First Do No Harm
Proposals by Batya "The Toon" Levin
Outline by Damien "Foggy" Tobin
Story By Damien "Foggy" Tobin
Previously on Dark Ages:
Captain: "And just how much
does a priest see?"
Brother Edmund: "I haven't always been a priest, Captain."
(Links to the Past)
Brother Edmund: "My skills
as a physician and swordsman."
Prince Malcolm: "We had been told you preferred peace."
Brother Edmund: "For myself, your highness. All are free to choose their own ways of life."
(Links to the Past)
From the Chronicles of Brother Edmund:
It was when I first entered the service of God many years ago, that I made a vow never to resort to violence unless it was performed out of self-defense. Even then, I was to avoid killing. My many years as a knight had left me with much blood on my hands, and I hoped to wash myself clean by entering the Church, abandoning my former lifestyle. However, I learned that sometimes old habits die hard. And now I find myself remembering another man who would have washed his hands of blood..."
Five days ago the pain had become unbearable. Crippling agony had wracked the old womans body with increasingly frequent spasms every day. But under Brother Edmunds caring ministry, the constant discomfort had slowly passed, and the woman had recovered from her illness.
And so, even though the bone-numbing winds of Scotlands winter tore at the good Brothers cloak and that of his traveling companion - well human traveling companion anyway, Edmunds main concern was replenishing his depleted stock of comfrey root. As such the ride was taking much longer than it should have, the distance between Wyvern and Eriksdale not being altogether great.
To better pass the time, Edmund had taken to talking to his human guard. Ajax was flying overhead, and Edmund had doubts that the seemingly perfect gargoyle would have contributed much to a conversation if he had been on the ground. So it was Robbie or nothing. Surprisingly Robbie was good company and, once his tongue was loosened, an even better conversationalist. It was a bit silly for him to have thought otherwise, reflected Edmund. After all, before taking on the cowl he himself had been a soldier, a knight. Fides non Timides and all that.
"The day and age when a man of God, on an errand of mercy, cant travel through the forest without protection from a gargoyle and a soldier," he commented.
"These are dangerous times," came Robbies reply. "Between the Masked Bandit and other thieves weve heard about its just not safe for anyone to go out alone. Even an old hand at fighting such as yourself."
Edmund couldnt help but chuckle at that, returning to the saddle with another pouch of the valuable root tucked away. "I gave up the sword for the cloth a long time ago. I might be able to teach swordplay, but I doubt Ill be waylaying any bandits today. Still, there are enough of them about. How did that brigand you caught put it? 'Ye cannae swing a cat without hittin' a thief these days!'."
In the distance the castle was just now becoming viewable, the moon seeming to form, to Edmund at least, a heavenly halo behind it. "Just when I think Im getting used to the place, when I think I have everyone figured out, something always manages to make me more confused than ever."
"Oh?" replied Robbie, apparently more interested at Ajaxs flight. Edmund had noted the young guards insatiable curiosity toward the entire race. Well, there could hardly be any harm in becoming empathic with such a noble race; caring about the clan would certainly not be the lads downfall.
"Just a few weeks ago do you know what I saw? The Archmage, with that lad Ian in tow, before he dismissed the boy obviously, catching cats. Id say the boy had ten or so cages of them hanging out of him from every possible angle. Cats! What does the Archmage want with cats?"
Robbie laughed, a pleasant, gentle laugh. "I learned long ago to stop questioning the Archmages actions. Im sure Im not meant to know, and if I ever discovered I wouldnt be surprised to find myself going mad. No, let him collect his herbs, I say. And, I suppose, his cats. Just keep him and his potions away from me. I have no need for magic or medicine. No offense, Brother."
"None taken. But Ill have to convince you on the medicine. The Lord only helps those that help themselves."
Edmund urged his steed onward, finding himself uncomfortable for some reason. They were coming up to the cliff now, and a good thing too. The idea of guarding a gargoyle in this forest during the day was not a pleasant one. Not that riding through the forest at night seemed such a good idea either.
Yes, Edmund was uncomfortable - and with good reason. For at that moment he spotted something out of the corner of his eye, just at the fringe of the forest. Careful not to make any sudden movements, he halted his steed and gripped his staff firmly, casting a quick glance to see Robbie similarly armed with his sword. Edmund carefully dismounted, watching for any danger. He listened, but there was no sound. Any threat would be listening too.
From a pitch dark patch of forest he heard something, the soft scuff of a cloth sole. Another might not have heard even that. Faintly, he heard an almost indistinct noise, the sniffing of the air, an animal sound. But the sound of cold steel being drawn that followed it, that was unmistakably human.
