Prince of Thieves -- Part Three
Story Concept by Kathy Pogge
Written by Christi Smith Hayden
and Damien Tobin
An excerpt from Brother Edmund's journal:
"Unlike that of the Prodigal Son, the news of the wayward gargoyle's return was not well-received by the clan. The hatchlings are blissfully unaware, but the elders have spent much time in heated discussion on the matter for several nights and the adolescents have gone about their duties with worried faces, unsure of how to handle the situation. I was given the impression that the gargoyles were deeply ashamed of this bad seed, and the sooner he and his band of human bandits were captured the better. The clan leader increased the number of nightly patrols to this end, incorporating every available gargoyle without an argument from any of them. They are determined to find this mysterious outcast and cleanse this blot from their reputation here at Wyvern."
Goliath sailed in towards the parapets of Castle Wyvern with a wing of his rookery brothers. The clan leader had come in at the end of their meal and promptly sent them out to replace the older warriors on search duty. As he glided along, he passed the tower his sister kept a workroom in and noticed that the window was down. Frowning, he took a quick look around. It was less than an hour to dawn and there had been no sign of her all night. It wouldn't be the first time she had been caught away from the castle, but the clan leader and his mate would be particularly displeased about her absence, especially given their current situation with the bandits.
Altering his flight path, Goliath swung away from the castle and down over the cliff. His sister's special cave was halfway down and he glided in lightly. "Sister!" he called out as he landed in the entranceway. "Have you lost track of time again? It's almost sunrise!"
No one answered, and after a moment he began to feel uneasy. There was a sense of wrongness in the small cave, something he could identify. He took a few steps in, and then gasped as he saw the chaos within the cave's interior. Baskets and boxes were overturned, her collection of powders and herbs were heaped on the floor, and her inventions were scattered and broken.
Goliath cast an anxious look around the cave floor, hoping to find some trace of evidence as to what happened here. He could see the small footprints of his sister all around the floor of the cave, but they were mingled with another's -- from a larger gargoyle, a male most likely. But what made his blood run cold was the tail mark associated with the male footprints. Several impressions that said the owner had a knobbed tail. The lavender gargoyle turned and bolted from the cave. * * * * *
"--All o' my flight leaders have reported in," the gargoyle leader said to the Captain of the Guard. "We dinnae find any trace o' the bandits within five miles o' th' castle proper."
"Aye, they've been quiet for the last week," the Captain replied gruffly. "I dinnae know if that's a good sign or not."
The Leader nodded as he looked out over the predawn landscape. "Best to be prepared for th' enemy ye dinnae see, than to be caught unaware." An approaching sound drew his attention skywards.
The Captain followed the gargoyle's look up and frowned. "Yon young warrior seems to be in a hurry," he observed.
"Aye," the Leader answered, his expression becoming one of mixed curiosity and annoyance. "I wonder what's got his tail in a knot."
The two older warriors watched the young lavender gargoyle sail in. Even before his feet touched down on the parapet stones, Goliath had locked stares with his clan leader. "I've just come from her cave!" he said breathlessly, bounding towards them. "He's taken her!"
The Leader's face grew grim. "Are ye sure, lad?"
Goliath nodded. "Yes, I -"
The conversation stopped abruptly as the first rays of the rising sun on the eastern horizon froze the gargoyles in place. The Captain looked between the young warrior and the clan leader. Their grave expressions were almost identical and they gave the Captain an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach.
"Who's the female he's talkin' about?" he wondered to himself, stroking his chin. "And who took her?" He turned and called to the nearest guardsman. "You there! Robbie!"
"I got a wee job for ye and Brother Edmund. One o' our gargoyles is missing, and I'd like him ta help us figure out which one it is."
* * * * *
It didn't take Robbie too long to find Brother Edmund. The middle-aged priest was deeply engrossed in a conversation with one of the castle's various officials, apparently asking for permission to cultivate a small herb garden.
"It won't require too much space, I assure you," Edmund explained to the official who, by his expression, was very wary about the entire idea. "All I need is the room, I can take care of it myself! Why, there's hardly enough herbs as it is, and winter is only just beginning to take its toll. Just now I had to deal with a young porter who had broken his leg, and I didn't have adequate supplies. I..."
