outline by Todd Jensen written by Diana R. Flynn
Coast of Scotland
It was perched on a cliff near the edge of the sea. The grudging touch of gold from a miserly sun did little to cloak the harshness of the gray stones. Made by human hands or not, Castle Wyvern was a part of these hills, and always had been. Harsh and imposing, there was little beauty in it. ...but that did not make one forget that it had been created and continued to exist for the sole purpose of defending those within its view, so much like the stone beings it was said to house.
All in all, it was rather impressive, as castles went, but after everything... "rather impressive," didn't mean much to the brightly dressed traveler by the side of the road.
A pair of blue eyes looked with a mild amount of disgust at the hill that lay between him and his destination. He turned his head, and looked at the harp case that had been sitting next to him as he'd rested his feet, with a disgust that was slightly less mild.
"Next time," he muttered, as if to himself, "you're staying behind."
Had anyone been there to hear, they might have heard a faint, and rather plaintive-sounding twang come from behind the leather covering.
"I dinnae' care," the man answered. "The wooden sort are a good deal less heavy."
The instrument inside the case gave another questioning chirp.
"Fine," said the traveler again, picking up his cap from where he'd placed it on the rock, and settling it squarely on his fair-haired head. "Next time, you can carry me."
One last, worried thrum came from the harp case, as the man slung it over his shoulder, sighed, and started up the hill towards Wyvern. Walking wasn't his favorite means of travel, even when he didn't need to haul what seemed like fifty pounds of metal, string, and attitude; he was sure it would be forever before his feet forgave him.
But then, he thought, taking another look at the castle on the cliff, imagining for a moment that he could see the shapes of warriors on the battlements; some flesh, some stone. But then, forever is a long time...
And it would be worth a few blisters and some aching extremities, even if only to satisfy a curiosity.
The Captain was a rough man of between thirty and fifty years, with more than a few scars, and a gray-streaked beard. A more than capable warrior, to be certain, but not much to look at.
Not a problem, for the traveler was not looking at him.
Yes. No human hand shaped this stone. ...but don't jump to anything before the sun goes down.
Getting into the castle hadn't been too difficult; Wyvern was on the outskirts of the Scottish civilization, and not many minstrels were willing to risk their necks by ranging this far into bandit territory. Consequently, it was a rare occasion that the people here heard a well-sung song, or heard a bit of news from the inner country.
"An' what did ye say your name was again, sirrah?" inquired the soldier. "Ye're a Welshman, are ye not?
"That I am," the traveler answered brightly, "Rhodri ap Iefan, wandering minstrel. My travels have taken me from my own dear Wales to nigh on the shores of Iona and back again a time or two, and many a spot in between," his manner changed slightly, affecting a trace of a frown, "Tell me, sirrah, would these be gargoyles of the living sort?"
The Captain gave one blink of his weathered hazel eyes, and then nodded his head, "Aye, 'Rhodri ap Iefan,'" that they are." He cast a quick look to the west, "as ye'll see for yourself in a moment." It had been a strange notion, the Captain thought, allowing the gargoyles to roost on the battlements, but then, Prince Malcolm had always been one for notions of that sort, and it was not his place to argue with his Lord. He supposed they earned their keep well enough. The gargoyles were savages, to be sure, but equally savage warriors. They made more than adequate comrades-in-arms. ...once one got used to the smell.
'Rhodri' muttered a word of thanks, watching the sun as it crept beneath the horizon.
The Captain frowned. Minstrels had always irritated him. He had never understood why a man would lend his hands to the lute. If one had not the skill for the sword, then the plow was easy enough to master. Equally perplexing was why men like Prince Malcolm would encourage them.
The minstrel smiled tightly as the gold circle in the west turned blood red and fell beneath the ground. His head whipped up towards the battlements, almost before the first crack appeared.
First one roar, and then another, then two, and ten, and twenty more. The tight smile stretched out into a full-fledged grin.
Had the Captain been standing a bit closer, he might have heard the traveler murmur to himself in a tone to match it, "Ye gods, I love being right."
Even without hearing, the Captain was rather taken aback. He'd been expecting more distaste from a courtier. The Captain was a soldier, less prone than the nobles or their musical pets to startlement, but even so, he had to admit -- though not necessarily aloud, of course -- that the first time he'd seen one of those things, he'd been more than startled. It had been coming at him in the dark, eyes glowing like coals in a fire. The whole encounter had been so nightmarish that he'd caught himself shivering for days. ....and here was this minstrel in a red mantle, gaping like a child at a banquet.
Ach, leave it be, he chided himself. In your time, ye've seen far stranger than one who's not surprised by what passes for normal affairs around here.
The Captain coughed. He'd been a retainer to Prince Malcolm's household -- and his father's before that -- since he'd been a lad, but even so, he had little idea of how to treat nobles or their foppish guests. "There has been some trouble with bandits in these past months," he told the minstrel, "as ye might have heard, comin' all this way. Prince Malcolm took some of the men on a patrol today, but they should be returnin' soon."
The other man didn't look away from the battlements as he answered, "I must be ready t' greet him, then," he replied with a Welsh lilt. "I suppose there might be a place where a harper might rest his feet, and find a splash of water for the dust of the road?"
The Captain nodded, unimpressed by the poetry. "Aye," he answered, "that there would." He glanced around for a split second. The little weasel was usually walking past the gates at about this time of-
There he was. "Ian!" the Captain bellowed at a lank-haired boy in a muddy tunic. "What devil's task does your master have ye up to now?"
The boy put his hands on his hips, "As a matter of fact-"
"Never mind it," the Captain cut him off. Heathen witchery, he cursed silently. Prince Malcolm should never have let the Archmage take up here. "Show the Prince's guest to one of the rooms."
The Captain brandished one callused fist and the boy's protest died. "Follow me," he muttered at the minstrel. "But you," he pointed at the Captain, "get to explain to my master why I'm late!"
"Ian!" he barked at the boy.
Ian grumbled something about the relative intellects and cleanliness of soldiers to barn rats, and waved one skinny arm for the traveler to follow.
He's a lad with a tongue in his head, but he's got the wit to match, I'll give him that, the Captain thought, A bow in his hand, a few stripes on his back... I might'a made a fine soldier out of 'im.
As the Captain gave the traveler a (grateful) last look, he saw a frown crease the otherwise irritatingly sunny countenance. He was staring at Ian, as if trying to discern some fine detail. Had he been any closer, he might have heard a dull twang come from the musician's harp case, or Rhodri's barely audible chide: "Quiet! I know."
The Captain watched Ian give the wanderer an odd glance as they walked off, and then he returned to the far more practical business of overseeing the men until the Prince's return.
He woke up with a half-roar, stretching his wings to knock off the last gray flakes. He looked around. This night seemed the same as any other, he thought glumly. There were two of his rookery brothers, perched off to the right, like they always were at dusk. One of them -- a pale blue gargoyle with an appetite to match his stomach -- was giving one last yawn before opening his eyes.
All in all, there were duller places to live than Castle Wyvern. Sometimes, all the different sights and sounds of the humans, their beasts, and their machines (one of his other brothers was especially fascinated by the machines) could be no less than overwhelming, an entire world of trouble for a trio of preadolescent gargoyles to get into. Before they'd been ten years old, the three of them had memorized
every inch of the keep, earning themselves a few smacks from the occasional irritated guard or kitchen hand.
But most of the time, the castle was simply "home."
Yup, this would probably be just another boring-
"Hey," said his other brother, short, green and inquisitive, "who's that?"
The gargoyle who would one night come to be the Second of Clan Manhatten glanced over the battlements into the courtyard below. His overweight brother looked as well. Just the humans, doing what they always did, except for-
"Isn't it the Archmage's apprentice?" he asked, with another yawn.
"I know that, stupid," answered the green one. "I mean who's that? The human who's following him."
The pale blue face soured, "Don't call me-"
"Is he a porter?" asked the red one, interested. "What's he carrying?" The porters carried things around a lot, but usually only wood to the fireplaces, fodder to the stables, or other such things. This human had something made of leather slung over his back, and he couldn't tell what it was.
"I don't know," come the smallest brother's slightly nasal voice, "but he sure dresses funny, even for a human."
He nodded back, noting the bright mantle and cap. "Let's find out where he's going," he suggested, hopping up onto the parapet.
"Before breakfast?" asked the third.
He wrinkled his beak, about to make a comment about his brother's obsession with food, but a few rumbles from his own stomach helped him realize that, this time at least, he had a point. "Alright," he said, "we'll get breakfast, and then we'll go take a look." The other fledgling shrugged his web-winged shoulders in agreement, and the three of them took off toward the kitchens. The human was probably just another porter, but he was someone new, and anything was better than another than another boring night.
"And thank ye, lad, for your troub-"
Ian turned on his heel and walked quickly away from the stranger. He'd lost enough time already. The Archmage expected him to be present at sundown every day. He could just picture the thin, long-bearded face that never seemed to smile, and the equally thin arms that managed to hurl various objects at a lanky apprentice with surprising accuracy.
I'm sorry that I'm late, master, but the Captain told me to show a new traveler to a room, and you know how the Captain gets...
No, that wouldn't work. He'd used his 'The Captain threatened to pound me into the cobblestones,' excuse too many times already, and now when he would actually be telling the truth...
The Archmage had a terrible temper, but it wasn't so much the anger itself that Ian feared (though he feared that well enough), but its inconsistency. The Archmage could overlook Ian's greatest lapses or leap into a blinding rage at nothing at all. A simple offense such as being late could result in a muttered rebuke, a slap, a bruise or three from a thrown article, and once the Archmage had disciplined his apprentice with an unprovoked (well not entirely unprovoked), magic bolt of low power. There was no pattern, and the bedraggled young Ian had no way of knowing.
There was a moment of silence behind him, and then the muffled sound of the door sliding shut.
Ian hated being ordered around, especially by that overbearing barn rat of a Captain who thought that anyone who didn't decide to earn their living by some means that involved sweating and lifting heavy objects was some sort of mental deficient. Ian hated manual labor, and avoided it whenever possible.
And more than anything, he hated it when people called him 'lad.'
There was a sound of wings overhead, and small group of shadows ran over the jagged stones of the floor. Ian looked up. The gargoyles were up and about already? Surely it couldn't have been more than a second or two since the sun had set. The smudged face grew worried.
The Archmage was going to be angry...
Ian's walk broke into a trot, into a run. He would be outside his master's chamber door in a minute, maybe less, ready to claim that he'd been there all the time. Yes, that would work. He'd say that he hadn't wanted to disturb him, and had been waiting outside, would have waited all night, if his master had needed to-
Ian rounded a corner, and ran straight into a basket-laden man in a monk's robe. The apprentice skidded to a stop as the man's baskets fell, spilling their contents -- a variety of leaves and roots -- onto the cobblestones.
The man shook his tonsured head, and Ian finally registered the identity of the herb-gatherer.
"I don't suppose you'd have time to stop and help me clean this up?" asked the monk. "You seeming to be in such a hurry and all."
Ian was already starting to turn away, "Actually, I-"
Actually, I had to stop to help Brother Edmund, master. He had a little trouble back near the east wall; you know how clumsy those churchmen get. Maybe it's all that kneeling. Forgive me, master, that is why I was late today; you can even ask him...
That one might work.
"-I wouldn't mind at all," Ian finished.
"Thank you, boy," said Edmund, setting down the two wicker containers, "the roots go in here," he indicated one of the baskets, "the reddish ones. We'll put everything else in this one and I'll sort it out later."
Ian nodded, not looking up. He didn't like being called 'boy' either.
"So who is our new guest?" inquired Brother Edmund.
Ian made a noncommittal sound. Edmund shrugged, "Very well, I'm sure it's been a long day for you, too."
Ian nodded again, snatching roots off of the floor. This might make for a better excuse than claming that he'd never been late at all, but the Archmage was likely to be angry anyway. No sense wasting any unnecessary time.
Of course, he might not stay angry as long as he usually did, not when he heard about the new visitor at Wyvern.
The Archmage had taught him to detect magic fairly early on; most of his first lessons, and the minstrel exuded nearly enough for Ian to smell it, though it might just be have rubbed off from whatever it was that he'd brought in that case; it shone through the leather like sunlight through glass. It was a strange magic, of a type he'd never seen before, but then, Ian hadn't seen too many different kinds of magic in his brief career.
Perhaps hearing of this would convince the Archmage to forego some of the histrionics, and save Ian a bruise or two. It just might, if delivered before he found out by himself anyway. ...assuming that he didn't know already.
Ian took a nervous look up and tossed another root in Brother Edmund's basket.
Asrial rested one elbow against the wall, tapping one talon on the chilly stone. To go, or not to go? Most of the others would already be at the training field by now. Asrial got enough grief for spending most of her free hours in her workshop tinkering on what the rest of the clan condescendingly referred to as her "gadgets," and where combat skills were concerned, she was way behind the rest of her rookery sibs.
...but the leather-bound copy of the Odyssey had been sitting alone in the library all through the day, Penelope frozen in the act of unraveling her husband's shroud by torchlight.
Well she wasn't getting either task done by just standing there like a lump. Asrial turned and stepped decisively toward the library. She needed the practice; no doubt of that, but just this once, she could stand to skip it. She would go tomorrow night. Tonight it was Odysseus' turn.
