It was Mordred's thirst for life that was so incredible. Even the uncle he hated so much, Arthur, had never hidden his admiration for the boundless energy that Mordred had always possessed, even after he turned it to the ways of evil.
His thirst could be quenched in any number of ways, but they would only ever be temporary, and always cruel - be they through explosions of red-faced anger, through his love of inflicting pain, through the seductive delicacy of instilling fear or through the acquisition of ill-gotten power and wealth, his instinct was always to empower himself through the suffering of others.
So it was now. He was dead, long dead in fact. But such was his thirst for life that his instinct had found the power to live again through the evil half of the sorcerer Merlin and the magic of the demonic Gruagach. Thus he was reborn as the necromancer, Mogdred.
Now Merlin was dead, and inevitably Mogdred had died with him. But Mordred lived on. Well, not Mordred himself, but so great and so powerful was his instinct, that his thirst lived on after him. His thirst for life, his thirst to live.
So great was it that the ailing, withered body of Mogdred had become cocooned in that energy, preserving it while waiting for a new vessel to thrive upon.
It didn't have to wait long.
For it found mineral substance with which to refortify its physical form, and, most important of all, a new soul so rich in fear, so succulent in primal emotions, that as soon as the new form arose from its cocoon, it immediately started to feed upon it, and to fill itself with life force.
It found a flavour so mouth-watering, a soul as rich in greed as Mordred himself. There was an undoubted affinity that meant more than just ongoing life, for to find a soul so compatible with Mordred was an opportunity to resume consciousness and sapient identity. A new soul to become one with.
The metallic creature had the most inappropriate method of taking life, for it was taking the life of Malice with, of all things, a kiss.
The creature, in what passed for a mind, recognised itself instinctively as a creature of passions, and it found the kiss of this sorceress most pleasurable. It also found her life force, so saturated as it was with the flavour of fear, a most succulent meal.
So much so that it continued to drink every last lingering vestige of life force it could find in Malice's body, long after she had expired.
It was to Mordred a hearty meal. To Malice it was a cold, gruesome death. To both of them, it was a watershed, for the soul of Malice, even as it was swallowed whole by the soul of Mordred, embraced the all-encompassing darkness it found there. Malice recognised the evil shrouding Mordred's soul, and found it familiar, even comforting.
Somewhat perversely, the creature was exhausted by the energy it had ingested, not to mention confused by new instincts suddenly racing through it. Thoughts, it would have called them, if only it could remember them from before.
As it cast aside the now frozen, colourless husk of Malice's body, it found itself in need of rest. It saw the throne and slumped itself upon it, lolling sluggishly over one of its arms, and swiftly descended into slumber. It was surprised, even alarmed, to find that these thoughts continued to race through its suddenly expanding mind. Dreams. Dreams of power. Dreams of greed and of glory, dreams of unspeakable evils, all committed with relish. Dreams of wretched defeat, dreams of pain, and worst of all, dreams of dark, choking fear.
As it slept on, the creature's eyes rolled frantically below their lids, it began to sweat with the tangible fears rumbling through its mind. It remembered the anger of betrayal, the fury of confrontation, the pain of fire. The hate and fear that it all caused was... it had a name. What was it? mal-... mali-... malice. Yes. It was malice. No. No, it was Malice. Malice was awakening within the creature, even as it was trying to comprehend the creature that it was part of.
It was Malice. The creature was Malice, and yet it was so very much more. It was a feeling. The emotion that Malice had felt when struck by a ball of fire from an enemy. She had felt the pain of the flames burning into the flesh above her brow, she had felt the anger at the enemy's treacherous attack, but most of all she had felt the...
It was Mogdred. The creature was Mogdred, and yet it was so very much more. It was a feeling. The emotion that Mogdred had felt when shrouding an enemy in invisibility, only to find the magic thrown back at him. He had felt the humiliation of defeat, he had felt the exasperation of being felled by his own weapon, but most of all he had felt the...
It was Mordred. The creature was Mordred, and yet it was so very much more. It was a feeling. The emotion that Mordred had felt when being struck down by his detested uncle. He had felt the anguish as Excalibur had cut through his flesh, he had felt the despair as he realised that he would never take his rightful place as King of the Britons, but most of all he had felt the...
They had all felt what they had now united to become. In life it had been the defining quality, the dominant characteristic in all of them. None of them had ever dared to admit it, even to themselves, but it was their most constant companion, the devil cursing their every waking hour, and many a sleeping hour too. The demon perched on their shoulders, its voice always whispering in their ears, filling them with anxieties and paranoia, motivating them against those around them, and dominating their hearts and minds with greedy insecurities.
They had all felt the icy finger of...
They had all felt the shivering embrace of...
They had all become...
The creature opened its eyes, which glowed redder than red with incalculable evil. It was conscious. It was aware of being. And it was aware of what it was.
"I... am. And... I... am... FEAR!!!!"
The creature hauled itself to its feet. And even as it did so it felt stronger. It felt its consciousness expanding as the separate, diverse minds at the core of its being slowly melded into one, coherent whole.
It looked down at itself. It looked at the metal of its body, fused with the bones of its old skeleton. It was strengthening, solidifying before the creature's calm, resolute eyes, and layers of this fusion spreading across the gaps between bones. What need of flesh when wearing the skin of such mighty armour? It felt its own head, the layer of protective iron surrounding its skull.
The metamorphosis would soon be complete. It had emerged from its chrysalis, and its new rebirth was almost done.
It stretched its arms upwards and let out a roar of triumph.
"I... AM... FEAAAARRRR!!!!!!!!"
Treguard was still not sure how to feel, be it morose, optimistic or just numb. He should have been feeling morose for the loss of his old friend and comrade Merlin. On the other hand he should also have been feeling optimistic that Mogdred had been dismissed to the Chaos lands.
Unfortunately these two impulses offset each other pretty well exactly, leaving Treguard feeling numb, and he wasn't inclined to accept that, it didn't seem healthy.
Still, there was no time for dwelling on self-pity. The Mogdred-Merlin business was now settled, seemingly forever, but Treguard still had other matters to attend to, chiefly warnings he had received from Mildread.
"'The key to defeat lies in victory'," he reminded himself quietly.
His words hadn't been meant for anyone else, but nonetheless, Motley looked up from the corner of the antechamber, where he was absently practicing juggling with a bundle of multi-coloured skittles, and blinked without comprehension. "Eh?"
"It doesn't matter," sighed Treguard. "I doubt there's anything you can do anyway."
"Try me," suggested Motley.
Treguard looked at him doubtfully for a moment then shrugged. "You remember Mildread?"
"Mildread? Er, short woman. Always leaning like she's got an anvil on a chain round her neck? Face like a rubber mask that's been left too close to a fire?"
"What about her?"
Treguard explained to him about the unwanted discussion with Mildread. Motley didn't know why, but as he listened he was suddenly reminded of an unwanted encounter of his own, one that he was still putting down to alcohol-induced fantasies.
"The tree," he murmured.
Treguard suddenly stopped recounting the details of Mildread's premonition and looked at the jester sharply. "What did you say?"
Motley rubbed his jaw. "Look," he said, "a great change is coming, in which the key to defeat lies in victory? That's the gist of what she was telling you?"
"More or less."
Motley's face fell very flat. "Look, boss," he coughed, "I don't mean any disrespect and what-'ave-you..."
"Don't start that up again," Treguard warned him.
"Sorry," nodded Motley, "it's just, well, I think you're missing something obvious."
Treguard looked at him through narrowed eyes. "Have I?"
"Well don't keep me in suspense, Motley," insisted Treguard impatiently. "If you've got something to say, say it."
"A great change, guv'nor?" said Motley. "I mean, ain't that already happened?" Treguard blinked, but other than that offered no response, so Motley decided to elaborate a little further. "Merlin I mean. He's gone. And Mogdred's been dismissed to the Chaos lands. That sounds like a pretty big change to me."
Treguard's expression changed to complete astonishment. He hadn't seen it. He really hadn't seen it. He had been so busy seeing Hordriss' whole plan to remove Mogdred as an ill-timed parallel issue to Mildread's prophecy that he hadn't noticed just how much of a parallel it really was, in terms of the similarities. Motley was right. It was a huge change, and it was also a victory, albeit a hollow one.
