Written by Tara "LJC" O'Shea and Melissa "Merlin Missy" Wilson
Based on a story outline by Christi Smith Hayden
Previously, on Dark Ages:
DEBORAH: "If you're going to fight you may as well live to see it through. You might want to end the fight, but all your opponent wants is to end you. Right through the throat. And you never saw it coming.
THERSITES (on the ground): It wasn't fair! You tripped me!
DEBORAH: Why didn't you trip me first? When you fight in earnest, you had better not expect others to fight fair.
- "First Do No Harm"
DEBORAH: 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: Dinna worry yerself about the youngsters. Ye're the best teacher they could hope to have. They'll do ye proud, each and every one of them.
DEBORAH: Do ye remember when we used to sneak away from the castle when we were supposed to be minding our lessons?
HUDSON: Aye, love, I do.
DEBORAH: And do ye think 'twould be unseemly for the Leader and the Teacher to sneak away?
HUDSON: I think 'tis a grand idea.
GARGOYLE: Leader! The Prince is asking to speak with ye!
HUDSON (to DEBORAH): A grand idea, but one best saved for another time.
- "The Seduction"
HUDSON: "And so, it pleases me to announce the Ascention! All of ye, take wing! When ye land again, ye'll have joined yuir elders as Warriors!"
Everyone cheered as Goliath, Asrial, and their rookery stepped off of the edge of the cliffs around Wyvern and took to the air, spiraling around and catching updrafts to take them higher still. The gargoyles weaved in and around each other in a beautiful and colorful display. Gradually, one by one, they each landed, Warriors at last.
- "Coming of Age, Part II"
* * * * *
From the journals of Brother Edmund:
"Although I have never been of the inclination myself, I have long admired and supported the institution of marriage. There is nothing quite so touching as two people coming together with one heart and one soul. This is not exclusive to mankind for I have observed it in members of the gargoyle community, from the young adults making their first forays into romance to the mated pairs among their elders. Most prominent among these is the brown-skinned Leader and his aqua-hued mate, whom I've named Deborah, from the Bible. Together, Leader and his Second ruled their clan wisely but like all couples, they were not exempt from quarrels.
"It was one of these times that the Leader realized that without a strong cornerstone, even the mightiest castle will fall ... "
"Yuir a daft old besom!" the Leader's voice boomed out from the tower.
"And yuir actin' like yuir naught but a hatchling fresh out of the shell!" came the response, punctuated by the unmistakable sound of crockery meeting an unfortunate end.
Their audience remained on the opposite battlement, jostling for a good view. The three hatchlings had spent a total of forty seconds pretending they didn't hear the argument, long before the good parts had started. A sturdy, almost straight stick and a stiff piece of leather, which had become the noblest of swords and a finely-crafted shield under the magical influence of healthy young imaginations, lay abandoned. The "weapons" were knocked further out of sight and mind by a red tail.
"Hey!" whisper-yelled the smallest of the three, as a heavy aqua-colored foot stepped on his own. "I can't see!"
"Sorry." The web-eared hatchling jerked on his smaller friend's arm, pulling him to where he could better view the proceedings.
Their rookery brother glared at them. "Shhh!"
They turned their attention back to the tower. Leader's normally benign face was dark and clouded with rage. His mate's was twice so. They stood toe to toe, wings unfurled, eyes blazing white and red.
Broadway bit his lip, his excitement at seeing the fight overcome by worry. "Do you think they might hurt each other?"
"Don't be stupid," said Brooklyn in a superior tone. "They've fought before. They'll argue a while, then make up." He scrunched up his face in distaste. His oft-expressed opinion was that the fighting was the interesting part. The making up, which involved lots of hand-holding and soppy glances, wasn't his idea of fun.
Broadway wouldn't admit it to either of his rookery brothers, but he much preferred the thought of making up to fighting, at least when it came to the Leader and his Second. When they argued, which wasn't often, his sense of the world teetered crazily. It was enough to put him off his food.
The Second broke the stalemate. She growled at her mate, and without another word, hopped to a crenelation, then jumped. As she glided momentarily nearer, Broadway could see that her usually pretty face was drawn and peaked. For the first time, he saw the years stamped on her features, and he was afraid. If she noticed the three of them, she gave no heed, but was out of sight and away in a blaze of green and aquamarine and gold. His stomach gave a familiar turn, and he knew he wouldn't want his supper. This was a bad situation.
His brothers, seeing that the day's entertainment was at an end, turned back to their game. They immediately began arguing who got the "sword" and "shield" first. He ignored them, looking towards the Leader, hoping for some sign that things weren't quite as bad as he was beginning to suspect. The Leader's face remained impassive, turned away from the direction in which his mate had flown.
Definitely a bad situation.
He gasped as the larger of his two playmates crashed into him, reeling from a surprise attack by the other.
"Lo!" said Brooklyn, "This swarthy cur dares attack us?" His eyes glittered, and Broadway almost laughed. Political strife, at least as encompassed his own little world, was temporarily put aside in importance, as he joined Brooklyn's attack against the mightily-armored Lexington.
* * * * *
The Second-in-Command looked back once. Her mate kept his stubborn eyes averted from her. Blast him, anyway. She made a quick, angry circle, then chose her path. The young adults were supposed to be at the practice field, honing their skills. More likely, they were strutting about, playing at warriors like those three hatchlings she'd spied on the battlements.
