Written by Kathy Pogge
Story Concept by Brian "DumlaoX" Dumlao
PREVIOUSLY ON DARK AGES...
"Love," he said, after a long time, "I never want tae spend another night away from ya, or a day without ya near. Yuir the stubborn, impossible other half to me. I need yer strength, and yer good heart, and yer way wi' bringin' people together. It's th' only way we'll survive bein' wi' th' humans. It's the only way I'll survive."
~ Cornerstone ~
"Please, love, ye have ta hold on," he commanded urgently. "Ye promised me ye would never leave me; dinna break yuir word!"
"I . . .love y-ye," she whispered slowly, and he almost didn't hear here over the roar of the wind.
The leader hugged her tightly, pressed her to him. "Ye canna die! Ye promised me!" he whispered savagely. "Ye can hang on until the sunrise, love, and all will be fine. Ye have ta hang on!"
"Beloved . . ." she called, and he released her to see her closing eyes. "I have always . . .loved ye . . .I will . . .always . . . love ye." She moved a wavering hand and cupped his face as a tear slipped down the curve of her aquamarine cheek. "Ye are forever . . .in . . . my . .heart."
~ Alliances, Part 1 ~
"Could the Leader die?" asked Lexington.
"He could," said Brother Edmund. "But it isn't likely. Why do you ask?"
"The Second died. When one of our other rookery mothers died, her mate died, too."
"That happens sometimes," he replied gently. "Sometimes the shock of being apart from someone beloved is so great that a person cannot stand it."
~ Alliances, Part 2 ~
* * * * *
From the Journal of Brother Edmund...
"It is written in the Good Book, that 'a joyful heart is the health of the body, but a depressed spirit dries up the bones'. Such words are true of the leader, Hudson, who since the death of his mate, Deborah, has sunk deeper and deeper into a grief filled malaise. I have learned, from speaking with the other gargoyles, that their leader's behavior is most unusual and disturbing to the clan, and the cause of much discussion. It would seem that The Gargoyle Way is to remember the deceased, then speak of them no more, that life is for the living and not a time to dwell upon the dead. I am told that they find the human practice of prolonged grieving quite incomprehensible, and such behavior in a gargoyle is unusual to say the least. If this is in fact the truth, and I have no reason to believe it otherwise, then I share the gargoyles' concern, and offer a prayer, that the leader might find his way out of the land of the dead and rejoin his clan once again...
* * * * *
Late afternoon sunshine washed over the vagrant as he picked his way among the rocks and the waves. Coloum, the Shiftless, whistled tunelessly as he wandered down the beach. From time to time he bent and picked up a rock or bit of shell and flung it back into the ocean admiring the play of light on the water. He eyed a particularly promising skipping stone, bent to retrieve it, and froze as the faint glimmer of ... something, caught his eye. He stared at the cliff face and found there was a small opening and something shiny was reflecting the sunlight. He threaded his way along the rocks until he stood in the mouth of a cave.
He stood awestruck as his eyes adjusted to the dim light. It was small, maybe eight feet tall and three times as wide. He couldn't tell how deep it was though he squinted his eyes and peered long into the darkness. He could see a natural rock shelf erupted from the sandy floor and numerous protrusions jetted from the walls. When the tide was high, the cavern would be submerged, but by low tide...
"By the Dragon!" he exclaimed. "There's a treasure in here!"
Shiny things glinted from crevices in the rough walls. He entered slowly and tripped over a small brass casket embedded in the floor. He opened it slowly and found a faded hair ribbon of light rose silk.
"Pah!" He said flinging the ribbon away. He studied the ornate carving on the box and stuffed it into a voluminous coat pocket. "I might be able to get something for you though..."
He picked up a dagger with a handle of deer bone. The carving was strange, but pleasing to the eye. He stuffed it unceremoniously into his belt then rubbed his hands with anticipation as something else glinted in the dim light. He wrested a belt buckle free of a rotten leather strap, turning it over and over in his hands. This too, he tucked away to examine in detail later. Other treasures were examined and discarded or hidden away from prying eyes. Too soon, water was lapping at his feet and the tide was beginning to rise ominously.
"There's too much of value here to lose to the sea," he murmured. His coat weighed him down and the water was now around his ankles. "I'll be back. I might even bring me brother!" he promised the cave, as he hastily departed.
* * * * *
The night was black as pitch. Fog swirled thick upon the downs. Ethereal tendrils obscured the quarter moon. Somewhere in the dark, Norseman wrestled their long boats onto the shore, deploying their troops. Stealthily they crept up the beach, eager to plunder the riches of the castle beyond.
The Scots lined the battlefield taking up defensive positions. They moved as quick as they dared in the darkness, not wanting to alert the invading horde to their presence.
With a rustle of wings gargoyles joined the human defenders. Some took to the air, scouting and reporting enemy positions as best they could in the blinding fog. Others waited on the ground, knowing that they could do better with talon and mace.
He waited with his chosen warriors patiently. His Second was at his side. One of the scouts approached reporting that the Prince himself was to join the warriors on the field.
He looked to the Second, she nodded grimly, disappointed, but understanding his need to stand at the side of the human prince. Taking a pair of warriors with him, she smiled, at him one last time, as he disappeared into the night.
"ATTACK!!" The cry reverberated as men took up the call and charged. The fog could not mute the sounds of battle, the clang of swords, the crash of a mace against a shield, the scream of a gargoyle as he fell in battle...
The stocky gargoyle fought on, crushing one opponent after another, using sword and tail, talons and brute strength. The enemy rose out of the very earth itself. They seemed to attack in wave after endless wave. Grime-covered and weary he fought on into the endless night.
He heard screams echoing weirdly across the battlefield. One voice among many drew his attention. He tensed, listening hard, hoping he had misunderstood a battle-cry, yet fearing the truth of his ears. His latest opponent used his momentary inattention to get under his blade. The warrior recovered, but not before receiving a glancing blow. He staggered, his knees shaky. Drawing on a reserve of strength he did not know he possessed, he crushed the Viking before he loped across the battlefield, all other objectives forgotten.