Treguard suddenly felt an excruciating knot of anxiety at the pit of his stomach. For if he were to take this theory a stage further and see this as the victory in which Mildread had prophesied there would be the key to defeat, then the process, whatever it was, may already have been set in motion.
For his part, Motley had already thought of all this. But on top of that, there was still that other thing bothering him. What was it the tree seemed to say to him?
"We've died once already this day."
Died once already this day? And that was the day that Merlin had died? A little bit much for a coincidence perhaps? Far too much in fact. Motley immediately turned and headed for the door.
"Where are you going?" demanded Treguard.
"I won't be long," Motley called back over his shoulder.
Treguard wasn't too worried about that, in fact, he just wanted to know what Motley was planning to do. Although even if he'd had the chance to ask, the only answer he'd have got would have been something along the lines of, "Actually you don't want to know."
The creature was no longer at odds with its own existence. It knew what it was, even relished it. But it was now uncertain as to its purpose, and thus who it was.
The fear it tasted was cold and paralysing, and yet its flavour was invigorating. It was the taste of... control. Control, yes. There was a thought still echoing around the walls of its soul. What was it? Why did it sound so recent? So familiar?
There was one word in it that really stood out, because it sounded so deliciously appealing. RULE. Yes. Rule. That sounded most enticing. But how was it supposed to do that? Purpose is nothing without strategy.
The words gained greater clarity the more the creature thought. It could remember more of it. "Rule through pain..." No, no that wasn't it. No it was, "Rule through fear..." No, not quite. Nearer but not quite.
Then, it clicked. Yes! That was it.
"Rule not through the pain of reprisals but through the fear of reprisals."
The creature still did not know how it knew this wisdom, or even why it sounded so recent, but now it sensed its purpose.
RULE. RULE THROUGH FEAR. The thought rushed through every fibre of its being, the impulse was in every way ingrained into it, an instinct that it recognised from its own previous lives. It was in them, it was part of them, part of what made them what they were. It was still part of what made them one being. They were, all of them, creatures who ruled through fear.
The creature pulled itself to its feet and walked across the chamber to a narrow mirror on the furthest wall. It looked at itself.
It was almost complete. It was beautiful, a perfect fusion of metal and sinew. Bones laced with white iron, joined by stretches of dark iron. Eyes full of red hatred, a face of parchment white flesh. All shrouded in studded raven leathers.
The creature was regal and it was frightening. It was born to RULE THROUGH FEAR. It was Fear. It was the Lord of Terror. Yes. A Lord who ruled through Fear. It smiled at its own reflection with self-admiration, and stretched its arms upward again.
"I... AM... LORD... FEAAARRR!!!!!!!!"
Motley had the problem that he didn't actually know for sure which tree he was looking for. This was a symptom of another, equally knotty problem, namely that of the irritating habit forests always had of being full of trees.
He had retraced his way along the paths of the Dunwood, trying to remember where he had had that ghoulish encounter with the talking tree the previous night, hoping that he could recognise it from his memory, dulled though it was by intoxication.
It was hopeless. He'd last seen it in the dead of night when the wind was high and the rain was falling, so in fact it was an exaggeration to suggest that he'd seen it at all. Now the sun was out, shining weakly through the hazy sky, and the whole forest thus could hardly have looked more different if an earthquake struck.
He searched for some time, trudging unsteadily over the soft ground, until his eyes could no longer focus properly, the trees seeming to blend into each other, and he could no longer tell one for another.
Motley scowled with annoyance and slumped onto the ground, trying to catch his breath. He hated the feeling of helplessness, always had done, and the most frustrating kind was always the one when he knew he had the ability, but just couldn't remember what to do or how to do it.
He sat back against the trunk of the tree behind him, and sulked glumly.
"Why can you never find someone when you need them?" he growled. "I mean it's only a tree I'm lookin' for, it shouldn't be able to run off."
"Oh I'm sorry," said a voice behind him. "If you'd just taken the trouble to tell me you were looking for me I would have said something."
With impressive dexterity Motley suddenly jumped to his feet, spun on his heel and found himself staring into two large careworn eyes set in the bark of the tree, like ripples from stones cast into a limpid pond. The voice that spoke to him from the narrow slit of a mouth near the base of the trunk sounded kind yet painfully formal, rather like a guilty grandfather who, every year without exception, forgets to send a birthday card.
"Sorry," murmured the tree, a little embarrassed as he realised that he had scared Motley half out of his wits. A sorry state of affairs, cynics might argue, seeing how few wits Motley had to be in in the first place.
With what might have seemed to an outside observer like a heroic effort, Motley caught his breath and calmed himself down. He then looked up at the tree again. Nice to know he hadn't been imagining things the previous night after all. He suddenly smiled to himself briefly at that, as he considered the possibility that that time he had been lying drunk in the dungeon pantry and he could have sworn that Mellisandre had suddenly walked in, kneeled down next to him and started to undo his... well, without going into unnecessary details, maybe that hadn't just been his imagination either.
Still, now wasn't the time to dwell on such optimistic possibilities, Motley had bigger priorities. Not that he was entirely sure what they were. He just felt sure, deep down, that he was in the right place to learn what he needed to learn.
As if in answer to his thoughts the tree asked, "So, how may I help you, young Motley?"
"You know who I am?"
"Well obviously," answered the tree, just a little testily. "Is that all you wanted to ask me?"
"Er no," said Motley quickly. "I was just a bit surprised that you knew my name."
"Oh. So what did you want to know?"
"Well firstly," began Motley folding his arms, surprised at how defensive he was suddenly feeling, "seein' as how you know my name, why not tell me yours?"
"That would be fair," agreed the tree. "My name is Nilgom."
"Nilgom?" scoffed Motley. "What kind of name is that?"
"It's my name," answered the tree. "Why? What kind of name is Motley?"
Ah, so it was to be a verbal sparring contest was it? Well unfortunately for Nilgom, this was one tree that had chosen quite the wrong opponent. For this was the classic situation where a sharp tongue was of incalculable value, the kind where Motley could give a swift, smart reply full of his own unique brand of savage, clever irony that, with its sheer breathtaking cheek alone, could dumbfound and infuriate even the most brilliant verbal assailant.
Unfortunately he couldn't actually think of one, and the pause had soon lasted too long for any response to have the desired effect. So he settled for a shrug and the rather lame, "Fair point."
"Yes," sniffed the tree, quietly triumphant, "my name is Nilgom. So, for the third time of asking, what do you want to ask me?"
"It was something you said to me last night," began Motley.
"Oh yes," the tree nodded. The problem with nodding of course was that, being a tree, Nilgom didn't actually have a head. Therefore, nodding involved the entire tree violently shaking back and forth on its roots, releasing a torrent of water from the previous night's downpour that had settled in the leaves and branches. Motley was quickly soaked, but Nilgom appeared not to notice, or more likely not to care. And who could blame him? Nilgom could never go inside whenever the rain started, he had to sit out there in the freezing cold all year round and put up with it, so why should he sympathise when some scruffy jester got his clothes wet? "Yes," the tree continued cheerfully, "the only thing I said in fact. I might have said more, but you were so drunk I was afraid your breath might set my foliage on fire, so I thought I should leave the discussion there."
Motley suddenly noticed that he was not enjoying this conversation very much. Not only could he not think of any witty rejoinders to the ultra-composed put-downs that Nilgom was throwing his way by the bucketful, he was also soaked to the bone. He was beginning to wish he'd not set out.
"I believe," continued Nilgom, "that my words were 'We've died once already this day.' Yes?" he added as though he thought Motley would remember better than he did.
Motley nodded. "Yes."
"And you want to know what I meant by that?"
"May I ask you one thing before I tell you?"
Motley rolled his eyes. He was really starting to dislike this tree. "Another thing? Go on."
"I'm wondering why you want to know," explained Nilgom. "It wouldn't have anything to do with Merlin would it?"
Motley looked into the wooded eyes of the tree, suddenly feeling the familiar spark of progress. Maybe he could grow to like the tree after all. "Yes," he said evenly.
"I thought so."
Nilgom's voice suddenly turned quieter, darker. "There is much that you must know, Motley. You and your Dungeon Master."
"Well tell me," insisted Motley.
"Do you really not recognise me, Motley?" the tree suddenly asked.
Motley shook his head, not so much an answer as a dizzy response to the sudden changes of direction the conversation kept making. Nonetheless Nilgom seemed to take it as an answer, and it was true enough.
