Alliances -- Part Two
Original Story Concept by Brian Dumlao and Kathy Pogge
Revised Story Concept by Entity and Joshua Whalen
Written by Merlin Missy
Previously on Dark Ages
Diomedes: "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?"
Goliath: "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."
Hudson: "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: "There will be nae saviors, love."
Hudson: "I know. What will ye have me do?"
Deborah: "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," (squeezes Hudson's hand) "I believe in ye, my Leader."
Edmund: "I have . . .seen wounds like these on the battlefield before. She is amazingly strong, but I fear . . ." (falters, and puts Deborah's hand in Hudson's) "An injury like this is . . . usually fatal. I am truly, truly . . . sorry."
Hudson: (whispers) "Ye canna die! Ye promised me! Ye can hang on until the sunrise, love, and all will be fine. Ye have ta hang on!"
Deborah: "Beloved . . ." (eyes closing) "I have always . . .loved ye . . .I will . . . always . . . love ye." (tear rolls down her cheek) "Ye are forever . . .in . . . my . .heart."
Hudson: "And ye in mine, always, my love,"
Thorvald: "The man's clearly suffering from shock, the blathering idiot. It must be just a minor set back; 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."
-- "Alliances" - Part 1
* * * * *
Alliances -- Part 2
From the journal of Brother Edmund:
At long last, my patients are all resting and I have a quiet moment to take pen in hand. The battle with the Vikings was victorious but at a high cost to both humans and gargoyles. Having been through more conflict than I care to remember, I should be hardened to the loss of life in battle but each time I lose a patient, whether it be friend or foe, it is like a cruel blow to my soul. Unlike Pontius Pilate, I cannot simply wash my hands of Deborah's blood and forget all that she was to the inhabitants of Wyvern. She was many things to many people; warrior, diplomat, mother, sister and mate. I have known her only a short time but my grief at her passing is insignificant in comparison to that of her mate and her clan.
Do gargoyles believe in Heaven? It is a question I have never dared ask but it takes only one look into a gargoyle's eyes to see the soul within. All creatures on this earth that live and love are deserving of happiness in the afterlife. Without that hope, it will be difficult for those Deborah has left behind to go on. And go on, they must....
The air tasted of salt and fish. Odd that he'd never noticed the particular flavor of it before, just had accepted it as clean and fresh. The Leader gulped a deep lungful of it, relishing the newly rediscovered scent. He'd spent almost a century by the sea, hearing the roar every moment, breathing the spray, and only now did he pick out the detail of the smell and sound.
Sight, too, suddenly revealed wonders he'd forgotten how to see. The crisp moonlight shone down on the entire clan, bringing into stark focus faces he'd seen so often he no longer truly saw them. He could see the individual hairs on this rookery sister's head, the fine wrinkles lining his rookery brother's eyes, thin veins in the delicate olive membrane of a hatchling's wings.
He noted every detail with wonder, committing them all to the soothing distance of memory. He could face them as memories, not as the reality they delineated. He turned his gaze to where he did not want to see. Her eyes were closed, as if she were asleep like a human or a bird. He could not recall a time when she'd been unconscious, could only pull from his mind vague images of her eyes open and sparkling and alive ...
"She was a fine teacher," said a young blue-gray male, as several of the other young warriors nodded and murmured agreement. "She was firm with us, but she was always fair."
Among the tear-stained faces, he saw a young blue female flinch and bow her head, shoulders trembling.
"She was the best o' friends," said Agamemnon, voice choked with emotion. "You could always count on 'er for help an ye needed it, or a shoulder. And she ne'er started a fight wi'out cause, but once she started in, she was beyond compare. Beyond compare," he repeated.
His brother stopped speaking, overcome with grief. The Leader placed a reassuring hand on his arm. At his back he felt the comfortable presence of brothers, sisters, hatchlings and friends. They clustered around him, around her, here in the field beyond the castle walls, even those on the outside of the circle providing comfort for those within.
He had no room inside himself for comfort, for anything. He watched her too-still form, and willed her to stir, just a finger. Then she would open her eyes, sit up from where she lay on the stubborn shoots of coarse grass, and he would go to her and take her into his arms and everything would be all right.
Please move, my love, please move. Please move now.
It was his turn to speak.
He opened his mouth. No words came out. No words could express what he felt, because he felt nothing. He was an empty pitcher, waiting to be filled with the waters of her, but she would never be there to offer her cool comfort, the refreshment of her presence, the sweetness of her touch.
She did not move, not a finger, not a hair but that which the sea-air moved for her, and he knew she was gone forever.
"She will never be forgotten," he said, and nothing else.
When it gradually became apparent that he would not say anything else, not now, Agamemnon said gruffly, "It's time."
Hudson went to her, and took her into his arms. Her hair had come loose from its binding; he brushed a stray yellow lock from her aquamarine face.
The others parted to give them room, as he carried her from the field. She was lighter than he remembered, as if the loss of life had lifted some weight from her. He found a convenient outcropping and took to the air, his precious cargo making him awkward.
How many times had he and she taken wing together, to fight, to frolic, to find a lost hatchling, or a hidden nook away from the eyes of the rest? He could not count the nights they'd spent together, the hours beneath the changing moon. All the memories of the past ran together like branches of a river, and flowed into this, their last flight together.
The eternal sea was loud in his ears as he approached the cave. Hungry waves licked at the rocky shore not far from its entrance. He landed, not well, and walked the last few feet with a slow, deliberate cadence. She deserved ceremony.
The platform was low, barely a foot from the ground, and uneven. To his knowledge, it had always been there. If it had been hewn by hands either gargoyle or human, he did not know it, and would not have been surprised if the sea itself had hollowed the hill and chiseled the stone. The room was older than memory, older than time. It was the place to return to the sea what it had given.
Tenderly, he lay her on the stone, folding her arms across her chest. Her head tilted to one side, and if he let himself imagine, he could see a half-smile at her lips, as though she'd found the answer to some cosmic riddle.
He knelt beside her and stroked her face. Images came at him in a flurry, moths beating at his soul.
They were playmates, barely out of the shell, toddling out to the seashore. She splashed into it, teasing him to follow, until one of their rookery fathers yelled at them to get their tails back onto shore.
She had twenty summers on her, and they played at being warriors. One of their rookery brothers pushed her too roughly, and she fell.
She was thirty-two, and despite his best efforts, he noticed her shape changing into something new and unknown and exciting.
She was forty-one, and the moon turned her hair to pure gold as she whispered, "I love you."
Her face was bathed in sweat, a mask of pain, and she screamed once as the egg moved into the world.
She wept as they gathered around the old Leader for the last time.
She laughed, and his heart stopped with the sound.
"Yuir a daft old besom!" he snapped at her.
"Promise me you'll stay wi' me forever," he begged.
"I love you," he said, and her eyes were teary.
"Forever," she promised.
The sea called. The sun would rise soon, and then the tide.
He took her hand, placed the knuckles against his lips. "My angel of the sea," he whispered.
The tide had already drawn closer to the cave. As he stepped outside, salt kissed his face in a spray and merged with his tears as he climbed the sheer cliff face.
Every instinct screamed at him to find a perch immediately, but he continued his slow ascent. If the sun caught him climbing, that was just fine with him.
He reached the top of the cliff, then looked down. He could not see the cave opening from here, and mourned that he would not have her in his sight one last time as he turned to stone.
In rage, in sorrow, he roared his pain to the approaching dawn and the unfeeling sea.
With a roar, Agamemnon cast off the shards of his stone slumber, then paused to brush off a few bits that still clung to him. Out of habit, he turned his gaze to the topmost tower, where the Leader and Second would be roosting. Caught momentarily in the balm of forgetfulness, he was disturbed to note neither one was there.
