Written by Christine Morgan (firstname.lastname@example.org )
Based on an outline by Kathy Pogge
From the journal of Brother Edmund:
"The time of the Warriors' Rites draws near, and all the young gargoyles of the clan spend their every hour preparing for it. Their nervousness shows in one way or another. Some draw away for extra practice. Some profess no worry at all, though their manner belies their inner fear. Such is the way of all young ones facing their first real challenge in life.
"But I worry for the young lass with the fire-red hair. In her is the potential for greatness as a warrior, yet so strongly does she doubt herself that it makes her especially vulnerable. I can continue to try to help her through her crisis as much as I can, but in the end, it is only she who can overcome her own fear.
She ran, giggling, looking back over her shoulder. He was close on her tail, almost literally, so that she whipped it to the side lest he tread upon it.
"Ha!" He lunged and grabbed at her.
"Ha!" she retorted, slipping deftly to the side.
His fingers closed on nothing but air and he stumbled, and she took that moment to swiftly clamber to the top of a boulder. She stood atop it, the night wind cool in her scarlet hair, and planted her hands saucily upon her hips to laugh down at him.
"You give chase like a human!" she taunted.
"Just as you like it! I act as they do, that you might find me as fascinating as you find them!" He rapped his knuckles on the metal breastplate he wore. "Think you that I bear this weight for defense? Nay, sweet sister, but to win the favor of your eyes!"
"And to win the favor of my ears, you speak like a courtier!"
He smiled slyly. "What must I do to win the favor of your arms?"
She tossed her head and half-spread her wings. "For that, dear brother, you must catch me!"
"So be it!" He leaped, clawing at the stone, and made to seize her ankle.
She shrieked playfully and sprang over his clutching hand, swooping over his head and gliding low, skimming the tall grass until she angled her wings into an updraft and soared skyward. He was after her in a heartbeat, and they darted among the treetops and through the patchwork of moonlight and shadow.
At last, when she was wearying of the game, she made an artful error in her flight and let him catch her, feeling the warmth of his skin and the coldness of his breastplate against her flesh as he carried her to earth. With mock struggles and hisses, she fought to free herself from his grasp.
"Not so fast, sister! Caught you, I did, and release you, I shan't, until you've rewarded me with an embrace!"
She looked up at him. He wasn't the handsomest of her brothers, not the tallest nor strongest. But he at least cared for something more than practicing to be a warrior, whereas most of the other males barely cast a glance toward their sisters. Though she was yet far too young to be choosing a mate, she could do much worse than to consider him foremost.
"Very well," she said, lowering her eyes and then raising them again in the flirtatious manner she saw the serving maids use when practicing their wiles upon the prince's soldiers.
She ceased her struggling and turned to face him, feeling suddenly and oddly shy. Her arms went easily around him, and his likewise encircled her. Then, as she'd seen the elders do, she folded her wings forward so that they lay over his shoulders, and his wings came forward to enfold her.
They stood awkwardly like that for a moment, neither daring to move or speak. She wanted to press her brow to his, but wondered if that might not be too forward a gesture. In the art of war, they were given the most rigorous training, scolded severely for the slightest failing, but when it came to the ways of males and females, they were left to learn by watching the adults.
"Well, well, well! So this is how I find you!"
The pair jumped apart at the sharp voice and whirled to see one of their rookery brothers perched on a stump. His left horn was a stunted twist of bone, not the proud battle-scar of a warrior but an accident of hatching. He hopped down, standing hunched with his wings partly extended.
"What do you mean by creeping about like this?" the male demanded.
"Creeping about? Creeping about? Brother dear, I was sent to find you!" He poked his beaked nose toward the heavens. "Behold the moon, how close to setting it is!"
"Oh, no!" the female wailed, seeing that indeed the lower edge of the moon was already sinking behind the hills. "We're late!"
The newcomer spread his hands and shrugged. "We tried to make excuse for your absence, but it fell upon the deaf ears of our Teacher. You'd best hurry back, else she'll have your tails for trophies!"
"Come, let us --" the male began, turning to the female, but she was already airborne and gliding with the speed of the wind itself toward the distant castle.
Soon the torchlit ramparts came into view, and the cliffs and pounding seas beyond. Castle Wyvern, home of the young Prince Malcolm, and home also to the largest and most prosperous clan of gargoyles in all of Scotland. The familiar pride she usually felt at seeing the towers rising majestically against the sky was dimmed as she spiraled down into the courtyard.
The older warriors paid her no mind, and she herself barely noticed the litter of hatchlings playing at their silly games.
But her rookery siblings, already engaged in their training exercises, glanced her way and whispered smugly amongst themselves. The female landed and smoothed her scarlet tresses, hearing the thump of her brother as he touched down beside her and reflexively straightened the straps of his breastplate.
