The Reluctant Hero
Outline by Christi Smith Hayden
Written by Diana R. Flynn
From the journals of Edmund, monk and healer at Castle Wyvern:
"It was after the arrival of the Vikings from the north in the early fall in the year of our Lord nine hundred seventy-one that the denizens of Wyvern began to rebuild both their shattered lives and the shattered kingdom. Even I did not escape unscathed, for a stray shot put a hole through the chapel window. Both human and gargoyle pulled together to restore order as quickly as possible, sharing equally in the workload. Still, there was a young gargoyle of my acquaintance, a clever fellow gifted with a sharp tongue and an acid wit, preferring his own leisure to gainful industry who found himself through a series of serendipitous events in a place he never wanted to be..."
* * * * *
He crouched against the parapet, squeezing his eyes shut as the sounds from below grew louder. Yes. They would have long since noticed that he was gone. By now, the search had probably been on for several minutes.
"Don't let them find me," he whispered, digging his ragged hands into the stone; "don't let them find me..."
Voices filtered up from below, "Where is he? How could ye have let him escape?!"
He swallowed, with difficulty, wondering for a moment if maybe running away hadn't been such a fine idea.
He glanced around at his 'perfect' hiding place, which seemed to grow less and less perfect as time passed. He realized slowly that he was effectively pinned down until the search let up. Even if he could manage to catch an updraft in time, they'd surely see him, and then he'd be in for it.
If the search let up. For a few moments, hope bubbled in his throat, growing and dying with each breath.
...until it was finally crushed by the sound of footfalls on the steps.
"Maybe they'll go away..." he said to himself, not really meaning it.
The footsteps grew louder and louder, seeming to echo inside his skull, until finally-
"Brother!" Ajax threw open the trapdoor, and swung himself out onto the battlements. "Is this where you've been?"
"Ye've found 'im, lad?" came the voice of the elder. A moment later, Agamemnon stood on the turret, staring disapprovingly down at Thersites from behind his graying beard.
Caught like a rat... Thersites thought to himself.
"I dinnae' know what we're to do with ye, lad," the elder began. "This is the third time in as many nights that ye've tried to shirk repair duty!"
"Really?" he asked with mock innocence. "I could have sworn that I was told to help repair this tower tonight. I've been sitting here waiting for everyone else to show up."
Ajax seemed to wonder about this for a moment, but Agamemnon wasn't even slowed down.
"Don't ye try that with me, lad; I've had quite enough of yuir excuses! And quit interruptin' when I'm trying to speak to ye! I tell ye, when I was a lad, the elders of the clan were held in respect! ...Ye were assigned to work detail, and ye'd better be gettin' down there before the Leader finishes his meetin' with Prince Malcolm, and if ye think that I'm some sorta' demon when the spirit takes me, then the Dragon be with ye when he hears of this!"
Thersites stifled a sigh. It seemed that he was in for it this time. He took a glance across the parapet wall to the scene on the hillside below:
In the aftermath of battle, warriors' hands had found workmen's tasks. Many of Wyvern's humans had spent the daylight hours of the previous weeks cutting lumber from the nearby woodland, and quarrying new building stones to replace those that had been cracked beyond repair during the attack. Thersites, Ajax, and most of their rookery siblings had been drafted to haul these building materials to repair the castle walls.
Had he been in a more poetic mood, he might have called the scene around him a living mosaic. Indeed, the gargoyles, humans, and assorted building materials chipped and fitted and hoisted in almost every constructive task that could be thought of: Logs were being adzed into beams. Recently squared-off building stones were being carted up through the gates, carefully measured, and lifted onto scaffolds. ...and that painfully industrious rookery sister Asrial was yet again fiddling with something that Thersites just couldn't identify.
All that work going on... He gave a cringe. Thersites felt his muscles aching just thinking about it.
...not that said aches were completely fanciful. He heaved a sigh and began to stand up, staring at his hands, rough with calluses formed from the handle of an adz. Every evening, he awoke to find the previous night's blisters had gone, but they formed anew before the morning came, rubbed raw from carting building stones, and from chipping square beams from solid oak. "There's got to be a way to get out of repair duty," he muttered inaudibly, wincing at a sudden pain in the small of his back. "Anything that hurts this much just can't be healthy..."
"Ach! Yuir laziness was one thing a month ago," Agamemnon had already begun, "but now, now when everyone else is working from dusk to dawn to mend the walls! I must say, lad, I'd have though ye'd have drawn the line at- lad have ye been listening to me?"
Thersites looked up blankly, "Hmm?"
Agamemnon's eyes narrowed, "I'm gettin' a bit tired of yuir flippancy. I tell ye, when I was a lad-"
"Elder," Ajax said carefully.
"My brother," Thersites muttered under his breath. "If there is any occasion upon which I could repay you for saving my life..."
Agamemnon turned around and looked as though he was about to give another "quit-interrupting-when-I-was-a-lad" speech.
"Elder, why don't we just get him back to his post? You could yell at him some more when we get there. ...as long as the others don't mind listening."
"...remind me to ignore it," Thersites finished. Agamemnon shook his head; Ajax's face remained almost frighteningly innocent. Thersites wondered for a moment if the elder was going to let him get away with that.
Why not? he realized. He has no idea what he just said...
"Ye've got a point, lad," Agamemnon admitted. "And just to be safe, I want ye to keep an eye on this one," he gestured sharply to Thersites, "as in, make certain that he actually goes and remains at his position. Now get ye both down there."
It was the last thing that he wanted to do, but Thersites knew when not to push his luck.
"Back to hauling timbers..." he muttered to himself as he headed for the stairs. There's got to be some way to get out of this...
* * * * *
Prince Malcolm unrolled the scrap of parchment onto the large building stone that was serving as an impromptu conference table for him, the Captain, and the gargoyle leader. Hudson's eyes widened slightly. Now here was something worthwhile! Instead of the usual monochromatic scribbles, the scroll showed stylized images in a variety of only slightly faded colors, images that even Hudson's unpracticed eye easily recognized as ocean, forest, road and keep. Now why didn't the humans always make their writings like this one?
His first thought was that he'd have to tell Deborah about it.
There was only a split-second before he felt the now-familiar wrench somewhere inside his rib cage and his throat tightened up. Over the last few weeks since the Vikings had attacked, it seemed as though he'd expected to see any minute. In the same manner that a moth was drawn to a torch, Hudson found himself attracted not so much to the memories of his mate, but to the illusion that she was still more than memory. Whether it was to talk to her about something he'd seen, or to enlist her aid in organizing the repair shifts, or just to take her hand at the end of a long night... Every time he thought of her, he saw her on the battlefield again, drawing another shaky breath...and then not drawing one. ...but he couldn't not think of her.
It was dangerous, he knew. Hurt as it might to believe it, Deborah was dead and gone, and no amount of wishing or dreaming or absent-mindedness was going to change that. The clan needed him, the living, so he was going to have to remember what was real and what wasn't. Some memories would have to be pushed aside, if only for a while.
Still, he couldn't bring himself to do any more than nod gruffly as Prince Malcolm began to speak.
"When the Vikings attacked," he began, "they came from this direction," the human traced a finger along the painted landscape.
The Captain of the guard spoke up, pointing to another stretch of paper, "Which means that their ships probably landed somewhere along this part of the coast."
Hudson said nothing, trying to arrange the pictures in his head. If the sea was on that side of the parchment, then the Captain was pointing to the north. He nodded internally; that would fit with his memories of the battle.
"It has been a long time since raiders from the sea have troubled this part of Scotland," Prince Malcolm went on. "For the past generation or so, they've always sought targets elsewhere. In my grandfather's time, however, such attacks were far more common. Their line of defenses began with early warning," he gestured to a handful of gray-brown symbols that Hudson guessed to be fortifications of some kind. "This series of watchtowers," said the Prince, "three coastal and two inland."
"Ye mean to put overlooks to use again, my Lord?" asked the Captain. "I could find a few men to fill the posts, but surely they've fallen into disrepair by now."
Malcolm nodded, "Indeed they have, or so the runners tell me. I have already sent a small repair crew to each of the towers to repair what damage they can, however," he turned to Hudson, "the majority of them are simple people, with little or no fighting experience."
"And ye wish to send a guard out to look after them," Hudson spoke up.
"It is unlikely that the Vikings will attack again so soon," said the Prince. "At this time, I am more concerned about ordinary bandits, a threat that a few warriors on superior ground could surely handle." Malcolm gave something that was almost a shrug, "Though even that is unlikely. It is mostly for their own sense of safety."
Hudson nodded his head, "I shall see to it, Prince Malcolm." The human affectation 'Lord' didn't sit well on his tongue, and probably never would, but the Prince's name was another thing entirely. ...and it did make sense to show respect to the leader of the human Clan Wyvern. This alliance was going to be difficult enough even with his best efforts, and it was the future of the clan.
...and it was what she'd wanted. That, Hudson had to admit, was also a reason.
* * * * *
Chop! "Ow." Chop! "Ow." Chop! "Ow." Chop! "Ow." Chop! "Ow..."
Diomedes rolled his eyes, "Will you stop that?"
"Ow..." Thersites gratefully put down the adz that he'd been using to square off a building timber. He paused, staring for a moment at the handle of the small, axelike tool, and then at his hands. "Do you realize, brother, that I've quite possibly had more blisters in the past five nights than most Roman legions got over the course of an entire campaign?"
"Quit complaining," he answered in disgust. "...unless you'd rather be hauling building stone. ...and quit saying 'ow,' every time you swing that adz!"
"Fine with me," Thersites answered blandly, "but if one of my talons falls off, you will help me look for it, won't you?"
"I'll think about it."
"So kind of you."
Diomedes shook his head and took another stab at the trunk that he was working on. "With the kind of company you are, I'd almost rather be finishing this whole set of logs by myself," he paused, a wry grin coming to his face, "but with the number of times that you've run off, I'm almost doing that anyway..."