They strode hesitantly out of the wood, blades drawn. Their leaders face was long and drawn, sallow skin stretched tightly over prominent bones, dark pools evident under half closed eyelids. Looking at the rag tag group that followed him Edmund came to the conclusion the recent competition in the wood had hit these thieves hard. They were nervous. Edmund was nervous too, but then again he had what looked like a half dozen swords aimed at him, so no one would blame him for feeling ill at ease.
"No slacking now," Edmund muttered to his staff.
He stepped forward, looking at the face of the man he hoped was their leader. "We carry nothing of any use to you. I am a man of God, on a mission of peace. I urge you not to do anything we would both regret". But if you do attack, he thought, tightening his grip on the staff, Ill bloody well make you wish you hadnt.
For one instant, as Edmund looked at the
leader, he wondered if perhaps he might be able to talk his way
out of this volatile situation. Then there was a flurry of
movement. Shimmering blue steel swung right at him, followed by a
flash of dark gold lightning and a cry. Edmund sprang backward
even as Ajax lifted the startled leader into the air. But Edmund
had no time to contemplate how close to death he had almost come
to. A great weight shoved him to the side, the stench of his
attacker almost overpowering him. Strong hands gripped at his
throat, shoving his head down into the cold leaves and mud. The
thiefs grip was strong, and Edmund wasnt as young as
he once was. He could feel consciousness slipping away. Then
there was a bone crushing thud and the hands released him, even
as their owner slid to the ground.
Edmund managed to get to his knees, his breath coming in painful gasps. Grabbing his dropped staff, he looked up to see Robbie, standing there sword in hand. He had used the pommel, thank heavens. But the soldier wasnt even looking at him, he was already struggling with another brigand. And in another split second Edmund was joining the fray, staff swinging, leaping in front of an aggressor attempting to take the guard from behind. He had to move with care however, the fight had edged dangerously close to the cliff. Ajax swooped down, grabbing another hijacker with practiced ease, and Robbie had barely dispatched one opponent before he found himself locked in combat with another. Edmund, the battle rekindling old reflexes from years of soldiering, was doing only marginally better, finishing off his first assailant and facing another. He risked a quick glance, not even the twinkling of the eye, and spotted, in the distance, salvation. Five, six, maybe more gargoyles, having seen the commotion, were already flying to their aid.
And that was when it happened.
He jumped out of nowhere, attacking from behind, and even later Edmund couldnt discern how he had managed to get there. But there he was nonetheless, sword drawn, committed to a swing that would take Edmunds head. The old soldier didnt even have to think, didnt have the time to think. He reacted with long forgotten reflexes, ducking and swinging his staff backwards, a snarl curling his lip. There was a splintering crack, and then the highwayman crumpled, felled by the blow of the monk, with arms spreading wide as he plummeted off the cliff. Behind Edmund, Robbie dealt with another thief, the last, Edmund numbly registered, of the attacking party.
He looked down, staring at his hands. They were old but strong hands. Experienced hands. Hands of a soldier first, and then, later, those of a healer. And there was blood. Blood on my hands; a death on my head, he thought numbly. He didn't bleed when I hit him, so how did his blood get on my hands?
One by one the gargoyles landed, lavender Goliath, powder blue Othello, the brown skinned Desdemona, Ajax, with nary a wound from the entire encounter, and a young female with purple hair that Edmund did not recognize. Goliath, worried, was the first to speak.
"We saw the fight from the battlements. Under the circumstances it didnt seem worthwhile to wait for permission to come to your aid, from the Leader and the Prince. You do not look as you should, brother. Are you all right?"
Edmund found himself unable to answer, unable to speak. He only stared at his hands, still holding the staff. Numbly, he dropped it.
I'm staring at the cliff. That's where he fell off. Gone, I thought it was gone. A bandit. Haven't I saved myself? The others as well, maybe. Maybe? A bandit. He jumped out of nowhere; I reacted, no time to think. It was a reflex, only... No. Not true. I enjoyed it, enjoyed the fight, the victory. I thought it was gone. I thought I'd left feelings like that behind. When I left home. When I took orders. A bandit, a living being, a child of God. The blood of a child of God on my hands...
Frowning and growing anxious, Robbie repeated Goliaths question. "Is there something wrong, Brother Edmund?"
The holy man looked up, staring. He could not speak; the dead mans scream shrieked in his ears. It was Robbie, he noted, who had asked. He opened his mouth but no words came out. Worried, the guardsman turned to Ajax.