"I cannot die if Mogdred does not die with me," explained the tree, increasingly bleakly.
Motley's eyes widened a little. "Merlin?"
Fatilla the Hun never knew what eliminated him, for he was already dead as soon as he saw it. All he had done was lumber up to the throne room in response to a summons from his leader, when he was hit in the face by a tumultuous fireball. The first - only - thing he thought, was that he had been attacked by some kind of ghostly skeleton.
He was dead before he hit the floor.
The creature looked down at his half-metal fingers with a nod of satisfaction, and blew away the small puff of smoke rising from them.
"Bye bye, Fatty," it cooed cheerfully. No not it. He. The generation of his hybrid personality was almost complete. He liked the strange movements of magic that these metallic components made possible. "Y'know, I think there's a lot to be said for this technology-thing."
Fear strode... no not just Fear, he was a Lord of Fear.
Lord Fear strode across the chamber and sat himself in the throne. He found that it fit him very well indeed. It was made for him.
"And I also think I'm going to enjoy this body," gloated Fear, a sickly grin hideously splitting his face from ear to ear, "very, very much."
"Merlin?" Motley swallowed slightly, although by now his throat was feeling so dry that it only made his throat hurt. "Is that you?"
"Yes," said the tree. "I am Nilgom. Or Moglin backwards. As in Mogdred and Merlin, the two sides fused into one once more. We should be gone to the Chaos lands, Motley. But we cannot." The tree gave Motley a piercing look. "For part of Mogdred lives on, Motley. A part the rest of us cannot touch, and yet a part that holds us in this world as long as it lives. It has found something else to cling to, to hold it in this world."
Motley all of a sudden found breathing to be a difficult trick again. "Oh boy, this is serious," was the only, somewhat unnecessary, thing he could find to say.
"We made a mistake, Motley," continued Nilgom. "Hordriss and I, we made a mistake when we decided to cast the dispersal spell. We forgot that Mogdred is not just my dark side. He is also the spirit of King Arthur's nephew, Mordred. Inevitably that part of Mogdred has survived when I died, as Mordred was never truly part of me. But he is still linked to me, so I cannot retreat to the netherworlds as long as he remains here."
Motley closed his eyes slowly as he realised the horrifying enormity of what might have happened. Merlin had made the ultimate sacrifice, and it might well have been for nothing.
"It is only in this place that I could find a way of reawakening in the physical world, Motley," continued Nilgom. "As a pagan, a woshipper of the spirits of river and forest, a forest is the only place where I could re-emerge and warn you. You have to let Treguard know, Motley. Let him know that the threat of Mogdred is not yet gone. I-..." Nilgom's voice suddenly sounded pained. "I-I don't know when I may next appear. Tell Treguard... tell Treguard... tell Treguard... tell Treguard..."
And then, the face melted back into the bark of the tree, and could be seen no more. Motley looked down at the floor miserably. "'Key to defeat in victory'," he muttered weakly, shaking his head. That was what Mildread's premonition had meant. They had successfully destroyed Mogdred's physical form, but he'd survived in some way, and now they no longer had Merlin to help them fight against him.
Motley turned and, somehow managing to find the energy, started to run back to Dunshelm.
The ways of magic were alluring, and yet so impossible to know that it was hard not to find them repellently frightening as well. To King John, this ambivalence was all too familiar. He was more terrified of Mogdred than he was of any of the other barons and knights in his kingdom. The dark powers at the necromancer's command he found awesome, and the evil that drove them he found shocking.
And yet somehow John still felt a bizarre fascination with it all. He couldn't be sure why he was unable to do the sensible thing and disown Mogdred, turn every power he could against him and extinguish the danger he clearly posed.
Maybe it was the paranoia he felt about everyone else that was driving him to risk taking such a malevolent threat as an ally. Surely not. To fight something he feared by using powers that he feared even more would have been too absurd even for King John.
Maybe it was that very hazardous quality common to so many Plantagenet Kings - their love of playing with fire, of taking needless gambles, the need to be in danger, as though that provided the only excitement capable of pleasing them. Plausible with most in John's family, not least his ferocious brothers, but unlikely with John himself, who had always been neurotic about his own safety.
Maybe it was...
John shook his head. He didn't know what it was.
Folly knew, but he was reluctant to tell him for fear of being on the receiving end of the King's notoriously volatile temper. If anyone were to suggest that a King's judgement was impaired, it was to invite an axe to the neck, and Folly was far too canny to make such an error.
Nonetheless, he still knew it to be true. The King's judgement was impaired, although on this all too rare occasion it was not in any way the King's own fault. Well, not directly.
What Folly knew was that the King's own perspective had been very subtly, very minutely, almost subliminally, altered by sorcery.
That was why the King had chosen to authorise Mogdred's outrageous claim to the Governorship of the North of England. A simple, imperceptible spell of hypnotic suggestion while they had been discussing the idea had led to the King finding Mogdred's arguments more persuasive than perhaps he would have done otherwise.
Folly was sat on a cushion in one corner of the King's throne room. He was always made to sit there, forever the dunce in the corner, eternally the fool to be mocked.
On this occasion he had a wooden slab resting on his lap, and upon that a parchment on which he was hurriedly writing something with a large quill. He was trying not to give an air of the urgency or nerves that he was certainly feeling. He was in a hurry because he didn't want the King to start wondering what he was writing.
It was a letter intended for the Castle of Dunshelm, and its contents were, at best, of dubious legality. At worst they were treasonous, for they constituted top-secret information being sent to a King's enemy.
Folly hurriedly scrawled, dabbed the quill in the tiny inkpot by his foot, and then scrawled some more. He cursed under his breath when he made a mistake, blotted it out messily and resumed.
Folly froze for just an instant then looked up innocently at the King. Was this the moment he had been dreading? "Yes, my Liege?"
"What is that you are writing?" asked the King.
Folly beamed broadly, hoping the white make-up on his face was hiding the tiny downward cast at the corners of his mouth. "Merely a poem, my Liege," he explained, the first thing that came into his mind. Damn, he thought, that was a stupid thing to say. Now the King was bound to ask him to...
"A poem?" grunted the King. "Oh." The King slumped back into thought.
Folly was surprised, relieved, and offended in equal measure. He was surprised that he hadn't been asked to read the poem out, as the King was normally so fond of hearing any creative work to take his mind off stressful matters of state. Folly was also relieved, because he hadn't written a poem at all of course, and not only was he unsure that he could just make one up on the spot, he also couldn't recite an old one for fear that the King or one of his courtiers would recognise it. And Folly was offended professionally that the King valued his poetic skills so little that he was taking no apparent interest at all.
Still, this was no time for a bruised ego. Folly swiftly finished the letter, then got to his feet, and bowed deferentially to his King, while carefully folding up the parchment so that no one could catch a glimpse of it. "May I have leave to go to the study to fetch fresh parchment, sire?" he asked politely. "This needs redrafting."
The King nodded absently. "Hurry back. Then you can tell us your poem."
Folly bowed gratefully and headed out of the throne room, head held high. Walking like that looked a little ridiculous with his outfit, especially the pointy shoes, but then that was the whole point. The image was also a help for Folly. The mocking laughs his posturing walk drew from some of the assembled courtiers confirmed that they saw him as not even the slightest threat.
If only they knew, thought Folly, looking down at the parchment in his hand with a slight smile. Once he was on the other side of the door he let his face fall a little. He was going to have to come up with a poem pretty quickly after all, but he could do that while he was dealing with bigger matters.
Folly quickly raced across the hall toward the entrance. It was guarded by two soldiers, as was typical practice in the palace. Rather less typically, one of them, due to a blemish on the face, looked eerily familiar.
"Halt, Fool," snapped the blemished one, drawing a large broadsword and holding it across Folly's path. "State your business or you will not pass, so swears Gumboil the Stupendous!"
"Gumboil?" gasped Folly. "When did you start working here?"
Gumboil looked at Folly closely, scrunching eyes and nose up narrowly until he looked like he'd been frozen solid in the middle of a violent sneezing fit. Suddenly recognition, and dislike, filled his eyes. "Oh, so it's you is it?"
"Well I might as well be," Folly answered smartly, "because if I wasn't, I'd only be somebody else. And that's just not me."