...which meant, of course, that she'd better get to the library before anyone saw her and asked why she wasn't-
Asrial broke off her train of thought as an unfamiliar sound floated up from beneath the turret. She frowned. It sounded like a number of bowstrings being plucked, one after another, but without the singing sound of an arrow taking flight. She peered over the turret.
Two humans stood near a doorway in the wall below. Well, one stood, the other was seated on a stool that was probably dragged out of the room within, holding an object that Asrial had never seen the like of before.
She reached into the pouch at her waist, fumbling with the strap. Eventually tearing her eyes from the newcomer and his device, she pulled out an odd-looking contraption, little more than an peculiarly cut strip of leather that had been fitted with pair of lenses. One of the glass discs, Asrial noted with a frown, had fallen out again. She shook her head and fished around in her pouch until she found the missing lens, hoping it would hold this time as she wedged it back into place.
Positioning the makeshift binoculars over her eyes, and tying the tapered ends of the leather strap behind her head, Asrial focused on the item in the stranger's hands.
It was made out of some bright metal, like gold, but nowhere near as heavy, from the way the human was holding it. Its body formed a smooth curve, like a "U" with a bar across the top, from which were strung a number of thin wires or cords. The human would brush his fingers across these cords from time to time, creating the bowstring sound that she'd heard before. Then he would either smile or frown, twist one of the pegs that lined the crossbar, and pluck the cord again.
One of Asrial's brow ridges twitched upward, causing her goggles to slip a bit. What manner of device was this?
She pushed the binoculars into a more stable position beneath her horns, barely registering the identity of the other human -- Brother Edmund -- before jumping lightly onto the parapet. She was about to glide down when she realized that perhaps landing two feet in from of this stranger half, probably scaring him half out of his wits, might not be the best way to get a better look at his device. Asrial slid back down to the floor, and headed for the stairs.
The Odyssey was utterly forgotten.
"So tell me," the monk asked lightly, "What brings you to Wyvern?"
Rhodri adjusted the tuning peg and tried the string again.
Blast, he thought at the instrument in his hands, will ye never play in tune, ye obstinate hunk of twine? Honestly, sometimes I think ye stretch your own strings off-pitch a' purpose.
"The same thing to bring a man anywhere, I'd think," he answered, "a hot meal, a dry bed for a few nights, and perhaps a bit of coin in my pocket when I leave."
The Brother nodded, shifting his grip on his baskets, "Well then, I'm certain that I'll be seeing more of you in the next few..."
The world went dark.
Not again! he thought fleetingly as a new image filled his eyes.
Blood. Blood on my hands; a death on my head. He didn't bleed when I hit him, so how did his blood get on my hands? They're landing by the roadside, a few yards away. One of them calls it "a blow well struck." I can't answer him. He asks me if I've been hurt. I can't answer. I can't speak. I'm staring at my hands, they're still holding the staff.
I drop it. I'm staring at the cliff. That's where he fell off. Gone, I thought it was gone. A bandit. Haven't I saved myself? The others as well, maybe. Maybe? A bandit. He jumped out of nowhere; I reacted, no time to think. It was a reflex, only... No. Not true. I enjoyed it, enjoyed the fight, the victory. I thought it was gone. I thought I'd left feelings like that behind. When I left home. When I took orders. A bandit, a living being, a child of God. The blood of a child of God on my hands...
"...in the next few days," finished the monk. "Perhaps we might speak again?"
Rhodri nodded his head, still trying to wipe the afterimage from his mind's eye, "Be sure of that, Brother," he said, slightly pleased to note a lack of tremor in his voice.
Ye'd think that I'd be used to the blasted things by now...
"One thing more, I'd like to ask ye', though," Rhodri began. "I've seen that there are gargoyles living here, and I'm afraid it's been a fair time since-"
"They're not so bad, really," Edmund said at once. "I must admit, that I was a bit wary of them when I first arrived here, but I've found they're mainly trying to get by, like the rest of us. Some of the younger ones even come to help me gather herbs, if I'm going after dark-"
"Brother Edmund," Rhodri stopped the monk, "I was going to say that it's been a fair time since I last came across a clan, and I'd like to know a bit more about this one before I run into them face-to-face."
The monk was silent for a moment, "Oh," he said finally, "I'll have to apologize, you see, most of the humans here, especially the guests-"
"No need for that, Brother," Rhodri told him. "It's quite all right, but could ye tell me anything about the clan here, how many there are, how long they've lived among humans, perhaps?"
Brother Edmund opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again, "I suppose I could," he told him, "but why don't you ask her?"
Rhodri turned around, realizing all of a sudden that he'd been so engrossed in the conversation that he'd missed the sound of claws on stone.
A female gargoyle with a blonde ponytail, young, probably not yet forty years old, had walked up behind him. She was wearing a light blue tunic that clashed slightly with her orange-brown skin, but didn't seem to care. She also carried a medium-sized leather pouch at her waist, and had what looked like a set of goggles shoved up on her forehead, beneath a small pair of spiral horns.
She paused for a moment, as if trying to figure out where to begin, "Excuse me," she said.
"Evening," Rhodri greeted her. "Was there something in particular that ye were looking for?"
Her dark eyes brightened, "Yes, actually," she answered, seeming to know where she was going, "I was up on the battlements, and I heard your ...device. I was wondering if I might... I was wondering what exactly it was."
Brother Edmund smiled knowingly and gave a scarcely audible chuckle. From the brief glare that the young gargoyle gave the monk, Rhodri guessed that there was some inside joke here that he was not yet aware of.
The instrument in his hands gave a self-satisfied twang. Rhodri quickly plucked another of the strings to cover the sound.
"'Tis called a lyre," he told her, to Brother Edmund's continued amusement, "A musical instrument."
Seeing the gargoyle's confused expression, the monk explained, "You remember the myth-"
Ach, not now! Don't say it!
"-of Orpheus," finished Edmund, "the human who went to the underworld. This is the same kind of instrument that he played."
"Oh yes," the gargoyle seemed to recall, but Rhodri was rather busy at the moment.
At the mention of the ancient musician's name (or, more specifically, the mention of his instrument), Lyre broke out into a triumphant and extremely complicated strain, forcing Rhodri to move his hands rather quickly to keep up.
"Just warming up," Rhodri said quickly, giving the lyre a glare when he was fairly sure that they weren't looking. "I've been carrying this thing all day, and my fingers are a bit stiff."
"It sounded just fine to me," said Brother Edmund, picking up his second basket from where he'd placed it on the floor, "but then, I'm afraid that music was never a great strength of mine. Now I really must go sort out these herbs. Farewell." The monk gave Rhodri and the gargoyle a friendly smile and disappeared around a corner.
Rhodri turned back to the gargoyle, and found her staring at one of the upper battlements. He squinted, and was barely able to discern two dim shapes folding their wings, probably just landing.
"I've got to go too," said the gargoyle, with a slight hint of nervousness. "You see, I'm not exactly supposed to be here at the moment. It was nice meeting you, though."
"A feeling which is entirely mutual," Rhodri said with the best courtly nod he could manage without dropping Lyre.
The gargoyle seemed a bit surprised at this, "Could we talk again sometime?" she asked. "I'd like to know more about this..." she frowned, "lyr?"
The instrument in the minstrel's hands gave out a squawk.
"Lyre," Rhodri corrected quickly covering for the noise as best he could, "And I'm sure 'twould be no trouble," he told her.
"Good," she said, pleased, and then was gone.
...leaving Rhodri free to focus his full attention on Lyre.
"Now just what did ye think ye were doing, showing off in front of Brother Edmund and that young lady gargoyle?" he scolded, "Do ye want everyone to know about ye?"
Lyre answered with a dissonant twang, followed by a triumphant major chord.
"Yes," Rhodri sighed, "I know ye hate it when people mistake your name, and we both know that ye could out-play Orpheus' gut stringed little hack any day of the week; ye've said so often enough," his tone changed to one of concern, "but that's no reason to risk bein' found out. What do ye think the people here will do if they find that ye dinnae' always need help when ye play?"
Lyre gave another disappointed thrum.
"Well I like them too, and I'm sure that they're very nice people, but ye've got to look out for yourself a bit more. Lyre, I dinnae' know what I'd do without ye, but I do know that I can't protect ye from everything."
There was a pause, and then an almost wry minor chord.
"No, I am not getting all mushy on ye, ye impertinent little-!"
Rhodri cut off as he noticed that two of Lyre's smallest strings sounding over and over.
"Go ahead," he said, "laugh if ye want."
He shook his head. Even with all the bickering, Rhodri was genuinely fond of Lyre. Oh, he could be trying at times. He was irresponsible, had a terrible sense of humor, and a very limited understanding of the concept "danger," but most of those things were probably due to the fact that Lyre still fairly young, -- as enchanted musical instruments went.
At first, Rhodri had wondered about his decision to bring Lyre with him. All else aside, he was much heavier than a lute or an ordinary lyre, and had proven himself to be quite a but more trouble. At one point, Rhodri had been making his way back home, intent on leaving him behind there. Lyre had argued with him the whole way, and Rhodri had argued back, and had gotten so engrossed with the whole debate that he hadn't noticed the miles flying by underneath his feet. After that, his threats of leaving him behind stayed threats and no more.
Rhodri stifled a sigh and got back to the task of tuning Lyre's strings. As good a conversationalist as the instrument might be, he did tend to play better when he was on pitch. Rhodri tested one string, and then another, soon losing himself in the task.
...but not for long.
She landed on the battlement, flicked a lock of scarlet hair out of her eyes, and glanced around, scanning the courtyard below. There were a number of humans, going about their business, and a few of their animals, but no-
"There she is," said Thersites, pointing. She followed his line of sight, and saw their quarry, Asrial.
...talking to a genuinely strange-looking human.
"Interesting," he remarked before she could reply. "Our sister skips practice. The Second is displeased. The Second tells two more of us to skip practice."
She gave him a dull glance, not in the mood for his comments. He was shorter than most, and downright scrawny. One of his horns was slightly malformed, causing it to sit slightly awry on his bald head. Much like the rest of him, she thought idly. "We're supposed to be bringing her back, brother," she answered simply.
The gargoyle in charge of the training for their generation, Deborah, was the Leader's mate and second in command, an aqua-skinned, blonde-braided valkyrie of a warrior.
The blue-skinned young female -- who would one night hear a Scottish king proclaim that she fought like a demon -- simply could not stand her.
Deborah had the uncanny ability to smile warmly and then drill them all until they could barely move, her in particular. Especially over the past few weeks, she'd left that practice field with more bruises than she wanted to think about.
The first time that their sister had failed to meet with the others for training, Deborah had let it go. The second time had earned her a light scolding. The third and fourth times, the scolding was less light.
She hated to admit it, even to herself, but it was nice to see someone else getting picked on for a change.
When the Second had asked for two of them to go and look for their errant rookery sib, Thersites had -- not surprisingly -- raised his hand. She had volunteered a moment later, though more to spend a night with fewer aching muscles than usual than for any resentment at Asrial for having done so already. She'd wondered for a moment if the older gargoyle would change her mind, and ask someone else to go, but the Second had only nodded their head and returned her attention to the others.
She looked across the courtyard to find that their rookery sister had spotted them. The human raised his head as well, squinting the way his kind always did when the light was less than blinding.
The gargoyle on the stones below turned to say something to the human, then disappeared around the tower wall, probably headed for the library, to that workshop of hers. She smiled faintly. Odd as she might be, choosing to spend her nights tinkering with human machines, Asrial wasn't stupid, and under the circumstances, she couldn't really blame her for bolting.
"Don't you think we should give her a fair chance?" she turned to see a wry grin slip across her rookery brother's beaked mouth. "A head start, perhaps. I mean, we started looking for her maybe five minutes ago. Where's the challenge in that?"
Typical. And if we should just happen to miss the rest of practice in the process? she wondered at her brother's motives. That's not why we were sent.
Although with the way that the training sessions had been going lately...
"Come on," she said to Thersites, spreading her wings. "We'll check the Prince's library. Perhaps we can get there before she does."
"How can you be so sure of where she's going?" he asked with mock innocence. "Perhaps we should ask that human."
She looked from the courtyard to Thersites and back and stifled a sigh.
It would mean a few extra moments out of Deborah's reach, "Let's go."
The door swung open with a hesitant creak.
The Archmage turned from where he'd been pouring over the Grimorum and fixed his apprentice with a cold gaze.
"You're late, boy," he growled. Where had the lazy urchin been this time? Of all the few things that he asked the impertinent lout to do; he couldn't even grasp so simple a concept as punctuality.
...and when he did bother to show up, he had the bad taste to do so at the exact moment when his indulgent mentor had finally begun to make some progress in his interpretation of a particularly troublesome spell.
"I- I know, Archmage," stammered Ian, "but I had to-"
"Don't give me your feeble excuses!" he snapped in return. The boy's stupidity was a source of constant irritation for the Archmage. Ian was indolent, dull-witted, disrespectful, and had a bad habit of picking the lice out of his hair in public. Sometimes the Archmage felt that he should have known from the start that he was making a bad bargain, on the day that he'd sensed the lad's latent ability for magic, and plucked him from the muddy streets of his village.