He raced to her side. His craggy features tensed with worry as he felled one opponent after another, speeding across a battlefield that stretched to infinity. He prayed that he would be there in time to protect his valiant beloved.
Suddenly he is at her side. She stands tall and proud and grimly determined as she knocks one of the endless stream of Vikings down with her tail.
She turns and smiles a warrior's smile, caught up in the heat of battle. Delighted that her mate has joined her in this finest hour.
The Valkyrie frowns when she sees not an answering smile from her mate, but a look of utter horror. The braided warrior follows her mate's stricken gaze and only then does she see the blood. Her eyes widen in shock and dismay and she crumbles slowly to the ground.
"I'm sorry, sorry, sorry..." her voice begins to echo weirdly and then she is still.
"NO!!" The clan leader roars, then crumbles to her side, the battle forgotten.
* * * * *
ROAR!! The gargoyles of Castle Wyvern greeted a new night. All along the parapets and cornices the inhuman residents of the castle stretched, shaking off bits of stone skin.
Mates embraced and rookery siblings greeted each other a good evening. A few waved to the humans below, and were greeted in return. The young warriors glided off in various directions, eager to attend to their duties so that they might be released early for other pursuits. Some went to the Captain of the Guard to receive patrol assignments, others to meet with the Drill Instructor for tutoring. Snatches of gossip and plans for later in the evening floated across the courtyard. The sounds of high childish laughter from the rookery mixed with the happy bark of gargoyle beasts who waited impatiently for their young masters anticipating playtime. The older clan members dispersed to their own duties, talking quietly. More than a few of them cast a discreet eye at their clan leader who stood, still at his perch, alone. He stared with empty eyes at the battlefield beyond the castle walls.
"It just isn't natural!" A tall orange member of the clan leader's rookery muttered to his mate. "Look at him sitting up there. As if there wasn't enough to occupy his time."
"Now, Beloved, don't be so harsh." His mate, a petite warrior of six feet, with bat ears and a mane of ebony, chided. "You know how close the Leader and the Second were." Her voice flooded with sympathy. "It's like he's missing half himself."
"Did we, or did we not have a proper Remembrance Ceremony?" her mate continued gruffly. "'Tis not the Gargoyle Way to mourn. He's acting like a human." There was contempt in his voice. "Someone needs to set him straight! It's bad enough that the young ones had their training neglected because he wouldn't name a new Drill Master, but this Clan needs a new Second!" he huffed. "What if something were to happen? Who would lead us then?"
The couple passed Agamemnon who looked up at his old friend and sighed. He had heard many such conversations over the last few months and he agreed. The Leader, one way or another, needed to be set straight. Wearily he climbed the parapet and went to join his comrade.
"Evening, Friend," Agamemnon began.
Hudson ignored him.
"'Tis a fine night. Perfect to get out of the keep and do a bit of hunting," he cajoled.
Hudson grunted. "You go on without me. I'm feeling a bit tired tonight."
"There's been a fine covey of partridges spotted down near the dunes," Agamemnon continued as if Hudson hadn't spoken.
"I said I don't want to go hunting! Not for partridges, nor for any other creature! Now leave me be!"
Agamemnon lost his temper. "I have stood by your side night, after night, after weary night, watching you brood, watching you pull yourself deeper and deeper into yourself! You are ignoring your responsibilities, you are ignoring the clan," He looked a tear in the leader's leather jerkin, that for weeks had gone unmended. "You are ignoring yourself!" he continued more softly. "I know you miss her, brother, we all do. But life must go on. Do you think she would have wanted you to die with her on the battlefield? Because, though you still breathe, you surely have. Maybe we need to hold another Remembering. One for the once great leader of our clan."
Hudson tore his eyes from the battlefield long enough to scowl at his closest friend. "If yuir quite finished, I've matters to attend to." He shouldered past Agamemnon to an open spot on the ledge and glided off without another word.
Agamemnon followed his progress until he disappeared over the castle wall and then he launched himself, circling gracefully down to the courtyard. Gargoyles of all ages were congregating, waiting for the evening meal. There was more than a smattering of gossiping going on. Agamemnon was conscious of several conversations shifting suddenly on to other topics as he joined his clanmates. He found himself surrounded by several who made up the Council of Elders.
"Well? What have you to say?" An ancient gargoyle, long past his fighting years poked Agamemnon in the chest, demanding an answer.
"Please, Elder. Is this the time?" He looked around at the others now sitting at the rough trestle tables, "Or the place?"
"Of course it is!" the ancient one replied. "How much longer are we going to tolerate this outrageous behavior? The leader is supposed to set an example! Instead he's acting like one of those mushy brained humans that he insists that we live among." His voice was high and quavering, and gathering more than a little attention. They were joined by several others of the Council.
Agamemnon herded the group into a more discreet corner of the courtyard, conscious of the attention they were drawing.
"Please," he hissed. "It's bad for morale for the younger ones to see us talking like this. He is still the leader."
"Maybe he shouldn't be," a sharply featured crone with hair of silver muttered. "Ever since that night, he's been acting peculiar." She raised a hand to her chin and stroked it thoughtfully as she resettled her wings. "Maybe he took a blow to the head and no one knew about it."
"The blow was to his heart," Agamemnon said under his breath.
The crone looked up at him sharply. "Sentimental nonsense. We are warriors. We live and we die. Those who breathe keep their attention to their duties. Those that don't, deserve their rest," she pronounced. "Our leader, seems to have forgotten this."
"Now, now, I agree that at first he let a few things go. But now..." Agamemnon tried to come to his friend's defense and keep the council on a reasonable track, but to no avail. The orange gargoyle whose words had precipitated his unsuccessful conversation with Hudson cut him off.
"We still have no Second!" he bellowed. "The clan leader must appoint the one who will stand in his place should anything happen to him. That is our law and our way." The others were nodding their agreement. "He must appoint a successor." He took a deep breath "Tonight!" he proclaimed.