"Brother Edmund!" Robbie called out, interrupting the priest. In the split second it took for Edmund to turn and face the new arrival the official managed to make his escape. Edmund noticed and tried to call the man back, but it was too late.
Sighing, Edmund turned his attention to the young guard. He seemed to be rather concerned for some reason Edmund couldn't make out. "Yes Robbie, what can I do for you?"
"It's one of the gargoyles, Brother," the young guard explained. "She's missing. We just....don't know which one, and we need you to figure out who it is!"
Edmund frowned, normally he would have just dismissed this news; it wasn't the first time he'd heard about someone 'disappearing' for a time. Usually, they'd simply turn up the next day, with some hare-brained reason for having gone missing.
But as he looked at Robbie's face, Edmund could tell that this was serious business; one of the gargoyles must really be in trouble. "All right," he said. "We'll need more than just you and me to search, though. Come on lad, take me to the Captain; you can explain what you know on the way!" * * * * *
When they talked to him, though, the Captain of the Guard refused to send his men to search for a missing gargoyle, he could not take any more men from their posts, not with these thieves about. So Robbie and Edmund had to search alone on the battlements, going from statue to statue.
"Well the leader's mate is safe," Robbie said, as the two men stood by Deborah's stone form.
"You mean the Second is safe," Edmund corrected him. "She should be recognized as someone herself, not as someone who loves someone. Regardless, the lass with four wings is safe, over here." He pointed towards Desdemona.
"As is the lass with the crimson hair and blue skin," Robbie said, pointing at another statue. They continued to count off the gargoyles as they saw them.
"Here's the one with the lavender skin and purple hair."
"The Eldest is fine."
"As is the one with the ridged tail."
"There's the two that always stay together," said Edmund.
"Aye," added Robbie, "I don't think I've ever seen one without the other close by. And here's the one with the wings between her arms."
"I've found the black one without hair."
"I don't recognize this lass..." Robbie said, looking at a small, beaked statue. Then he got an embarrassed look on his face. "Oh, sorry Brother, it's the lad that's always hiding from things. The one with the crooked horn. Would you say that's all?"
Edmund thought for a moment. "Have you seen the lass with the spiral horns?" he asked.
Hearing no answer, he continued on, worry edging into his voice. "You remember, the one that is always inventing things? And reading?"
Robbie merely shook his head.
Edmund sighed. "Well, now we know who's missing." * * * * *
Several people sat at a table in the Prince's council chambers; among them was Edmund, the Captain of the Guard, and the young guard, Robbie. The Prince himself was standing at the far end of the room, walking back and forth as his councilors talked over the news of the missing gargoyle.
"Let me get this straight," the Captain said scornfully. "You think the gargoyle lass was kidnapped because...?"
"Because she invents things" finished Edmund. "Just because she is not taken seriously here does not mean she is not taken seriously elsewhere. Heaven knows she almost blew the castle up enough times, almost as many as the Archmage.
"Granted, she does tend to make mistakes, but the Masked Bandit has shown himself to be very intelligent. He may believe he can use her. Have you noticed she various snares she used to catch wildlife? Imagine those snares used on your horses, a band of highwaymen lying in wait just beyond the corner? No, there can be little doubt who took her, nor why."
The Captain frowned, thinking. "I suppose it is possible," he finally conceded. "If not for that, she did catch the ruffians before they could rob us blind. Revenge could easily be a motive too...we know next to nothing of these thieves. What we need to decide now is...what next?" * * * * *
Asrial shook the stone chips out of her long golden hair as she struggled to sit up. A few errant strands had been torn free from her ponytail and had fallen across her face as she awoken. She blew them aside and then looked around her. The torch lighting the chamber she was in had long since burnt out, but the luminous fungi on the cave walls provided enough light for her keen gargoyle night vision.
He was gone but evidence of his presence was all around her. Traces of her blood had dried in reddish-brown rings on the stone floor around her, indicating what had happened the night before. She cringed as she thought of it, but fortunately a day's sleep had healed her injuries.
She had hoped that her stone sleep would free her from her bindings, but the leather thongs were tighter than ever. Stretching her cramped fingers, Asrial brushed against a shard of her stone skin. She could feel the sharp edge on it, and suddenly she had an idea. She eagerly picked up the piece and then clutched it between two fingers as she tried to cut through the tough leather of the bonds. The brittle sliver broke in only a few strokes but she scrabbled around and found another to continue the work.