"Isn't it wonderful to be appreciated," Thersites muttered as he reluctantly got back to work.
Diomedes's eyes narrowed, "You're certainly bitter tonight. I'd say that you've been working too hard, but I'd be hard pressed to figure out at what."
"You're no brilliant conversationalist yourself," Thersites said harshly. "I don't know what makes me more tired: scraping the bark off of dead trees, or trying to stay awake while you talk about your 'incredible agility in the face of downdrafts,'" he mocked, "It's a wonder our sister even puts up with you..."
Diomedes' talons clenched around the adz. "All right," he muttered lowly. "That's it." He sank to tool in the oak log and turned to his gray-green companion. "You may find yourself amusing, brother, but let me tell you that you're the only one that does." Thersites started to answer, but Diomedes cut him off, "Whatever our rookery sister has to put up with is--" he stopped, starting over again, "I mean, she and I are none of your-- I mean--" he gave up and shut his mouth, almost as angry at himself as at Thersites. "I wish they'd send you to the watchtowers..." he muttered under his breath.
Thersites frowned, "To the where?" Diomedes looked up, "You mean the old outposts that no one goes to anymore?"
Diomedes' brow creased, "Didn't you hear?" then he grinned, "That's right: you were busy hiding on the battlements."
"Hear what?" asked Thersites.
"The Prince has decided to have the towers repaired. The Leader has asked for volunteers to help guard the work crews."
Thersites gave a short laugh, "You mean for people to take extra work voluntarily? Poor fellows... who did he choose?"
"No one, yet," Diomedes picked up his adz. "As I hear, it was only decided just after sunset."
His brother laughed again, "Out in the middle of nowhere, with who knows what out in those woods? Makes me wonder why anyone would..." Thersites stopped in the middle of his sentence, staring blankly down at the oak beam. "Why anyone would..."
"Brother?" asked Diomedes.
"The Leader, you said?" Thersites replied.
Diomedes nodded, confused.
The gray-green gargoyle began to laugh again, the adz falling from his talons to narrowly miss his toe.
"Did I say something funny?" he asked.
"Not at all, brother," answered Thersites, "not at all," he looked up, "but you might be getting your wish about finishing these beams yourself."
Diomedes looked at him peculiarly. What was he planning this time?
"Here," Thersites picked his adz off the ground and handed it to him. "If I'm not back in one hour, please have this burned for me." Then he turned and walked away.
* * * * *
Agamemnon exchanged a glance with Hudson, frowning. Thersites was smiling, and knowing him at all, that meant that there was probably something other than what Agamemnon knew about going on.
"Tell me, lad," Agamemnon began, "why exactly do ye want to serve as a guard for one of the Prince's watchtowers? Ye havena' exactly been enthused about the repair efforts, indeed, ye seem to have been one of the most-"
The Leader held up one dust-brown hand, cutting him off. Agamemnon stifled a scowl, then turned back to Thersites, "It's a good question, lad," Hudson said aloud, "why do ye wish to go?"
"Well," he hung his head in mock contrition, "in all honesty..."
"As if that's bloody likely," Agamemnon muttered.
"... I realize that I haven't been contributing as much as I should have been. Castle Wyvern is our home, after all. I just wanted to do something helpful."
"And I dinnae' suppose," Agamemnon asked pointedly, "that the fact that ye wouldna' be sqarin' off any more timbers had anything to do with this revelation?"
This time, Thersites managed a fairly good show of looking taken aback. "Elder, please!" he protested. "What kind of-"
"I think we can skip that part of it, lad," Hudson spoke up. "We need guards for the towers, and ye'll do as well as any."
Odd, thought Agamemnon, he's no diplomat, but he's never been quite this abrupt... The barrel-chested gargoyle frowned, and peered discreetly at his rookery brother, at the slight sunkenness of his eyes, and the hair-thin lines around them.
"You won't regret this decision, Leader," Thersites was addressing Hudson.
"Aye lad," the Leader answered, "see that I don't. And fetch yuir rookery brother," he added. "Ye'll need a partner, and I hear that the two of ye get along well."
Agamemnon's eye ridge twitched, "That and that this way there'd actually be a warrior who can do more than run and make excuses if somethin' actually should go wrong out there..." he muttered to himself.
The gray-green gargoyle nodded and scurried off.
"Are ye certain it's wise to let him go, brother?" he asked Hudson as soon as Thersites was out of earshot, "he'll like as not have the whole place burn to a cinder underneath him and be fast asleep the whole time."
Hudson nodded, "True enough," he replied, "but I'd rather send him off on guard duty, than send a better worker, and have him here, acting as he has been," the Leader shrugged. "Who knows? Perhaps some of his brother will rub off on him while the two of them are away."
Agamemnon's expression remained dark, "Aye," he said, "and perhaps the Vikings will come back to help us with repairs."
* * * * *
The dark countryside flew by below. Thersites took a deep breath of night air and laughed aloud, which nearly caused him to fall crashing into the forest below. "They let me go!" he shouted to Ajax over the wind, "I can hardly believe it, brother!"
Ajax shrugged gracefully.
Thersites chuckled again, oblivious to his friend's indifference.
The air currents were strong this night, but it was still took an hour and more before they reached the watchtower.
"I can't believe they let me go..." Thersites was saying amazedly to himself. Agamemnon hadn't been fooled. Not by the explanations and not by his contrite expression. "For a moment there, I thought that the Leader was going to choose someone else simply because I'm only doing this to get out of termite duty. He almost seemed to realize the unimportance of warlike motivation... Maybe there's hope for him yet." A grin spread across his beak, then faded.
"Or maybe he was tired of hearing you complain!" Ajax shouted over the wind.
"Didn't anyone ever tell you that it's considered rude to eavesdrop on other people's conversations?" Thersites shot back. Still, Ajax had a point. If Hudson was half as tired of Thersites as Agamemnon was... ...but Hudson seemed tired of everything these past weeks. "Check that," Thersites murmured; "he just seems tired..."
"Brother!" Ajax called over the wind. Thersites followed his line of sight, and saw their destination, a dark gray outline against a darker sea.
His feet hit the stone of the upper level with a heavy thud. Ajax was right behind him. Thersites folded his aching wings over his shoulders, and looked around at their temporary protectorate. A moment passed.
The human repair team, apparently, had been asleep long enough to let the torches go out, but the clouds had cleared enough so that Thersites could see the watchtower well enough by the nearly-full moonlight.
"Not exactly much to look at, now is it?" Thersites muttered, half to himself.
Ajax shook his head, "We're both too used to Wyvern," he told his brother; "we've gotten soft. The elder tells me that the clan lived in caves in the hillsides when he was a l-"
"Please!" Thersites cut him off. "That's one thing that we don't need out here; let's not bring it with us."
Ajax raised one eyebrow ridge, but said nothing.
The place was a bit smaller than the word 'watchtower' implied, but not by much, two levels high, and a scant few hundred paces in circumference at the base. Though it was a hermit's shack when compared to Castle Wyvern, the round walls enclosed living space for a few soldiers and a tiny courtyard -- which was right now strewn with building materials and a strange contraption that Thersites couldn't recognize.
"What's that?" he wondered aloud.
Ajax gave it a glance, "It might be a forge," he said. "There's a book in the Prince's library that describes different kinds of-"
"You've been hanging around our sister too much, my friend..."
The remains of a cookfire smoldered below. Thersites' stomach rumbled loudly, reminding him of the hasty breakfast that he'd grabbed before finding his hiding place.
In the time of Prince Malcolm's grandfather, it had probably been a rather impressive structure, but the years had been less than kind. The faint scent of guano betrayed the eaves as a home for generations of bats. Though only a few stones were crumbled, most of them showed heavy signs of weathering and in some places were nearly buried in ivy.
"I'm impressed," said Ajax.
"Why?" asked Thersites, looking around.
"The Prince's grandfather chose a good site for an outpost," Ajax told his rookery brother. "There's a good four hundred foot dash from the woods to the tower, and most of it uphill. And those cliffs look like they give it a good view of the sea and surrounding beach. We'll be able to see any intruders coming from a good way off."
She was a fixer upper, to be sure, but location, location, location.
Thersites shrugged. "If you say so, brother," he said. "If you like, you can explain the whole thing to me in detail, right after we find something to eat."
* * * * *
The waves crashed against the rocks, a few hundred feet below, each swell of dark water turning to foam on the beach and running back again, each the same and yet not the same as the last. It -- like the drone of his brother's voice -- bordered on hypnotic.
Ajax blinked. That was the third time in the past half-hour that he'd found his eyes drawn to the shoreline. He shook his head, trying to clear it.
"You're here to stand watch, not to daydream..." he murmured to himself.
"What was that, brother?" asked Thersites. When he didn't receive a reply in the next half second, he picked up from where he'd left off, "Well, as I was saying, they must have had us chipping away at those logs for a week," he claimed, "and then what do they do? They take half of them and stand them on their ends. So I ask, 'Why are we making them square if no one's going to have to stand on that part?' I mean I can understand that it's a lot easier to walk on something flat than something round, but what does the elder tell me? He tells me, 'It's just better that way,' so I ask him how. If the scaffolds are easier to fit together, then why not just even off the places where they'll have to be joined? 'What's the harm in a little bark?' I tell him, but he just tells me, 'Get back to work' ...though not in so few words..."
Ajax suppressed a grimace and tried not to sigh. This wasn't exactly what he had been expecting. One wave crashing against the shore looked much like the next, monotonous and unthreatening.
It wasn't long before Ajax found himself beginning to get restless again. He'd stifled a sigh, remembering the lessons in strategy, both given to him verbally by those of the Leader's generation, and dug up, dusted off, and absorbed from the shelves of Prince Malcolm's library: No matter how disciplined the soldier, there is a certain difficulty in maintaining a state of vigilance with no visible enemy to remain vigilant toward.