"All those in favor say 'aye'!" the crone demanded.
There was a chorus of "ayes" and reluctantly, Agamemnon added his own.
* * * * *
"Did you see all the Old Ones clucking like a bunch of broody hens?" one of Goliath's fair-haired rookery siblings gossiped to her sister.
"I do not believe it is wise to speak of the Old Ones so disrespectfully," Goliath admonished. "They are concerned for the clan. It is their duty to discuss their concerns."
"Do you agree with them then?" inquired Diomedes. "Should they force the Leader to choose a Second? Or should he be allowed to choose in his own good time?"
"You are hoping perhaps, that he will notice your brave deeds?" purred Demona, joining the conversation.
There was a chuckle all around and Diomedes blushed. "There are several of our rookery who would make fine leaders."
"Someday," Goliath agreed. "But for now we lack experience. Given time..."
"Given time we'll be as dried up and hide bound as that lot of old crows!" Demona finished.
"That is not what I intended to say," Goliath protested.
"Maybe not," a brick red brother cut into the discussion. "But the Leader should be young, strong, and decisive. Something our current leadership lacks," he said as he eyed the elders' heated debate.
Asrial joined the group, a sack of practice blades slung over her shoulder. She lowered the bag on to the ground with a groan and handed one of the wooden blades to Goliath. "Brother Edmund asked if I might improve your mock swords. What do you think?" she asked her favored brother.
"The balance is much improved," he said with a smile. "You do fine work, my sister."
Asrial smiled and blushed. "Brother Edmund said that he would tutor you next when he has finished singing the evening Mass." She pointed towards the chapel where human voice was raised in song. "It's nearly that time now. I recognize their ending prayer. You'd better eat your suppers quickly, or you'll be late."
Asrial picked up the bag of practice swords and headed for the supper table. The conversation among the elder gargoyles stilled buzzed with gossip over the odd behavior of the clan's leader. Hudson himself was conspicuous by his absence.
* * * * *
The young warriors gathered in the courtyard to await Brother Edmund. Asrial trailed behind, lugging the bag of practice blades.
The good brother joined them, the squirrel Baldrich riding on his shoulder. He smiled when he saw Asrial.
"Ah, the practice blades," he said as he pulled one from the sack. "Wonderful, lass," he effused echoing Goliath's compliments. "What a fine job you have done."
Asrial blushed. "Thank you Brother. It was a small thing." She turned to leave for the library and a night of study.
"Child," Edmund stopped her by placing a hand gently on her shoulder. "won't you stay for the lesson? It might lead you to discover other useful improvements to the weapons."
The appeal to her curiosity worked and Asrial joined her rookery siblings in a rough semi-circle at Edmund's feet. Baldrich jumped from the monk's shoulder and scurried to Asrial. With a small leap, he was perched on the gargoyle lass and was soon busy amusing himself with one of her braids. She lifted her hair gently out of the squirrel's grasp and tried to concentrate on the tutorial. Her great, crested-headed brother rose to aid Brother Edmund with the lesson. Edmund demonstrated a maneuver and her brother responded to it. As she watched him work the sword she noted with satisfaction that the practice blade wielded by Ajax moved with a greater ease then it had prior to her tinkering. But, she also noted, that if she were to change the hand piece slightly, she might improve it even more. She began to sketch a modification into the dirt at her feet quickly losing interest in the demonstration.
"Lass, would you join us at the center?" Edmund touched her shoulder with his blade and Asrial brushed at it distractedly, thinking it the curious squirrel.
So lost in thought was she, that she didn't hear Edmund's question in its entirety and answered automatically in the affirmative. "Yes, just a moment." she muttered absently.
"Wonderful, child. To your feet then." Edmund continued to speak.
Asrial looked up embarrassed, and realized she'd just volunteered to participate in the drill. She rose uncertainly to her feet and accepted the practice blade.
"Now, begin like this. Watch carefully now." Edmund eyed Asrial, making sure that he had her complete attention before he began the sequence. He demonstrated a series of thrusts and feints, wielding the practice blade expertly. Asrial watched him intently and began to follow clumsily. Edmund nodded and repeated the sequence, a trifle more slowly. Arial mimicked him, more smoothly this time, then repeated the sequence on her own.
Edmund nodded to the others. They rose to their feet, paired off and began to practice. He motioned to Thersites to join Asrial, who continued to practice alone. The gray-green gargoyle made a face, but joined in the drill. They continued for several minutes before Edmund called a halt. He motioned for the others to sit down, but kept Asrial and Thersites at his side as he began to demonstrate anew.
Asrial, caught up in the mechanics of the weaponry, found herself enjoying the lesson. She was startled when Edmund stopped her to correct her technique.
"No, no child." Edmund admonished, as Asrial pushed sweat dampened hair out of her eyes. "The tail feint was good, but you must follow with a sword thrust!" He demonstrated the sequence of motions, lashing out with an imaginary tail then thrusting with a practice blade. Thersites, victim of the evening, grabbed his stomach and "died" dramatically to the cheers of his rookery siblings.
Asrial studied Edmund closely and then repeated the movements. There was an air of fierceness about the girl that made Edmund both rejoice and mourn. No one would ever get the better of Asrial again, not without paying a bitter price. But the gargoyle lass had paid in very dear coin for the motivation that spurred her new attention to his lessons.
"Good. Again. Again." Edmund made her practice the motions until she had integrated them smoothly. Thersites watched her bemused, as he reclined, propped on one elbow spur.
Edmund took note of his posture and gestured for him to get up and take Asrial's place. Reluctantly he complied.
Unnoticed, Hudson watched the lesson from a balcony.
He took pride in the progress that the young ones made in learning the human techniques, but watching Asrial practice brought forth memories of his dead beloved, who had drilled the trainees with the same sort of persistence that Brother Edmund now employed.
"Och, I know I should let ye go, but I miss ya so, lass." He watched the trainees for a few more moments then sighed again. "Still, I suppose it's time to take care of that my last duty to ye."