Sweat dripped down her nose as Asrial worked on her bonds, glancing up anxiously at the slightest sound. It was slow going but after a little while, her fingertips could feel a rough spot developing in the leather. She knew that if she could just scratch it a little deeper....
Suddenly the sharp shard slipped in her hands and cut into the relatively thin skin of her wrist. Asrial cried out in pain, the sound echoing around the cave.
After a moment, she managed to get control of herself. Shaking, she pressed her lips together and tried to focus beyond the pain, to ignore the warm trickle beginning to puddle between her bound wrists. Asrial picked up a new piece of stone skin and kept after the thongs, but she only got a few strokes before her wet fingers grew too slippery to hold the stone.
She choked back a sob and her shoulders drooped as she began to realize that she'd never be able to cut the thongs in time. At the rate she could now go, by the time she could cut her bonds her captor would probably arrive and simply tie her up again.
As she continued to despair, she adjusted her position slightly, and was surprised to find her wrists slip against each other. Suddenly, she remembered one of her first experiments with gears, improving on the water mill that the village used to grind grain. She'd had several gears lined up but they wouldn't work smoothly until she greased the gears. Using her own blood to lubricate her bonds in order to escape was risky but -- she bit her lip and started twisting her wrists against each other.
She had to get free. Soon. * * * * *
Roland hid in the deep cowl of his cloak and watched his rookery sister from a little niche high up on the cave wall, a place he had discovered long ago. He noticed that the female had started trying to free herself almost immediately upon waking. The injuries he had inflicted upon her in his rage the night before had been cured in her stone sleep, and the only evidence was the loose swatch of hair draped across her face and a few tears in her homespun dress.
He studied her critically. It was entirely possible that this clever female truly believed herself to be plain-looking as she claimed. The other females went out of their way to display their best features to the males of the clan. But not this one. Nothing he had done to her had made her change her story; she was completely indifferent to her appearance and yet, she was just as lovely as their other rookery sisters.
It had been a long, long time since Roland had seen another gargoyle, much less a female as fair as this one. She had been a skinny little thing when they had been hatchlings together, all knobby knees and elbows, thatch of straw-colored hair sticking out in all directions. The corner of his mouth turned up, threatening to smile. His clever sister had blossomed from that awkward urchin, her hair long and silken, elegant horns spiraling from her brow ridge and her limbs sleekly muscled and supple.
He let out a little sigh.
Asrial glanced up suddenly and he shrank back, watching until she returned to whatever it was she was doing behind her back. She had determination as well as cleverness. He admitted as much to himself, smiling somewhat. Then the smile turned to a grimace as though he found his longed for dreams of vengeance leaving a foul taste in his mouth. He looked at her for just a second, as though wondering if he should really be doing this to her, his own rookery sister.
But only for a moment. He watched her a few more minutes before silently climbing down to the cave floor. * * * * *
"Well, well..." the ugly gargoyle said, leaning against the wall as if he'd been watching her for some time, "aren't you just a busy little thing?"
Asrial gave him a startled look through the golden veil of her hair. She closed her eyes for a heartbeat or two to compose herself before she spoke. "I do not like to be idle, brother. If you have been watching me as you say, then you would know this."
He snorted. "Try to free yourself any way you wish. It won't do you any good."
Swiftly, before she could blink, the skeletal gargoyle darted out, picked her up, and tossed her across the cave away from the stone chips. Asrial winced as she landed awkwardly, her wing pinned at a painful angle beneath her. She rolled away to free it and was slammed back in place by a sharp-taloned foot on her torso. "Please, brother, I cannot breathe."
"You may very well wish you were NOT breathing," he said with a harsh laugh, "before I am through with you." He kicked her aside roughly, rolling her over in the dust.
Asrial coughed, looking up at her lost rookery brother, her eyes large and luminous. "At least, tell me the real reason why you're doing this," she said resolutely. "I know what it's like to be different, too. Our rookery siblings mock me for my inventions, for learning from the humans, for wanting to be more than just a warrior. My differences are just on the inside, that's all." She swallowed the bile rising in her throat. "We are kindred spirits, you and I."
