Original Story Concept by Brian Dumlao and Kathy Pogge
Revised Story Concept by Entity and Joshua Whalen
Written by Jen Bailey and Christi Smith Hayden
Previously on Dark Ages:
Edmund: (to sleeping Ajax and Deborah) "'Fighting is a matter of life and death,' you said. 'Your life, your opponent's death.' I wonder if you'll ever understand the meaning of your words. Poor lad, most likely not. You've been told it too many times not to believe it." (looking at Deborah) "And you certainly have drilled that into him haven't you? Deborah, I call you in my writing. On her own, the Biblical Deborah can seem quite harsh. But remembering what times she lived in, indeed what was necessary, she rose to the occasion admirably. As too, do you, training these young warriors for the life they will undoubtedly lead. You have no time to be any other way."
-- "First Do No Harm"
The Captain: "Safe journey, your highness."
Malcolm: "Captain, I wish for you to rule the castle in my absence. Make sure that everything is as it was when I return."
The Captain: "Yes, your highness."
Malcolm: "And, Captain, do not harass the gargoyles while I am away."
-- "Ever Faithful"
Freyja: "No. And people aren't Vikings, they GO viking."
Freyja: *irritated*: "When you GO viking you attack and burn and bring home all kinds of stuff. When I was really little my father went viking, but he and the other freemen came here and started this village instead. They wanted to 'settle here and make a new life for themselves.'"
Lexington: "Are you a Viking?"
Broadway: "Yeah, are you gonna raid and pillage us? 'Cause if you are, we're gonna beat you up."
Ingrid: "Yes, but what about those rumors of gargoyles living at the castle?"
Donal: "Ingrid, I am certain that there are no living gargoyles in Castle Wyvern. No respectable ruler would let such creatures live among his subjects."
Captain: "Foul creatures. Why do we have to involve them?"
Oliver: "The Prince seems to think they have their uses."
-- "A Guard's Story"
Deborah: *exasperated*: "What am I to do with that child? Have ye ever known such a troublesome thing?"
Hudson: "Well, ye canna do what I did ..."
Deborah: "What are ye talking about? When have ye had such a problem, and what did ye do?"
Hudson: "Made her my second-in-command."
-- "The Seduction"
Hudson: "And what of the humans who make the castle their home? Surely ye donnae think they'll welcome you with open arms? They care little enough for the gargoyles they have."
-- "Coming of Age" - Part Two
Hudson: "Love, I never want tae spend another night away from ya, or a day without ya near. Yuir the stubborn, impossible other half to me. I need yuir strength, and yuir good heart, and yuir way wi' bringin' people together. It's th' only way we'll survive bein' wi' th' humans. It's the only way I'll survive."
Deborah: "Yuir strong. No matter what, you'll survive. That strength, that spirit, even that bullheadedness of yuirs, they make ye the Leader. Really, that's what won me over back when we were courtin'. Forgive me if I get old and silly, and forget that now and then."
Hudson: "If ya promise me one thing. Promise me you'll stay wi' me forever. Never another day apart."
Deborah: "No' even another hour. I'll stay by yuir side always. I swear."
* * * * *
Alliances - Part One
The brisk south wind snapped the sails tight in a sudden gust, causing the first mate to yell at the mast hands to stabilize the boom as the rowing master increased the rhythm of the eighty-five men heaving at the long oars. Their burden had been light so far because of the good weather and strong winds, but the sea was a harsh mistress, capricious and ever-changing. The drummer pounded out the oar strokes as they fought the wind and the waves.
"'Tis a fine gale, Captain," a sandy-haired giant of a man observed. His captain, an equally large brute, spared an idle glance at him. Both men leaned up against the deck railing to the port side of the great carved dragon's head that decorated the prow of the immense Viking ship. Behind them, an armada of similar vessels followed, like fantastic sea monsters gliding over the rolling swells of the sea.
"I canna complain, Erik," the captain responded, rubbing a rough hand through his sun-bleached hair. "It gets us there all th' more faster. I had wanted to show my son the power of the sea, but until now we've only had weather fit for no more than a babe."
Erik cast a look behind his Captain's back, where a runt of a boy stood sullenly, leaning against the dragon's head and glaring out across the smooth blue waters. The light from the late afternoon sun made the lad's hair look whiter than snow, but he couldn't mistake Captain Thorvald's features that were so arrogantly set in that young face. And like the captain, the boy's name of Thorbjorn invoked the protection of the thunder god, as was the tradition of a family of warriors.
"Surely his first raid will have a little more excitement," Erik prodded.
"Oh aye, it shall, thank Odin for that. Wyvern is a jewel yet to be taken by any raids this season or any of th' last, if I remember. Prince Malcolm has grown weak, or so my scouts say. The fief's defenders number only two hundred or so, and for a castle of such size an' riches . . ."
"But what of th' gargoyles--"
Thorvald cut him off with a withering look. "Gargoyles are stories my gran told me when I was young, and it never scared me then. I take it that the case is different with you now, Erik?"
Erik flushed. "Nay, Captain. Wyvern is a wise choice."
"I'm glad you agree," he replied dryly and took a glance at the dropping sun. "I suppose night should be upon us in a couple of hours. I'd hoped to make landfall before then and at least get camp set up, but we're going to have to push it. Ragnar!"
The bald, stout figure of the rowing master waved acknowledgment of his captain by bowing slightly, the wolfskin draped across his shoulders swaying slightly in the brisk wind. "I want our speed increased so we make land before moon rise!" Thorvald commanded.
"You heard the captain, you lot!" Ragnar bellowed over the wind. "Drummer! Strike the beat!"
The big skin drum boomed out as the rowers threw their oars forward, muscles glistening and straining in the afternoon sun. As the oars rose and fell with increasing intensity, another man held a polished shield aloft, catching the sun's rays and sending a bright beam to signal each of the five other long boats slightly behind them.
Captain Thorvald smiled grimly as the very faint fjords of northern Scotland came into sight, signaling the end of a journey that had lasted the better part of fourteen sunrises. He could hear the dim roar of five hundred other Viking warriors as they spotted the land, and the plunder that lay within.
"A jewel indeed," he mused softly, casting a quick glance at his young son and then at the distant land beyond.
* * * *
The warm sunset cast brilliant colors against the courtyard walls, with bloody scarlets and vivid purples enlivening the grim gray native stone. It also glinted off the fearsome limbs of the creatures perched along the rim of the courtyard, giving them an especially lurid tone. Several of the servants and page boys had cast many awe-stuck looks at the stone gargoyles above.
"'Tis a spectacular sunset, Brother Edmund," A stout cook called, coming up the winding stairs. He reached the platform where Edmund stood, admiring the stone creatures.
"Aye, it is, Robert. A truly noble gift from our Lord."
The cook stopped by Brother Edmund and looked at what he was admiring. "So many gargoyles. Ye canna go anywhere wi'out running in ta one of 'em. One of th' page boys just about lost an eye when he walked into an outstretched tail."
"Minor grievances. The gargoyles are surely worth more than a few tears and scratches. So noble, and so loyal in th--"
"They're more trouble than that, I don't mind ta say it, Brother Edmund. No good can come from creatures such as they. I dinna care if they had saved the Prince's--"
Brother Edmund was quick to cut off the rant. "A loose tongue is a dangerous thing, Robert. Be careful of what you say of Prince Malcolm."
"Och! I dinna mean I'd wish ill of the _Prince's_ life. Never! I was just saying that they are no--"
"They are creatures in God's kingdom and they shall receive the respect that is their due. Now, I don't believe the Prince will appreciate his dinner coming late to the table, now will he, Robert?"
The cook scowled and left, hunching over his shoulders, glaring. Edmund watched him go with a certain amount of sadness. Far too many of the subjects within Wyvern held the same opinion and the voices that were clamoring for the gargoyles' removal were getting louder. The Prince was a man of honor and truth, but he could only go against the will of his people for so long . . .