Despite everything, Ian had turned out to have a slight aptitude for some of the simpler arcane spells, though the Archmage despaired of ever making a suitable magician out of the him.
"Master, please," Ian cowered. "I have news."
The Archmage reached for the nearest blunt object -- a candlestick, in this case -- but then softened. He might as well hear him out. Who knew, it might even be something useful.
"This had better be good, boy," he said, not relaxing his grip on the candlestick.
Ian smiled in relief, revealing his slightly yellowed teeth, "A traveler arrived near dusk," he began, "a minstrel, by the look of him. He was carrying a magical object."
The Archmage felt one of his eyebrows twitch. This was definitely not one of Ian's better lies. "What manner of magical object?" he inquired further.
"I don't know, master," said Ian. "It was in a case, like a harp case. I didn't stay long enough to find out more."
"Stupid waif!" he seethed, raising his arm for a good throw. "Do you truly think me so feeble- witted as to believe-"
"Please, master!" Ian covered his face with his arms. "It's true! The magic in the item shone out like a star!"
The Archmage brought his arm back down, just missing Ian's head. What if the boy was right? If the magical energy in whatever the traveler had brought with him was strong enough for an inept like Ian to sense... It couldn't be the Eye or the Gate, certainly; the Archmage had kept too careful a watch on both of those to miss them if they came so near, but it might be worth looking into.
"Very well," the Archmage said, in a calmer tone. Ian looked up.
"I will watch this minstrel as he plays for the Prince at dinner," he continued, "If it is as you say and he has brought a magical talisman with him, then I will ascertain its nature." He gave Ian a sharp glare. "If I find that you have lied to me about a matter such as this, then you will regret it greatly before I am through with you." He pointed to the door, "Now get out of my sight."
Ian seemed more than glad to do so.
"There he is," came a whisper, just loud enough to be well within audible range.
Rhodri looked over his shoulder. He'd left Lyre back at the cramped room that unfriendly page had led him to, and had decided to have a look around the castle, stretching his legs a bit before he'd be called to perform at dinner. There was nothing visible behind him except more of the torchlit and downright spooky-looking hallway, but there were enough alcoves and side passages for someone to duck into. Rhodri shrugged and kept walking.
"Do you think he knows we're here?" came another voice, a moment later.
Whoever that was, they weren't very old, and definitely weren't very good at sneaking up on people.
Well, lad, he thought, I'd give ye three guesses at that one...
"I don't know..." answered the first.
...and the first two dinnae' count.
"I'm hungry," protested a third voice, louder than the others.
"You're always hungry!"
Rhodri rolled his eyes and turned around again, "Ye might as well come down here where I can see ye, lads," he called.
"Thanks a lot, brother," said the first voice.
"It's not my fault! You two wouldn't let me finish breakfast!"
"If we'd let you finish breakfast, we'd still be in the kitchen."
The three voices began to speak at once, remarking upon each other's lack of stealth, lack of patience, and lack of concern regarding anything that wasn't edible. Rhodri still couldn't see his pursuers, and so kept walking towards the sounds, until he saw three young gargoyles, arguing in a side passage.
It makes sense, at least. What six-year-old humans would still be up and causing trouble at this time of night?
Rhodri eyed them for a moment, "How long have ye three been following me?" he asked.
The trio broke off their altercation and looked at him. "Um..." said one of them, a ruddy-colored fellow with a large beak, "a while."
"A while?" Rhodri repeated. The fledglings nodded.
"Was there anything in particular that ye were looking for?" he asked, finally.
The three looked exchanged a few looks among themselves, and each shook their heads, one by one.
"Well, allow me to rephrase this: why were ye following me?"
The red one shrugged. "We were bored."
"He thought you were a porter," one of the others pointed at his brother.
"I did not!"
Rhodri frowned, despite himself, as the three resumed their quarrel. All in all, they were three rather normal-looking gargoyle children. One of them was a pale shade of blue, with no hair, and a chubby face that matched the rest of him. Another, web-winged, olive green, and a few inches shorter than his rookery brothers, stood in a half-crouch at his right.
The last one, the reddish fellow with the big nose, was white-haired and achingly familiar. Rhodri had a nagging feeling that he'd seen this fledgling gargoyle somewhere before.
Sometimes nagging feelings were just nagging feelings, but in Rhodri's experience...
The light in the hallway and the voices of the trio went dim.
Why me? Couldn't someone else have been the one? It could have just as easily been Broadway or Lex or Angela. Rotten luck, I guess. ...but then I did actually walk towards and pick up what I knew was a magical talisman. Maybe I'm just stupid. Seeing tenth century Scotland again was nice, I suppose, and meeting that depressed Danish prince, and visiting the old west. ...not to mention Japan, but most of the time, it was just too weird. ...not that I shouldn't be used to it by now.
"Lad," Rhodri said aloud, still trying to refocus his eyes. "Enjoy the boredom while ye can. Give my regards to the Sisters when ye see them."
"To the who?" asked Brooklyn -- for that was what the young gargoyle would one day name himself, Rhodri knew -- giving the minstrel a confused look.
Rhodri grinned broadly and walked off.
"...the humans fight with swords and the like, and they seem to work just fine, so why don't we get to learn how to use them? It makes no sense at- oh. There he is."
Thersites broke off his sentence as the strangely-dressed human re-entered the courtyard (trailed by three of the hatchlings, he observed. That in itself was unusual. Humans, he'd noticed, had little patience for gargoyle children. This particular trio, he recalled, had been kicked out of the armory twice and from the kitchens three times in the past week).
His rookery sister looked up as well, seeming almost glad about it. Thersites felt slightly hurt. For a few moments there, he'd gotten the vague impression that she might actually have preferred to be back at the training field in the clutches of Deborah the Horrible than here, listening to him talk. People these days had no sense for conversation.
At least he'd been able to keep her from doing anything practical, like running off to the library to look for Asrial. Perhaps there was hope for her after all.
Yet there she was already, walking towards the human peacock. Thersites sighed, and followed her. It wasn't as if he'd tell her anything. He wondered for a moment what the human would do when they came up to him. The two most common responses among the humans of Wyvern, he had observed, were either to go about their business and ignore a gargoyle completely or to go about their business and utter some scathing comment about talking beasts.
...but then, he had been speaking to Asrial perhaps half an hour ago, and the three hatchlings still followed him, as annoying as they ever had been, by the look of them. A number of questions rose in Thersites' mind. After a moment's thought, he started after his rookery sister.
"We were up there," one of the hatchlings was pointing toward the towers. "That's where we saw you first."
"Is that thing on your head a helmet?" asked another, pointing to the human's cap.
"Why were you walking around the hallways for so long? The armory is a lot more fun."
"And the kitchen!"
"Why do you dress so different from the other humans?"
"What's that thing that you were carrying before?"
The white-haired hatchling waved to Thersites. He chuckled, fancying that he could read the trio's collective mind:
"Hi! Look at this funny human we found! Can we keep him?"
To Thersites' amusement -- but not to his surprise, peculiarly, -- the stranger actually looked relieved as he saw the red-haired gargoyle walking up to him.
"Hello," she said hesitantly. Thersites found that he couldn't blame her. Dealing with humans was difficult enough even when one did have an idea of what to expect. "We were sent to find our rookery sister. You were speaking to her before."
"Would she be one," he began in a Welsh accent, "with blonde hair, a blue tunic, and a pair of lenses on her head, a certain curiosity concerning things she calls 'devices,' and a pleasant if somewhat vague manner about her?"
"Sorry then," said the human, "I've not seen her."
Thersites' rookery sister frowned for a moment, then seeing the mock-innocent grin on the stranger's face, actually began to chuckle. Thersites laughed as well, though more at seeing his rookery sister act so out of character than at the human's joke. The hatchlings, looking rather annoyed at being ignored for so long a period as thirty seconds, did not laugh.
"Did she say where she was going?" she asked at last.
The human shook his head. "No," he said.
"Well then," she turned to Thersites. "We've wasted enough time. She's probably been in the library the whole while we've been waiting here."
"And another five minutes won't kill her!" he pointed out, but she was already walking swiftly toward the battlements. Thersites stifled a sigh and started to follow her.
"Wait," came the human's voice. The gargoyle turned. Behind him, he heard his sister do so as well. "Blast me, I forgot to introduce myself. I can be quite rude when I put my mind to it," he went on. "The name is Rhodri. Rhodri ap Iefan."
Thersites did not know what to make of this.
"We do not have names," she told him.
"I know," said Rhodri, with the faintest hint of a smile.
Then something odd happened. The human's eyes -- blue ones, Thersites would later remember thinking it odd that humans' eyes could come in different colors, while nearly every gargoyle that he'd ever met had black eyes. -- seemed to slip off focus for a moment, only a moment.
When they came back, Rhodri was staring at his red-haired sister with a look that was part pity, part revulsion, and part something that Thersites couldn't identify. For some reason, Thersites was reminded of the face of a man looking at something so large, so beautiful or so hideous that he simply couldn't believe it to be real.
Rhodri opened his mouth as if to say something, then closed it again. Out of the corner of his eye, Thersites saw the female's ice-blue brow knit in a frown. Again, he couldn't blame her. This was a strange human indeed.
One of the fledglings broke the silence, "Did you walk all the way here or ride a horse?" he asked Rhodri.
"Why do you talk so funny?"
"Do you want to come play with us?"
"Lads," said the human, with a slightly pained expression on his face, "Dinnae' ye have anything else to do?"
The three younger gargoyles paused, exchanging a glance. "No," answered the white-haired one who had waved to Thersites before.
Rhodri rolled his eyes heavenward, and muttered something under his breath in Welsh. Thersites chuckled again.
"Forgive the ...intrusion, sirrah," came a light tenor voice. Thersites looked up to see a human boy in a blue-and-white tunic that marked him as one of Prince Malcolm's pages. He realized with some surprise that he'd gotten so engrossed in the scene before him that he hadn't noticed him approach.
"I was sent to fetch you," the page addressed Rhodri, giving the five gargoyles an uncertain glance.
"The Prince has returned, and will desire your presence in the great hall at dinner."
"Oh yes," said the stranger, with a look of marked relief. "I'd best fetch Lyre, ah," he paused nervously, "my lyre, that is."
Dinner? Lyre? A few things clicked. Rhodri was a minstrel. ...well that explained that ludicrous costume, at least.
Rhodri walked off, followed by the page, ignoring the disappointed looks from the trio. Thersites gave a slight sigh. He'd best be going as well, unless he wanted the three youngsters to decide to follow _him_ around all night. He looked around for his companion, not surprised to see her already moving toward the library.
Not even a word, he thought as he started after her. How rude.
He looked over his shoulder and gave the departing human one last look.
He was a minstrel, which meant that he earned a living by doing almost no work, and people like that had always impressed Thersites. He made a mental note to speak to him again sometime, and hurried -- or as close as to hurrying as he ever came -- after his rookery sister.
"In yonder green valley, where streamlets meander,
When twilight is fading, I pensively rove..."
The Archmage scrutinized this young musician, ignoring the half-eaten piece of venison on the oaken table in front of him. He was fair-haired, clean-shaven, and dressed what seemed to be minstrel standard-issue clothing: bright tunic, red mantle, and a round cap with a feather in it that had probably been dyed.
"And in the bright noontide, in solitude wander,
Amid the dark shade of the lonely ash grove."
Most of the remainder of the Prince's court were absorbed either in the music or in their own conversations. The Archmage did notice that the singing was good; nothing exceptional, but good. At least it covered the sound of the dogs squabbling over scraps in the corner.
The Archmage's attention, however, was not on the lyrics. Perhaps it was a sign of the upcoming Armageddon, but Ian had actually been right, for once. The magic from the stranger's harp wafted through the hall like the smell of baking bread.
"'Tis there where the blackbird is cheerfully singing..."
...with an odd spice to it as well. There was a strange flavor to the magic of this euphonious talisman. The same flavor that rumored to be in the Eye of Odin, and in the Phoenix Gate. The Archmage felt a tight smile slip out under his graying beard.
"...Each warbler enchants with his notes from the tree."
And of the minstrel himself? The Archmage viewed him with a careful eye, sifting through the waves emanating from the Lyre, to see what else might be found.
No, he concluded, shaking his head to himself. If Rhodri ap Iefan had magic of his own, then he hid it better than any sorcerer that the Archmage knew of.
Pity. So few people experienced the feeling of having true power at their fingertips, and Rhodri was about to lose his.
"Ah, little I think then of sorrow or sadness,
The ash grove enchanting spells beauty for me."
There were a few upsides to having an unprincipled lout for an apprentice, after all.
Asrial took a deep breath through her teeth, and pushed open the door to the library for the second time that night.
When she'd seen her rookery brother and sister from the courtyard, she'd tried to get out of sight in time, but had felt her rookery sister's eyes upon her even as she'd ducked into the hallway. She'd come to the library, -- thinking that they'd first look for her in the workshop -- had found her book. After a chapter or two had flown by, she'd begun to think that they'd stopped looking for her altogether (which, with Thersites on the job, hadn't seemed all that unlikely), but just as Odysseus was arriving at Hades, the two of them had arrived, and dragged her back to practice.