"He must have gotten a blow to the head. Get him back to the castle and well see what can be done. I just hope we have someone there that can heal the healer." *****
Despair was rising in his chest, noxious and sour, like heartburn. He had tried to slip into his normal mannerisms but found he could not. Instead, Edmund had become a walking undead, going through actions without feeling, cleaning the wounds Ajax and Robbie had received in the fight wordlessly. He was aware they were speaking to him, but it seemed far off and distant, as if it was happening to someone else. He was dimly aware that Ajax was relating what had happened, he had gotten a better view of the fight than Robbie. He just didnt seem to make the connection between Edmunds action and the response. But Robbie understood, and explained to the crested warrior. The guard then stood and walked up to Edmund, wanting to say something but unable to find words. Sadly, he shook his head and left. Edmund turned and began cleaning bloody rags, aware that much of the blood in the wash basin was from his own hands. His heart was beating in his chest like an angry fist.
The sky outside was unchanged, the same as it had always been. For some reason Edmund wasnt expecting that, he wasnt sure he believed it. But there above him was the vast indifference of the night. And as he stared out the window, Ajax rose to his feet. He was a powerfully built gargoyle, deep-chested, broad-shouldered, massive, and yet quick in his movements, ethereal and agile. The strong pillar of his neck supported a majestic head. His crested forehead jutted out like a Roman helmet, his features strongly marked. In a rather forceful emphatic way he was majestically handsome and looked, for all intents and purposes, to be the perfect warrior, the epitome of the gargoyle.
His thick ridge furrowed almost imperceptibly in thought as he calculated how to express ideas explained to him by his instructor, often slowly and loudly, in a convincing and seemingly original way. "I do not understand you. He was going to kill you, healer. You stopped him. It is over. Fighting is a matter of life and death, your life, your opponent's death. Honor is a nice thing, but the dead have little use of it. Nor do they want tears or grief." He paused at this, feeling he still hadnt hit on what he wanted to say. Try as he might, his ability to express himself never to go beyond rewording old ideas. In the end, he settled for a reassuring slap on the back (one that almost knocked the monk over), and then, seeing Edmunds pale unhappy face, added, "Cheer up, brother!" and left. Edmund, however, would not be cheered. *****
The room which had so often seemed to comfort and protect him had turned against him. Candlelight that had seemed soothing and calm now flickered with vindictive undertones. Baldrich had apparently taken leave, his box empty, denouncing Edmund in his absence. The spartan furnishings seemed to be nothing but sharp, accusing edges. The entire room seemed against him, seemed to be screaming condemnation as eloquently as if it were alive. Silently Edmund locked himself in.
Falling to his knees Edmund pleaded for forgiveness. Begged that the pain go away. Beseeched his Lord to erase the memories. Implored that he might forget that a part of himself, a dark part he had long ago thought dead, enjoyed the fray, enjoyed the thrill, even derived pleasure from defeating a foe in such a brutal way. *****
Prince Malcolm stood outside Edmunds quarters, talking through the closed door.
"I understand that you are upset, Brother, but if you will not attend the dinner table, let me at least have a boy bring you something to eat". He waited for a response for a short time, and then sighed, knowing there was not really any more he could say. "Very well then, Brother. Your life is yours to live. I will see to it a place is set for you, in case you change your mind". When it became obvious that no answer was forthcoming, Malcolm turned to return to his duties, colliding with a man that was walking along the corridor.
"Good gracious, I didnt see you there. How clumsy of me," apologized the Prince. He looked the man over quickly, in an attempt to see if he could determine the mans name. He was a full-faced man, well dressed in white, from a creme popinjay cap and ornate vestment, to a highly ornamental long dagger clasped at his belt, apparently adorned with pearls. He smiled apologetically to Malcolm with the bearing of one accustomed to court life. More than likely a suitor. Malcolm sighed; it seemed they followed him everywhere.
"Entirely my fault, Prince Malcolm." the man said, giving Malcolm a flash of perfect white teeth.
"To be entirely honest, I dont recognize you..." Malcolm noted aloud, a tad puzzled.
"Ive been out of circulation. Spent the last few years doing exploration."
"Find anything interesting?"
At this the well dressed man smiled, hesitated, and replied simply, "Yes."
Malcolm smiled a bit weakly at that, something about the charming man putting him on edge. Most suitors did that. "Ill be on my way. Good day to you". The man in white uttered flowingly, perhaps having sensed the Princes discomfort. Then he turned to continue walking, but paused and looked back at Malcolm once more. "Not to bother you..."
Prince Malcolm grimaced, his thought clearly visible on his face. Here it comes, no doubt he wants be to border dispute, or ask for fishing rights.
"Is it true that the masked bandit was sighted near Eriksdale?" the pale dressed man inquired.
"Aye, he has at that. Thieves are really becoming a nuisance."