Confusion in conversation with Folly was an all too familiar experience for Gumboil. That was the reason for the dislike. He frowned stupidly, then shook his head, deciding that the best way to deal with the confusion was just to ignore it. "I told you to state your business, jester. What do you want?"
To Folly, this was unfortunately a very good question, in that it was exactly the one that he didn't want to answer. So he didn't. Instead he decided to talk round the answer. "Want is a relative term," he explained mystically. "What I want and what I need are both immutably intertwined, and yet irredeemably different."
Gumboil looked irritated. That was good as far as Folly was concerned.
"What I want is a question of desire," continued Folly. "Desire is an aspect above my position as a lowly jester. What I need on the other hand is a matter of compulsion."
"All right," sighed Gumboil, "what are you compelled to do then?"
"Ah, now you are heading off on tangents," noted Folly, quite unfairly as it was undeniable that Folly himself had raised the subject in the first place. "What is compulsion, if not an expression of the will of another? Therefore your question about compulsion is still a question about want, and as I've already explained, entirely inappropriate."
Feeling a sudden cloying need to lean against something, Gumboil lowered his sword, and propped himself up against its hilt. "Are you takin' the mickey?" he demanded.
"No," lied Folly. "I'm simply offering you the most helpful advice I can on how you can do your job more effectively."
"I don't want you to tell me my job," protested Gumboil, horrified by his own complete inability to take control of the conversation. "I just want you to answer my question!"
"There you go again," snapped Folly, "there's that 'want' word again." He wagged a disapproving finger. "You're only a guard. You don't make the decisions round here. You're not in charge of anyone. What you want is a question of desire, and that is above your position..."
"Don't start that up again!" growled Gumboil. "Answer the question."
"I did," said Folly preposterously.
"No you didn't!"
"Oh but I did," insisted Folly. "I just didn't answer yours. I'll answer your question, when you ask me the right one."
"Well, what is the right question?" Gumboil heard himself asking, and hating himself for letting himself get drawn further into the conversation.
"Well, it's not that one either," answered Folly, sticking his tongue out.
"I..." Gumboil scratched his head helplessly, and then burst into tears. "Pass," he squeaked miserably and stepped aside.
Folly laughed to himself in delight and scampered past Gumboil and the other guard. The portcullis was raised up allowing him out into the main courtyard. He turned toward the stables and keeping his head down as best he could, which wasn't very, he ducked inside. Within, he found a stable lad lying in the hay, snoring. Not exactly the sleep of the just, unless you meant he was just sleeping, but he was at least finding some measure of contentment in it. The boy was in his mid-teens, with fair hair that was distorted unpleasantly by his obvious failure to wash it in weeks.
"Wake up, Eadric," whispered Folly, giving the boy a nudge with his shoe. No response. Folly shrugged and then called out a little louder, "Viking attack, Viking attack! Erik the Red's invading!"
The boy woke up quickly and ran for the door. Folly calmly put a hand out and took a grip with a single finger on the boy's collar. The boy's legs carried themselves forward even as the momentum of his upper torso halted. He was toppled backwards by it and came crashing down onto his back.
Eadric sat up as he realised that there was no Danish invasion in progress, and he gave Folly a pouting look. "Did you have to?"
"Yes," Folly informed him. If it had been a rhetorical question, Folly hadn't noticed. He quickly showed Eadric the parchment. "I need you to head North again for me. Treguard's waiting on a new update on the King's activities, and he doesn't like waiting."
Eadric took the parchment with a frown and got to his feet.
"I'll be on my way in an hour," Eadric assured him with much honesty but little enthusiasm.
Folly shook his head, inadvertently causing one of the bells on his hood to jangle slightly. "Go and get ready now, and be on your way in ten minutes." Eadric might have argued, but Folly gave him a warning look of rare seriousness. "I mean it, Eadric. Magna Carta is getting close now. We can't let things proceed without Treguard's involvement, or the barons will take over and make sure it works only for them."
Eadric swallowed. In truth he only half-understood what this strange Charter of Liberties thing that Folly kept on referring to was about. But he did understand that it was very important, that it was an important opportunity for his country, for his people, so when Folly said that things were urgent, Eadric treated them as urgent. "Ten minutes," he nodded.
"Oh and be careful," added Folly. "I haven't been able to arrange a cover story with the guards for your journey, so be convincing."
To look at Knightmare Castle was never a deed likely to inspire joy or merriment. By contrast, it was always a dark place more given over to inspiring unease and foreboding, or sheer solemnity.
Today, it was just draining to see. For instance as Motley looked into the hearth and saw the flames leaping and dancing before his eyes, he almost saw a listlessness to them, as though the fire were simply going through the motions of burning, without finding any eagerness for the task.
That was entirely a trick of the mind of course, an illusion born of Folly's state of mind. But that was brought on by something that was genuinely sad to see, and that of course was Treguard's expression. The Dungeon Master was sat in front of the hearth, ostensibly warming his hands in front of its flickering fire, but in truth just trying to avoid everybody's eyes.
Motley had announced in faltering tones the terrible news to Treguard, Pickle and Mellisandre, that Mogdred's spirit had somehow survived Merlin's annihilation, to which they had all gone quiet in shock. The silence was unbearable to Motley, who was feeling terrible about being the one who had to break it to them, but he dared not speak up.
Treguard for his own part was lost in confusion. He had felt much pain at the terrible sacrifice that he and Hordriss had asked of Merlin. Now to hear that it had all been for nothing left him dizzy, and angry with himself. Unconsciously he gnawed on his own knuckle, as though trying to wear away the guilt by making his own finger pay the penance.
Pickle chose to break the silence, much to Motley's quiet relief. "How do we proceed, Master?" he asked. "Without Merlin how can we fight Mogdred...?"
"My friend has died for nothing, Pickle," Treguard interrupted him tonelessly. "It's a lot to come to terms with in its own right. I'm not sure I'm ready to concentrate on the strategic side of things just yet."
Pickle noticed the very mild rebuke and nodded apologetically.
"Still you're right," admitted Treguard. "We can only pray that Mordred doesn't manage to resurrect himself physically again."
"We still have the spyglass," pointed out Mellisandre. "Perhaps we should have another look."
Treguard continued to stare into the flames of the hearth, his eyes glazed. "Perhaps," he answered. And for now he would say no more than that.
Folly re-entered the throne room, and was immediately sure that he was in trouble. There were subtle signs of this, of the kind that his shrewd mind had always been quick to interpret well. For instance the fact that one of the guards had immediately grabbed hold of the back of his neck and pinned him to the wall, while one of the other guards held a sword blade across the jester's throat. There were also the small details of the King pacing back and forth in front of the throne, a typical expression of scarlet-faced outrage on his face, and saying in a dangerous tone of false calmness, "You're in trouble, Folly."
Folly had always prided himself on his ability to read between the lines like this, but he wasn't sure that it had kicked in in time on this occasion. "In trouble, sire?" he asked, trying to sound as innocent and confused as he could.
"Yes," confirmed the King nastily.
"May I ask why?"
"Because you've been up to something. I don't know what it is, but I do know that you've been hiding it from me."
Uh oh, thought Folly, had the King found him out? "My liege?" he prompted, still feigning ignorance.
"Where did you go just now?"
"To the study, sire, just as I..."
"You went to the study via the stables?" said the King. "To fetch fresh parchment that, mysteriously, you do not to have?"
So, someone had snitched on him. Folly had to hope that Eadric could get away in time. "I was merely getting some fresh air, sire," Folly promised rather weakly.
"Fresh air?" scoffed the King. "You go into a manure-encrusted stable to get some fresh air? What do you take me for? Some kind of Saxon?"
The King didn't appear to notice that as much as it was an objection to being insulted, this rhetorical question was an insult - to Folly. Not that he would have cared if he had.
"No my liege," Folly answered, "I would never equate you with a Saxon." The words were honest and deliberately ambiguous, made to sound like a compliment when they could just as easily have been a reproach. Which of course they were.
"Tell me what you were really doing," growled the King, "and tell me the truth."
"I was..." Folly needed to think fast. "I was..." C'mon brain, think! "I was... oh it's embarrassing to tell you, sire."
The King's expression softened a little from anger to just suspicion. "What do you mean? What's so embarrassing?"
"The horses, sire," explained Folly with a dim grin, "it's the horses."
There were a few bewildered and nervous looks among the courtiers around the throne room. The King in particular looked perplexed. "What about them?" he demanded.
