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Fanfiction: when Brother Mace tried to give Giles a joker, why did he pick out the three of hearts?

The Three of Hearts

[Drassil / November 2012]

 

Brother Mace sighed. He drank in the silence but found it strangely unfulfilling - largely because it wasn't alcoholic. It wasn't even helping him think, taking him no closer to the answer to a most pressing conundrum: how did he mistake a three of hearts for a joker? The monk held it, the playing card he had almost given to a dungeoneer, in his hands and gave it a resigned smile, counting the hearts in Latin to emphasise his folly.

"Unus, duo, tres. The iocus was on me."

Christmas would be here soon. One of the few times of year when Mace gave himself over, if only briefly, to sober reflection. With his ale in short supply, this seemed as good a moment as any. He cast his eye back over the trio of hearts.

"In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti."

Mace blinked. The hearts were glowing. He felt a strange tickling sensation in his fingers, as if an invisible quill were being passed over them. Turning his hand to examine it, he saw that the back of the card was dense with writing. It was only after Mace had read it all that he noticed the strategically placed gaps in the text, making the shape of a letter M.


 "...So, the Dungeon needs us." Brother Mace looked for understanding in the two listeners' faces, but it seemed to be eluding his gaze. "Questions?"

"Yes," replied the maid. "Why did Merlin choose us for this mission?"

"He requires three - the card did not say why - and believes that we three can succeed."

"Or because he thinks it's not a jolly great loss if we don't!" suggested the sword mistress.

"Have a little faith, Gundrada. Merlin may hide the light of his wisdom under a bushel - or a bushy beard at least - but on this occasion, he knows what he is doing. It is others that he fears would not succeed, and that is why he has gone to the trouble of distracting them with early Christmas celebrations et cetera."

"Well then, he's lucky that I've got nothing better to do," sniffed Gundrada. "But just say that my brawn, your brain and... her smile aren't enough. Is it really so terrible if we fail?"

"According to Merlin's message, his struggle against Mogdred is at a critical point. He must remove them from the Greater Dungeon and make their battlefield elsewhere, lest we all become casualties of war. That removal, as I said earlier, is what we three must enable. He cannot keep the knowledge of this plan from Mogdred for much longer, so we must make haste."

"It all sounds very exciting," grinned Mellisandre, trying to convince herself. "And all we've got to do is find the Tower of Time, whatever that is?"

"We must hope it is as simple as that. Since we know that it is not among the towers of the upper levels, it must be somewhere in Level Three. The limpid beauty of the Dunswater awaits. Perhaps the ferryman will offer a group discount."


Gundrada bounded through the portal and rejoined Mace and Mellisandre, who were catching their breaths against a wall. "Blimey! Didn't think there were any oracles left. Jolly interesting to find one like that."

"A shame that she couldn't have chosen a room where the floor and walls didn't start coming part," remarked the monk, wiping his brow. He was none too pleased at having lost his mace down a hole. "At least we now know precisely how to fillet a halibut."

"I think some of what she was saying might actually help us," offered Mellisandre. "Though telling us to have a lie down seemed like awfully silly advice on a quest if you ask me. Oh! The floor's moving. We won't have to walk down this long corridor. Hmm. I wonder what that buzzing sound is."


Underground tower by David RoweThe air was stale and chilly: a most unsettling chill given that the refuge of the nearest hearth was a good level or two distant. While Gundrada peered at a waterfall, Brother Mace frowned at the fallen masonry all around, and Mellisandre gazed at the lifeless blue landscape.

"You two! I can see something. It looks like a tower. Is that it?"

The distant edifice among the mountains appeared to be a prime candidate for the mysterious Tower of Time. "We'll only know," Mace declared with rare solemnity, "once we reach it."

"Oh come on!" spluttered Gundrada. "It's miles and miles away. I certainly don't have enough food for the three of us to go all that way."