As unbefitting a warrior as it sounded, Ajax was getting bored.
Normally, Ajax had no difficulty listening to Thersites' ideas, -- often enjoyed it, actually -- but after the first half-hour of his brother's constructional faultfinding, he found his attention beginning to drift. He leaned his spiked elbows against the parapet as Thersites chattered on in the background. He stifled a sigh, and tried again to keep his mind on the job.
Impossible. A few moments passed, and he found himself staring again at the procession of night-black waves on the jagged shore.
"Brother?" Thersites broke off from his constructional faultfinding. "You wouldn't, perhaps be becoming a bit preoccupied, now would you?"
"Not I. Why do you ask?"
"For starters," Thersites told him, "you answered 'I suppose so' when I asked you if you'd like to go try to catch sharks with your teeth."
"Brother," the beaked gargoyle consoled, "there's no shame in letting your mind wander. I do it all the time."
"Perhaps..." Ajax trailed off.
"Well," Thersites suggested. "If you're having that much trouble keeping your mind on the job, then why don't you go hunting? A stretch of woodland like the one we just flew over has got to have a deer or two hiding in there somewhere."
Ajax wrinkled his dark gold brow. An end to invariability. Night air. Woodland. Prey. Pursuit. "Well..." he couldn't keep all the eagerness out of his voice, "are you certain you'd want to stay here alone?"
Thersites rolled his eyes, "I'm certain I could handle any stray seagulls that try to attack," he said wryly.
"You're sure?" Ajax asked as he pulled himself up onto the parapet.
Thersites nodded. "Yes, brother, I'm sure. Go hunting." Ajax must have still looked unconvinced, because Thersites continued, "If anything requiring the both of us was going to happen out here, you wouldn't be so bored to begin with."
"I suppose you're right," Ajax agreed. He spread his wings, testing the currents, "I won't be too long..." he trailed off as he jumped off of the parapet.
"Take all the time you need," Thersites shouted after him.
* * * * *
The green-beaked gargoyles heaved a slight sigh. "Such energy..." he murmured to himself. "He makes me tired just watching him." He watched his brother's shrinking form for a moment, then looked away. "My brother keeps himself occupied, and I get lunch," he chuckled. "Perhaps a good deed is its own reward..."
He cast his eyes about, and soon found his objective: an almost painfully comfortable-looking niche along the upper wall.
Check that, he'd get lunch and a nap.
"Well, I suppose after flying all this way, I could stand to rest a bit," he said aloud, "Keep my strength up and all. Sure, some gargoyles can stay up and running from dusk 'til dawn twenty nights in a row, but is it my fault if I'm more delicately built? Really, I do the best I-" he cut off, frowning, then shook his head, "I knew working that hard couldn't be good." His voice echoed hollowly against the ivy-clad stones, "Now I'm talking to myself."
Thersites settled down and leaned back against the cool stones. "That's the problem with the world today: I've been forced to rationalize so many things that I find myself doing it even when I'm alone."
Thersites took one last look around at the watchtower. Perhaps the next evening, he and Ajax would meet the human repair crew. "If I'm lucky, they might even be nice enough not to mistake us for building materials..." he trailed off.
He managed a weary grin at the sight of the weathered roof of the soldiers' quarters. Anything that looked like it required that much fixing was bound to take a while, and the more time Thersites spent here, the less time he'd have to spend playing termite back at Wyvern.
The flight from Wyvern truly had been tiring. That, along with the faint sound of the ocean beating against the cliffs below soon put him to sleep.
* * * * *
"There!" came a shout. Hrethel looked to the southwest, where the other man was pointing. The light was dim, and the glaring of the torches was no help, but it was faintly visible against the gray-black background of the sky.
Beneath a dark blonde beard that was just beginning to show gray, Hrethel felt a grin spread across his face.
"That can't be it!" came a hushed voice from behind him.
Hrethel turned, letting his eyes fall upon the oarsman who had spoken. The whisperer faltered for a moment, and spoke again, "Why send us here for that? It's a waste of our time. We'll find no plunder there but mice and crumbled stone."
"According to the maps," he said in a sea-roughened voice that still carried the bite of northern steel. "This place was once a watchtower. The spies reported that the Prince had ordered them put to use again," he paused, letting the weight of his meaning take hold. "So unless you want to have the Scots and their beasts ready and waiting for you the next time we raid, you'll waste your time as I see fit."
He looked away from the oarsman, setting his eyes back against their destination, "That, and a beach like this will make an ideal place to land the rest of the fleet. ...and a defensible point to fall back on if this battle goes the way of the last." The Viking leader turned and shouted to the man at the keel, "More to starboard! Steady at the oars, men! I want to be there before the hour is up."
And even as he'd said it, soon the breakers could be heard dashing themselves to pieces on the gravel, and a score and a half of Viking warriors were stepping through the foam onto the beach.
"You!" he gestured to two of his men, "stay here and guard the ship." Without waiting for their response, Hrethel turned to look at the steep hillside leading upward to the watchtower. Scaling this might take an hour in itself, but it would prove no condemning obstacle. One of the men let out a cry, and was joined by others. Hrethel smiled again, the fact of it kept secret by his beard. This prize would prove no difficult thing to attain.
* * * * *
He was surrounded by a sea of felled trees still sheathed in bark, some slender as a finger, and others so thick around the middle that he wouldn't have been able to reach all the way around even if his arms had been twice as long.
He frowned. This couldn't be right. Something was missing, something that he wasn't sure that he wanted...
Thought-bidden, the adz appeared in his hands. He stared at it, uncertain.
"Shirking yuir duties, lad?" he turned around, and found the elder staring down at him with that familiar quiet gruffness.
"Ach, will he never get started?" the long-winded elder stepped into view. "I tell ye, brother, when the two of us were lads his age-"
He found himself uttering a quiet shriek, and turned away. He'd get to work, he decided, and then the elder would have nothing to complain about. He gripped the adz more firmly. Now where to start?
The smaller ones would never do. It was one thing to avoid work; quite another to look like it. Tended to give one a reputation, and such. He selected a mid-sized log, with bark the color of slate, and swung the adz sideways, as he'd been taught.
Either the iron blade was too dull, or the bark too tough, but only the merest chip of leaden husk detached itself from the tree. He swung harder, with no change.
"Ach, lad!" he heard the elder's voice, coming form nowhere and everywhere. "Surely ye can do better than that."
"Yes brother," came another voice that he recognized as sister Asrial's. "It's time you earned the food you eat."
"Truly," Ajax answered. "Where were you, friend, when the toil was wearing away at our hands?"
As if on cue, the wooden handle seemed to burn into his flesh as the gray-green skin erupted in a fountain of blisters. He tried to swing the adz again, but found that he couldn't keep hold of it, letting it fall as it hit the flinty surface of the log.
For a short time, all was still.
"Ach, what will we ever make of him?" He turned around to see the Second walking toward him. "Pick up that runt of a war-axe, lad." She stretched a talon to the ocean of logs, "Ye'll have a better need of it soon."
He frowned. Something wasn't right. She wasn't supposed to be here.
She shook her head. "Never ye mind for that," she told him with matter-of-fact abruptness. "These," she stretched one ice-blue talon to the ocean of unchipped wood, "these are yuir foes now."
Even as he pondered her meaning, about to write it off as another obsolescent adult adage, a chorus of cries came up from the oaken expanse. He looked up to see the slate-colored log reaching out for him with untrimmed branches. He dodged, only to rush right into the reach of another, from which he writhed away again.
The unholy shouts continued, strangely muffled, as if by distance, as they advanced on him. The adz fell limply from his talons, making a clattering sound against the stone.
Thersites jumped up from where he'd been leaning against the stones, actually running a few steps before stopping to look behind him. He stood there a moment or two, confusion blurring his sleep-fogged thoughts.
He smacked his head with one hand. "Well, there's one thing that's gone right for me lately: When I embarrass myself, there's no one around to see."
It figured. The first time in weeks that he'd been able to sit down to a nice, unproductive nap, he'd had a nightmare. He pushed the sleep from his brain and managed a short laugh. Jumping up from sound sleep and running away from a howling army of kindling! He'd been lucky that no one else had been present; lucky indeed.
He took a breath, and was about to settle down and snooze a little more, when he had a rather disturbing thought:
"If that was a dream..." Thersites thought aloud, "then isn't it supposed to stop as soon as I wake up?" He thought it over for a moment, frowning. "Yes," he asserted, "I'm fairly certain that's how it works."
Yet there would have to be a flaw in the logic somewhere, because the collection of loggish war cries were still present; muffled, but clearly audible.
Thersites closed his eyes and slowly turned around to face the ocean, still talking to himself, and trying to hold back a rather severe case of anxiety, "Therefore," he said, "if I am still hearing a bunch of fresh-cut trees howling for my blood, then I am either still dreaming, or delirious."
Feeling a lot less silly than he would have under other circumstances, he took one talon and dug it into his upper arm. It hurt. "Alright... Since by a time-honored test, I have established that I am no longer dreaming, I will simply open my eyes, and ask my nice hallucinated hardwood guests if there's anything aside from myself that they would like to have for dinner."
Thersites opened his eyes, casting them to the beach below, easily taking in the scene at the base of the cliffs in the light of the gibbous moon.
"Thank the Dragon," he said blandly. "It's only a Viking war party."
He paused a moment as the information sank in. "There goes the neighborhood..." he muttered at last.
Prime real estate indeed!
Thersites stood there a few minutes more, thoughts churning behind his urbane expression. It seemed that an eon past before a reasonably feasible first course of action came to mind.
That decided, he darted for the stairwell, muttering a few words that human workers were prone to use after dropping something heavy on a foot, and the castle guards were prone to use just about all the time.