The Second had not been pleased, and it took quite a bit for Deborah to become displeased..
Repeatedly, through the training session, Asrial had caught glimpses of her redheaded sister trying (and failing) to hold back a grin. Sure, it was usually her in the position of Teacher's Victim, but she could at least have the courtesy not to look so happy about it.
Asrial slipped into the library, nudging the door shut with her tail, wincing at having to move a particularly sore muscle or two.
"Hello, sister," said familiar voice. Asrial looked, unsurprised to find that one of her rookery brothers -- one of the few to regularly visit the library, in fact -- had beaten her here.
"Hello," she answered, somehow not in the mood for talking, at least not until her head stopped throbbing.
Her lavender-skinned brother turned back to straining over the book in his hands. "The Second wouldn't be so hard on you if you didn't skip practice so much."
"I know," she said, working her way to the table where she'd set down the Odyssey.
"This is, perhaps, the fifth time in a month?" he said carefully.
"I know," she returned again, a bit harsher than she'd meant to. He didn't say anything more, but turned his eyes away, as if embarrassed, before returning to his book. A furrow formed in his lavender brow. Asrial shook her head lightly. This one didn't go so far as to move his lips, 'sounding out' the words, but the way things were going, she wouldn't be surprised if his forehead became permanently creased. Asrial couldn't see the title, but knew that it wouldn't be anything like Odyssey. Ever since Brother Edmund had started giving them reading lessons, he had been one of the more dedicated students, if not the most proficient, often coming to the library to practice when he could find a spare moment.
She shouldn't be so terse with him, she realized, before diving back into her place behind the field of asphodel, as the ancient warrior spoke with the ghosts of his comrades. He was only trying to help, and few enough of her rookery kin ever did that. Now that she thought of it, he was one of the few who'd never ridiculed her for all the time she spent in working on her devices...
No, not "devices." "Gadgets." "Gadgets," wasn't that what the others called them? Asrial felt her jaw set. So what if she chose to be alone once in the while? So what if she chose to spend part of each night in the company of springs and wires and metal and wood? None of her "gadgets" had ever made fun of her, or kept her out of games as a child, or tried to make her feel like an outcast. Not once. Why shouldn't she decide to spend her time with them?
Asrial shook her head, unclenching her teeth. They'd gotten better. As her sibs had gotten older, most of them had left her alone. Accepting, if not approving of her fascination with machines. Only a few of them still bothered her with any regularity, and she could deal with them, most of the time.
...and when she couldn't, there was the library. No matter what happened in the world beyond these dusty shelves, there was always another world in here.
The world of the ancient Mediterranean, for example, she remembered, slipping back into her book.
Asrial didn't know how long it was before she was pulled from the jaws of the sea monster, Scylla, by the sound of the library door sliding open again. She looked up, noting out of the corner of her eye that her rookery brother had done the same, ready to get to her feet and leave if it was the Prince or his touchy badger of an Advisor, the Archmage.
"Well hello again," came a Welsh lilt. "I dinnae' suppose I was interrupting ye?"
The Prince's dinner had been over sooner than Rhodri had expected. In his experience, the evening meal lasted well into the night. In a castle harboring a gargoyle clan, he'd expected it to run even later, but it had been over in an hour or two, leaving Rhodri, who was used to late hours, with an unshakable case of insomnia.
Not that he'd have wanted to sleep. Five days of adjusting one's sleep cycle in anticipation of meeting a clan of nocturnals were not so easily undone...
He'd wandered the grounds for a while, looking for Brother Edmund and had found his way here.
Where exactly "here" was, however, was a matter of great question. Rhodri gave a sigh. He'd walked all the way from Wales to London to Edinburgh to Iona, and now he'd gotten lost in a collection of stone corridors.
Well, short of yelling for help (and people awakened at midnight by some navagationally challenged minstrel were usually not in their most helpful of moods) the only thing he could do was keep roaming the hallways until he either ran into someone awake or made it back to the courtyard.
The smell of mold prevailed, and in some places the torches had gone out, leaving the already unreliable footing even more dangerous. ...not to mention making contributing to the downright eeriness that this whole place had quite enough of already.
Rhodri was only partially surprised to find himself relieved at the sound of voices coming from beyond one of the doors.
Ach, ye fainthearted sparrow! After all ye've seen, ye get spooked out by a dim corridor or three.
He found the latch and pushed to door open, noting how it dragged on its leather hinges. Even before his eyes adjusted to the increased light, the dusty smell of books announced that he had found the library.
Rhodri blinked, and found himself looking into the face of the odd spiral-horned gargoyle who had come to ask him about Lyre. Yes, he remembered, hadn't the redheaded gargoyle thought that her sister had been coming here?
"Well hello again," he said brightly, just then noticing the presence of another gargoyle, probably one of Asrial's rookery brothers. "I dinnae' suppose I was interrupting ye?"
The two gargoyles exchanged a glance, "No," said the male, reminding Rhodri for an instant of the white-haired ringleader of the three hatchlings that he'd thankfully been able to avoid since leaving dinner.
"Well then," he coughed, Ach, this is embarrassing! "I dinnae' suppose one of ye could bear to tell me how I might make my way back to the courtyard?"
He thought he saw Asrial stifle a giggle, and tried to keep from looking any more ridiculous than he already did. Her rookery brother gave him a dubious look.
And then the library went dark
"Don't fall off the building again," that was the first time that I saw her smile. "It may well be that you have saved my life this night..." that I said to her two nights later. "Just be careful, okay?" those are her words, before I went to see Renard. She thought I couldn't hear her. "Are you alright? Is there anything you need?" "Yes," I told her, "I need a detective." "I never realized before, how beautiful you are." "You mean you thought I was ugly?" "I found you a new home." "What?! How dare you?" "So I will protect you, and you will protect me, and together, we will protect this city."
"You know how I feel about you, right?" "How we both feel... Yes." "Good."
Rhodri was jerked out of the vision as the sun rose, an ocean and a thousand years away. He found himself giving the lavender-skinned gargoyle in front of him an appraising stare. "Well then, just when ye think it's safe to say that ye've seen everything..." He ignored the gargoyle's confused look. "Odd. Ye dinnae' look the type at all."
This is the fourth time in one night. he found himself noticing. Ah well, the blasted things always did tend to travel in groups...
The male gargoyle turned to Asrial, "Do you know what he's..." he began to ask. His sister gave a helpless shrug.
"I'll take you to the courtyard," she told Rhodri, setting her book down on one of the tables and getting up.
"And quite kind of ye to do so," he answered, holding the door open for her and trying to keep the relief out of his voice. Exploring a castle was one thing. Getting lost was quite another.
"Out of curiosity," the question came to him out of the blue, "what are those?" he gestured to the goggle-like apparatus that was still perched on her head.
Asrial frowned, putting a clawed hand to her forehead, "Oh," she said. "I must have forgotten I had this on." Her expression soured, "That would explain why my brother was so amused when he and my sister came to bring me back to practice." She pulled the leather strap off of her head and examined it, "At least the lens didn't fall out again," she murmured, as if to herself.
"What are they called?" Rhodri asked.
Asrial looked up, "They're not called anything," she told him. "They make things far away look closer."
"Where did ye get them?" Rhodri asked, noticing the jaggedly cut leather, "Did ye make them?"
Asrial nodded. "A few years ago. A nobleman came to see Prince Malcolm, and he brought this funny tube with bits of glass at both ends. I listened to him talk as he was showing it to the Prince. I looked through it later, and found that it did make things far away look closer-"
Rhodri observed that she hadn't said exactly how she'd gotten her hands on the nobleman's telescope, and decided that he was better off not asking.
"-but that it was very hard to keep one eye closed while using it, so I made these," she finished, giving a wry look to her makeshift binoculars, "and they've been falling apart on me ever since."
"A pity," Rhodri muttered, "but I dinnae' suppose it could be helped."
"I wouldn't say that," the gargoyle answered wryly. "Do devices interest you?" she asked.
"Aye, that they do," Rhodri answered. "Why?"
Asrial's workshop was a small place, cramped at best, wedged under the eaves of a tower that the humans tended to ignore. ...as showed by the cobwebs in the rooms below. She snatched one of the wispy gray threads out of her hair. Asrial usually didn't bother with the stairs, the window being perfectly accessible, but this was the first human guest that she'd decided to bring here, and she hadn't thought that she'd have been able to carry him (even if she'd been sure that one or both of them wouldn't have gotten in trouble for such an act). The roof was slightly mottled from where she'd had to patch leaks from the inside. A collection of mismatched hand tools -- most of them showing signs of multiple repairs -- were arranged on the edge of a wooden table. Also present on the table was a medley of items made of wood, leather, and metal: Asrial's works in progress, including the one that she'd brought Rhodri up here to see.
Her rookery brother had stayed in the library, saying that he'd been given guard duty that night and wanted to finish his chapter before leaving in a few minutes anyway.
"This one," she said, holding up the half-carved wooden article. "It's a new holder for my lenses. I'm hoping that maybe they won't fall out of this one so often."
The minstrel took the blocky frames out of her hand and turned it over, examining it with a bright expression on his face.
Yes, making this one had been fun. She hadn't been able to find a complete piece of wood in the right shape, so she'd managed to hook the two side pieces on with tiny hinges, so that they could slide inward, and be easier to fit inside her pouch. As an afterthought, she'd carved them in a curved shape, so that she could lean forward to work on something without them sliding off her ears.
"Interesting," Rhodri remarked, as he gently set the frames back down on the table and pointed to another one of her devices. "What might that one be?"
Asrial picked up the piece that he'd been pointing to, what most people might identify as a modified crossbow, which seemed to be fitted with some kind of netting instead of a bolt. "Sometimes the hunting parties come across flocks of small birds that run on the ground. I think they're called 'quail' or something. We made nets in order to catch them, but you have to get very close in order to throw them, and by then, they're running all over the place. She flicked the net experimentally with one talon, thinking aloud, "Of course, this one isn't big enough to catch more than a few birds, even if someone could aim it that well." A strange, speculative expression crossed her face, "I suppose someone might be able to use this on a larger kind of bird, but a net this size probably wouldn't do more than slow it down, tangle it a bit..."
Rhodri nodded, interested, "It might be worth looking into, I suppose."
"Maybe," Asrial agreed, "but I haven't figured out how to get it to open right just yet, but I will." Then she frowned, fingering the trigger mechanism, "And I think that the latch might be a bit-"
The bowstring gave a loud twang as it snapped taut. Rhodri ducked just in time to avoid a faceful of rope, but not in time to avoid having his cap knocked off his head as the quail net flew out the window.
"-loose," Asrial finished. "Are you alright?" she asked the dazed minstrel.
"Aye, lass, I think I'll get by," he picked his cap up off the floor, shaking off some of the dust, and then setting it firmly back on his head.
There was a muffled shout from below. Asrial winced.
"That was my only net," she explained.
"Ah," Rhodri nodded. "Well, I dinnae' suppose that kind soul outside wouldn't mind returning it. Under the circumstances, I dinnae' think they'd be wishing too much to keep it."
Asrial laughed quietly. "I suppose you're right."
The trip back down the stairs was only slightly less unpleasant than the walk up. Asrial wondered for a moment just how long it took for broken cobwebs to grow back. Halfway down to the courtyard, she caught herself frowning. There was a sound, vaguely familiar and barely audible coming from outside. The sound grew louder the closer to the ground they came.
"Do you hear that?" she asked Rhodri at last.
"That I do," he answered. "It sounds like my lyre."
"Be here at sunset, Ian. Sweep the floor, Ian. Bring me the stranger's talisman, Ian..." The apprentice muttered unhappily to himself as he trudged across the stones. The Archmage had sent for him after the Prince's dinner had ended. Ian hadn't wanted to go. He'd been fast asleep on his pallet, having a wonderful dream that involved his master, some poisoned fish, five wild boars, a surly English blacksmith named "Cedric," ten miles of frozen river, and a poorly made pair of shoes.
But memories of what had happened the last time that he'd stayed in bed when the Archmage had sent for him had prodded him awake, and to his master's tower he had gone.
Ah well, at least he'd been ordered to do something that made sense, unlike pouring over musty- smelling old scrolls, or memorizing lists of Latin verbs.
Although he wouldn't have admitted it -- at least not when anyone in a position of authority was present -- Ian was a very good thief. Purses and coins from a victim's person or baggage, and innumerable small, edible items from the kitchens had an uncanny habit of vanishing when Ian was around. Having gotten caught once or twice in his career, and finding the experience entirely disagreeable, Ian had learned that a large part of the successfully doing something wrong was to make it look like doing something wrong was the last thing on one's mind. He'd sauntered across the courtyard easily, just as if he was supposed to be there (His performance had been slightly marred when a small net had come flying out of the sky and hit him on the head, however. Ian wasn't any more superstitious than the next wizard's apprentice, and had never put much stock in omens, but this had made him wonder.), looked about idly to make sure no one was paying too much attention, and slipped silently into the minstrel's room.
Ian blinked. The light in the room was far dimmer than even the scant illumination afforded by the torches in the corridors, but even so, Ian was able to determine immediately that Rhodri was present. Odd, for this time of night, very odd. Ian remembered his own blissful unconsciousness of only a few moments before.
