Archmage, to Ian: "The slightest misstep
could cause the Prince to think
you beyond saving. A minor theft, for example, or a lie... concerning
your motives for tonight's disaster. A lie that no one would believe
anyway. Even so mere an infraction could see you dangling at the
end of a noose."
~A letter from Kenneth. No doubt it must have
if he risked capture by King Culen to send it to me.~ "Do
you have any idea what my brother wanted to tell me?"
Prince Malcolm asked, still focused on the messenger....
(--A GUARD'S STORY)
Oliver: "Well, it seems to me, lass, that
if you want the pestering
to stop, you should let them think that you've given your heart to
someone else. Then perhaps they will leave you in peace."
Desdemona: "Do you believe that this would work?"
Oliver: "Well, it's either that or continue to be chased night after night."
(--A GUARD'S STORY)
Othello: "Well, brothers, if you two wish
to pursue her, go
ahead but without me. I'm no fool. It's clear enough that she
doesn't care for our attentions."
Iago: "But, brother.... soon we'll run our fair prey to the ground
and she will have to submit to the will of the victor."
Othello: "Say what you like, that is no way to take a mate."
(--A GUARD'S STORY)
Archmage: "I wish to have an audience with
the Prince. Immediately."
(--GAMES WIZARDS PLAY)
The bandits were already fleeing into the
woods, followed by
the masked man, who paused for a moment at the fringe of the trees,
staring at the gargoyles with venom. "This isn't over!" he shouted,
then broke and ran.
"The death of King Duff four years ago ushered in a period of civil strife for Scotland. While Culen son of Indulf sat upon his usurped throne at Edinburgh, the forces of Prince Kenneth held war against him, seeking to overthrow him and crown their own leader in his stead. During this time, a second threat to this kingdom emerged: the English. The thanes of Northumbria raided the southern borders of Scotland, and each year their inroads plunged deeper and deeper into the land. Unless the civil war ended soon, there would be no hope of turning them back, and much of the realm would be lost to England, perhaps forever.
"But then, one evening, good tidings reached Castle Wyvern...."
The sun had begun its descent on the horizon. The gargoyles that stood on the castle parapets began to change their form. The cold stone shells cracked open, revealing the flesh and bone beings underneath. The servants were already making preparations for the evening's work. The animals were being put to rest and the cooks were preparing the evening meal. Finally, the guards changed from the day watch to the night watch. Transition at the castle from afternoon life to evening life was complete.
Prince Malcolm and his court of several advisors, including the Archmage, converged in the castle dining hall for the evening meal. They took their places at the table as the kitchen servants brought out several dishes of delicious food. No matter what time of the day it was, every meal became a feast in the castle. The dishes for the evening included various cheeses from all over the fief, fresh breads, ale, and roasted meats. As the Prince began to bite into a chunk of bread, a man with a royal crest printed on his sleeve entered the dining hall. He knelt before the Prince and presented himself to the rest of the court.
"I have a message from King Kenneth of Scotland."
Prince Malcolm raised his head in mingled surprise and delight. "'King' Kenneth?" he asked. "The last I heard, my half-brother was a fugitive Prince. What is his message?"
The messenger rose and unfurled a scroll he carried under his arm. After clearing his throat, he read the contents of the scroll aloud.
Kenneth MacAlpin to his brother Malcolm: Greeting.
The battle is won. My war with my long-time rival, Culen, is over and I am victorious. No longer am I a fugitive from justice but the rightful king of Scotland. As my ally and brother, I wish you to be present at my coronation in the coming month. Godspeed and safe journey. This by my hand, King Kenneth MacAlpin I, Edinburgh.
Prince Malcolm gave a smile. "Good tidings indeed! Kenneth was always a just and noble Prince; he will no doubt make a fine king. I shall leave for his lands tomorrow to pay him proper homage," he added, addressing the royal messenger. "In the meantime, please spend the night at the castle as my guest. I wouldn't like to see one of my brother's subjects be hurt by the many bandits that plague our lands."
The messenger knelt in response to the Prince and departed for the guest quarters. Once he left the dining hall, Prince Malcolm continued his evening repast before preparing for the travel ahead.
As Prince Malcolm's primary advisor, the Archmage had been among the first to choose which of the many rooms of Castle Wyvern was to be his own. While the other nobles and higher functionaries of the castle were quick to snap up the spacious, well-heated rooms nestled within the castle proper, many were surprised when the Archmage chose, instead, a small, drafty room midway up the center tower of the castle. For those who knew the sorcerer (and the Archmage worked diligently to make sure that precious few did), the answers were obvious. The Archmage had long scorned personal comfort in favor of Spartan practicality--frail though he might appear, the Archmage knew himself to be of hardy enough stock to weather the cold, damp winters of Wyvern. For him, the room boasted a number of grand advantages. First and foremost, it was remote, ensuring that few would disturb him on those frequent occasions when he wished to remain alone. Few ever journeyed this far up the castle, save for gargoyles and the occasional guard, and even they tended to avoid the sorcerer whenever possible. The room was only a few flights of stairs away from the highest point in the castle, a useful location for those occasional experiments which called upon the use of lightning.
But the aspect of the room that the Archmage was putting to use at the moment was the excellent view it afforded of the courtyard and front gate far below. No one could enter or leave the castle by that gate without the Archmage's knowledge, so long as he was in his room. Now, the Archmage leaned out of his window, gnarled fingers curled around the stone of the window sill, gazing down at the men scrambling to prepare Prince Malcolm's caravan for the morrow's journey. The Archmage's lip twisted into a smirk, and the sorcerer whirled from the window.
"This," the Archmage spoke to himself, "is, at last, the opportunity I have so long awaited! As useful as the Prince once was to me, the time has come to be rid of him. Even were Prince Malcolm the puppet ruler I had hoped to make him, even a puppet ruler's strings can only be pulled so far. But he has proven too strong-minded for even that role. It is time for me to take control. With all the resources of Castle Wyvern at my disposal, it will be a much simpler task to gather the materials I need to spread my influence even further."
The Archmage strode across his room to a heavily bolted chest in one corner. He ignored the chest, instead crouching beside a nondescript wooden bench to the side. The Archmage chanted briefly in Latin, and the bench shimmered and vanished, to be replaced by another bolted chest. The sorcerer produced an iron key, and turned it in the lock, both key and lock glowing briefly as the key was turned. The lock opened, and the Archmage lifted the lid to reveal a number of nondescript leather bags. The Archmage lifted a few out of the chest, and the contents of each bag jingled pleasantly. "All things have a price," the Archmage chuckled as he closed the lid on the chest. "How fortunate that mere gold is all that is necessary to kill a Prince."
The sorcerer lifted a heavy robe off of a nearby hook and pulled it on. The winter was not yet at its harshest, but it was still quite cool. Hardy though he might have been, the Archmage was not a fool, to test his mettle against the elements without good cause. "With Prince Malcolm eliminated, the castle will be divided and leaderless, ripe for the plucking. As the people mourn, I will assume power--a temporary measure, of course," he smirked, "only until the new King of Scotland chooses someone to replace our poor, departed Prince Malcolm. But before such an event arises, my control over Wyvern will be complete, and our soon-to-be King Kenneth will hardly bother to exile some poor cretin to this remote fief when it appears to be thriving in the capable hands of its former ruler's Primary Advisor."
The Archmage snatched up the parchment that a page had delivered to him only days before, and quickly scanned its contents once again. It contained information that would be vital to him this night. Its arrival was quite fortuitous. Perhaps a little too fortuitous. The Archmage returned the letter to his desk once more, and frowned slightly. "'From friends you didn't know you had.' Friends indeed." A hard glint entered the Archmage's eye. "One day, I shall discover who is fool enough to believe that they can use me. But, for now, it would seem that our paths run in the same direction, and I would be a fool to ignore the knowledge they have given me."
Taking his staff in hand, the Archmage opened the door. "Now, to gather the pieces I need for this little game," he chuckled.
A thin wiry brigand who had been saddled with the nickname Twig cautiously led an enigmatic stranger between the bare-branched trees that dotted the late-autumn landscape. He was justifiably nervous. Though the brigand leader encouraged his men to bring potential employers to meet him, he also warned them to use very careful judgment before doing so. If the Master decided that the bearded stranger was not to be trusted...well, it would go very poorly for Twig. It was generally agreed among the thieves that their leader was quite fair, in his own way. After a successful raid, each thief was given an equal part of the loot. Not even the leader himself took more than was his due. But by the same token, when a thief stepped out of line, or in some other way failed to meet the expectations Roland set for them all, his punishment was swift and brutal, no matter what position the luckless individual held within the ranks of the thieves. For that reason, among others, the thieves rarely failed their leader. Twig fervently hoped that he would not be the next example made.