Their siblings moved aside, and the second-in-command came forth. Tall, she was, and statuesque, with skin of a pale blue-green hue that the ladies of the castle sought unsuccessfully to duplicate with their cloth dyes. A row of short, blunted spikes parted her thick blond hair, which fell in a braid nearly to her hips.
Unconsciously, the two late arrivals edged closer together. The disappointment and wrath in their Teacher's light-colored eyes made them want to fold their wings meekly against their backs, bow their heads, and await punishment. But one of the first things she'd taught them was to stand firm and act as warriors, rather than cower like sheep. So they drew their chins up and watched her come, doing their best to ignore the muffled tittering of their siblings.
The second-in-command did not ignore it, however. She barked at the rest to continue their lessons, and in the busy quiet that followed, returned her stern gaze to the pair.
"The moon be already set. I'm curious, younglings, whether ye're unable to keep time or unable to remember instruction? Which can it be?"
There being no right answer, both of them shuffled their talons and averted their eyes.
"Think ye that a battle will wait until ye decide at yer leisure to put in an appearance?" she continued. "The rest of the clan depends on each and every warrior, and if ye're to be flitting off wherever and whenever it may please ye, ye'll be worse than useless!"
"We're sorry, Teacher," the male said. "We didn't mean to be so late ..."
"Didna mean to!" She stalked up to him and thrust her face into his. "An' ye'll be telling that to yer dead clan should ye arrive too late for a battle!" Her hand clamped onto his shoulder and whirled him around. She beckoned to the nearest group of their siblings.
It was a group most familiar to the red-haired female, for always were those four near to each other in the manner of a constellation of stars.
Two of the males were ever together, the favored pair of the clan leader. One of them was so tall already that he looked eye-to-eye with the adults, and had led the humans to remark unto each other that when he reached his full growth, he would be as a Goliath among the Philistines. Handsome, he was as well, with dusky lavender skin and a thick sable mane. The other had skin the fine gray-blue of the winter sky just before daybreak, and hair white as snow. Those two were the central stars of the constellation, brothers closer than the usual rookery bond.
A more distant star was the female, small and gangly but whose features and exotic wings hinted that she would someday soon blossom into a beauty to rival any in the clan. Always was she near the two males, never intruding on their good-natured roughhousing, patiently waiting until the night when one of them might see her in a new way.
And fourth, the dark star of the pattern, in an erratic orbit, was another male whose manner was as brooding and sly as a weasel, and whose cold, steely gaze was ever hungrily fixed upon the oblivious female.
It was to the lavender male that the Teacher beckoned. "Test this tardy would-be warrior against the morningstar," she commanded, pushing the other male toward him.
The morningstar! Most difficult of all weapons to defend against, even with shield! And it was without benefit of shield that the breastplate-wearing male would be tested. That in itself was bad enough, but that the weapon was to be wielded by the strongest, most skilled of the young gargoyles! The female gave him a sympathetic look, which ended when the Teacher turned to her.
"And ye," she said. "With ye, 'tis always something. Late for yer teachings, aye, this should come as nary a surprise when I've seen how slovenly ye tend yer other duties! Ye've the fighting talent of a hen, all squawk and bluster, and like a hen the only time ye'll draw blood is when yer claw strikes by panic's mischance! Look at me when I'm speaking to ye, child! And dinna give me that glare, if ye know what's good for ye! What I say, I say for yer own good and the good of yer clan. And ye'd do well to pay more mind to the well-being of the clan; do ye think I've not noticed how ye're always looking to the humans?"
The red-haired female felt how her chin wanted to quiver, but she dared not show any such weakness in the face of the Teacher's wrath. She trapped the tender inside of her cheek between her teeth and bit sharply down until she tasted blood. Her hands wanted to curl into tight fists, but she forced them to hang open at her sides.
On and on it went. The tiniest flaws in her performance, errors so slight she would have sworn that no one had observed -- but the unkindly keen eye of the Teacher had missed nothing. A full chronicle of her failings unspooled from the Teacher's lips, until the young female was trembling from the effort of not giving in to her helpless misery.
She could see her brother as he tried to evade the spiked ball that whistled through the air on the end of its stick and chain. Bruised and bleeding though he was, she would have gladly swapped places with him. Better a physical beating than this vicious scolding and the soul-twisting guilt of having so badly disappointed her Teacher and her clan.
"Well, now," the Teacher finally said. "I hope ye've taken this to heart, child."
"Yes, Teacher," she whispered, fearful that any attempt at louder speech would bring her into wailing tears. "Should I join the others now?"