It always happened after an Ascension; the new warriors balked at having to continue training. Why should they, when they had already passed the trials? Not a one of them considered that mayhap they didn't know everything yet.
She growled. In her youth, she herself had said something of the like to the Second, who had immediately challenged her to mock battle. She'd felt the subsequent blows for the rest of the night, and the humiliation for weeks. But she'd learned. That was how warriors were made.
She spied her charges gathered in the field. Sure enough, only one or two was fighting properly. The rest were playing. A greenish-grey male with the snow-colored hair was grappling with his large lavender brother, but neither one had his heart in the match. The lavender wasn't even paying much attention, was instead casting glances to a burnt orange female who stood to one side, her wings draped around her gracefully.
Othello threw him easily, and puffed out his chest, no doubt for the benefit of a certain brown female with long golden hair, who watched the two with amusement. Goliath got to his knees and smiled good-naturedly at the victor. Deborah frowned.
As she landed, she noticed with satisfaction that at least someone was taking this seriously. The dark gold with the crest, whom the human Edmund called Ajax, was locked in heavy combat with a short-beaked blue male, giving his all. Meanwhile, Diomedes was defending himself from an attack from the blue female with the scarlet hair. Again, she nodded her approval; the girl had improved much in the past several weeks, and was demonstrating this to her adversary. If she didn't know better, she would swear they were in a real battle.
"Second," said Othello uncertainly. She could see the fear in his eyes. Good.
"Unarmed combat. You and I. Now."
"But I ... " Just finished fighting, his words went unsaid. As if that was a good reason not to fight again. As if an attacker, upon hearing that, would respond "Right-o, then, I'll just wait 'till you've rested."
She charged. He was not at all prepared for the onslaught of her anger and went down in less than a minute. She roared at him, as he rolled to a sitting position and slowly got to his feet. He'd be feeling those bruises for a while. Maybe it'll make him think next time.
"Yuir defense was too slow. Ya left yuir side open, and barely guarded yuir midsection. If I'd had a sword, I coulda spilled yuir guts to the grass, and then where would ya be?"
"Dead." There were snickers from the others, who had stopped to watch.
She snorted. "A fine lot of warriors ye all are turnin' out tae be. Mayhap we Ascended ye too soon." She looked over her pupils. Their amusement quickly turned to shame; only the dark gold met her eyes.
How young they are, she mused. Was I ever this young and foolish? Their sparring temporarily halted, they had formed groups and pairs. There were more pairs than she recalled from even a few nights ago.
When had the young males discovered that their female playmates were more interesting than they'd thought as hatchlings, and why hadn't she noticed? Demona and Diomedes, Othello and Desdemona, all of them having passed the trials had turned their attentions to a different kind of competition. Even the little burnt orange female with the delicate ivory horns, whom she'd feared would never Ascend, seemed to have put aside thoughts of her gadgets in exchange for thoughts of her lavender- grey brother.
She finished her inspection of the young ones and sighed. She could not fault them with following their hearts. On the other hand, paying more attention to perfecting their skills now meant they had a chance of surviving. Dead gargoyles followed nothing.
She came to a decision. "You." She pointed to Ajax. "Choose a cadre. We're going on patrol."
He bowed his crested forehead. She watched him, satisfied as he chose his companions. He was developing into a fine warrior, strong of frame and sharp of mind. If there ever came a time when there had to be another Second ...
Her mate's words came back to her. He disagreed with her training methods for the young ones. As Second, it was her responsibility to see to the education of the next generation. How dare he think that she didn't know her own duties?
Her claws clenched. The lads and lasses moved away from her, enough for her to notice. She relaxed, returning her attention to the task at hand. Ajax had chosen five others to form the patrol, including his sparring partner, the grey with the breastplate, and, she noted with annoyance, the whiny green- grey with the twisted horn. The last time she'd had him form a group, he'd chosen the same five.
"The rest of ya, keep practicing. I expect to see improvement by the time we return." With that, they left.
* * * * *
The stars were out like a battalion of heavenly watchers, keeping guard as they made they way through the woods. Callum caught sight of them through the high canopy of leaves, and took heart. If he could find a large enough clearing, he could determine their position, help them find their way. Maybe.
A gust of wind blew through his rags, and he shuddered deeper into the little protection they offered. It wasn't frigid enough to kill, not tonight. They would just be cold. And hungry. Again.
He didn't dare look behind him. He already knew what the others would say, that it wasn't his fault, that they understood he would do his best by them, that they trusted him. He couldn't face that, not trust. They'd trusted him when he'd brought them to the last village, God knew how many leagues behind them now.
Callum knew the story of Job from a monk who oversaw the infirmary near one of the first shrines he'd visited. Sometimes, when the children had cried themselves to sleep, when there was no one else to disturb his thoughts, he mused bitterly that God was playing a similar game with him. His family was dead, his mother and brother to a fever, his father to a battle between the clans. The sickness forced him to wander, to associate only with others also afflicted.
He had done what he could to make the little group he led more than just a loose cluster of cursed souls who stayed together because their common misery made them one another's only possible company. The rest of the world forgot who they were, shied away from them, christened them with insults; he forced the others to grasp the shred of humanity given them by remembering their own real names. They wandered; he tried to give purpose to their wandering. They paused at saints' shrines and holy springs hoping for a cure that never came, and then they wandered on, followed by jeers, stones, even torches.