An icy dread formed in the pit of his stomach. If the minstrel was awake, then he would be back, and soon. Ian fought the panic down, forcing himself to look around the room.
...if one could call it that. Castle Wyvern saw few guests, and therefore had few guest rooms, mostly reserved for whatever minor nobleman had come to claim a favor from the Prince. The one that Ian had shown Rhodri to was actually a storage room, little more than a niche with a door -- empty this time of year, except for a straw pallet, and a three-legged stool sitting in one dusty corner.
...with the stranger's leather harp case on top of it.
Ian began to reach for it, and saw immediately that the case would be too large for him to carry without attracting notice. ...but would the gold harp that the Archmage had described be any better? He though quickly as he undid the clasps, hands almost shaking with the throbbing magical aura that emanated from the talisman within. He cast his eyes about the room, his gaze falling on the slightly threadbare blanket, rolled up next to the pallet on the floor. If he wrapped the lyre in that, he might be able to reach his master's rooms without being stopped.
He grabbed the blanket by one corner and pulled it out of its roll, making a face as a gray-white moth fluttered loose. Ian shook it out, dislodging three others. Hoping that there weren't any more, he stepped up toward the harp, suddenly painfully aware of how long he'd been in the room, how much time the minstrel had had to come back.
Ian heard the sound of footsteps in the hallway and bit his lip, knowing that there wouldn't be anyplace to hide in the tiny chamber.
The unseen feet walked right up to the door and right past it, fading as they continued down the hall. Ian let out a breath that he'd only been half-aware of holding. He waited, silent as a rabbit in a bush, until the footsteps faded and fell away in the distance.
Ian shook out the blanket one last time, and stepped up toward the stranger's lyre, then stopped. For a moment, he'd thought that two of its smaller strings sounded just then, barely audibly, plucked by a hand unseen, seeming almost to glow as they gave the barest of vibrations.
He frowned, shaking his head. A trick of the dimness, surely, or of the adrenaline still pumping through his veins. ...but then Lyre sounded again, only a shade louder. Ian was given the sudden, irrational impression of a living creature awaking from a sleep.
He was surprised for a moment, then shrugged. Well the blasted thing is magic, after all, he realized. You're wasting time. The Archmage will be angry.
He stretched out the moth-eaten sheet and reached for the harp, grubby fingers brushing against the polished brass.
And Lyre gave out something that could only be called a shriek.
Ian jumped two feet in the air, dropping the blanket and half-shouting himself. Grabbing the harp in his shaking hands, and knowing that the sound would attract attention like insects to a torch, Ian did the only logical thing that he could think of:
Rhodri heaved open the door at the base of the tower, the young gargoyle right behind him. The harsh, almost clanging sound of clashing chords filled his ears.
Ach, that's Lyre all right, he thought with resignation. So much for teachin' the fellow to keep a low profile...
Perhaps it was just as well. As jumpy as Lyre tended to get -- especially for someone without legs -- he wouldn't be making this much of a commotion unless there was something fairly serious going on.
...and considering that the noise seemed to be coming from too close for it to be from the room where Rhodri had left him, it didn't take a master sorcerer to get some idea of what had happened.
The sight of a wide-eyed Ian darting around the corner with Lyre in his grip was also a rather significant clue.
Upon seeing Rhodri, the apprentice skidded to a halt, muttered a curse, and tore off in the opposite direction.
Come on, Rhodri, he thought, it's not like ye were expectin' to have a nice, quiet little trip, now were ye?
Rhodri spared a split second to roll his eyes heavenward before speeding off after the fugitive, a bewildered Asrial in tow.
Although Ian was smaller, and carrying a heavy lyre, he knew the hallways far better than any visiting minstrel could, and probably better than any of the gargoyles did. He twisted around corners, turned down side passages, up stairways, and finally, when he was sure his pursuers were too far behind to see, he pulled open a random door on his left and ducked inside.
Ian slammed the door behind him, breathing hard. He cast his eyes around, finding himself in the library. He muttered a half-formed word of thanks that there was no one there, save for a book or two left on a table. He searched the doorframe for the bolt, muttering an equally vague curse as he found there wasn't one.
Ah well, they hadn't seen which way he'd gone, and they'd never think to look for him in the library. They might not find him after all.
...that is if that stupid harp would just shut up! It hadn't stopped twanging at the top of its strings since the moment he'd grabbed it.
"Be quiet!" Ian hissed. "If they catch me, we'll both be in trouble!"
The lyre ignored him, growing louder. Ian covered his ears, but couldn't close out the noise. It was getting so bad that he could almost hear words inside the chords.
"Help! Meddrin! No, Rhodri! Help! Rhodri!"
Ian shook his head. The cries for help faded back into notes.
That was scary. Last time I eat right before a robbery.
"Quiet!" he said again. "If my master finds out I've failed again, he'll have you smashed to pieces!"
The clamor rose several decibels and about three octaves.
"Stop it!" Ian shouted, forgetting about alerting his pursuers. "If you don't stop that I'll rip out your strings one by one!"
The lyre suddenly fell silent. Ian, who'd already been inhaling to shout again, choked, coughing on the breath. He looked at the instrument, which was now sitting still as death. If not for the magical aura still radiating out from it like heat from a fire, Ian might have thought that he'd imagined the whole ordeal.
And then Lyre began to play. Not the loud twangs of a few moments before, but a quiet melody in a haunting minor key. The sense of magic in the room multiplied.
Ian looked around nervously, wondering if threatening an enchanted harp might not have been a mistake.
Lyre's uneasy song grew slightly louder, though by no means as loud as his screams of a few moments before had been. There was a dull thunk off to the left. Ian turned toward the noise, with his heart in his mouth, irrationally expecting to see the scowling face of Rhodri or the Captain, or worse, the Archmage.
...and let out his breath in a whoosh as he saw that it was only a book, falling off its shelf. Ian noticed that it had fallen open to a page with a drawing of a man with two bearded faces, surrounded by a few odd creatures that looked almost like birds, but not quite.
Lyre crescendoed again, and another book fell to the floor. And another.
Ian began to get a very bad feeling about the situation.
"Whatever you're doing," he said, at once realizing that he was talking to a harp, and just as abruptly realizing that he didn't feel the least bit silly about it, "you'd better stop it."
Lyre ignored him. Ian noticed all of a sudden that the three books were glowing.
Ian's bad feeling got substantially worse.
The glow grew brighter and Lyre's song rose in pitch, forcing Ian to cover his ears with his hands again, and squeeze his eyes shut.
The first thing that he was aware of was a blasting, blinding light. A moment later, he thought he heard some kind of song, like a bird's song, but not quite, but that quickly died away. And then there was the feeling of stone under his feet.
He opened his eyes, glancing about. Nothing looked familiar. He inhaled deeply, and promptly sneezed. Dust!
There was a very heavy footfall behind him, and he darted forward a step, turning to look up into an exceptionally ugly face. A number of pointed remarks came to mind, but judging by the size of the person who had nearly crushed his tail, he decided not to voice them.
He turned around, coming snout-to-beak with a creature that he'd never seen the like of before. It hissed at him, exposing a few hundred tiny fangs, that looked like they were very sharp. He scrambled backwards, his paws slipping slightly on the clammy stone floor.
Reynard the Fox took stock of the situation. Here he was, wherever here was, in close quarters with an ogre, a flock of birds with teeth, and -- he blinked, eyesight still dim from the glare -- a guy with two faces and some kid with a harp.
And here I thought nothing interesting was going to happen this week...
Grendel opened his eyes after the bright light had gone to see stone walls, much like the stones of Heorot, the Hall of the Hart, where Hrothgar and his thanes had reveled each night. Where the gray- bearded king of the Scyldings and his attendants stirred up noise with their drinking and boasts, noise that made still waters shake, noise that echoed over and over in his thick-skulled head until he knew himself to have gone mad...
He'd visited that hall, the Heorot. He'd also drank, and eaten his fill, but of a different meat than what the king of the Danes had offered to his guests. The sound had stopped soon after, dropping away to only the sound of waves on the lake-shore, and the quiet breath of a human fallen into fearful sleep.
All was quiet here as well. There had been a sound at the beginning, but it was gone now.
Grendel's eyes found others; strange ones. A man with two faces. A flock of birds. A fox with the eyes of a waking being. A human boy with eyes of a rabbit. Grendel turned his huge head to one side. The lad was scrawny; not a warrior like the others. He was nothing to worry about.
Now, hunger... There was something worth bothering over.
Divine Janus turned his head this way and that, looking about as the light faded. He felt odd, as if awaking from a long sleep. Two of his four eyebrows gave the merest of twitches as they surveyed the dank stone and dusty shelves. These were not the snowy-pillared halls of Olympus, nor the sealed gates of his temple in Rome.
Clausula the Strige shook her feathered head, uttering a confused cry. Janus stretched out a hand to quiet his disturbed pet. Incipium, Janua, and Porta, Clausula's three sisters, seemed distraught as well, rustling their nut-brown wings and switching their serpents' tails.
Though he would never have let it show upon either of his faces, the Roman god of beginnings and endings could understand, almost empathize with the striges' anxiety. Where were they?
It didn't matter, he decided, with no small measure of irritation toward whoever had pulled him from the sun-lit halls of Olympus. Another look around the room proved that wherever they were, they weren't alone. A ponderous, mossy-haired brute of a- of a something hulked off to his left, looking about with bleared eyes that seemed far more animalistic than those of the scarlet-furred fox that was sniffing quietly about the dusty room.
The eyes of his elder face caught a flicker of movement. They narrowed slightly, deepening the already prominent wrinkles that surrounded them. After an instant, Janus gave up, swinging his younger face around to have a clearer look. Again, two eyebrows rose slightly as he noted the aghast face of a rather scruffy-looking young mortal. The boy was staring blindly at the troll, probably in a mild state of shock.
On the floor beside him, Janus noted, was a rather pretty little harp, strings still vibrating from the touch of a hand. Both faces frowned. There was something amiss... It was only a moment before he realized what it was: magic. There was a strong aura of magic around the lyre. The frowns deepened. A spell cast with an enchanted lyre just might have been what had brought him here. He looked back to the mortal. Yes... there was a faint aura of magic there as well.
Faint or well-shielded.
Janus shrugged. Nowhere was it written that a master sorcerer had to look the part, and until a better suspect came along...
Upon seeing the boy, Clausula let forth an eager growl, opening her curved beak to reveal rows of needle-fine teeth. Like echoes, the other striges followed suit. Janus rolled his eyes, then sighed. They'd be antsy all night if they didn't mangle something, and what better than the mage responsible for pulling them all away from Olympus?
"Oh, all right," he said, giving a shrug, barely noticing as the door swung open, "kill him."
"He ran in here!" Asrial skidded to a stop by the library door.
"Ye're sure?" Rhodri asked, "I lost sight of him around the corner."
Asrial nodded, trying to catch her breath, She'd never been much of a runner, and if the Archmage's bony apprentice could do anything, he could run. "Pretty sure," she told the minstrel as he took hold of the handle and heaved the door open.
...and froze. For a moment, all was still. Asrial, Rhodri, Ian, the man with two faces, the bird- beings, the ogre... A moment only.
"Kill him," said the two-faced man, almost lazily. The birds hissed.
Ian uttered a squeak.
Asrial acted without thinking. She darted into the library, grabbed Ian roughly by the arm, dragging him to his feet. The foremost strige got a beakful of wall. It turned, following its sisters, but by then, they were back in the hallway. Asrial slammed the door shut, mind reeling.
Rhodri had grabbed the dazed Ian by the collar of his tunic, "What did ye do with my lyre, ye muddy little-"
Rhodri's last word was lost in the sound of splintering wood as the library door was kicked open. Asrial scrambled out of the way as a snarling marsh ogre pushed its way through the door, ripping out a few of the building stones in the process.
Feeling rather like her rookery brother Thersites, Asrial decided that, in this case, a strategic retreat might be the best course of action.
"What are those things?" the gargoyle asked, breathing hard, as they came to a stop at the courtyard's edge.
The minstrel didn't seem to hear her. He took hold of Ian again, nearly choking him, "Where did ye leave my lyre?" he asked intently.
"Th- the harp?" Ian stammered, coming slightly out of his bewilderment, "I- It's still in the library."
The minstrel said something in Welsh that Ian guessed wasn't meant for polite company.
"Why is it so important, anyway?" the gargoyle who'd saved him from the strige spoke up. "Shouldn't we be warning the others about those creatures?"
"It's magic," Ian told her. "The lyre is. Why else would-" he stopping in time to avoid speaking of his master's involvement, "It cast a spell on the books, and then those creatures appeared."
Rhodri seemed too upset to notice, but the gargoyle wasn't fooled, "Why else would what?" she asked.
Ian swallowed, trying to think up something to tell her.
"He has some explaining to do," Rhodri said decisively.
Asrial looked confused. Ian looked relieved and confused.
"Ye're sure that it was Lyre that pulled them out of the books?" The minstrel asked.
Ian nodded. "It wasn't me, if that's what you mean."