Memories of the events of the previous evening slammed into him like an attack.
He looked again to the tower, this time in sorrow. It was a common thing, when death came, for the deceased's mate to stay at the burial cave. There came a solace with remembrance, and with the performance of ritual. His brother would show his face to them when he had set his mate to rest within himself.
Wordlessly, he turned to his own mate. Her eyes were also on the tower, and glistened. He held out his arms to her, fell into the shelter of her embrace, wrapped his wings around them both. He mourned the loss of his sister, not only for her own sake, but also for his brother, who would have to face the rest of his life without the other part of his soul.
"Dinnae ever forget tha' I love you."
She pulled away and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "Come, love. Th' meetin' will be startin' soon."
Sure enough, by the time they reached the place where the rest of the clan had gathered, the argument was once again in full swing.
One of the elders, a gray-green male, slammed his fist into his palm. "This is exactly what we said would happen!"
An elder female agreed. "An we hadn't aided the humans, the Second would still be among us."
"And she would be sayin' tha' we need this alliance," Agamemnon stated, casting his gaze around the rest. "She knew our duty to th' future."
"Our duty is to survive," said the gray-green. There were noises of agreement from the others, far more than he remembered from the night before.
"The Second was never afraid of a fight," said a breast-plated youngster a little too loudly.
"Lad," the elder male said, ostensibly to the young warrior, "ye'll learn tha' a fight does nae solve everythin'. Nor can ye blindly trust in the continued good will o' the humans."
"So instead we hide ourselves away?" asked a young lavender-colored male.
"If tha's what's needed," asserted a female of his own generation. She addressed the rest: "We have eggs three years in th' rookery. We have to think o' them, and o' the hatchlings we have now. When we're all dead on this foolish venture, d'ye think yuir human friends will raise 'em?
"It will nae come t' that," Agamemnon said, but it was too late. Already the impossible thought, humans raising gargoyle young, had captured the imaginations of the clan members and filled them with unnamable fears.
"Ally with th' humans," snorted one of his brothers. "The Second was killed by a human."
The puir fools, he thought. They canna see the mountain fer the stones.
His mate nudged him. "Love, perhaps this is a battle best flown from. We have tae survive for th' hatchlings ... " He read the fears in her eyes, and felt a bitter grief. She doesna understand, either.
He took her hand, raised his voice to be heard over the loud discussions of the rest. "Love, an we abandon the humans now, th' hatchlings will nae live long enough to argue the point wi' us."
He glanced to Goliath and Diomedes. They, at least, seemed to understand the necessity of an alliance with the humans, but were having no more luck in convincing the rest of the clan.
Silence spread out in a wave from the doorway. His head turned automatically, to see Prince Malcolm walking through the assembly.
"Perfect," he muttered. In a louder voice, he said, "Yuir Highness. You do us honor by comin' to grace us wi' yuir presence."
The Prince held up an impatient hand. "I need to speak with your Leader. It's of the gravest importance." One of the younger warriors coughed, but there was no other sound.
"He is nae here," said Agamemnon before anyone else could speak. "If ye'd like, ye can speak tae me."
"Very well," said the Prince distractedly. "Alone." He went back out of the room the same way he came, leaving Agamemnon no choice but to join him despite his unease at leaving the clan to argue without him. The young lavender male followed, maintaining a discrete distance from the two of them but staying close enough to hear.
Without preamble, the Prince said, "We received dire news during the day."
Someone else has died.
"The men you battled last night were only an advance party. The main group is much larger, and they're getting ready to march upon us. Our men are ready to fight, but many of 'em were wounded last night." He voice went lower, became nearly desperate. "We need your help."
A larger group? The enemy had been bad enough in the first wave, and they had only been an advance party? He thought of the arguments at the meeting. They could all be gone before the Vikings reached the castle, even with moving the hatchlings and the eggs. They could flee to the caves, wait until the humans had stolen their worthless treasures, and they would be safe.
Aye, and when the survivors blame us an' come lookin' by day, who's tae protect the eggs then? They had to survive for the hatchlings, his mate had said. In his mind's eye, he saw years of running and hiding, hatchlings growing up and growing old in caves, humans remembering only their own dead and the protectors who had not protected.
The clan had to survive. For the hatchlings
"I'll do what I can tae convince the rest. I give ye my word."
"That's all I ask."
Armed with new resolve, he returned to the meeting, Goliath right behind him. Even before he entered the room, he knew something had gone terribly wrong.
"You had nae right!" shouted one of the rookery mothers at him.
"Th' Prince's men are wounded or dead, and ye expect us tae go out there an' die?"
"Yuir nae the Leader!"
"An we don't help ... " he started, but was drowned out by the angry voices buzzing around him like a swarm of wasps.
Agamemnon sighed. This battle was going to be just as difficult or more so than one on the field, and if he lost, it could mean not just the lives of the clan members, but the existence of the clan itself.
The heated words flew furiously from side to side. Diomedes threw in as much as he could, before the tide of the argument shifted to a place he could not go. This was a debate older than he was. They could keep the clan to itself, an island in the vicious storms of humanity surrounding it, paying little or no attention to the outside world. They could choose to stand with the humans they knew, seal the bonds of allegiance between Them and Us.
He wished the Leader and the Second were here. They would make the decision, and that would be that.
One of the Leader's rookery suggested they sit out just this battle to see who won, as it was often tactical suicide to side with a weak ally. One of his rookery sisters called him a coward, and more arguments were shouted.
His head started to hurt.
"Elder," he said to Agamemnon in as low a voice as he could use and still be heard, "there is nothing I can do here. If it's the same to you, I'd like to check on my scarlet-haired sister. I think ... " He stopped, uncertain if he should mention his concern that she was taking the Second's death very hard. He did not want to embarrass her.
"Aye," waved Agamemnon. "There willna be anythin' comin' from this but bad feelings on all sides. An ye can do some good elsewhere, off wi' ye."
"Thank you," he said, and slipped out of the room as the debate continued.
Now, where to look? His sister had not attended the meeting at all, although he was certain he and his lavender rookery brother were the only ones to notice.
He began a systematic search of the castle grounds, beginning at the towers and working his way downwards. She did not seem to be in the castle proper. He moved to the courtyard.
"Did ye see how I hamstrung that last one?" boomed a voice. Staying out of sight, he noticed a small group of the castle's guards sitting at a table with meat and drink.
One lifted his mug. "Tae human valor."
"Aye. The Prince can talk about his beasties all he wants, but I tell ye, they were human hands what brought down those marauders last night, and they'll be human hands bringin' 'em down again an they come knockin' on our door!"
"Now, lads, aren't ye forgettin' summat?" a youngish voice rang out. "If the gargoyles hadn't arrived to back us up, it would've gone badly for us. Didn't they pull those Vikings off of ye, John, when ye were cut off from us?"
"Aye, that were true enough," John agreed gruffly. "But that dinnae mean that I has to like 'em. Ye kin be friends wi' th' monsters as it please ye, Robbie, but leave me out o' it."
There were grunts of assent. As he made his way from them, he heard another say they didn't need any bloody gargoyles thank you. Diomedes sighed. Some of the elders had voiced almost the exact same opinion, albeit in different terms, not an hour before. The humans didn't need them, so why should they stay?
He turned his attention back to his search, and his thoughts back to his rookery sister.
Like the rest of his rookery siblings, she'd been a friend and playmate for as long as his memory served. Only recently had he noticed how lovely she was when she turned her head a certain way, and how rich her voice was when she laughed. There too was a scent about her that he had heretofore not noticed, a wild musk that he found strangely enticing. She was no longer a gawkish girl, but an Ascended female, and he found her fascinating.