The Teacher scanned the sky. "Nay, 'tis scant an hour until dawn. Get ye to yer perch, and until sunrise, think ye on what I've said. I dinna want to see ye stir from that spot until dusk tomorrow."
"But --" she dared protest.
"To yer perch!" She thrust a finger in that direction. "Afore I give ye a lesson ye'll ne'er forget!"
She obediently fled, pushing through the circle of her siblings. Most of them had been pretending to practice their skills but stayed close enough to hear every word of her shame. Some made reassuring murmurs as she passed by them, but the rest either turned away or watched her with scorn.
She made her way to the lowest battlement and climbed onto her perch, feeling as if she were weighed down by huge boulders chained to her limbs.
No one else was retiring to their perch this early. She felt conspicuous, like all the human guards and soldiers were staring curiously at her, as if everyone in the castle was wondering what she'd done to earn such a restriction.
She crouched in her usual fierce pose, but then, realizing that it was still quite a while until daybreak, sat down and dangled her feet over the edge. Pieces of the previous day's shed skin still littered the surface, and she idly flicked them off one by one. Proof of her slovenly inattentiveness to her duties, no doubt.
But _everyone_ left their skin laying about! Even the wise, bearded Leader! What did they expect, that she beg a twig broom from the kitchen drudges and sweep it tidy every night?
Even if she did, even if she cleared away every last speck, it still wouldn't be good enough! Nothing she did would be good enough! She would never be able to satisfy the Teacher! She'd be the only one of her rookery that would fail the Rite of the Warrior, the only one in the whole clan to fail!
What would happen to her then? She drew her knees up to her chin and wrapped her arms around them, envisioning the horrid bleak future that would await her. She'd likely be driven out of the clan! If she never became a warrior, no other clan would take her in.
Down below, in the courtyard, she saw that her brother had managed, despite suffering a most thorough battering, to disarm his lavender-hued opponent. And now, though he was wincing with pain and doubtless praying for sunrise to seal him in stone and mend his wounds, the Teacher stood proudly beside him and rubbed her knuckles against his brow in congratulations and affection.
It was too much for the young female. She crossed her arms on her raised knees, buried her face, and let the hot tears soundlessly come.
On one side of Castle Wyvern, the merciless sea pounded and frothed against the base of the bluffs, carving out caves over the long millennia. On the other side, a wide rocky plain separated the walls from the nearest stand of woods. It was across this rocky plain that any attackers would have to come, and it was here that the young gargoyles were to practice their gliding and fighting skills.
The western sky was still tinged with deepest maroon and purple when they gathered on the high walls before the Leader and the Teacher, most of them fresh and eager and ready to face the evening's instruction.
Only one was not so eager, her excitement overshadowed by the dread and certainty that she would not perform up to expectations. She did not take part in the merry chatter of her siblings, but stood quiet and morose.
At the Teacher's signal, they launched themselves in a series of graceful swoops and dives. At once, her voice rang out. For the red-haired female had gotten caught in the downdraft of one of her brothers' wings, and wavered unsteadily in midair before regaining the smoothness of her glide.
She firmed her jaw and resolved to do her best, to do better than her best, to outdo everyone and give the Teacher no faults to find. But despite her best intentions, she was singled out again and again. The angle of her wings, the speed of her turns, the way she carried her tail, the quickness of her reaction, everything she did was criticized.
If it had only been she that was getting the rough edge of the Teacher's tongue, she might have appealed to the Leader, for he would have seen how she was being unfairly treated. But he would only point out that others of her siblings had also been corrected.
When they were told to rest and take brief refreshment, the red-haired female slumped to the earth beside her breastplate-clad brother.
"She can't abide the sight of me," she said glumly.
"Who, the Teacher?"
"Aye, the Teacher, did you not see how she found fault with every one of my actions? She hates me, 'tis plain!"
"Sister, no," he said, patting her on the arm. "She but wishes to see each of us become fine warriors. Our enemies will give us no quarter, no second chances. Her reminders --" here he paused to rub wincing at his leg, where the Teacher had given him a fierce blow with her tail when he had been too slow to respond to one of her orders, "-- are gentle indeed compared to the blades and arrows we will someday be facing!"
"I'd not mind _that_ so much, if it were only that!" she cried, worn out and despairing. "But it seems I can do nothing right, nothing to please her!"
"Awwww," her brother with the one crooked horn crooned mockingly, elbowing another of their brothers. "She's going to weep like a human bairn wanting its mother, so she is!"
Cruel laughter surrounded her like a ring of thorns, and the teasing remarks of her siblings stung her ears.
"Her skin's too soft!"
"Aye, soft as butter!"
"Can't manage the training, sister? Then mayhap the hatchlings will let you play with them!"
"Hatchlings? They might be too rough for her!"
