an arrow that was aimed at Hordriss. Although there were a good hundred yards between archer and target, there could be little doubt that any elf would comfortably score a direct hit from that range.
Hordriss smiled. "Well now I know. One thanks you for so obligingly revealing your hand."
Treguard had already tired of the sinister posturing. "I'm very busy, Hordriss. This had better be important."
"Important, yes," nodded Hordriss, "And in all probability, not unrelated."
Treguard looked at once amused and irritated. "And how exactly would you know what I am so busy with?"
"How I know is unimportant," said Hordriss. "For that matter, even if I know is not important. What you are busy with is crucial. If it involves Mogdred."
"It might do," answered Treguard.
"No need for evasion," insisted the proud warlock.
"I am not being evasive," Treguard retorted strongly. "I mean, I'm not sure if it involves him or not."
Hordriss looked like he was a little unclear on this point, but continued. "Well, perhaps one can help. One has a pact to offer you, Treguard. A pact that might benefit your position."
Treguard remained impassive. "Yes?"
"One is well aware of your current difficulties with the necromancer of the third level," continued Hordriss.
"Do not be disingenuous, Dungeon Master!" snarled Hordriss. "One is not easily deceived by false conceit. He is the cancer that rots your Dungeon from within. He is the decay that reduces the honourable Game of Luck and Glory with which you challenge the aspirants of Chivalry, into a war of petty crime and political machination. He uses your own power as Master of the Dungeon against you, to restrain you from exercising your rightful authority."
Treguard looked more than embarrassed to hear the truth stated so bluntly. He maintained a painful silence.
"Feel no shame, Dungeon Master, feel no shame," said Hordriss more gently. "We all have our bridges to cross, our demons to exorcise. Mogdred is yours."
"And presumably you can exorcise Mogdred for me?" snorted Treguard.
"Why no, Treguard," answered Hordriss, "one cannot. But then one does not have to. If one requires the removal of an opponent, there are far more direct methods of achieving it."
"Are you seriously suggesting that you can assassinate Mogdred?"
"Doesn't sound all that direct so far, Hordriss," Treguard commented dryly. "But let's overlook the details for the time being. You are offering to rid me of Mogdred. What are you demanding in return?"
"Maybe the elimination of Mogdred is its own reward, Dungeon Master," Hordriss answered not at all.
"And why would you want to?" insisted Treguard. "Mogdred is neither friend nor foe to you."
Hordriss finally grew impatient. "Do we have a pact, Treguard? Yes or no?"
But of course Treguard was far too canny for that. "No. Not yet. I want to know exactly what you want to do and why you want to destroy him. Then maybe we can do a deal."
Hordriss still looked irritated, but he knew that he had little choice. "It is still a direct method, Treguard. And it is assassination."
The corners of Treguard's mouth drew back into a grimace that spoke only of distaste. "How courageous," he sniffed, voice drenched in the spices of sarcasm. "You never did have much time for principle did you?"
Hordriss sneered. "Oh indeed, Dungeon Master? You send children into the Dungeon to fight your battles against Mogdred for you, and you've even been known to laugh when they meet their demise. Now you speak in withering tones to me about poor morals?"
Treguard looked abashed, and did not reply. It was undeniable, and it had become a source of real shame to Treguard. He looked away to the pleasing slopes and hills and wearily considered the recent years, the terrible fates that had befallen so many of his Dungeoneers, and how little their deaths had affected him. Even now the only thing that disturbed him was how little it had all disturbed him.
Hordriss continued. "You know Mogdred's origin of course."
"Of course," confirmed Treguard, "I was present when he first emerged."
"And where did he emerge from, Treguard?"
Hordriss' expression did not seem to change, yet his eyes burned with a ruthless smile. "Precisely."
Treguard's eyes narrowed with doubt. "What are you suggesting, Hordriss?" Hordriss did not answer, but then he didn't have to. Treguard glowered. "Now I know you're not being serious."
"It is the only way, Treguard," said Hordriss quietly.
"Murder him? Murder Merlin?"
"They are two sides of the same whole, Dungeon Master," explained Hordriss, "Good and Evil, as you call them, they cannot exist independently, there cannot be one without the other, for if there is no Evil, how can one acknowledge Good? They are a balancing force within nature."
"I see," said Treguard, who didn't. "And now that we've finished that little sojourn into the world of philosophy, could we return to the subject of Merlin...?"
"Stop pretending to be obtuse," hissed Hordriss, "you understand what one is saying. Merlin cannot exist without Mogdred, nor can Mogdred exist without Merlin. One is the yin to the other's yang. Destroy Merlin, and Mogdred is no more."