Certainly, she was not the only one of his sisters who had changed, but hers was the face that most often occupied his thoughts. He rather hoped his own filled hers. Some of their rookery brothers had also begun noticing her and their other sisters, while the young females were also giving the males more than usual notice. He'd recognized the appreciative glances she gave males other than him, including their sable-haired brother, and felt a stab of jealousy. At the end of the night, though, her smiles were for him alone. Likewise, while his own thoughts strayed on their own volition to his other rookery sisters, he would far rather spend time with one specific sister than with anyone else. There was a rightness about her, about being with her, and it whispered of wonderful things yet to come.
After a long time, he found her near the beach, staring into the churning waters without seeing. He landed nearby, and when she did not register his presence, he went to her.
She did not even turn her head. He said it again, louder, thinking perhaps she hadn't heard him. Still she did not respond.
He tried a different tack. He sat down beside her and also stared towards the sea. "Lovely water we're having," he said.
"Please leave," she said in a small voice.
"I can't do that. A friend of mine needs me."
"No, she doesn't."
"Is she certain?"
She made a strangled noise and reached out her hands. For one mad moment, he was sure she'd snapped and was about to strangle him. Then she threw her arms around his shoulders and began sobbing.
"Shhhh ... " he said, because it was the only thing to say. He wrapped his wings around her, making comforting sounds like he would to a hatchling right out of the shell.
"It's not fair," she said, her voice husky with tears. "She was so ... " She began crying again.
"Tell me," he said as gently as he could.
"She ... she was always pushing me. Push, push, push. 'Ye've the fighting talent of a hen!' 'Canna ye manage even the simplest task?' 'I've seen hatchlings wi' more responsibility.'" Her impersonation of the Second was eerily on-target. "She pushed and picked, and I was never ever good enough for her. And I hated her for making me feel useless and stupid, and I told her. Then last night," her chest hitched, "she talked to me and said she noticed how much I've improved, and I thought I could finally understand her, and maybe even like her, and now ... "
She wept openly. Not knowing what to say to ease her pain, he drew her tighter to him. "My poor lass," he whispered into her hair, over and over. When the initial storm of tears and hurt passed, he pulled away enough to touch her face.
"It's not your fault that she died," he said gently. Her shoulders trembled, and he expected another torrent. She calmed herself. He forged onwards: "The Second's had to train warriors for years. She knows what you mean and what you don't mean. Whatever you told her, she knew what you really felt."
"But I thought I hated her!"
"Do you think that now?"
She shook her head vigorously in the negative.
"Then she knew you really didn't."
The tears started again, and again he held her for a long time. She was a long way from feeling better, but closer than she'd been. He could hold her until she was ready to deal with her own personal demons.
After a while, the crying came to a stop, and she began wiping her face. He continued to hold her close, but not so tightly that she could not escape his arms when she was ready.
By the dragon, with her eyes red and puffy, her face tracked with tearstains, she was still more beautiful than he could have believed possible.
"Thank you," she said, the hint of a smile on her face.
"You're welcome," he replied courteously. "Are you ready to go back? I imagine the others are still arguing; our rookery father could use our help trying to convince the clan we need to aid the humans."
He watched her face for signs of disagreement, found only distraction. "Actually, I'd rather be alone right now." He tried not to let the hurt show on his own face as he stood.
"If that's what you'd prefer, I should be getting back ... " he said awkwardly.
"I would." She got to her feet, and then quite suddenly threw her arms around his neck again. He expected a new rush of tears, instead felt the unfamiliar brush of her lips on his cheek. "I'll see you later, Brother."
His hand went involuntarily to his face. "Later. Yes. Later. I'll see you." He turned back towards the castle before she could see the flush on his face. Only when he was sure that she would not see did he allow a silly grin to spread from one ear to the other.
Broadway huddled with his two playmates as five armed humans marched past them in a hurry. The castle hallways were currently a dangerous place for anyone below an adult's eye level; this wasn't the first time they'd almost been trampled this night.
"What d'ya think is goin' on?" his smallest brother whisper-asked, hoping not to draw attention from more guards.
"There's going to be a battle," asserted their red brother. "With lots of people."
"You don't think ... " said Broadway, having trouble with the words, "that someone else might ... die?"
When the news had come, he'd gone cold and shaky all over. Deborah couldn't be gone. She was one of the great constants in his life, like waking up in the evening. She was going to talk to them tonight. He kept looking for her, and not seeing her anywhere, and hearing the others talk about her in hushed, sad voices. Dead, they'd told him, and his mind couldn't wrap itself around the concept. Never see her again, not ever?
"Someone might," said Brooklyn. Of the three of them, he seemed the least affected. Maybe it was just because he hadn't realized yet that he really was never ever going to see Deborah smiling anymore. Thinking of it again made Broadway feel sick.
"When the Leader comes back, things'll be okay," said Lexington. "He won't let anyone else die."
"He let the Second die," said Broadway. The thought wouldn't go away. If the Second could die, anyone could die, even the Leader, or one of his playmates, or himself. "She was his mate."
"Yeah," said Brooklyn, deep in thought. "Do you think ... " It was his turn to hesitate. "You think the Leader might die?"
It was the worst thought possible, even worse than the thought of not seeing Deborah ever again. The Leader had always been the Leader for as long as they could remember. Without him, they would be utterly lost.
The threesome drifted into a solemn silence as they continued on their way through the hall. Broadway looked around, and realized they weren't far from the infirmary. Brother Edmund's domain had become a sanctuary for the bored hatchlings since they'd been unceremoniously banned from the kitchen. He'd thought that their destination was going to be one of the towers, but ...
"Let's ask Brother Edmund," said his smaller brother. Yes, that was a good idea. Brother Edmund was the smartest human they knew.
They piled into the infirmary. Brother Edmund sat at a short table, chin resting on his hand, looking over something intently.
"Brother Edmund?" He looked up, and Broadway realized he hadn't been looking at anything, just holding his head. There were deep lines on his face, and he looked exhausted.
"Are you okay?" Broadway asked.
"I'm fine. Just a bit tired."
"Could the Leader die?" asked Lexington.
"He could," said the human. "But it isn't likely. Why do you ask?"
"The Second died. When one of our other rookery mothers died, her mate died, too."
"That happens sometimes," he replied gently. "Sometimes the shock of being apart from someone beloved is so great that a person cannot stand it."
"So he could die," said Brooklyn. His face was lost in thought. "What's going to happen to us?"
"What do you mean?"
"There are Vikings," said Lexington. "We heard there are hundreds an' hundreds of them, and that they're gonna come to the castle and there's going to be a fight ... "
Brooklyn continued: "And the Leader and the Second tell everybody what to do, and if they're not there, no one can tell everybody."
She was so pretty, and so nice to me. She said she'd be back later. "It's not fair," said Broadway, out of the blue. "It's not fair at all."
"What's not fair?" asked Brooklyn.
Brother Edmund watched him with sympathy and understanding. "No. No, it's not."
"She shouldn't have died, not ever."
His rookery brothers looked at him oddly. He didn't care. The emotion had been tapped, and began pouring from him. "She said she'd be back, and she lied. She's never going to be back. She's never going to be here again." His chest was tight, and he felt tears threatening. He was going to cry like a little hatchling in front of his brothers. The shame made him hurt worse.
Brother Edmund slowly got from his seat and went to his knees, bringing him eye to eye with Broadway. "Child, I know this isn't going to make you feel any better right now, but I want you to know something important. Deb ... I mean the Second was always a noble warrior and a good person. Right now, you can't see her, but she's still watching over us all."
His eyes went wide. "She is?" He looked around, trying to catch some glimpse of the Second hiding in the corners. Maybe if he turned around fast enough, he'd see her before she hid again.