The last village had seemed so right. During the hard summer, a priest had been given a vision of the Virgin, and a new spring had arisen near the town that same day. In the months that followed, pilgrims and supplicants had flocked to the spring, praying for a miracle. The villagers had welcomed them, if not with open arms and smiles, then with tolerance. Callum's little band had remained on the outskirts, only daring to approach the spring at night. Two days after their arrival, fevers and wet coughs had started among the village's children. When the nobleman from the South had come with his soldiers and his vengeance, the townspeople had cheerfully pointed him towards the lepers at the spring. Now Paul and Robert were both dead, and he'd been the one to lead them to their doom.
He heard a faster pace behind him. Without turning, he knew it was Sheilagh. She fell into step beside him.
"Callum." Her voice was raspy, wasted, the sound of brittle leaves rattling in November, a voice for a woman of eighty winters, not twenty-two. She put a gnarled hand on his arm. "The bairns need rest."
He continued walking. Twenty paces later, he said, "We canna rest now. They were close last time. We were lucky. We won't be lucky again."
"We're never gonna be lucky, Callum. The little ones are tired. Maryse is already carrying Charlie. They need food and sleep."
"They can't have either. Not yet."
"Ye can't lead an army o' the dead."
"We're already dead, Sheilagh." Their conversation was cut off by loud noises from several paces ahead. Callum bid his charges into utter silence, led them into deeper growth, and waited.
He heard a much closer noise. "Faith!" he hissed. "Put that away!"
The girl wrapped her cloth around her bell, then looked at him in fear. "But Callum ... "
"Don't ring," he ordered. She nodded. The other children were too tired to care. He saw heads nodding already. They would have to sleep soon.
He turned his attention back to the noise. He heard horses, didn't breathe as three riders appeared ten feet in front of them. They were armed and cloaked, but the colors weren't those he feared. He offered a prayer up for the men not to tarry, for them all to survive the night. The riders moved away from where they hid.
He kept the others still until the riders were long out of earshot, then gave another prayer, this of thanksgiving. God hadn't yet abandoned them.
"Why didn't we ring our bells?" Faith stared at him, her clear blue eyes wide. Those were eyes that could melt a man's heart, he thought, and felt a deep grief for Faith, for all of them. She was twelve years old, just at the beginning of her life, and it was already over.
"We can't let anyone know where we are. Suppose they meet Devonshire and 'is men on the road, and he asks if they've seen a band o' lepers. Do ye think we can outrun 'em?"
Her eyes went wider. They had all seen Paul die beneath the horses.
"Now," he said, gathering his strength, "we need tae get movin' again." He ignored the feeble protests from the others as he slowly got to his feet. "Hurry up now, we have a long way tae go before night is done."
* * * * *
When he was certain his Second had left, the Leader allowed himself a glance in the direction she had taken. There was no sign of her on the horizon. It was for the best that she'd left; fighting with his mate always put him in an uneasy frame of mind, although he'd never admit it to that bullheaded harridan. He could still recall arguments from when they had been as young as the warriors she was now training. Some of their fights had been almost vicious. In between the words, and occasionally the claws, he'd noticed how lovely she was beneath the moon, had come to admire the same stubbornness he alternately loathed, had asked her ...
"Enough o' this!" he spat. His mate had been wrong, would not listen to reason, and no amount of rosy thoughts on the past would change that. Let her go off on her little rampage. He could stay at the castle and take care of things here. Otherwise he could accidentally run into her and beg her forgiveness for being the old fool that he suspected he was becoming.
He jumped up and over, and glided down to the courtyard to continue the night's business, which had been so brusquely interrupted.
He saw his rookery brother too late to politely veer away and hide. He landed roughly, more like a hatchling than a clan leader, and had to endure his brother's friendly smirk.
"Havin' problems tonight, brother?" asked Agamemnon knowingly.
"None tae concern ye," he replied. He made an effort to walk unconcernedly past his brother, when what he'd feared most happened.
"You know," began his brother, in a way that bespoke a several-hour oratory to follow, "the heart of a female is a mysterious thing. In one moment, she's mate an' lover, th' next a shrewish termagant. Th' secret tae keepin' 'er and keeping 'er happy is tae listen to what she needs, and give 'er whatever it is, but no' all the way. Take my mate fer instance. We've been together over fifty years, and never once an argument."
"That's because yuir mate cannae get a word in edgewise, ye great chattering ape!"
Agamemnon stood agape, for one moment without any words at all. Hudson took the opportunity to move past him and into the castle. Loud enough for his brother to hear, he muttered, "She'll be back when she's back," and wondered if he believed it himself.
* * * * *
"Flank!" the tawny gargoyle yelled, bringing up his staff again, and the adolescent raised his shield to block again, the sound of wood smacking on boiled leather carrying across the field. "Again!" The staff rose, and this time struck tender flesh, the shield clattering to the hard packed dirt and the young gargoyle's eyes flared red as she hissed in pain, cradling the bruised arm.
"Hold!" she growled as he snatched up the staff and made to strike. "Have done, I'm sore enough as it is."
"'Tis your own fault,
"We've been at it for hours, and I'm tiring."
"The Second says naught but the sun should stop us in battle," he growled, and she backed away, lip curled in a snarl.
"The Second is nae here and I said hold," the female flung the battered shield to the dirt, eyes blazing. "It's naught but games, and I'm weary."
"You can rest when you're dead," came a grizzled laugh from behind her, and she leapt on the mocking young male ferociously, her injured arm, and pride, forgotten.