Determination settled over the stocky gargoyle like a cloak and he prepared to abandon his post. He realized as he flared his wings that he did not know where he was going. "Lass, I just realized. I don't know what happened to it. I was so distracted that night... and afterward I just couldn't bear to look."
He leapt from the balcony intending to talk to Brother Edmund, who had finished with his trainees. He was waylaid by the crusading elders instead.
"Leader." It began civilly enough. "A word with ye, if we may."
"What is it you wish, Elders?" Hudson said grimly.
"You have been derelict in your responsibilities to the clan of late," the outspoken orange one began without preamble. "'Tis time you pulled yourself out of this outlandish mood of yours and started behaving like a true gargoyle."
"And the likes of you are going to show me the way?" Hudson had little patience for this particular elder on his best nights. Tonight he had no patience at all.
"You must chose," the crone added, blocking Hudson's path.
"I will chose when I am good and ready. Now be gone the lot of ya. Go take yuir gossiping selves out of my sight!" He brushed passed them all and hurled himself at the nearest wall. For the second time, he escaped the castle by flight. Free at last, the night air caressed his cheeks and cooled the unshed tears that threatened to spill. He caught a random updraft and let it carry him away from the castle toward the moors.
So lost was he in his own thoughts, he didn't notice he'd acquired a companion.
* * * * *
"Brother, what are you doing lurking in the shadows?"
"Shh!" Thersites put a hand up, quieting Demona. "I'm not lurking, I'm eavesdropping. Can't those old sticks see how much pain they cause the Leader?"
They watched as Hudson broke away from the elders and took to wing.
Thersites started to follow, climbing the nearest wall. "I don't think he should be alone. He doesn't look..." Thersites trailed off, not sure of his instinctive need to protect the leader. "I'm going after him. Are you coming?"
Demona shook her head. "No." She seemed subdued. "I am needed elsewhere." She was gone in a flutter of wings. Thersites launched himself after Hudson, keeping a careful distance.
* * * * *
Demona climbed the stairs cautiously, looking over her shoulder as she went. The Archmage had cautioned her in very strong words about being seen in this part of the castle. She had promised him that she would be very careful. She smiled as she thought of the kindly human. She owed the mage so much for taking her under his wing. If it hadn't been for his kindness and his tutoring, she would have never passed her trials with such ease. She was more than happy to repay him with the slight favors that he asked of her, even if they were a bit odd. There was a noise in the hallway ahead. She looked around quickly and ducked into a narrow alcove, barely avoiding one of the serving wenches laden with a tray of dirty crockery. She exhaled quietly and crept down the passageway to her destination.
* * * * *
At first the stocky gargoyle's flight was random, he allowed the currents to take him where they might. The crisp night air cooled his temper and dulled the ache in his heart. But after a time, his wings tired and he knew that he was procrastinating his duty once again. Hudson found an updraft and started on a new course.
It didn't take very long. Though he had consciously avoided seeking the spot, his heart and body sought the battlefield where his love had died. He cast his mind backwards, forcing himself to relive the night. Not as he was tormented in his dreams, but as it had actually occurred.
In his mind's eye he pictured his beloved lass lying on the battlefield surrounded by her comrades. In desperation he had carried to the infirmary of Brother Edmund. He had tried, the Brother had, but the wound was brutal. He had begged, pleaded, for his lass to hold on, to wait for the healing rays of the sun. But she had slipped away.
"So many dead that night, friend and foe." He shook his head, disgusted at the loss of life, and circled down toward the ravine where she had fallen.
Thersites hung back, watching Hudson as he drifted over the battlefield. He watched sadly as the elder gargoyle circled downward seeking the place of sorrow.
Thersites dropped silently to the ground, keeping his distance from the gargoyle leader. He recognized the area, they had all fought too hard that night for him not to, but the leader's behavior was puzzling. He was... searching for something. He stood, silently and watched, unsure of what he should do.
* * * * *
Ten more paces. Five, four, three... Demona crept quietly to the window. She glanced over her shoulder one more time then loosened the pouch that hung at her belt. The Archmage had cautioned her to handle the powder inside cautiously. To make sure that the contents only ended up inside the chamber and no place else. Voices again, coming nearer. Cursed humans. Why can't they stay away just a moment longer? She moaned to herself, as she quickly unknotted the cord and poured the powder through the window. Just for good measure she puffed her cheeks and blew the powder away that threatened to settle on the windowsill, before melting into the shadows and creeping back to the Archmage to report her success.
* * * * *
Hudson stalked his quarry carefully. He had nothing but his certainty that it remained here lost on the battlefield waiting for him to perform this last rite of mourning. He allowed his mind to go blank, searching with all of his senses until... There it was! A glint of moonlight on the odd, mother of pearl handle. He stumbled and fell, then retrieved the dagger, the blade still brown with dried blood, but otherwise intact. He cleaned the blade on the soft wet grass and remembered...
* * * * *
"Do you think we'll find any game this night?" a voice murmured. "The woods are awfully deserted."
"Shhhh." You'll scare the prey with your talk. Keep quiet!"
A group of young gargoyle warriors made their way stealthily through the forest. They had started out in high spirits, seeking game for a Winter Solstice celebration. The hunt had not yet born fruit. The de facto leader of the party, a stocky young gargoyle with a wild mane of blonde hair, paused and studied the trail he had been following carefully through the leafy underbrush. It had grown confused. Several animals had crossed this pathway. He heaved a sigh. "I think we'd do better if we split up." He turned to his companions.
They thought it over for a moment then nodded in agreement.
"I will stay with you, brother," A lass of aquamarine skin and attractively flared ears joined him at his side. She hesitated and added shyly, "if you do not mind."
The youth looked at his feet, then forced himself to casually meet her gaze. "'Course not. But we'd best be going." He hurruphed a bit and the others, taking his cue, paired off and dispersed into the night.