There was a sudden collective crackling and roaring as about a hundred gargoyles awoke from their day of sleep. Stone shards rained down from everywhere, and Brother Edmund, so caught up in the majesty of their awakening, belatedly noticed that a train of servants was carrying out the Prince's dinner. The steaming, uncovered dishes were assaulted by the downpour of stone, and the train came to a difficult stop.
"It's ruined!" A women wailed, sinking down beside a gravel-covered roast she had dropped. The maid looked up to where Asrial had awakened and was in the process of brushing off any of the remaining shards. "You'll answer for this! Ungrateful beast ye are!"
Asrial, not quite understanding what the maid was saying and why the woman's face was turning so red in anger, leapt down easily and survey the wrecked meal. "I'm sorry, I didn't quite hear you. Is this Prince Malcolm's dinner? Surely he can't eat stone! Maybe, if you had some kind of cover that attaches to the plate itself so that if you dropped it again---"
The maid went white, then red with rage. "You disgusting, vile creature! This is YOUR FAULT!! Once th' Prince has learned ye have destroyed his sup, surely he will finally drive you and yuir evil brethren from our castle--"
The young female gargoyle stepped back in surprise. "Why, this isn't my fault! I can't control how I awaken--"
The maid picked up the leg of lamb she had been transporting and threw it at Asrial. Stunned, the young female stumbled to avoid it but it caught her on the shoulder, and the already off-balanced gargoyle hit the ground with a thud. This got the attention of Agamemnon, who landed hard in front of the enraged maid with his own eyes flaring, wings outstretched.
The poor woman jerked backwards in sudden fear, directly into the Captain of the Guards. The man gave Agamemnon a hard look, and then steadied the maid's arm.
"What goes on here, lass?"
Agamemnon helped Asrial up as the maid pointed and accused. The spiral-horned female broke in angrily and started to defend herself, and pretty soon the whole thing erupted into a screaming match.
Edward looked on dispiritedly, noting that the crowd had been split with humans behind the maid and captain, while the gargoyles stood behind Asrial and Agamemnon. Lately, it had become increasingly apparent that either side was beginning to grow intolerant of each other. Feuds such as these were cropping up with growing occurrence and violence. The monk sighed heavily, and watched on as the exchange became more heated, with the Captain calling for soldiers and for the crowd to disperse.
Had he noticed, Edmund might have seen a mud-covered messenger hurry into the courtyard, quickly sidestep the argument, and dash through the doors leading to the great hall, where Prince Malcolm sat, no doubt wondering where his dinner had gone to.
* * * * *
On one of the sea-facing ramparts stood the Leader and Deborah, both of them still brushing off the remains of their sleep. Consequently, they heard nothing of the riot in the courtyard, nor did they see the messenger as he had wheeled his winded horse through the main gate. Deborah gazed into the fading glory of the sun as she turned to her mate.
"Do you ever wonder what it would be like to see th' sun?"
The Leader gave her a warm smile and brushed a hair from her eyes. "Ye are strangely introspective tonight, beloved, but I have wondered, aye. Surely it would be grand."
They looked into each other's eyes for a brief moment before they heard the crunching of stone, heralding the arrival of a gargoyle up the rampart wall.
"I'll head off to give some patrols. There has been some unrest to th' south, so I think I will double the groups there," she explained, watching as a talon, claw, then arm appeared over the ledge, followed by a rather angry Agamemnon's visage.
"Leader, we must have a talk. There has been another incident, and th' elders have brought it to my attention," he puffed bitterly as he pulled himself up.
Hudson gave him a brief nod of acknowledgment before turning back to his mate. "I'll be here, lass."
Deborah took off, catching only the beginning of Agamemnon's rant. "Surely, Leader, we have been th' brunt of th' humans' scorn for far too long now! We defend them time an' time again, yet our only thanks . . ."
The Leader sighed heavily.
* * * * *
When she returned, having been slightly delayed by a grumbling Thersites, she found her beloved pacing the upper ramparts, wings unfurled in agitation. She alighted softly next to him.
"What is wrong?" she asked, scanning around for any imminent danger.
"Nothing an' everything," he responded angrily.
Deborah paused. "Is it about th' humans again?"
"What is it usually of late? Of course it's th' humans! According' to our brother, most of th' elders are in favor of abandoning Wyvern, our ancestral home! We canna do that any more than we can take a stroll in th' day! This. Is. Our. Home!"
"Beloved, I too have noticed more quarrels, but surely 'tis not so bad?"
"Och, I wish it were so! I knew that things had been a bit tougher 'round th' castle, but there have always been those that have never gotten along with th' humans, and vice versa. I was never concerned with them, but now!" He smacked the top of the stone railing hard, sending chips over the wall and down to the surging surf below.
His mate slipped her hands under his wings and massaged a knot in the muscles of his back. "Of course this is our home. It has been since before anyone can remember and it will be for many years to come. 'Tis just the grumbling of those that cannae see how good we have it here, or those that believe those rumors about how some of the clans are treated in England."
"Aye, I know. But I'm more concerned with th' humans, especially if just one decides he has had enough of us and takes a mace to us during th' day."
Deborah moved her ministrations to the base of her mate's wings and sighed. "The Prince is a good, good man. He would never allow that to happen, and neither would Brother Edmund. For a holy man, his words carry much influence."
The Leader turned around and caught his Second around the waist, gently cloaking his wings around her. "'Tis foolish, then, for me to worry so much?"
"Nae. Ye care too much, and like any good leader, are unsettled when some of th' clan is restless. 'Tis a serious matter, to be sure, but it will settle itself out," she murmured, and kissed him gently. The Leader tightened his grip, and as things began to turn towards a more passionate nature, a distinct cough was heard.
Upon opening her eyes, Deborah saw Prince Malcolm standing discreetly in the alcove of the stair well. Gently, she pushed her beloved away. "The Prince stands by th' stairs, and he looks anxious," she whispered. "Methinks it is something serious if th' Prince himself has come to fetch ye."
Gripping her talons as he took a steady look at the Prince, the Leader asked, "Ye will not stay wi' me? This will most likely concern ye and the others, too."
"Aye," she said easily, loosening her talons and stepping up on the battlement. "But I must go check on the hatchlings, to see if all's well. Last night I found one of th' little ones trying to eat the mold off the very cavern walls. Imagine!"
He chuckled, but caught hold again of her talons, playing with them slightly. "Beloved, if ye have th' time later . . ."
She smiled lazily at him, and her eyes held promise. "Always, my strong one, always."
He watched her go, aware that the Prince was walking towards him. Malcolm appeared older to him, and there was a stressed look around his eyes that the Leader recognized and sympathized with. "My Prince, how may I be of service to ye?"
"You're too good sometimes. Lately, it seems as though all my subjects need me to run each of their lives. If it's not flushing out the bandits, it's the crops. If it's not the crops, it's the roads, and if it's not that, then it's the sun or the rain or who knows what else they have problems with!"
"Aye, milord, 'tis a strange time."
"Well, old friend, it's about to get worse," he paused and looked towards the north. "There have been rumors of a Viking raid. Of course, near this time of year, it has to be expected, but never before have . . ."
"Prince?" The leader prompted.
"A messenger arrived 'ere this eve, after riding hard all day. Did ye see him?"
"Nay, I did not," the Leader replied, feeling a little shamed. He should have noticed something as conspicuous as a rushing messenger, especially with such inactivity plaguing the clan.
"Och, no mind. He bears news about a village that is only a day or so ride from Wyvern. It had been completely sacked by a large group of Vikings; a larger bunch than any he's seen in his years and more greedy at that. Nothin' was left of it, nothing at all. And the Vikings are moving fast. I sent out scouts no more than an hour since, and already they've returned, bearing news that a Viking scout group is just a hour away."
"A scout group? Surely your forces can take care of that, Prince."
"Aye, I've enough to do that, especially with the help of your loyal clan," the Prince stated, looking the gargoyle in the eye to convey his other meaning.
"We, of course, will defend our home to the last."