Eventually, a sole tent appeared in the woods ahead of them. The moment Twig had decided to try his luck with the stranger, he had used a subtle hand signal to inform another thief of his decision. That thief then departed along a different path to find Roland and inform him of the upcoming meeting. While Twig led his companion on a twisty, roundabout path to the meeting site, the other thieves would get there first to set up the meeting tent, and to hide themselves in the bushes and trees. Most of the people who hired the band of thieves were never aware of any of this, but Twig had the eerie feeling that his own guest had not been fooled for even a moment.
Stopping just outside the tent door, Twig turned to the man following him. "Ye would be best tae keep a civil tongue in yuir head for th' meeting ahead o' ye, stranger. Th' Master is not renowned for his even temperament."
"I am not without my diplomatic skills," the man replied, treating Twig to a condescending smile.
Hardly reassured, Twig nevertheless pulled open the tent flap and gestured for the stranger to enter. Without the slightest hesitation, and with far more confidence than Twig was comfortable with, the bearded man complied. Swallowing, Twig followed him in.
Roland was waiting inside, sitting in the throne of leather and wood he always used on occasions such as this. He was clad, as always, in a thick cloak and cape. His hands were encased in leather gloves, and what little could be seen of his face within the shadowy hood of the cloak was hidden by an unadorned mask.
"Milord?" Twig began, "This is --"
"I know who he is, Twig," his leader replied, amusement clear in his rough voice. "Frankly, I had no idea you had the guts to bring the Archmage to see me."
The blood drained from Twig's face like water from a sieve. Few outside of Castle Wyvern had ever seen the Archmage, and it had not even crossed the thin brigand's mind that this man might be he. "Th' ARCHMAGE? Master...I-I had nae idea-"
"Calm down, Twig," Roland replied. "As I said, I know who he is, and you may live through this yet. So, what can I do for Prince Malcolm's pet sorcerer, hmm?"
If the Archmage was at all surprised by the brigand leader's easy identification of him, he gave no sign that Twig could detect in either his demeanor or his reply. "I assume that you've heard the news. Prince Malcolm's half-brother is soon to be crowned King of Scotland."
"My men hear everything," the lord of the thieves replied. "What of it?"
"Prince Malcolm has received an invitation to attend the coronation of King Kenneth, and he intends to leave at noon tomorrow," the Archmage continued. "But the roads leading from Wyvern are quite dangerous--the bandits of the area have become quite bold lately," he added with a humorless smile.
"This, too, I have heard," the brigand leader answered wryly.
"I wish for you to arrange matters so that the roads are just dangerous enough to ensure that when Prince Malcolm leaves Wyvern, it will be the last that its people shall ever see of him." Twig finally relaxed slightly. If there was anything he knew about Roland, it was that he had a big grudge against Wyvern. Surely this was an opportunity he would jump at.
The brigand leader began a low chuckle. "I had the feeling it would come to this eventually. You never fooled me for a moment, Archmage, with your humble servitude towards our dear Prince. But what you ask for is quite a task. You are asking me to send my men against the Prince himself. He will undoubtedly be accompanied by the best soldiers of Wyvern. What do you offer us in exchange for this task?"
The Archmage smiled crookedly, and this time, there was some genuine, if contemptuous, humor in his voice, "I may not be fooling you, brigand, but neither are you fooling me. I know you, as well." For the first time during the meeting, the leader of the thieves stiffened. Twig was suddenly uneasy once more. Roland valued his secrecy, and worked diligently to ensure that no one outside of the band of thieves knew anything about him. If the Archmage did know something, the Master might decide to kill him, and Twig, too, for good measure. "Do not fear. I have no reason or desire to expose your secrets. But because I know who you are, I also know that you would relish the opportunity to strike against your enemies at Wyvern. By eliminating Prince Malcolm, you would go a long way towards meeting that goal."
"Revenge alone will not feed my men," the leader replied, though the temptation was clear in his voice.
"And revenge will not be your sole reward," the Archmage answered. "Prince Malcolm's caravan will be well-supplied, and will include his coronation gift to his brother--a tempting target even were I to offer nothing more. But if that alone is not enough to satisfy you..." The Archmage withdrew two hefty leather purses from within his cloak and dropped them before the brigand leader. Twig's eyes became as round as saucers at the sight. If those bags were filled with gold, as seemed likely, just one would be enough to feed and clothe the entire band for a month. Maybe two. "...I will give you this in advance, and three more once the task is completed successfully."
Twig's leader leaned forward and picked up a bag. Opening it, he reached in and withdrew a coin at random. He studied it for a moment, and then pinched it between two powerful fingers. The soft metal bent easily under the pressure. He straightened the coin once more and dropped it back into the bag. "You present a tempting offer, sorcerer," he said finally. "Very well. We will do as you ask."
"Excellent," the Archmage answered, eyes gleaming.
"Now, Archmage, tell me what I need to know about the opposition we face. Armaments, numbers, and the like. Twig, bring me my maps! We have some planning to do."
As the Archmage and his Master began to discuss the upcoming ambush, Twig breathed a sigh of relief. It seemed that he was going to live after all.
The courtyard was bursting with activity as the final preparations were made for Prince Malcolm's departure for his brother's lands. There were several wagons filled with provisions and gifts, such as jewels and the best handiwork Wyvern had to offer, for the new High King of Scotland. Joining the party were a few of the castle guards assigned to protect both the Prince and the gifts from falling into the hands of the bandits.
Prince Malcolm mounted his horse, ready to begin the journey ahead. He looked back and made several hand signals, asking if everything was ready for their departure. Seconds later, a man stepped from behind the tail end of the wagon train and signaled to the Prince that everything was ready. The Prince was soon flanked on every side by the castle guards, who created a human wall to protect him from any attacks.
The Captain of the Guard approached the Prince and bowed before him. "Safe journey, your highness."
Prince Malcolm responded, "Captain, I wish for you to rule the castle in my absence. Make sure that everything is as it was when I return."
"Yes, your highness." The Captain was about to bow and take his leave when the brown-haired man spoke once more.
"And, Captain, do not harass the gargoyles while I am away."
The Captain was speechless. Would the Prince truly take the side of those beasts against his loyal captain of the guard? Still, he decided not to aggravate the situation by protesting. With a slight, inaudible growl, the Captain nodded his head and bowed before taking his leave.
Prince Malcolm made a few clicking noises and tapped lightly at his horse, causing him to trot forward. The guards followed suit, and the wagon drivers did the same. The party was on its way to Edinburgh.
As each wagon moved, a slight creaking sound could be heard from one of the middle wagons. That sound increased in volume as one of the axles was buckling under the weight of all the goods it had to carry. Seconds later, the axle cracked, causing the wagon to stop and making the driver fall to the ground. There was an immediate call to halt before the first guard had even reached the castle gates. The Prince looked back to see the broken wagon and several men helping the fallen driver back to his feet. "How long will it take to repair the wagon?" he called out.
One of the men helping the fallen driver up addressed the Prince. "The wagon is beyond repair, your highness. We must find a new wagon and transfer the supplies there."
"And how long will that take?"
"I am uncertain, your highness. It could take several hours at least."
The Prince held back all the curses that were flowing through his mind. He settled for loud sighs instead. "Everyone, dismount from your horses and wagons and aid in the transfer. I don't want to lose any more time." As the party, joined by the castle servants, attended to the task at hand, the Prince attended to a few matters inside the castle, hoping to keep himself occupied while he waited for the job to be done.
The Archmage was in uncommonly high spirits as he walked towards the courtyard of Castle Wyvern. He had spent the majority of the previous night working out the details of his takeover of the castle, and had rewarded himself by sleeping late the next day--a luxury he rarely allowed himself. The Prince was, by now, well on his way, and would soon be meeting the warm welcome his soon-to-be-former Primary Advisor had arranged for him. Certainly the Prince was well defended, but the brigands outnumbered his party ten to one, and were well organized under the brigand leader's skillful guidance. Soon, very soon, the Prince would be dead, and the Archmage would rule in his stead. It was, all in all, turning out to be a very good day indeed.
The sorcerer's high spirits faded the moment after he passed through the front gates. The Prince's entourage had not moved from the position it had occupied the previous night. One of the carts in the courtyard seemed to be a center of activity, with many men rushing to and from it. Of the Prince, there was no sign.
Angrily, the Archmage stalked up to a peasant worker, carrying a wrapped bundle from the cart. "What is the meaning of this!?" he demanded. "Why has the Prince not left on schedule?"
The peasant was plainly terrified. Obviously, the Archmage's reputation had preceded him. "I-if it pleases your worship, th-th' cart carrying th' gifts tae th' Prince's brother broke a wheel. His lordship has ordered that we load the gifts on tae another cart-"
"No, it doesn't 'please my worship', you addlepated twit! How long!?"
The peasant shrank away beneath the Archmage's steely gaze. "Milord?"
"Idiot! How long until the new cart is loaded?!"
