"The Immortalizer of Fairie Banes," Pudentiana whispered.
"Anchlainnwn," Merlin breathed.
"Oh," said the Demon blandly, with just a touch of concern. "I meant to arrive after this."
Merlin looked at him sharply, then winked at Pudentiana.
"Merlin?" Ankle recognized the sorceror. "Is that really you? How polite of you to come back for me to kill you."
"What was that wink for?" Pudentiana said.
"Tell you later," said Merlin.
"Are you ready, Fairie Bane?" said Ankle. "Are you ready to become that which you most hate?"
"First you tell me I'm your mother," Pudentiana griped, "then you start flirting with me."
"I never!" said Merlin. "Aside from the other consideration, you're centuries too young for me."
"Yeah? What about Nimue?"
Merlin colored, offended. "That's different."
Pudentiana hadn't meant to genuinely upset him, but now was a time for casual banter to bait the enemy rather than for apologies. "Forget it! Don't explain! See if I care."
"Ignore me, will you?!" Ankle roared. Like a flash he rushed them - now Pudentiana wondered at the wisdom of baiting this one - or almost. He was brought up short by someone who leapt on him from behind, by dint of surprise halting him when Pudentiana expected mere strength probably wouldn't have been enough.
"This Fairie Bane's mine," Blodeuedd whispered into his ear.
"Run!" Merlin shouted to Pudentiana.
Pudentiana was into the corridor after Merlin before she noticed it was only the two of them. "Where'd the Demon go?"
"Somewhere safe, I hope," said Merlin. "He can't help us. Come on! We need room to maneuver! ...What do you mean, 'Demon'?!"
Merlin led her to the rear exit of the medical clinic. Just as they got to the crash-barred door they - and it - were bowled over by an irresistable force that came from behind. Pudentiana found herself facedown in the alley behind the clinic. She rolled over onto her back and found Ankle standing over her.
"And now, young Fairie Bane," he said, "you will die." Then Merlin tackled him.
He threw Merlin off while Pudentiana scrambled to her feet, and turned into her kick. He fell against some cardboard boxes - and Blodeuedd dropped on him.
Pudentiana pulled two crosses from her bag and tossed one to Merlin. "I thought you and Bran said he has ten times the strength," Pudentiana shouted as the two fairies grappled.
"Not that way," said Merlin, and that was the end of the conversation for then, for Ankle was strong enough at least to flip Blodeuedd some ten yards away, even if he lost his footing doing so. He stood up and glared at the two fairie hunters - and a cruciform crossbow bolt seemed to grow instantly from his chest.
Pudentiana spun to look back toward the clinic. From a hastily opened window Bran was lowering the crossbow and shouting the banishment incantation. He must have been following her and Merlin; good old Greatgran Bran. The Demon stood behind him looking on - that explained his disappearance; Bran had pulled him away.
Pudentiana relaxed and turned back to the alley, expecting to see Ankle glowing with the interdimensional energies. Instead she faced him again just in time to see him grasp the arrowshaft and pull it out of his chest.
"'Durability' might be a better word than 'strength'," called Merlin. "Or 'stamina' might be."
"Now you tell me!" shouted Pudentiana, suddenly fighting for her life. The barrage of Ankle's attack left her no opportunities for offensive strikes between parries, and knocked the cross from her hand. Finally he slipped through her guard and knocked her down.
Merlin brought down on Ankle three thicknesses of fruitcrate slats he must've found in the alley garbage. They broke over his head.
Pudentiana's mind was racing. How do you stop a fairie you can't banish? It was beyond her experience. What else works against them? Iron ... that just gives them hives. They'd tried crosses - no, it wasn't the crosses, according to Merlin: it was the faith behind them that worked on fairie. Crosses were only, like, the focus. In the time of Lud Nimue had once held off a superevolved fairie from a possible future universe just with her faith in Merlin - Bran had found that in the annals. At the bottom it was good faith versus evil faith. Good faith had an edge, but in two thousand years Ankle must have stockpiled a crapload of evil faith.
Merlin had tried a karate immobilization hold on Ankle and been thrown. It must have been a measure of desperation; even Pudentiana already knew the barbarian martial art couldn't paralyze fairies, with their supernatural invulnerability. Blodeuedd was on Ankle again, by accident or design not until Merlin was clear. Pudentiana had only a few moments to marshall this faith thing before it'd be her turn again.
What did she have that kind of faith in? Or who?
Two weeks earlier she'd've said Genius. Not Genius.
Bran? Linus and Genuissa? Certainly not Brittanicus. She loved them and couldn't bear to see them hurt, but they were only human.
Merlin wasn't human.
Or, he was. Half human. The half, apparently, that came from her. What had he been saying about the genetic heritage of Fairie Banes? She and the others had joked, but he had it all in spades. And now to learn it all came from her. It had to, if that cold fish was his father.
Which meant that she had it in her too.
Bran fervently wished he didn't know that if he rushed into the fracas he'd accomplish nothing but his own death. That is, he wished it wasn't true, but it was and he knew it. If it weren't for Blodeuedd's interference, Merlin would probably already be dead instead of groaning half-conscious on the ground, and Pudentiana would be a fairie by now.