* * * * *
Angus woke to the sensation of someone shaking his left shoulder. He swatted the hand away. "Nanny, I can wake meself o' mornings..." he muttered drowsily. I'm a grown man, after all. Not the scrap of a lad that yuir daughter married... Got two boys of my own now, nearly grown themselves... Yes, he was a grown man, perhaps too much so. His head ached. Either the nights were getting shorter and shorter, or he'd been a grown man for too long. "I know when I've a moment yet to rest a bit..."
The hand did not go away, instead redoubling its efforts until his skull nearly shook.
"Alright, mother," he said groggily, half sitting up. "Whatever under heaven has got ye this much-?"
Angus blinked. The soldiers' quarters were pitch dark. It couldn't have been morning yet. A moment passed and his eyes adjusted, and he slowly realized that he'd been a slight bit mistaken concerning the identity of the intruder.
It was difficult to make out the details of the shadow in front of him, but it clearly sported a pair of horns, one slightly askew, as if malformed. For a moment his mind filled with thoughts of demonic minions, but passed soon after it spoke:
"Well, son, I'd love to reminisce about your childhood, but right now we've got a few other things to worry about."
Thoughts came slowly to a weary mind, "Are you the new guard that the Captain promised us?" Angus asked. What was the name of the creatures that lived at Wyvern?
The whatever-it-was-called nodded its head. "We arrived earlier tonight. Where are-?"
"Aren't there supposed to be two o' ye?" Angus asked, passing one fist in front of his eyes.
The thing let out a sigh, and Angus caught a glint of pointed white teeth that looked as though they were just a bit larger than they needed to be, though he realized with a chill a moment later, that they probably weren't.
"Yes..." it admitted in a tone that sounded faintly self-chastising, "and technically, there are two of us, only one isn't here right now."
Angus processed this slowly in his almost-awake brain. He sat up the rest of the way, feeling a faint twinge from his back. Not for the first time, he found himself longing for the straw pallets and wattle-and-daub walls of a house long gone to ash by Viking torches, shared with a wife long gone to Judgement by Viking blades.
But memories were memories, and now was now. ...and this creature had obviously woken him up for something.
"Look-" he cut off slightly, realizing that he didn't know this thing's name, or even if it had one. "Might there be some sort o' reason why ye woke me up? I dinnae' know about yuir kind, but for mine, night is a time for sleep."
"Believe me," it said almost wistfully, "I can appreciate that, but right now, we've got a few problems..."
* * * * *
Jonas felt something shake his shoulder. He mumbled unintelligibly and sat up. "Wha-a..? Da, why is it so dark?" he asked sleepily, "Where's the sun got to?"
"I'll tell ye in a minute, Jonas. Just help me wake yuir brother."
Jonas fisted a yawn, stretching his fourteen-year-old limbs, and scrambled over to where his father was sitting next to his elder brother's blissfully snoring form.
"I dinnae' think that's going to work, Da," he said, seeing Angus try to wake Luke with a shake. "I've ta' wake 'im every morning, and the way he sleeps that'll not do. Watch." Trying and failing to stifle a grin, Jonas reached out and pinched him hard on the arm.
Luke gave a hissing intake of breath and sat up.
"Ye know, lad, that might be why he's always so upset with ye," Angus mused.
"Aye," answered Jonas, still grinning.
"What was that?" asked Luke, rubbing at the sore place on his skin. "Little brother, are ye daft? It's the middle of the night." He blinked sleep from his eyes and asked, "What's going on?"
"I was just about to ask, myself," Jonas mumbled as his father began to explain.
"Our new night-guard came down here to tell me we've a fair party of Vikings climbing the cliff-path that ye two found the other day," Angus explained, "about twenty or so." For a moment, there was silence. Thoughts ran through Jonas' head like leaves in a whirlwind.
And here I thought that nothing exciting was going to happen on this trip...
...Well of course ye' didna'! Ye may not be strong enough for the forge, but ye've been fixin' things with Da, since before ye can remember. Ye know there's no adventure ta' be found making repairs...
...so now ye've got yuir excitement. That might just explain why ye feel like ye're about ta' get sick...
...Da said that the new guard told him. Wasn't the new guard supposed ta' be one of those...
"What?" asked Luke, "When did they arrive?"
"The new guard? Is it one of those creatures that were livin' at the castle?"
"What are we going to do?"
"How many of them are there?"
"Lads!" Angus held up both hands. "I dinnae' know. I just dinnae' know, but we've a trained soldier with us, and the Prince wouldna' have sent him if he didna' know what he was doin'."
Jonas saw one of Luke's eyebrows take a jump, "Father, just where is this trained soldier right n- "
There was a shrill scream from off to the left, followed very shortly by a muffled, "Ow!"
Jonas turned his eyes just in time to see a rather scrawny creature enter the room. He blinked, not sure at what he was looking at. He'd caught a glimpse or two of gargoyles during his brief time at Castle Wyvern, but never this close up before. Then they'd always been asleep in stone, or silhouetted against the torches on the battlements. It was almost as if he'd never believed that they were real until this moment, as he stared in fascination at the tiny claws flexing atop a pair of gray-green wings.
Jonas was shaken out of his trance as Nanny barreled through the open doorway, gorse broom clamped firmly in her right hand. Nanny had a round face, with thin lips that had grown sour from years of frowning, and long, fine-boned hands that had grown callused from years of work.
Said lips and said hands were currently occupied with shrieking half-intelligible curses at the gargoyle, and swinging at him with the handmade besom in her fist.
"Angus!" the creature half cried as he dodged blows from Nanny's gorse broom, "I was only trying to... Could you- oof!" The breath whooshed out of his chest as the broom handle connected with his stomach. Luke winced, sympathetically.
"There!" the old woman said triumphantly as the gargoyle gasped for air, "That'll teach ye what I do ta' beasties that come up at me in my sleep!"
Thersites took one deep breath and tried to stand. "Ready for more, are ye?" Nanny raised the broom again, "Even the cat learned it after one wallopin', but I s'pose if ye're half as stupid as ye are ugly, I'll hafta'-"
The gargoyle jumped up suddenly, snatching the besom away, "Old mother," he somehow managed not to wheeze. "If you don't stop that, I'm going to drop you on the Vikings and you can drive them back into the sea all by yourself!"
Nanny harumphed at this, and looked as if she were about to make one of her usual mouthy remarks, but her breath seemed to stop in her throat, and she asked instead, "Vikings?"
The creature put its hands on its hips and looked as though it were about to say something, but then stopped, looking speculatively from Nanny to the broom in its hands and back. He looked to Angus, "Would you mind terribly if I-"
"Yes," he said simply.
The gargoyle looked slightly crestfallen, and seemed to give a sigh. Nanny frowned, eyeing him warily, and took this opportunity to grab her broom back out of his talons, holding it defensively in front of her.
"And it might have worked, too," he said. Then he heaved a sigh, wincing and putting a hand to his ribs as he did so. "Ow..." he said again.
Jonas didn't know precisely what to think at that.
"Alright," Luke said aloud, sounding as skeptical as Jonas felt, "so what's the first thing we should do?"
* * * * *
"Well," Thersites said at last, lighting the third torch and settling it into place. "I suppose that should do it..."
It was a frightening thing to think about, which might have had something to do with why he was trying so hard not to think about it. Thersites was holed up in a half-repaired watchtower with four humans and a Viking war party that was steadily making its way up the cliffs.
Well, he thought to himself, trying not to hear the still-faint war cries from the sea, I always have adored a challenge.
He took a breath, trying to reassure himself, and failed utterly.
"Who am I fooling?" he muttered aloud, "I adore a challenge about as much as I adore a kick in the face. Am I the only one who likes it when things are easy? I'm certainly the only one who admits it..."
"Did ye say something?" asked Angus, who was squinting as his eyes adjusted to the torchlight, and frowning into the glare. "Are ye sure that the folk at Wyvern will be able to see these wee things?" he asked uncertainly, "It's an awful long way..."
If they don't, we won't have to worry about it for long...
"Well..." he trailed off, trying to think of something to tell him, "It's a rather clear night, and we're not really all that far away. I'm fairly certain that this is where we're supposed to light the distress torches. I mean," he fingered the notch cut into the rusted torch rung, "why else would someone mark this here?"
The look that the human was obviously trying not to give him said quite clearly that he, at least, was not fairly certain.
Thersites heaved a sigh. Here came the hard part, "Well," he began, "the good news is that we should have reinforcements in a few hours."
The human nodded, "And I can take it that there's also bad news?"
Thersites stifled a grimace. "The bad news is that the Vikings will probably be here in a lot less than that."
"Oh," Angus said simply.
"So..." he trailed off, "This may be a depressing question, but have any of you any fighting experience?"
The human shook his head, "I've been in a brawl or two in my time, but I dinnae' think that's what ye mean. Young Jonas rather fancies a post as a guardsman, but he's more fancy than apt, I'm afraid. Other than that..." Angus trailed off, "I'm an ironsmith, by profession. Prince Malcolm offered me a space for a new smithy on castle grounds." He spread his hands. "I may be better at forging weapons than at usin' 'em, but I'll try my skill at any task ye can think of."
Thersites nodded. If I'm lucky, we'll defeat the Vikings with our boundless enthusiasm...
Angus seemed to sense his misgivings, and continued, "My Luke's a fair shot with a bow, and Jonas too, and men canna' be much harder to hit than hares or foxes."
Thersites brightened a bit at that, "Well, let's set them to work, then!" he said aloud, then stopped, remembering something that he'd heard about hunting with bows. "...you did bring enough arrows, didn't you?"
Angus and Thersites reached the bottom of the stairs as Jonas emerged from the soldiers' quarters with a wide grin and a shortbow slung across his shoulder. Luke was just behind him.