The sickly yellow gargoyle stalked away and while his back was turned, Asrial heard the rustling and clanging of things being moved around. A clicking sound followed by bright sparks preceded the lighting of a fresh torch. He turned in profile and she could see him clearly as he raised a waterskin to drink, the crisp clean smell of water in her nostrils. Without thinking about it, she licked her lips and watched water spill out of the corners of his mouth. Her throat burned, the inside of her mouth still gritty with dust from the cave.
He raised a spiked eyebrow ridge and took another deliberate, deep drink. Licking the moisture from his thin, receding lips, he asked solicitously, "Where are my manners? Dear sister, would you like some water?"
"If it would not be too much trouble for you, brother."
His eyes narrowed. "I'm sorry. I didn't hear you."
Asrial closed her eyes and swallowed painfully. "Please, may I have some water?" she asked in a small voice.
He poured some water in the palm of his hand and held it near her head. "This water?" he asked in mock-innocence, letting a single drop splatter on her forehead.
"Yes, please." Her lip trembled.
Another droplet of water splashed on her forehead.
"Brother, please, no games!" The whites of her eyes were showing all around Asrial's dark brown pupils. "Please, let me have a drink of water."
The emaciated gargoyle said nothing but his eyes burned brighter in their recessed sockets. He sank gracefully to his haunches before Asrial, lowering his handful of water towards her. The bound gargoyle closed her eyes and opened her mouth to prepare to drink.
Plip! Asrial began to whimper. "P-please?" Her whispering voice shook. "Please, brother, I beg you! Have mercy!"
Plip! Wordlessly, soundlessly, Asrial began to cry.
Plip! * * * * *
"Here!" Goliath called back over his shoulder. "Here is where it happened!"
He landed in the mouth of Asrial's cave and waited for the others, Brother Edmund and Robbie being carried down by the Leader and Agamemnon, with Ajax and Othello close behind. The gargoyles landed and deposited their human passengers, and then looked curiously around Asrial's workshop away from home. With the exception of Goliath, none of them had ever been there before.
"Are ye sure, lad?" the Leader asked. "This might be th' result o' one o' her 'experiments' again."
"I dinnae think so, brother," Agamemnon said, kicking a basket aside cautiously. "We would have heard the bang. The lass tends towards rather explosive recipes."
"I agree." Brother Edmund knelt and fingered a deep three-toed footprint in the cave floor. "Here is the mark of the culprit. The gargoyle that made this was much heavier than our clever girl."
The Leader dropped down and sniffed the track deeply. He shot a look at the young warriors at the mouth of the cave. "You two! Go fetch our beast and bring him back here. The scent is a day old but I think there's enough left to follow."
Ajax and Othello both nodded, and then they dove out of the cave and soared back to the castle.
Edmund coughed slightly from the cave's dank atmosphere as he rose to his feet and dusted off his habit. He may have been an old man in excellent health, even he could not stand the cave's stench. "As much as I'd like to think otherwise," he said, "I don't think your beast is going to be much good here, however good a tracker he may be."
"Aye, you're right," Hudson agreed, nodding. "I was just being hopeful when I sent those two away. There's little chance a good scent can be picked up here, with all these powders and tinctures and the water so close."
"And there's no telling how far he could have gotten with her last night," Agamemnon noted. "They could be anywhere."
Edmund moved towards Goliath. "Lad, you MUST think!" he said to the lavender gargoyle. "Think back...your brother seems to be acting out on past aggressions toward his family...is there any place in particular he might feel his sister harmed him? He doesn't seem to be thinking quite...rationally". Then, gravely, he added, "I think he may be feeling a need for retribution."
Goliath furrowed his brow in thought, as did the Leader and Agamemnon. "I recall that he had a fondness for telling my mate where the others had disappeared to during training," the Leader offered after a few moments.
Agamemnon shook his head. "No good, none of them really harmed him in that. We need to think of some way he might think they hurt him."
Goliath moaned. "Oh surely not..." he began. When the others turned to him curiously, he continued. "It was so long ago and we were just children!"
"Go on lad", Edmund urged. "Now is not the time to be shy. Every second may count".
"We were playing a game", said Goliath, a tad sheepishly. "Just a game. We were playing seeker...a game that lad Oliver taught us.... he didn't play it himself, he said he was too old for it. Well, we were in the old rookery, and..."