"S-several hours, milord! Th' Prince leaves at dusk-"
Without waiting to hear another word, the Archmage whirled and stalked off, leaving the trembling man behind him undoubtedly wondering whether the Archmage's fury was directed at him, and what horrible form of magical vengeance he would wreak upon him. But the Archmage was hardly thinking about him--the peasant was less than nothing to him. His thoughts were on the legions of thieves that surely wouldn't wait half a day for a caravan scheduled to arrive in only an hour or so. "Unacceptable," the Archmage muttered darkly as he marched toward the castle proper. "Utterly unacceptable. I must get word of this incident to the thief and his men. But I dare not leave the castle again so soon, lest I draw suspicion upon myself. How, then...." the Archmage's bearded mouth twisted slowly into a cruel smile. "Of course. I should have thought of it sooner. Now, if I can only find him in time... IAN!" the Archmage yelled. "Where are you, boy?!"
The sight of the Archmage calling for his apprentice was not an unusual one, though many in the castle who witnessed it entertained sympathetic thoughts for the boy. When the Archmage was searching for Ian, it was seldom good news for the lad. But Ian had learned long ago that hiding from the Archmage's wrath only worsened the punishment when he finally did catch him.
Ian, panting heavily with exertion, stumbled out of a doorway nearby. "Y-yes, master?"
"Loathsome whelp!" the Archmage snarled at him. "Each day my regret for allowing you to become my apprentice once more deepens. I should have let you hang for thieving the bard's lyre."
Ian was silent, eyes downcast. If the Archmage could have seen those eyes, he would have found the fear he hoped to see there. But there was also anger in those eyes, a kernel of fiery anger that held the promise of the terrible vengeance that would be Ian's if he could but gain the upper hand.
"I have an urgent mission for you, boy. I am going to write a message. You are to take that message to the village tavern, and give it to the barkeep. Tell him that the message is for a man named Twig, and he will do the rest. Do not give the message to anyone else, and do not read it yourself. If you do, I WILL know of it, and it will go very poorly for you. Do you understand?"
"Good. Now, come along, we haven't a moment to spare."
Prince Malcolm sat on a bench with his face buried in his hands after finding absolutely nothing else to do. The search for a fresh wagon had taken longer than expected and the transfer of goods from one vehicle to another had only begun a few minutes earlier. This setback definitely delayed their journey to the home of King Kenneth. It would be close to nightfall before they could leave, instead of noon as they had planned. He'd wanted to avoid night travel due to the rising attacks of bandits in the woods. Though he was frustrated at how the recent events worked against him, the Prince knew that he could do nothing about it. All he could do was wait until everything was ready once again.
Brother Edmund was on his hands and knees tending the soil in the garden. Though the castle had many servants that were hired to perform chores such as this, the man of the cloth insisted that he undertake the task. It gave him something to do other than pray, give instruction in the art of swordplay, treat minor ailments, and observe the gargoyles. As he leveled a patch of soil that had been dug up by the gargoyle beast Argus, he heard a chattering coming from his pocket. Almost immediately, Baldrich's head popped out of the pocket, turning excitedly to gain his bearings.
"So, my friend, you are finally awake," Brother Edmund said as he turned his attention to his animal friend. The light brown squirrel jumped out of the pocket and ran around in circles in front of his human companion. "You want to go exploring?" Brother Edmund asked.
Baldrich stood on his hind legs and chattered excitedly, almost nodding his head in the process.
The brown-robed brother chuckled softly as he looked at Baldrich in amusement. "Safe journey, my friend," he said. "And be careful. If you accidentally got into one of the traveling wagons, you might never make it back home."
The delighted squirrel seemed to take the holy man's advice as he darted toward a nearby tree, climbing in a spiral path up the tree top. Brother Edmund smiled as the squirrel departed. No matter how bad of a day the man had, just seeing his animal friend would make him smile and forget all his worries. He was about to continue his garden work when he caught a glimpse of Prince Malcolm. Seeing that the Prince looked troubled, Brother Edmund dropped his tools and went over to counsel the Prince.
Prince Malcolm looked on as the loading process was still being done. The waiting had started to become unbearable and the Prince was beginning to slowly lose his patience.
"What troubles you, your highness?"
The growing anger the Prince once held had quickly died out once he saw who was speaking to him. "Ah, Brother Edmund," he said. "I did not notice you were there. Please, sit."
The brother sat near the Prince and joined him in observing the preparations for the journey ahead. Only a few seconds had passed but Edmund already felt the tension in the air. He quickly tried to quench it before it manifested into something worse. "You seem worried, my Prince."
"I am." Prince Malcolm replied. "This delay woll mean that our journey would begin at night instead of the daytime. We may come under the attack of the bandits that have roamed this area."
A short moment of silence passed through before Brother Edmund spoke. "No, there is something other than that. What really occupies your mind?"
Prince Malcolm gave the man a confused look. "I have no idea what you are talking about. Only the bandits worry me at present." He turned away to avoid any more discussion of the issue.
Brother Edmund sensed that he had hit a nerve somewhere and he wanted to pursue it. "Your highness, you can hide the truth from me. You can hide the truth from yourself. But you can never hide the truth from Him."
The Prince sighed. He knew that the brother was right and there was no use hiding his thoughts any more. "There is something bothering me at present, but I would need a council to help solve the problem. Please fetch the Captain and the Archmage and tell them that I wish to see them as well as yourself."
Edmund rose from his seat and bowed to the Prince. "At once, your highness."
On the other side of the large courtyard, a small group of guards gathered around as two other guards were dueling. The sounds of wood hitting wood filled the air as the sticks were being guided by their young masters. Each thrust and swing Robbie delivered was deflected by the opponent and countered with more thrusts and strikes of his own. Late in the duel, Robbie was able to dodge a thrust his opponent had delivered and knocked the wooden sword from his hand to the packed dirt of the courtyard. Flushed and grinning, Robbie lowered his practice sword and turned to look proudly at his instructor.
"What do ye think yuir doing?!" the Captain shouted as he approached. Before the winner of the bout could respond, the Captain continued with his rant. "Ye've won and the fight's over, is that what ye think?"
Robbie's smile had dropped from his face, and he stared at the Captain in dismay. "I -- he'd dropped his sword," he stammered.
"Aye, and when ye turn yuir back on him, what's to keep him picking the flaming thing up again? When yuir opponent's disarmed, ye cut him down or ye take his weapon _before_ ye turn yuir back, ye pillock!"
The young man had gone crimson, and he jerked his head downward in a quick embarrassed nod. "Yes, sir."
"And you," the Captain growled, turning upon Robbie's opponent, "who taught ye to cross-block backwards that way? A fool move like that in a _real_ battle would get ye spitted like a joint for roasting! I'm nae training ye lads to be coffin bait!"
In mid-rant, the Captain spied from the corner of his eye Brother Edmund approaching. "Brother, ye think ye can teach these great oafs how to swing a sword properly?"
"Another time, perhaps," Brother Edmund responded. "Right now, Prince Malcolm wishes to hold a small council to discuss important matters."
"Aye, we'd best get the Archmage then," he said in a disgusted tone. The Captain of the Guard addressed the group of guards under his tutelage. "Dismissed! We shall begin training again tomorrow morning."
The motley group of young guards saluted the Captain in response before attending their assigned duties. The leader of the human protectors of the castle then followed Brother Edmund into the castle to get the final member of the Prince's council.
"Ye really should go back to teaching the lads swordsmanship," the Captain said as he and Brother Edmund ascended the long flight of steps that led to the Archmage's quarters. "After what happened recently, it would do ye some good to get a feel for the sword once more."
"After what happened recently, it would be best if I stayed away from the blade for the time being."
The Captain immediately fell silent. If anything, he did not want to bring back bad memories for Brother Edmund, especially since he seemed to have put that incident behind him. the two continued up the stairs without saying another word.
"Ah, I am glad that you are all here," Prince Malcolm said to his council, which consisted of Brother Edmund, the Archmage, and the Captain of the Guard. All three stood around the Prince as he began the meeting. "As you all know, the threat of both the Vikings and the invading English has increased over the years. Scotland's kings, in the past, have done well thus far to drive the invaders away for short periods of time and there is no doubt that King Kenneth will be able to do the same when it is time to fight."
"And how does this concern us, your highness?" the Captain asked.
"As is the custom, we give tribute and pledge our loyalty to the new king by giving him troops when the need arises. Because the English are becoming more aggressive in their campaigns, the required pledges to the king have constantly increased. Normally, I would not be troubled by such actions, but Wyvern will not be capable of both maintaining itself and contributing to Scotland's defense if the trend of increasing tribute and pledges continues. However, I cannot openly defy the king's wishes, especially since he is my brother."
The Archmage was the first to speak. "Your highness, it is obvious what you must do. You must put the needs of Scotland first. Even if it means becoming a poorer fief in the name of the defense of the realm, you must pledge all of the guards and money you have to help the King fight the English. It is a better fate than if we were to be ruled by the English dogs."