"It's just..." Folly made a big show of looking all starry eyed and childish, "...oh you know how it is. I've never learned to ride a horse properly, sire," he continued, lying, "and I've always found them to be such mysterious, magnificent beasts. So fascinating. The whole thing about the poem, sire, it was all a joke. I was just..." He shrugged an embarrassed shrug. "I just wanted to go and see the horses and... you know... stroke them." He gave a nervous chuckle as he the saw the increasingly leery looks he was getting. "Their manes, they're so... silky aren't they?" He knew he was sounding not just vulnerable but slightly perverse, but he knew that it was the safest path - if he could draw out people's disgust it might make them forget their more serious suspicions. "I often sneak out to visit the horses, sire," he continued. "I just make up excuses because I feel a bit..."
"Yes all right," the King interjected hurriedly. He gestured to the guards to release Folly, which they promptly did. Folly straightened out his jerkin, and rubbed his throat tenderly, while the King gave him a contemptuous look. "You've got good reason to be embarrassed, Fool," he snarled. "What a thing to get obsessed with. Horses?" The King spat on the floor. "I've half a mind to have you beheaded for such perversity!"
"Perversity, sire?" cried Folly, making a very convincing affectation of offence, while secretly feeling glad that he had clearly taken everyone in. "Surely you wouldn't imply that I've been..." He cleared his throat, "...you know?"
"No, I don't know, Folly," huffed the King. "I imagine the only one who can say for sure is you." He turned and resumed sitting on the throne. "And I don't think I want to know."
"As you wish, my King," answered Folly, bowing low. He let out a quiet sigh of relief. He'd managed to allay all suspicions, and Eadric obviously hadn't been found.
The stable door swung quietly open and a black horse carrying a burly boy on its back came trotting out into the courtyard. The boy had a knapsack across his shoulder, the horse carrying several skins filled with drinking water on its saddle.
The horse reached the drawbridge, which was already lowered, but there were several soldiers guarding it. One of them walked over and stood in the horse's path, waving to the boy to stop. It seemed the guard recognised him.
"Hullo Eadric," the guard greeted him, "where are you off to?"
Eadric swallowed. This was where the job was going to be trouble. Usually, when Eadric was ferrying messages to Dunshelm, Folly was able to come up with a good cover story to convince the guards to let him pass without hindrance. Not today though. Worse still, unlike Folly, Eadric was no master performer, so he was going to have a lot more trouble bare facing his way past the soldiers. "I'm..." Best not to try and invoke the name of the King, someone would be sure to check on it. "I'm just heading into the forest to do some hunting," he answered nervously.
The guard looked surprised. "You got permission for that?"
Eadric's face immediately coloured. "Permission?"
"Hunting without Royal permission's poaching," explained the guard. "Especially when you're using the King's horse to do it. You should know that by now."
Eadric glanced over his shoulder at the relatively empty courtyard, then past the guard to the small scattering of soldiers on and around the drawbridge, and finally up to the battlements on the wall ahead of him, where a few more guards were on lookout duty. Safe enough, he decided.
Eadric suddenly squeezed his heels into the his horse's ribs and gave a loud shout of, "Gee-YAH!"
The horse gave a loud whinny, kicked up its front feet a little, then, to the astonishment of all the guards present, broke into a furious gallop. The guard who had accosted Eadric was quickly brushed aside. The rest of the soldiers were caught so completely by surprise by the sudden burst that they failed to react for a crucial few seconds, during which they instead just stood and gaped while the horse knocked aside several more soldiers and zipped across the drawbridge. By the time the soldiers got their heads together and tried to intercept, the horse was already well out of reach and getting further ahead all the time.
Eadric gulped as the horse speedily carried him along the road away from the palace. The sheer enormity of what he had just done had suddenly hit him. He had broken his way through a Royal guard post.
That made him the King's enemy.
As Mellisandre had suggested, they had tried to spy on Mogdred's old home through the spyglass, but they now saw nothing at all, not even Malice. It was as though the entire realm of Mogdred had disappeared. This was a little worrying for Treguard, as he would have rather liked to keep an eye on Malice and her surviving cohorts, but it probably didn't mean any harm. As they had charged the spyglass to give them a view of its creator and nothing had appeared, that surely meant that Mogdred had not resurfaced. The fact that it couldn't find Malice either was more of a mystery but probably nothing to panic about. For all her threat, Malice was noticeably less powerful than her old Master.
Some days had now passed since Merlin's demise. Treguard probably should have been able to be more precise than that, but he had lost count of the days rather easily. It was not that he had stopped caring, far from it, he was feeling so racked by the guilt of it that he was trying very hard not to think about it.
It was therefore with some relief this bleak evening that he heard from Pickle that a messenger had arrived. Good, he needed something positive to concentrate on, some developments to react to.
"Well?" Treguard snapped. "Show him in you lazy sprite!"
"Yes Master," nodded Pickle obediently. He stepped out of the antechamber for a few seconds, then stepped back in followed by a boy who looked like he had spent the last four days riding all the way from West Minster on the back of a horse.
"Sorry if I look a bit of a mess, m'Lord," apologised the boy diplomatically. "I've spent the last four days riding all the way from West Minster on the back of a horse."
"Think nothing of it," Treguard shrugged. "Pickle, prepare food and water for our visitor. It's Eadric isn't it?"
Pickle scampered off to get refreshments.
"Yes, m'Lord," confirmed Eadric, flattered to be remembered by a member of the aristocracy. That was the great thing about Saxon aristocrats, they had so much more in common with the locals than the Normans ever did. "I bring a letter from Folly."
Treguard rubbed his hands together. Yes that sounded much more positive. "Good," he said holding out a hand. "May I?"
Eadric opened his knapsack, pulled out the heavily folded parchment and handed it over to Treguard, who quickly unfolded it and started to read its contents. Pickle walked back in carrying a tray with a wooden jug full of water and a large pie on it.
"Help yourself," instructed Pickle as he placed the tray on the table. Eadric decided to abandon all rules of etiquette for a few minutes and leapt upon the food, devouring it like a ravenous wolf. It was the first substantial food he'd eaten since he'd set off.
"Thanks," he added as an afterthought once he'd finished.
"What does Folly have to say, Master?" asked Pickle.
Treguard sat down, the expression of exhausted grief mercifully absent from his face for the first time in days. It was substituted with a look of deep thoughtfulness.
"The time of Magna Carta is almost upon us," he answered slowly. "The King may sign the Charter in as little as a few weeks. That means we have to move fairly quickly if we're to influence what will be included in it."
"And anything further?"
"Just a few details about the King's peace negotiations with France." Treguard rubbed his jaw. "Might be useful. We need to tell Folly about everything that's happened here. Eadric?"
Eadric looked a little daunted. "Yes, sir?"
"First thing in the morning I need you to head back to the palace," said Treguard.
Eadric's reply was not as eager as Treguard might have liked. "I was afraid you'd say that."
Eadric explained how he had had to break his way out of the palace and desperately try to keep his head down all the way North. Treguard frowned as he listened.
"I see," nodded Treguard when Eadric had finished. "You took a great risk for only modest information I'm afraid." He shrugged. "Don't worry, I can get someone else to take the message. You can stay here until the heat's off."
"Thank you, m'Lord."
"Meanwhile," continued Treguard, "I'll have another message sent to the King himself."
"Really, Master?" asked Pickle nervously. Some of the things he had heard of the King's past treacheries had made the elf very nervous about the whole idea of any dealings with him.
"Yes," stated Treguard firmly. "Let's try being direct for once, and then let him make the next move. With Mogdred currently indisposed..." Nice euphemism, "...the King will be in a poor position to drive a bargain against us. We should be able to lay down one or two terms that he can't refuse."
"Such as?" pried Pickle.
"The Dungeon has spread far and wide across England," explained Treguard, "and it's still spreading. It's becoming difficult to adjudicate the Knightmare Challenge over so wide an area. As long as it remains illegal under the King's law we can't be sure of continuing it, but Mogdred or no Mogdred there's still a lot of opposition to deal with. Continue we must."
"You want to force the King to legalise it?"
"Yes," confirmed Treguard. "Perhaps even re-establish the Northguard."
Pickle shook his head sceptically. "I doubt that he'd ever agree to that, Master. King John's paranoia is even larger than his ego. He'd see the rebirth of the Northguard as the birth of a new rebel army..."