"The old rookery?!" Agamemnon all but roared. "Lad had none of ye any sense?! Did I not tell ye hatchlings, at length, how dangerous that place was? Even then the castle was making the place dangerously unstable, the whole thing might have fallen about you!" Hudson put his hand on his rookery brother's shoulder, calming him a little. Agamemnon paused for a moment, then apologized. "Please, continue," he said.
"Well, my rookery brother... that is...the Masked Bandit...I...I mean.... well, he was hiding among the nesting spots, but we didn't know that." Goliath shot a hurt look at his elder. "We didn't think he would be there. We all knew the old rookery was forbidden, and that it wasn't safe any longer. But we just wanted to find someplace where we could play without a chance of getting in the humans' way."
Edmund chuckled, despite the gravity of the situation, at the expression on old Agamemnon's face.
Goliath continued, memories becoming clearer now, his words hurried - perhaps because he sensed the need. "We were hunting...I mean looking together. My sister and I that is. She ran in and out of the rookery, and called out 'Brother?'. But she didn't see him, you see. Then she heard heard that we were leaving for supper and left herself. None of us wanted to get in trouble. When we got to the castle the Second made us go to supper and we forgot about him until it was nearly dawn. By the time we realized where he was, the sun was rising. We freed him the next night, after we snuck away from chores, though. And we swore never to tell any of you about it."
Agamemnon and the Leader looked at Goliath with horror. "Do you mean to say lad, that ye left yer rookery brother in that deathtrap for an entire day?" Agamemnon asked in disbelief.
Goliath hung his head in shame and then nodded.
"Then the rookery," Edmund said softly, "is where he is dealing out his revenge". * * * * *
Argus snuffled and whined as he followed the scent from Asrial's cave up the cliff, heading towards the back side on the castle. He was half-on and half-off a narrow ledge, digging into the rock face as more and more of the ledge gave way under his weight.
Brother Edmund took a tighter grip around the Leader's neck and commented over the gargoyle's shoulder, "I can see why you abandoned the caves in this area."
"Aye," the Leader replied, "th' castle-building weakened th' cliff on this side an' it just wasn't safe for the hatchlings any more."
"No doubt about it," Agamemnon commented. "He's makin' straight for th' old rookery. Should we bring in reinforcements? There's no telling how many of th' scoundrels there could be in there."
"There may not be time to fetch the others," Brother Edmund countered. "Besides there's no way humans could climb down the cliffs without being seen, and the Captain doubled the guard at the castle today, so no men can be spared."
"He's had her for hours," Goliath said anxiously. "We can't risk wasting any more time."
The Leader nodded. "You're right, lad. Between th' lot o' us, we should be more than a match for him." He held up a taloned hand. "Quiet now, all o' ye. Yon beast has summat cornered."
Argus was waiting for them on the rim of a cave opening, his hackles raised and his formidable teeth bared silently. One by one, the gargoyles landed at the entrance, and then ventured into the narrow, twisting cavern. Brother Edmund held onto Agamemnon's belt and Robbie held onto Goliath's as they followed the gargoyles, the monk marveling at their incredible night vision in the dim fluorescence cast by glowing fungi on the cave walls.
"There'll be torches farther on," Agamemnon whispered back. "Just a wee bit more until we reach the egg chamber."
A soft sound caught their attention. It was faint, barely louder than a whisper, a low trembling whimper. "P-please, no more... no more..."
A deeper voice spoke. "What -- and end this evening's entertainment early?"
A broken, shuddering sob answered and Argus began to growl. All the gargoyles' eyes lit up and the Leader pointed silently at Goliath and Ajax to move up to the front beside the beast.
Goliath put Robbie's hand on Brother Edmund's shoulder and then headed grimly up the passage. After a few more yards, the corridor began to widen and a flickering light showed up ahead. The gargoyles at the head of the rescue party could see Asrial lying at the far side of the cave, tied hand and foot. Her hair was loose over her face and her garment was torn, clear signs that she had been mistreated. A growl rumbled in Goliath's chest and he looked as though he might charge in, but the Leader put a restraining hand on his shoulder. The older warrior crept closer to the rookery entrance and peered carefully inside.