"Stop it!" the one with the breastplate ordered, glaring at the rest. "Can you not see she's distressed?"
"Leave me alone!" she cried. "You can be smug as you want; she doesn't single you out as she does me, and you know it!"
"You're imagining things," a sister said, sniffing disdainfully.
"The Teacher is stern with us all," he of the breastplate said reasonably, trying to steer her away from the others. "She must be, if we're to become the best warriors we can be."
Crooked-horn slipped between them. "She just doesn't realize that you already _are_ as good as you're going to get!"
"You're no better," an ivory-horned sister cut in, tossing her head so that her long golden horsetail of hair flipped from one shoulder to the other. "I've heard Teacher scold you just as firmly."
"Aye, mayhap," he said with a feral grin, "but you'll not hear me bleating like a sheep about it!"
That struck another brother funny. "Baaa-baaa-baaa! All the livelong night!"
She whirled toward him in a tearful fury. "Quit it!"
"What's the matter, sister? Does the truth hurt?" Crooked-horn jeered.
A lavender fist came out of nowhere and cuffed him just above the ear, not hard enough to knock him sprawling but certainly hard enough to get his attention. The sound of flesh on bone cut through the laughter, and they all fell silent as they looked up at their towering sable-haired brother.
"Enough," he said.
"We only meant it in fun," the one who had been making sheep noises mumbled shamefacedly.
Rubbing at his new sore spot, the male with the crooked horn glowered from beneath his brow ridges. "Now I see why the humans speak of you as that great Biblical bully."
"They say that might makes right," a green-gold female with a sweeping bony crest said.
"They also say the meek shall inherit the earth," crooked-horn retorted.
"Aye, the meek, not the weaselly," said a reddish-hued male.
The lavender one snapped his wings to full extension. "Enough, I said!"
"What be going on?" the Teacher demanded, gliding to a graceful landing in their midst.
The red-haired female shrank back, waiting for the teasing to begin anew, but before any of the rest could speak, the lavender one stepped forth.
"Nothing that should trouble you, Teacher. A minor disagreement, now settled."
"Very good," she said to him, then looked around at the others. "Time to resume yer lessons, and this time I'm expecting to see improvement!" Her gaze lingered on the red-haired one.
The Teacher sighed and shook her head as the young gargoyles made their way back to the castle. "Well, ye've seen them. What think ye?"
"They be coming along well," the Leader said.
"Do ye truly think so?"
"Would I lie to ye, my love? Ye're doing a fine job, a fine job indeed." He laid his hand on her forearm. "Ye've taught them much in a short while, and they do seem to be taking to it with a right good will. Ye're turning them into skilled warriors. Mark me, they'll be a force to be reckoned with. The young prince, he'll be pleased at the addition to our defense."
She smiled, pleased by the pride evident in his voice. Pride not only in his clan and the youngsters, but pride in her as their instructor. But then her smile faded, and she sighed again. "If only they were all so eager!"
"What mean ye?"
"That one, with hair like rubies set afire." She indicated the female, who was lagging behind the others with her tail drooping dispiritedly.
"Aye, a pretty lass she is indeed!"
"Prettiness amounts to naught for a warrior! She heeds not a word of my teaching. Not a night goes by that I'm not called upon to correct her in something."
He frowned slightly. "Oh? What be the trouble?"
"She's lazy, she's willful, she's stubborn -- my love, I dinna know what to do with her!"
His frown turned into a half-smile, and he raised a hand to stroke at his beard.
"I see ye trying to hide that smirk!" she said, swatting him with her tail. "Do ye mind telling me what ye're finding so amusing?"
"Nothing, my angel of the sea. Nothing."
"I know ye better than that. Now, do ye, mind? I'm trying to ask yer sage advice, oh wise leader, and there ye stand grinning like a court jester!"
He forced a more sober expression. "Aye, then, how can I advise ye?"
"What am I to do with that child?" she asked, flinging her arm exasperatedly in the direction of the departing young ones. "Have ye ever known such a troublesome thing?"
"Well, ye canna do what I did ..."
"What are ye talking about? When have ye had such a problem, and what did ye do?"
He took her by the shoulders and smiled. "Made her my second-in-command."
Her mouth dropped open. "Why -- you -- oh! Oh. Nay, ye dinna think that I see ..."
"Yerself mirrored in her?" He shrugged. "And that ye might be pushing the wee lass harder because ye're remembering yer own training and wanting not just to correct her, but yerself?"
"_I_ never spent so much time lingering about the humans," she said, but it sounded a weak excuse even to her own ears.
"Aye, well, there is that." It was his turn to sigh. "And now Brother Edmund's got them wanting to learn reading, and other languages ... I dinna know what the world be coming to!"