The suitor smiled wanly. "Sign of the times. Excuse me sir, I have to make urgent travel plans. My horse was stolen recently."
Now it was the Princes turn to smile. "I hear thats going about, too". At that the two turned and walked off, pressing matters on each ones mind. The last thing the Prince heard before turning the corridor was the well-dressed man reiterating his earlier comment.
"Sign of the times..." *****
Othello and Desdemona stared at the Brothers door, concern apparent on their faces.
"How long has he been in there?" he asked.
"I dont know. A long time. I dont think he left since last night."
"He needs to eat."
"Prince Malcolm came to him earlier, beseeching him to attend the dinner table."
Setting his shoulders firmly,
Othello came to a decision. Not a monumental decision, but a
decision nonetheless. "He needs to eat. So then he will
eat". With that the gargoyle stood, and flashed a glance at
the young gargoyle he was discovering complex feelings for. He
understood that she had not chosen to stay with him out of love,
and did not begrudge her for that. But, if his fears were true,
he might very well be experiencing the start of an unrequited
love. Frowning somberly he left the wall he had perched on, and,
with a quick flick of his wings he was angling for the kitchen.
Edmund looked up from his prayers at the sound of the knocking. With a weary sigh he stood and opened the door, knowing full well that it was inevitable. Standing in the threshold was the gargoyle he, or rather that Welsh minstrel, had decided to refer to as Othello. Somehow he managed to look as if his task was the most solemn and grave one ever delegated, even though he merely stood there with food and a warmed posset of wine.
Looking at the brother Othello quickly realized the obvious. The past day had not been kind to him. Heavy gray bags had grown underneath his bloodshot eyes, his tonsured hair was tangled and disheveled. But what struck Othello most was not his face, nor the incredible disarray his habit was in, but the haunted look in his eyes.
Feeling a need to speak Othello began to stammer an explanation. "I...brought food for you. You need to eat. I wasnt sure, so I asked for a little of everything the cook had left. There wasnt much, the kitchen hands had seen to that, but I..."
Wordlessly, Edmund relieved the gargoyle of his burden, placing the platter down on his table, atop the hefty volume he was constantly adding to. With that he returned to his kneeling posture, ignoring the gargoyles look of anxiety. Othello, knowing he was not wanted turned to leave. But, before he exited, he found himself pausing in the doorway. Turning he saw the monk lost in prayer, and spoke very softly. "Death is the only common expectation from birth. Neither heroes nor cowards can escape it."
But Edmund wasnt listening. *****
There are many types of heroes in the world. Thersites had pointedly spent his entire life avoiding becoming any of them. It was commonly believed that Thersites would even be incapable of being a reluctant hero. In fact, the gargoyle elders often agreed that, should the young gargoyle die, the average heroic content of everyone else in the world would rise a few notches. It wasnt that he didnt believe in the nobility of gargoyles. He did. And it wasnt that he didnt think aiding others was a good idea; he was a firm believer in that too. It was just that, as far as he was concerned, the actual helping should be left up to others better suited to the task. Heroism? You could keep it.
Yet Thersites found himself looking at the brother, a strange expression on his face. Well, a strange expression considering whose face it was on anyway. Thersites was starting to feel sorry for Edmund. A rare event, he was usually too busy doing that for himself. He walked up to man of the cloth and sat next to him on the bench, staring pointedly at his feet as he tried to find the right words.
"Ive never been very good at much." he began. A very good start he decided, abrupt and to the point. "Except perhaps staying alive, Ive had perfect success with that. That might be why I dont let anyone even try to break my record...or for that matter, anything else belonging to me." At this his brow knitted in difficulty. "Er...what Im trying to say is...well...look, youre a great human as humans go. And what you did wasnt wrong. I mean, think about it a second, you didnt really have much of a choice".
Edmund, a look of hope upon his face (vying for rule over a look of amazement. Thersites wasnt known for his tender side) was listening raptly as he continued. The odd gargoyle was his third guest this evening, after the Prince and Othello, and a second posset of wine and plate of food were placed on Edmunds workbench now.