"No," added Mace, acknowledging his paunch, "I suspect you don't. But-"

"Unless you've got a taste for candles, that is. Found these inside a frightknight I smashed up not long ago. One for each of us. Smell a bit fruity." Gundrada held up the candles. "Nibble one if you like. Don't say I'm not generous."

Melly greeted the candles with glee. "The oracle said something about the heart of a Tin Man. She must have meant you finding these candles like you did!"

"I knew that bit was about me." Gundrada looked surprisingly proud. "Then she said something about candlelight, didn't she?"

The maid closed her eyes and was silent for a moment. "'If your heels are nimble and light, you may get there by candlelight.' We can't eat these. We've got to light them. Has anyone got any matches or fire spells?"

The others shook their heads. Of their hastily gathered supplies, many had been lost in the block and tackle. Then Mace had an idea. He took out the playing card, its symbols still radiant. "Perhaps these hearts can build a bridge to your wax."

"What?"

"Just pass me the candles, will you?"

The monk touched the hearts to the wicks, and one by one they caught alight. Soon each of the trio was holding a candle, casting shuddering shadows across the masonry. And then they noticed something new: on a clear patch of ground, a white flagstone with a red flagstone at three of its sides.

"Who needs to be nimble and light," smiled Brother Mace, "when you have a transporter pad?" Mellisandre and Gundrada had recognised them too. "I think we must assume that one of these will advance our journey in the right direction." He looked over at the tower.

"I'm sure you're right, Brother Mace." Mellisandre was taking a closer look at the flagstones. "Otherwise it's a terrific coincidence that they've got our faces on."

Gundrada and Mace hurried over to examine the carvings. Each stone bore one of their likenesses, give or take an oversized nose.

"Right, I'll go first, just in case there's anything waiting for us at the other end that needs killing," decided Gundrada. "See you!" And with that she stepped onto the white stone, hopped to the right onto the stone depicting her face, hopped back with a jangle of weaponry and vanished. The monk stared at the vacant pad for a second before turning to the maid.

"Mellisandre, before we join Gundrada, I-"

Gundrada reappeared several feet away on a chunk of masonry. Turning around and seeing the others, she furrowed her brow. "Hmm. I know we're supposed to step off then step back so we don't go too far..."

"...But on this occasion, I think we want to be transported to the end of the line," finished Mace.

Gundrada tried again, stepping from the white stone onto the image of her face and staying there. Again, she vanished. Several seconds passed. Noiselessly, a crack wriggled from one corner of the flagstone to the other. Wherever Gundrada's trip had taken her, it was one way.

Mace smiled at Melly. "Where are you going to, my pretty maid?" She laughed. "And more importantly... are you alright? I know that this excursion is challenging all of us, but I sense that with you there is a deeper concern."

Mellisandre swallowed. Mace put a hand on her shoulder.

"Please trust me. Please tell me."

Mellisandre looked down at the flagstone where her face was carved and wished its eyes were hers: eyes that could not cry. "A while ago, my arm got broken by... well it got broken. I went to Merlin to get it healed. He found out that there was something... something very wrong inside me. He said he could not cure it because it was beyond magic." She wept. "All he could do was keep using his powers to stop it growing worse. If I never seem to be getting any older, then that is why. But... when he goes, when he leaves the Dungeon, what then?"

"I am so sorry, my dear." Mace drew Melly close and his habit became wet with tears. "So sorry. Fate is cruel to seek to put out such a bright star. Would that I had brought more ale along, or indeed any ale. Usque ad mortem bibendum. You would make a fine tavern nun." He looked into the maid's wide glistening eyes. "Remember, Merlin has called upon us all for a reason. Trust that he has a reward in store for you. No winning quest is without one. Now, we mustn't linger..."

"I know." Giving Mace a hug, Mellisandre headed over to the transporter pad and spirited herself away. After her departure, her flagstone also cracked. Mace uttered a quick prayer and followed. The crack his flagstone gained was not enough to render it inoperative - because someone followed him.