The human smiled. "She is. She's in Heaven now, and she's also in here." He placed a gentle hand over Broadway's heart. "She will always be a part of you, watching what you do and how you behave. The one thing that will please her the most is to know that you're safe and alive and happy."
"She's watching us now?" asked Brooklyn, looking suddenly guilty.
"Now and forever," said Brother Edmund. "So you'd best be good, because she'll know about it if you're not."
"Oh great," moaned Brooklyn. "Now we gotta be good all the time."
Broadway glared at him, until he saw the little spark of mirth in his brother's eye.
"Betcha I can be good better than you," said Lexington to Brooklyn.
"Uh uh," said Broadway. "I can be the best good!" He would, too. If the Second was watching, he was going to make her very, very proud of him.
Brother Edmund said nothing, only continued to watch him.
"Brother?" he asked. "Is there something wrong?"
"No. I just noticed ... Never mind."
Demona heard the voices raised in argument well before she reached the room. She thought to herself that she probably should have come back with Diomedes, but she'd needed a little more time at the beach with the roar of the sea drowning out her thoughts.
As she neared the door, she wondered if she was already too late.
"We'll nae be riskin' our necks fer th' humans, and that is that!" The voice of the elder echoed through the corridor like a celestial decree.
Another elder shouted back: "An we run now, we might as well crush th' eggs where they sit, fer the humans'll do it once they find where we've gone."
"They have no reason to follow us."
"If they do, we can deal with 'em."
"Fine. You leave for the caves like cowards. The rest of us are staying here."
"An ye want to die fer humans, ye can bloody well stay!"
"Listen to yuirselves!" She stood in the doorway, watching Agamemnon in the center of the room. His voice was cracking; the great orator had been shouting far too much tonight. "Are ye mad? Splitting the clan would mean death fer all of us!
Goliath added, "Our strength is in our unity. Whatever we choose, we *must* do so as one clan." Diomedes nodded agreement.
Others shouted them down. What's wrong with them? Surely they have to see my rookery father and brothers are right.
The shouting continued, and a chill feeling grew in her heart. This could be the end of the clan. There was only one gargoyle who could possibly bring the two sides together, and he was nowhere to be found. Agamemnon surely knew that as well, but if he sent Goliath or Diomedes out to search, the minority group begging for reason would collapse, and the clan would explode apart.
If I were the Leader, where would I be? The answer was simple: here, trying to resolve the conflict. She changed her question. If I lost my mate, where would I go? Again, the answer was simple.
Demona turned away from the noise and went to fetch her Leader.
The sand was wet beneath her feet. The tide had come in and gone, taking its tithe of rocks and debris and Deborah. Demona stepped into the cave, let her eyes adjust to the darkness after the bright moonlit sea. She'd never been here before --- only the mate or closest friends of the deceased were to come --- but something in her heart knew what this place was, and why they brought their dead to it.
The Leader knelt before a low platform. The stone was bare of everything but a trace of moss. She knew without asking that it had been Deborah's last resting place before the tide. There was a hallowed feeling to the cave, and she knew she was in the presence of something ancient.
She cleared her throat. The Leader turned his head in surprise. "What? What are ye doin' here?" he demanded.
"The same as you. I come to honor the dead." The words came from her before she could put thought to them, and she knew them for truth.
"Aye," he said, and turned his attention back to the platform.
She went to him and knelt beside him. "My Leader. The rest of the clan are worried for you."
"Ye need not worry, lass. I just have nae finished tellin' her good-bye." His voice was heavy with grief.
Demona slipped her hand into his. "Nor have I. May I join you?"
"What have ye to say to her?" It wasn't an accusation, merely curiosity. He was grasping at any lingering remnant of her, even if it was just another's grief.
"I need to tell her," she paused, then started again, "I need to tell her I'm sorry." The tears which Diomedes had dried brewed within her again. Half-sobbing, she confessed to the Leader the same awful secret she'd told her beau.
Hudson placed a comforting arm around her. "It's all right, lass. She knew how ye really felt." Hearing the words from her Leader, the one who should have been in her arms being comforted, who should have been sobbing for all he'd lost, made her lose her composure.
"How could she?"
"She's ... She was wiser than ye might think. She'd been watching ye for a long time. She was proud of ye, girl, and she knew ye didn't mean it, tha' she was bein' hard on ye fer yuir own sake."
The revelation shook her, and she wept openly in his arms. He held her, his own shoulders shaking.
"Why was the Second so willing to risk her life in a human battle?"
"It was important to her. She knew that we needed an alliance with th' humans if we were tae survive."
The morning was cold and bright. The sun was low on the eastern horizon, but already searing white. The master mason raised his arm against his eyes to block out the glare, and in the spots that appeared before him briefly, he saw his castle, tall and stately. True, the king had ordered it, had called for this and that. It had been the mason's vision, though, his the stones that shaped themselves in his sleep, going here, there, rising in his imagination like some awful and glorious creature from the sea.
He blinked, and the dream-castle was naught but new foundations and broken stone. Soon, he thought to himself determinedly.
"Master! Master mason!" He returned from his visions to see one of his men, a boy really, no more than fourteen, running towards him as if the Devil himself were chasing.
"Yes, Dhugal?" he asked, irritated.
"Ye must ... " the boy panted. "Ye must come quick! They're in there!"
"What're in there? What have ye found?"
"Eggs, sir, gargoyle eggs."
Curiosity piqued, and the wheels in his mind already turning in a new direction, the mason followed Dhugal back to a spot near the top of the cliff. They'd been leveling it, when a small section had caved, almost catching one of the workers as it fell.
Dhugal explained all this in a hurry as he dashed back up the hill. Sure enough, a hole yawned on the cliff. As the master mason reached them, a brown form wriggled out of the hole, assisted by two of his fellows. Cradled in his arms was a large purple-spotted egg.
"Bloody 'ell," muttered the mason.
A gargoyle rookery lay right beneath where they were building the castle. The months of mysterious sabotage suddenly made perfect sense. Any creature, human, gargoyle, dog, or bird, would do whatever it took to protect its young. The nearby clan, and there would be a nearby clan, had no doubt seen their construction as a threat.
"You!" he said, pointing to the spelunker, "put that back where ya found it. An' any more ye've moved, put back, too."
He turned on his heel.
"Master! What do ye want us tae do?" asked Dhugal.
"Don't do anythin'. Let me sort out this mess."
He had nothing against gargoyles. As a builder, he'd always considered signs of their presence a good portent. On the other hand, he'd never had to build right atop a rookery before. He would do what he could to protect the eggs, but he had a bad feeling all around about this.
"Are ye the master mason?"
He looked up from his path to see a man in noble's garb with an intricately-designed staff. By his graying black hair and the lines around his piercing blue eyes, he might have been of the mason's own age, almost fifty summers, but unlike many a noble, he was lean and looked strong.
"Yuir servant," mumbled the mason.
"No' mine, I hope," said the noble. "M'name's MacCrioch. I come from the King to see what progress ye've made on 'is castle."
"Ah, we've made quite a bit, as ye can see. Would ye like me tae give ye th' grand tour?"
"That's why I'm here." The King's representative looked in concern at the flurry of activity at the top of the cliff. "But I seem tae have come at a bad time."
"Nae," said the mason, then sighed. "Aye, ye have at that. We've just discovered somethin' unfortunate. There's a gargoyle rookery in a cave jus' below the cliff."
"Gargoyles? I haven't heard tales of 'em in this area." Worry crossed the man's face.
"Nor have I, but it does explain a bit." He led the way back up the cliff. The workers stood in deference to the noble, but waited for the mason's word.
"Interestin'," said MacCrioch. "I'd like tae see more o' this." His voice was carefully neutral, but the mason heard the tinge of excitement. Was the man eager to slow up or stop the birth of his castle?