"I mean...well...its us or them. You did exactly what you should have. Look out for number one, and the rest can look out for emselves. In my case, they tend to look out for themselves even better than I look after myself! Some brigand comes after you with a stick, throw a glob of mud in his eye. Then pound him over his ead with is own stick! Why, if someone wants a fight you should, of course, run for it! But, if you cant, you just have to fight dirty. Its a do or die world! All you did was use your God-given-talent, no pun intended, Brother, to pull yourself out of a hazardous situation. So you outclassed these thieves, you were a soldier, you had an unfair advantage. Pfff, they had swords! Any unfair advantage is perfectly fair. And its not like youre some sort of monster that enjoyed it or anything. Um...am I losing you, brother?" Edmunds face had gone through a slow metamorphosis as Thersites spoke, from hope to horror. Mute and barely conscious of his actions, he stood up and left the gargoyle and the room, looking for somewhere where he could immerse himself in prayer, and, maybe, drown out the scream of his victim with thoughts of his Lord. *****
Barely conscious of his surroundings, Edmund entered the courtyard. Apparently more time had passed since he began walking than he had thought, for Thersites was engaged in the middle of a group training session. Edmund was slightly startled; he was sure he had only just left the young gargoyle. However, a look at the position of the moon confirmed that he had been wandering for some time. Sounds of clashing steel attracted his attention, turning his head he saw the Captain of the Guard, who always seemed to have previously unnoticed old scars, and several oddities in his gray-streaked beard that it was best not to look at. Apparently both gargoyles and humans were training, albeit in different portions of the grounds. While it might have been a simple coincidence, it was more likely an attempt on each side to make the other look inferior.
It was about an hour into the gargoyles practice, and Thersites was laying flat on his back on the frozen ground, the breath knocked out of his body, chill air gasping from his worn out mouth. Deborahs claws slammed into the ground beside his head, close enough (although the force wasnt all that great) to make him flinch.
"If youre 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."
"It wasnt fair!" whined the gargoyle. "You tripped me!"
"Why didnt you trip me first? When you fight in earnest, you had better not expect others to fight fair."
Behind her stood a throng of young gargoyles, Othello among them. Upon seeing Edmund, he spoke, although Edmund could not hear what he said. Apparently he had said something to Desdemona, whose eyes followed the white-haired gargoyles finger, gazing at Edmund with a sad expression. Deborah, however, also saw the gesture, and looked at Edmund with a far less understanding countenance.
"You and you," she commanded, pointing to Asrial and the still recumbent Thersites. "Spar. One of you will have to win, although its anyones guess which." With that she turned her back on the group and advanced on Edmund, crossing the length of the courtyard with incredible speed. Looking him straight in the eyes she spoke. "I've heard the young ones speak. I can see that you love your enemies better than your friends; it seems to me that if the bandit had lived and you'd all died, you'd have been well pleased."
"Thats...thats not it at all!" protested Edmund.
"Oh? Would you be happier if he had killed you? And the rest of the young ones as well?"
Agamemnon landed behind Edmund, having jumped from the battlements. Although normally used to events such as this, the brother reacted with surprise. The massive gargoyle folded his arms across his thick chest, his short black beard framing his face admirably. "If you please, Second, a moment of your time" he intoned. Then, raising a bushy eyebrow he continued, adding "We need to speak". Then, not waiting for an answer, he all but dragged her by the arm, to a distance where they could speak alone.
"Second....Sister. Leave the good brother alone."
"He is setting a poor example for the young ones!" she protested. "They all hold him in high regard, to see him like this...it cannot be affecting them well. I mean him no harm, but he cannot be allowed to interfere with their training. He needs to be shaken out of this; all he did is protect himself."
"You dont understand, do you, sister? It is a terrible thing, to take anothers life, to steal all they were or could become....but it is not merely the act of killing that troubles the brother so. Look at him. What do you see?"
At that Agamemnon stood aside, allowing the clan second a view of the brother, who was already retreating to one of the castle towers. Squinting, Deborah was able to make out the priests haggard face as he looked over his shoulder.
"He looks guilty." she said testily. "What of it? He has killed in the past, surely..."
"You look without seeing. He is afraid, sister, that he enjoyed the act."
Deborah looked at her rookery brothers face, stunned. "To find pleasure in killing another...surely you are mistaken! He is a man of the cloth, as the humans say."
"He is a man."
Asrial practically flew up the stairs to her tower workshop, ignoring the spider-webs that thrived in the stairwell. She didnt have it in her to actually fly down to her cave, or even the tower window. There was a reason for that. The night had started so perfectly. She had been looking at some beetles, when an idea occurred to her. Somehow the shell seemed to balance out for their size, the animals could carry things far heavier and larger. Thoughts of armor had flashed through her mind, and something about using steam as a source of energy to power it.
Unfortunately, while aimlessly gliding, she had wandered into a training session. Granted she was actually supposed to be there, but she had long since adapted to avoiding the instructions. Why practice something you are completely inept at? And now, as a result of the long and grueling start to her night, a start that only transpired because she had been unlucky enough to appear where she was meant to be, she had all but forgotten whatever plans were formulated about armor. Perhaps a little puttering around with her things would help inspire her again.