"But during the day is what I'm more concerned with. Wyvern has never needed a strong garrison, thanks to your clan's abilities and reputations, so we will be decidedly hard-pressed should the Vikings attack the castle during the day. I am worried not only for my people, but yours as well," he explained grimly.
"Aye," the Leader assented.
"My only hope is that we meet the Vikings---tonight, if possible---away from Wyvern, to stop them or at least stall them there, so I can call reinforcements from Kenneth," he explained.
"A wise plan, but you do not have enough men to ensure victory, even against a scout party."
"No, which is why I am here before you, old friend. I am asking you--both as a leader of my people and as a friend-if you and your clan would be willing to aid us in Wyvern's defense, away from the castle itself?" The Prince watched the Leader speculatively, full well knowing just what he was asking the gargoyle.
The brown gargoyle turned away from Malcolm for a moment, gazing out across the still sea. This was quite different from what he thought the Prince would ask him--for the gargoyles to defend their home was one thing, but to step beyond those walls and repel the Vikings away? Gargoyles were not outwardly aggressive (of course, that hadn't stopped Atalanta and her bunch from trying to dislodge the clan from Wyvern) and almost always preferred to defend, never leaving their home; to do otherwise was against their very nature. Could he ask his clan to do this? Never mind the fact that half of them wanted nothing to do with the humans, and should he decide to pledge his clan with the Prince . . .well, that would probably be seen as 'giving in' to the humans of Wyvern.
"I . . .need time to think of this, and talk to my clan. I know that this requires urgency, so you'll have my answer within the hour," he said carefully, watching Malcolm.
"I expected as much and I thank you, my friend. I will await you in my council chamber." With that, Prince Malcolm walked away, his face a little less troubled and his shoulders a little straighter. The Leader saw the Captain of the Guard waiting in the shadows of the alcove; he got the feeling that most of the Prince's plan revolved around the gargoyles' assistance.
And if I were in the same position, mine would be as well. But will the clan see it too? Can I ask them to forget about the injustice they've had to suffer at the hands of the humans? the Leader thought, gripping the stone of the wall until tiny cracks streaked along its surface. He would have to ask his clan, and hoped that by appealing to their love of Wyvern, he could accomplish this. If they could decide this by logic and forget the resentment, all should go according to plan . . . but as the Leader turned around, he saw a still angry Agamemnon gesturing vividly to an elder gray male, motioning to the humans below and at the gargoyles gliding around.
Or maybe not quite so according to plan . . .
* * * * *
They could hear the pounding surf even before they were in sight of the cliffs and they could smell the salty air, too. This seemed to inspire the lagging parts of the caravan; beasts bearing the heavier loads picked up their steps and the horses began to nicker to one another, knowing that dinner was not far off when they reached their destination.
"Is this the place ye seek?" The caravan leader asked, reining up his prancing horse.
They had just cleared the thick wall of trees and came upon the great cliffs with the sun lighting the sea turned to a deep sapphire color.
"Aye," the master mason nodded, briefly bringing out a small map cloth. "The King said he wanted it where the 'land meets th' sea, and the sea meets th' sky.'"
"'Tis well then," the caravan leader agreed. He narrowed his eyes as he surveyed the broad cliffs again, remember all the tales about this place being haunted. "I'll bring the rest of 'em in, and we'll have the camp up before moonrise."
The master mason ignored him and clucked to his horse, sending it as far to the edge as the beast would allow. The man gazed out across the clear, shifting ocean and took a deep breath of the salt-laden air. "Aye, this is th' place."
Below, where the water was surging in and out of the jagged rocks, there were many large caves that were unknown to the master mason. They didn't present a construction problem to the new castle, but it was what they contained that did. For as the night began to fall and as the last horses were being picketed, several unearthly screams filled the dusky sky. Members of the caravan murmured uneasily to each other, with the end decision being that the screams were probably due to the sound of the tide running in against the rocks. However, there were those that knew what kind of the screams they were and what manner of creatures emitted them.
The gargoyles had lived in these cliffs since time began; there were etchings in the walls of the caves done by previous generations that bore testament to this fact. It was as safe a place for a gargoyle clan that any could have; none but the most eagle-eyed humans see the caves from above, and none but the hardiest could survive the trek down to the beachhead that led to their home. And should one attempt it, he would be lost in a maze, as the caverns went on for quite some distance.
Their leader, a stout blue male with strong attributes, was the first to find the human encampment above. It was not uncommon for such camps to appear from time to time, but they were seldom welcomed and consequently, did not stay long. As he peered over the edge of the cliff, he could see the flickering bonfires and guessed that there were at least a hundred humans. He narrowed his eyes at the size of the wagons they had, and crawled back down the cliffs.
"Well, did ye find game so soon?" A dark red, sable-maned female asked. She was, as occasionally happened in the clan, both his second in command and his mate. In fact, she had just laid their first egg, and by the looks of it, it would be a strong hatchling.
"Nay, I dinnae even make it to the tops of th' cliffs. We have guests."
This caught the attention of a group of warriors just coming back from the rookery. "What be this, leader?" One of the males, brown with the start of a thick beard and perhaps the most promising of the new group of young warriors, asked.
"A camp of humans have settled down o'er th' cliffs."
"Pah, they're always stopping there. Give 'em a few days and they'll be gone, as sure as the sun will rise," an older female scoffed.
"I dinna think so. They are th' largest group I've seen, and they have enough to set up a permanent place. I think I might have seen some quarrying tools with them," the leader replied, grimly. "These cliffs are just as ideal to them as 'twas to our ancestors, lest ye forget that. I wouldna be surprised if they did set up camp."
"But we canna trust them! We all heard the tales of what happened to the Welsh clans!"
"Aye, and the rookery! The clutch has just barely finished bein' laid, and I dinna think it right to be havin' humans above our very heads now!"
"And it wouldna take them long before they know we're below 'em. Ye canna let this happen, leader."
The leader listened silently, capping his large wings around him as the clan continued to react to the news. His mate laid a gentle hand about his waist for support and she too was silent.
"Well, leader, what are ye thinking?" The younger brown male asked, understanding full well what the leader had to be thinking.
"I will take th' clan's consensus, but we have two choices; either leave 'em alone and move to a different roost, or scare them away and risk attack. Humans can be verra stubborn creatures," he said finally. "Make yuir choice; white stones for scaring them, black for leaving them alone, and no maybe colored rocks, or we'll be doing this all over again, aye?"
Solemn nods, and then at once the group dispersed. His second took a sack of cloth, hung it on a sharp outcropping, and one by one, all the able gargoyles of the clan dropped a small stone into the bag. Once all had been accounted for, his second handed the blue gargoyle the bag and then stepped back as he poured out its contents. A cascade of the purest white rained down on the rocky floor, and sent some of the white stones skipping away into the shadows.
"Well, I believe this is my answer," the leader finally coughed. "All of ye understand the risk we be taking. We could go ta sleep one dawn and never awaken again; I hope ye all know and accept this."
The brown gargoyle, the one that had been in the leader's eye as a successor, stepped forward from his brethren. "Leader, I know that th' humans are a . . .threat . . . but if we canna scare them away wi'out seriously endangering ourselves . . . could we form an . . .alliance wi' them?"
There was a heartbeat of silence before the whole clan erupted into conversion, some with a heavily negative air and others with a more considering tone. The Leader motioned for silence, and it took him a few battle roars before he could regain control of the discussion.
"Shush, the lot of ye! I dinna think we'll need to be worrin' about keeping our location safe with the racket yuir kickin' up! Now, I agree wi' ye youngling; not saying that I'm completely ready to enter into an 'alliance' wi' the humans. I have hope that a few scares will send the bunch home before dawn's light. But aye, laddie, when it becomes clear that they're staying put, then we will _talk_ about yuir idea more," he concluded carefully. He was lucky in that he was highly respected as a leader of the clan and so did not have much trouble from his brethren; his predecessor hadn't been quite so lucky, and the blue gargoyle still remembered how most decisions were made by threat of violence. "Aye then, I'll take ye, youngling, the pale bluish female behind ye, and my second. We should be back before the moon is high; I want a double guard posted by th' rookery and on all possible land paths. Th' rest of ye stay here."