"I must disagree, your highness," the Captain said. "What good would we be if we became a poor and defenseless fief? I say we give to King Kenneth what we can and no more than that."
"Captain, what good would we be if we are overwhelmed by the English? We would be one of the wealthiest fiefs under the control of barbarians," the Archmage said sarcastically.
"Bah! The English could never defeat King Kenneth's army! There's no need for us to beggar ourselves."
"Say what you will, ignorant peasant. But I wouldn't be surprised if those dogs place you in irons if they take over all of Scotland."
"Peasant, is it?" The Captain's anger was boiling over and he was ready to strike. The Archmage seemed prepared for the attack, getting in position to make a strike of his own.
"Enough!" Prince Malcolm shouted. "I asked you here to counsel me, not to fight amongst yourselves." He then turned to Edmund, who had not spoken a word since the meeting began. "Brother Edmund, what have you to say on this matter?"
The monk stroked his chin several times before producing an answer. "Your highness, King Kenneth is your brother and family must aid each other in times of trouble. However, his obligation to you is no lesser than your obligation to him; he should not demand more than you can give. In my opinion, you should give all the help you can to the King, but only if he truly needs it. If your brother is as kind as you say he is, he will understand."
Prince Malcolm rubbed at his chin. "Thank you, Brother Edmund. I believe I have made my decision."
"Your highness," a voice from the wagon train called out. "Everything is ready. We can leave immediately if you like."
The Prince looked at the sky above. All this time, he had not noticed what time of day it was. Now he saw that it was only a few minutes till sunset. He wanted to leave immediately but leaving now would mean that he would run the risk of meeting bandits on the road.
"We shall leave soon," he called out to the traveling party. "I must take care of one other matter before we go." With that, he dismissed his council and proceeded to the castle parapets.
Ian had looked at the tavern with a bit of fear. The place was known as a meeting spot for the fief's most cutthroat bandits and notorious murderers. Certainly, this was no place for a castle servant to be seen in. Yet he had a job to do which had to be completed unless he wanted to wind up hanging by a noose or changed into a toad by the Archmage. Taking a deep breath, he summed up all of his courage and entered the tavern, expecting the worst and hoping to come out of there in one piece.
Upon entering, Ian saw that the tavern was nothing like he had ever imagined. The scores of criminals and barmaids he expected to see were nowhere in sight. Instead, there were only handfuls of people sitting quietly at the tables while a lone bartender stood cleaning the bar with an old rag. Ian was mystified for a second at what he saw before he gained his bearings and proceeded with the task at hand.
"Barkeep," Ian called out to the man behind the counter. There was no response.
"Barkeep," Ian called out once more. Again, no response.
"BARKEEP!" Ian shouted, pounding his fist on the countertop. The bartender stopped what he was doing and looked lazily into Ian's face.
"Yuir a bit too young ta be in here, lad," the bartender said nonchalantly. "Why don't ye come back when yuir a wee bit older." He smiled a smile that seemed to insult Ian. The patrons of the tavern burst into laughter as the bartender turned his attention away from the boy and back to cleaning the counter.
Though there were very few people in the tavern, the laughter they produced seemed like it was coming from thousands of people in Ian's ears. Right now, he needed something to show them that he had a right to be there. Almost instinctively, he reached into his pocket and found a small blowgun with a dart already loaded in it. He immediately placed his lips around the weapon and blew hard, causing the projectile to embed itself into the bartender's neck. The man screamed in pain as the dart hit him. He held on to the counter to prevent himself from falling while the patrons stared at the situation happening before them, wondering what to make of it. A few of the customers drew their daggers and swords, ready to strike down the child that had injured the bartender. Ian quickly noticed this and addressed his would-be attackers, forcing his voice into the deepest register he could produce and imitating his master's tones.
"You dare to attack the apprentice of the Archmage?"
The attackers immediately backed away. The boy could have been bluffing, but if he was telling the truth about being an apprentice to a wizard like the Archmage, they would certainly pay the price for killing him.
Seeing that the small group backed away, Ian looked at the bartender, who was now wincing in pain and holding on to his neck as if it was the source of life itself. "That dart I shot you with is filled with poison. If you do what I ask you to do, I'll cast a healing spell and let you live. Do you understand?"
The bartender gathered enough strength to nod slightly.
"Good man. I have a message from the Archmage that needs to be given to someone that goes by the name of Twig." He placed the aforementioned message on the counter for the man to see. "Make sure that this message gets to no one else but Twig. Understand?"
The bartender nodded.
"Excellent." With that, Ian began to leave the tavern. As he left, he had one eye vigilantly watching the patrons, just in case they might change their minds and decide to attack him after all.
"Wait!" the bartender, still in pain, called out.
Ian turned and saw that the bartender was pointing to the dart still embedded in his neck. He stretched one hand towards the man with his fingers spread dramatically, mumbled something under his breath, and said "Now pull the dart out and you won't die. And in the future, be wary of rousing the wrath of a sorcerer...or his apprentice!"
With that, he left the tavern, wishing for a moment that he had a cloak to swirl about him as he turned. And wishing he knew a little real magic, instead of having to rely on fast talking and a dart that had never been poisoned to begin with.
Agamemnon paced back and forth for a minute, looking at the members of the clan arrayed before him. He nodded his head in satisfaction when he saw that all the younger ones were here. Now he could begin the assignments. But first...
"Before I begin assignments for picket duty," the barrel-chested gargoyle began, "I have some other news to relate. You may have heard from the gossip that's been spreading around the castle that Prince Malcolm's brother has gained leadership over the humans of Scotland. As part of his duties, the Prince needs to travel to the south to pay homage to his brother.
"The Prince had originally wanted to leave earlier today," Agamemnon continued, "but he was unfortunately delayed. It's imperative that he leave as quickly as possible, so Prince Malcolm has decided to leave this night, instead."
"And how does this relate to us, Brother?" Deborah asked.
"I was just about to get to that," Agamemnon said pointedly. "The recent plague of bandit attacks in this area has made the Prince a bit leery of venturing out at night. So he asked the Leader if he could spare a few of us to help see him safely to the Great Road. Now, this promises ta be dangerous; that masked raider and his gang of cutthroats are the biggest worry around, and they've been sighted in the area. Ye'll have to be watchful as well; this is verra important to our relations with the humans here. Things could get verra ugly if the Prince were to fall ta harm on our watch, and..."
Thersites' face suddenly brightened. "I'll go," he interrupted, quickly raising his hand.
It took a moment for Thersites' action to register in the older gargoyle's mind, but as soon as it did, the shock was enough to cause him to stop talking all together. His eyes widened as he, and most of the rest of the clan that was there, looked to make sure that it was actually Thersites who had volunteered. Sure enough, he was standing there, his hand held high and a seemingly innocent smile on his face.
After several moments, Agamemnon found his voice. "Lad," he said somewhat hesitantly to the beaked gargoyle, "did I hear ye correctly?"
"Yes, Elder," Thersites said. "I'd be more than happy to go help defend the Prince and his people."
Agamemnon paused a moment. "May I ask why?" he said.
Thersites looked hurt. "Do you think that I care nothing for our friendship with the humans here?" he said. "You've told us before that our relationship with the Prince and his people is important. So I would be most willing to go, for the sake of our alliance.
"Besides," he continued, "there are many good reasons why I should go. One, I would be honored to perform any important service to the clan. Two --"
"All right, all right," Agamemnon cut him off before he could get started. Then, a slight uneasiness in his tone, he continued, "Are ye sure ye can handle this?"
"Oh, I can, don't worry," Thersites said confidently.
"Ye can go then," the barrel-chested elder said quickly.
Agamemnon nodded quickly, and then turned to choose two others from among the group of younger gargoyles in front of him. Still reeling somewhat from Thersites' act of volunteering, he pointed towards a white-haired, blue-gray male and said, "Ye'll go with your brother."
"Yes, Elder," Othello responded.
"And ye'll also go," Agamemnon said, pointing towards a blonde, orange-skinned female.
"As you command, Elder," Desdemona agreed.
"Good," Agamemnon replied. Then, having calmed down a little, he began to assign picket duty for the other gargoyles.
Several minutes later, Agamemnon was finished, and the group of younger gargoyles broke up as individuals went to their assigned stations. Othello, Desdemona, and Thersites headed over to the front gate of the castle battlements, and as they looked out, they could already see the Prince's caravan heading out towards the forest near the castle.
Thersites quickly jumped up onto the battlements in preparation for flight. "Well," he said to his companions, "let's get going!"
Othello looked at him strangely; he'd never seen his rookery brother this excited about his duties before. Then he shook his head and turned to Desdemona. He bowed slightly, and then swept his hand toward the scene of the plain before them. "After you, my Lady," he said.
Desdemona stifled a giggle. "Why thank you, kind sir," she responded with equal politeness, and then took to the battlements as well. A second later they were leaping off and gliding towards the Prince's caravan.