"It does help the humans see us as other than beasts," she admitted.
"And that be the only reason I allowed it." He took her arm, and they started across the rocky plain toward the torches and battlements. "Dinna worry yerself about the youngsters. Ye're the best teacher they could hope to have. They'll do ye proud, each and every one of them."
She leaned her head briefly against his shoulder. "Do ye remember when we used to sneak away from the castle when we were supposed to be minding our lessons?"
He draped his wing around her. "Aye, love, I do."
"And do ye think 'twould be unseemly for the Leader and the Teacher to sneak away?"
"I think 'tis a grand idea," he said.
"Leader! The Prince is asking to speak with ye!" one of their brothers hailed.
"A grand idea," the Leader repeated, "but one best saved for another time."
"Here, what are you doing?"
The chubby hatchling swiftly thrust his hands behind his back and tipped wide, innocent eyes up to the red-haired female.
"I had six pastries on this tray," she said.
He sidled a step backward, but she took his fan-shaped ear in a gentle pinch and held out her other hand.
His lower lip stuck out in a pout, and he reluctantly dropped a warm pastry into it.
"Thank you. Now, where's the other?"
He showed her both hands, empty.
She tapped his chin. "Show me your mouth."
He clamped his little lips shut and shook his head.
"Those pastries are meant for the Leader's table. Either show me, or by the Dragon, I'll carry you out there by the tail and you can show them."
The hatchling's gaze shifted, and she heard a rustling noise behind her. She spun, and saw another hatchling, red with a telltale white blaze of hair, escaping with two more pastries.
"Come back here, you little imp!" She leaped after him, but he squirmed under a table and by the time she got around it, he was scampering up the stairs.
Disgusted, she turned back around, just in time to see an olive-green hatchling make off with the last pair of pastries.
The cook and her helpers laughed merrily as she replaced the one pastry she'd managed to save back upon the tray. She looked at the cook helplessly. "Are there more?"
Luckily, there were, and she kept a watchful eye upon the tray and the door as she ladled stew onto brown-bread trenchers and fetched a thick chunk of strong cheese. Her arms filled with food, she hurried toward the courtyard where the clan took their meals.
Three small faces, all quite besmeared with crumbs and berries, peeped over a wall at her. She scowled at them, but, laden as she was, she couldn't make a properly threatening gesture. Then the red one's eyes widened, and he called, "Look out!"
Her head whipped around, and a wave of wine-stench hit her in the face a heartbeat before she collided with a human in fine clothes. The tray's edge struck him in the chest, his hard-soled boot came down painfully upon her talons, and as he flung his arms upward in a warding-off motion, they knocked the tray from her grasp. It flew up, flipped over, and clattered to the stone floor.
The female froze, aghast. The three hatchlings took one quick look, then dropped out of sight so fast they might have been perched upon a trap door.
The man stumbled back, his foot coming down on the cheese. His ankle turned beneath him, and, arms windmilling, he landed heavily upon his backside.
A great spreading dark stain covered the front of his tunic. In her horror at what she'd done, the female's first thought was that she had somehow cut him and the stain was blood. Then she saw the pieces of onion and meat, and realized it was only stew.
She bent and snatched up the tray, holding it tight against her breast. The man braced his hands beneath him and started to push himself up, but his palm set squarely onto a pastry. It squittered away and he fell again, this time landing on his face.
A sound escaped her, a short squeal that must have seemed as laughter to the man, for he lunged to his feet and wiped stew from his face in a sharp gesture before fixing his outraged gaze upon her.
"Clumsy beast! How dare you accost me in this manner?! I should expect no better from a castle that permits your kind to dwell among civilized men! The prince would do better to teach a sow to walk upright than have the likes of you serve at his table!"
As he carried on at the very top of his lungs, she stared helplessly at a long gobbet of meat that dangled from one bushy eyebrow. It must fall off, surely it must, for if she had to see it there much longer, she would go mad and run shrieking through the castle.
"Milord Godfrey!" The prince's castellan, Dougal, raced up, and stopped short as he caught sight of the scene. "What has happened?"
"I'll tell you what's happened!" He whirled, and still the gobbet of meat did not come loose, but waggled and bounced and splattered droplets of gravy. "This hellspawn -- look what she's done! Is this the treatment your prince affords his guests? Small wonder that he is the talk of all Britain! When word of this reaches the royal court -- and I assure you, it will -- young Malcolm shall have no chance at all of winning Glouchester's daughter! Or indeed any other lady of goodly birth in all of England! Let him seek his bride among the dogs of Normandy, for no Englishwoman would wed with a man who keeps these evil creatures!"
