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Three From the Track

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"Gumerry! Look, look, Gumerry's here!"

Merriman heard the words faintly, bent nearly double to pay his fare for the ride from the station. He unfolded in time to be accosted by three children, their eyes bright with holiday excitement and their cheeks pink with winter cold. Merriman wasn't one for hugs, but he bent down gravely to give Jane's forehead a kiss, and she flushed with pleasure at the attention.

"That's quite enough," their mother said, coming up behind them at a calmer pace. Ellen was looking older, like someone who had three children and was used to it. Merriman did his best to keep track. "I'm terribly sorry for all the excitement, Merry. They've been shut up for days because of the snow."

"Days," Simon agreed feelingly from below.

"It's no trouble," Merriman assured Ellen, retrieving his suitcases. "Hello, my dear. Busy holiday?"

"Very busy." She ushered the children back towards the door. Barney was piping Merriman's nickname again, but Simon pulled him inside and their mother went on as though she hadn't even heard. "Dick's still out -- he's had about a thousand cases of winter 'flu come through. You're upstairs as usual."

Merriman murmured his thanks and some condolences on Dr. Drew's behalf before making a strategic retreat with his suitcases. When he returned, it was to a festive atmosphere: the entire ground floor was strung about with Christmas lights, and, he noted with passing approval, holly over the doors. Ellen had settled the children down to a late lunch. He allowed her to foist a sandwich on him, and sat down at the table end, in the place of honour where Jane, unobtrusive, and her brothers, less so, could stare at him: Great-Uncle Merry, that mysterious figure who turned up now and again with tales of wild adventure in far-away lands. Merriman liked that. This little London townhouse was a kind of safe haven: holly fastened to the doorframes, young innocents inside; it was a place he could stop to take a deep breath before the next battle.

"So where was it this time?" Ellen asked. She was plying him with tea -- black, bless her, with the cream down at the children's end of the table and the sugar nowhere to be seen. Very sensible. She gave him an expectant look that was only half-interested in an answer to her question, and half in keeping the children occupied. A visit from Great-Uncle Merry was worth as much excitement as the Christmas Eve present exchange, and Merriman couldn't disappoint them.

"This time," he said, "it was a Viking funeral ship, buried on the coast."

"Gosh," said Simon.

"As you say," Merriman said, nodding to him, taking in the three, no, four, pairs of eyes trained raptly on him. Ellen hadn't really changed since the time she was a little girl, listening with delighted astonishment to his fragments of tales after her father and Merriman returned home from a dig with a new collection of Roman coins for the museum. It was this more than anything that kept Merriman returning to the Drew family: the way Ellen never questioned how Merriman always arrived unchanged. Her conscious understanding was unimportant; what mattered was the acceptance.

"But how could it be buried on the coast?" Simon demanded, suddenly frowning. "Ships are put out to sea."

"This one was buried," Barney told him, with all the assured authority of his six years. "Because it was a funeral."

"What did you find, Gumerry?" Jane asked, looking unhappy at all this talk of funerals.

What he found was a confirmation. What he found was a warning bell. What he found was the last piece of an ancient riddle that was to be solved at the end of a countdown of swift years to a certain Midwinter, an age and mere minutes from coming. Merriman smiled fleetingly at Jane, who was sitting there in a neat ponytail with sandwich crumbs on her frock, and he said, "I found coins, and jewelry, and very old writing."

"And skeletons?" Simon asked hopefully.

"Yes, Simon, and skeletons," Merriman agreed, but for Jane's sake, and for his own under the look Ellen was throwing him, he said nothing about the charred remains of embroidery on their clothes. What was of interest to academics was seldom of interest to children.

What was of interest to academics was often of interest to Old Ones, but there was the reason Merriman had always been very particular about his line of work.

"That's quite enough of that, I think," Ellen said. "Time for washing up. Barney, don't drop anything, and Simon, if I hear you did anything to frighten your sister --"

"It's all right," Jane said, but she still looked uncomfortable, and Simon was only halfway out of the room. She followed, and Barney went after, carrying his dish with exaggerated care. Ellen sighed and turned to Merriman.

He held up his hands, preempting all dire threats. "They can take care of themselves."

"I know," she said, smiling a little. "So I'll leave them to it. Dick said he'd pick up supper on the way home, and I'd like to get some painting in before we all descend like vultures, so if you'd like to make yourself comfortable, there's plenty of books in the sitting room. Just mind the tree."

"I will," he promised, and he went to mind the tree. It was a beautiful fir, holding itself up only by its own pride under the weight of tinsel and glass and felt. Merriman settled into an armchair by the fire, watching the flames absently and listening with half an ear to the sounds of the children chattering away in the next room.

He took a moment to silently thank Ellen again; the nature of her work meant that she was seldom underfoot. It was a rarely-felt disappointment that she was an artist without being anything more, but the nature of safe havens meant that they were separate from the dangerous things. An Ellen with the gift of prophecy would be worth knowing, but the Ellen who was married to Dr. Drew and had three charming children was worth knowing too. In any case, he had prophecy enough to keep his mind occupied for a while. It had been transcribed on a parchment of prayers on the funeral ship, and, being full of unrecognizable characters, had been granted directly to Merriman at once for translation. Everyone else who touched it had instantly forgotten they had, so there was no danger of it being mentioned in the papers. Merriman was left alone to decipher it.