Desdemona kept close to Thersites for the first few minutes, as the they sped towards the Prince's convoy. As she looked over towards her rookery brother, though, she noticed a smile forming on his face, a smile that kept growing as they neared the caravan. This was very odd behavior for the beaked gargoyle; this mission they were on involved possible fighting, something she knew Thersites hated. And yet he seemed to be quite pleased with the situation. She tried to ignore him and focus on her mission, but when Thersites began to hum cheerfully to himself, she could stand it no longer.
"What are you so happy about?" Desdemona pointedly asked Thersites.
"Oh, just that I'm right where I want to be," he replied. "This might actually be fun."
"What do you mean?" Desdemona asked suspiciously. "I thought you hated being anywhere near the chance of danger."
"I do," Thersites affirmed. "But I also hate picket duty. That's why I wanted to come with you and our brother. I figure that by doing this, I can both avoid picket duty and get in the Elders' good graces." He grinned. "Besides," he went on, in a more cautious tone of voice, "that masked bandit leader has got me worried."
"Every enemy has you 'worried', Brother," Desdemona pointed out.
"Well, yeah," Thersites admitted. "But this guy's got me really worried. I mean, if I had hair, it'd be going gray by now. Given the fact that I know that he's got it in for me, and that I'd have to leave the castle tonight, I had to ask myself: Do I want to go out alone on picket duty, where I'd probably run into bandits and get skewered? Or do I want to go with this heavily armed caravan which can help out in a fight, should I run into any bandits? And so, here I am."
Desdemona rolled her eyes heavenward and shook her head slightly, then banked away from Thersites, who was smiling smugly as he continued on.
As she approached Othello, the blue-gray gargoyle turned and asked, "What was that all about?"
As Desdemona pulled up alongside him, she said, "It would seem our brother's motives for coming here weren't as noble as he claimed." She then proceeded to inform Othello of Thersites' revelation to her.
Othello snorted when she had finished. "It wouldn't be the first time he's done something like this," he said half-disgustedly. He sighed. "I only hope that if we actually find trouble, he won't run back to the castle as fast as he can."
"Of course," Desdemona noted, "he'd be claiming all the time that he was merely going to get reinforcements for us." She paused for a moment, and then suddenly began to do a rough imitation of her rookery brother's voice. "He's not a coward, you know."
"Of course," Othello replied. They both laughed for moment about their brother, and then put their minds back towards scanning the trees below them for trouble.
"What exactly do you know of that masked brigand, anyway?" Desdemona asked idly.
"Not much," Othello replied, "beyond what the others have said. He's supposed to be very tall for a human, and he wears a cape around him to hide his appearance. His band is said to be the most dangerous set of brigands to come here in a number of years, if the Elders are to be believed."
"By the way," Othello asked, "how is Brother Edmund? I was worried about him there after he'd killed that bandit."
"So was I," Desdemona agreed. "He's one of the few humans who seems to be truly friendly towards us. I'm glad to say he's been doing better lately; he's over the shock of that encounter, though he still doesn't want to talk about it much."
"Nor would I, had something affected me thus," Othello said. "Though I still don't understand why having struck a blow in battle should take him so."
"I don't either," Desdemona agreed. "Though I sometimes wonder what might affect one of us that way."
"Let us hope none of us ever find out," Othello replied.
They continued on in silence for another minute, and then Othello suddenly turned his head towards Desdemona. "Do you see anything?" he asked.
"No," she said, shaking herself out of her thoughts. "There seems to be nothing in that forest besides the trees."
The blue-gray male nodded. "Well, keep your eyes open," he said, sounding slightly bored. "There probably isn't anything down there, but the Elder said we can't afford to fail at this mission. So we need to be alert."
The orange female nodded her head in turn, and they continued on scanning the trees below them for signs of trouble. But it wasn't long before Othello's thoughts turned towards his companion.
Hair like spun gold; delicate wings of a shape unlike any other in the clan; smooth skin the color of sunset; and a figure and features that made her a beauty by any gargoyle's standards. Unlike Asrial or Demona, who'd been somewhat gangly youths, Desdemona had always been seen as pretty. Now, on the cusp of womanhood, that prettiness had blossomed into full-blown beauty.
Along with her intelligence and fighting ability, it made her a fine prize for the males of their rookery. And the fact that she had no partner made her the object of many a chase by those same males; including himself, he was sorry to say. He still didn't quite know ~why~ exactly he'd been with his brothers that one night, chasing after her like a pack of hounds after a stag. He'd finally decided it wasn't worth it, and now he felt rather ashamed of himself now that he was next to her. He wondered if she'd forgiven him yet for that...
The sound of Desdemona saying, "What?" broke Othello out of his reverie and made him realize that he'd been staring at her for a while. Now she turned her head towards him, a slightly curious look on her face.
"Nothing," he said quickly, shaking his head.
"What is it?" she pressed. "You've been staring at me long enough, you must have something on your mind concerning me."
"Well...I...," Othello began uncomfortably. He paused for a moment, and then rushed in. "Do you remember some nights ago, when several of us chased you through the castle?"
"You mean the night those two human nobles visited for a night or so?" she asked.
"Yes," she replied, "as a matter of fact, I do. I'm still picking pieces of straw out of my hair." Upon Othello's questioning look, she said, "One of my hiding places was the castle stables."
Othello winced slightly. "Oh," he said. Then he bowed his head and sighed. "I'm sorry about that, as well as for whatever else you had to endure then. And I just wanted to apologize to you for my actions on that night. They were childish and not proper behavior for a warrior-in-training."
"And that is what you wanted to say?" Desdemona asked.
Othello nodded. "That, and also that you need not fear me chasing you around the castle anymore," he said.
The female arched an eyeridge. "Is that to say that you no longer find me attractive, rookery brother?" she asked.
A slight look of fear appeared on Othello's face, and his cheeks darkened. "No," he said quickly, "I wasn't saying that! It's just-"
Suddenly, Desdemona began to giggle at her rookery brother's discomfort. Othello looked at her strangely for a moment, until she was able to get control of herself. "I understand what you were trying to say, Brother," she said, a smile still on her face. She looked into his eyes. "I accept your apology, and I thank you for having offered one. And don't feel too badly about your actions. I think I'd be more upset if ~none~ of you wanted my attentions."
Othello smiled then and nodded. Then he turned his head back forward, the conversation seemingly finished.
Desdemona tried to concentrate on watching below her, but her mind was being invaded but another set of thoughts. Seeing Othello next to her reminded her of the problems she'd been having recently with the other males of her rookery. Even now, she half expected one of the others to glide in next to her, explaining how he just couldn't bear the thought of her being out here practically by herself. But that in turn reminded her about what that human, Oliver, had said to her concerning her boy trouble. Simply find a male to be around, and make sure that she was seen with him by the other males.
She took a moment to look over her companion again. Actually, when she thought about it, he wasn't bad to look at. He wasn't stunningly handsome, and he was impulsive at times, but he had a good heart and he was a good fighter. Of course, there was no way that she'd ever seriously consider Othello as a potential mate. Still, he very likely could be the person she was looking for...
"Brother?" Desdemona said hesitantly.
Othello turned his head towards her. "Yes?" he asked.
"You really are serious about what you said?" she asked. "About ending the chase for me?"
Othello nodded, and then Desdemona seemed to hesitate for a moment before going on. "Then would you perhaps help me later tonight in gathering some St. John's Wort out in the glen nearby? Brother Edmund said he needs some for his medicines, but he can't go himself because of some other duties he must attend to."
"May I ask why?" Othello replied.
Desdemona simply shrugged. "I don't know," she said honestly. "You seem to be a nice enough sort, and having you around might convince the other males to leave me alone long enough to actually get some work done."
"A charade, then?" Othello asked. "A deception to play on our brothers?"
"Yes...something like that," she admitted.
"That's rather dishonest of you," Othello teased.
"Well...yes," Desdemona admitted, "but I'm tired of being interrupted in the middle of something each night because of some male trying to win my favor." She paused for a moment before looking into his eyes and saying, "And I'd also like to think we could become friends."
Othello smiled. "Then it would be my pleasure to accompany you," he said, sketching as much of a bow as he could while still gliding.
Desdemona smiled in return, and for a few moments they simply looked into each other's eyes.
"Hey!" another voice broke in. "Will you two love-birds stop making eyes at each other and pay attention. We've fallen behind the Prince's convoy!" An annoyed Thersites came up next to them and pointed to the ground below.
Othello looked down as well, and cursed as he saw that the caravan had indeed gotten far ahead of them. "See, what did I tell you?" Thersites said. "Now let's get going!"
"What should it matter to you?" Othello asked in frustration.
"Oh, nothing!" Thersites said mockingly. "It's just that I don't think you two would be very happy if I came back and told the others about how I had to save the Prince single-handedly from ten-thousand brigands!"
"I would think that you would want to tell a story like that to our rookery kin in any case," Desdemona pointed out.