"Think, Dungeon Master," Hordriss continued, "if you rid yourself of Mogdred, Merlin will cease to exist anyway. They both die either way, and you cannot deny that Mogdred must be destroyed."
"Not perhaps," Hordriss maintained, "it is beyond dispute. Even I concur with it, and, as you were so quick to indicate, one is usually accustomed to remaining impartial on such matters. At least if we strike Merlin down, we are likely to survive the battle. If we confront Mogdred, we are likely to die with him - assuming he dies at all."
Treguard shook his head, genuinely tormented by the direction the discussion had taken. "But I can't agree to this! I can't destroy Merlin, he's my friend."
"You will not have to," said Hordriss. "If you grant me access to your Castle, I will do the deed. Well?"
Treguard looked distraught. On the one hand, his sense of loyalty, his ethics, screamed at him to say no. But on the other hand he heard his sense of duty, of responsibility, reminding him very loudly but very calmly that Mogdred had to die, or who could say what horrors might befall England? And logic told him, equally loudly, that Hordriss had a good point - if Merlin would automatically die as Mogdred died, or vice versa, what difference would it make which one was destroyed?
But still, how could he help to murder Merlin?
He finally looked back at Hordriss. "No," he said firmly, "I can't do this."
Hordriss was exasperated. "Such irrational weakness, I should have expected no better..."
"Hold your insolent tongue!" growled Treguard. "I will speak to Merlin in person. If he concurs with your plan, if he is prepared to go along with it, I will contact you and we will see where we go from there."
"Do not be absurd!" sneered Hordriss. "He will never agree to his own death! You will merely inform him and he will make steps to prevent us from taking action. You will cost us the opp-..."
"Merlin has long stated," interjected Treguard, slowly, quietly, fiercely, doggedly, "that he would readily give his life to rid the world of evil. If your theory is true, this will be his chance, and he will accept it." He continued quickly, before Hordriss could attempt any contradiction. "What you're proposing, on the other hand, is to catch him while he is unprepared, and kill him. That would be murder, Hordriss. How can I possibly stand by such a thing?"
"This is emotion speaking..."
"Now you're the one being obtuse," Treguard jeered. "It's not emotion, I simply know that it's something I can't do. I am not a murderer."
"Nonsense!" retorted Hordriss. "You have killed many in battle."
"I've killed, yes," admitted Treguard. "I'm not a killer."
At this remark, Hordriss' face became a case study in the very aspect he was most famous for - confusion. "There is a difference?"
"I think so," said Treguard, "even if you don't. And besides, I know this sounds a little old fashioned, but isn't it illegal?"
Hordriss clearly didn't think that this last point was worthy of a direct answer, and with good reason. After all, what meaning did the law of the land have within the Dungeon? Surely none. "I repeat, you will not have to do the deed."
"I wouldn't have to, to commit a crime," Treguard corrected him. "I would be an accessory to murder, which in some ways is even worse. No. We have no right to extract such a sacrifice from Merlin on his behalf, it must be for him to decide. I will not betray him, Hordriss. I am not capable of it." Treguard's shoulders slumped. He suddenly felt tired. "I'll speak to Merlin. If he agrees that it can work... If he's prepared to..." He didn't want to say it. "I'll contact you with his answer." With that, Treguard hurriedly hauled on Black's reigns, turned the horse about and headed back uphill swiftly, determined to leave before Hordriss could keep the argument alive.
The old wizard was waiting in the antechamber of the Castle. Treguard hadn't expected to see him there, and he couldn't help a guilty start of surprise. Pickle was sat on the side of the table, looking away awkwardly, saying nothing. What, after all, was there to say?
"Dungeon Master," Merlin greeted him stiffly. It wasn't difficult to realise that, wherever he had been hibernating, Merlin had seen and heard what Treguard had been discussing with Hordriss. Nor was it difficult to realise that Merlin had told Pickle. Least of all was it difficult to realise that Merlin was angry. Very angry.
Not knowing where to begin, Treguard began to speak. "I..." was as far as he got.
"You and Hordriss have had plenty of say, Treguard!" Merlin cut in quickly, acidly. "Now it's my turn." Treguard looked like he wanted to protest at the accusation in the sorcerer's voice, but then bowed his head politely, allowing Merlin to continue. "I always knew that it would come to this at some point. I've tried for years to think of a way of vanquishing Mogdred without..." He suddenly ceased to look angry, and instead just looked forlorn and tired, "...without... you know." There is no way. Indeed this appears to be the only way we can be sure of destroying him, whatever happens to me."