 As he trudged up the subterranean mountain (or might it have been a gigantic stalagmite?), Brother Mace grappled with the unholy alliance of vertigo and claustrophobia, as well as his more familiar nemesis, sobriety. The cryptic ramblings of the oracle kept his mind occupied. As he and the others ascended, silence descended. The steps that passed under the trio's feet went from numerous to countless, shallow to steep, smooth to rough-hewn. A final darker flight led to the Tower of Time itself: a bold beacon of windowless blue. The entrance appeared to have no physical door across it, but it was not without a physical guard. Tall and thin, his voice was stentorian enough to set the hairs of his beard, the plumes on his helmet and the flames of the three candles quivering.

"I am the Gatemaster. I have been bidden to guard the Tower of Time. All that was, is and will be in the Greater Dungeon emanates from here."

"Past, present, future. Unus, duo, tres," muttered Mace.

Mellisandre tried to offer a greeting but was interrupted.

"He's no match for me!" cried Gundrada. "I could knock him down with a feather, but a broadsword's much more fun!"

The Gatemaster tilted his staff ever so slightly. "I may eliminate you - if you seek to force entry to the tower."

Mace and Melly shook their heads at Gundrada. She rasped, her blade doing likewise as it returned to its scabbard.

"I may grant you entry - if the password has been revealed to you. I will turn you away forever - if the word you give me is incorrect."

Gundrada was impatient. "One wrong guess and that's it? Don't you know we're on a jolly important mission?"

"Many quests in these lands have been no less harsh," Brother Mace pointed out.

"There are three of us, though," remarked Mellisandre, "so between us we get three guesses!"

"We are questing as one, and can only complete this quest as one," replied Mace. "Together we have but one chance."

The Gatemaster said nothing.

"I believe we have a clue from the oracle. Now if I remember rightly, she said, 'The word is nothing to do with Merlin.'"

"So it's not 'Merlin', or 'magic', and it's probably not 'Mogdred'. Doesn't help much, does it?" conceded the sword mistress.

Mellisandre spoke. "Brother Mace, I don't think you're quite right."

"Really? Well I was trying not to fall down an impromptu pit at the time, so it is quite possible. Did the oracle say more?"

"It wasn't that she said more, it was the way she said what you said she said."

Gundrada scoffed, "You're sounding like a blooming oracle yourself!"

"Sorry, what I mean is: she said 'nothing' in an odd way. It sounded more like 'no thing'."

"Why say 'no thing' when ye mean 'nothing'?" Mace mused. "Unless the old bird meant that the word is no thing and it's to do with Merlin."

Gundrada, having not withdrawn a weapon from a scabbard for at least one whole minute, was suffering withdrawal symptoms. This exacerbated her bewilderment as she tried to grapple with oracular semantics. "How in the Underworld can anything be no thing? Who's to say that the oracle wasn't making it all up?"

"Oracles are bound to speak the truth, however cryptically," the monk explained, "and have been since ancient times."

"Then we're ever so lucky that she wasn't speaking an ancient times language, aren't we?" said the maid, trying to import some cheer. "Though you speak Latin, don't you, Brother Mace?"

"I do indeed, my brave honeybee, and a smidgeon of Old Greek... and perhaps they can help us think our way to that elusive word. 'No thing'... 'no' could be non, or nihil, or nil, or ne, or an. A thing is a res. Res, res, rem, rei, rei, re..."

"You know, I was on Level 3 once before, looking for cavernwights..."

"Gundrada!" hissed Melly. "This isn't the time. Brother Mace is trying to think. And what were you doing looking for cavernwights anyway?"

"I get bored easily." She had been trying to get her brother back, but they didn't need to know that. "What you just said, Mace, reminded me of a door I saw there." She told them what had been written over the door.

"That's it! It must be." Melly agreed. The trio turned to face the Gatemaster, and made their guess together: Nilrem.

The Gatemaster nodded and stepped aside.

Congratulating themselves on what they had known and steeling themselves for what was still unknown, the three adventurers stepped through the dark-bound doorway. A fourth traveller had whispered the password at the same time: unseen, unheard and unsmelt, he too was now entering the tower, staying close to Brother Mace.