Upon seeing his father, Jonas' grin melted away, hidden, but not quickly enough.
Angus suppressed a sigh. Heaven be thanked that his eldest had a level head on his shoulders, but that Jonas was far too headstrong.
The gargoyle was already walking toward Angus' dark-haired son. His eyes flicked the bow in Jonas' hands. "Your father tells me that you can use that thing," he said simply, gesturing with one gray-green talon.
Jonas nodded, uncertain as to what to say. "Aye," he managed at last, "we go huntin' now and again." He gestured to his brother and himself.
"Alright," the gargoyle seemed to think aloud, "I don't know much about hunting with bows," he said, "but you retrieve most of the arrows, don't you?"
Luke opened his mouth to speak, but Jonas got to it first. "Not most, really," he said. "Sometimes ye miss by so far that it's really not worth the time to look for 'em, and sometimes they get stuck in the wood, or break when they hit, but yes, we get a lot of 'em back."
"So you don't exactly have all that many with you?" he asked. "Not enough to keep that war party busy for too long?"
Luke shook his head.
"We brought perhaps twenty with us," said the human, "and we've lost two of 'em in the woods."
"Eighteen..." the gargoyle trailed off. "I saw at least that many warriors on the cliff... I'm not exactly an expert archer, but I don't think we could hit more than one man with each arrow. We don't have much time," he looked up at Angus, "You're a smith. Is there any way we could make more before we're up to our necks in Vikings?"
"There's that," Angus answered skeptically, gesturing to the makeshift forge. "I've been usin' it to make nails and other such things for repairs. Do ye think it'd be of any use?"
"Well," Thersites murmured speculatively, coming a few steps closer, "it looks too big to toss over the wall..." He ignored the momentary look of horror that flashed across the smith's face. "How long does it take to make an arrow, anyway? Do you think you could- oof!" Thersites tripped over a bucket, scattering its contents and landing on his hands and knees.
The gargoyle sucked a breath in between his teeth, "Perfect," he muttered softly. "My toe is broken. I'd wager it is. As if I didn't have enough to worry about. First a Viking war party, now a-" he stopped, frowning, and picked up a piece of dull gray metal that had been in the bucket. "Is this lead?"
"Aye," said Luke, "We've been savin' it to repair the windows."
"Well," the creature gave a beaked version of a wry grin, "as much as I love a good view of the sea why don't we just melt this stuff down?" He looked up to the humans' confused expressions, and explained. "When an enemy force storms the gates, it's usually a good idea to make it as difficult as possible to get close to the walls."
"Ye mean ta' pour runny lead down on their heads?" asked Jonas.
Thersites nodded, "Actually, most of the time, we use pitch."
"Whatever we hafta' do, lads," Angus said simply.
"Alright," said the gargoyle, pointing one talon at Angus, "You know how to work this thing," he gestured to the forge, "so you melt that lead." He turned to the younger son. "You-"
"Jonas," the human told him.
Thersites shrugged. "Fine. Jonas," then he paused a minute, frowning. "Where have I heard that name before?" he frowned again, "You wouldn't happen to have a quartet of half-wolf, half-bird things that follow you around and do your bidding, now would you?"
All three humans stared at him, perplexed.
Thersites sighed. "Well, I don't suppose anyone can blame me for asking." He gestured to Jonas, "You come with me; I think that gate could stand a little reinforcing and-"
"Wait a minute," Jonas stopped, digging in one of his pockets.
"Now lad," said Angus, "ye know that we've not much time before-"
"Just a moment, Da," the dark-haired boy produced a small object and held it up for Thersites to see. "I found a chest full o' these when I was explorin' the cellar. I wasna' sure what they were..."
"An arrowhead..." murmured the gargoyle. He frowned, "Am I still dreaming or did something good just happen?"
Angus squinted in the torchlight. From this distance, it looked like a triangular chunk of rust.
"But better than nothin' I'd imagine," he muttered to himself.
"There's a chest in the cellar top-full of 'em," Jonas repeated, pleased with himself.
"Wouldna' such a thing be locked?" asked Angus, "How'd ye manage to open it, Luke?"
The boy shrugged. "The lock doesna' matter," he told them. "It's rusted shut, but the wood's rotted soft as a melon. ...and the arrow shafts and fletching, I'm afraid."
One of the gargoyle's brow ridges twitched. "It's always something..." he muttered under his breath. "Well," he said, "what do you use to make shafts? You've got wood here..."
"We did bring down a pheasant the other day," added Luke. "We've feathers for fletching."
The gargoyle nodded, "Alright, then," he told Luke, "see what you can do." Luke ran off. Thersites turned to the others. "I still need someone to help me with..." he trailed off. "I think I've got an idea. Where's the old bat -- I mean your grandmother?"
Angus stifled a sigh. Jonas hid a smile behind his hand. "She'll be back toward the other end of the tower," said Angus, "Help him find her while start the fires." he told Jonas.
The boy looked a bit disappointed, but turned and followed Thersites toward the soldiers' quarters.
* * * * *
"Ye git away from me!" the human took another swipe, this time with a wooden spoon. "'Tis bad enough that my Anna's 'usband and 'is boys are sent out 'ere to the middle of nowhere, but the Prince sends us monsters in the place of guardsmen!"
"Please, Nanny," said Jonas, dodging the backswing from her spoon. "He's only trying to-"
She ignored him. "We mae be refugees," she shouted, red in the face, "but I ne'er thought the Prince would think so low of us as that!"
Thersites, recalling their earlier encounter, had decided that the best course would be to duck first and ask questions later, which he found worked much better than getting bashed in the stomach with a gorse broom.
"Nanny!" Jonas protested loudly. The older human paused long enough to look her grandson square in the eye.
"Don't ye start mouthin' off to me, lad!" she told him. "Yuir mother taught ye better than that!"
"Nanny, please," he said again. "The gargoyle is here to help us."
"Help us and then murder us in our sleep!" she returned.
"You mean you'd rather the Vikings did it while you were awake?" asked Thersites.
The woman paused gesturing to Thersites with her spoon. "Ye be careful, Jonas," she said to her grandson. "Just last week, Maire was tellin' me that a gargoyle came to her house while she was sleepin' an stole her new turnips."
"Nanny," said Jonas, "Maire's daft. If the wind was blowin', she'd think it was a dragon trying to sneeze on her."
"And if she was asleep, how'd she know it was a gargoyle?" Thersites asked tiredly.
"And why would anyone walk right past the chickens and steal Maire's lousy turnips?"
"That why it musta' been a gargoyle! They were stolen out of spite!"
"Well, madam," said Thersites. "I can't speak for some of our plumper hatchlings, but it couldn't have been me. For one thing, I'd have taken the chickens."
Nanny's eyes narrowed, and he had to drop sharply to the floor to avoid an eyeful of spoon.
"Ach, there, Jonas, ye see?!"
"At least if these boys inherited their aim from her..." he muttered quickly.
"Nanny-" Jonas began again.
"That's alright," Thersites cut him off. "Getting over one's cultural differences can be difficult. I won't take it personally," he said in as consoling a tone as he could stomach. He smiled, careful not to show too many teeth, "though I suspect the Vikings probably will. Come on," he gestured to the younger human, "if she doesn't want to help defend the tower, then there's really nothing we can do about that."
Thersites moved towards the door, soon surprised and not surprised to find Nanny blocking his way. "What is it?" he asked pleasantly.
"I've had five bairns in my time, and lived to see each of 'em and my 'usband, God rest his soul, go before me," her weathered face was turning red again. "And I'll not have some pigeon roost be callin' me a coward!"
Pigeon roost?! Thersites seethed inside. Pigeon roost?! Of all the bloody- Lady, you are this close!~
"Well, Nanny," Jonas spoke up carefully, with a wary glance to Thersites, "do ye have any better ideas?"
"Aye!" she answered. "That I do! This pile of rock isna' anybody's home; I say we should head back to Wyvern while there's still time. Let the Viking monsters have it!"
Thersites was taken aback for a moment, truly surprised. Later, when discussing the folly of the clan's dedication to the castle they lived in over the humans that shared it, he would think back at this moment and wonder if he understood as little as he claimed to.
From the corner of his eye, he saw Jonas blink. The younger human had apparently not thought of this either. If he told his father about Nanny's wonderful idea...
"The Prince has plans for these towers," Jonas said. "He'll not be pleased if he finds we've abandoned it."
Nanny shifted her hands on the spoon and said nothing.
"And if the Vikings have done so much to you," the gargoyle countered, "why let them get a foothold on this part of the country?"
She surprised Thersites by making her face turn even sourer than what he'd guessed was her normal expression. "Alright then," she said at last, "but not for yuir sake," she jabbed Thersites in the ribs with her spoon, "or for this oversized flagstone!" she made a sweeping gesture to the rest of the tower.
"Fine with me!" he told her truthfully.
"What do ye need me to do?" she asked, folding her meaty arms across her chest.
Thersites blinked, considering this a moment. Hmm... maybe I should have thought of that before I went to all this trouble... He felt Jonas' expectant gaze on him.
Thersites cast his eyes about the room, avoiding eye contact.
...and then noticed the tightly-bound gorse broom, lying quietly in the corner. With a half-remembered protest from his ribs, he spoke, "Well," he said to Nanny, "there's one place where you could start..."
* * * * *
"What do ye think?" asked the human.
Thersites frowned, stepping back to look at the newly reinforced main doors. "Maybe one more? Or two?"
Angus nodded, turning around to see where he'd left the rest of the building supplies. "Where are the others?"
He gave the beam one last shove, wedging it into place against the packed dirt floor. "Luke and Jonas went up top to see if those bows of theirs are any good against leather armor."
"She's making arrows," he said simply.
Angus nodded. "Makes sense. Her hands have always been as agile as her tongue."
Thersites said nothing for a moment, "Just as long as she isn't using either of them on me!" he said at last.