The mason spied the boy who'd brought up the egg. "Can ye take us in?" The boy's head bobbed up and down. The boy, the noble, the mason, and two more workers bearing torches descended into the dark cave.
Flickering lights danced on the uneven walls. The cave itself was covered in a moss or mold, the mason didn't know which, that gave off an eerie, almost magical glow. In the firelight, he saw a clutch of gargoyle eggs, perhaps forty, snug in their nest. A fine layer of dust, probably from the roof collapse, covered them like a blanket, but he was relieved to note that none appeared damaged
MacCrioch knelt beside one, pulled off a glove, and placed his hand atop it. "They're warm," he announced.
They spied a tunnel leading downward from the rookery chamber. Leaving the workers there with one torch, the mason and MacCrioch took the other and followed the tunnel to its end. A cave, taller than the rookery, opened wide before them. Filling it, in fearsome poses, were over an hundred gargoyle statues.
In silence, the two men inspected the statues. The mason had never seen a sleeping gargoyle, only the pale reflections that were real statues. The light was too dim to see the nobleman's face. Was he excited by the discovery? Annoyed? It was impossible to say. They stayed only a few minutes, then went back the way they came and began the arduous climb out of the hole.
As he emerged, one of the workers asked, "What do ye want us tae do with the eggs?"
He reached down a hand to help MacCrioch. The noble was covered in the same dust as himself, but his eyes were clear, almost sparkling, in excitement. The mason was suddenly very uneasy and puzzled by MacCrioch's reaction to the situation.
"We'll wait," he said. "When th' clan awakens, we'll figure out what tae do then."
The twin black ships slipped through the sea like oil. The only sounds were of oars slapping the water, and of coughs from the rowers, and neither could be heard above the waves. It had been a long journey from their last port in the south, and the men were tiring.
The Captain of the first, and leader of both, stood in the bow, peering out into the churning sea. He'd been to this shore once before; it would provide an excellent spot for them to rest and recuperate.
"Donnie, are we there yet?"
The Captain turned around and glared at the questioner. "Say again, sirrah?"
The man flushed. "Sorry. Captain, are we there yet?"
"We'll be there soon enough." He turned away.
The other man grumbled, "I don't see why you're in charge. I'm older, an' so's Max. An' it was Phil's da what got us the boats."
"That's why Phil's in charge of the other boat. As for the rest of you, do you have any idea where we're goin'?" He flashed what he hoped was a confident leer. Raymond glowered at him, then took his seat again. "I didn't think so. Any o' the rest of you got a problem?" He looked over his crew with a critical eye. A small crew they were, only himself and twelve others on this ship, ten on the other, but they were good lads, and he was their captain.
He had been the one to find the map, and it had been his own father's fishing expedition that had revealed to him the treasures to be found on the high sea. The old braggart had never understood his son's need to see the world. He'd been the one to say enough was enough, and that it was time to go seek his fortune. He'd been the one to convince the other fellows to join him. If it hadn't been for his vision, Phil never would've dared asked his father for the boats, and they'd all still be wasting their lives in their village.
Captain Donald the Daring, as he rather hoped to be remembered someday, drank in the salt air. It never tasted this good on a fishing boat. "Land ho!"
A less-than-enthusiastic cheer went up from the crew. All right, so he'd been wrong twice now about seeing the spot since they'd left England. That was no reason not to believe him this time. The cliffs rose up before him on the waves, filling him with fire. Then he saw it.
"Bleed me! Someone's been building!" The half-constructed edifice hunched on his cliff. So much for their undisturbed landfall. Irrationally, he feared they had received a report from the last village, and were even now massing an army to take down his brave crew.
He frowned at the memory of the last village. They'd thought it would be easy. They would come ashore in the night and the bit about plundering and pillaging would just happen naturally. Who would have known that he'd have to spend almost an hour after they'd landed trying to explain the finer points of marauding to his bewildered crew? Max and Roger had thought they were taking the ship and that was all. By the time they'd gotten the idea, the villagers had discovered the unknown ship, and had been somewhat insistent that they leave.
The next time would be different. They'd hole up here, and he would train them in the art of piracy. Looting and burning they could do on-site. He wouldn't admit it to them, but he was more than a little fuzzy on what else was supposed to happen.
"Shall we turn around?" Ray's voice was raised in a near- challenge.
"No, we're not turnin' around. Men," he stared at the castle, "we're takin' it."
There was a commotion at the back of the construction site. The mason, who'd been in consultation with the King's man, swore loudly. If those idiots have started another brawl, I'll ...
"Do ye want me tae join ye?" the noble asked, rising to his feet with his ornate shaft in his hand.
"Nae, nae," said the mason. "I'll see what they've done this time." He left MacCrioch and, muttering under his breath, went to the rear of the castle grounds.
"Now, what is sae importan' that it requires ... " He broke off at the scene before him. Men he did not know climbed over the incomplete walls from the side that faced the sea and attacked his workers with sword and mace. He grabbed a trowel. "To me, men!"
His men rallied around him. As one group, they set upon the invaders. The mason whacked one across the face with his trowel, then followed it up with a punch. The lad went down with a soft thud. The mason turned, still shouting curses, and went after another man. He noted with approval how his men held their own with the invaders.
The sea-side is exposed, he thought to himself. An we're goin' tae stay, we'll need some way tae look fer knaves like these. His opponent got in a lucky blow to his gut, and black spots danced before his eyes again. A tower.
Captain Donald the Daring craned his neck up to see the castle. He'd sent fifteen of the men ahead to take the site. He was already planning his speech to the leader of whatever group had dared build on his cliff, before he threw the man into the sea. His men would call him ruthless, desperate. The thought made him giddy with excitement.
His neck began to ache, and he massaged it. Looking away from the top, his eyes drifted across the cliff face. Hello, what's this?
"Dan, come take a look at this." Dan stood and stretched, then joined him in the bow. "What d'you see?"
"Caves." He looked closer. "Hey, there's somethin' in there!"
The Captain turned what he hoped was a knowing smile on his man. Surely there was treasure in those caves, left by a dragon, or maybe another roving band of pirates. They'd take the cliff and the treasure, and they'd live like kings.
"You knew," said Dan in appropriate tones of awe. "That's why you brought us here, isn't it?" The Captain shrugged. "Why didn't you tell us?"
He thought fast. "I needed to make sure you were really loyal to me. If I'd told you at the beginning, you might've mutinied."
"Never, Captain," said Dan loyally.
"While they're cleanin' up on the top, let's go in and see how much treasure we have to share."
The boats were already ashore. The Captain ordered the rest of his men to accompany him on the expedition into the cave. The boats would see to themselves. He led the way this time, the proud captain in command of his crew.
Treasure, fame, here we come. His eyes adjusted to the dark.
Someone had stolen his treasure and replaced it with a bunch of ugly statues.
"So where's the treasure?" asked Raymond, a sneer in his voice. "Surely you're not suggestin' we drag these things back with us?"
He glanced around and spied a tunnel leading upwards. "Ah, these are just the guardians of the treasure to scare off weak- minded cowards." The others snickered at Raymond, and the other man hunched over and kicked at some gravel by his feet.
"I'll believe in your treasure when I bloody well see it."
"You'll see it," said Donald the Daring.
There was a noise, like stone crumbling. One of the statues started to move. Dan made a strangled noise in his throat, as a statue beside him also started to move.
"Demons!" shouted Raymond.
What have I done? Surely these are demons guarding my treasure, and now we've awakened them, and we're goin' tae die.
Another demon stretched, and stone shards peppered the cave. Its eyes shone scarlet at him. He backed into another moving demon, and could not restrain his scream.
Run! he thought. "Attack!" he said instead.
His men screamed, in either terror or defiance, and went at the demons with swords raised. If they were going to die tonight they would die bravely. He set at the nearest monster with a vengeance.