And so they went, stealthily creeping up the rocks and sliding over the cliff face. The Leader went first, followed by the brown male and his aquamarine companion, and then the wine red second. Stopping by a small cairn, he motioned to the others, whispering as quietly as he could. Once the other three understood, they fanned out, with two of them heading silently towards the far end of the pack horses' picket line. The leader and his second positioned themselves at the beginning, where the lead rope that all of the animals' halters were tied to had been looped around a tree. The second, eyeing the blue female down the long line of sleeping horse rumps, slashed her hand down in signal. The two males at either end simultaneously sliced the rope with their talons, and then all four screamed their savage battle cries.
The ensuing chaos in the humans' camp was most satisfying.
* * * * *
Two weeks later
"Master Mason," a small lad puffed, stumbling in his tired run. The Master Mason, trying to rebuild what remained of several of his carts from the previous night, turned to the lad and caught him by the shoulder.
"What is it now, boy? Cannae ye see I've enough on my hands?" he snapped, pushing the lad back slightly.
"M-master, they need ye by the quarry pit. All the pulley ropes have been cut, and none o' the men will fix it."
"Aye, sirrah, they're sick of all these hauntings--"
"There are no hauntings! 'Tis just accidents! If they canna get it into their dense skulls that it's no' these 'monsters' . . ." the master mason grumbled, fists shaking in anger.
For the two weeks they had been camped at the cliffs, each dawn revealed sabotage; first, the horses were cut loose, and the caravan lost a quarter of their stock to the wild. Next, and the axles on the carts were smashed, then the food wagon burned with its contents (forcing them to send a messenger off to the nearest village for resupply; on the way back, he was robbed, and they had to do it all over again). Not only physical destruction; at nights, they heard the most awful, wailing cries, and some claimed to have seen flickering demons eyes in the very forest. The majority of his Gaelic crew though it was a tannasq, some sort of haunting demon. His camp was now completely covered in myrtle and rowan boughs; some had even buried iron beneath their tents to ward off the spirit. Still others believed that the thing plaguing the camp was of a much more physical nature . . .
"If it's gargoyles, then I'm th' Merlin of old and will raise up this blasted castle wi' my pinkie toes," he snorted out loud as he hurried to the quarry pits. Sure enough, as he rounded the forest's edge, he found a large group of men shifting uneasily by the edge of the stone pit. They saw him and parted so he could walk right up to the pit's edge and see the damage.
The specially made rope, strong enough to lift cornerstone pieces without stretching, had been sliced to ribbons, and the pulleys themselves smashed against the many boulders. This meant at least another two week set back. The master mason made a noise of shocked rage, and turned to his men. They took a hasty step away from him, but one man held his ground.
"Why havena ye started to work?" He asked in a softly dangerous tone.
"The ropes--" The lone man began.
"What's wrong wi' yuir own bare hands?"
"Weeel, sirrah, we feel that it is useless to build here. Something doesna want us here, and we're surely not going to lose our lives over it. Ye can pay a man enough, but . . ."
"I could pay the whole lot of ye enough to walk over th' pit of hell barefoot and ye'd do it, ye greedy sops. Now, git back to work, or by thunder, I'll send for th' King's men to help me force ye. The King wants Wyvern to be completed before the harvest is in, and I'll no be the one to tell him it will be later," the master commanded, hand on the hilt of his sword. Even he had begun to feel queasy in this area, and now wore his sword all the time.
"But sirrah--" the man started.
"Nay. I can increase the whiskey ration and double yuir meat allowance, but that is all I'll give ye. And if ye truly are cowards and run out, them ye can answer the King on a charge of high treason---I'm sure most of ye know the punishment for that."
For a few heartbeats, the master wasn't sure if he'd fully convinced his men; true enough, they'd be hanged if they deserted this project and were caught again. But unlike what he'd said earlier, there were some things that you could not pay a man enough to do. The men grumbled to each other, then nodded to the lone man in the center, who sighed disgustedly.
"Aye then, we'll get back to it. But we'd better get our promised rations tonight, especially if we hav' to deal with that demonic racket that happened last eve," he replied grimly, and the whole group converged on the destroyed pulleys with a marked reluctance.
The master mason sighed heavily, wiped the sweat from his brow, and turned back to the camp, now and then glancing heavenward in supplication.
* * * * *
One month later
The leader stood before his clan, looking skyward once and a while when an especially loud sound was heard. The humans had managed to build at least one level of their castle into the very bedrock itself; he had to give them credit for their tenacity. Each night the gargoyles had been tearing into the camp, stealthily slipping in and out, and so far, it had been a success. The humans were markedly behind in construction and less in numbers, and tempers were wearing thin.
However, it wasn't until tonight that the humans had even thought of striking back.
The leader had been positive that a majority of the camp still thought the clan was some vengeful spirit, but even so, some traps had been laid, and guards now stood by all the important equipment (not that it stopped the gargoyles; guards tended to be tired after a hard day's work, and thus turned out to be very heavy sleepers). On this eve, though, one of their own had been hurt.
A small, wing-webbed male, dark gold in color, had been assigned to steal all the stone cutting tools for the main quarry. Safely bypassing the guards, he had grabbed most of them and was heading back to the cliffs when he startled a stag. The stag leapt away like a shot, but not before the gargoyle had dropped all the iron he carried and awakened (what seemed like) the entire camp. He was lucky in that the guards were terrible shots with a bow, but still, he had taken a shot through the wing, and now lay with a healer. The clan was now deciding what to do next.
"They know now that we are gargoyles, and not some superstition. And it willna take them long ta figure out we cannae be far off from their castle, and they will search for us," the leader concluded succinctly. "We cannae risk an all out attack, especially now that they've the King's reinforcements coming any night. Even without, they have more than us," he second added.
"Are ye suggesting that we leave our roost?" An elder asked, clearly scandalized by the idea. The leader looked into every pair of eyes around him.
"We cannae continue harassing them as it is no longer safe. They've already got th' ramparts started, and there is no way they'd abandon their settlement now, come hell or high water," he responded clearly. "And, I willna abandon our rightful home, which we hav' had before the humans ever set foot on this isle."
A few cheers cropped up at that remark, but most of the clan remained in defeated silence. A lone voice that the leader could not put a face to asked, "So now what?"
"Weeel, th' only thing we can do is wait here and remain in secrecy. For all their work on their castle, the humans willna have it finished by the time the first snow falls, and perhaps the bad winter storms we get will flush them out. But in the meantime, we stay here and guard our home."
The brown gargoyle looked his leader right in the eyes and the blue gargoyle looked away. "If things get worse, we will begin to discuss th' idea of an alliance, but not now. The gargoyles of these sea cliffs have lived here since time began; surely we can wait it out a bit longer and see what happens," the leader concluded, passing another look at the younger male. So they'd wait, for now, and let come what may. It was the only thing they could do.
* * * * *
Return to 971 AD
It had not taken long before the entire castle was fixated on the threat of the Viking attack. The women and children had already been congregating in the great hall of Wyvern, and the Captain's men were all dashing about the armory.
Brother Edmund, having taken it upon himself to start organizing the healers, was walking briskly down one dim corridor when three dark creatures swept down and landed smack in front of him. The good Brother had the foresight to step back, but even so, the largest of the trio landed squarely on the priest's foot.
"Brother Edmund!" The hatchlings cried in unison, completely oblivious to Edmund's toes.
"Is it true that the Vikings are going to attack?"
"Do the Vikings really have three arms and snort fire from their noses?"
"I don't believe--"
"Are we gonna fight them?"
"That is up to the Prince--"
"Are you going to help the Prince, Brother Edmund?"
"Be still!" the monk commanded sharply as the trio plied him with more questions. "Now, I can't say what the Prince's will is, and I can't tell you three young warriors what your clan will do if the Vikings attack."