"If Lyre brought them out, then he can probably put them back in," Rhodri mused.
"He?" asked Ian, confused.
The minstrel shrugged. "Lyre's not really a he nor a she, I suppose," he explained, "but callin' 'im 'he' saves a good bit of time, and I dinnae' suppose that there's much of a point now in trying to pretend that there wasn't something special about 'im, though I'd prefer," he glanced meaningfully to Ian and Asrial, "that it stayed between us."
Ian took a good look at the minstrel. When he'd seen him first, he'd thought that there had been something odd about him. Now he knew that was the case.
The gargoyle was shaking her head, "We should deal with that later. Right now, we must tell the others about that- that-"
"Grendel," supplied Rhodri. "If the lad here is tellin' the truth, then our fellow back there could only be Grendel, from the Beowulf."
Ian's eyes narrowed. The Beowulf was a Saxon ballad, but it wasn't sung anymore. Why would a minstrel, even one as odd as Rhodri, be fluent in out-of-date literature? Most of the ones that Ian knew of couldn't even read.
There was a crash behind them, a muffled scream, and the sound of two-ton footfalls.
Ian spoke up. "Calling the guards sounds like a very good idea."
Agamemnon was one of the Leader's generation, a barrel-chested, ridge-faced elder, with a brown beard threaded with white, and a rolling voice that he used often.
...and was currently directing at the web-winged fledgling and his brothers.
"Now lads," he said, "it has come to my attention that the three of ye have been disturbin' the kitchen hands again. I was told that they even went so far as to take up a broom and drive ye out, to drive ye out just as they would the hounds or hearthcats. It has also come to my attention that tonight was not the first such offense. This makes how many times? How many times in the past week alone have ye been driven from the kitchens?"
"Four, Elder," his white-haired brother spoke up.
"Ach, lad, haven't ye ever been told not ta' interrupt when ye're being spoken to?" Agamemnon put a hand to his head, "Now where was I? Ah yes, four times! Four times they've had to drive ye out like animals for various offenses: for gettin' underfoot," he glared into the hatchling's olive-green face, "for playin' cruel tricks," he turned to the one who had spoken before, who shuffled his feet nervously. The tricks in question had been rather simple, involving a few slippery items and the feet of an irritable, heavy-set cook named 'Solomon,' who had deserved every bit of them. "For stealing drumsticks," the elder went on, shifting his glare to the chubby one, "and altogether goin' out of yuir collective way to make yuirselves as much of a nuisance as ye possibly could!"
"That's not true!" he protested, spreading his blue-taloned hands. "We never went out of our protective way to be an anything-"
"-It just kinda' ended up like that!" finished his brother.
"There ye go, interruptin' again! Ach, children these days... Now, our Leader came to me an' he told me that since this was not yuir first offence, that I was ta' be in charge of administering yuir chastisement. ...though the Dragon only knows why he chose me."
~Because he thought that sending us to the rookery would be too merciful,~ thegreen hatchling realized sourly, with an envious glance to Argus, the watchdog, who was dozing off in the corner.
"I thought, and I deliberated long and hard," Agamemnon went on. "And yuir punishment is that ye're banned from the kitchens for the rest of the summer, and from the armory."
"From the armory too?"
"But we've only been kicked out of the armory two times!"
"Again, interruptin' me while I speak! I tell ye three, when I was a lad-"
The elder's next word was lost in a moan from all three fledglings.
...and he didn't miss a beat, "-when I was a lad, we held our elders in respect! When they had somethin' to say to us, we dropped whatever we were doin' and we listened! In midstride or in mid- sentence!"
"Excuse me, Elder," came a voice from the right. The fledgling turned to see Asrial walking toward them. If she hadn't been a girl, he might have gotten up and kissed her right there, "would you happen to know where the Leader is? Or the Second? I've been looking for-"
"There, lads! Interrupted again!" Agamemnon turned to face the teenaged gargoyle, "Ye, and yuir brothers and sisters should be setting an example for them!" He pointed one sharp talon at the three of them.
"Forgive me, Elder," she said, "but I need to find-"
"Ach, the Second and a handful of the others are out hunting, but the Leader's standing guard on the east tower, now get ye gone; I was in the middle of a conversation!"
"Thank you, Elder," said Asrial. "Oh," she remembered, "you might want to get out of the courtyard, at least until we can alert the soldiers and the rest of the clan."
"Alert them, child," Agamemnon repeated impatiently, placing one taloned hand on his brow. "Do tell me, alert them to what?"
Asrial opened her mouth to answer, and was drowned out by an earsplitting roar. The web- winged hatchling covered his ears. No gargoyle had made that sound.
Agamemnon stared across the intervening air, into the face of Grendel, and was speechless.
He snarled at the row of spears. Here was something he knew well. After the first of his raids, gray-bearded Hrothgar had set his warriors to watch, to kill the demon that hounded their master's drinking-hall. All of those were dead now. Hero after hero had been slain where they stood, and dragged down through the rough waters to Grendel's lair beneath the earth.
He had eaten well in those times.
Hunger was no stranger to the marsh-ogre. It hounded him now, even as did the humans and unknown creatures that attacked from before and above him. Upon awaking in this place, hunger had greeted him like an old friend. After pursuing the two humans and the unknown creature through the doorway, Grendel had found the space beyond too narrow to follow at any speed, and had plodded along in search of room.
Another human in a sky-bright tunic had crossed his path. It had made a noise like a screech- owl, and darted away before Grendel could lay his hands on it. Grendel snarled as he swatted aside another flying creature, wondering for half a moment what such things might taste like.
Hunger snarled just as loud.
Divine Janus stepped from the tower doorway into the open air. Clausula and her sisters each leaped to the battlements on four nimble feet. Incipium turned her head sideways to view her master with one bright eye, awaiting his word.
Janus looked carefully down to the courtyard below. As he had suspected from viewing the structure's interior -- a barbarian keep, probably north of Britannia. A furrow appeared in his young forehead; a grizzled eyebrow raised. He hadn't known that the Picts could build anything more than huts of wood and sod.
On the stones beneath, the marsh-troll was already wreaking havoc upon the human and gargoyle soldiers. There was no sign of the young mage.
The striges clawed at the battlement stones, impatient.
"No matter," he said aloud. "Go enjoy yourselves, my lovelies," he told them. "Mind, though, not to tire yourselves too much. It is a long trip back to Rome. Oh, and if you see that grubby little human, do take the time to gut him."
Incipium leaped to the night air with an avian shriek and spiraled downward, her sisters following.
"There you are!" said Asrial as she alighted on stones near where Rhodri was standing. "Did you find the Captain?"
"Aye, lass, I did," answered the minstrel, "though by then I fear the old badger'd realized that there was something up and about. By the look of things I see yuir leader did the same."
"Do you think you could let go of me now?" Ian spoke up. Asrial looked toward the urchin, and noticed Rhodri's hand still firmly clamped around his wrist. "He's been dragging me along with him since you left," he told her.
"All this started when ye kidnapped my lyre, lad," said Rhodri. "I'm not lettin' ye out of my sight 'til it's over. ..speaking of which," he began, "I've got somthin' of an idea, but we'll need to-"
"Oh no..." Asrial heard Rhodri mutter under his breath as three of the younger gargoyles approached, trailed loosely by the watchdog, Argus.
"Thanks for getting the Elder to let us go," one of them said to her. "I was afraid he was going to talk all night again."
"What's that thing over by the west tower that everyone's fighting?"
"Will you come play with us? The Elder says we can't bother the kitchen hands anymore."
"Well," said Rhodri, "I suppose that means I've been promoted."
"Will you help us play 'horsey?'" the red-beaked asked eagerly. "It's this game where one person gets down on their hands and-"
"I think I'm familiar with it," answered the human. Asrial noticed the look that he was giving one rather plump-looking hatchling, and hid a smile behind her hand. "Tell me, lads, why dinnae' ye ride him instead?" he asked, pointing to the watchdog.
Argus raised his head and gave Rhodri a look of sheer venom.
"You had to go and say that, didn't you?" Asrial thought with a grin, as if reading the quadruped's mind.
The overweight one was looking dubiously at Argus, "I don't know," he said. "I'd probably break his back if I got on him."
Asrial looked back to Rhodri and found him staring off into space.
"'Another stupid magician' eh?" he asked, still looking at nothing. "Well I suppose it's good for ye that Merlin isn't here to hear ye say that."
The chubby hatchling looked up at the Welshman, confused. "Who's Merlin?"
"What? Oh, break his back? Yes, ye're probably right," Rhodri said, changing the subject, "well, lads, the stables are that way," he pointed. "Why dinnae' ye go find yuirselves a horse?"
All three hatchlings looked at the human for a moment, then at each other. The little green one gave a shrug. The one who'd spoken earlier looked especially thoughtful, "Thanks!" he said, and they ran off.
"What was that all about?" asked Ian.
"Never mind it," said Rhodri. "Tell me -- 'Ian,' isn't it? -- how much do ye remember of what happened in the library?"
The lavender-skinned gargoyle's eyes narrowed as he stopped to catch his breath. Off to his right, the Leader was shouting instructions, which he had to strain to hear over the sound of the battle on the ground. None of the attempts to kill or maim the creature had been successful; claw and steel alike bounced off its thick skin, and the interference from the four snake-birds wasn't doing any help. Thus far, they had been successful at holding the monster at bay, but five of the Captain's human soldiers were down, and he didn't feel much better himself.
The Leader shouted the attack order, the young warrior and four other gargoyles dove off of the battlement. He took aim at the giant's neck, readying his claws to gouge as much of the creature's flesh as they could before he would have to fall back.
An arm the size of a tree trunk came up out of nowhere, striking him across the chest and sending him crashing to the tower wall.
...Thersites, watching from the east battlements, was so glad that he wasn't his lavender- skinned rookery brother.
"Poor fellow looks like he leads a very painful existence..." he murmured aloud.
"No argument there," Thersites was surprised to hear someone answer him in a wry voice. He turned, and rubbed his eyes as he saw a bright red fox, gnawing on a drumstick and looking at him with bright yellow eyes.
"I found this as I was wandering below," it said. "Someone had stuck it on a stick over a fire." He paused to take another bite, licking its ivory-colored canines. "It seemed a shame to let good food burn, so I saved it."
"By the Dragon," he said with an expression that mixed wonder with his usual cynicism, "a talking fox."
One of its eyebrows -- did foxes have eyebrows? -- went up. "And a talking fox is any stranger than a talking lizard with wings?" it said.
Then it glanced down to the battle below, "But all the rest of the talking lizards with wings are out trying to subdue the big ugly troll. Why aren't you?"
Thersites knew a challenge when he heard one. And to think he'd though that this was going to be just another boring battle. "I believe in allowing people to do what they are best at," he countered. "The others are down there, proving themselves in battle, and I'm up here ...overseeing the fight for strategic errors."
"Ah," answered the fox, "you can't stand the sight of blood, now can you?"
"That is absolutely not true," Thersites said with uncharacteristic honesty. "Blood doesn't bother me in the slightest, as long as it's not mine."
"And some people say that I'm overprotective of my own hide," the fox remarked. It gave Thersites a brief, appraising glance, "But then, my hide is a lot better-looking than yours."
Getting nasty, now aren't we? "That it is," he answered. "Why don't I just make a carpet out of it and feed the rest of you to our watchdog?"
The animal's eyes seemed to flicker to something behind Thersites, and then it gave something that he guessed was a laugh. "You're welcome to try," it said, "but you're going to have the devil's own time at it."
"Oh?" the wry-horned gargoyle inquired, "and why might that be?"
"Well, for one thing," it said, "there's one of those funny birds behind you."
Thersites turned around and ducked just in time to avoid a faceful of angry strige. The thing tipped its wings, using its inertia to maneuver onto the nearest updraft. He frowned, recognizing what it was doing. He'd been taught the same tactic himself, and found that he genuinely disliked being on its receiving end. The strige was the size of a medium-sized dog -- not as big as Thersites -- but that was more than enough mass to do some damage. The four-footed snake-bird turned, diving again at the gargoyle's skull.
Thersites held his ground until the last moment, then darted out of the way, hoping to see it fly full-speed into the stones. To his disappointment, it pulled up in time, gave an irritated screech, and wheeled off in search of another target.
"That thing could have taken my head off!" he shouted, turning back to the fox, "Why didn't you warn me sooner, you-" Thersites stopped abruptly. Sitting where the fox had been, he saw only the bone from the stolen drumstick, left untidily on the floor.
The Archmage scowled deeply, ripping through the Grimorum. Somewhere in here there had to be a spell for keeping magical creatures from dive-bombing through one's window!
Curses, histories, no, no, no...
From the corner of his eye, he saw another strige -- or the same one, for all that he could tell the blasted things apart -- rising on an updraft, preparing for yet another try at his window.
There... he stopped at a particular page. This one might work.
Fortunately, this particular spell required little in the way of preparation.
The strige drew its wings tight against its body and began to plummet toward the window. The Archmage extended one arm, taking aim.
"Fulminos benite!" he pronounced the Latin words, feeling the magical energies collect and surge outward.
...but not toward the strige. Instead of originating from his outstretched finger, the bolt of raw energy had come from the Grimorum.