The brown demon looked at him, and its ugly face turned uglier as it frowned. His stomach trembled as the beast raised a casual arm, picked him up, then threw him against the nearest wall. He fell to the ground, dazed. The screams of his men mingled with roars. He hid his face in his arms and wept.
"Come on," he heard by his ear. Raymond extended a hand to him.
"Leave me," he said.
"Get over yourself." Raymond grabbed him under the arms, until he had no choice but to climb to his feet. The only possible opening was the tunnel.
They did not even pause before entering it. Any place was better than this.
I'm sorry, he thought towards the others in the cave.
Deborah tossed the last of the humans out the mouth of their cave, shouting, "An' stay out!" She went back inside to see the clan gathered in the center of the cave, voices already raised in debate.
"Ye canna be serious."
"We should go," said her brown-skinned mate to the Leader. "They could be attackin' th' humans above!"
"Let 'em," said an elder.
"Nae, we canna stand aside," rumbled the Leader. "An we don't, they might come back. We'll drive 'em far now and have done with it."
"What about the humans an' their building?"
"We'll deal wi' them when we haveta."
Deborah didn't have patience for this. She'd not counted the attackers, but she was certain not all of them had been kicked out of the cave. As the others made ready to climb the cliff, she slipped down the passage towards the rookery.
As she neared the rookery cave, she heard a voice say contemptuously: "You call this treasure?" She increased her pace, heart hammering in fear.
Please, not th' eggs!
She burst into the room in time to see two humans at the other side of the cave, both looking the worse for wear. One had a rock raised above his head, about to bring it down upon one of the eggs. She roared, knew she was too far, would be too late to save the egg.
A human stepped from the shadows behind the other two and slapped the man's arms backwards with his staff. The man dropped the rock harmlessly behind him. The new stranger applied a fist to the man's face. With a crack the attacker fell. Deborah reached the other one and dealt him a good blow. He fell beside his friend. She poked him with her tail, but he did not move.
"Come, Lady," said the human, his blue eyes seeming all the brighter in the dim light. "These two will nae harm anyone else. There are more above." He gestured overhead with his staff, curiously decorated with strange runes.
"I just want tae make certain." She grabbed the two prone humans and swung them over her shoulder. Then she looked up, and saw starlight through the ceiling of the cave. "This canna be good."
"Ye may be surprised," said the human, and together, they climbed out of the rookery onto the clifftop above them.
Deborah dropped the two attackers on the ground. If there had been a battle up here, it was over, and the invaders, looking vaguely embarrassed, had been rounded up already. She and the dark-haired human made their way to a very unusual meeting. The Leader of her clan stood face to face with a burly human male, neither looking pleased at the other.
"Will the arguin' never stop?" she grumbled.
"This land belongs tae the King!"
"We've been here far longer than ye."
"That's no reason tae damage our equipment and scare our horses."
The Leader's crimson mate replied, "An' when ye came, ye knocked a hole in our roof!"
The human beside her rapped his staff against a fallen building stone to gain their attention and held up his hands. Instantly, the other humans offered him the utmost respect. "Lady," he said courteously to the Second, "I think mayhap this was a good thing. The roof would surely have collapsed on its own in good time, and crushed all yuir eggs. Ye might think of this rather as a blessing in disguise."
There were more mutterings from the clan and the humans, but they were less vehement than previously. The stranger's very presence seemed to calm both sides. In soothing tones, he implored both the Leader and the human leader to meet in the middle. The clan was strong, and could easily repel any attack by night. The humans, meanwhile, could rebuild, and reinforce, the cliff top, and swear to guard the gargoyles by day. It was a fair agreement for both parties, and certainly better than fighting. He added as a bonus the full support of the King, whom Deborah gleaned was the Leader of all these humans.
The human leader, who worked the stones, agreed. The clan's Leader took very little persuading to also accept the terms of the contract. The two sat down and began discussing the details of the new arrangement. Deborah sidled over to the human who'd made the bargain.
"I wanted tae thank ye," she said quietly.
"Lady, 'tis an honor tae serve." He turned his head to the half-constructed walls. "I think it'll be a fine creation once it's built. It'll take time an' effort, but in th' end, it'll be a truly beautiful thing." He smiled at her, and the action took years from his face.
Humans are such odd beings, tae place such value on th' things they create. "I suppose," she said uncertainly. "I've ne'er seen a castle."
"I did nae mean the castle," he said.
"Um ... " A human lad scurried to his leader. "Master?"
The man sighed, then asked patiently, "Yes, Dhugal?"
"Th' -- th' eggs."
"What about 'em?" demanded the Leader, suspicion on his face.
The lad stepped back. "We did nothin'! John was standin' beside one, and it cracked." His voice trembled in fear; surely he expected the Leader to eviscerate him on the spot. To his credit, he did not even flinch as the Leader rose to his full height in one swift motion.
Deborah was faster. In a heartbeat, she was at the hole in the ground, and slithered into it. I should nae ha' left them alone, she cursed herself.
She saw another human standing betwixt the eggs. "Outta here, laddie," she told him sharply. Gingerly, he stepped over another egg, and then stood in a corner at a safe distance.
Deborah bent down to inspect the damage. Sure enough, there was a jagged crack in the shell, going from tip to bottom. She placed her hand over the scar. In the last clutch, there had been two cracked eggs. Neither had hatched, and the clan had sadly carried the poor things to the burial cave.
The egg moved beneath her hand. She held her breath.
Again, she felt a slight nudge against her palm. She sensed someone walking up behind her, knew from the scent and the tread and a dozen other indescribable details that it was her mate. The strange human was right on his heels. As the Leader came down the hole, the crack spread wide
With her thumb talons, Deborah touched either side of the crack. From within, she heard a slight chipping, and soon, a tiny egg-tooth appeared at the opening. Delicately, she pried open the shell.
The hatchling was a female, sky-blue, with hair red like the sky just before dawn. She seemed healthy, and none the worse for hatching. The babe's siblings would be hatching before the following morning, if all went well. Deborah picked the child up and cradled her against her chest.
Such a wee thing, she thought in awe. Such a precious wee thing tae be born on a night like this. She looked at her mate. His eyes were on her and the hatchling in her arms, and they glittered like dew on a spider's web.
The memory was as fresh as last evening's to him. She was also there in his memories, safe for all time. He would see this young slip of a girl, and he would remember Deborah holding her. He would look into the faces of this generation of hatchlings, and the next, and the next, and see her kind face smiling back to him. So long as one member of the clan survived, so would she, if only for him, and perhaps that was the final sum of any one life.
"Leader," said the young female, "the clan needs you now. The elders want to leave the castle. My rookery siblings are just as happy to see them leave. You need to talk to them, show them how important this alliance with the humans really is."
Her tone was deferential, but her eyes did not yield. Yes, Deborah's spirit lived on in this one.
I'll return soon, my love.
Together, they walked out of the cave.
Hudson was appalled at what he saw and heard. All but two of the elders had formed an impassive line atone end of the room, while the remaining elders stood opposite in much the same position. Members from the other generations stood with one group or the other, while his rookery brother and two of the newly-Ascended warriors stood in-between, trying unsuccessfully to calm both sides.
"Leader!" There was tired joy on Agamemnon's face as he walked into the room. The shouts died down, as all heads turned to face Hudson and Demona.
Needlessly, Demona told her rookery brothers: "Found him."
"Look at ye!" Hudson stormed. "Ye're all fightin' like hatchlings who don't want tae go tae roost!" Several shame-filled faces looked away.
One elder, a gray-green male, stared back. "We're not gonna die for th' humans, Leader. An ye want tae, we'll leave an' set up our own clan elsewhere." Fearful glances were exchanged by some of the other elders in his group, but no one stirred from their stance.