The three remained silent, but their eyes went wide with excitement in the faint torchlight. Edmund narrowed his eyes and set his jaw grimly. "Don't think for a minute that war is something wonderful, lads. It is a terrible and heartbreaking affair. I do not know how many battles your clan has been in, but I'd be willing to bet my dinner it hasn't faced anything like this."
The young web-winged hatchling spoke up. "But Brother, Wyvern is impossible to defeat. I heard the Leader and the Captain of the Guard say so myself. Surely they cannot--"
"Where there is a will, there is a way, lad. This is no light threat, and I'd suggest that you go off and find one of your elders. They'll be looking for you none too soon," the monk finished, briefly touching each of the hatchlings' heads. He hurried back down the hall, leaving them.
"Well, I don't care what he said, but I can't wait to kick some Viking butt!!" The red one shouted. He mock-attacked his larger blue brother, who took it in stride. Fairly soon, there was quite the rumble between the three, but it was all in good fun.
* * * * *
Glancing over the side of the high parapet, Demona could see the castle guard scurrying around like ants, busily preparing Wyvern for the impending Viking attack. Prince Malcolm himself had donned armor, and with the help of the Captain of the Guard, was supervising the stockpiling of weapons and the strengthening of their defenses. The peasant families living outside the castle walls were streaming in with laden wagons of food and provisions, their few possessions carried on their backs.
On the castle heights, however, it was a different story. There was a large gathering of the clan, and the Leader and his Second sat and listened, eyes narrowed in speculation, as the members of the clan voiced their opinions about the current crisis.
"I say we leave the humans to their own devices!" one large, gray-green male said defiantly. "We have helped defend this castle for them time and time again, and what do we get back? Disgust and loathing. They do nothing--"
"They do protect us during the day, brother, lest ye forget we do turn to stone at daylight," one male, Diomedes, interceded. "They feed us and share with us their home."
"Aye, that's all fine and dandy lad, but ye forget that these cliffs were our home before any humans turned a stone for Wyvern," the stout bearded elder said to the clan leader. "Granted Prince Malcolm is a good and just man, but he's only human! Most of those in th' castle would sooner see us gone. Lately, it's been one complaint after another -" He began to gesture at gargoyles in the crowd. "-'yuir beast has been ravagin' my sheep' or 'ye made me drop th' Prince's dinner' or any o' a number o' things."
"The ancient caves are still habitable," the Eldest said from her perch near the hatchlings. "Mayhaps we should consider spending our daytime hours there, safe from human affairs."
"Aye," an older female agreed. "'Twould nae matter then. No one could harm us there."
"Not so," Demona's clever rookery sister said, stepping out of the shadow of their tall lavender brother. "It was not so long ago that I was attacked in my cave. True, it was by the outcast but if he could dare to try it, who's to say these Vikings might not do the same?"
"My sister speaks truly," the young lavender warrior said firmly. "None of us will be truly safe from the Vikings. Their ruthlessness in battle is legendary."
The eyes of the dark gold gargoyle with the crest lit up at the prospect but before he could comment, his companion with the twisted horn groaned and spoke up quickly. "Yes, but the point is, do we really want them to make legends out of us? Truly, I believe we should heed the wisdom of the elders. So what if the old caves are musty and damp and full of spiders? I would much rather be alive and covered in cobwebs than smashed to bits by a bunch of hairy barbarians from the north."
"Brothers! Sisters! Elders!" Demona looked on with some surprised amusement as her breast-plated beau stepped forward from the crowd. "I do not know how all of you feel but this castle has been my home since my hatchling days. I took my first flights from these walls and the thought of them being toppled by invaders is terrible to me. True, we've had some rough times with the humans but we've also benefited from them." He looked around. "Eldest, hasn't the cold weather been easier to bear since Brother Edmund has been treating your bone-ill and those ailments of the other elders? And haven't there been more hatchlings surviving in each rookery since we and the humans have been sharing our food - the game from our hunts in exchange for their grains and vegetables?"
The older members of the clan began to murmur amongst themselves. The leader and his second exchanged a meaningful look. Demona looked at her rookery brother in some dismay. He often spoke eloquently when they were off alone together but seldom raised his voice in the company of others. His feelings for the humans must run deep indeed to make him speak out like this.
The gray breast-plated gargoyle approached the grizzled brown leader. "I realize I'm only a newly-made warrior and I still have much to learn, but Leader, please consider this matter carefully. How will the humans ever trust us if we abandon them now?" The earnest look of his homely face was almost more than Demona could bear.
Their sable-haired lavender brother stepped up besides Diomedes as well. "Leader, I agree. If the Viking threat is enough that the humans have asked us to help them, shouldn't we comply? Regardless of who was here first, this is everyone's home now."
There were nods of acknowledgment and a great murmuring broke out amongst the elders. Deborah, still silent, watched Goliath with a practiced eye, thinking.
The Leader nodded grimly and said, "I have listened an' all that ye have said has been true and sensible. I want to think everything over very thoroughly before I give ye my decision."
Demona, who had remained silent, had only eyes for her breast-plated companion. She had never thought her brother to be fond of humans; as far as she knew, not many of her siblings were, save for maybe her lavender brother and maybe her clever sister who spent so much time in the castle library. The scarlet-haired female felt something tug in her heart as she looked on to her brother, a disturbing blend of affection, amusement, and disbelief, and she was not quite sure what it meant. She was doubly unsure, especially now, after the way he had defended the very humans that looked down upon them and their clan!
Feeling a little heady, she left the circle discreetly, not wanting to be followed. She felt no real hatred for the humans; truly, they were obnoxious creatures, but they did have their uses sometimes. But surely humans were not worth the effort to defend them! And even if the Vikings had sacked the castle, the gargoyles could still return to the caves below the cliffs. But yet, there was something within the young female gargoyle that burned within the hearts of all the other gargoyles; the need to protect. Even if it was the humans.
She sighed and leaned against the cool stone of the outer castle wall.
"There is a meeting that will be called in a few moments time, lass, in regards to what the clan will do about the Vikings. I trust ye will be there?" A voice spoke suddenly from the darkness.
"I--of course I will be there," the younger gargoyle started badly, peering into the shadows.
"I noticed ye left the circle in the courtyard," Deborah observed, stepping out of the inky blackness.
Demona's heart leapt up into her throat. Apparently she had not gone unnoticed. "I needed to think . . .on my own. I didn't--"
"Shh, ye dinna have ta explain yuirself. This is something the clan hasna yet faced; we have been very lucky that we live in such a peaceful time. None of ye young warriors have had to face the threat of invasion," she explained gently, laying an aquamarine talon on Demon's blue skin.
"Have . . . ye?"
"Not of this scale, no lass, I havena."
"Then this Viking threat is . . .much more serious than we thought," Demona murmured, carefully watching the Second's eyes. Was she been tricked into admitting something that would displease her elder?
"Aye, it is, and the clan will know all about it soon enough. But I am not here to tell ye this, lass."
Demona's heart quailed, but she straightened her shoulders.
"I have noticed that ye have great improved your fighting skills, and your attitude is one that any warrior would be proud to have. Ye have come a long way, lass," Deborah commended quietly, looking directly into the shocked eyes of the younger one.
"I-I don't know . . .what to say," Demona stammered.
The older aquamarine female smiled and waved her fears aside. "Dinnae worry, lass." She leaned on the wall besides Demona. "I just wanted t' say that although ye had a rocky start, ye've shaped up to be a fine warrior. If ye keep improvin' yuir skills, I wouldna be surprised if ye became a second-in-command one day yuirself."
Demona blinked and forced her mouth shut. "But I thought - I thought I wasn't good enough. You always kept after me to do more, making me practice harder than the others."
"Aye, but ye worked hard and ye have done me proud, lass," the Second repeated. She pulled her dagger out of her sheath and held it up, the razor-sharp edge reflecting in the silvery moonlight. "I want ye to be like this dagger, lass. Sharp and ready. But nothing that is ever worth havin' ever comes easy. Ye've got to give sweat an' blood an' want it wi' all yuir heart, an' that kind of grit, me girl," she pointed the knife at Demona, "is summat ye got in spades."