They rolled on the hard ground as the other combatants cheered, their makeshift weapons raised in shouts and laughter as the gargoyles sparred until the Leader landed between them, his wings unfurled and his sword unsheathed.
"Have done!" the Leader commanded, his voice booming, and the two startled brawlers sprang apart, eyes wide. "Ya act like hatchlings; shall I be sendin' ye down to the rookery, then, like unruly children?"
"He began ... " the female began, and then flinched back at the look in the Leader's eyes.
"I don't give a blast who started it, I'm tellin' ye t'end it! You're brothers and sisters! You should be guarding each others' backs, and not sniping like Prince Malcolm's hunting hounds."
The two young gargoyles hung their heads in shame, the male folding his wings around his shoulders.
"Is this how you behave, when your Second commands you?"
"Nae, nae," the girl began hastily.
"Then accord yourselves as you would an she were here, and give me no cause to tell her of it." The Leader glowered one moment more, and then his eye was caught by a new group trooping across the field.
The human cook, the steward's wife, lead a party of two serving lads and three young hatchlings, their hair and faces caked with what appeared to be meal and barley flour. The Leader tried to keep calm, but from the woman's flushed cheeks and bright eyes and the unforgiving set to her mouth he could only imagine what her complaint was this time.
"You mind your young!" she stalked right up to the Leader, brandishing a large wooden spoon that smelled faintly of mutton fat. "I'll nae have them poking their ugly noses into my pantry and scarin' me puir sons half unto death!"
The boys looked anything but frightened; one of them poked the other and they chuckled, eyeing their mother with greasy smiles.
"Aye, madam, I'll be taking these ones to task."
"And well you should! I'm to be making meat pies and now all the suets been ground into the floor and where am I to be getting more, eh? Eh?" she gestured with the spoon, and the Leader resisted the powerful urge to snatch it from her fingers and rend it to splinters right before her eyes. She stalked off, her slow-witted offspring in her wake, and he turned his eye on the cowering hatchlings, arms crossed.
The nominal leader of the three, his thin arms hanging loosely and his shoulders hunched as if he expected a blow, verbal if not in force, stepped forward. "It's my fault ... "
"I was hungry!" the largest of them broke in, heedless of his brother's attempt to take the blame. "They said -- they said there was plenty to spare, and they offered ... "
"We didn't mean it," the smallest one piped in, large dark eyes pleading.
Their ringleader straightened slightly, scowling. "And what cause would they have to lie to us? What harm have we e'er done ... "
"Whether they had just cause or nae, you should ha' known better than to poke yer nose in where it's not needed, lad," the Leader said, more kindly than the three of them expected for their eyes went round at his tone. "Boys will be boys, and those two obviously thought to make sport o' ye, that's fer certain. You'd do best tae stay out o' the humans' way fer a few nights and hope their memories are short, or else we'll all be gettin' barley gruel for weeks, and then yer own brothers and sisters will be blamin' ya fer it."
They flinched, as much from the prospect of meatless gruel as the imagined scorn that would accompany it, and slunk back towards the bailey, the Leader shaking his head as they went. It was an uneasy peace they sometimes had with the humans, and their fault or nae, there was still spite between them. But those three would learn their lesson. He hoped.
"What else, then?" he asked the moon above, who remained blessedly silent. Then a hand fell on his shoulder, and he cursed this endless night. "Aye?" He looked up to see a female from his own generation, her charcoal grey wings cloaked around her making her one more shadow in the darkness.
"'Tis that great slobberin' beast we call a watchdog," she sighed. "They've called Prince Malcolm. Please, ya ought tae be there."
"If it's not one thing, then blind me if it's not another," the Leader grumbled as he followed the messenger back towards the castle.
* * * * *
Edward of Devonshire, heir to his father's land and title as soon as the old warhorse finally died, sworn steward to the king, and widower at the age of twenty-four, was not having a good night. It had been weeks since he'd had a good night, or a good hour, or a good moment. He hadn't slept in days; each time he closed his eyes, he saw Margaret. When the sounds of the men and the road were too still, he heard her coughs, her moans in the final delirium.
He blinked himself awake again. "No sleep," he mumbled.
"Not until those murderers are found," Margaret replied.
He'd caught them at the last village, after a few days' ride and inquiries of the local lords. The last had mentioned an outbreak of disease in one of his holdings, and sure enough, the cause was the same cluster of vermin who'd come to his lands three weeks past.
He'd put an end to two of their miserable lives, and for hours, Margaret's words were kind, reminding him of summer days spent in each others' company. The other lepers had fled through the forest, and after a half-hearted search, none of the men had found trace of them. He'd sent word home for more men, loyal men who wouldn't balk at getting close enough to the lepers to apply their swords. The first task he'd assigned them had been the prompt execution of their predecessors. Edward had no patience for cowards. Margaret wouldn't allow it.
From ahead, he heard the distant sounds of men on horseback.
"Ask them," said Margaret.
"Hold here," he commanded. His men slowed their own horses, awaiting the newcomers.
The party rounded the corner, three men. When they saw Edward and his men, they pulled up their mounts. He noticed two of them reaching for their swords. He smiled benignly.
"Hallo, friends. From where dost thou come at this time of night?"
The strangers shifted in their saddles uneasily.
"Reassure them," said Margaret.
"We are no danger, I assure you. We're looking for a band of lepers who may have passed this way. Did you encounter them on the road?"