Deborah stared at the litter covering the forest floor. "I think we should try that way." She pointed away from the direction the others had taken.
Hudson nodded. "Let's see who finds the biggest boar."
Stealthily the pair moved through the woods. They avoided conversation, but Hudson was aware of Deborah's steady presence at his side and he felt the beginnings of something, he wasn't sure what, stirring. Of all of his rookery sisters, Deborah was the most able. She had a natural leadership quality that made others seek her out. She was fearless, she was tough, and she made the gargoyle youth feel entirely inadequate in her presence. At the same time, she was warm and gentle and Hudson felt an electric attraction whenever he was near her. And now they were alone.
"Lass, do you think..." Hudson started to make his big move.
"Quiet, brother!" She placed her hand over his mouth, shushing him. "Did you here that?" Her eyes glowed, anticipating triumph. She pointed toward a break in the trees.
Hudson took the hint. He froze for a moment, opening his senses to the night. Then, picking up the scent, he nodded and began to pursue, hoping to flush the snuffling pig out into the open.
Deborah moved silently, paralleling his course through the woods. Hudson lost sight of her, but the chuffing sounds of the boar grew louder.
Closer and closer he crept until he was gazing at a mean looking animal with wicked tusks. The boar paused in his search for acorns and gazed about warily. Hudson froze. Then leapt. He struck the boar with perfect timing, falling upon it and whipping a talon across its meaty neck, then springing away, avoiding the sharp tusks. The boar fell to it's side and Hudson leapt to his feet triumphantly.
"Lass!" Hudson called, puzzled that Deborah had not appeared. "Lass?" he called again, louder this time. He pulled a coil of rope from his belt, tied one end to the boar's hock and looped the other end around a sturdy tree branch. Leaving the carcass to bleed out, he went in search of his missing companion.
Deborah crept stealthily toward the sound of the snuffling boar. Closer, closer, she could see it now. A few more steps and... Blackness. Blackness and pain. The young huntress moaned and tried not to move as she assessed her situation. Someone had dug a pit-trap and she had blundered into it. She cursed softly under her breath and winced as a bramble branch cut into her skin. She realized that she was cut and bleeding and her ankle was throbbing in time with her heart beat. If she attempted to free herself, she would only drive sharpened stick points deeper into her back and side.
"What a waste of a good piece of meat," she muttered to herself, disgustedly.
"Murdock! Come quick! We got something!" The excited voice was slightly slurred with drink.
"Hmm wha' did you say, Duncan?" a second slurred and sleepy voice replied.
"Wake up, you auld sod. I said something has sprung our trap. Come on let's see what we've caught."
"All right. I'm coming."
Lantern light flooded the pit and Deborah squinted against the sudden glare.
"Och, Duncan," Murdock's voice filled with disappointment. "It's one of those gargoyles.
"Not a deer or a boar?" Duncan asked dejectedly.
"Nothing we can eat. We might as well kill it and put it out of our misery." He pulled a short sword and advanced on the pit.
Deborah found her tongue. "Please sir, I've done you no harm. Won't you free me from your trap?"
"Aye," a voice drawled from the dark. "Don't you think it'd be better to help the lass?"
Hudson stepped into the clearing and the humans stared.
Duncan pulled a pearl handled knife from his belt and advanced on the gargoyle.
"Now see here, lad, I don't want a fight," Hudson said mildly. "Unless of course yuir willing to start one."
Duncan started forward brandishing his blade. The drink had effected him greatly and he staggered and weaved. He fumbled the knife and dropped it.
Hudson scooped it up off the ground and waved it at the hunters. "Back away from the pit. Nice and slow." Hudson's eyes glowed weirdly in the lamplight. Murdock stepped away from the pit and ran. Duncan watched blearily for a moment, then did his best to follow his friend's lead.
The gargoyles were alone.
Hudson approached the pit. "Are you badly hurt, lass?" He reached down and helped Deborah free herself from the briars and branches. She was cut in a dozen places and her tunic badly ripped. She growled in pain as he lifted her out of the hole.
"I will be...oomph!" she added as Hudson tried to free a particularly well embedded briar. "...fine. Nae, I cannae walk on this ankle."
Hudson examined the joint carefully. A sharp stick had impaled the lower part of Deborah's leg and it was already swelling in response. "This is going to hurt."
She nodded and closed her eyes. He pulled quickly, then clasped his hand over the wound. There was a tearing sound. Deborah handed him a piece of her ruined tunic and he used it to staunch the bleeding. A few more pieces of cloth and the worst of the wounds were bound.
"I think we'd best get you back to the castle."
She nodded and did not protest as he wrapped his arm around her, taking most of her weight off her injured leg.
The boar utterly forgotten, the pair limped their way back to Castle Wyvern.
* * * * *
"Brother! Sister!" Their clanmates exclaimed as the limped into the castle courtyard. "What has happened?"
Hudson explained their misadventure as Deborah was hustled away to be tended to by the clan healer.
The feast was winding down when she finally reappeared at Hudson's side.
"I wanted to thank you. It would have been an ignoble way to die, trapped like an animal in a hunter's pit."
"Nae, lass," Hudson replied, embarrassed. "It would have never come to that." He fumbled at his belt for a moment and produced the pearl-handled dagger. "I wanted you to have this. As a remembrance of our adventure. It might come in handy someday."
The aquamarine female smiled and accepted the gift. "Nae, you'll never wield a blade," she chuckled. She looked at him then, the amusement replaced by a different emotion. "But I'm glad ye tried." She leaned over and nuzzled his browridge affectionately.
Hudson hesitated for the briefest of moments and then returned Deborah's embrace.
* * * * *
Thersites stood stock still, debating whether or not he should approach the clan leader. He had found him kneeling on the ground, cradling something. He hadn't moved, hadn't spoken, just sat and stared off into space, for the longest time. Thersites was worried.
He was also getting cold and stiff. Risking the leader's wrath seemed a better course of action that enduring the discomfort he was beginning to feel, so he proceeded... cautiously.