"Like I say," insisted Treguard forcefully, "he's in a weak position to try being awkward."
"All we have to do in the meantime," continued Treguard, "is make sure that if Mogdred does resurface we find out very quickly."
"No problem there, Master," Pickle reassured him confidently. "If Mogdred dares to show his face in the physical world again, we'll know about it as soon as he does."
Four days later, it was snowing in Winteria. This phenomenon was of course almost exactly as surprising as the phenomenon of rain falling in Lancashire, or the phenomenon of drunkenness breaking out anywhere in a thirty mile radius of a Viking wedding ceremony.
To the inhabitants of Winteria however, the arrival of snow was still something that they would notice with considerable interest. Not the general fact that it was snow, but because they adored the opportunity to deduce which particular type of snow it was and compare its density, texture and weight with the type of snow that had fallen the previous day, and indeed any day of the previous six and a half years, which was the length of time since the last break they'd had in snowfalls.
It was rumoured that some tribes living even further North, in the Arctic Circle itself, had over two hundred words for "snow", over seventy different words for "white", over three dozen words for "cold", and even several different words for "so flippin' cold it'll bite your bits off".
Most people would have described such elaborations as excessive, but the Winterians would have described it as amateur. They were so inundated with snow that they had over three hundred words just for "nippy". Anyone who tried to count the number of words they had for "snow" could start in nappies and die of old age before they got half way to the end.
Not that they hated the snow. They adored it. They adored the cold, they adored the ice, they adored the firm crunch of powdery coldness beneath their feet, they even adored the feeling of drips of icy water accidentally going down the backs of their clothes. The thing they hated beyond all others was heat. Not blistering heat, not oppressive heat, just ordinary heat, the sort of heat of a spring morning. It was as though there was something genetically wrong with them.
Therefore, it was impossible for anyone to explain quite how people of such literal cold-bloodedness were so incredibly hot tempered.
Take Aesandre, Queen of Winteria. She had ruled with an iron fist, and even though she had undeniably been unjust at times, there was still not one among her subjects who would dare to dispute that she gave commands. She did not take them. If anyone did dare they invariably wound up dead.
Until today. It was not one of her subjects, admittedly, but still, she was quite unprepared for this unfamiliar upstart in bony armour marching into the Grand Hall of her castle and telling her what to do.
She was stood at the top of the steps of the dais on which stood her throne. The intruder stood at the foot of the steps, and arrogant sneer on his chalk white face.
"Who are you?" demanded Aesandre chillingly (appropriately enough).
"Don't remember me then?" cooed the bony one.
"Who am I supposed to remember?"
Lord Fear had travelled a long way for this meeting and unfortunately he'd brought his ego with him. And that was a large, unwieldy piece of baggage. "I'm offended, your Eminence," said Fear, his tone sounding playful, his eyes looking all too serious.
"You still haven't answered me," Aesandre pointed out.
"I'm your ruler, Aesandre."
Aesandre was so amazed by the intruder's insolence that she quite forgot to lose her temper. "Nobody rules me..."
"I'm honoured to be the first," smarmed Fear. "But don't worry, I'm not here to coerce you. Not today."
"Good," smiled Aesandre condescendingly, "seeing a man of your extraordinary fashion sense disappointed would have upset me deeply."
"Let me put it this way, Aesandre," continued Fear. "We know each other rather better than you realise. And although I'd prefer to see you grovelling at my feet, I'm prepared to destroy you with a single gesture."
Aesandre finally tired of the intruder's posturing. "Enough! You insolent little worm. You dare march into my realm and threaten me? I could freeze you solid before you knew I'd moved..."
"Freeze me solid?" scoffed Fear. "You're a weak comedian, Aesandre. I once tied you in a spell of restraint that held you to your precious throne for a hundred days." Aesandre's face sank into a look of terror. "It took only a thought to do that, and now I could do even more with even less effort. Want me to demonstrate?"
Aesandre's face actually conspired to look even paler than ever. "M-Mogdred?" she stammered. "Is that you?"
"Well," Fear considered, "how can I put this in a way that you can understand. Oh yes I know."
Fear raised a hand and pointed a finger at Aesandre. A large ball of flame then emerged and hit the floor right below the Ice Queen's feet. It would have hurt anyone, but to a Winterian it was the most horrible agony imaginable as the searing heat spread across her icy skin and the force hurled her from her feet. She gave a scream of pure anguish as she landed in a painful heap in front of the throne. Fear slowly walked up the steps and stood over her. Gasping for breath, Aesandre looked up and held her hand up for what precious little protection it afforded her from any follow up attack.
"It's Lord Fear now by the way," continued the technomancer. "I do hope you like the new get-up."
Aesandre nodded feebly - like she was going to dare insult him after all that.
"Mogdred wasn't my first body," added Fear, "and I doubt that this will be my last."
"Ah." There seemed nothing else to say.
"Like I say," continued Fear, "I'm not looking to force issues here. I just wanted to do a little deal with you. If you'd be polite enough to stop and listen...?"
"I'm listening," Aesandre promised in a voice that suddenly sounded more squeaky than forceful.
"It'll be some months before Treguard's Dungeon finishes reforming," explained Fear, politely helping - or rather dragging - Aesandre to her feet and then helping - or rather dumping - her into her throne. "I'd like your co-operation with a small matter."
"Which is?" asked Aesandre hesitantly.
"My previous incarnation had a clever plan, even if he does say so himself. Which I do." Fear looked slightly perplexed for a moment, as though he had managed to confuse himself with his own words, which he probably had. But he continued nonetheless. "Whenever the Dungeon was out of phase, he'd use its own power of mutation to spread it further and further across the land. As a result his own power, born of the Dungeon's own creator, would spread with it. The Dungeon now exists below the surface of most of the North of England."
"I am aware of that," nodded Aesandre.
"Oooh, bully for you," mocked Fear. "The thing is, I want to continue the plan, but the dungeoneers that Treguard sends are still proving to be a real nuisance, and King John still doesn't seem to be able to do anything to put a stop to it."
"I want your help to expand the Third Level beyond the English border. Into Winteria." Fear smiled in self-admiration. "I suspect that the cold weather, and your presence, should prove to be insurmountable obstacles for any quest that Treguard dares to send so far from Dunshelm."
Aesandre looked away for a moment. The bad consequences of such a move were not lost on her. Fear's power being allowed to spread into her realm did not sound too enticing a prospect, nor did the possibility of a steady flow of invading dungeoneers.
Unfortunately, Fear had also soundly demonstrated that with his powers augmented by technology he could destroy her without too much difficulty. He had her over the proverbial barrel.
But she wasn't going to just hand over the keys to her kingdom without some kind of resistance. "What's in it for me?"
"You'll live to see another dawn, for one thing," answered Fear, "which given your present precarious circumstances could be seen as a real step up. Also..."
"I own a few items that might be of interest to you," suggested Fear.
"Well," said Fear. "I don't spend my entire time in the Dungeon just looking for brats to swat. I have the occasional habit of retrieving quest objects myself. I've found the extra power they give me most advantageous. As could you."
Aesandre's eyes now lit up avariciously. "Keep talking."
"I'll give you the Shield of Justice," offered Fear. "Only to look after you understand, not to keep.But it should provide you with some extra defence against me, just in case your worried that I'll double-cross you. Well? Do we have a deal?"
How could she say no?
The news could hardly have been described as good. It was hard to say if it was especially bad either, but it definitely wasn't good. It was a month since Merlin's passing and Treguard had arrived at the ruins of Dungarth in response to a summons he had received from Velda, who said that she had news to give him. Her message had been less than explicit about what it was, only that it had something to do with Mogdred's former servants.
The fact that she described them as former servants of Mogdred meant that the news couldn't be completely bad, as even by the strange inverted logic of the elfin kind, it probably meant that Mogdred couldn't have resurfaced.
Sadly, Mogdred's former servants were quite capable of making a lot of trouble in their own right. So Treguard, Pickle and Eadric had wasted no time setting off on horseback for Dungarth, and arrived in less than a day.
When they got there, they went through the tradition elfin formality of looking around for Velda, calling her name in frustration, and then jumping halfway out of their skins when she suddenly stepped out of her hiding place and said, "You lot took your time."
Treguard decided to forego the rest of the tradition and not bother developing a minor coronary problem from the shock. "We needed every minute, it's a long walk," he replied testily.