"This is the last beam," said the smith.
Thersites moved sluggishly over to help him with it, flexing his aching talons as he did so. Then he paused, rubbing one hand against the shorn surface of the wood, shaking his head, "Just look at this!" he pointed to spots of bark left on the wood, "Who adzed this log?"
The smith frowned and began to answer when Thersites' eyes went wide. He grabbed the sides of his head, a choking sound rising in his throat, "What ...am ...I ...saying?!" he shouted. "That's it," he said, staring at the ground, "I've gone completely insane..." after a moment, he shook his head and started to lift the log. "I wasn't built for this," he said quietly. "All this sweating just can't be healthy."
"Ach," said Angus, still a bit confused by the outburst, "sweat just cools ye down after a bit o' work..." he said.
"Exactly! Don't people get sick when they're cold?"
The human shook his head, and looked about to reply, but then stopped. "Do ye hear that?" he said at last.
Thersites stopped moving and stood quietly. The sound of the Viking war cries on the ridge, which had been a dull roar in the back of his ears ever since awakening from his dream, had crown closer and more exuberant.
"They've reached the top," Angus said aloud. "What do we do now?"
"How would I know?" Thersites half-shouted, suddenly angry for no reason at all. "I'm making this up as I go along!"
* * * * *
Hrethel turned to the watchtower, narrowing his eyes in the dim light. The view here was much better than the one from the ship. From the ship, it had been impossible to make out more than an outline of the tower, none of the details that could prove important when this place would serve as a landing fort. The condition of the gate, the arrow-slits...
...the thin stream of smoke rising from the other side of the wall.
"So we are to get a fight out of this..." Hrethel muttered to himself. Behind him, he heard one of the men mutter a curse. Somewhere inside, he found he couldn't blame them. To bleed for the chance of plunder was one thing, but there would be no gold here. He shrugged. It mattered not. One repair crew would hardly match his men, whatever their motivation. "...and I'd feared we'd come all this way for nothing..."
The gate looked sturdy enough. "No matter," he said to himself. Battering rams were simple enough to trim, and simpler still to cut. Scaling ladders would take some time, but it was unlikely that they'd need them, as several of the men had carried grappling ropes from the ship.
"A bit of exercise never hurt anyone," he said aloud, "and the rest of the armada is depending on us to capture this outpost." He turned to the rest of his men, "You two," he gestured to a pair of his warriors, "stand guard on that ridge," he pointed to the south. "Any reinforcements from Castle Wyvern would come from that direction. You six," he gestured again, "see to a ram. As for the rest of you," he gave the watchtower another squinting glance in the dim light, "this is an old tower, and old towers have weak points."
He looked back to his warriors, giving the simple order, "Find them."
* * * * *
"By the Dragon, that thing was heavy!"
Angus was shaking his head. "It isna' going to work," he said. "Melted metal isna' exactly a thing that moves well. It's a miracle we got it up here, but it's already begun to harden."
Thersites shrugged. "So the Vikings will get hard lead that's cold instead of watery lead that's hot," he stopped to catch his breath.
There was a pause, broken only by the sound of bowstrings -- Luke's and Jonas' -- being plucked.
"Do ye think they'll have any luck?" asked Angus, looking at his sons.
"I hope so," said Thersites. "If anything, they'll slow them down." He paused again, "You see, the whole point of a defense is to keep the invaders out. First we try to keep them away from the walls. If they try for the gate, we barricade it to keep them from getting in. If they try scaling ladders, we throw things at them to keep them from reaching the top."
"And what happens if they do reach the top?" asked Angus.
"Are you a religious man?"
Angus swallowed and didn't answer.
Thersites stopped a moment, "This probably happens to everyone who has to defend a tower against Viking raiders," he told the smith, "but I have a feeling that I'm forgetting something."
Angus tried and failed not to look more distressed at that, "I dinnae' know, we seem to be well prepared..."
He shook his head, barely hearing him, "Let's see," he counted off on the talons of his free hand, "we lit the distress torches. We barricaded the gate, set your sons to shooting arrows, melted that lead..." He frowned harder. "Why do I feel like we've forgotten something?"
There was a woman's scream from off to the left. Angus' face paled.
"Nanny," they both said at once.
* * * * *
Thersites turned and ran full tilt to the soldier's quarters, where Nanny had consented to fashion arrows for her grandsons.
"Windows!" he smacked himself over the head as he ran. "We remembered the gate, and we forgot to block the windows."
In this particular tower, the windows on the ground floor were no more than three-inch slits in the walls; only on the middle and upper levels did they become wide enough to provide access to an intruder with scaling equipment and a poor understanding of the fact that falling thirty feet to rocky ground hurt.
He skidded to a stop in front of the doorway, and froze at the scene that met his eyes. He blinked. He blinked again.
As he'd feared, a bearded figure with a conical helmet was already a head and shoulders into the room.
He was muttering curses, and had both arms raised to protect his face as Nanny beat him over the head with her gorse broom.
Thersites acted without thinking. Before he knew what he was doing, he'd taken hold of the human woman's left arm and pulled her aside. For a split second, he looked the Viking square in the eyes.
"You'll thank me for this," he said simply.
For a moment, the Viking looked confused, not for long, however, as Thersites quickly doubled up his fist and punched him solidly in the face.
The Viking made a noise in his throat, and scrambled for a moment, trying to regain his grip on the edge of the window. He failed, slipping out of sight.
Thersites stepped up to the windowframe and leaned out just in time to see his opponent hit the ground and go rolling.
"I've saved you from a fate worse than death, you know!" he called out.
Thersites ducked back inside noticing the grappling hook sunk against the stone windowframe. He took hold of it and pulled hard.
"Now what did ye go an' do that for?" demanded Nanny.
"What?" asked Thersites, looking at the rope in his hand. "You're right," he told her. "I should really leave it right here so that they can climb back up again." He shook his head, and continued coiling.
"Not that," she said, "I mean-"
"Worse than death?" he asked. "Well, maybe I wouldn't go that far, -- well, maybe I would -- but that broom of yours can be very-"
"I coulda' 'andled 'im!" she folded her arms across her chest.
"No doubt of that," he said dryly, "but could he have handled you?"
She glared at him sourly, "Here," she shoved a small bundle into his hands. "Ye take these arrows to my grandsons," she told him. "Ye'd best be makin' yuirself useful."
"She's right," Thersites muttered glumly to himself as he left the room; "wouldn't want to give me time to catch my breath, now would we?"
* * * * *
"I still dinnae' see the point of all this," the Captain grumbled, running one hand across his blonde-gray beard. "We coulda' brought two loads of wood up to the battlements by the stairwells in this time, instead of fussin' with ropes and cogs."
Asrial grinned tightly, not turning away from the collection of pulleys that she'd spent the last hour and more setting up, "It's worth the wait," she said aloud, though the Captain thought he'd detected a hint of smugness in her voice. "Trust me." She slipped the end of the last rope through the cords that bound a load of wood, pulling the last knot tight with a sharp tug.
He wasn't sure about this one. From the beginning, the clan of gargoyles living at Castle Wyvern had shown themselves to be more than capable warriors. Especially since the battle with the Vikings, the Captain had come to value them as an invaluable part of the castle's defenses.
...but this one... The Captain didn't know quite what to make of her. She'd been trained as a warrior along with the rest of her generation, but by gargoyle standards, wasn't much of a fighter. He'd gathered that the rest of the clan considered her something of an eccentric.
"There," she muttered, half to herself. Then she turned to the Captain, amusement clearly evident in her night-black eyes. "Who would you think is stronger?" she asked, "My rookery brother, or I?" she pointed to where one lavender-gray creature was waiting on the battlements above. ...had been waiting since she'd set her mind on building this contraption, actually.
The Captain gave a short sigh. "I hate to disappoint ye, lass, but I know what ye're after. Ye mean to use this contraption to haul these timbers up to the battlement." He shook his head. "I saw these things workin' while Wyvern was bein' constructed."
"Oh," said Asrial, sounding a bit glum. "Well, in any case..." She waved to her rookery brother, took hold of the end of one rope, and began to pull.
The Captain watched as the load of wood steadily climbed up the side of the wall, until the other gargoyle reached out and pulled it onto the floor of the battlement.
He shook his head. "As many times as I've seen 'em," he said, "I've never liked the idea. Heavy things were na' meant to rise like that. 'Tisn't natural..."
"Sweating and cursing, on the other hand..." Asrial laughed. "That's just fine, now isn't it?"
He gave her a dry glance, "How does this tangle of cord work again?" he asked.
The yellow-haired gargoyle frowned, "You know," she said after a moment, "I'm not quite sure. I think it has something to do with each pulley taking part of the weight, and-"
"Sister!" the lavender gargoyle called from the battlement. The Captain looked up to see him motioning with one arm. "Bring your far see-ers up here. There's something the Leader wants you to look at."
The Captain found himself grinning, "I dinnae' suppose ye've come up with a way ta' lift yuirself all the way up there, now have ye?"
The young gargoyle paused, "Not yet..." she said speculatively.
"Sister!" Goliath called again.
"I'm coming," she shouted back at him. Asrial gave a slightly regretful sigh, and headed for the stairs.
* * * * *
"Yuir eyes are better than mine, lad," Agamemnon was saying, "ye say ye see three lights, and all I can make out is a blurred luminescence. In all likeliness, each year took a piece of my vision with it as it passed my by..."
"Sister," Goliath greeted Asrial as she appeared on the battlement, interrupting Agamemnon's speech.
"I brought my lenses," she said carefully.