"Eh hem," he began. "Good evening, Leader. Nice night for a glide and a think. Don't you agree?"
"What is it you want, lad. You've been trying to nerve yourself up to ask me something since you followed me from the castle." Hudson's voice was flat, as if he didn't care whether Thersites stayed or went. The younger gargoyle took that as a good sign and proceeded.
"I? Well I..." he stammered, not quite sure what to say. "You looked like you needed a bit of company is all. Brother Edmund was done thrashing us with his practice sticks and I really wasn't interested in another chapter of Beowulf. I thought I'd get a bit of air. You just happened to be gliding in the same direction, quite a coincidence, I'd say."
"Lad, some find yuir chatter amusing, I'm not one of 'm. So I'll ask ye again, what is it you want?"
Thersites dropped the pretense. "The clan is worried about you."
Hudson remained stony-faced and silent.
"The Elders say that you are being self-indulgent and that yuir setting a poor example for us younger members." Thersites paused, considering the statement. "As much as I'd like to blame my own less than stellar attitude on somebody else, I know they're wrong... at least about that. But the rest of us wonder too. Why have a Remembrance Ceremony if you continue to mourn afterward? We know that life is rough and short and brutal. We can't change that. We have to focus on the nights we're given, not the ones that have been..." Thersites trailed off, not sure where he was going with his random lecture.
"I was taught that too, lad," Hudson began. "And once I even believed it. I told the warriors who'd lost their mates that was part of the price we paid for being what we are. That it was an honor to die in the defense of the clan. That those who had gone on would be proud to be remembered, then forgotten, as is our way."
"They believed and got on with their lives, some even found new mates, and added to the rookery," Thersites added. He looked at his leader. "So if it worked for them, why doesn't it work for you?"
"Sometimes a person becomes so much a part of ya, that when they're gone, you can't help but feel their absence, it's like losing an arm, or a leg." Hudson sighed. "She was like that, not just for me, but for this entire clan. Without my lass, you young ones wouldn't be half the warriors that yuir goin' ta be. She was my mate, my second, but she was the glue that held this clan together. Not me."
"Tis true," Thersites agreed. "She did help us all. She did teach us all. But if her lessons survived, then she has survived as well." He rubbed at a spot on his thigh, remembering the Second's re-enforcing lashes during drills. "She's not really gone is she? Every night, something happens that makes me ask 'What would the Second have done?'" He grinned ruefully. "Usually I remember, then do just the opposite. But that's just me." Hudson shot his companion a sharp look, but allowed him to continue. "The others have taken her lessons to heart. And they are better gargoyles for it." He took a deep breath and concluded. "Holding on to the pain isn't going to bring her back, Leader. Punishing the clan by leaving us leaderless, will not honor her memory. She believed in our rules and traditions, even as she saw the benefit of change. If you truly love her, than show her, show us, rejoin the living and move on."
Hudson looked at the crooked horned gargoyle a long time without saying anything. The youth was right. Hudson wasn't superstitious, but there was something in the lad's words and something in his altered posture that reminded him of his departed mate. It was as if she had joined with the youngster, just for a moment, allowing her to use him long enough to say good bye and give her blessing on his decision to move on. He knew it was rubbish. But somehow, it made him feel better. He clasped Thersites around the shoulders. "If she even influenced you, than she's left a lasting legacy." Thersites looked embarrassed, then smiled. "Come on, lad. We've one more thing to do before the night's over."
Hudson tucked the pearl handled dagger in his belt, then pulled Thersites to his feet.
* * * * *
Demona looked both ways before she scaled the wall to the Archmage's sanctum. He had cautioned her most strenuously about ever being seen in his presence and she had solemnly vowed to exercise due caution.
"Master? Are you here?" she asked quietly as she entered the un-shuttered window. They had established a system. If it was safe for her to visit, he opened the shutters wide. If he was entertaining visitors, or did not wish to be disturbed, the shutters were tightly closed. Demona dropped lightly to the floor and waited in the outer chamber as she had been instructed.
"What took you so long?" the Archmage inquired crossly. Then his features smoothed over and his tone became more solicitous. "I'm sorry child, I was concerned for you. Did you accomplish your errand as I requested?"
"Yes, Archmage," Demona replied politely.
"And did anybody see you? Either coming into the guest wing or leaving it?"
"No, Archmage. I kept to the shadows as you instructed."
"That's fine, child. You did well." He reached over and patted her on the head like a hatchling.
"Archmage," Demona began hesitantly. "What was the powder that I placed in the chamber? Was it dangerous?"
The Archmage looked up sharply, only remembering to smooth his features at the last moment. "Dangerous? No, of course not child. 'Twas just a simple spell to help me to keep an eye on the prince's guests. 'Tis part of my duties to insure the prince's safety and these Frankish visitors cannot always be trusted. The powder will hang in the air and the envoy will get it on his person. It will make it much easier to keep an eye on his comings and goings, his plots and his plans. Don't you see, child?"
"Perhaps when you have taught me more of The Art, I will understand fully," Demona replied doubtfully.
"That's right, lass," the Archmage said, his voice as smooth as honey. "Right now these matters are quite beyond your comprehension. Sometimes when I look at you I forget how short a time you have been my student. I feel almost as if you are my own dear child."
Demona blushed at the Archmage's kind words, but at the same time she was overcome with a great feeling of unease. "Thank you, master." She quickly changed the subject. "I've been practicing my lessons," she said, pointing to an unlit candle sitting on the table. "Look!" She raised a hand, and pointed a talon. "Luminati!" The candle flickered and then sputtered to life.
The Archmage stepped backwards, impressed. The creature does have talent. "A very impressive first step," he said at last. "But I must caution you strenuously, child, about demonstrating your new found abilities to anybody but me." He took her chin between his long fingers and squeezed delicately.
Despite his mild words, Demona quailed inside. "Yes, Archmage. I do understand."
"Good." He released her with another pat on the head. "Is something troubling you child? The mage asked suddenly. "You seem disturbed."