So lost in thought was Asrial that she didnt notice she had a visitor. Brother Edmund was standing next to one of her benches, staring at it without seeming to really see it. Asrial was worried; she had overheard things muttered at the training exercise. Whats more, she had seen the party return the previous night, but she had been so engrossed in her work it would have taken the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse riding by to have convinced her to leave it. Regardless, she found herself wishing she had paid more attention to what her siblings had said. There was obviously much more to whatever problems Edmund was happening than she had thought.
"Is there something I can do for you, Brother Edmund?" she whispered.
The monk could not answer, did not seem to hear her. Sinking down upon her workbench, he closed his eyes and, shivering, hunched deeper in his robes. The dead thief was having his revenge. His scream had drained the life from Edmund, just as Edmunds attack had done to the thief. Sick, cold, and filled with hatred for himself and for the dead man he began to weep softly.
Edmund felt a touch on his shoulder. Startled, he glanced around to see Asrial, the gargoyles hand resting there hesitantly, awkwardly. He could see her face in the moonlight, beautiful eyes shadowed by her thick well braided blond hair.
"Im...intruding." He stammered. "I didnt know anyone used this place..."
"No one does really," she replied. "Oh, a few of my rookery siblings, most through unfortunate accidents, and a few guards that strayed in here, but for the most part I have it to myself. I meant to show you it some time back, I just never seemed to find time. I keep some of my inventions here. Some dont respond well to the cave climate. Thats where I keep most of my things. Others I just like close at hand. But, if anything, it is I who am intruding, brother. Tell me, what is wrong?"
"What is wrong? Child, what is not wrong? Last night, child, I took a mortal life, the life of my fellow man. A thief to be sure, but no less deserving of Gods love. And mine! And now he lies dead. And I think I.....when it happened...enjoyed it!". Edmund took in a shuddering breath at this, feeling bile rising in his throat at his self revulsion, and placing his face in his hands.
Asrial knew she should probably say something. Dont cry. Everythings going to be all right. Im here. Dont worry. Anything. But she had never been good with social dynamics. All she did, all she could do, was help Edmund over to a seat. The brother leaned forward, face held in clasped hands, and sobbed lightly. Eyes cast downward Asrial put a comforting arm around him and allowed the suffering monk to lean against her. *****
It was some time later, and Asrial had left Edmund alone in her workshop. Breathing a soft sigh she continued her search. The night had not gone well, and now she was wasting precious time in pursuit of her brother. She shook her head, remembering what his ultimate solution to the matter had been. Cursing her luck, and her ineptness with matters such as this, she muttered softly to herself, "Edmund, you silly old human. We don't need a hermit, we need you. Unfortunately, you seem to think otherwise. And now I can tell Im really in over my head. I know I am when I start talking to myself ". There was only one gargoyle she really knew that she could trust with such a delicate matter and now he was nowhere to be seen. There was only one more haunt of her brothers she had yet to check, and if he was not there she was not sure what she would do. With this grave though on her mind, Asrial landed, having apparently forgotten the stiffness in her wings long enough to circle the castle a half dozen times, on the library window sill.
"Brother?" she called out, unable to see clearly inside. "We need to talk. Its important". *****
Asrials workshop was never what one would call orderly. Truth be told, to anyone looking for anything, with the possible exception of Asrial herself, the place was nothing short of a nightmare. This was not something that she normally cared about, but at the moment, as she tried to determine if Brother Edmund was still inside, it was nothing short of exasperating. She had looked throughout the entire tower attempting to track down the monk, but, so far, had nothing to show except cobweb-streaked clothes and hair. And, if one wished to be entirely truthful, a sore foot, testimony to the fact that not even Asrial could hope to navigate the cluttered tower without eventually stepping on some forgotten oddity.
"Brother? Brother Edmund?" called Goliath. "Brother Edmund, are you in here?"
Asrial shook her head. "He must have left," she decided, "while I was out looking for you."
Goliath set his jaw firmly. "I wish you had told one of the elders and not me." he said gravely "I am worried about Edmunds state of mind. You check the stables. See if he is perhaps preparing to leave. Ill search his room".
"Do you really think hed leave us?" Asrial asked, still a little stunned about the whole ordeal.