Demona stared, and let a slow smile spread across her face. Her mentor returned the smile, and laid a hand on Demona's shoulder.
"I have to go now, lass, but I'll see ye at the meeting, aye?"
"Of course, mentor."
Deborah glided away, disappearing once more into the cold shadows of the castle. She let the smile stay on her face, even though the looming danger of attack still troubled her. She was sincere in her regards to the young gargoyle; the lass had markedly improved herself, and had become one to the clan's rising stars.
But as she thought of how the red-haired female gargoyle had matured, it suddenly struck upon her how old she was becoming. She was still in her prime, of course, but watching hatchlings like Demona grow into proud warriors, and knowing that within the newest generation of hatchlings was one of her mate's and her own blood . . . .It had been a long time.
Suddenly, she heard sounds of struggles from the corridor ahead. Springing to alertness, she lay her hand over the hilt of her broadsword and inched forward around the corner, adrenaline surging through her blood. Red eyes blazing, she leapt around the corner, and found . . .three young hatchlings engaged in a ferocious-sounding play fight.
They stopped, however, when they saw her.
"An' what do ye think yuir doin' there, lads?" She barked, dampening her battle awareness.
The large blue one spoke up. "We're---practicing for the Viking's attack, Second," he quipped nervously, voice breaking.
"Aye, an' what about th' chores? Are they going to do themselves just because a wee band o' ruffians is comin' to pay a visit?"
"But Second, we heard that there is a huge army of fire-breathing Vikings--"
"They dinnae breathe fire, lad. They're human just as the Prince is," Deborah explained, trying not to grin. The three would-be warriors bowed their heads.
"But we have to help. We can't stay behind while everyone else has their fun!" the red one explained, eyes shining with determination.
"Of course you'll help, lad. You do our clan proud with such spirit," at this, she did smile. "However, th' real fighting is what you should leave to th' elders. Battle is no a time for laughs, an' gargoyles--humans too---will be hurt, an' if we cannae prevent it, even killed. Do ye understand?"
Three heads nodded solemnly.
"Good. Now, I want ye to go inside wi' yuir other egg mates. The Eldest will be waiting for ye. I'll come and let ye know what happens later, aye lads?"
Bashfully, the big blue hatchling tugged on the tip of Deborah's wing. "You'll come to the rookery and tell us all about the Vikings and everything, won't you?"
Deborah sank down to her haunches to eye level with the chubby gargoyle child and ran the back of her knuckles against his brow ridges. "I'll make no promises, lad, but if I can, I'll be down to give ye an' yuir brothers a tale o' battle that'll make yuir tail tingle." She gave him an especially warm smile as the aquamarine blue hatchling nuzzled her hand.
Somewhat cheered by the prospect, the trio of hatchlings again acknowledged this, and under the Second's watchful eye, began to make their way inside.
"We never get to have any fun," the web-winged one complained, kicking a rock.
"If it's all the same to you two, brothers, I'd much rather have a mutton bone than fight a Viking," the blue one said genially, rubbing his belly. "I didn't get any food this evening."
"Always the stomach," the red one sighed. "Ah well, maybe we will get to help. I have a feeling that something big is gonna happen tonight."
"Something big is going to happen, if our brother doesn't eat soon! I can hear his belly growl from here!" The green one quipped impishly. His pudgy brother gave him a swat, and then started chasing him towards the rookery.
Their red brother hung back, and looked up at the moon, where he could see gargoyles gliding back and forth. "I think it is much bigger than that, brother. And I don't like it," the hatchling murmured. He started to sprint inside the castle as well.
* * * * *
"All right, I want everyone to gather 'round. Quickly, now, we havena much time," the Leader commanded, throwing another brand into the bright fire. Most of his clan was encircled around it, and though they didn't need the fire for warmth, it served very well for identifying speakers in the crowd.
The brown gargoyle looked around for his Second and spotted her, landing near the red-haired lass she always got after. By the glowing look on the young gargoyle's face, he had guessed that Deborah had indeed told her what she thought of her new warrior skills. He called her over.
"Did it go well?" He asked her as soon as she made it over to his side
"Aye. I think we see eye-to-eye now," his second responded. Her face got serious, though. "What news of the Prince? Have ye decided?"
He sighed, and watched his clan. "The Prince and I talked, and I have decided to help the humans. Based on th' scouts, there is no way th' humans can drive th' Vikings off, nor even hold them until th' King's reinforcements arrive."
Deborah pursed her lips. "There will be nae saviors, love."
"I know. What will ye have me do?" He looked at her.
"I think it is a wise plan. I think that th' clan we stand behind ye as well. This is our only home, and they know that," she said confidently. She reached for his talons and gave them a squeeze. "I believe in ye, my Leader."
He gave her a quick smile, and together they moved to the bonfire, signaling the start of the clan meeting. The Leader wasted no time.
"As many of ye know, we are facing an attack of Vikings from the north of us. The Prince has told me that he canna stop them should they storm th' castle; he hasna enough men nor enough time to call upon the King for reinforcements. He has asked for our help in driving off these invaders by joining his force on th' grassy plain that is less than an hour from here. In other words, away from th' castle walls."
He ignored the looks of wariness from the elders. "I have pledged our assistance to Prince Malcolm. Wyvern is our home as well, and we will do all we can to protect it from th' Vikings. Those of ye that cannot find in your conscience to defend your home can stay and protect th' rookery."
There was a loud outcry, and the whole clan erupted into mini arguments. It took the leader a while to gather back everyone's attention.
"Silence!" He roared, unsheathing his blade. That got everyone back into focus. "I'll call for volunteers now."
Standing with the group of new warriors, Demona glanced at the Second and couldn't help but smile. However, her face fell slightly when she saw one of her brothers step forward.
"Surely not you!' She whispered tightly as Diomedes stepped forwards. Goliath, tugging Thersites along, and several others stepped forwards as well. Diomedes caught her eye, and as a snap of fire illuminated his profile, Demona found herself stepping forward as well.
The Leader nodded slightly. There was a good-sized force of gargoyles willing to help the humans, and if the fact that the group compromised of almost no elders hurt him, he didn't show it. "Aye, that's it, then? Good. The rest of you are to maintain defensive positions around th' castle and rookery. Brother," the Leader motioned to Agamemnon, who was standing grimly outside of the circle. "I will put ye in charge of those that remain, if ye will."
"Of course, Leader. We will hold the fort down while ye go off to aid the humans," he said quietly.
"Right then, all of ye staying will go down to th' rookery and began preparin'. The rest of ye go and find all of your weapons, and meet here before th' moon's higher than th' eastern wall. My Second and my Brother will accompany me to th' Prince," he issued shortly.
As the gargoyles rapidly disbanded and moved off, Demona found herself wondering just what she had bargained herself into. She didn't particularly want to help the humans; in fact, she'd much rather have stayed behind and help with a contingency plan should the humans have failed . . .in this way, she believed she was protecting the gargoyles' rightful place on these cliffs. She sighed heavily.
"Good choice lass," Deborah slid up behind Demona with a stealth that amazed the younger gargoyle. "I knew ye would do this."
Demona nodded silently, with a peculiar sense of pride blushing her cheeks. The Second did not stay long, though, and went off to attend the council of war with Prince Malcolm. Demona sighed again, and watched as her clever sister and the tall lavender male embraced. Her sharp ears caught some of their conversation in passing.
"The Elder will need my help with the catapults," Asrial said. "I think I can rig several to go off at once so that we can defend the castle more efficiently."
Goliath smiled and stroked her cheek. "I have faith in you, sister. The castle will not fall when it is in your capable hands."
"Be careful," Asrial said and impulsively hugged him. "And come back safe to us."
"Always, dear sister." Goliath kissed her lightly on the forehead before joining the others to collect their weapons. He saw Demona looking his way and smiled approvingly at her before moving on.
Demona decided that maybe volunteering to fight Vikings wasn't such a bad idea. She caught an especially eager smile from Diomedes as he approached her and definitely decided this wasn't a bad idea at all.