Agamemnon nodded, "As well ye should have, lass. Ach, with all the grumblin' that some of yuir brothers and sisters are makin' over the work of repairin' the castle of the damage of the attack, it's good to see a young lass who'll do a simple task without any complainin'. I tell ye, when I was a lad-"
Goliath and Asrial cringed in unison. "There was something the Leader wanted me to look at?" she asked quickly, indicating the brown-winged elder who'd thus far been silent. Goliath suppressed a worried look. His mentor hadn't spoken much lately, not since Deborah had died.
Hudson nodded. "That point of light, lass," he gestured with one talon to a glowing speck on the horizon. "What is it?"
Asrial moved to the edge of the battlement, and held the goggles to her eyes. Goliath couldn't suppress a grin. She always looked so odd with that peculiar contraption over her face.
"It's three fires," she said at last. "Is that coming from one of the watchtowers?"
"Well if it is, we've got to-"
"Wait a minute or so, lass," Agamemnon stopped her, "I wouldna' get so excited about it." He turned to the Leader. "The lad's more than known to try his hand at fools' tricks," he said. "There's not an escapade he wouldna' attempt if it meant evadin' his night's work." He paused, a rare thing. "What do ye think of it, Brother?"
There was a moment of silence.
* * * * *
"What was Nanny yellin' about?" asked Luke as Thersites emerged, breathing hard, on the tower's top level.
"Nothin' she couldna' a' 'andled," he imitated between gasps. He stepped up from the last stair, and promptly tripped on the edge of a building stone, nearly putting out one of his eyes with an arrowhead. "What is that doing there?"
"Da was gonna use those to replace the crumbled place in the battlements," supplied Luke.
"I brought some more arrows," he told the human.
"Good," said Jonas. "We're nearly out. Since they reached the top, they've been mostly-"
"Any luck?" he interrupted.
"Not much," said Luke. "Oh, and while ye're up here," he gestured to a speck in the sky, "what's that?"
"We didna' want to shoot at it, because we thought it mighta' been a-"
"Hush up, Jonas. He can see what it looks like."
"Dinnae' tell me to-"
"By the Dragon," Thersites grinned. "Look who's finally back."
* * * * *
"It was a good idea, you had, Brother," Ajax said as he landed on the parapet with a medium-sized boar under his arm.
"Yeah, well, at least that part of my luck's been good..."
He frowned, glancing over the battlement to the ground below, "Are those Vikings?" he asked.
"Well they're not blue-faced Picts, now are they?!" Thersites asked, suddenly annoyed.
Ajax frowned, probably wondering why Thersites was angry with him, and squinted his eyes, trying to get a better look, "No, brother," he said, "I don't think they are."
He opened his beak to say something, then shut it again, shaking his head.
Jonas came up behind them and knocked an arrow from his now-full quiver. The dark-haired human leaned over to Thersites and asked, "He's a little dim, isn't he?"
The gargoyle managed a grin, "We prefer to call him 'uncomplicated,' or 'unoriginal.' He does have feelings, you know."
Ajax continued to scrutinize the scene below as six Vikings stripped branches off of a newly cut trunk, and other swing grappling hooks against the walls. Thersites swallowed hard, far too many of those hooks were finding purchase. Far too many warriors had already begun to climb.
Jonas took aim and fired. Ajax shook his head. "They're too far away," he said. "You'd have better luck with the ones closer to the wall."
Jonas shrugged. Ajax turned to Thersites, "If they're not Picts and they're not Vikings then just what-"
Thersites shook his head. "Look," he told his brother, "we've lit the signal fires, so the others must be on their way by now. We've got to hold the Vikings until they get here, all right?
"So they are Vikings?"
"Yes," Thersites answered simply.
"That's what I thought."
Ajax paused for a moment looking around, one talon scratching at the beginnings of a beard that were beginning to show on the crested gargoyle's face. Thersites frowned. Ajax rarely did that, and when he did, he was usually thinking very hard about something. ...even though for Ajax, 'thinking very hard,' meant that he was trying to remember something that he'd heard or read somewhere.
"Are those for anything important, Brother?" he asked. Thersites followed his line of sight and found himself looking at a small pile of building stones that Thersites had tripped over earlier.
"I don't think so," he told his brother, "Why?"
Ajax walked over to the collection of stones, lifting the topmost off of the pile. He walked back to the side of the tower, glancing downward. After a few moments, he took several steps to one side, and let it fall.
Thersites frowned again, until he heard a faint surprised grunt, a number of shouts, and then a series of dull thudding noises. He moved over to the edge and looked down just in time to see one Viking and one building stone smash into two others who'd been climbing further down, knocking all four to the ground.
He let out a surprised laugh and clapped Ajax on the back, "That's alright, Brother," he said, gesturing to the stones. "Use as many as you like."
* * * * *
Hrethel stormed over to the three fallen warriors. Where that night creature had come from, he'd never know, but he wasn't about to let it ruin his people's chance at gaining a handhold in this area.
"On your feet, men!" Hrethel ordered.
The first of them, his fall having been broken by his two less fortunate companions, complied, pulling himself upright, with one hand held against his side. The second managed a sitting position, cradling one arm, which was bent in a place where there weren't supposed to be any joints. The third did not move.
Hrethel stifled a snarl. "You'll learn to fight with broken ribs," he told them, brandishing his sword hilt menacingly, "or you'll learn to fight with broken skulls."
"Yes my lord," the man with the broken arm replied, the words barely audible behind the strain.
Hrethel and the other warrior exchanged a glance. Brusquely, he walked over to the sitting man, slung his good arm about his shoulder, and pulled him to his feet. The other carefully took hold of the third man's arms by the elbows, and dragged him away from the wall.
"See to him," he told the first two, "and then go relieve the watchmen. With our battering ram almost ready," he went on, "we'll need every pair of arms that can carry their own weight." He looked meaningfully at the tower walls. "It won't be much longer."
* * * * *
Angus pulled himself up the stairs, a quiver with some of Nanny's arrows in one hand. He blinked. "Who is that?" he asked, pointing to Ajax.
Thersites looked up from his pacing, "Him? He's the other guard."
"When did he get back?"
"Never mind that now..." the gray-green creature said sharply, eyes scanning the sky to the south. "Where are they?" he muttered. "...how are things down below?"
"I boarded up fairly all the second-stair windows," said Angus, a bit carefully. "But none of them have been botherin' Nanny."
The gargoyle chuckled. "For some reason, I'm not surprised."
Angus opened his mouth to reply, but just then, an arrow clashed against the stone near Jonas's arm. The boy blinked and, knocked one of his own arrows, muttering, "That musta' been a bloody good one..."
Angus stood there for a moment, mouth open. "Jonas," he said at last, "get ye down the stairs and mind yuir grandmother."
Thersites, oblivious, continued pacing. "What's taking them?" he seethed. "We lit the signal fires hours ago, they should be in sight by now..."
"Da!" cried Jonas. "Ye jost said that Nanny was doin' fine..."
"Jonas, ye'll do as I tell ye!" Angus's face was starting to turn red.
"Da, truly the arrows usually canna' reach this high," Luke cut in. "The Vikings couldna' carry but shortbows up that ridge. I dinna' know how that shot got through."
"Luke, ye stay outta this!" he turned back to Jonas, "I tell ye, lad, ye may not have the build for ironworking, but ye've more than enough sense ta' help when yuir poor Nanny is-"
"Da, please," Luke interrupted uneasily. "We need Jonas up here, with his bow."
For a moment, no one said anything. Thersites claws made a tapping sound on the stone floor as he paced.
"Luke," said Angus with a bit more calm. "Ye're right. Jonas'll stay here." He paused, "But if ye ever interrupt me like that again, I'll box yuir ears 'til they never stop ringing'."
"Brother," said Ajax, pausing to look down onto the field below, "the Vikings have finished their battering ram."
"Wonderful!" Thersites threw his hands in the air. "Perfect! Was it my oh-so-heroic fellow wood-chipper who got trapped in a tower with a Viking war party at the gate? Was it our inventive sister, who could have thrown one of her contraptions at them and made them all explode? Oh nooo..." he dragged the word out. "It was me. Me! " He craned his neck to look accusingly at the sky, "All I ever wanted was to get out of termite duty. Was that so terrible?! Why me?" he shouted. "Why bloody m-!"
He cut off as Ajax slapped him across the beak.
"Brother!" he called. "You must try to remain calm!"
"Calm?" Thersites asked incredulously. Then he burst out laughing. "Calm..." he stared out across the battlements, looking down at the beach below the cliff. Had it only been earlier this night that he and Ajax had sat there talking, when he'd been so glad to get away from that adz. "It might have been a fine few nights," he said quietly, "but ooooh no, the Vikings had to show up in that ship of theirs and..." his eyes fell on the Viking ship, waiting quietly in the waves below, manned by only two or three bored-looking warriors. The Vikings' ship...
"...we need more time," Ajax was saying. "The gates will last a while, but not until reinforcements come."
Thersites nodded. He frowned, shifting his gaze to the forge in the courtyard below. Angus had started to let the fires die after he'd melted the lead, but there was still a tiny wisp of smoke, and the bucket that he'd tripped over...
Thersites swallowed and half-ran, half fell the distance down to the courtyard, barely hearing Ajax's confused call.
"Look," Ajax looked up at the sound of Luke's voice. The human was pointing to the south, "What's that?"
* * * * *
Before Thersites knew what he was doing, he was scooping out a bucketful of still-hot embers.
His senses didn't come back to him until he felt the bucket's metal handle getting uncomfortably warm as the wood began to burn. "Ow..." he muttered, climbing back up the tower wall as quickly as he could with one arm. He perched on the battlements for a spit-second, then jumped off, gliding faster than he'd ever admit to being able to, toward the Viking ship.
"Ow." he said again, switching the pail from one hand to another. "Ow." Switch. "Ow." Switch. "Ow..."