"Oh, I wouldn't mind telling our brothers and sisters that," Thersites explained. "I just wouldn't want to have to actually fight that many all by myself."
Othello sighed wearily and shook his head slightly. "I doubt there are ten thousand bandits in the woods here," he said, "or even so many as ten."
Ian entered the castle grounds with a sense of accomplishment. For once in a long time, he felt the Archmage would be pleased that a task assigned to the boy was completed successfully. Ian needed this piece of good news after bumbling the last task the Archmage assigned him. As he came through the gates, the apprentice was confronted by the Captain of the Guard.
"And where have ye been? I haven't seen ye around the castle all day," the Captain asked.
Ian was in a predicament. In the past, lying to the Captain was an easy way to escape his questioning. However, the Captain was no longer gullible and almost expected the lad to lie through his teeth. It was time for Ian to try a new strategy: the truth.
"I went to the village tavern," he said.
"Oh, really?" the Captain said in a mocking manner. "Think yuir man enough to drink ale now, do ye?" Before Ian could respond to all this, the Captain called on one of the servants to bring him a cup of the strongest ale they had stocked. He then placed the cup into Ian's hands. "Well, drink up, lad," he said.
Ian looked at the contents of the cup nervously. Although he had never had any ale before, it looked harmless enough a drink to take. He took a sip of the brew, and exploded in a fit of coughing and choking that felt as though it would turn him inside out.
"Ha! Ye never set foot in that tavern, ye lying rat." The Captain dealt Ian a backhanded blow across the face that nearly knocked him down. "That'll teach ye to lie to me. Now go on back to yuir devil's spawn of a master." The bearded man turned away to speak to one of his men, ignoring the still-coughing boy behind him.
As the Captain walked away with the other guard, Ian ceased coughing and clutched his stomach. "One day, I'll get even with you," he muttered as he wiped his mouth and began the journey to the Archmage's lair.
Roland looked out over the open trail through the forest. From his vantage point in one of the trees, he could see the beginnings of Prince Malcolm's caravan coming over a small rise in the ground. The Prince was coming by later than the Archmage had told Roland, but that was no problem. It simply meant the bandit leader could be there to personally oversee this operation.
Roland quickly left his perch, his cloak billowing around him as he slid down the tree's trunk to the ground. Quickly, he made his way to where his men were waiting in ambush.
"Hey, is the Prince on his way?" one of the brigands asked.
"As a matter of fact, he is," Roland answered, nodding.
Most of the men seemed to be more relieved than excited by the news, one man even muttering "'S'bout time 'e showed up." Roland smiled slightly as he went to his own position and began to wait for the caravan to arrive.
"Hey Roland," one of the brigands nearest him asked, "think any of your old friends will be here?"
Roland looked down the road in the direction of the caravan. "Knowing this Malcolm, I'd most certainly count on it." He smiled as his men suddenly began to get slightly uneasy.
The parade of wagons and horsemen traveled through the dirt roads of the Wyvern forests as quickly as possible. Prince Malcolm wanted to get to the nearest town soon so that he could avoid the nighttime travel and continue his journey to King Kenneth's lands in the morning. He was not afraid of the bandits that roamed these forests at night, only cautious. He wanted to avoid a skirmish if possible and arrive at his brother's coronation unscathed.
Suddenly, the prince's head turned sharply as he heard a rustling of bushes nearby. It could be an animal foraging for food, he thought. However, he quickly dismissed that thought as he heard more rustling from the shrubbery that surrounded him. He knew right away that it was what he had feared.
"Bandits!" he yelled. "To arms, men! To arms!"
Confusion erupted in the caravan as the men scrambled to draw their weapons and search for their foes. The confusion was only worsened when a harsh cry of "Attack!" was followed by the eruption from the woods of a force of bandits twice as large as the Prince's caravan. As Prince Malcolm readied to face his first two attackers, he could see to one side the figure of the masked bandit leader, calmly smiling at the scene in front of him.
The three gargoyles were still arguing with each other when Desdemona noticed the commotion in the forest ahead of them.
"Wait a minute," Desdemona said, interrupting the other two gargoyles' conversation and pointing towards where the caravan was, "what is that?"
Othello and Thersites stopped to look for a moment, and then Othello cursed as he realized what was going on. "The Prince and his men are under attack!" he said. Then he looked towards the others. "We must go to their aid! Follow me!" he ordered, and then immediately dove towards the ensuing battle.
Desdemona was about to follow when she saw Thersites starting to hesitate in his descent.
"What are you doing, Brother?" she asked.
"Who, me?" Thersites said sheepishly. "Why, I'm...uh...going to stay behind and make sure more of the bandits don't come in from behind the Prince."
"Oh no!" Desdemona said irritably. "You wanted to come along, Brother! Now you're going to have to stay and help us!" And with that she went to grab his arm so as to pull him forcibly towards the battle.
"All right! All right!" Thersites yelped. "I'm coming, I'm coming!"
Desdemona paused a moment to make sure he was coming, and then dived after Othello, who was already well on his way to the battle.
"Why do I have to get punished like this?" he grumbled to himself as he began to follow his rookery brother and sister towards the battlefield. "They were the ones being distracted."
Othello and Desdemona continued to plunge toward the battlefield, bringing their wings close in to their bodies so as to pick up more speed. As the site of the battle approached, the figures quickly resolved themselves into individual figures: bandits and the Prince's men. The two gargoyles each picked a target, and then shifted their bodies until they were speeding towards two of the bandits.
A few moments before they reached the battle field, each gargoyle gave out a piercing war-cry. The sounds caused the bandits to momentarily look up, allowing Othello and Desdemona enough time to crash into their targets and use them as brakes for their landing. The bandits were each thrown forward several feet by the gargoyles' momentum, while the gargoyles landed and joined in the fray as they attacked another pair of bandits.
Purposefully staying well behind his brother and sister, Thersites was looking for a likely place to land and sit the battle out when he noticed one of the Prince's soldiers break away from the battle and ride off towards the castle. Unfortunately, two of the bandits had already gotten in front of the soldier, and now he was engaged in a fight with the brigands.
Thersites took a moment to think about his options as he watched the fight. If he stayed out of it, he'd be safe, but the human would probably be killed. Not that it would be any great loss, but that would mean that he would be on his own. On the other hand, if he helped the young human now, he might make it back to Castle Wyvern and bring reinforcements. Which would almost certainly mean that he could sit out the battle once they arrived, confident in the knowledge that the Prince's men could handle the bandits on their own.
Still, it took a few second before Thersites quickly went low the ground, heading towards the Prince's man. As he glided over the ground, he quickly picked up a few large stones and then lifted himself up a few feet. As he passed over the two bandits and the horsemen, Thersites quickly threw his rocks onto the bandits. Several of the rocks missed, but one rock managed a direct hit on one of the bandits, knocking him cold, while the other bandit was distracted enough by the shower of debris that he allowed the Prince's man enough time to get away and ride off towards the castle.
"Well, thankfully, that's over," Thersites said to himself. Feeling rather pleased with himself, he went off to look for someplace to land and wait out the rest of the battle.
Back in the battlefield, Othello and Desdemona were in the thick of the fighting. The blue-gray gargoyle took out one of the brigands with a punch to the face, while his orange companion was facing off against two other opponents. He watched for a moment as she whipped her tail around and knocked the legs out from under one of her opponents. Then, as the second brigand rushed her, she quickly side-stepped and then used her foot to trip him up.
Othello smiled at her display of fighting prowess, until suddenly he saw another brigand come up from behind Desdemona, wielding a long sword. Othello's sister was too busy finishing her own opponents off to even notice as the other bandit prepared to strike her head off.
"No!" Othello cried out, and he leapt out towards the sword-wielding human. He managed to reach him just in time to grab and hold the human's sword arm as he was bringing the weapon down for a killing blow.
The human took a moment to look at his new adversary, then yelped as he saw the look of fury in the gargoyle's eyes. "You are not touching her!" Othello growled. Then Othello pulled the brigand up and over, throwing several yards away. The human screamed as he flew through the air; a scream which abruptly stopped as he slammed into the ground.
When Othello was sure the human was not going to get up again, he turned and found Desdemona looking at him with an impressed expression.
"Thank you," Desdemona said, smiling slightly.
Othello had just enough time to nod before yet another of the brigands was after him, trying to hack at him with an axe.
Meanwhile, Thersites had managed to find a place off the side of the road that looked not too dangerous. "Perfect," he commented to himself as he looked at his surroundings.
The battle was being fought a dozen yards or so away from the sight, well in view of the tree Thersites had decided he'd used to hide himself from the fighting. He was far enough away from the battlefield that there was little chance of him actually having to get involved, but close enough so that if his brother or sister found him, he could come up with a plausible excuse for being where he was.
"Now all I have to do is wait out the storm," he said to himself.
"I can help with that," a harsh voice invited from behind Thersites.