"Sister, will ye come wi' me to the armory? I havena got any short swords and I think I saw some extra there," the breast-plated male offered.
"Of course, brother," she said with a smug grin.
* * * * *
The council of war convened in the Prince's chambers; the room was windowless and the torches were smoking slightly, lending to the depressing atmosphere. The Leader, along with his Second and Agamemnon, noted the grudging looks that the Captain and several of his top officers gave the gargoyles, but the brown male took no notice. Prince Malcolm gave them a grateful smile when they arrived.
"Ah, have ye decided, my friend?" The Prince asked.
"Aye, milord. Half of the clan will accompany ye to the field, and half will stay to defend, in case. My brother here will remain behind to take charge of the castle defenses."
Agamemnon bowed his head in acknowledgment, but remained silent.
"Excellent. We have one more matter to attend to before we can begin our stratagem. Brother Edmund?"
The Leader widened his eyes in surprise at seeing the priest here, but as he watched the man reluctantly move in front of the Prince, he noted that the priest felt the same as well.
"What will ye have of me, my Prince?" Brother Edmund asked gravely, but with narrowed eyes.
"You have not let it be a secret that ye know much of warfare, my good Brother, and I have seen the training ye have been giving to the younger lads. I do not like to ask this of a man of the cloth, but I have no choice, being as short-numbered as we are. Will ye pledge your knowledge and your sword to repelling this Viking threat from our home?" The Prince questioned, gazing down into the priest's face.
Brother Edmund did not make any visible movements to express his shock. After several moments of thick silence, he bowed before Malcolm graciously.
"Milord, swords ye have a plenty but healers you do not. I will offer my services to those that fall in battle, where I know they will have been put to better use," he answered respectfully, meeting the Prince's eyes.
Malcolm frowned deeply, and something flickered in his eyes. "Surely, you know that we are in dire need of experience, Brother. We may have many swords, but we have not much skill behind them."
"Then I will be there to tend to those that fall. I cannot help unskilled men anymore by leading them; but I can try and save their lives," he replied softly.
The Prince nodded curtly. "As you will, Brother. I accept your decision."
"Thank you, my Prince. If I may, I would like your leave to organize the healers so we can be ready when the time comes."
"Very well, you may go."
Brother Edmund bowed once more, then left the room.
"Now, if we can begin to discuss our tactics. Captain, if ye will start--"
There was a hard knocking on the thick oak door, and one of the chamberlains hastily pulled the mammoth door open. A scout, looking much the worse for wear, ran into the room, and stumbled before the Prince in an attempted bow.
"Milord," he puffed, putting a hand over his beating heart. "I bring bad news. The Vikings have come upon us much faster than we thought possible. They have already crossed the point where we were supposed to confront them, and are marching swiftly here. I rode as fast as my horse could fly, but I fear that attack is imminent, my liege."
The council sat up sharply, and the Leader could hear his Second hiss in displeasure
"Leader," Agamemnon whispered, "I think I must leave and begin preparing the defense forces."
"Aye. Do that, and good luck, brother," the Leader agreed, clapping the other soundly on the shoulder.
"Luck to ye as well, my Leader." Agamemnon took his leave without disturbing the proceedings. Deborah glanced at his retreating form and then followed suit, knowing instinctively that the attacking gargoyle force needed to be briefed.
"Now then, we will have to set out immediately. Our only hope is to stop and hold them for as long as we can, until reinforcements arrive. Captain, ye have your men to attend to. Go now," he ordered, as the Captain and his officers hastily left. The Prince turned to the gargoyle. "I don't need to tell ye your own role, my friend. I thank ye and your brothers for aiding us in this coming battle."
"Of course, my lord. Wyvern is our home too. We'll see it not taken by worthless raiders, make no mistake about that."
"Aye, I know. Good luck to ye," the Prince offered, trying not to add 'you'll need it'.
The leader inclined his head, and then headed off to the courtyard, trying not to get in the way of the many scurrying guardsmen. Once there, he found his force assembled and ready, with Deborah standing in front, her broadsword drawn.
He drew his own blade, a wickedly curved short sword, and thrust it into the air. His eyes blazed. "We leave now to defend our home and all of those in it, be they gargoyle or no. I am proud of all of ye, and I wish luck to us!"
A resounding roar split the courtyard and the group ascended the wall and alighted off the castle parapet to the battle beyond.
* * * * *
It was a little alarming when the clan discovered just how close the Vikings were; instead of meeting the marauders on a plain that was not within sight of the castle, they found themselves alighting near a gully only several stones' throw away from Wyvern's main gate. Worse, the guardsmen already fighting were heavily outnumbered, and with such close fighting, it meant that Wyvern's archers could not be put to use.
However, the Vikings had obviously not been prepared for a full frontal assault and were being driven back by the Wyvern forces with heavy casualties. When Demona landed on the slippery grass, she almost tripped over the body of one.
"Fight in pairs, and stay within sight of one another," the Leader yelled over the din of the battle, his eyes already bright.
Moving off with Diomedes, Demona brought out her new dagger and slew a Viking that was choking one of Wyvern's guardsmen. The female with the striking double wings had paired off with her gray-green brother, and Goliath was fighting back-to-back with Thersites, of all gargoyles. The Leader had his Second guarding his back as the rest of the clan paired off and joined the fray.
It was heavy fighting, the most Deborah had ever encountered in her life. There seemed to be no stop to these fair-haired giants and their double axes; for every one she cut down, three more slipped into his place. She was in battle mode, focusing only on movement and emotion around her, relying on her training to identify immediate threats from other fighting friends. As one enemy launched at her right side, she met him with a powerful upward slash of her sword, and then whirled around to face the Viking she had sensed behind her. She parried his mace blows evenly, and dispatched him when he raised his arms high for a killing blow, exposing his side.
Despite the roar of blood in her ears, she could still make out her mate fighting at her side, deflecting attacks from all sides. Sensing a new enemy, she spun around and knocked down a Viking that had somehow gotten between them, and was ready to spear her love in the side. However, she had gotten tangled up in the human's limbs and had to kick to get free.
Quickly getting back up, she felt rather than saw the Viking waiting for her and tried fending him off by dodging to her left. But the Norse blade, carved with intricate details that seemed to sparkle bright and bloody in the moonlight, caught her in the belly with one savage thrust, just above her hip bones. She lunged, flinging her sword desperately into the throat of her attacker, just before she hit the earth with a jarring thud. The blade seared into her skin as she landed, and Deborah clutched at the wound, feeling her blood flow freely between her talons. Twisting in agony, she wrenched the sword out, just as her mate reached her side.
"Are ye hurt?" He cried instantly, eyes searching hastily for wounds.
"Nay, j-just a blow that caught me off balance," she gritted, pressing down hard on her side as she tried to get up. "I'll be fine."
He turned away from her suddenly, and flipped an enemy neatly with a wink of his sword. Deborah grabbed a fallen spear and hoisted herself up, covering her side with a wing so the Leader wouldn't see the blood. They were already covered head-to-toe in blood any ways, so she was sure he wouldn't see anything.
"Are ye sure yuir well, love?" He turned back to her swiftly, sheltering.
"Aye," she replied curtly, trying not to grimace. "There's more fighting to be had, and havena yet had my share. I can hold my own."
"Yea ye can, love," he agreed with a brief grin. "I'll be goin' to help up front, where the battle's fiercest. Watch over things here and wish me good luck." And with that, he took off, sprinting and slashing his way to where the Wyvern forces were being overwhelmed.
Deborah backed away and quickly looked down to her damaged side; the blood gushed with an alarming speed, and she could feel light-headed. Taking her belt, she quickly cinched it tight around the stab, biting her lip in agony.
"Not now, not now," she spat as two Vikings spotted her. She hurled her newly acquired spear, despite the gut-wrenching pain, and managed to take out one. As the other charged, she swiftly jerked free her sword from the body of the one that injured her and slashed at the Viking, sucking back a sob. Once he was down, she noted wearily that some of the youngsters had watched her with awe in their eyes before they quickly went back to the battle. But they, her warriors, were aware of her presence, and were buoyed by her spirit, but should she leave the field . . .