The one who appeared to be the leader spoke. "Nae, there's bin no sign o' the puir beggars."
Poor beggars ... He almost reached for his sword.
"Not this fight, my love," said Margaret.
"Indeed. How far have you traveled this night?" He kept his tone cool, collected.
"From Castle Wyvern. If ya follow the road, ye'll come to it in an hour."
Without another word, he spurred his horse, and rode past them. His entourage was close behind.
What to do? The other travelers hadn't seen them. Had they vanished like so many will o' the wisps into the air? No, they were slippery devils, but mortal. He had the crusted blood on his horse's hooves to prove it.
"They'll hide in the brush," said Margaret.
"We'll go slowly," he said, "and search the surrounding brush."
There would be no sleep for him anytime soon.
* * * * *
"And I saw himself there, I did!" a small, wiry man who smelled strongly of wet wool was jabbering on, pointing an accusing finger at Argus, who looked pleadingly at the Leader as he entered -- looking remarkably like the scrappy little hatchlings he'd just sent off with no supper. One of the adolescents was with him, away from the training field, holding onto the great beast's neck gently.
Prince Malcolm smiled tightly at the Leader, his brow furrowed.
"What's this, then?"
"This man works on one of my tenant's holdings as a shepherd, and claims your beast has stolen several of his sheep," the prince began, and the irate human jumped in, apparently not cowed in the least by the presence of royalty.
"It were himself, like some great dark cloud bounding down from the cliffs to steal me sheep, I tell ya!"
"Him?" The Leader looked to the young gargoyle with Argus. The youth cleared his throat and stepped forward, holding his head high and looking straight at him as he replied.
"Weren't him, I'd give my oath on it. There have been wolves sighted -- the Second commanded me to keep an eye out lest they come too close to the Prince's lands. The pup was on the ground, in my sight a' but for a moment or two."
"I's seen the puir animals, ripped to shreds by the likes of a great animal, and then I saw him ... "
"Contrary to what stories you may have heard in your cradle," Prince Malcolm said, his voice deceptively soft as he gazed into the furious shepherd's eyes, "Gargoyles have little liking for raw meat. Is it not possible that it truly was wolves diminishing your flock?"
"I ... but I saw ... " the shepherd began, and then stopped, looking back and forth between the prince his liege lord and the three gargoyles standing opposite him in the hall. "I ain't seen no wolves."
"Morag, the weaver's girl was her what told the steward himself she'd seen wolves. Are you calling that poor lass a liar then?" the young gargoyle asked sweetly, and the lad's cheeks were rouged with color. Morag was a good prospect, the Leader chuckled, and like to be this lad's own age or just a bit younger.
"Now, you can forgo our keeping an eye out for 'fictitious' wolves, an you believe we'd steal from ye," the Leader's eyes gleamed, "And we can wait and see if that clears up the problem rightly, or ... " the Leader trailed off.
"You're welcome to protect your herds yourself," the youngster added. Argus whined, then lolled his tongue out in a friendly manner which nonetheless bared a few sharp teeth, and the shepherd stepped back, flustered.
"But I saw ..." he began, and then closed his gaping mouth like a landed fish, his eyes darting back and forth between the human prince -- who had remained quietly amused by the entire exchange this far -- and the gargoyle beast, who looked like nothing so much as a big puppy.
"Nae, nae," the shepherd shook his head, dark hair falling in his eyes. "Mayhap it were my mistake, then, and if it's wolves after all ... "
"Then I will do all in my power to see that -- if it is wolves -- your grazing lands are kept safe," the prince cajoled, and the lad nodded quickly and allowed himself to be lead out of the hall by the prince's men, Argus and the other gargoyle trailing behind, the youth's tail parting the rushes in their wake.
"You seem ... troubled?" the prince hazarded a guess as the heavy wooden doors of the hall fell shut and the hall returned to silence. The Leader gave a long sigh.
"My Second and I had ... words."
"Heated words, my lord."
"It is often the same with us, though our females must get by with a sharp tongue rather than teeth and claws."
"They're not needing them, with what words we shared," the Leader mused, and the prince gave him a sympathetic smile. "My prince, what you said about eating our meat uncooked ... is not entirely true ... " the Leader began, and the young prince chuckled.
"Aye, I know. But there's no reason to let him know, eh?"
* * * * *
Deborah soared down, skimming the treetops, barely noticing the exertions of the younger gargoyles as they maneuvered to keep up with her aerial acrobatics. 'Too much concentration on ground battle technique' he says. 'Not enough in-flight training. Use their wings' he says. I'll show them how to use their wings. That stubborn, egotistical, son of a named gargoyle! I'll ...
"Um ... Second?"
Lost in her own thoughts, she almost didn't hear the youngster. Back from her futile argument with her imaginary mate, she took her bearings, taking in the lay of the forest, the lighting on the horizon.
"It's getting close to dawn," the young male said neutrally. It wasn't a direct challenge of her command, merely a statement of the time of night. Her mate would have told her it was bloody well almost daybreak, and she'd better get her fool self to ground unless she wanted to get caught flying in sunlight.
"I'm aware o' that, thank ye."
"Shouldn't we head back to the castle?"
She checked the horizon again, and came to a quick decision. "Not today, laddies. We're sleepin' in the woods."
The young males exchanged worried glances. No one spent a day away from the castle on purpose. The protection it afforded, both in location and in the humans who guarded it by daylight, was more than worth being the guardians of the place by night. She heard the greenish-grey mutter something, and chose not to hear what it was he said.