"This one regrettable incident is no fault of the prince's. An accident, gracious lord, no more than that. Prithee, let me send for wine to ease your nerves --"
"Wine! I've had seven glasses already, and a poor and bitter drink it is that the prince offers! Such hospitality, I have never seen in all my days! That I, Godfrey of Leichester, should be given the shabbiest of rooms, watered wine, insolence from an arrogant young prince, and ultimately knocked half-senseless by a monster and made a mockery and fool of -- "
The castellan motioned to the stricken female. "Bring over that cloth, there. Milord, if you'll permit me ..."
She did, and to her utmost relief, the first thing Dougal did was to wipe clean the man's face and rid his eyebrow of the pendulous meat. She dropped to her knees and gathered the ruins of the meal she'd been carrying.
"Lord bless us!" the cook gasped from the kitchen doorway. "What on earth ...?"
"Get this abomination from my sight!" Godfrey demanded. He kicked at her.
Warrior training, so diligently beaten into her by the Teacher, took over. She caught his foot as it came at her, and would have propelled him headlong into the wall had Dougal not stayed her hand.
"Make it not worse, child," he murmured. To the cook, he added, "take her from here, until I've calmed his temper."
"He's drunk as a rat fallen in the beer-barrel," the cook muttered disapprovingly. "Englishmen!"
"Hush!" Dougal commanded, and returned his solicitous attentions to Godfrey as the cook herded the female into the kitchen.
"Blundered right into ye, didn't he?"
"I didn't even see him until it was too late," she said, thinking of the hatchlings and how they'd distracted her. It _was_ her fault. She'd not been watching where she was going, but she could not bear to admit it. "But -- the tray! The Leader's table!"
"Best to keep ye out of sight until Dougal's unruffled the Englishman's feathers. Here ..." she looked around. "Fergus!"
A thin dark-haired youth looked up so swiftly and guiltily that he might have been trying to sneak a pastry as well. "The Archmage sent me to bring him food to his chambers!"
"Hmph, at least he be remembering to eat for a change. And is he feeding ye as well, boy?"
Fergus flushed. "He'd not starve me!" he said indignantly.
"Aye, but I've seen how he'll go and bury that long nose of his in a book and not emerge for days on end, letting ye waste away to a shadow. Go on and have one of those pastries, two if ye've room in that thin belly of yers. Moire, be quick now and make up a new tray for the Leader's table, and when he's done with those pastries -- heavens, lad, did ye wolf them already? -- Fergus here will be carrying it out."
"No ... please, I can do it!" the female protested.
"Ye're going nowhere until I tell ye different. His drunken lordship might have more harsh words for ye, but he'd not be setting foot in a kitchen if it were Judgement Day! Sit there, and Anne will bring ye a plate of stew."
"I'll hear nary an argument from ye. If ye feel ye must do something to amend the mess, ye can help with the washing-up."
A human girl, barely into womanhood, timidly approached with a slice of thick trencher bread heaped with stew. The female accepted it and perched on a high stool while the boy Fergus staggered out under the weight of the tray.
The stew was hearty, but she barely tasted it. The Leader and the Teacher knew who was supposed to be serving this night, and they'd soon know the reason for her absence. If, indeed, the man called Godfrey hadn't already sounded his complaints to the highest battlement and the deepest dungeon.
The Archmage watched dispassionately as the gargoyles burst from their stone shells and roared their greetings to the night.
Fergus leaned further out the window. "That one, master. The one with the red hair and blue skin."
He bobbed his head. "Anne said she spilled an entire tray over Lord Godfrey!"
"How unfortunate. I do hope the prince is able to mollify him. Now then, tonight you must clean the brazier, fill the woodbin, and copy these pages. Letter perfect, mind you." His long, spindly hands caressed the air, and plucked from it a tarnished key. "And when Lord Godfrey is at table, visit his rooms. Seek any messages he may be writing to the English, and commit them to memory."
"Yes, Archmage." Fergus slipped the key into the pouch hanging from his belt.
As his drudge peered resignedly into the brazier, encrusted with black char and maroon stains, the Archmage swept his robes about himself and returned to the window.
He saw the gargoyles below, the hatchlings bounding among the adults and making endearing puplike pleas for affection. The adults indulged them in a manner most cloying. Soon, the hatchlings would come to reject such attentions as being for infants.
The adolescents seemed for the most part to be tolerated but largely ignored by most of the adults. Only the Leader, for whom the Archmage nurtured a growing hatred as night by night Prince Malcolm listened more to the gargoyle's advice, and the female called Teacher, gave much notice to the young ones.
Those two, yes, and Brother Edmund. He, as well, bore unknowing the Archmage's dislike. He'd come unwelcome and uninvited, but made a place for himself with his foreign ways. And now he was even teaching Latin, the ancient language, the language of sorcery, the language of priests and scholars. Not only to the castle's human children, but even to those few young gargoyles that claimed an interest.