The beaked gargoyle turned around and gave a small yelp as he saw the bandit leader, not more than ten feet away from him. The brigand's cloak covered every part of his feature, except for the mask he wore on the upper part of his face, and the smile that was on his lips.
"Just stay right there for about thirty seconds," he said in a low voice as he drew a dagger from beneath his cloak, "and I'll make it very easy for you to wait for as long as you need."
Thersites simply stared wide-eyed at the dagger blade as the bandit leader approached. Then, without warning, Thersites turned and bolted off through the woods.
Roland merely stood there for a moment, shaking his head slightly.
"Hasn't changed a bit," he said to himself, and then he started to give chase.
For several minutes, the two of them ran through the woods, Thersites running as fast as he could to get away from the bandit leader, and Roland running to catch him. After several minutes, though, Roland proved to be the better athlete and finally caught up with the beaked gargoyle. Soon the brigand leader had Thersites backed up against one of the trees near the battlefield.
"Now," Roland said, raising the dagger in front of himself, "where were we?"
For a moment, Thersites looked terrified. Then he looked behind Roland, and suddenly he smiled. "What's your name?" he suddenly asked. The bandit leader stopped for a moment, a slightly bewildered look on his face. "Roland," he said simply.
"Well, Roland," Thersites continued, "if I were you, I'd look behind you."
The bandit leader snorted disdainfully. "Do you expect me to fall for that?" he said.
"Suit yourself," Thersites said, quickly ducking.
Roland had just enough time to turn around before a soldier Othello had thrown in their direction crashed into him. Bandit and bandit leader went to the ground, Roland being temporarily pinned by his underling's unconscious body. Before Roland could get up, though, Thersites picked up a large rock and hit the masked man as hard as he could in the head. Roland dropped to the ground, and when Thersites was sure the bandit leader wasn't getting back up, he threw the rock away.
"Told you to look behind you," he said, and quickly left to find another tree to hide behind.
Othello, meanwhile, took a moment to look around the battlefield, when he noticed the Prince was in a serious predicament. The bandits had managed to separate him from the rest of his men, and now four of them were attacking him from all side, trying to pull him from his horse. The Prince was making a good show of himself, bravely defending himself with his sword and shield, but Othello knew that he wouldn't last long without help. Quickly he rushed across the battlefield towards the human nobleman.
As the gargoyle made his way, one of the bandits tried to get in the way. Othello simply elbowed the man in the stomach, sending him to the ground while the gargoyle merely continued on towards the Prince.
As he reached the Prince's position, Othello immediately grabbed one of the bandits behind the Prince and turned him around. Othello's eyes glowed white as he snarled, and the man gave a short cry of terror before Othello knocked him out with a blow to the face.
The blue-gray gargoyle quickly moved to the second bandit, laying him low with a punch to the abdomen. But as he turned to face the third bandit, who was even now in ever more desperate combat against the Prince, Othello felt the bite of something sharp in his right arm and a great force knocking him to the ground. As he hit the ground he could see the fourth bandit lifting up a large mace for a second blow, when suddenly they both heard a high-pitched battle cry. Desdemona slammed into the bandit from the side, knocking the mace from his hand as he hit the ground. As Desdemona got up, the bandit stirred for a moment, then slumped, unconscious.
Desdemona looked to make sure her opponent was down, and then went over to Othello and helped him to his feet. As she noticed Othello's wound, she looked to him with a worried expression on her face. "Brother, are you all right?"
Othello nodded, and then winced at a sudden jolt of pain found the wound. "I will be fine," he said. "How is the Prince?"
They both looked to find the Prince was handling himself quite well. Deprived of the support of his three fellows, the remaining bandit was no match for Malcolm, who soon had the bandit running for the woods.
As the Prince turned about on his horse to face the rest of the battle, the two gargoyles and several other soldiers rallied around him. Together, they entered into the battle, and soon the bandits began to be pushed back.
By now, Roland had finally regained consciousness. Groaning, he pushed his underling's still unmoving body off up him and stood upright. Looking around, he could see that his men were now clearly losing. It seemed as though the addition of the Wyvern gargoyles had been enough to turn the tide; now more of his bandits lay unconscious on the ground than men of the Prince, and the remains of his forces were being hard pressed by the Prince and his men. He was being paid well by the Archmage for this task, yes, but not well enough for this kind of a beating. "Retreat!" he yelled out over the battlefield, and as he did so, he melted into the forest background.
As the bandits began to break off from the fighting, the sound of more men on horseback approaching could be heard. A moment later, a contingent of the Prince's soldiers came into view, and as they rushed towards the battle, the bandits lost whatever order they had had and began to run in all directions into the woods.
A few seconds later, the human reinforcements arrived on the scene of the battle. They made short work of the remaining bandits who were still standing, but too slow to follow their brethren into the woods.
Soon the battle was over, and some of the men from the castle began the work of rounding up the bandits that had been captured, while the caravan began to get itself organized again.
Othello searched for a moment before he spied Desdemona's golden ponytail. When he made his way to her, he asked, "Are you all right?"
Desdemona nodded her head. "Yes, though I will be looking forward to the sunrise, for once." Othello smiled at her.
"How is the arm?" Desdemona asked in response.
"I will live," he said simply, and now Desdemona smiled, although there was more skepticism in hers.
Before they could say anything else, they heard a horse come up from behind them. Turning, they saw Prince Malcolm astride his horse, his armor and shield somewhat dented from the battle. He smiled as he looked down upon his two saviors.
"I wanted ta thank you gargoyles for your help," he said. "We were hard-pressed by those brigands until you arrived." Then he stopped and looked around curiously for a moment. "Weren't there three of you here?" he asked.
"Yes there were," Desdemona answered, looking around herself. "I'll go see if I can find our wayward brother." And with that, she headed off to find whatever hidey-hole Thersites had managed to find.
The Prince noticed Othello's arm wound and asked, "Is that going to be all right?"
"Yes," Othello said a shortly. He quickly realized his mistake and amended, "Sorry, your highness. That's the third time someone's asked me that."
"That's all right," the Prince said. "I owe you and your companion my life, not only for showing up when you did, but also for helping me with those four brigands in the middle of that skirmish. I doubt I could have handled them alone."
Othello waved the thanks away. "I am only sorry we could not have gotten here sooner," he said.
"Well, the brigands are gone, so it doesn't matter too much now," the Prince replied.
"Will you be needing our services again tonight?" Othello asked.
The Prince shook his head. "You've done enough already," he said. "I've enough men now to not have to worry brigands again, and I doubt that masked fiend or his men will be bothering us again tonight."
"Then I will take my leave of you," Othello said, bowing as he turned and left.
A moment later he ran into Desdemona, practically dragging Thersites along behind her.
"And where did you find the 'great hero'?" Othello asked.
"Hiding in some bushes, where else?" Desdemona answered.
"I was just looking to see if any of the bandits were still lurking around," Thersites said innocently. "Honest."
Othello rolled his eyes heavenward. "Let's go home," he said, turning to find a tree he could climb and then glide off of.
Some time later, the three gargoyles arrived back at the castle. As they glided down to a landing on the castle walkway, several of their rookery kin came up to greet them. They had seen the Prince's messenger ride in at breakneck speed and leave with reinforcements, and even now waited to hear what happened from the three young gargoyles.
"How went the battle, Brothers? Sister?" a grey male with a gold earring asked three new arrivals.
Before Othello or Desdemona could open their mouths, Thersites started in. "Oh, magnificently, Brother!" he said. "The Prince and his men were surrounded by a veritable army of thieves and cutthroats. We dove in, not thinking of ourselves, but only of the mission we had been charged with. We almost got to the Prince too late, so quick were they to appear. But after we arrived, the masked bandit's men began to fall before us, and soon we had them on the run. The reinforcements from the castle had nothing to do but clean up after us."
"You sound as though you managed to defeat them all by yourself, Brother," Iago said skeptically.
"Manage to!" Thersites said, an incredulous look on his face. "Well, I did have some help. But those ruffians never really stood a chance! Why, I personally took on their leader single-handedly! You should have seen it! There I was, faced with the masked bandit, one-on-one, by the side of the road. He was a mighty foe, Brother, but I managed to beat him senseless."
"Truly?" Iago asked.
"Why, yes," Thersites confirmed.
"Surely the fight could not have been that easy, Brother?" Iago said, a disbelieving look on his face.
"Oh, it wasn't, I assure you," Thersites confirmed. "I nearly got my head separated from by body a number of times! And I even got wounded defending the Prince himself! See!" He pointed to a small wound on his arm, barely a scratch. Iago smirked as he saw Othello's face briefly cloud with anger; he could see who had really helped save the Prince right there.
Thersites, ever watchful of his rookery brothers' expressions, started to realize they weren't accepting his story. "What is this?" he asked indignantly. "I put myself in personal danger to help save the Prince and his men from the worst bandit this area's seen in years; I risk injury and possible death; and I even get mauled, and none of you care a whit?!"