"I do not want to burden you with my difficulties."
"Tut, tut. I would not be your friend if I did not share your burdens." He motioned to a stool by the fire. "Sit and tell me what is on your mind."
"Thank you, Archmage," she said as she took the proffered seat. "'Tis but a small thing..." she hesitated before continuing. "I am confused."
"The Leader is greatly troubled still by the loss of his mate. He is acting in a most, forgive the expression, human fashion. The elders are unhappy with his conduct and they are causing him much additional pain."
"And this causes you confusion because?" the Archmage prompted.
"I, too, still feel the Second's loss keenly," Demona confessed. "She was a hard teacher, but it was for our own good. I know that now."
"You must let go of the past so that you may embrace your future, my child." the Archmage said sternly. "A good warrior has no time for maundering sentimentality. Your clan elders are quite correct."
"But, the Leader. He..."
"He has yet to learn his own clan's lesson. You will understand this in time." He glanced at the hourglass on the hearth. "Speaking of time, I would not want your brothers and sisters to miss you. Perhaps you should return to them now."
"Of course, Archmage." Demona rose and prepared to quit the chamber.
"Goodnight, child." He smiled benevolently, until she glided off into the night sky and then he bolted the shutters tightly. Satisfied there would be no more disturbances, he began to chant the spell of tracking that would aid him in spying on the Frankish guests.
* * * * *
Demona leapt from the Archmage's window, confused. She was sure that he was pleased by her lighting of the candle, but at the same time there was that strange undercurrent to his words that she did not understand.
"Why must my teachers always be so difficult?" she muttered as she soared over the cliffs. "The Drill Master praises me grudgingly. The Second, she gave me pain, but confessed it was for my own good. And the Archmage..." She shook her head unable to organize her thoughts. A pair of silhouettes in the distance reminded her of her sarcastic brother and his unexpected concern for the Leader.
She banked and rolled, practicing battle drills until she trembled with exhaustion. Were the Elders and the Archmage correct? Was the Leader wrong to mourn his mate, and she her teacher? The questions continued to plague her. What was the best way to mourn the Second who she had loved and feared?
The coastline transformed and she realized that she had glided further away then she had intended. She was near the burial cave. Taking her unexpected arrival at the cave as an omen, she landed on the beach and walked quietly among the rocks until she stood at the mouth of the gargoyles' final resting place.
* * * * *
"I don't see why yuir draggin' me outta me nice comfortable spot by the fire to come get all cold 'n' soggy. Couldn't this wait?" Colum's brother Titus scratched his head and yawned.
"Quit complaining. I suppose it coulda waited 'til mornin' but someone else mighta seen us. And we'll be rich after we trade some of the booty away, be able to afford blankets and ale!" Colum cajoled in return.
The pair walked in silence, concentrating on keeping their footing through the receding tides. Colum couldn't wait to get back and plunder the cave. He had delayed just long enough for the water to climb back to knee level before starting the hazardous beach walk. As they approached the mouth of the cave, the water was down to ankle level. Soon the floor would once again be dry.
"Come on! This is the spot," Colum gestured. The pair hurried in and began to fill their sacks.
"Why would this cave be filled with treasure?" Titus wondered. "All manner of things that people might want to have with them." He held a scrap of fine cloth, moldering from the damp, to the lamp light, then flung it away. "I don't like this place Colum, it gives me the creeps."
"Hush now. Whoever left this stuff here isn't coming back for it. If it belonged to the dead then what use have they for it now?" he argued. "Now fill that sack! Pah, I wished I'd brought more," Colum complained.
There was a fluttering noise and footsteps outside the cave. "Did you hear that?" Titus hissed.
"Blast! Quick, hide behind that rock and be quiet!"
The two thieves hid.
Demona caped her wings, bowed her head and entered.
Titus snuck a peak from around the great stone pillar. A young, female gargoyle stood, wings caped and head bowed, at the stone platform that filled the center of the cave. He ducked back behind the pillar and cursed his brother's avarice. "Gods! This is a burial place!" he moaned to himself. "We'll be struck down for sure... or worse!" He cowered and tried to quiet his thumping heart.
"I'm not sure exactly why I came here," Demona began. "I suppose it is because this was your final resting place. The place you fell..." Demona turned her head and brushed at a tear. "I cannot bring myself to go there." She smiled at the air ruefully. "I suppose you would see that as a weakness." She resettled her wings about her shoulders and continued. "Your absence has been keenly felt. The Leader mourns you still, and the Elders are ready to riot." She paused then smiled. "I'm not sure you realized while you were among us, how you touched each of us, from the youngest hatchling to the oldest of the elders. They miss you... I miss you." Demona paced and continued her musings. "I realized too late that you were being hard on me to help me, to teach me, to make me a better warrior."
Colum peeked out from his own vantage point. "The wench is going to talk all night!" he moaned to himself. But she did seem awfully lost in her thoughts, maybe they could slip out without her noticing. Gently, he set his sack down on the sand floor. One step at a time, he moved towards the wall of the cave. The rocks and nooks and crannies offered numerous hiding places. Another step, another, another. He made it to the cave wall and the gargoyle hadn't noticed. She was still driveling on about love and honor and how nobody really understood her. He began to creep along the perimeter wall, another few feet and he'd be free!
He spared a look backward and saw that Titus had copied his strategy. His brother was close, they were both hugging the perimeter wall, less than ten feet between them. They were going to make it!
"I have taken a new tutor," the gargoyle wench continued. "Not just Brother Edmund, who helps us all. He has been good to me, teaching me things that even you could not. But sometimes I find the things he says and does...troubling."
Colum sighed inwardly, freedom was so near, yet so far. He didn't see the brass box protruding from the wall of the cave.
*CONK* The box connected with his temple. He couldn't quite cover the groan of surprise. The gargoyle spun around, her reverie broken, and she was on them in a flash.
"How dare you!" she roared. Her eyes flashed crimson fire and Titus fainted in her grasp. Colum gaped at her mutely.