Seeing no sign of the rogue gargoyle, the old gargoyle frowned. They had just heard the rogue's voice; he had to be in the old rookery somewhere. Looking around, he could see that the cavern was riddled with crevasses and ledges, each one of them in shadow. An attack could come from anywhere. Asrial moaned and he shot a sharp glance at her. The burnt orange female was bleeding from a dozen or more small cuts all over her body from wingtips to tail. Four ugly red streaks marred her face.
The Leader set his jaw as he raised his hand to give the signal to rush the room, his other hand on the tense shoulders of the gargoyle beast. A firm thump sent Argus bounding into the old rookery, the Leader, Goliath and Ajax close behind. But as he ran forward, the crested gargoyle's foot caught on a cord strung across the entryway.
"What the --" Ajax felt a pebble strike his shoulder and glanced up. "Leader! It's a trap!"
Reacting in a split-second he pushing the Leader out of the way of a loose cascade of gravel preceded the heavy stones that thundered down from above the entryway of the old rookery. As the dust began to settle, they could all see that the narrow passage was almost completely sealed.
Argus snarled and Goliath's attention turned elsewhere. Roland had used the diversion to his advantage, seizing Asrial while the others were distracted, and now he held Asrial in his arms, his dagger-like talons held against her throat.
"Brother!" Goliath shouted indignantly. "What are you doing to our sister?"
"Oh, dear," Roland remarked casually, ignoring Goliath's outrage. "You've arrived early. I wasn't quite finished entertaining our dear sister here."
Asrial fixed her eyes on Goliath's face, a firm, resolute look of hope, even as she trembled and shook from fear and stress. Her lavender brother glowered at her captor and stepped towards them.
Roland shook his head. "Naughty, naughty." He ran his index talon down Asrial's throat, leaving an angry red welt.
Goliath's face darkened but he controlled his rage. "Don't..." The word trailed off into a growl, an audible threat. His tail snapped.
"Oh, ho?" The skeletal, spiked gargoyle chucked Asrial playfully under her chin. "See here, sister, the power your beauty has over our brother. He's prepared to die for you."
"As would any o' th' clan," the Leader said firmly, "for their rookery mate."
"But not for me!!" Roland's eyes flared white-hot in their hollowed sockets. "You ABANDONED me!"
The Leader was taken aback. "Och, not so, lad. We --"
"You did NOTHING, old one!" Roland bit out. He shook Asrial and she whimpered. "You didn't waste any time at all proclaiming me dead. But for her," he held her up by the nape of her neck, "it's a rescue party with all the trimmings!"
"B-brother!" Asrial stammered out. "Please! Don't make it worse for yourself. Let me go!"
"You!" he growled, head whipping around to face her. "You say you're so much like me...you don't understand!" He gestured wildly to the others. "None of you understand! This is your fault, not mine...." His voice faltered. "You did this to me...it's not my fault..."
"Lad, there's no need to do this," the Leader said softly, hoping to take advantage of the rogue gargoyle's confusion. "Just put yuir sister down, and-"
"NO!" Roland roared. He glared at Asrial, hand poised to deliver the killing blow. She shivered helplessly, shrinking away, and for a moment the blaze of Roland's eyes seemed to dim. Some of the malice faded from his features, but it was quickly replaced by a look of grim determination.
"As you wish," he said coldly, but the words were drowned out by Asrial's startled cry. He raked his talons across her neck in one cruel stroke and tossed her aside, vaulting up the cave wall and disappearing into a darkened crevasse.
"After him, boy!" Hudson commanded and Argus swarmed up the stone wall, snarling. Ajax followed close behind.
Stones fell into the rookery as Agamemnon and Othello pushed through the rockslide barring the passage. Hudson gave them the barest glance as he knelt by Goliath's side and started cutting away Asrial's bonds. "Get th' healer in here quickly!" he called to Agamemnon. "Th' lass needs him!"
Agamemnon nodded. "An' th' other?" His tone of voice was grim and unforgiving.
"Gone up one o' th' side passages. I sent th' beast an' th' crested one after 'im."
"You join th' search," Agamemnon told Othello. "I'll see to things here."
"Very well, Elder." Othello climbed up to join the others, the baying of Argus following the rogue's trail coming clearly from a narrow opening near the ceiling.