"There comes a time in ev'ry gargoyle's life when e's got tae be on 'is own, and nae depend on the kindness of humans."
This time, she could not help but hear Thersites.
"You mean the end of his life."
She turned to him. "That may well be, laddie. That may well be." With that, she descended.
Even as her feet touched the ground, she felt the tiredness of morning creep through her. They hadn't landed a moment too soon. They formed a circle, facing outward. As she roared into the morning light, she had time to think How many years has it been since I didn't turn to stone beside him?
* * * * *
The sun cast thin, accusatory fingers through the trees. The underbrush, which had provided sufficient cover during the night against watchful eyes, proved sparse by daylight. They didn't dare move further without night's long black veil to disguise their own veils and rags.
Callum signaled for the others to wait, then inspected their surroundings for shelter. There wasn't much. Since the near- encounter hours before, they'd left the main road, keeping to a pathway that had followed it just out of sight. It was no doubt a brigand's road, used to dog the steps of unwary travellers. No highwayman would approach them, certainly. None had.
He ventured away from the road, mentally marking his path as he went. He took care; if they were to go this way, he wanted to leave no sign of their passage through the woods. A footprint would be all their pursuers needed to hunt them down like deer.
A clearing, perhaps thirty paces wide, opened before him. He gasped. Gargoyles! He ducked back into the brush, mouthing a prayer in fear, heart hammering. He'd heard tales of what these beasts could do. Demon-spawn, the priests called them, and worse. They weren't following him. He risked another look. The creatures had turned to stone. They must have been caught by the day. He thanked his luck, then crossed himself, warding off any evils that might follow a glimpse of the beasts.
"Don't tell me yer afraid."
"I told you tae stay with the others."
"Maryse and Anne are there, and no' a one of 'em is going anyplace. We're stoppin' here."
"Aye, but not here. Not with those monsters so nearby."
Sheilagh glanced over at them. "Those? They're nobbut a few gargoyles. And they're stone."
"And may they stay that way."
"We cannae go any further today. It's too dangerous. If we sleep by the statues, they'll scare off anyone who comes lookin'. And Callum," her words went lower, to where even he, accustomed to her raspy tones, could barely hear, "would it be so bad to sleep among them, even if they did waken? Compared to what Devonshire'll do when he finds us ... " She didn't finish. He couldn't see her face, could rely only on her voice to know she'd reached the last shred of desperation she could muster. Why should they fear death from gargoyles, when they'd spent their lives dying and fleeing from death?
"All right. But we'll only sleep a few hours. I want to have them far behind us when sunset comes."
* * * * *
"Over here, m'lord." The man had dismounted and was inspecting part of the foliage. Edward edged his horse to where his man stood.
"What have you?"
"A trail. There are broken branches in the underbrush, not more than a day old, and footprints."
"Are you certain it belongs to them?"
"It's them," said Margaret.
"Aye, sir." He reached a gloved hand into the brush, and pulled out a strip of grey rag, keeping it at arm's length. "I'm sure of it."
"Follow the trail, and clear a path."
The rest of the men pulled their swords and began hacking a crude path for the horses. Edward pulled back, waiting. He thumbed the flower he'd brought impatiently; he itched to get this over. Margaret had claimed breathing the flower's scent while in contact with lepers kept her from catching their disease. It had always been her way: talk to the servants, go among the commoners, take food to the lepers. He'd often thought her daft, had all but ordered her to cease, but she'd been so eager to go one more time. When she'd come back from the shrine, she'd been feverish, and a fortnight later, she was dead from the plague.
"Remember how sick I was?" asked Margaret. "I didn't know who you were. And I screamed with pain. You remember."
The lepers were going to pay for taking his bride.
"It's clear enough," he said, and urged his eager mount into the brush. The long, painstaking journey through this wood, searching for the least sign, had sapped his energy, made him tired and edgy. The renewed prospect of finding his quarry reinvigorated him. He followed the tracker, reluctantly, wanting to be the one who found the beasts first.
They rode on a little longer, until a clearing opened before them. A ring of gargoyle statues glared into nothing, while the lepers slumbered on in oblivion among them, huddled in a group. As his men surrounded them, they began to stir.
Edward held the flower to his nose and lips. The sickly- sweet smell went to his mind, filling it momentarily with thoughts of Margaret, sweating her life away, horrible black buboes marring her lovely face.
"Please, Edward," said Margaret.
* * * * *
He awoke with a roar, then turned to greet his mate as he had every evening for almost six decades.
She wasn't there.
Her perch had been left empty by the others, respecting her place by his side even in her absence. He noted more open spaces among the usual ranks, marking young warriors she'd taken with her on patrol and not brought back.
The day healed more than wounds. The lingering ire he still held for her had vanished, replaced by worry and loneliness, and the sick, silent fear that she might never awaken beside him again. My love, where are ye roamin'?
Had she been there, she could have salved the hurts among the clan. Yes, she was hard when she taught the youngsters, but it was because they needed to learn to survive, and she tempered her lessons with her own brand of kindness. Below him, he could see Othello, still rubbing his wrist from where he'd sprained it the night before. It could take two or three more nights until he was ready to fight again, for something Deborah would have settled with a word. He could try that, he knew, and fail miserably. He could guide, and he could lead. He needed her to keep the clan together to lead.