"Then go already!" called a charcoal-colored female from his own generation, who stood defiantly across the room. "Ye can bloody well start over somewhere else!"
"Enough!" Hudson's shout echoed through the room. In the shocked silence that followed, he heard the Prince's dogs from far off baying at the unfamiliar noise. He turned to the group who threatened departure. "Ye are welcome to leave." There were loud murmurs from both sides until he cut the conversation still again. "After ye explain exactly why ye're so fired up tae leave. He then addressed the other group. "An' ye will listen tae their reasons, an' if they do leave, ye're goin' tae help them set up. We are still one clan. For now," he muttered.
"Leader," said the gray-green, "the Second died for the humans last night."
"I'd noticed," Hudson could not help but say, and the elder flinched.
"We don't see why the rest of us should wander from the castle, which we're perfectly willing to defend, and leave it unprotected while we fight and die for humans who barely tolerate us as it is. She's gone, and d'ye think one of the humans cares a whit?"
Did he? Had the Prince come to him offering condolences? Had any of the humans even noticed. Painfully, he thought of those last horrible minutes, as Brother Edmund tried to keep the life from leaking away from her body, his eyes gone so sad when he'd realized there was nothing he could do. His eyes ...
"Aye," said Hudson firmly. "I think some might at that. And is tha' really th' point?" He addressed the assembly: "In th' end, it doesna matter what the humans think of us. Whate'er we do, some will find fault, an' some will be frightened, an' some will be our allies. That's just humans for ye. Ye want tae know, what's in it for us tae go fightin' fer the Prince? We get our home. An we leave, or just let 'em take the castle, what are we going tae do then? How will we be able tae defend ourselves from th' next bunch that attack, if they attack during the day? Who will defend the eggs when we're rubble?"
"We survived long before we allied ourselves wi' th' humans," said one of his rookery brothers.
"Aye, but then we met 'em, and once ye've done a thing like that, it's fer good. We canna go back to not knowin' the humans. That's like tryin' to go back into th' shell." He patted his own girth. "Perhaps ye can fit, but I'm a mite too big fer that." There was a titter of laughter from the rest.
"Th' humans are a part of our lives now, fer good or ill. We can nae abandon them now." Don't let her have died in vain.
"So we stay an' die?"
"Only if we don't fight these invaders, or fight 'em wi' only half our warriors. I'd rather stay an' live, myself."
The elder scrutinized at him for a long time, mayhap measuring him against the Leaders who'd come before, against the other clan members, against the gargoyle Hudson had been thus far. "All right," said the elder. "We'll stay. Fer now."
"Nae," said Hudson. Everyone stared. "We'll nae have this argument each time someone doesna want tae fight. If I'm tae lead ye, I've got tae know tha' ye'll follow me, and nae go runnin' off. I want yuir word that ye'll stay."
This was it. The clan would live or die now.
The gray-green looked to his companions, read the same thing Hudson did, that they were ready to follow him if he led them from here. Hudson held his breath.
"Ye're the Leader. Where ye go, we follow."
"Yes!" said Diomedes, just loud enough to be heard. Goliath poked him.
We did it, Love, he thought. We did it.
Malcolm was in heavy discussions with the Captain of the Guard when the Leader of the gargoyles came into the room.
"Yuir Highness," he said in greeting.
"My friend, I'd thought perhaps you'd been wounded."
"Only in th' heart," he said quietly. "I've come to offer the aid of the entire clan to fight these marauders."
"We'd be glad of your assistance," said the Prince. There was something wrong with the Leader's tone, but he didn't have time to ask why right now.
"Our forces are depleted, too much to risk an offensive. We're goin' tae let the Vikings come tae us."
"D'ye think that's wise?"
"Mayhap not, but it's our only option now. They will come here, we're certain of it."
He allowed the Captain to explain the tactical part of their plan, and observed the Leader as he made suggestions. Something was definitely amiss with his friend. He made a note to ask as soon as things had settled.
The beat of the drums hammered a war cadence in Captain Thorvald's veins. This was what it meant to be alive, marching to a firm rhythm, ready to do battle with the enemy. "Ready yourselves, men!" Music was in his soul, battle songs of brave heroes from long ago. He was practically humming with excitement.
He cast a glance to Thorbjorn. "Look lively, son."
His fair-haired boy gazed intently on the castle walls. "Da, look! Gargoyles!"
Thorvald glowered. "Enough of that! Those gargoyles are statues, nothing more. The locals might have their stories about winged monsters, but you're brighter than that. Are you afraid of stone?"
"N-no," said Thorbjorn.
"I didn't hear you."
"I'm not afraid!"
"I'M NOT AFRAID!"
"Good!" He raised his sword, the fresh-polished iron bright in the mid-afternoon sunlight. "Attack!"
His men shouted their exhilaration in the war-fever. Thorvald screamed his own signature yell, a blood-curdling roar that had stopped many a foe in terror even before he drew his blade.
He looked to Thorbjorn. His fair-haired son shouted a wordless cry, his eyes almost glowing in anticipation. Thorvald swelled with pride. My son.
The Scots waited until they were almost at the castle gates to start the volley of arrows from above. Thorvald ordered his men together, holding their shields before and above them like scales. The arrows rained upon them, striking down several of his men with wounds.
"Bring the catapults!"
Using heavy ropes, his men hauled the machines into place. At a word, they loaded and fired. He watched with grim amusement as the guards at the battlements fled. Another group of his men put the ram into position, and by the bark of the drum, they pounded at the castle's gate, providing a deep, resonating backbeat.
The gates crashed open, revealing the castle's main defensive force, armed to the teeth. Only a few brave and foolish archers remained to pour death on them, Thorvald signaled his men to take the castle. He pointed Thorbjorn towards the gate. The boy had always excelled at hand-to-hand practice, and was certain to distinguish himself now.
Their purpose finished, the war machines were abandoned. He broke his men into two groups. He screamed. They screamed. He read the fear in the eyes of the castle's defenders and knew this was where he belonged.
The stone walls were rough as he scaled the castle. The gargoyle statues, which dotted the towers as thick as fleas on a dog, provided convenient hand and foot-holds. He kept his eyes on the topmost tower. If he could claim that tower, he could fight his way down through the castle, and meet his men victorious in the middle. The sun was low on the horizon. They would be victorious by full dark, and celebrate their victory beneath the moon. The song he would sing about this day, and the prize he was to take, formed in his head as he climbed. Thorbjorn would be in that song, and Eric, and the rest, immortalized.
He reached the tower and easily hacked down the two guards left atop it. A lone statue remained. Time to show his men once and for all that the stories were only that.
"Thorbjorn!" From far below, his son took down his opponent, then looked up to him eagerly. Thorvald lifted his sword, judged the distance, and swung it back.
The sun set.
Cracks appeared along the statue. Taken aback, he missed his blow completely, and staggered away. By Odin's beard ...
The beast stretched its bulk, sending stone chips flying. Thorvald covered his eyes from the debris, otherwise stood dumbfounded.
It turned glowing white eyes on him, then reached forward with one great taloned hand and lifted him over the edge of the tower.
"Ye. Are. Trespassin'." The beast tossed him to the flagstones of the tower, eyes still glowing menacingly. He heard the shouts of his men turn to screams of terror, as the sound of shattering stone and waking roars filled the early evening air.
There would be no songs of this night, at least not by Norsemen.
"Here you go," said Demona, as she helped the human guard to the ground outside the infirmary. His wound was not deep; he would be fine here until Brother Edmund could tend to him. She'd found him on the tower during the final mop-up, and had walked him here. The last of the cowardly marauders had already run, with three warriors of her generation in hot pursuit. They would not be returning to Wyvern anytime soon. She turned to leave, but heard his mumbled thanks.