As if the mere thought of his name had summoned him, Brother Edmund appeared in the courtyard. At once, several of the young gargoyles flocked toward him. The Archmage took particular note of the large lavender one, for augers had suggested darkly that this one might someday pose a problem to him.
Also of interest was the gray-green male with the malformed horn. The Archmage had considered that one as a possible pet, for the male was clever and quick-witted. Too clever, it seemed, and more concerned with his own hide than with loyalty or secrecy.
But now, he observed the female that Fergus had pointed out. He'd previously given little thought to the females, but this one seemed different from her sisters. She did not join in the cavorting of her siblings as they surrounded Edmund, but hung back reluctantly.
The Leader and the Teacher, he noted, leaned their heads together and spoke, both watching the female with evident disapproval. She flinched but trailed after Edmund and the others as they headed for the hall off the chapel that served as their classroom.
"So, this little one has made something of an outcast of herself," he mused, thoughtfully stroking his beard. "The poor thing doesn't seem to have a friend in the world."
Leaving Fergus to his duties, he made his way to the narrow gallery that overlooked the classroom. He nearly laughed at the sight of inhuman gargoyle heads bent studiously over their crude primers, while Edmund paced among them. How the man droned! It was a wonder that his students stayed wakeful!
He scrutinized the red-haired female. She alone among them did not blurt forth eager -- and often incorrect -- answers. And there was an aura of power about her that he should have felt long before now. A wellspring of untapped magic. Here was the talent he'd been seeking! Here, doubtless, was the one unknowingly responsible for the Nuckelavee.
She might prove most adequate for his needs. Fergus obeyed him, but he hadn't the magical talent of a dog, so he was useless as a pupil. No Ian, certainly. And there came times when his frail boy's form was unable to carry out what the Archmage required. He'd been for some time now toying with the thought of bending a gargoyle to his will, a gargoyle with the ability to climb or glide places impossible for Fergus to reach.
This one, now that he was aware of her, seemed the perfect choice. Not only was she gargoyle and strong with magic, but she alone of her siblings was wrapped in a cloud of vulnerability.
Edmund called upon her, and she hesitatingly repeated the lesson. When she faltered over a difficult conjugation, her crook-horned brother tittered unkindly. Even from his hiding place, the Archmage could see the impotent pain and suffering in her eyes.
"Let's hear you try, Thers -- um, you," Edmund said to the male.
The female bowed her head over her primer and did not look up, not even when her brother stumbled badly over the same passage.
Throughout the rest of the lesson, she read quietly, and seemed oblivious to her surroundings except when the Leader and the Teacher paid a brief visit. When they entered the room, her lithe young body tensed and her hands betrayed her nervousness by a slight trembling.
When the long, tedious class was finally at an end, and the Archmage was stifling the urge to yawn, Edmund dismissed most of his students but motioned for the red-haired female to stay behind. The crooked-horned one started to say something, but the lavender male raised a threatening fist and he subsided.
"I have another book that you might find more useful," Edmund offered, sounding rather kind.
"Oh, no, I don't want to be any trouble," she said.
"It's no trouble at all."
"Brother Edmund?" A woman hesitated, twisting a rag between her hands. "Brother, if you could, it's my boy, he's got a fever and they say ye're knowledgeable of medicines ..."
"I'll be along, certainly." He turned to the female. "If you should change your mind, the book is in the chest in my room." He smiled at her, then followed the anxious woman.
Alone, the female turned a few pages in one of the primers and ran her finger beneath the letters before sighing and closing the book.
The book was right where he'd said it would be, but the quick glance she'd given it only made her heart sink lower. More useful?
Try as she might, strive as she might, she never seemed able to recite her lessons properly. She wanted to put the words together differently, but was held back by not only the fear of her siblings' ridicule but another, stranger fear that if she _did_, something might happen.
She closed the chest and went to the door, checking to be sure that she'd disturbed nothing else in the room. Brother Edmund was kind, but if anyone in the clan could incite his wrath, sure enough 'twould be her.
Satisfied, she opened the door and immediately smelled sour wine.
"You again!" Godfrey of Leichester cried, brandishing a half-filled jug at her. "What are you doing, skulking about the guest wing?"
"Nothing!" she gasped.
His gaze fell upon the book in her arms. "Nothing indeed! Stealing!"
"No! Brother Edmund said I could borrow it! He did!"
"Pah! A likely story! Did you think to rob my chamber next? I've seen how you beasts have a crow's fondness for gold's shine, but you'll not have mine! You'll answer to the prince for this!"
"I've done nothing wrong!"
"Here, now, what is all of this?"