A moment later, Brother Edmund arrived in the chamber. Struggling over the coarse rubble strewn upon the floor, he went to Asrial and knelt beside her. Quickly, he took a clean cloth from a pouch on his belt and wiped away the blood on her neck, and then took her pulse.
When he was done examining her, he pressed the cloth against her neck and held out his sleeve to the gargoyle leader. "Tear a strip off so I can tie this bandage in place," he ordered quickly. "We must get her back to the infirmary as soon as possible."
"Brother Edmund?" Goliath asked, his brow creased with worry. "Will she be all right?"
"Yes, rest easy, my young friend." The human cleric gave Goliath a reassuring smile. The lavender gargoyle seemed particularly relieved at the news. "She's lost a great deal of blood, though. I'll need my medicines back at the castle to treat her properly."
"Aye, lad. You'd best join the others."
Goliath rose and started to climb when a blood-curdling howl echoed through the cave system, seeming to come from everywhere at once. Othello and Ajax re-appeared a few minutes later, carrying an irritated Argus. The gargoyle beast was pawing at his face, whining and whimpering.
"We came to a wide spot in the passage," Ajax reported, "when the outcast turned and flung a handful of powder in the beast's face. I got a whiff of it. Whatever it was, it burned the inside of my nose and made my eyes water."
"It's a mean trick," Robbie said as he came forward, taking a flask off his belt. "An old thief's trick, that is, throwing mustard in a dog's face to throw him off your scent." He knelt and rinsed out Argus's eyes, wiping his snout clean with the edge of his tunic. "There you go, boy. That should be better." The gargoyle beast still seemed in a little pain, but he looked gratefully at the young human.
The Leader scooped up Asrial. "There's no time to waste, lads. You two," he looked at Ajax and Othello, "go tell my Second what's happened. Have her concentrate the warriors in this area, check every known cave. That fiend could come out anywhere."
The two younger warriors nodded, and then scrambled out of the rookery. Asrial moaned and her head lolled against the clan leader's shoulder. The older gargoyle looked into her pale face with fatherly concern. "Come on, lads," he called gruffly. "It's time we took the lass home." * * * * *
Brother Edmund set aside the basin of bloody water and surveyed his work. He had used up the last of his calendula tincture on Asrial's wounds, but the monk was satisfied that the female would have no lasting damage from her ordeal. After a moment, the young gargoyle stirred, and murmured a little before her eyes flew open, the dark brown orbs wide with momentary terror. She looked as though she was ready to scream, and so Brother Edmund quickly went to her side.
"Hush now, my dear," he crooned softly. "You're safe. You're back at the castle. You're home."
"H-home?" Asrial asked weakly. She licked her lips and tried to form a word.
Brother Edmund anticipated her need and brought a stoneware mug to her lips. "I have some medicine for you. It may not taste very good but it has willow bark to ease your aches and other herbs to make your blood strong and to help you rest easy." He helped raise her up to drink.
Asrial made a face as she downed the liquid, causing the priest to laugh. "Yes, yes, my dear. If medicine tasted good, people would never want to get well now, would they?"
"I-it could use some improvement," she commented softly.
Brother Edmund smiled. It had been his experience that if a patient had the strength to complain, they were bound to get better. "Drink it all down, child, and you may have all the water you like. I'll send down to the kitchens for some food."
"No need," Deborah said from the doorway. The leader's mate came in with a cloth-covered tray, Goliath following anxiously. "The lad was fair worried for her so we made the trip to th' kitchen ourselves."
Removing the last of his medicinal supplies, Brother Edmund eyed the tray. "Simple foods, I hope? Her stomach will be a bit delicate for a time, until the medicine takes effect."
"Dinnae worry, Brother, 'tis nae th' first time I've fed th' injured," Deborah said, placing the tray on the low bedside table. She flipped off the cloth. "I brought clear meat broth, cheese, milk and yuir rookery brother snatched the first loaf out o' th' ovens just for ye, lass."
Asrial smiled up at Goliath. The tall lavender gargoyle flushed and studied the room for a moment before speaking. "I know how much you like warm bread and honey." He shrugged indifferently.