Merlin had already thought of it? Treguard wasn't entirely surprised that he had never mentioned it - it was hardly an idea that most people would like to promote, or even draw attention to. But still Treguard was a little hurt, because it indicated that Merlin didn't trust him enough to share the idea with him, even if it was only to eliminate it from the (very narrow) list of options.
"Merlin, look," Treguard started, "I haven't made any deal with..."
"I haven't finished!" snapped Merlin. Treguard was taken aback somewhat, and fell silent again. "I know you haven't made any deals. You misunderstand my anger, Treguard. It's not directed at you. It's not even directed at Hordriss." Merlin stared at the wall, as though expecting it to give all the answers. He was in the wrong part of the Castle for that, the wall remained silent. "I'm angry with myself."
"Why?" The question was from Pickle, who had clearly been on the receiving end of some calamitous rant from Merlin about Treguard and Hordriss and their deceitful dealings, non-existant though they were.
"You ask why?" Chuckling feebly, Merlin looked down to where his own toes were poking out from under the hem of his colourful robes. "Because Hordriss is right. There is only one way we can be sure that Mogdred is destroyed, and I've been lying to myself for years that I can find another way to rid us of him. Or that there would never be a time that his destruction would become imperative."
"That time is now?" probed Treguard carefully.
Merlin nodded. "Yes, that time is now. My powers are no longer a match for his, and I won't be able to contain him much more."
"But," stammered Pickle, "I-I don't understand, Merlin. You and Mogdred are supposed to be..."
Merlin held up his hand and interrupted. "I know what you're going to say, sprite," he said sadly. "The problem is the nature of the Dungeon." Merlin sat himself down on one of the benches, and for the first time in all the years Treguard had known him, he suddenly looked genuinely beaten. Not just physically tired, but spiritually exhausted. "His powers are more passive than you might think. He works the weaknesses of his enemies. When his enemies fail, when they die, he draws power from the life force he has drained from them." Merlin shook his head. "He has taken the lives of so many Dungeoneers, both from this era and from the possible future, that his power has grown great. By contrast, our victories have been so few, that my own power has scarcely grown at all." He reached around the back of his neck and pulled from it a chain, on which was suspended the Talisman of Luck that a Dungeoneer had once reclaimed for him. "Look at this," he mumbled despairingly. "It's not enough. It bought us time, nothing more. And now that time has run out." He looked up at Treguard through worn eyes. "I cannot afford to pretend anymore, Dungeon Master. I have to die."
There it was. He had said it, and the silence that followed deafened Treguard with its thunderous nothingness. Pickle looked distraught, but he also said nothing.
Merlin got to his feet once more and headed toward the Dungeon door. "Tell Hordriss that I agree," he instructed Treguard voicelessly, "and don't feel any hesitation or guilt. I have lived for centuries beyond counting." He paused at the threshold of the portal and looked over his shoulder at Treguard. "All things have their time, and when their time ends, they must end with it. In truth, mine passed before Arthur died. I must stop delaying the inevitable, late nature take its course."
He stepped through the portal and disappeared into the reforming folds of the Dungeon.
Treguard slumped into his chair. Pickle stood to one side, not daring to speak or move. A long moment of silence drifted past, during which the whole world seemed to age a little.
Finally Treguard broke the horrible tension. "Pickle," he murmured softly, "I still have to deal with Mildread's warning. While I'm doing that, we need to let Hordriss know that he has an agreement."
"Are you sure that you want to do this, Master?"
Treguard looked at Pickle as though this was a stupid question, which of course it was. "Of course I don't want to!" he growled harshly. He then looked apologetic. "Sorry." He let out a breath he didn't realise he was holding. "Give the message to Mellisandre at the Crazed Heifer. She'll pass it on."
"Do as I order, Pickle."
Pickle nodded unhappily. "Yes, Master." He soundlessly walked through the door and disappeared up the steps, leaving Treguard alone with his uncomfortable thoughts.
Treguard sat back and closed his eyes. He'd never dared imagine seeing a time without Merlin to aid him, never mind being forced to help bring it about. He felt the pain of knowing that he was about to lose one of his oldest friends, but he also felt something even worse. Dread. Dread of an uncertain future. Even without Mogdred in it, he feared a future without Merlin's wisdom or power to back him. Treguard even doubted that what little magic he possessed could last long if Merlin wasn't there to renew it.
In one way it would almost be worse that Mogdred would die with Merlin. At least with Mogdred there, Treguard knew what he'd be up against. Who or what might one day replace him, Treguard shuddered to imagine, and he dreaded the thought of having to find out without Merlin's counsel.
Treguard suddenly opened his eyes, and found his view distorted and blurred. He realised after a moment that it was because there were tears in them. Could he really bring himself to do this? Could he even stand back and let someone else do the deed?
Well. He would soon find out.