It needed no deciphering. Written in the Old Speech: When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back. A surprisingly clear statement, written in a hand Merriman recognized from a passing acquaintance with an Old One whose work kept her mostly in the eleventh century, but her writing was a fair copy of something far older. And the message was troubling, for all that it narrowed the parameters of the Dark's possible defeat into something attainable. Merriman already knew down to his bones that he was one of the six. In a few years, nearly to the day, he knew he would meet another. But these were not the troubling things.

Three from the circle, three from the track, the next line ran, and this was where Merriman was lost. The third of the circle he had narrowed down to two: Arthur had a different purpose, but Merriman had held his child and knew what he had held; and there was, always and forever, the Lady. Time would tell. But the three from the track could be anyone. Anyone. Merriman had an idea, but that triumvirate was from another time, and the newest Old One was to be from this one. It sat ill.

Barney came dashing out from the kitchen, a little tow-headed knight in plastic armor, breaking Merriman's thoughts. He was waving a flimsy sword, and set at Merriman's knee as thought it were a dragon before he remembered himself and sat down suddenly, in the harmless way of small children.

"Hello, Barnabas," Merriman said.

"'lo," Barney ventured.

"Were you running to or from a foe?" Merriman asked.

He apparently presented no immediate danger, for Barney brightened considerably at the question. "I'm on a quest," he said importantly.

"Are you indeed." Merriman bent down to better hear the boy, and made a small effort to look less forbidding than was his wont.

"Simon says we're looking for treasure," Barney went on, happily unintimidated. "But I don't need Vikings. I'm on a quest by order of the king."

"Yes, we should leave the Vikings to Simon," Merriman agreed. "Is Jane all right with that?"

"Oh, she's a princess," Barney explained. "I think she's with Guinevere." He startled a little at the look that involuntarily crossed Merriman's face, but after a moment he seemed to take it in stride. "And I'm on a quest for Arthur. But I came to you first."

"And why is that?" Merriman asked gently.

"You're the court wizard," Barney said, matter-of-fact. "You come and go and travel through time. It's how you know about helicopters. I wanted to know my quest is good. And you're smart."

For a timeless moment Merriman was speechless with surprise. Perhaps he'd judged too soon in thinking that Ellen the artist was without a higher gift, for here was her son, speaking clear knowing truths as though they were no more remarkable than anything else in the vast exciting world Barney inhabited. With a few words this little boy had cracked open a whole perilous host of possibilities.

"Your quest is good, Barnabas," Merriman told him, and rested his palm for a moment on the crown of Barney's small head. In an instant he considered and discarded erasing the conversation from Barney's mind. The boy was young, and children's minds were malleable and prone to forgetting foolish things. "Now run along," he said, and Barney ran. Merriman sat still for a time. Ellen had said that Barney was becoming interested in King Arthur. She'd told him so just a week previous, taking pity on Merriman when he took the time to fight a telephone into submission and call her in order to divine the sort of Christmas gift appropriate for a child. A colourful book of medieval castles was waiting for Barney upstairs.

But he had failed to connect that with this, his safe haven, the place he could return to and know exactly what he was fighting for. Perhaps it had never been that. Perhaps he alone of the Old Ones was not permitted that small gift. Arthur too had once been a small boy and reason enough to keep Merriman fighting. Again he thought of Barney, dressed in armor, innocent, and he was almost sure of the reason for his constant return to this place.

Ellen came downstairs and asked if Dick was in yet. On cue, Dr. Drew stamped his way inside, knocking snow from his boots, letting in the cold for a brief moment. "Hullo, Merry! Hope I didn't keep you waiting long."

"No, no, not at all," Merriman said, rising from his chair. "I'll fetch them for dinner."

"Thanks," Dr. Drew said, left in Merriman's wake with a look of faint bewilderment. Merriman smiled to himself and strode upstairs.

All three children were in the bedroom Simon and Barney shared. The two boys appeared to be locked in a heated debate over whether or not Simon had to be the monster, and whether he couldn't be a knight instead, and how he really wasn't qualified considering he couldn't name any of Arthur's knights except Lancelot. Jane was meanwhile sitting on a bed, her hair out of its ponytail for once, perhaps in order to be a proper princess. She was writing neatly in a small notebook and taking no notice of the argument on the floor.

Merriman rapped his knuckles on the doorframe, and the room quieted instantly.

He looked at them. They were so terribly young. They were not like the young Pendragon, or the Old One yet to be, both of them with the weight of Time and destiny on them as sure as that weight was on Merriman. These children were children. Simon was on his school track team. Jane kept useful things in her pockets and seemed to love Merriman despite being frightened of him. Barney read far above his level, and would someday, Merriman was sure, love learning his Latin in school. They were meant for ordinary triumphs. But these three dear children were going to be caught up in his high purpose; they already were, by virtue of knowing him.

Merriman could be wrong. He'd been wrong before. He'd been wrong at Camlann.

He would have to watch them. And he would have to watch himself; Merriman could already feel the warring of fear and sorrow and delight within him, and all three were dangerous. He let the potential exist, and said, "It's time for your supper."

Simon whooped and raced from the room. Jane finished her sentence composedly, tucked her book in her cardigan pocket, and followed. Barney was still struggling out of his armor. He tangled up, and Merriman went into the room to help him, gently untwisting shoulder-guards and unhooking the breastplate.

"Did your quest go well, Barnabas?" he asked.

Barney wrinkled his nose. "Not yet," he said. "It's going to take a while, and I have to do it right."

"Well said," Merriman told him quietly, and together they went to dinner.