Deborah and Brother Edmund exchanged a knowing smile. The aquamarine gargoyle propped Asrial up and pulled a stool up to the bed. "Now then, let's see about gettin' some good food into ye, hmmm?" She took up a wooden bowl and dipped up a spoonful of broth, blowing on it gently to cool it.
"Oh, no, Second!" Asrial protested. "You mustn't! I'm --"
"Until yuir well," Deborah said firmly, "yuir to be spoiled like a hatchling fresh out o' th' egg. I fed ye then," she smiled, "and I'll be feedin' ye now. C'mon then, open up."
Asrial paused for a moment, then opened her mouth dutifully. Brother Edmund busied himself with tidying up while Deborah carefully fed the injured gargoyle. He wondered when the leader's mate would come around to her true purpose. He didn't have long to wait as Deborah began to casually and painlessly worm the entire story of Asrial's ordeal out of her. Goliath stayed silent throughout the whole recitation, but his slashing tail betrayed his true emotions.
"He kept saying he was punishing me because the others hated him for being ugly," Asrial said slowly. Brother Edmund could see from the glazed look in her eyes that his medicines were taking effect. "And that I was pretty. And that even though we were both sort of outcasts, we weren't treated the same." She shook her head. "I don't understand." Her forehead wrinkled even as her eyelids drooped sleepily.
Deborah reached over and brushed a wayward strand of hair from the young female's face. "Dinnae worry about it now, lass. We'll try to make sense o' it later." She stroked Asrial's brow ridges soothingly. "Time for ye to rest now. Yuir brother and I will be back later to take ye out to yuir roost. Brother Edmund will watch over ye until then. Rest now." She continued stroking Asrial's brow ridges until she was certain the young gargoyle was asleep.
"That was interesting," Brother Edmund commented softly as he saw them to the door. "Putting her to sleep that way."
"Aye, it works on hatchlings o' all ages," Deborah whispered back. "Feel free to write that down in yuir book."
"Indeed, I shall. I'll have her ready at dawn." The second nodded and smiled, then started toward the doorway. After a moment, Edmund reached out and caught her arm. "There's...one other thing you might want to know."
She looked back at him and raised an eyeridge. "Yes?"
"Judging by these wounds, the rogue's talons must have been incredibly sharp. He could easily have done more damage than this."
"Ay, I suppose." She frowned. "What are ye gettin' at, Edmund?"
"I could be wrong of course, but...he may have intended for her to survive. Done just enough damage to distract you while he made his escape."
Deborah's face darkened somewhat, but she nodded. "Perhaps, though I must say I doubt it. He did not seem the merciful type." She sighed. "Still, I'll pass yer thoughts on to the leader."
"That is all I ask," Edmund said with a small smile. He watched her turn and disappear down the corridor, no doubt heading for a convenient window to launch from. Deborah was most certainly on her way to report to her mate and the other gargoyle elders. He suspected young Goliath was on his way to join the search parties and he pitied the outcast gargoyle if his lavender brother found him.
Asrial was sleeping soundly when he returned and he said a quick prayer for a rest uncluttered by dreams. Then Brother Edmund sat down at his desk by the window, opened his journal and sharpened a fresh quill. He contemplated the blank page in front of him for a long time before finally dipping the quill into the ink and beginning to write. * * * * *
Roland walked into his camp, a self-satisfied smile on his face. He had eluded the Wyvern clan neatly; another successful plan executed. As he continued on into the camp, his second-in-command came out of a tent and approached him.
"Welcome back, boss." The human eyed the masked gargoyle carefully. "Any orders for the men? Are we going to move on? The pickings are getting kind of slim."
"We'll stay for now," Roland said thoughtfully. "My family might think it rude if I left without saying goodbye." He smiled coldly. "Besides, I've been contacted by an intriguing gentleman who has some interesting prospects for us. It promises to be a most profitable venture -- in more ways than one."
He dismissed his second and melted into the forest, heading for his secret roost. Kneeling on the small wooden platform, Roland looked off towards Castle Wyvern, its towers and walls silhouetted against the pale, pre-dawn sky. He sighed deeply, remembering back to what had happened. He should have been ecstatic - everything had gone just as he'd planned it. But, somehow, a creeping sadness kept pushing more pleasant emotions aside. Slowly, a sorrowful frown replaced the grin that had split his face, and remained there throughout the night and into the day. The End