"True," admitted Velda. She gave Eadric a disdainful look. "Who is this?"
"Why don't you ask him yourself?" suggested Pickle.
"I don't know him."
"You didn't know me when you found me in Anwin Wood," Treguard pointed out, "but you still spoke to me."
"There was no one else to speak for you on that occasion," sniffed Velda.
Damn, there was that elfin logic again!
"My name's Eadric," said the boy proffering a hand that Velda looked at like it was a two week-dead salmon. Eadric shrugged and withdrew the hand.
"What did you want to tell us, Velda?" asked Treguard, now in a hurry to get to the point. "You made it sound urgent."
"There is a new leader," said Velda darkly.
"A what?" asked Eadric.
"A new leader," repeated Velda.
"For them." Velda looked at each of them in turn, sternly. "You know who they are."
Treguard nodded. "Yes we know who they are. What we don't know is who he is." He considered for a moment and then decided to be politically correct. "Or who she is."
Velda looked at him. Being an elf, she couldn't understand the need mortals had for differentiating social groupings, especially when they could be so maddeningly imprecise about more important matters. She decided not to try asking about it though. Every time she'd tried to embark on a conversation like that with a mortal in the past, she always found that she couldn't understand a word of it. "I observed him journeying South from the territory you call Winteria, the old Pictish kingdom, in the company of those loathsome goblins. He is a sorcerer of the most impure magic."
"Impure, you say?" puzzled Treguard.
"Oh yes," confirmed Velda. "He is most different from the one you call Mogdred. Most different. He appears to understand things so unnatural, so completely alien to reality, that I shudder."
"Things of no life!" stressed Velda, suddenly sounding angry. "Things that should not be able to move of their own volition, but can. They are not alive, they are not even spellbound, and yet they move and work at his behest. This doolie is foul, an abomination."
"Who is he?" asked Eadric.
"He is the foulness my people prophesied centuries ago," hissed Velda, "a foulness that we always knew would emerge from among you mortals. A techno-sorcerer."
"A what-what what-what-what?" asked Eadric politely.
"A techno-sorcerer," repeated Velda, just a little tersely this time.
Eadric asked her to elaborate a little, and Treguard decided, wisely, to ignore the ensuing tide of rushed explanations, double takes, unpleasant looks, and irritable put-downs that the conversation soon descended into. He looked over toward the shattered ruins of the castle's main keep, and thought unhappily about what he had heard. A techno-sorcerer? He had of such a mythical figure from Merlin - the idea that any wizard or witch might in theory use technology to augment mystical powers. And now there was one at large in England?
"What was he doing in Winteria?" demanded Treguard suddenly, cutting off the stream of inconsequential bickering that had broken out between the others.
"I do not know, Dungeon Master," replied Velda. "I only saw him passing this way by chance. All I can say is that it looked like he must have been there for some time. I can't imagine what he was doing there but it must have been large scale."
"And your sure he's taken over from Mogdred?" asked Pickle.
Velda looked him in the eye with firm certainty. "Positive."
"I'm 'ere about the job," said the visitor. "They say you need someone with experience trainin' goblins? Well 'ere I am."
Lord Fear needed a rigorous, heavily considered selection process of precise scrutiny for choosing his new recruits and best to start it off with this one. He looked the man up and down with an expert eye (not bad going considering his eyes were only a month old), and shook his head at the ghastly Hessian rags he was dressed in, the unsightly coarseness of his skin, the prominent misshapen patch covering his left eye and the revoltingly deep scar running below it along his cheek from the corner of his mouth.
"What a hideous, ugly apparition of the human spirit you are," sneered Fear. "You're hired! Congratulations... what's your name again?"
"Skarkill, yer Fearship," answered the man, beaming horribly at the ease with which he had achieved new employment.
"Yes, well I'm sure that'll be fine," replied Fear, only half-listening. He turned and resumed sitting on his throne. "It can be harmful having minions with an identity," he continued, "but I can promise you, try and use it too much and you'll find that I can be a lot more harmful than that."
"I'll keep that in mind, yer Fearship," promised Skarkill.
"Good." Fear tapped his fingers on the arm of his throne. "Well, tall, dark and gruesome, I've got an early task for you as my new goblin master."
"Some'ing to do with goblins?" suggested Skarkill shrewdly.
Fear gave him one of those looks. "It's always reassuring to have a man who knows his job on my side." He rolled his eyes. "Of course something to do with goblins, nincompoop! That's what I hired you for." Fear leaned forward slightly in his throne. "You and your two protégés, Grippa and Rhark, are going on a little journey, Skarkill."
The latest battle with the French had been successful, but not without its costs to King John. The Norman barons had managed to rally a large enough army to defend East Anglia, and the French force had been forced back to the coast, but with heavy English losses. Furthermore, the barons had only agreed to confront the invaders on the understanding that in return the King would add three more pledges to the forthcoming Charter. It now seemed to be getting to the point that the Magna Carta was going to leave him with virtually no authority at all.
He and his knights crossed the drawbridge into the palace courtyard, where they dismounted. The King's seneschal was waiting here, as would be expected. He looked very concerned, which wouldn't be. The King cursed mentally. Not more problems, surely? Couldn't he at least arrive home, change out of this battered armour, and have something to eat before someone came up to him and gave him more things to worry about? He felt tired. Tired of fighting, tired of arguments, tired of bad news... in fact, tired of being tired.
"Sire!" cried the seneschal, bowing to his lord and master. "While you were away gallantly fighting the French..."
"Either tell me that you've found that renegade stable lad," snapped the King, "or tell me nothing."
In response the seneschal fell silent, and remained silent. Yes, it was more bad news then.
"All right," sighed the King wearily, "tell me."
"Sire," the seneschal tried again, "in your absence, the palace has been raided!"
"Raided?!" cried the King incredulously. Oh no, he thought, it was those blasted Scots again! Any time the English were trying to defend themselves from someone else, you could count on the Scots taking advantage and attacking while English backs were turned. And the Scots called themselves brave...
"Yes sire," continued the seneschal, breaking this typically insufferable train of thought. "By goblins."
The King turned and looked at the seneschal in surprise. "Goblins?"
"You idiot, Skarkill!" thundered Lord Fear. They were only words, and had almost no physical presence of course, but they still had all the force of a thousand tumbling rocks.
Skarkill was so taken aback by them that he almost fell over. "Y-yer Fearship?" he managed to stutter.
"Have you any idea what you've done?"
"I..." This was a tricky question. Skarkill had been fairly sure that he had known exactly what he was doing when he raided the palace, and had even prided himself on a debut job well done. But now, having returned home with the boon for his new master, and being rewarded for it with nothing but a storm of fury, Skarkill was left wondering if he had done something wrong. Not the shrewdest question he could have asked in the face of such obvious rage, but being Skarkill, he went and asked it anyway. "'Ave I done something wrong, yer Fearship?"
Fear was so amazed by the stupidity of this question he spent almost twenty seconds stammering. "I-I... hah... I-... you... I... I... I.. you... I...? I... wha-...? Ha... Ha... I..." He took a much needed deep breath, then let it out accompanied by a string of expletives that could have won the Booker Prize (that is if the Booker Prize existed back then - and if they ran an "Elaborately Creative Invention of Obscenely Biological Language in Children's Literature" section). "Do you really think," he continued afterwards, "that I was calling you an idiot for the sheer social comment of it?!"
"I don't understand, yer Fearship," protested Skarkill, genuinely perplexed. "I gots the Sword of Freedom for you, jus' like you tells me to..."
"And thank badness you did!" growled Fear. "At least you got something right. Unfortunately, Skarkill, everything you've got wrong's defeated half the point of getting the Sword in the first place."
"I'm sorry, boss," answered Skarkill, "but I still doesn't understand what I did wrong."
Fear sighed, and decided to calm down enough to explain in the kind of slow, measured, pre-adolescent language that people of Skarkill's mental agility required. "You were supposed to steal the Sword," he said dangerously, "so that I could plant it in Knightmare Castle. Then we could go to the King and tell him that Treguard had stolen it! That way the King and the barons would have left him out of the Magna Carta negotiations."
"Oh I see," nodded Skarkill, who altogether did not. "But, you've got the Sword. You can still do it can't you?"