Goliath paused, perched on the window sill and looked back at her. "I dont know. I cant be sure. But we should do our best to stop him from doing something foolish". With that, the gargoyles launched themselves from the tower. *****
Asrial landed atop the stables, scanning the area, well aware of the short amount of time she had before dawn. As she gazed she could not quite suppress a feeling of dread. The hands were well at work, and she could only hope fervently that they were not preparing for Edmunds departure. Or worse, cleaning up, the brother having already left. Try as she might she was unable to discern what was going on, the entire stables were a bustle of activity. She leapt from the thatched roof, careful not to startle any of the hands, and surveyed the area, hoping to find some sign as to the Brothers location. Then, to her relief, she saw Edmunds steed of choice, a solid brown cob, was still tethered, apparently not even ready to leave. Wherever the Brother was, he wasnt at the stables. But if Edmund planned to leave during the day, with dawn fast approaching...then her brother had best locate him before he did something foolish. Now that she was able to look clearly she was able to make out the cause of the disturbance. Below her, a well dressed man in white smiled to himself as he watched the preparations for his journey going underway. A groom walked by, leading a pale horse, an impressive beast, adorned with white stockings, richly caparisoned. No observer would bother to ask whose steed it was; the impressive harness, cream saddle cloth, and heavily ornamented bridle certainly made it plain. Another servant walked up to the man, quill, ink, and parchment in hand. He turned them over to the well dressed man, who looked them over and nodded.
"When preparations are ready, I will need you to deliver this letter to the Archmage. Can you do that?"
"Yes, sir, I can. If I might say, sir, your horse?"
"Well, Ive never quite seen anything like it. Stolen more than a fortnight ago, and today it comes up to the castle gates as if nothing happened."
"What you have to do is make loyalty worthwhile for the beast. That is one of the most important aspects of training any animal." The man smiled. "Perhaps even the most important."
Seeing nothing of importance, Asrial left, making her mind up to check as many rooms as possible before giving up, and hoping her brother did likewise. *****
Goliath landed on Edmunds windowsill in haste. He could already see the brother was packing his meager belongings, and he had not much time left to convince him of his folly. Dawn was fast approaching. Edmund did not bother to speak, and instead met the gargoyles eyes with a look of mixed emotions, sadness and defiance, even while closing a saddlebag. Firm though the brothers face might have been, his unsteady hands betrayed his true state of mind, as time and again the bag became undone. It would seem that it was up to Goliath to begin.
"Youre acting like a fool. You did what had to be done, to save yourself, and the lives of those you protect. He had to be stopped, for your sake, and for the sake of those who care about..."
Edmunds hands trembled as he listened, his heart hammered uncontrollably, his breath came in gasps. "Dont you understand? I left that life behind me! He didnt have to die, he shouldnt have! I should have found another way. I close my eyes, and I cant stop seeing him falling, seeing the look on his face."
Edmund cut himself off, a tear running down his face, catching a gleam in starlight streaming through the window before disappearing in the unshaven stubble upon his chin. He took in a shuddering breath, gulped painfully, and, once he was slightly more composed, looked Goliath directly in the eyes, the brothers dark orbs glistening with unshed tears. He continued speaking, softly now.
"Dont you know that all I ever wanted here was just to leave all the killing behind, just to help others. I didnt want much, just to give aid when needed, and....and just perhaps to make a few friends. I never wanted to go back to the way things were, never wanted to go back to what I was before, to feel the dark thrill of a deadly struggle....to do what I had to do at the forests edge."
Goliath drew a deep breath, his always grave and solemn face now sad, and sorrowful as well. He was talking about matters far beyond his years, barely within his perception, and his face showed this. Yet, though not yet even an adult by gargoyle standards, Goliath was showing admirable maturity. "I know." he said, casting his eyes to the dusty floor. A sad sigh escaped his lips, and it was not without difficulty that he met Edmunds gaze again. "I know. No one wanted that for you either. I dont know...I dont know if the pain will ever go away. I do not know if you will ever forget his face. But I do know one thing, the only thing I can tell you. What you did was right. You came here, to our home in the name of love, and love has been in your heart ever since. Despite all you have gone through you still have your heart. And your heart is a good heart, it wouldnt hurt so much otherwise."
"But it wont get any easier, will it? No."
"As the trainer told me once, no one ever said it would be easy. But, rest assured, brother, running will gain you nothing. It is impossible to succeed...if you do not try."
Edmund stood motionless, staring at the gargoyle, packed bags, forgotten, still in his hands, and for a long moment he was silent. Then the brother sighed, and, softly, he spoke, looking out his window at the first gold and red rays of sunset. "The past haunts us. The future frightens us. And the present..." he looked at the gargoyle, frozen in stone behind him. "The present is where we hide". Gazing at the young warrior, Edmund recalled how he had come by the lads name. "If it were not for that minstrel, Im not sure what I would have called you," he muttered to himself. "The name surely doesnt fit you. Strong as you may be for your age, you are no mindless thug." Edmund smiled, despite himself, recalling the young gargoyles words. "A good heart? Your reading has apparently influenced you well." With a sad glance at the gargoyle, Edmund left the room, suddenly in need of air and a chance to collect his thoughts and consider. *****
Wrapped tightly as he was in his habit, Edmund could still feel the chill wind cutting through the wool. But, standing on the battlements, surrounded by stone gargoyles, the first pure rays of light of a new day slowly flowing over him, the brother did not mind so much. Indeed, he barely paid it the slightest attention, instead occupying his mind with far more important thoughts. Quietly he moved from gargoyle to stone gargoyle, noting, not for the first time, the infinite variety in the species. Yet only a few seemed to make their way into his life. Almost unconsciously he strode up to Ajax, the first gargoyle to speak to him that day. That day? No, the previous night.