"You desecrate our sanctuary? The final resting place of our honored dead?! You curs! You jackals! Have you nothing to say?"
The angry gargoyle flung the pair to their knees. Colum grabbed his unconscious brother and dragged him away from the maddened creature, all thoughts of treasure abandoned.
Demona followed them out of the cave and harried them until they were well away, then she took to the air and glided until her wings refused to carry her further. Exhausted and spent, she returned to the castle.
* * * * *
Thersites stole a glance at his clan leader gliding silently at his wingtip. He seemed calm, at peace in a way that had not been in evidence since the night of the Viking raid. He heaved a sigh of relief. Somehow this long night was going to work out all right after all.
Hudson haruumph and gestured and Thersites nodded and joined the older gargoyle in a gentle descent. They had arrived at the burial cave and it was time to pay one final tribute to their honored dead.
The marks of a struggle marred the sand before the cave. Hudson raised a taloned hand as Thersites opened his mouth to speak. The younger male closed his mouth and Hudson drew his sword. They scanned the beach, then entered the cave cautiously, but found nothing, except for a pair of worn canvas sacks filled with the belongings of the dead.
"Filthy robbers!" Thersites spat. "Can't even leave this place alone."
Hudson resheathed his sword and removed Deborah's knife from his belt. "Don't be too hard, lad. After all, why did our ancestors choose this cave as our clan's final resting place? Is it because it was safe and secure and the dead and their remembrances would stay forever in one place like the humans do?" Hudson shook his head. "No lad. This is but a temporary place." He gestured toward the pedestal and the niches carved in the wall where a gargoyle might roost. "This is a place for last farewells. It's only chance that some of the burial gifts linger on. The caprices of the sea. The dead don't need the things we leave with them."
"But what about the living?" Thersites wondered, ever the contrarian.
"Lad, isn't that what you've been trying to tell me? What the entire clan has been trying to tell me?" He raised Deborah's dagger to his lips, then placed it on the bier. "As long as we remember in our hearts, then those that we loved live on." He turned his back on the cave and began to climb the cliff. "Come on, lad, there's work to be done."
Thersites joined him scaling the rocky cliff face. "Isn't there always?" he grumbled.
* * * * *
"The leader has returned!" Thersites bellowed in his best imitation of Agamemnon, "And he has an announcement!" He smiled inwardly, Hudson had outlined his plan on the way back to the castle and Thersites had agreed at once. If there was anything he liked better than getting out of his chores, it was pulling the tails of the old sticks, and this would tie them in knots for sure.
Word spread quickly among the clan of castle Wyvern and they began to mass in the courtyard.
Hudson stood quietly waiting for the jostling and murmuring to end. At last there was utter silence. Even the humans, roused early from their beds by the commotion, who stood on the fringes of the crowd, waited with baited breath to see what had caused such a stir among the gargoyles.
"It might have seemed to some of ye, that I was ignoring my duties. He eyed the elder clan members levelly and several of them flinched under his unwavering gaze. "Well, you were wrong. I've been thinking about what's truly best for this clan. It's taken me a while, but I've decided at last. The old ways aren't the best ways for the clan's survival. We are entering a time of great change. And there isn't one among the elder warriors who capable of adapting to the changes that need to be made."
The clan gasped. The leader was bordering on heresy.
"But, among the rookery, newly ascended, there are several promising candidates. Warriors who will be able to lead with their heads as well as their muscles. Warriors for this new age. The new Second will be chosen from the Ascended rookery. In due time."
The crowd was struck dumb. Hudson saw their shock and smiled inwardly. "But we must be practical about these things," he continued. "If something were to happen to me, the clan must have a successor." He strode over to Agamemnon and clasped him on the back. "You, my friend, shall hold the place of Second until I announce my final decision."
"Of course. I shall be honored to do my duty to the clan." Agamemnon began, shocked as the rest by his friend and leader's radical decision. "I shall merely continue as I have been doing..."
"Which is why I have chosen ye." Hudson cut him off. "Don't think I didn't recognize how you've filled the breach," he continued gently, in a softer voice that wouldn't carry. "But these aren't the old days and this is for the best."
Agamemnon swallowed his hurt pride and tried to see the logic of the decision. He grasped Hudson's forearm and shook it, then turned to the crowd. "OUR LEADER HAS SPOKEN!" he bellowed over the crowd. "Now tend to your business, it's almost roosting time!"
"Can you believe it?" Demona marveled. "The Leader is going to chose among us! Who do you think he will honor?" Her gaze slid from Diomedes to Goliath and she eyed him speculatively.
Asrial caught her appraising glance. "Well, it was our brother who held the crystal key..."
Goliath blushed deep violet. "Whoever our leader chooses will have a great responsibility to carry out..."
"Which is why it should be somebody like me!" Iago preened to Desdemona. "I'll show the leader I have the stuff it takes!"
"Perhaps, brother," Othello offered, as he joined his favored sister and offered her his arm. "But that is for another night.
Desdemona took his arm and the pair departed to seek their roosting spots.
Hudson watched the younger gargoyles bemused. He turned to Thersites at his side. "Well, lad, would you like to prove your worth to me as well?"
Thersites looked stunned. "Why leader, not that I wouldn't be honored, but I think the Second should be...taller and more imposing, not that a quick tongue wouldn't be an advantage, mind you, but leading troops into battle requires a certain... something and the fog does make my horns ache so, it's quite a distraction you..." The rising sun put an end to the young gargoyle's panicked litany.
Brother Edmund smiled as he crossed the courtyard. He had risen hastily when the leader returned and stood in the shadows as the gargoyle made his stunning announcement. He paused and studied stone form of leader. "There are not many who are wise enough to see their own limitations." He placed his hand on the gargoyle's stone shoulder. "Ward off grief from your heart, friend, and put away trouble from your presence. I pray that you find peace all the rest of your nights."
The monk hurried to his room, eager to chronicle the evening's events.
~ The End ~