. . .but should she lose her life . . .
"No!" she yelled suddenly, and charged to met another Viking
She would go on.
* * * * *
It was a hard battle, but the Wyvern forces prevailed and the Vikings were forced to call a retreat. There was much cheering as the Vikings pulled back in a flurry of dust and wounded men, and soon the Captain pulled his own men back, victorious.
Prince Malcolm, having being forced to stay a safe distance from the fight, joined in the celebrations, personally thanking human and gargoyle alike for their part in the attempted siege. He mounted his horse and took to the blood-soaked field along with mostly the rest of the castle, who were helping bringing in the wounded and dead. The Prince spotted the clan's Leader, and made way for him.
"My friend, we have won this battle today! I commend you and your kind for the sheer bravery that you've demonstrated today. Wyvern would not have stood a chance without you," he boomed joyously, clapping the brown gargoyle on his bloody tunic.
"Aye my Prince, it was a hard won battle, and I am proud of my warriors," he agreed, and the clan around them broke out in cheer. The Leader looked around for his Second, as she should be there to hear the Prince's words.
"Excuse me, milord, I must attend to my clan," he requested.
"Of course. Go with our thanks, good friend."
He searched for her vainly among the crowd of uninjured, and when he did not find her there, moved out back onto the red turf, deftly stepping around the dead and wounded. With a sinking heart, he could not find her there either, and it was not until he heard sobbing did he find her.
There was a small ravine in the field, and hidden amongst the brambles were Demona and Diomedes. The Leader was a little taken aback when he saw the breast-plated male holding the red-headed female, whose shoulders were shaking with fierce sobs.
"What goes on here?" He asked, as his heart leapt into his throat.
Startled, Demona sprang back from Diomedes, and it was then that he saw her.
Deborah had collapsed in a ball, holding her bleeding stomach. The ground around her was soaked with blood, a testimony to the huge wound she had suffered and then fought on with. Her eyes fluttered weakly as he dashed to her side.
"What happened?!" He asked, shocked. He tried to hold her up but found her skin was too slippery. "Love, can ye speak to me?"
She opened her mouth slightly, but no sound came out. Weak as a babe, she managed to run a talon across his eye ridge in a familiar manner, as she always did when calming down hatchlings.
"Please, love, what happened?!" Wild eyed, he looked round to Demona, who was watching them with tears slipping down her cheeks.
"I didna see her fall, but my sister here did. She grabbed me and we followed the Second here," a shiny-eyed Diomedes murmured vacantly. "We think it was a sword . . . ."
The brown gargoyle gathered her gently into his arms, her limbs wobbling lifelessly. "She said she was fine. If I'd only known..." he whispered, eyes wide with fear. Deborah moaned softly as blood began to trickle down the Leader's arms. "Hush now, love, and hold on. You'll be fine."
Holding her with one arm, he climbed a stout tree and with a mighty jerk of his wings, become airborne. Demona and Diomedes followed, the latter holding on to the shaking former. Banking his wings, the leader glided as fast as he could on the weak air currents, holding on to her with desperation.
"Please, love, ye have ta hold on," he commanded urgently. "Ye promised me ye would never leave me; dinna break yuir word!"
"I . . .love y-ye," she whispered slowly, and he almost didn't hear here over the roar of the wind.
As soon as his talons touched Wyvern stones, the Leader frantically sprinted towards the healer's ward. There was a substantial number of wounded men, and some were set up in cots along the corridor.
"Move, curse ye!" The Leader cried. People, laden with trays bearing bandages and herbs, couldn't get out of his way fast enough. He roared mighty and pushed on. "Brother Edmund!!"
The priest, bending over a patient, snapped his head up when he heard his name. "Aye? What is--" He then caught sight Deborah and moved over to them. "Place her on the table, gently. Do ye know what happened?" he asked.
Like handling spun glass, the gargoyle lay her on the table, eyes dark with naked fear. The priest gently pried Deborah's protecting hands away from her belly, grimacing at what he saw. Humans he knew wouldn't have been able to survive a second with such a wound, and he was amazed with her tenacity. Carefully, he looked into her flickering eyes, and then listened to the rattling breath in her lungs.
"Can you still hear me, lass?"
" . . .Aye . . ." she breathed as he leaned in closer. "Ye . . . .have ta . . .ta tell my . . .love. I know," she grimaced. "I . . .know."
Brother Edmund reached for her talons and held them, whispering a prayer for the dying under his breath, as he had done too many times this night. "Yes, lass. Be still now."
He looked up to the Leader, his heart breaking when he saw the realization dawning and the desperate hope dying in the gargoyle's eyes. The Leader went to his knees wordlessly and propped an arm around his beloved's head, rubbing his brow ridges against hers and squeezing his eyes shut.
"I have . . .seen wounds like these on the battlefield before. She is amazingly strong, but I fear . . ." the priest faltered, and released her talons to the Leader. "An injury like this is . . . usually fatal. I am truly, truly . . . sorry."
The leader hugged her tightly, pressed her to him. "Ye canna die! Ye promised me!" he whispered savagely. "Ye can hang on until the sunrise, love, and all will be fine. Ye have ta hang on!"
"Beloved . . ." she called, and he released her to see her closing eyes. "I have always . . .loved ye . . .I will . . .always . . . love ye." She moved a wavering hand and cupped his face as a tear slipped down the curve of her aquamarine cheek. "Ye are forever . . .in . . . my . .heart."
"And ye in mine, always, my love," he shuddered, and gripped her hand as it fell, limp. Her eyes shut with an awful finality and she became very still.
Stunned, he looked at Brother Edmund, then back at her as speechless grief clouded his eyes. Shoulders heaving with quiet sobs, he cradled her body, laying his head on her stained tunic.
Brother Edmund, his own face twisted in grief, stepped back and allowed the gargoyle to mourn in peace.
* * * * *
Captain Thorvald sat lazily on his stolen horse, eyeing the destruction with a critical eye. It had gone far better than he had hoped, and already half of his ships were full with Scottish gold and valuables.
"Much, much too easy," he muttered, toying with his axe handle. He watched as one of his men chased down a woman who was clutching a string of heirloom pearls to her chest. "Ye'd think these people have never known raids before. They're as helpless as babes!"
The woman screamed as the men savagely stole her pearls and pushed her to the ground. He could hear her cursing, shouting that the gargoyles would wreck vengeance upon this Viking scum. Thorvald chuckled loudly, calling the attention of the boy near him.
"What's so funny, Da?" The fair-haired boy asked.
"Oh, the locals amuse me with their threats of gargoyles; I haven't seen so much as a shadow and this is the fourth village we've sacked!"
"Aye Da. 'Tis quite strange," the boy replied absently, absorbed with the violence around him.
Suddenly, one of Thorvald's scouts came ripping down the littered roadway, jerking his lathered horse to a cruel stop.
Hastily hopping off, he went down on one knee before the warlord.
"Report," Thorvald said curtly, eyes narrowing.
"Sir, I've just come from Wyvern and I bear bad news. T-The castle's defenses routed us completely and we've lost most of our force. I was sent ahead to warn ye," the scout puffed, warily watching his master.
"What!? Routed!! They should have no defense at all!!"
"Yes, b-but they had monsters with them, fearsome creatures that killed many with just a flick of their evil claws. I s-saw them!"
"Monsters!" Thorvald shouted in disbelief. "Have your brains be addled?! Get away with ye before I kill you with a 'flick of my evil claw'," he sneered, brandishing his double axe. The scout hurried away.
"Gargoyles?" The younger Thorbjorn questioned.
"The man's clearly suffering from shock, the blathering idiot," Thorvald snarled. "It must be just a minor setback; perhaps the castle was better armed than I thought. No matter. I'll just wait until we're finished here and then give them a surprise with my full army. Then they will see the true strength of the Vikings."
The boy nodded, looking south to where Wyvern lay, unawares. They would never see it coming.
To be continued.....