"'Fighting is a matter of life and death,' you said. 'Your life, your opponent's death.' I wonder if youll ever understand the meaning of your words. Poor lad, most likely not. Youve been told it too many times not to believe it." Turning, Edmund gazed at the next gargoyle arranged on the battlements. The mate of the Leader, the Second herself. "And you certainly have drilled that into him havent you? Deborah, I call you in my writing. On her own the Biblical Deborah can seem quite harsh. But remembering what times she lived in, indeed what was necessary, she rose to the occasion admirably. As too do you, training these young warriors for the life they will undoubtedly lead. You have no time to be any other way."
Now regarding the gargoyle next closest to the leader, Edmund could not help but smile. Close to the leader, yet auspiciously far from the rest (or were the rest far from him?) stood barrel-chested and proud Agamemnon. "I overheard a little of what you said to the Second," Edmund told the sleeping gladiator, "and I thank you. There seems to be more to you than I thought. A leader at heart perhaps, or maybe just born with a leaders gifts. I named you well it would seem. Although not too well I hope. It would not do for your mate to stab you like the Agamemnon of old."
Thersites was next, perched well out of harm's way, almost hiding behind sturdy Ajax. "Well....what is there to say about you, eh? I suppose you mean well. You remind me, in many ways, of certain brothers I knew...I suspect you would love nothing more than the quiet and dull life of copying books. Not to be yours, Im afraid. Who knows, maybe youll grow into clan life." Staring at the gargoyle, however, made Edmund rethink that thought. "Or, more likely, clan life will grow around you! But not much, I think, like the bitter Thersites that jeered his fellow warriors."
A gust of wind blew across Edmunds tonsured head, tossing the gray curls this way and that. He didnt seem to mind, instead regarding the gargoyle Othello with rapt attention. "You, and yes, one or two others, gave even that silver tongued bard a hard time. I swear I saw his eyes squint into tiny pinpricks just thinking of a name for you. One, Im afraid, that doesnt make sense to me. But your need to protect those less powerful than you, that is something I can understand. 'Death comes to us all, hero or coward,' you said. You are no coward. If only I had your resolve, your will, I would not be feeling the way I am now."
His attention wavered, and the man of the cloth found himself observing young Asrial with a smile. "And what of you, young angel? Most lovely of your clan, though none, not even you, seem to notice." Gazing at her, Edmund realized she still had one of her inventions strapped to her head. Failing to suppress a chuckle, Edmund shook his head slowly in humor. "Well I certainly named you well, like a guardian angel you are. In my hour of need you helped me, far more than any of these speakers. A pity that, that all their words did not add up to one comforting shoulder. Maybe you were right; perhaps I can do enough good here to reconcile myself with my darker nature."
Turning one last time, Edmund
looked over the battlements at the newly risen sun. "What
now?" he remarked to himself. "Do I stay? Do I leave? I
killed a man, in self defense I know, but a part of me, so dark,
so evil it may have risen direct from some nether region, enjoyed
it. Do I dare remain where I am, endangering others, endangering
my own redemption by possibly placing myself in similar trials? I
cannot forgive myself. How could I expect others to? Yet they do,
without question". Edmund reflected for some time, watching
as the castle slowly awoke. "Perhaps," he remarked,
"perhaps I shall stay. For the gargoyles sake. Without
me, who would record their lives? And, I think, some day there
will be many indeed who will find great joy from these
tales". Edmund smiled at this. "As good an excuse as
any I suppose, but I doubt You are any more fooled than I. There
is much work to be done here, and, perhaps, a little peace of
mind to be found as well. As the gargoyle said, theres
nothing to gain in running away". Smiling, Brother
Edmund looked down, feeling a familiar sensation on his arm.
"Well, then," he remarked to Baldrich the squirrel.
"How was your day? Too busy to add to the speeches then?
Lets go and get some sleep. And put away that comfrey
before the damp ruins it. Winter is approaching, I wont be
able to find roots like that for much longer. Perhaps a