"You're welcome," she said gravely, and continued back to the courtyard.
He had not yet returned.
Fighting the growing worry within her, she went outside the damaged gate to the field beyond, where the Vikings had hastily abandoned a large number of things.
As she looked on, a red hatchling with a long beak picked up a fallen sword and pretended, though very carefully, to attack an aqua-green hatchling. The other child had found a wrap and tied it around his ample waist.
A moment later, the red one said: "Okay, now you be the Viking."
Not watching where she was going, Demona nearly stepped on another hatchling, a little green male with webbed wings. "Sorry, little brother," she said. He didn't seem to notice, as fascinated as he was by one of the Vikings' machines.
"It looks so complicated," he said.
"Not really," responded a female voice. Her rookery sister, the orange with the golden hair and ivory horns, walked around the side of the contraption, lost in thought. "It's really a basic design. All we'd have to do is ... "
Demona tuned her out, as Asrial continued to explain the catapult's workings to the youngster. She wasn't interested in weapons right now. She was much more concerned with the whereabouts of a certain rookery brother.
Diomedes landed a few feet away, then loped amiably over to her.
"Brother," she said neutrally. "Did you chase the invaders far?"
"So far they'll never dare return," he responded, a smile glowing on his face. "I think I could've done it all by myself."
"And no doubt gotten yourself captured or killed at the first opportunity."
His voice went soft. "Would you miss me if I did?"
"Probably." Then she smiled at him, and he flushed.
"Sister, I wanted to thank you. You brought the Leader back in the nick of time. If you hadn't, we might all be rubble now."
I did it, she thought. I really did. Bittersweet joy spread through her with the realization. Deborah would have been proud of her this night, of them all.
"Brother, I want to thank you. You listened when I needed someone there. I thought I was the worst gargoyle in the world. You ... You helped."
"Any time," he said. He watched her, and she him. She was peripherally aware of other gargoyles and humans on the field, but at this moment, they were unimportant. Slowly, skittishly, they touched fingertips, then grasped hands, and then she was in his arms, and the world went by without them for a while.
The Great Hall was filled to capacity with most of the residents of Wyvern. Brother Edmund was passing amongst the tired soldiers, tending to those with minor injuries while the kitchen staff served them hot cups of mulled wine and meat rolls fresh from the oven. Prince Malcolm sat at the high table in his own stained armor and watched as families rejoiced at the safe return of their loved ones or mourned at their loss.
Several gargoyles had wandered in, wings carefully caped to make them less imposing, and were mingling with the others. Young Robbie was listening carefully to one of the younger gargoyles, the dark gold male with the sweeping crest, as he was making some point about the battle, if the makeshift arrangement of objects on the table before them was any indication. The Captain of the Guard was glancing over Robbie's shoulder and nodding approvingly; seeing the gargoyles in action against the Vikings had sweetened the Captain's opinion of them and Malcolm had high hopes for him.
The clever female with the spiraled ivory horns herded a trio of gargoyle children to a vacant place at the end of table. She started to go towards the kitchens but found her way barred by a serving maid. The girl frowned, looked at orange gargoyle and then down at her tray, loaded with a trencher of bread and mutton stew. She muttered and thrust the tray at the gargoyle, who seemed flustered but smiled and bobbed her head as she took the tray. She set the food down before the hungry hatchlings, giving a somewhat bewildered glance over her shoulder at the retreating back of the serving maid.
Prince Malcolm noticed a group of gargoyle elders enter the room and decided there would be no better moment. He stood up, the scrape of his chair drawing the attention of the room. "Good people of Wyvern," he said grandly, his voice carrying across the Great Hall. "It has been a long, hard struggle, but we have won the night. The Vikings have been sent back across the Northern Sea and if we are lucky, it will be a long, long time before we see their kind again."
An enthusiastic, if tired, cheer went up, and Malcolm waited for the sound to die down before continuing. "The castle guard, under the command of our noble Captain, fought valiantly under trying conditions holding the Vikings until our gargoyle allies could join us to turn the tide of battle." He looked deliberately around the room. "It was the combined effort of both humans and gargoyles that saved Wyvern this night. This castle has served as home to both our races for many years and we have flourished under an understanding of mutual co-habitation."
Prince Malcolm focused his attention on the group of gargoyle elders, the foremost of which was the bearded, barrel-chested one who the Leader called Brother. "I propose that we propose establishing a formal alliance between my people and yours, friend gargoyle. I think that this troubled time has proven that we can cooperate with each other and that in time, can learn to live together in peace within the protectorate of Wyvern."
He paused dramatically. "What say you, friend?"
The barrel-chested one glanced at the others around him uncomfortably before speaking. "We're honored, yuir Highness, and yuir proposal has merit, but 'twill be up to our Leader to decide."
"Yes, where is your leader?" Malcolm frowned and looked over the crowd. "Your Second - she is missing?"
The eyes of the gargoyle elder were deep with sorrow as he looked up at the high table. "Och, dinnae ye know?" The look in his eyes was all the answer the Prince needed.
Stepping down, Malcolm came forward and put a hand on the elder's shoulder. "She died in battle?"
"Aye. The first night."
"Two of my men died in that battle as well. I was too busy speaking to their families, I - I'm terribly sorry." Malcolm set his jaw. "Where is your Leader? I must give him my condolences."
The elder told him.
Hudson stood on his tower alone. The rest of the clan was below, celebrating. Out in the fields beyond the castle, he saw humans picking up the Vikings' possessions, hatchlings playing, all oblivious to the truth that nothing would ever be the same again. Even the lass who'd come to him at the cave with her own grief stood out there, in the embrace of a rookery brother. Life at Wyvern had moved on, its sweetest defender already fading in the memories of the residents. It wasn't right.
Love? Are ye here? He strained for some faint sound of her voice, heard only the mocking waves, the cries of gulls and hatchlings. Just one word, love. Tha's all I ask.
Someone coughed behind him. He spun too fast, almost losing his footing, and for one shining moment, he thought, She's back! She's here! It was all a horrible dream! It's all right again!
The figure before him was not a gargoyle, not the most beloved of gargoyles, but a human.
"Yuir Highness," he said, disappointment not hidden.
"I heard what happened. Finally." He frowned at some hidden remembrance. "I wanted to extend my condolences for yuir loss. Your Second was a fine woman, and a great warrior. We will miss her. I will miss her," he amended.
"Thank ye," he replied gruffly.
"If there's anything I can do, name it."
"There is one thing." He turned towards the ocean. The waters crashed against the cliffs below, as they always had and always would. The castle would fall, the gargoyles and humans die away, and still there would be the sea. She had become a part of that sea, and someday, his own body would be taken by the tide, and they would be forever joined in the dance of water and rock and sky. He would that it were soon.
"There must be peace between yuir clan and mine. We've known that since this castle was built. But fer us tae survive, we need more than just peace. She knew that. We need a true alliance, ye and I, forged by us and followed by gargoyle and human alike. We will defend ye whene'er ye need, and ye shall do th' same fer us. My clan will pledge to follow me in this. Will yuirs do the same?"
"It will not be easy to convince them. Tonight would be the best time tae ask. Right now, all they remember is that you routed the Vikings. Tomorrow, they may go back to being afraid. I'll make the announcement before daybreak: a joining of your people and mine, each treated as the other, and any who dares otherwise shall be censured by us both. As the leader of my people, I pledge this. Do you agree?"
Fer ye, Love. Always fer ye.
"On behalf o' my clan, I accept yuir terms."
He turned back to the Prince. The human held his hand outstretched. Hudson took it and held it as he would a brother's. Allies they would be. The sea crashed in his ears like Deborah's laughter, and he knew she would be pleased.