Ankle threw Blodeuedd off for the third time. She must have been tiring; Ankle hadn't even been knocked down. He turned to face Pudentiana, and they faced each other like gunfighters in Carthaginian movies for a moment before he approached her with what could only be described as a stalk.
Then he pulled up short, about eight feet away from her.
Pudentiana's back was to Bran; he couldn't see her face. But her body's attitude was nothing like the paradoxically easy tension, the poise of the Fairie Bane, that she usually brought to a fight, and had been evincing here until now. She stood with an utter relaxation that Bran had never seen in her. Yet something in her stance or her face was unmanning Ankle, from the expression on his.
His smirk faltered as he took a few more unsteady steps toward her, and came clumsily to another halt.
He seemed to be growing smaller before Bran' eyes.
"Is he shrinking?" the Demon said. Suddenly Bran was certain that Ankle was becoming vulnerable, though he didn't know how it was happening.
Without any movement or word from Pudentiana, Ankle slowly began to glow with the colors of the banishment portal. As it enveloped him, he seemed to curdle around the edges, but he made no sound nor other reaction. Neither did Pudentiana as the portal closed again and Ankle vanished away.
Pudentiana didn't move for a moment. Then she turned to face Bran and the Demon. She was smiling, and her expression was the most at peace Bran had ever seen.
"Perhaps now we can conclude our business," the Demon suggested. He was even testy blandly.
Bran had been scanning the alley. "Blodeuedd's gone, I think," he said to Pudentiana. "She was a bit the worse for wear. No doubt not up to another battle tonight."
"So she'll miss all the fun," said Pudentiana. "I'm going to become a mother tonight, Bran - but you know that. If you're here now you must have been eavesdropping before Ankle showed up."
Bran didn't deny it. "This was why you've been so intent on your posterity the past two days," he said. "Well, if it still matters, to have banished the Immortalizer of Fairie Banes will earn you a unique place in the books."
"Thanks, Bran," said Pudentiana, "but you're right; it doesn't matter." She walked over to Merlin, and helped him up from his knees. "And not because I know I have a bouncing baby sorceror to carry on after me."
"Oh?" said Merlin. "Then why?"
"Because I have faith," she said, "in me."
The penny dropped for Bran - the way Pudentiana had held Ankle off in the last moments of the fight. Obviously that story from the annals about Merlin and Nimue had made more of an impression on Pudentiana than Bran had realized at the time, perhaps even than she had.
Merlin grinned. "I think you'll find that most useful in future."
"But it doesn't mean you can give up your training," Bran warned.
"I know," said Pudentiana.
"Well," said Merlin, "this gentleman -" He pointed at the Demon. "- has been quite patient with our little pecadilloes, but I for one would like it if he should be permitted to do what he came for."
"Yes," said Pudentiana, "let's not keep him any longer."
The Demon led them all back into the clinic's laboratory, where he performed actions with what looked like a salt shaker that Bran could only assume were advanced technological medical voodoo, which actions Merlin claimed were the taking of an egg from Pudentiana's ovary. The Demon himself spoke no more word during the rest of his visit to Rome than a farewell, just before stepping into a specimen refrigerator that promptly disappeared into Time. Merlin, of all people, seemed the least surprised at this standoffishness.
"So," Pudentiana said to Merlin as the three of them left the clinic, "you promised to tell me why you winked at me."
"My father said when Ankle showed up that he had intended to arrive after this battle," Merlin reminded her. "Now, the course of history is always subject to the will of individuals, especially events outside the Fabric of Time - but that was a pretty good indication that you were going to survive."
"Your Demon came to me now," said Pudentiana, "because he knows I won't live much longer. Didn't he?"
Merlin exchanged a look with Bran before he took Pudentiana by her shoulders and looked her in the eye. "I couldn't tell you if I knew. It's the laws of Time. Surely you understand that."
His mouth twitched.
"Merlin ..." said Pudentiana.
"I really can't say anything." He struggled to keep the corners of his mouth from turning up. "Er, I think you'd better be off to bed, hadn't you, young lady?" He prodded her down the street while ineffectually hiding a smile.
"Kids today," Pudentiana groused. But before she was out of Bran's sight she was humming a peppy little tune, and skipping down the street.
"Thank you, Merlin," said Bran, "for letting Pudentiana know."
"Bran," said Merlin, "I really don't know what Pudentiana's future is. She may be right. I do know that in the future there is a church here on Rome dedicated to a Saint Pudentiana, and also in the future there are legends that I was the offspring of a demon and a holy woman. But, Pudentiana's personal future?" He shook his head.
"But you just - told Pudentiana - ... Oh."
"I think, though - for the sake of my family tree - I may just look her up in future the next time I have the chance. Well, goodbye." Merlin, abrupt with farewells as always (perhaps it ran in the family), strode off.
He stopped and turned back. "Yes?"
"Thank you anyway."
This story is the third in a three-story cycle about Merlin's father. The first is Transformations and the second is One Child Born.
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