 The tower's interior confounded three sets of expectations. There were no winding stairs, no assortment of rooms: it was a single chamber, vacant to the very top. There were no markings, save for deep grooves that divided the round floor into thirds. But the tower was far from featureless. In the centre, stretching from the floor to the roof was a great cord, blue, glowing, swaying, almost dancing. Brother Mace, Mellisandre and Gundrada gazed at it. At Time.

"Now what?" asked the sword mistress in hushed tones.

Mace indicated the divisions on the floor. Soon he and the two women were each standing in a segment, spaced out around the chamber. And then came the scraping sound. Melly gasped as the other segments broke from hers and began to rise. Halfway up the tower, Gundrada's platform stopped. Brother Mace's platform continued almost to the top, and then stopped.

Silence fell. A repeat of Gundrada's question echoed up and down the tower. The oracle's utterances seemed to have nothing further to give, unless her multiple references to a stile in Gangnam had any relevance. The three of hearts had nothing more to contribute either: when Mace looked at it, the hearts had stopped shining and Merlin's message had faded away. That only left...

...The candles. And Mace was surprised to observe that his, which had been only half-melted when it lit his way into the tower, had burnt almost all the way down.

"Hello?" came the maid's voice. "Are you both up there? Can you hear me? I just thought I should tell you that my candle's grown back. It looks as if I only just lit it."

Mace replied with a description of his candle, and a question about Gundrada's. She confirmed that her candle was the same.

"Past, present and future. All the states of time. We are each representing one."

"'You may get there by candlelight'," recalled Mellisandre. She was feeling sick and was glad that the others couldn't see her.

"And if we're not quite 'there' then we still need the candlelight," reasoned Gundrada.

"Let us tell the time, so to speak," said the monk. "I propose that we announce ourselves one by one."

"Shall I go first?" Melly was feeling ever more anxious.

"I believe I should, for my candle will be soonest to go out," replied Mace, "and time is quite literally of the essence." His follower was on the platform with him, pressed against the wall, undetected. The monk took a deep breath, held out the candle and fixed his eyes on the luminous line of time.

"Brother Mace. Future. Unus." Nothing happened. The flame was flickering: his voice had almost blown it out. Hesitantly, he extended his arm until the candle was almost touching the cord. The cord oscillated, brushing the flame. The candle went out then disappeared from Mace's hand. He watched as the cord glowed a little brighter and began to retract towards the floor. Mace called down to explain to his companions what had happened.

Gundrada gathered herself. As the top of the cord reached her, it came to a halt. She called out, "Gundrada the Sword Mistress! Present! Two!" Deciding that she should follow the monk's lead precisely, she added the Latin for two: "Duo!" She touched her candle to the temporal strand. It luminesced a little more and resumed its shrinking. Gundrada joined Brother Mace in pitch blackness.

Mellisandre was shaking, holding her candle with both hands. When the top of the cord drew level with her, she tried to speak her part but couldn't. The cord began to grow upward again. Gundrada saw the glow climbing back towards her and swore in frustration.

"Mellisandre!" boomed Mace. "We must finish this. It is our only chance. We believe in you!"

"Yes, come on, Melly! I didn't think you'd get this far but you did so I know you can jolly well do it all. Hurry, Melly, hurry!"

Mellisandre looked inside herself, past the body in which she could not and would not grow old, at the woman she had told herself that she would never become - and she became her. Never had her voice sounded so strong.

"Mellisandre. Past. Tres. Tres!"

Her flame made contact with the cord. It flashed and then started to sink again, faster and faster. Then it was at the floor. Then it was a spark. Then it was gone. The tower stood still. A maid was weeping. A swordswoman was breathing. A monk was drinking in the silence again. Then the spark returned. And the cord began to grow. Up past Mellisandre, up past Gundrada, up the tower to Brother Mace. And again it was vibrating - but this time, to the sound of an old, wise voice.