Agamemnon glided up from his own perch. "Good evening, brother." He looked around conspicuously. "Perhaps ... "
"Don't." Before his brother could say a word, he glided down to the battlements. "You, you, you, you and you. We're goin' tae find th' others." The gargoyles he'd selected looked at him in surprise, but none dared complain or point out they could have done this the previous evening.
"Sister," he said, turning to a shadowy grey female. "Yuir in charge until we return."
She nodded gravely. "Aye, my Leader."
He looked at Agamemnon as his brother touched down beside him in concern. "Brother, I'd like ye along as well." He would need the other's strength, especially if the worst ...
No. That was the one possibility he would not even consider. He could not lose her, not now.
"Aye, my Leader," echoed Agamemnon quietly.
* * * * *
Deborah awoke in the midst of a frightful scene. Humans surrounded them, weapons drawn, set to kill. She went instantly from waking roar into attack stance, hoping her warriors had enough presence of mind to follow suit.
Startled, the humans hesitated. With the precious seconds this afforded, she took quick stock of the situation. Shapeless forms, covered in colorless rags, slumped in the circle they'd made by their stone slumber. As they stirred, she determined they were humans, sickly even to her eyes. By the looks of things, they'd fallen asleep there. The armed humans, numbering almost twoscore, were directing their focus on the others, and were not really interested in her and her kind. Among the weaker humans she counted three adult females, one adult male, and a gaggle of bairns.
One human was in the center of the group, his horse's hooves prancing dangerously near a child.
"What are you afraid of!" he shouted, raising his sword above the child's head. "They die like any others!" He brought the blade down, before she could stop him.
One of the humans in rags, the male, pulled the child away at the last instant. The blow missed. The human with the sword muttered something, then paused a moment as if listening. Then, almost idly, he drew back and stabbed the ragged man.
She felt her eyes glow crimson with rage as the soldiers, heartened by their leader's show of force, moved in again.
She turned to Ajax. "Drive them back!"
The soldiers looked askance at one another for the briefest moment, then spurred on their horses. As a human went by, she reached out and dragged him from his mount to the ground. With satisfaction, she saw the young ones doing the same.
A soldier drew his sword on Diomedes. The young gargoyle caught the blade, winced in pain, then brought his tail around and knocked the man over. Good show, she thought proudly, then turned back to the man still in her grip.
"Why're ye attackin' these people?!"
He stammered, "Th-they're lepers. They deserve to die!"
"Death needs a better reason than that, laddie," she told him grimly, and tossed him aside. The instigator of this foul game was in her sights. "Yer mine," she muttered, scampering towards him on all fours.
A scream came from the other humans. Not all the soldiers had been stopped. While her warriors fought some, a few had reached their targets. The leader of the soldiers gathered his reins and fled back into the woods. She considered following him, then cursed.
Another human, made of muscle and armor, held a hammer above a fallen child. The bairn's rags had shifted from it's (his? her? who could tell among human young?) face. What should have been a face. As she closed the distance between herself and the child, she saw the ruined visage, a tiny hand missing three fingers raised weakly to shield the coming blow, and eyes so aged and sad that her heart broke as the hammer descended.
She stopped it with both hands, twisted it from the surprised man's grip, considered cracking his skull like a nut with it, then tossed the horrible thing aside.
"Give me a reason, any reason, not to kill you." The man fell to his knees, shaking in fear.
He made a satisfying crash-thud as he flew through the bushes, and she almost regretted that there was not an accompanying snap.
She spied Ajax, momentarily free of soldiers. "Did ya see where that highborn blackheart went?" He nodded. "You and you," she pointed to Diomedes, who'd just pummeled a soldier into unconsciousness, "get 'im. Bring 'im back here. Mostly alive." The two youngsters were off like twin arrows, and she returned to the business at hand.
Down two warriors, the tide shifted. There were still a good dozen soldiers in the clearing, and the enclosed space made it impossible to get aloft and have the advantage of the air.
She shouted to two of her warriors, "The bairns! Get them between us!" They formed a loose triangle with the humans they defended in the center. The other two gargoyles fought back to back, a shade too far away to help.
The soldiers saw their advantage. A few of the fallen soldiers got to their feet as the others advanced; Deborah noted grimly that four of the weaker humans were already down, and that at least one of them looked like he might not ever get up again.
She stared defiantly at the nearest soldier.
"Come on, then."
A roar filled her ears and her heart at once.
Her mate swooped down from the sky, his eyes white-hot in battle rage. Five other warriors were with him. He struck a soldier full brunt, knocking the human ten feet. One blow, and that human was down for the fight.
The other soldiers, taken off-guard by the surprise attack from above, reacted too slowly to the renewed vigor of the gargoyles. They didn't have a prayer.
"About time ye showed yer face," she shouted to her love as she threw a limp soldier his way.
"Couldna let ya have all the fun," he muttered, tossing the man aside casually. "Yuir gonna explain what's goin' on later."
"Soon's I know, I'll tell ye."
The bodies of the wounded soldiers outnumbered the standing, and finally, their leader gone and wishing they were as well, the remaining soldiers surrendered. The clan took their weapons; she sent Thersites to fetch a means of transporting the rest back to Wyvern. As he passed her, she offered him a nod of approval. He had done well this night, as had they all. She'd have to make certain to tell them later how proud she was of them.