The ship rushed up to him faster than he'd expected it to. He saw a brief flash of the two startled faces of the Viking guards, and heard the faint thud as the smoking pail fell through a hatch in the wooden deck, scattering its contents at their feet. There were shouts behind him as he sped off, angling back toward the coast. Thersites took a shuddering breath, and glided lower, dipping his hands in the cold water.
"By the Dragon..." he murmured to himself. "What did I just do?"
* * * * *
Ajax squinted. Strange for a human to be able to see so well in this light... A grin broke across his face. "It won't be long," he told the smith's elder son. "That's-"
The rest of the crested gargoyle's sentence was lost in a reverberating thud from the courtyard. His smile fell.
"What was that?" asked Angus.
Ajax hefted a building stone, and moved toward the side of the tower from which the sound had come. "They've started on the gate," he said simply.
* * * * *
"It should give way soon enough," Hrethel muttered to himself. A stout gate could take an hour or more to reduce to splinters, but this one was half-splintered already. "Just a few more blows should do it, men!" he shouted.
"Captain!" Hrethel turned to see the warrior with one arm in a makeshift sling approaching him. The man walked with a slight limp after his fall from the tower, but he'd live. A few months in bed, and he'd be fit to fight again.
"What news from the south?" he asked quickly of the scout.
"Reinforcements, Captain," he answered. "Two score guardsmen and gargoyles look to be here before the hour's through."
Hrethel swore under his breath. "Tell no one else of this," he said.
"We'll be through the gate before long. There's a good chance that we can take whatever tools might be inside, leave the pieces of the watchmen for the Scots to find and be on our way in time to return to the fleet." He paused, "I've not gone to all this effort to forego doing some damage. Return to your post."
The other Viking nodded and was gone.
"Now what?" he nearly shouted in the man's face. "Why aren't you at the ram with the others?"
"Hrethel- Captain, the-"
"What is it?!"
"Captain..." the other Viking trailed off, "the ship's on fire."
Hrethel cast his eyes toward the west, the sea, "What?"
* * * * *
Thersites looked uneasily upward at the rock cliff, then down at his hands. He put one claw on the rough surface and winced.
"Well," he said to no one in particular. "I suppose I could go back and try to find that path up to the tower, and hope that the crowd of Vikings at the top of it doesn't notice me." He looked up at the cliff again, "or I could try to climb this." He tested the rocks, putting his weight on one hand, and then taking it off again, quickly, with a flare of pain from the burned skin. "Also not a good idea..." he decided, cradling the throbbing hand.
"I suppose it's just as well," he said. "By the time I'd make it up there, there wouldn't be anything left of the place. The Vikings will have pretty much ripped the watchtower and anyone in it into bite-sized pieces, and..." he trailed off, "...and..."
A frustrated growl rose in his throat, "I hate this!" he shouted. "I really hate this!"
He sighed and began to climb the rock face. "Ow," he said dully as the rough handhold bit into his palm. "Ow. Ow. Ow..."
* * * * *
"Captain, if we wait any longer, the reinforcements from Wyvern will be on top of us!"
Hrethel said nothing, giving the signal for one last run at the gates. There was a bitter taste in his mouth. With one hour more -- one hour more -- he'd have turned the gate to splinters and the tower to dust, even without the six men that he'd sent to aid the ship guards.
There was the sound of feet running, of warriors' voices, and of wood hitting wood with the solid sound of groaning timbers just ready to give way.
He stared for a moment at the crumbling walls. They looked as though they could have fallen at any moment.
Hrethel shouted to his men and moved to signal the retreat.
There came a cry from one of the scouts.
* * * * *
Ajax shook his head, "He's been away too long. Something has happened to him."
Angus said nothing.
"I think he's alright," Jonas spoke up.
"Well whatever happened to him," said Luke. "We'll be able to go find him soon enough," he pointed to the field below.
Ajax nodded, unsurprised. He'd been expecting this since Jonas had spotted a group of gargoyles -- part of their reinforcements -- coming from Wyvern. With no fortifications and a superior force on the way, the Vikings had had no option but retreat.
Said part of gargoyles was much closer now, and that meant that Prince Malcolm had also sent a number of human soldiers with them. Ajax looked out over the battlements and sighed, "A shame for them to come all this way and have it already nearly over..."
Luke, Jonas and Angus stared at him.
* * * * *
Brother Edmund tied off the bandage and gave the gargoyle a reassuring smile. He took a breath as his patient was helped up. The battle with the retreating Vikings had been over almost before it had started, and this one's wound -- a slash to the left arm -- had been the worst of the injuries suffered by the Wyvern side.
He looked nervously up to the tower, wondering about the humans and gargoyles inside. Edmund stood up and checked his saddlebags one last time. The travel-sized pouches containing the rest of his herbs and bandages were right where they were supposed to be. Edmund muttered a brief prayer that he wouldn't have to use too many of them.
Several minutes passed. Some of the gargoyles alighted near the gates. Edmund watched as the head guard made some sort of signal with a torch, and was answered from the top of the tower. A while later, the gates creaked open. Edmund started to walk up the path toward the tower.
* * * * *
Goliath took a look around. The tower gates had been damaged to the point where they'd probably need to be rebuilt entirely.
"So I suppose he wasn't playing tricks..." he heard Agamemnon mutter to Hudson. "Never thought I'd see the night..."
Hudson nodded, but gave no other answer.
Goliath looked up at the sound of footsteps. Ajax stepped out onto the ground, followed by four humans.
Hudson stepped up to the gold-skinned gargoyle and clapped him on the shoulder. "Good work, lad," he said simply.
Ajax frowned, "Thank you, my Leader," he said, sounding a bit confused.
One of the humans who'd followed Ajax -- a sturdy-looking man of middle age -- started to speak.
The words never got out.
"Lad, ye're fit to be congratulated," Agamemnon began. "A true hero! In the face of the hordes of our enemies, besieged by savages from the north, ye held fast! In the face of chaos ye kept a level head! Ye had a tower, a team of humans, and a sluggish rookery brother in yuir hands, and ye-"
"Yes," Hudson interrupted. "Where is yuir brother?"
"He's over there, Leader," Ajax pointed.
Goliath turned around to see a somewhat ragged-looking Thersites pulling himself to his feet near the edge of the cliff. The gray-green gargoyle took a glance down at his hands, and began walking toward them.
The human spoke up, "We'd all have been lost this night," he said, "if yuir night guard hadna' taken charge. He saved our lives; showed us what to do." He gestured to Thersites, "There's yuir hero!"
Agamemnon blinked, "Him?"
"Brother?" Goliath asked carefully as Thersites drew closer.
The smaller gargoyle coughed. "I know I've never been the heroic type, but by the Dragon, Brother," he asked, "do you have to look so surprised?"
An old woman bumped past Goliath, shoving him out of the way with the end of her gorse broom. She walked up to Thersites. Goliath's scrawny brother started to put his arm in front of his face, as if expecting a blow, but the woman only leaned over and put kissed the side of his beak. "He saved us all!" she said belligerently. "He's not half so bad..." she trailed off. "...for a homely creature."
"Really, madam!" Thersites huffed. "I'm not that sort of gargoyle!" He took one more look around at everyone's faces. He opened his beak, closed it again, and stalked off down the path.
Agamemnon cleared his throat. "Well..." he said. "At least we'll have one more story to tell while we're finishing repairs..."
* * * * *
Thersites had been storming along the track in the ground for some time. "They're never going to let me forget this," he said to himself. "Never! And after all the time I spent establishing my reputation as a sensible person..."
"There you are, my young friend!"
Thersites looked up to see Brother Edmund moving toward him. "Whatever they said about me," he pointed to where the others were still convened near the gate, "it's not true!"
Edmund looked at him for a moment. Thersites sighed.
"Alright," said the gargoyle. "Go ahead and laugh."
"I wasn't going to laugh," protested the monk. "You just surprised me is all. I hadn't been expecting you to be displeased with all the attention." He smiled, "From what I'm told, you really took charge up here."
"Brother Edmund..." Thersites seemed troubled, "what if this makes them think I'd be good at doing more of this sort of thing? I'd hate it! What if they think I'd make a good Second? I don't think I'm cut out for leadership."
"I don't think you'll have to worry about that..."
"Just what is that supposed to mean?!"
The monk sighed. "May I see your hands?" he asked.
Thersites frowned and opened the fists that he hadn't known he'd made. He drew in a breath between his teeth as the night air bit at the reddened flesh of his palms.
Edmund took a quick look and reached for his bag of dressings.
"I'll be alright by sunrise," Thersites protested. He looked back to the seared flesh. "...I think."
Edmund shrugged. "It won't take long, and after all that's happened tonight, you deserve to be fussed over a bit..."
"That's true..." the gargoyle muttered as Edmund began his work.
Neither of them spoke for a moment, and the night was still enough for Thersites to be able to hear some of what was taking place by the gates.
"An' then," Nanny was saying loudly, "he hit the blasted Viking, and he fell outta' the window straight to the ground!"
Thersites moaned, "Can't the silly old cow keep her mouths shut? They going to make it sound as though I'm an overmuscled, battle-loving-"
"Look at it this way," Edmund interrupted as he tied off the first bandage. "Your injuries and their stories may just keep you off of the work crews for some time."
Theorists blinked. "That's true..." he held the finished hand in front of his face, frowning. He flexed one talon and winced. "...but I'd never dream of shirking my duties!"
Edmund looked up at him, surprised.
"And in order to do that," Thersites went on, "I've got to make sure that my hands heal up right. These burns go right to the bone, don't they Brother?" he asked. "It'll probably take more than one stone sleep, then... No sense taking foolish risks with something as tricky to heal up as hands, you know..."
Edmund grinned, tying off the second bandage. Then he looked up. "You've got company," he said to Thersites.
The gargoyle looked to the path to see Hudson, Ajax, Angus and the others coming toward him.
"They're probably coming to congratulate you," said Edmund.
"I wouldn't be able to hold an adz, would I?"