"If you are hearing this," intoned Merlin, "then you have succeeded. By causing a triple temporal disruption and shutting off the flow of Time through the Dungeon, you enabled me to take Mogdred, myself and our battle to a place outside Time as you know it. You have saved the Dungeon, you have preserved Knightmare, and more people owe you thanks than you could ever know.

"This voice you're hearing isn't me, of course. Well, not exactly. It is part of the last vestiges of my magic left behind in this realm. I cannot say when I will return, nor even whether I will return. There must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Step boldly forward in all your beliefs and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine. And allow my magic to take you onward. Brother Mace: to the future."

A portal had appeared in the wall behind Brother Mace. Bidding his comrades farewell, he walked through. The whoosh resounded down the tower.

"Gundrada: the present."

Gundrada found a portal behind her, crossed the platform and left the tower.

"And for you, Mellisandre, the past."

There was a wooden trapdoor beneath Melly's feet. Its doors were opening. By the light of the time cord, she saw the three of hearts fluttering down. She fell softly.

"Oh, I forgot to wish them a Merry Christmas. And I've got to find somewhere else to put Time. And what about that guard fellow?"

Merlin's monologue trailed off as the potent dregs of his magic were drained.

Something behind the Gatemaster was compelling his attention. Against his better judgement, he turned. The Tower of Time wasn't there. He found it a challenge to remember if it ever had been there, or would be there. Regardless, he would have to find something else to guard. But he didn't have to guard it looking like this. He closed his eyes. Like the kneading of dough, his face began to change, and then his whole body. The monk was in his mind: beneath his beard, the Gatemaster began to take on his look.


The Future

Brother Mace will be in a room. He will stare about him, dazzled by the myriad colours and textures. A man will spring out from behind a column.

"Who are you, and what are you doing on my ship?"

"Pax vobiscum," the monk will venture. "My name is Brother Mace. Merlin sent me."

"Ah!" The other man's hands will meet in delight. "Why didn't you say so? You did say so. Good old Merlin. Met him a couple of times. Some people call me Merlin. Silly really. Don't get me wrong, I could probably do the beard, if my chin would let me. But then you wouldn't be able to see my bow tie, and bow ties, I will have you know, are cool."

"What might I call you then?"

"I'm the Doctor. I stand here - no sitting, don't do a lot of that - in my lonely box and I contemplate the follies of the universe. And I also sort a lot of them out. Can't seem to help it. Old habits. No pun intended."

"A pleasure to meet you, Doctor. Er, did you say this was your box? Yet also your ship?"

The Doctor will introduce the TARDIS. "She can go anywhere in space and time... but she can't seem to find me a turkey on Christmas Eve." The Doctor will look over Brother Mace's shoulder, frown, and begin rummaging beneath the console. "Interesting, isn't it, how turkey is a bird, and a country, and the name of the best jam sandwich maker in the whole Silver Devastation?" The Doctor will reemerge with a spoon-shaped shovel in his hands. "And it's fascinating how many birds are also verbs. Swallow, that's one."

"Quail," Mace will suggest.

"Yes, quail." The Doctor will step towards Mace, his eyes following a glint behind the monk. "And not forgetting DUCK!"

Mace will duck. A shovel will swing over his head. There will be a squeak, a clatter, a crash. The Doctor and Mace will look over the railing, where a cloaked figure, in black and out for the count, will slowly become visible.

"Why, that's Brother Silence the Backstabber. He's an assassin that's had it in for me ever since I clobbered him with a piece of poultry. The cretin's been trailing me all this time. Thank you, Doctor."

The Doctor will smile graciously. "As someone once said, possibly me in a few seconds, revenge is a dish best out cold."

Mace will laugh. "And as an oracle once said to me, Silence will fall."