While several of her trainees kept close watch on the prisoners, Deborah and Hudson went among the wounded, starting with the humans they had been protecting. The children were more dazed than hurt. One boy favored his arm; Deborah suspected a break. They'd have to see Brother Edmund about tending to their wounds before they even thought about travelling further.
They'd gotten away lucky this time. Almost.
As she watched, her mate gently turned the human's neck, but his eyes already looked onto another sky. A little boy, not any bigger than their own hatchlings, held his hand. "Is he going to be all right?"
Her mate hesitated a moment, then looked at her helplessly. The old sop never had been good at times like this. She bent down to the boy's height, searching her memory for the words Brother Edmund had used. "Do ye believe in Heaven, child?"
"That's where God and the angels are." Angels. Brother Edmund had also spoken of them, great winged messengers from the Beyond, servants of God.
One of the women came to the child, knelt down carefully, and said in a harsh whisper, "Callum's with the angels now. And he's very happy." She turned to Deborah, and from behind her veil, said simply, "Thank you."
Another woman began sobbing quietly, and muttered, "He was our leader. What're we gonna do without him?"
The first woman raised her head. "We're goin' on."
She wanted to do something, say something, make it all better. Before she could think of a single thing, Ajax and Diomedes landed, Agamemnon on their heels.
"Second!" cried Ajax. "We caught him! Then our rookery father made us set him free."
She turned on her brother and said in a dangerous voice: "You WHAT??!" He shrank back from her rage.
He held out his hands in a warding-off gesture. "The human was a noble. Keepin' 'im coulda caused a rift with the humans."
"That noble human tried to kill these humans and us." She spun to the woman. "Why? Why did he order them to attack you?"
"We're lepers. What more reason does he need?"
"A bloody damned good one!" she snapped.
The woman got to her feet unsteadily, and held to the little boy's hand with her own twisted one. "There isn't a good reason," she said, and led her charge back to the other children.
* * * * *
"What d'ye mean they can't come in?!" Her eyes blazed at the Prince. The sickly humans waited at the gate, infinitely patient, infinitely sad. Deborah was hot and tired and sore. I'm gettin' too old for this, she thought.
Malcolm raised his hands. "I'm sorry, my friends, but they canna set foot into Wyvern. I forbid it."
Brother Edmund said gently, "It's the wasting disease. You and your kind are immune, but we can't take that risk with the human inhabitants of the castle."
"But they've got wounded bairns!"
Her mate added, "Their leader says they've bin travellin' fer days. They need food an shelter."
"Not here." The determination was stamped clearly on the Prince's face.
"They're yer own kind ... " She thought of Roland bitterly.
"No," said Malcolm. "They're lepers."
"I can treat their wounds outside the castle," said the cleric. "Perhaps we can set up a tent. And a bit of food would do them well."
"See to it," said the Prince, and left them.
Brother Edmund lingered a moment longer. "Please, don't think badly of us. We have to think of the greater good."
The greater good. The poor souls outside had nothing at all, knew nothing but scorn. Even these humans, whom she'd learned, grudgingly, to respect, turned them from their doorstep in fear. Children in rags they were, unwanted and alone. One of them had died today to save a child; she wondered if it had been kindness or curse.
The human, seeing she was not about to respond, wished them well and went to do his work. Only when he was gone did she allow herself to weep. She felt the comforting arms of her love surround her.
"This is stupid!" she said to him. "They're th' ones who lost a friend, so why'm I cryin' like a hatchling?"
"Because ye care," he said.
"They treat 'em like they're no better'n dogs. Like they don't matter. And you want tae ally with 'em? If they treat their own kind like animals, what're they goin' tae make of us? What becomes of us after yuir friend the Prince dies?"
"We'll go on. We always do."
The utter resolution in his voice filled her with warmth. The last of her anger at him faded away, and she let him hold her.
"Love," he said, after a long time, "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 yer strength, and yer good heart, and yer 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."
She looked at him. "Yuir strong. No matter what, you'll survive. That strength, that spirit, even that bullheadedness of yers, they make ye the Leader. Really," she added coyly, "that's what won me over back when we were courtin'." She smiled in memory. "Forgive me if I get old and silly, and forget that now and then."
"If ya promise me one thing." He pulled her around, bent his head, rubbed his brow ridges against hers, his eyes shut tightly. "Promise me you'll stay wi' me forever. Never another day apart."
"No' even another hour. I'll stay by yer side always. I swear."
* * * * *
"You were right to leave," said Margaret.
"The monsters could have killed you," said Margaret.
He slowed his steed to a trot. The horse wheezed in the early morning air, its sides heaving. Edward took one last look in the direction from which he'd come, the direction the oldest of the monsters had gone, with his two young pursuers behind. The old one, seeing his nobility, had apologized for the rash actions of the others and forced them to free him. Edward, not one to miss an opportunity, had fled.
"I didn't kill them. I tried."
"I know," said Margaret. "But the monsters thwarted you."
"They wanted me to die, Edward. They wanted me to suffer. The lepers are only their servants. The gargoyles are the true devils," said Margaret.
"They should pay. They should all pay," said Margaret.
"Yes." But not today. He would need more men, more loyal soldiers. Gargoyles were everywhere, even infesting his own beloved country. He would need many more men to kill them all. Then Margaret would be happy, and speak to him only of pleasant things, would stop reminding him of her death.
"Of course, my love," said Margaret. "And I'll be with you always. I swear."
Edward applied his spurs, and his horse sped into the night towards England and home.
* * * * *
* * * * *