Instead of blasting the abhorrent bird all the way back to Hades, the fireball vaporized a shelf and part of the inner wall.
Fortunately, the strige had been close enough to be startled by the sudden flare of light, swerving away before diving through the window.
For a brief moment, the Archmage's countenance lightened. That spell had been promising, very promising. He'd have to come back to that one.
He glanced out of the now-strigeless window, and the look of interest disappeared as the scowl returned. If the guards didn't get their act together against Grendel, he'd have more to worry about than a few raids from Janus' little 'pets.'
Ian. All of this was Ian's fault. All he'd had to do was steal one simple talisman. He didn't know exactly how the apprentice had fouled things up, but he had, and he was going to pay dearly for his incompetence.
Divine Janus surveyed the mayhem beneath, a bored expression on both faces. The fight between Grendel and the barbarians had proved interesting at first, but had quickly grown monotonous, despite the efforts of his four pets to liven things up.
He scanned the area below again. No, nothing of interest. He might as well go back to watching the-
He stopped, narrowing his eyes. The distance was great, but...
But there he was, with two gargoyles, that fox, and a brightly-dressed human.
"There he is, my lovelies," he said quietly. At various positions throughout the keep, the four striges cocked their avian heads at the sound of their master's voice.
"Attack," he pointed to the ground, where the dingy young sorcerer stood.
Incipium was the first to respond, shifting course to circle above her new target. Janus smiled. He would have to remember to reward her later, when they were back in Rome.
Divine Janus turned his head to watch with his younger, sharper eyes. This should prove amusing.
"...and then the books started falling off the shelf. Then the harp-"
"Lyre," Rhodri corrected absently.
Ian rolled his eyes, "It got loud again. There was a bright light. Then you opened the door and she-" he jabbed his free hand at Asrial, "she pulled me out of the library."
Rhodri was shaking his head. "Ye shouldna' have threatened to pull his strings out. That's something of a sensitive spot for him. Do ye remember which books they were?"
"The ones on the floor?" the younger human shrugged. "I was a little busy fearing for my life at the time."
The minstrel clicked his teeth together, thinking. "Well, Grendel is from Beowulf; we know that much. There are foxes in many works, but I've got some suspicions about our particular one. And the two-faced man..."
"I saw that one," supplied Ian. "The book fell open to a page with a picture of him. He and those bird things are from the same one."
Rhodri nodded, "Good. Now, all we hafta' worry about it gettin' close enough."
Asrial, who had been standing thoughtfully through Ian's recounting of the events in the library took this moment to speak up. "Close enough?"
He nodded again, "I'm fairly sure that I know which spell Lyre was castin'. It's reliable enough, but it has to be loud enough for ye to hear it. I have some experience with magic of this breed-"
"Well there's a big surprise," muttered Ian.
Rhodri ignored him, "-and I'm fairly sure that I know its limits. A few yards," the minstrel shrugged, "perhaps less."
"Wonderful," Asrial muttered. She cast her gaze to the fight with the marsh troll near the west tower, noting the battlements, only several feet above the creature's head. "Well at least Grendel won't be much of a problem."
Ian gave a short laugh, "Certainly doesn't look like it for your clan."
Asrial looked into the fray just in time to see her rookery brother get thrown into the tower wall for the second time that night. She winced, sympathetically. Before she knew what she was doing, she found herself walking towards the place, halfway between Grendel and where she and Rhodri had been talking, where her brother had fallen. Just to see if he's all right.
...and found that someone else had beaten her to it.
"Smashed into the same wall twice in one night?" she was startled to hear the fox actually speak. "Is there some sort of record that you're trying to break? I must say that you seem to be having more luck breaking the building stones."
"What..." he muttered , starting to sit up.
"Are you injured, brother?" Asrial asked half-mindedly, most of her attention centered warily on the fox.
"I don't think so..." he frowned. "But I might have hit my head too hard. Did I actually hear a-"
"Poor lad probably has a concussion," she turned to see that Rhodri had followed her, still gripping a disgruntled Ian by the arm.
"He didn't last time," the fox claimed. "Although the fact that he actually put himself into a position where it could happen again might make one doubt how rational he was to begin with."
One of Rhodri's eyebrows went up, "So it is you. Hello, Reynard."
Asrial was surprised to see the fox frown (and more surprised that she had recognized the expression at all), "Have we met?" it asked.
Rhodri shook his head, "No."
Just then, there was another roar from Grendel, loud enough to make Asrial's ears ache.
"Loud guests you've got," remarked the fox, "but one can't say they don't make an impression. Got to run." And he did.
"Peculiar fellow," Rhodri remarked. "He reminds me of a few of my relatives."
"Oh?" asked the other gargoyle, slightly puzzled. "What kind of relatives do you have?"
"No one ye'd know, lad." This time, Asrial was looking right at the human when the enigmatic seizure hit. His face went blank; his pupils shrank away to black pinpricks.
It was less than a heartbeat before Rhodri put a hand to his brow, muttering under his breath, "The blasted things have no problem tellin' me what's going to happen two blasted thousand years from now, but no warning in the slightest when some blasted magician's blasted apprentice is about to kidnap my blasted Lyre..." He looked back to Asrial and her brother, "Oh yes. My relatives. No one ye know just yet."
Asrial found that both he and Ian were staring at her with confused expressions on their faces, "Do you know what he-" Ian began.
"What are you looking at me for?" she asked. "He's been doing that ever since-"
There was a screech from above. Asrial looked up to see a strige with claws extended, wings folded in a dive.
...headed straight for Ian. The mud-smeared human gave a shout, jerked free of Rhodri's grip and ducked, flattening himself against the ground, inches below the crushing talons.
The half-bird shrieked again and, apparently deciding not to take the fight to the ground, propelled itself upward on sturdy, nut-brown wings.
Ian picked himself up off of the floor, glancing around warily. Asrial spotted two more striges, circling above.
"I wouldn't advise runnin,' lad," Rhodri was telling Ian. "I dinnae' know about those things, but runnin' from most mythical hunters just attracts their attention."
"Don't torment him," Asrial said dryly, "Let's just get out of here."
"Care to come?" Rhodri asked Asrial's rookery brother
Asrial's rookery brother shook his head as he got to his feet. "I am needed in the battle."
Rhodri cast a critical eye back to the west tower, where human and gargoyle alike were getting their havoc wreaked by Grendel. "I'm sure ye are," he said. He turned to Ian, who had just dodged another strige attack, "What about you, lad? Ye were the only one who saw those books before-"
"Fine, fine," Ian squeaked, still scanning the dim skyline. "Library's that way," one shaking finger jabbed out, "Let's just go."
Rhodri's boots crunched as he walked onto the library's rubble-strewn floor. Grendel's exit, he saw, had destroyed not only the door and doorframe, but and a good portion of the wall as well, spreading fragments of stone and wood across the hallway and the room. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Asrial wince as she stepped on a particularly sharp piece.
Rhodri knew he must have been wearing a particularly chagrined expression as he mentally sifted through the debris. Since the marsh-ogre had been trying to get out of the library, not in, most of the room was intact enough, except for some overturned shelves and a smashed table, but enchanted musical instruments weren't known for being impact-proof. "Where did ye say ye dropped Lyre, lad?" he asked Ian.
"I don't remember..." the apprentice trailed off. "I put it down after it got louder. Right by the door?"
Rhodri felt his face pale. "Lyre!" he called.
There was a faint thrum from the left. Off to his right, he thought he saw Ian cringe at the sound.
The minstrel listened for a moment, then pointed. "There!" he gestured to Asrial, "Help me with this, will ye?"
With Asrial's help, Rhodri dug through a rather extensive pile of rubble. A few moments later, with a sigh of relief that he was sure had been audible, he pulled Lyre -- who had somehow managed to look bedraggled -- out of a the heap of splinters and dust.
The instrument gave a distressed twang.
"Ach, don't worry, Lyre," he said consolingly, genuinely glad to see that he was relatively undamaged, "ye're just a little worse for wear... Ye should be all right."
There was a pause, then almost questioning minor chord.
Rhodri's face darkened, "No, I am not going to get all mushy on ye, ye insulting little-"
The instrument gave a series of quick, high-pitched twangs.
"Don't laugh!" Rhodri protested. "What were ye thinking, summoning creatures out of books again?"
Had he been paying attention, he might have noticed Asrial blink upon hearing the word "again."
"Don't ye G-sharp minor at me, ye brassy hunk of twine!" Rhodri scolded. "Yes, I know he threatened to pull yuir strings out, but what in heaven's name made ye think that Grendel was gonna be any more courteous?"
Lyre gave another thrum.
"Yes, I know it made the boy leave you alone, but don't ye think ye could have, I don't know, turned him into a partridge or some such thing?"
Ian gave Rhodri a look of alarm, which the minstrel ignored.
"Now look at ye" Rhodri went on; "all scuffed up. It'll probably take me a century just to get ye back in tune."
The Lyre gave the stringed equivalent of a snort.
Rhodri was not amused, "Well! If ye're gonna go usin' language like that, then-"
"Um, hello," came Ian's protesting remark, " I don't suppose that you could stop that?" he asked weakly.
Lyre gave another snort. Ian winced.
"Didn't you say we had to find the books?" he asked, "Could we just find the books?"
Rhodri set the instrument down on one of the clearer spaces on the floor. "Right enough, lad," he said, gesturing to the rubble-strewn floor. "About where did they fall off of the shelf?"
Ian looked around, "There?" he pointed uncertainly.
Rhodri looked in the direction that the apprentice had indicated. Many of the books had slid out of place onto the floor, probably as Grendel had smashed through the wall.
"At least the shelf didn't fall over..." Asrial mused aloud. Rhodri nodded in agreement. As much as he liked to read, looking for obscure titles in a pile of battered volumes while a group of monsters wrought mayhem outside was not exactly his idea of a productive night.
Ian was on his hands and knees, picking one book after another, giving each a cursory glance, then tossing it over his shoulder.
"This one, I think," the apprentice said at last, holding up a thin volume with a crude drawing of a fox scratched onto the leather cover.
The minstrel gave a nod. "And what of that one?" he asked. "Unless the Prince has two copies of Beowulf..."
Asrial shook her head, "No," she informed him. "My rookery brother read it a few weeks ago. Dark gold skin, short beard... Maybe you saw him getting basted by Grendel?" Rhodri shook his head, Asrial shrugged and went on. "He'd heard the Prince discussing it with one of his guests, and looked through this entire place until he found it. If there was more than one here, he'd know."
Ian shrugged. "I guess that's it then." He swiped two more volumes out of his way, "Here!" he announced, pulling another book out from under the pile. Rhodri moved to get a closer look. This book had fallen open to a page with an illustration on of a two-faced man surrounded by a quartet of four-footed birds with snakes' tails.
That was a fairly sure sign.
Rhodri nodded, "Good," he said, picking the lyre up off the floor. "Bring them along, will ye, lad?"
Ian looked for a moment as if he were about to protest, then -- probably remembering getting dive-bombed by two of the beings depicted on the page -- scooped up the three volumes and followed Rhodri out of the library.
"Ye know," Rhodri mused quietly, "the lad's got a bad habit or three, but he isna' so bad, I suppose."
Lyre answered this with another discordant snort.
"Exceptin', perhaps, his lack of respect for those of us with strings," he conceded.
The instrument seemed content with this, vibrating softly to itself.
Rhodri gave a shrug. ...or as best a shrug as he could manage while carrying a heavy metal frame. Lyre had more than a right to be upset at Ian, but he hadn't been serious about suggesting that he turn him into a partridge. ...at least not permanently, but Rhodri couldn't help but wonder: When all of this was over, what would happen to the boy?
As if on cue, his sight darkened.
Ach! Why now? I didna' really mean it! Rhodri's irritation flared. Was it something in the air at Wyvern? He'd lost count of how many times it had happened since he'd arrived.
I have to admit, for as ugly as those things are face-to-face, they're rather graceful to look at when they're in the air, even when they're going to attack a place that I used to call home. ...No. Especially then. Wyvern was never home anyway. My village was home. Sure it was a little ...rustic, but I didn't have a problem with that. ...alright, perhaps I did, but I'd have gotten over it. Here, no one threatens to smash my face. ...not as often as at Wyvern, anyway. That's all that those people ever did for me. the Captain and my master... ...No. Not "master." Archmage. He isn't my master any more. Sure, my new master isn't perfect, but he's a lot better than the Archmage ever was. Except for when he's angry, he treats me well. He truly does...
Rhodri blinked. Whatever Fate had in store for Ian, it didn't seem to be much better than his current situation; for him or for Asrial and the rest of Wyvern.
Well I suppose I asked for that... he thought to himself, shaking off the chill of the vision, still shivering despite himself. Rhodri had given up trying to prevent his visions -- or to help others do so -- a long time ago. Longer than most people could remember. If Ian's fate was to be changed, the boy would have to do it himself.
"Good luck anyway, lad," he murmured aloud as he walked down to hall. He had a feeling that he was going to need it.
The boy looked strangely at him. Rhodri stifled a grimace.
Ye've been gettin' too morbid, he chided himself. The past was immutable, but there were no guarantees about future, even if this particular premonition would come to pass. Ian's fate was no different.