She looked toward the new voice, which was deep and smooth as the black water that welled in the springs of the caverns below the castle. "Archmage!"
"Ah! Good! Tell your master the prince that these monsters are thieves and malicious devils, and if they cannot lead him into damnation, they'll leave him a pauper!" Godfrey moved to snatch the book from her hands, and she held it tightly.
"I'm no thief! Brother Edmund said I could use it!"
"You accuse this child of stealing?" the Archmage inquired.
"I do indeed, and when the prince hears of it --"
Now his voice wasn't black water but the sharp crack of lightning. "The prince will _not_ hear of it, not from you! Sirrah, for shame, you let the wine befuddle your brain! I myself heard Brother Edmund grant his permission, so you are either misled or a liar!"
Godfrey blustered. "You dare ... do you know who I am?!"
"Yes." He drew himself tall, and spoke coldly. "You are a drunkard and a fool who seeks to poison the prince against his loyal gargoyle guardians. You claim to be a friend, but I must wonder if there would be some profit for you should this castle prove poorly defended."
"You accuse me? If any living thing shall be the downfall of this castle, it shall be this she-devil!"
"The prince will not tolerate your abuse of this noble creature, nor will I. Know _you_ who _I_ am?" He raised his hand, and the jewel of his ring glowed bright green.
Now fear pierced Godfrey's bluster. The Archmage stepped toward him, seeming to grow so that he loomed as a dark shadow over the Englishman.
Without another word, Godfrey made great haste in the other direction, and not once did he look back.
"Did he frighten you, child?"
She shook her head, though she _had_ been terribly frightened. "Brother Edmund told me I could," she insisted.
"I know, I know." He patted her shoulder soothingly. "I did hear him."
"I happened to be passing by. Tell me, how do your studies progress?"
"Not well," she admitted miserably. "Not well at anything. I thought that if I couldn't be a goodly warrior, I could at least learn from Brother Edmund and be of some use in that way, but my brothers and sisters are already better at reading too."
"Now, I hardly think that's so. Come along, let us begone 'ere our friend --" he sneered the word lightly "-- returns. What's this about not being a goodly warrior?"
She sighed. "I try, in truth I do! But it seems no matter what I do, the Teacher finds fault with me. I thought I was a fair hunter, and a better warrior than some of my siblings, but she's never given me a word of praise. Only correction. I'll not pass the Rite of the Warrior, she'll see to that!" Though she would have rather faced the fiercest of opponents unarmed than weep in front of a human, she felt tears overflowing.
"I confess, I know little of your clan's customs. But I do know of Latin, and tonight is not the first time I've observed Brother Edmund's lessons. How can you be to blame for his failings?"
She looked up at him, amazed. "His failings?"
"I don't mean to criticize, but he's not the best of teachers." He withdrew a key. "Do come in."
Her eyes widened as she realized where they were. To the best of her knowledge, none of the clan, not even the Leader, had visited the Archmage in his own chamber!
He led her to a chair of fine leather, surely the finest chair she'd ever sat in. As she ran her hands over the metal dragon-heads at the ends of the armrests, she heard the clink and clatter of crockery and the Archmage came to her with a goblet.
"Wine? But we're not permitted --"
"Fear not, it is not of the prince's cellars but my own, brought from Normandy." He touched a clean white cloth to her face, and though she'd never been so gently touched by a human, she sat motionless and let him wipe the tears from her eyes. "There, that's better, don't you agree?"
"Why are you being so kind to me?" she whispered.
His mouth turned down in a grim line. "I know what it is to be unfairly beset by tormentors. You're undeserving of this grief. Your Leader and Teacher, they have too many worries and responsibilities to pay heed to the suffering of one young soul. Brother Edmund, for all that he means well, is lacking in skill. _I_ will be your instructor now."
"You?" she breathed.
"In my youth, I learned a thing or two about warfare. Some tricks that might serve to impress even your merciless Teacher." He gestured at the many shelves of books and scrolls. "And, I daresay, my command of reading and language does surpass that of the good Brother Edmund."
"Oh, but the Leader and Teacher would never let me." She took the offered cloth and dabbed again at her eyes. "I'd only be in greater trouble!"
He frowned, and she realized that she'd managed to offend even him. The only one to show her any kindness, and she'd already ruined everything! She hid her face in her hands.
The Archmage tenderly took her wrists and moved her concealing hands away, then tipped her chin up so that their eyes met. A soft, almost fatherly smile curved his lips. "Not to worry, my child. It shall be our little secret."
A tentative smile tugged at her own mouth. "Do you mean it?"
"Of course I do." He stroked her hair possessively. "Now then, shall we begin with Latin? Set aside that book of Edmund's; you shan't need it here."