As the other gargoyles began to make it known through their expressions what they thought of Thersites' story, Brother Edmund arrived on the scene. "Perhaps the mighty warrior would care for medical attention?" Brother Edmund suggested.
"Oh, would you?" Thersites asked.
As Brother Edmund went to treat Thersites's 'wound', Desdemona and Othello took that moment to quietly separate from the rest of the crowd and walk away. Everyone was so absorbed by Thersites that they didn't notice the other two gargoyles quietly enter into one of the towers.
A few minutes later, Brother Edmund found the two gargoyles standing by each other in an unoccupied room. He could immediately tell something was wrong when he saw the way their heads were hung slightly and the way they huddled by each other.
He cleared his throat, and suddenly the two turned as they noticed him. "I thought, after your battle, you might be in need of ministration," he said. "I know you will be healed by tomorrow night, but I can give you some relief until that time."
"Thank you, Brother Edmund," Othello said.
The priest nodded his head and walked over to them. As he began to work on their injuries, his face gained something of a concerned look. "My children," he said, the same note of concern in his voice, "what is troubling you?"
"What do you mean?" Desdemona asked a little defensively.
Brother Edmund sighed as he examined a bruise on Othello's arm. "I would have thought that recent events would have revealed that I was a fighter myself, before I took the holy orders," he said. "In that time, I saw far too many people with expressions such as yours to not be able to tell that something was troubling them. You helped me when I was troubled; will you not allow me to return the favor?"
Othello hesitated for a moment, and then sighed in defeat. "We don't feel well about what happened tonight," he said heavily.
"I was able to figure that out myself," Edmund replied "What I want to know is, what exactly displeased you about it? You helped save the Prince's caravan, and very likely his life as well. And you yourselves suffered no serious damages. Most people would consider that an admirable feat."
Desdemona's face became downcast as well. "Maybe so," she answered, in a voice as heavy as her brother's. "But despite what our brother says," she motioned her head slightly in the general direction of the probably-still-bragging gargoyle, "it was a very close thing. He was right, however, about how the Prince could have very nearly been killed by that masked bandit and his men."
Othello nodded. "If we had only noticed them a minute later," he continued, "who knows what might have happened?"
Brother Edmund nodded and his brow furrowed in thought for a moment. "But I thought you and your brother were supposed to be watching the caravan from the air?" he pointed out.
Desdemona's cheeks darkened into an almost brown color, while Othello looked down and shuffled his foot. "Actually," the female said hesitantly, "we...weren't keeping as close an eye on the Prince and his people as we should have."
"What?" Edmund asked.
"We know it was careless," Othello said. "But we couldn't seem to keep our minds on the caravan, and we...well...we sort of fell behind."
"Far enough," Desdemona continued, "that we might not have been able to do anything about the fight." She twisted her hands together. "We should have been paying more attention!"
"What kept distracting you?" Edmund asked.
Desdemona shrugged. "We don't know," she said simply. "All we do know is that the Prince could have been killed for our laziness."
Edmund paused for a moment as he worked on bandaging one of Desdemona's wounds. "But he wasn't killed," he pointed out, looking up at them. "That is the important thing. You may both be training to be warriors, but you are also young; you will make mistakes from time to time. Try to do the best you can, and if a mistake is made, then try to correct for it during the battle, and learn from it afterwards. That is really all one can do."
As he finished tending to the two gargoyles, he got up and saw that the two of them were thinking over what he'd said. A moment later, Othello said, "Thank you. You've given us something to think about."
"You're quite welcome," the priest said, smiling. The he turned and left, leaving the two gargoyles alone to think about his words to them.
The Archmage was hunched over the Grimorum Arcanorum when the knock he had been half expecting finally came. He straightened abruptly, an annoyed look crossing his face, but he quickly replaced it with the carefully schooled look of utter unconcern he had mastered for occasions such as this.
Only a moment later, the Archmage opened his door to reveal a burly man with a distinct scowl on his bearded face. "Ah, if it isn't our proud Captain of the Guard," the Archmage said, allowing a touch of scorn to enter his voice. "And what can I do for you today?"
The Captain's scowl deepened slightly. "Prince Malcolm was ambushed today," he growled. "Surely, with all o' yuir vaunted magic, ye must have known."
The Archmage chuckled. "I hardly needed my magic to learn of that," he replied. "There is hardly a corner in the castle to which the news has not spread--as much as some in the castle claim to loathe the gargoyles, the gossip brought that they bring spreads as quickly as any other." The Captain fidgeted uncomfortably at the mention of the gargoyles, just as the Archmage had intended. The sorcerer knew that the Captain preferred to keep his dislike of the creatures to himself, and enjoyed bringing them up whenever possible when speaking with him. "But how does this concern me?"
"It's that boy o' yuirs."
"Ian?" the Archmage asked, a touch of surprise in his voice. Then he frowned darkly. "Have you seen the lad? I sent him on a simple errand yesterday, and the wretch never returned!"
"And what might the nature of this errand have been?"
"I asked the boy to retrieve a text on alchemical theory from the library, not that it is any concern of yours. Why?"
"The boy has confessed to bringing a message tae a barkeep suspected o' having close ties with the leader o' the brigands in the area. There's little doubt that that message contained everything the dirty thieves needed tae know tae attack the Prince."
The Archmage's eyebrow went up. "Do you mean to say that the boy has conspired in an attempt on the Prince's life?"
"It gets better." The Captain folded his heavy arms. "The lad claims that he didnae know what was in the letter -- and that ye were th' one that sent him with it in th' first place."
The Archmage's eyes widened. "I see," he whispered. "After all I've done for the boy, this is how he repays me. By trying to blame me for his crimes."
"Then ye deny his accusation?" the Captain pressed.
The Archmage's eyes focused on him sharply. "You don't mean to suggest that you actually believe the boy's lies?"
The Captain met the Archmage's gaze without flinching. "I would nae put it past ye. I've never trusted ye, sorcerer."
"Be that as it may, your accusations are utterly baseless. I have nothing to gain from the Prince's death. On the contrary, I owe my livelihood to him." The Archmage sighed sadly. "As for Ian, you and I both know that the boy has had a history of misdeeds. Countless petty thefts, and more recently, the attempted theft of the bard's lyre. I had hoped that by teaching him a trade, I could turn him from this path. But it would seem that I was too late."
The Captain's eyes narrowed. "What would ye suggest the boy stands tae gain, then?"
The Archmage shrugged. "I don't know. Were I to guess, I would suppose that the boy had been promised a portion of the bounty from the raid -- the Prince was carrying much of value."
"A very convenient explanation," The Captain muttered. "But, as ye say, I've nae proof. Ye'd be best tae say yuir goodbyes tae th' boy, however. He's tae be banished at sunrise."
"That won't be necessary," the Archmage replied wearily. "I've done all I can for the boy. His life is in his own hands, now. Do what you feel you must."
The Captain nodded once more, and turned to depart, leaving the Archmage with the barest beginnings of a smirk forming on his lips.
Brother Edmund stood by the garden as he watched Ian depart from Castle Wyvern for the last time. A sorrowful look on his face made it clear that he, at least, was not happy to see the boy go.
"I had t' do it."
Edmund turned to see the Captain of the Guard standing beside him, wearing a long face as he, too, watched Ian leave the castle grounds. "What do you mean?" the brother asked.
"I had to banish him from the Castle for what he did, but the Archmage didna get punished. My gut tells me that crafty sorcerer was behind tonight's attack against the caravan, but I canna prove it and I'll never be able to convince the Prince." The old soldier tugged irritably at his beard. "Ian didna do it. If he were to try an' kill someone in this castle, it might be me or it might be that devil of a sorcerer, but it wouldna be Prince Malcolm. If I thought he were guilty, I'd see the boy in the dungeons or on the gallows before the day were out." He bared his teeth. "Banishment's the best I could do for him. But the dog who tried to kill the Prince gets away with nae so much as a reprimand, and the boy knows it as well as I do."
"You had no choice, Captain," Brother Edmund said, trying to console his companion.
"Aye," the Captain growled. "I only wish that I didna have to do this to Ian. I never liked the little rat, but I didna take up the sword to punish some puling apprentice for his master's wrong." He pulled on his beard again, his big fist clenched. "At least now maybe he'll have the sense not to take up with another cursed wizard."
Brother Edmund could not find anything to say that would console the Captain's guilt over his decision. He merely stood alongside the Captain as they both continued watching a former subject of the fief leave in shame.
From his tower window, the Archmage's cold eye followed the sorcerer's former apprentice as he trudged hopelessly out the castle gates. "Poor, poor, Ian," he chuckled. "You were so eager to learn the knowledge I had to teach you. But this is the second time you've failed to learn the most basic rule one must follow when acquiring power: always keep someone handy to take the blame." The Archmage's lip curled. "Which reminds me. I'm going to need to find a new apprentice."