The Doctor will put the shovel away and his hands will begin travelling over the console. "I suppose I should take you home," he will tell Brother Mace. "I believe you have an appointment in Wolfglade with a man called Sylvester Hands. If it's alright with you, I'm taking you the long way, via 339th century New New South Wales. One of the Unseemly Canon, Saint Smasher, has declared himself absolute ruler, kidnapped the Vaarkan ambassador's cat and keeps poking people accidentally-on-purpose with a very long staff. I'm going to ask him nicely to stop."

"Doctor, I am but a novice in these matters, but I fear that asking nicely might not work."

"You could be right there. In which case, we can explore the rumour that quoting a certain line from Deuteronomy at Saint Smasher triggers a hypnotic suggestion implanted by the Parent Superior and puts him to sleep. Do you know Deuteronomy?"

"Yes. I know many of the verses by heart."

"Excellent! Good to have you along. Two heads will be better than one." The Doctor will move to pat his head but will pat his chest instead. "Or, indeed, three h... Brother Mace! Are you shedding your skin?"

"I'll explain later."


The Present

Gundrada is in a room. She has been here for a while: at least long enough to empty a flagon of ale. She puts one down and shrugs at her drinking companion.

"Can't remember what happened next."

"You found the Tower of Time, went inside and you just can't remember any more?" splutters the other drinker.

"Sorry. My mind's a total blank. A total thirsty blank."

The man sighs and orders another ale. Then he listens, as spellbound as one can be in the lands of Knightmare without actual magic involved, while Gundrada resumes her tale. Yet another drink is required to get her to fill in some of the gaps, but it is worth it. He thanks the sword mistress profusely.

"Wasn't really my idea of fun, but I suppose it's nice to tell someone about it. It felt sort of important. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got some dwarves to hunt. They're always much easier to find at Christmastime. And then I'm going to hack up as many stocks as I can find. Don't know why I didn't think of it sooner. See you!"

"Remember, the upright ones are called pill-"

Gundrada has left the Crazed Heifer. Smiling to himself, the man repacks his stationery and sets off for Knightmare Castle. When Lord Dunshelm hears all this, thinks Cadrighan, he is sure to consider me for the post of chronicler.


The Past

Mellisandre was in a room. She had been dragged from the snowy threshold, cold, weak, delirious. In her mind were echoing words and a playing card turning in the air.

"Card..."

Across the room, a woman and a man discussed her with hushed concern. A cup was placed into her hands. She caught the aroma of mulled wine. She drank. She closed her eyes and slept. Again she heard echoes, and recognised one voice as her own. Again she saw the card, its hearts gleaming.

"Unus... duo.. tres... tres..."

Mellisandre stirred. A woman was at her side. Her smile reshaped the blur of Melly's vision. She wanted to speak but even her own name eluded her.

"Card..."

"Be calm. You are safe here. You may stay for as long as you need to. The others think you're a lost angel - but I see from your hands that you have worked in a kitchen. When you are well enough, you may help the cook."

Mellisandre found herself nodding. She wanted to believe that she would feel well again.

"My mistress wishes to see you. Will you come?"

Melly was led to a bedchamber. From the bed, a lady greeted her. Servants bustled back and forth but the lady was serene. She spoke in a soothing voice.

"I wish you to feel at home here. It so happens that you are not the only newcomer this night. I have been blessed with another son."

Mellisandre tried to smile but wasn't sure if she managed to. She felt giddy and was allowed to sit on the bed.

"I must confess that we are struggling to decide upon a name. If you have any suggestions then they would be most welcome."

Mellisandre had so few words at her command, but did not want to stay silent. She opened her mouth and hoped for the best. "Tres... card..."

The mother paused, unsure what the girl had mumbled. Then she smiled. "Yes. A strong Saxon name. He shall grow into it. Now, would you like to meet him?"

A servant tried to raise concerns but Lady Dunshelm quietened her. "She has named the child, now she shall meet him."

The sleeping baby was fetched and held out to Mellisandre. She sat up as straight as she could and took him in her arms. She could not hold him for long but just before she handed Treguard back, he opened his eyes and stared.

Welcome, watcher.

Outside the fortress of Dunshelm, the snow fell, white as a wizard's beard.

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