"There's no point, dimwit!" shouted Fear. "You walking brain clot, haven't you got it into your head yet? You raided the palace in broad daylight! Practically everyone saw you and the goblins running away with the Sword." Fear thumped the arm of his throne in frustration. "Everybody knows that Treguard wouldn't use goblins to do anything. In fact I'm beginning to see why he doesn't use Goblin Masters either!" Fear got to his feet, walked over to Skarkill and poked a painful finger into his chest. "Now you tell me, Skarkill, what with Mogdred's past use of goblin hunting patrols against Dungeoneers, and your present use of goblins to steal Swords, you tell me... how long's it going to take the King to figure out who really stole it?"
Treguard's arrival at the palace in person caused a lot of surprise among the other barons. It was rare for the Lord of Dunshelm to enter the presence of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy. An honour perhaps, although they were too afraid and suspicious of his rumoured powers as a warrior and sorcerous Dungeon Master to appreciate it.
Most astonishing of all was that King John agreed to meet him immediately.
The atmosphere in the throne room as the two old rivals, one a brutal Norman autocrat, the other a fearsome Saxon warrior, came face to face for the first time, was coldly formal.
"His name is Lord Fear, sire," stated Treguard. "He is the one who has stolen the great treasure. I can't say for sure where he came from, but he is the heir to Mogdred's legacy."
"Mogdred's?" said the King. He looked downcast, then nodded. "Yes, Lord Dunshelm, I suspected as much. Only Mogdred would employ goblins in such a bold scheme."
"Mogdred is dead, sire," answered Treguard, to which the King looked surprised. "I spent years trying to contain and defeat him, and I finally succeeded. Now another has risen in his place." Treguard dared to take a step toward the King, drawing a few wary looks from the other courtiers present. But they remained calm when he did no more than that. "Sire, I beg you," said Treguard more urgently, "you must surely concede the point now. The interests of neither Mogdred nor Fear nor any who serve them are your interests. Nor are they the interests of England. All these years I've fought to suppress those rogues, even by defying your wishes. Now surely you can see why. Surely you can see that they will betray you..."
The King got to his feet. "Enough, Dunshelm!" he ordered mightily. Everyone in the court looked alarmed, fearing that he would, with typical volatility, start a fresh round of executions. But it seemed he would not. Instead he looked tired again as he stepped forward and placed a hand on Treguard's shoulder. "Yes, I see it, my friend. I think I have always seen it in fact." He looked miserable. "I just didn't see anyone else I could turn to. He had power and power was what I needed..."
"Forgive me for contradicting you, sire," Treguard interjected firmly, "but you are quite wrong. It was never power that you lacked. For better or for worse, you are King, you have power in abundance. What you need is the loyalty of your subjects, and unfortunately, using Mogdred's treachery to make them fear you was never going to give you that. Only their hatred."
"Am I so hated, Dunshelm?"
Treguard's only response was to look at him, but it said more than a thousand words. The King looked down at his own feet weakly. He just didn't seem to have the energy left to get angry.
"Your father was a great King who treated all his subjects, Norman or Saxon, with equal justice," continued Treguard. "Your brother was a King of enormous courage who would treat all good men of the Christian faith with respect. You must rule as they did and heal the rifts in your Kingdom."
"Yes," nodded the King. "Yes. And I must learn from their example. Dunshelm... Treguard. Will you help me? Will you give me your... loyalty?"
Treguard smiled sadly. "Sire, if you or any of your Norman predecessors had asked us that as your father did, you would have received that loyalty as you earned it. Instead, you tried to enslave us, to coerce us, and now you must wrangle over the Magna Carta, which will force you to earn our obedience." Treguard nodded. "I shall help you as you help me to defend the North from the Scots and from Lord Fear. I only hope for your sake, for all our sakes, that it is not too late to start."
The King surprised himself by giving Treguard a look of absolute respect instead of, as he had been expecting before meeting him, absolute terror. He offered Treguard his hand, which was accepted.
Most of the barons noticed that the King was shaking. There was nothing unusual in that, to be quite honest, but it was still highly amusing whenever they saw it happen.
Folly also noticed, but he was one of the few who weren't having trouble keeping a straight face. In fact he felt slightly melancholy. As one of the few Saxons at court, and as a result being one of its most destitute, he would have had every right to hate King John. But, even though he would have been embarrassed to admit it, he had actually developed a soft spot for his Liege in the time he had worked for him. Folly had grown to understand him far better, even to feel a little sorry for him in his fearful isolation. And in fairness to the King, he had started to treat Folly rather better as time had passed.
As such, on this momentous day in history, Folly looked on with genuine sympathy as, pale with humiliation and shaking in quiet fear of the opportunistic warlords about him, the King finally scrawled his signature on the Great Charter of English Liberty.
It was the fifteenth of June in the year 1215, and Runnymede was a busy place. Here at Runnymede Magna Carta had become a reality. Here at Runnymede real limitations on the power of Kings had become a reality. And most of all, here at Runnymede the total humiliation and emasculation of John as a King of England was complete.
But what choice did he have? He could no longer hope to govern England without the full co-operation of his barons, and this was the price that they demanded.
In truth, most of the limitations that the Charter was imposing on John's power were very mild, and were largely confined to taxation controls, but it was still a concession that no other monarch in Christendom had ever had to make, and that John should be the first made his flesh burn with embarrassment.
And in a strange way, Folly did feel a pang of pity for the man.
But there were other matters to attend to now, and these were matters that Folly, and indeed most of the people he counted as friends, had long cherished. In person, the jester carried forward the scroll to the table at the centre of the room and presented it to King John. The King, usually so full of Norman anger, accepted it calmly, opened it, read its contents with elaborate briefness, and then added his signature to it. He then handed it back to Folly.
"Tell Dunshelm that I wish him the greatest of luck, Folly," John ordered with quiet, but genuine, magnanimity.
Folly bowed. "Yes, my Liege."
Folly turned and walked to the corner of the room where Treguard was stood, accompanied by Motley, Mellisandre, Pickle and Eadric. Folly performed another low bow and handed over the scroll to the Dungeon Master.
"Here it is," smiled Folly proudly. "You are now Governor of the North of England. The Knightmare Challenge is legal once more, and the Northguard are re-established as the first line of defence against all opposition posed by Lord Fear." He shrugged. "Ironic really. All these years it was the home of an illegal military operation. Now Knightmare Castle is home to what power the King has in the North."
"So, we're now among the powers-that-be are we?" mused Treguard. "I like the sound of that." He smiled and gave Folly a hearty clap on the back. "Thank you, Folly, I always knew it'd be a good idea letting the King employ you."
"Keep your voice down a bit, Master," said Folly, finger to mouth. "He's only stood over there, we don't want him getting suspicious, do we?" Folly glanced over his shoulder, then back at Treguard. "He wishes you luck with the war against Fear by the way."
"Kind of him." Treguard looked less than moved.
"Oh he's not such a bad an old stick when you get to know him," insisted Folly.
"Isn't he?" asked Motley, amazed.
"No, no," Folly assured him, "quite decent as a stick. Just rotten as a King." He giggled happily at his own joke. Nobody else did, but they didn't seem to mind it either. The occasion had no room for sour humour, even if it had some for poor humour.
Gretel arrived, carrying a tray of goblets filled with red wine. They all helped themselves eagerly.
"To the future," proclaimed Treguard, raising his goblet.
"The future," echoed the others, raising their own goblets.
"To an England at last united as England," added Treguard, "and not just a minor French colony."
"England," chimed in the others.
"And to Merlin," he added more sombrely. "May his spirit rest comfortably, wherever it is."
They all drank deeply. It might have been a trick of the light, it might just have been the intoxication of such a fine Gascon wine, but as he drank from it, Treguard's eyes gazed into the goblet and focused on tiny points of light from the torches on the walls reflected across the crimson surface of the wine. And just for a moment he thought that he saw the flames flare into the shape of a face. The face of an old man with a tangled grey-white beard, the eyes full of a child's energy and the spark of mischief, the lines of the face full of an old man's wisdom and the spark of knowledge. And the face was smiling.
It was only a brief image, and it was gone as soon as Treguard saw it. But very quietly, Treguard still murmured, "Keep smiling, Merlin."
Mellisandre looked at him in surprise. "Did you say something?"
Treguard looked back at her and smiled gently. "It was just something I had to say." He paused and then added, "I don't think I'll ever have to say it again."