The Leader stopped on the battlement to catch his breath, holding back a snarl of frustration. At this point, the battle had been going on for an hour or more, and the human and gargoyle soldiers were fairly drained. The monster, however, seemed as enthusiastic as ever. Five of the Captain's men were down in one way or another, and one was definitely dead. He'd had one arm wrenched out of its socket, and Brother Edmund's best efforts had been insufficient to stop the bleeding. His own warriors had been slightly more fortunate. Though a few of them would be unable to continue the battle none of them seemed to have sustained any injuries that the coming day -- only a few hours off -- would not be able to cure.
The gargoyle leader who would one night take the name 'Hudson' shook his head. After being knocked into the tower wall for the second time, one of the younger warriors had come back babbling about talking foxes, and had been rather indignant when the Leader had told him to go sit down.
He took a breath before trying to reassess the situation. The castle had been built to defend from raiders from the outside; not ogres and strange birds that somehow appeared within the walls. What perplexed him most was how the thing had gotten in here in the first place. Even if those on watch had fallen idle, they would have seen a creature of this size approaching. And even if they had failed, how had it gotten through the gates? Early on in the fray, the surprised shouts of human soldiers, and a glance to the stout, unchanged wall of oak proved that they were still intact.
And the creature itself... In shape, like a human, but distorted, the length of the arms, the size of the hands, the thickness of the skull, the face... ...humans at their best were little to please the eyes, but this being made pond scum look pretty. Which was not even to mention its size; the monster stood at nearly twice a gargoyle's height.
"Sorcery..." he muttered under his breath. The Leader shook his head. It was an intruder. Perhaps that was all he needed to know.
There was a shout and a screech from below, the Leader glanced over the parapet just in time to see one of those accursed half-birds attack a guardsman from above. He frowned. A while ago, the human Captain had set a group of archers to try to eliminate those things, but they had proved too agile. In a brief, irrational moment, he envied their ability to fly independent of the updrafts.
He caught another flicker of motion from the corner of his eye. The Leader turned to see two humans and one of the younger females stepping out onto the battlement from the alcove that led to the stairway.
Irritation momentarily overcame logic, "Where have ye been?" he demanded of Asrial. It was bad enough that his second in command and a handful of his best warriors were late returning from the hunting trip, oblivious to what was going on, but two of the juveniles -- Asrial and one of her rookery brothers -- had just never shown up to help, and what with the noise that the troll was making, they had no such excuse.
She opened her mouth to answer, but he instead looked to her two companions. The older human, he noticed, was dressed in a ridiculously bright suit with a few scattered dust stains, and carried some contraption made of twine and yellow metal. The younger had a stack of books in his hands, and a wary eye to the skyline, growing substantially more nervous as he saw the brown-winged creature wheeling away.
"Where have ye been?" he asked again, this time with less anger. It was one thing for her to spend her time cloistered away with her tools and machines, or even to run away from practice, but to fail to join the rest of her clan in the defense of her home was inexcusable.
"Leader, I-" she started, "we found out how this creature -- it's called a 'grendel' -- how it got here."
"Oh?" he asked, barely noticing the younger human holding up one of the books he'd been carrying, or the older one plucking the strings of his contraption. The girl had always been something of a moonbeam-chaser, but if she knew what she was talking about...
"Well, it started when the Archmage's apprentice stole Rhodri's lyre," the Leader narrowed his eyes. This was starting to sound a little unlikely.
"Go on," he told her.
"Ian took the-"
The rest of Asrial's explanation was lost as the monster gave a roar. There was a blast of light that the Leader was sure would have drowned the daylight that the humans seemed to worship so. Grendel's bellow shrank into a wail and then died away entirely.
When the light faded, the quiet was deafening. No heavy footfalls, no battle cries, no clash of sword and spear. The Leader looked over the battlement. The creature was gone, with only a section of torn-up ground and a group of confused warriors to testify that it had ever been there.
"Where... where is it?" he asked of no one in particular.
"You want it back?" asked the Archmage's apprentice.
The Leader shook his head, "Sorcery..." he muttered.
"Well..." said Asrial, "yes."
Asrial stepped away from the Leader somewhat gratefully. Having the disapproval of the clan elders was one thing; having one flat-out angry with her was another. Right now, the Leader seemed a bit dumbfounded, but hopefully he'd remember that she'd had some part in this; hadn't just run away from battle like her brother Thersites.
"And I was going to have that monster's head!" Asrial heard a familiar voice. An ice-blue gargoyle with white hair landed on the battlement, eyes bright as he directed his words towards a blonde female with orange-brown skin and terraced wings. Asrial noticed that he had one hand placed lightly over his other arm, and a trickle of blood was escaping through his talons.
The blonde raised one eyebrow, gesturing to the other's arm, "By the look of things," she said in a deep voice. "It looks more as if he'd have had yours."
"This? This is nothing," he shook his head at the arm wound. "I merely got too close to its claws."
"Come," the female ordered, grasping his free hand, "we'd best have Brother Edmund tend it."
"Yes, brother," came another voice. Asrial knew the face before she turned her eyes, "wouldn't want it to fester before dawn, now would we?" The black-haired gargoyle redirected his sardonic grin toward Asrial. "You certainly made an impressive display of bravery in the battle, sister," he sneered, "What were you doing? Trying to perfect a gadget that would help this creature scrape the last of the meat from off our bones, perhaps?"
Asrial turned away, not wanting to give him the satisfaction of seeing her stalk off, and mad at herself for doing it anyway.
She walked over to where Ian and Rhodri were standing. There were four striges and a Roman god to get rid of, yet, and getting angry with a cruel rookery brother would just limit her ability to help.
Asrial frowned as she approached the minstrel. She followed his line of sight and realized that he'd been watching the exchange between her three rookery sibs, and now had a profoundly disturbed expression on his face. She was about to ask him what was wrong, then noticed that his pupils had gotten very small again. Her frown deepened, and what the human had to say didn't ease her confusion any:
"And here I thought that there was only gonna be one Cold War..."
"Rhodri?" she asked.
The human blinked, turning to Asrial. "Ach, lass, I'm sorry if I've confused ye with my ramblings..." he paused, looking somewhat guilty for a moment. "Well... I must be honest with ye, I suppose, if I'm to call ye friend; seeing people confused does grant me some small measure of satisfaction."
Asrial was about to answer when there was yet another avian scream, echoed by Ian's surprised shout as he hit the floor. The strige alighted on the battlement for a moment, eyeing the apprentice with an odd sort of hunger, then took to the air again, apparently deciding to seek prey that was not surrounded by a dozen gargoyles and a few confused guards.
"I don't suppose we could get them to stop doing that?" Ian asked weakly. "I'm starting to get calluses on my forearms."
Rhodri absently plucked at one of Lyre's strings, "Yes... ...but not from four different places, each two hundred feet apart and fifty feet in the air."
"We could shoot them," Asrial suggested.
Rhodri shook his head emphatically, "Even if there's an archer here who could hit such a target, - - and judging by the fact that they're not already plucked and roasting, I dinnae' think there is -- I dinnae' know how good an idea that might be. Janus was not one of the Romans' more powerful gods, but I'm fairly sure he could do some genuine damage if one of his pets was killed."
Asrial thought for a moment, absorbing this. "Why do you suppose they keep attacking Ian?" she asked.
The minstrel shrugged, "A fondness for tender meat, perhaps?" he suggested. "It certainly couldn't be the smell," he said dryly, eyeing the mud-spattered Ian.
"This is the second time that they've gone for him."
"Third," corrected the apprentice as he finally got up off the stones, giving another cautious look around.
...and saw both Asrial and Rhodri looking speculatively at him.
"No," Ian answered, shaking his head. "No, no, no, no, no..."
"We can keep them off of you," Asrial assured.
Rhodri nodded, "As soon as any of those four get close enough..."
"Isn't it five?" Asrial asked.
"Ach, yes lass, Janus too. I nearly forgot."
"...no, no, no, no, no!" Ian insisted. "I won't do it!"
"Ye've got a better idea, lad?" inquired the minstrel.
Ian looked up at him helplessly for a moment, "Well give me a minute..." he said at last.
Rhodri ignored him, "Wonderful!" he said, "Ye're a very brave lad, Ian, and ye should be proud of yuirself."
The apprentice gave another high-pitched sound from the back of his throat, not unlike that of a mouse trapped inside a tight corner, just out of reach of a cat's paws.
They'd set the boy out at the edge of the courtyard, with the minstrel and his lyre a few yards off. The book was open on the ground. The young gargoyle stood nearby, talking with the human in the bright mantle.
A quick glance to the dark sky showed the striges, already circling.
"So what ideas do ye have as to how we're to keep those things from ripping the lad's eyes out before Lyre's spell takes effect?" the older human was asking.
"You're coming up with this now?!" squeaked the waif.
"I suppose we could wait 'til later, if ye'd like..."
The boy gave a slight moan, burying his face in his hands.
"Well," the gargoyle mused aloud, "if arrows are out..." her face brightened. "I have an idea," she said. Then she stopped, as if remembering something, and her expression fell, "...but I don't have the net."
"Net?" the muddy-haired human's head jerked up. He reached inside his tunic and pulled out a piece of rope webbing barely a foot or two wide. "Do you mean this thing?" he demanded, a bit of his old impertinence returning.
The young gargoyle flushed a deeper shade of orange-brown, and took the rope mesh gingerly in one hand, looking it over.
Probably for fleas...
"It flew out the window. We heard someone shout," she explained lamely. "I'm sorry," she offered.
"It was a- I thought that it-" Ian gave a sigh. "Just watch where you point that thing next time..." he said at last.
"Tell me, lass," Rhodri spoke up as the gargoyle began to leave. He eyed the flimsy bit of net in her hand, "ye're the expert, but do ye think that a net made for a quail trap would be much use against a strige?"
Asrial seemed to consider this for a moment. She shrugged, "Probably not."
Ian was making choking noises. The gargoyle walked off.
"Ye wouldna' happen to have a better idea, would ye, lad?" asked the minstrel.
"Well let me think for a minute..."
"Neither do I, lad; ye see, we've got to make the best of what we've got."
"Try saying that when you're the bird bait."
"True enough, Ian," answered the pale-haired human, reaching for his lyre. "Speaking of which," he gestured upward, "ye might want to stay on yuir-"
Ian dove to the cobblestones as the strige attacked from above. There was a sharp tearing sound. The half-bird gave a brief, irritated screech, and pulled itself skyward.
"-toes," concluded Rhodri. "Or ye could not stay on yuir feet at all, whatever works for ye... Ye know," he mused, "they don't seem to be yellin' before they attack anymore. Do ye suppose they've realized that it might have been what was warnin' ye?"
"I... don't... care..." Ian said slowly, getting up. He reached one grimy hand behind his back. "My tunic!" he said, face going pale behind the smudges. "It got my tunic."
"I wouldna' be worryin' about yuir tunic right about now, lad," said the minstrel, beginning to pluck that same, haunting strain out of the lyre's strings.
"Believe me," Ian cast another glance to the four circling striges; "I'm not."
With reason. Yeech, how often does he wash that thing?
"Are you going to take all night to cast that spell?!" Ian hissed.
Rhodri was not disturbed. "The funny thing with magic of this nature, lad, is the timing," he said calmly. "There are only a few places in the song in which- heads up, lad."
Ian ducked again, sure he was going to lose more than a shred of his tunic this time.
...but the sight of the ground rushing up to meet him winked out in a now-familiar flash of light, the birdlike screech clashing with the lyre music and dying away.
Ian opened his eyes and carefully sat up. He looked around, seeing nothing but a pair of nut- brown feathers floating to the ground.
"That wasna' so bad, now was it?" asked Rhodri.
Ian shot him an evil glare, trying to remember if the Archmage had taught him any particularly nasty spells recently.
The three remaining striges seemed a bit agitated by the unexpected disappearance of their sister, and were squawking loudly among themselves.
"Ye know, ye might want to try dodging to the side next time," suggested Rhodri.
"You think that would work better?" Ian asked quickly.
The minstrel shrugged, "Maybe not, but ye'd certainly bruise less."
"It's easy for you to make jokes," the apprentice said sharply. "They're not diving at you." He frowned. "How do you know they're not going to dive at you?" he asked.
Rhodri grinned, "Oh, I think I may have a certain intuition..."
Ian looked away in disgust.
The minstrel shook his head, "'Tisn't that, actually," he said. "Not this time. Maybe it's just that they seem to have such a liking for ye that I dinnae' feel I can compete."
That's one way of saying it...
The boy didn't answer, eyes locked on the sky. It must have been hard for human eyes, even with the blaring torches, to focus on the three remaining cinnamon-colored pairs of wings, but even so, Ian must have been able to see how low they were circling, getting lower with each pass.
"That's bad..." the apprentice muttered absently.
"No, lad, that's good," answered Rhodri.
"Yes. This way I only hafta' time one crescendo instead of three."
The first strige folded its wings and dove. Ian jumped back, unnecessarily, this time, as the dog- sized being landed on the cobblestones in front of him.
The waif carefully brought his arms from where he'd raised them to protect his face, and half- regretted it. The creature's fangs were bared. ...which was to say it's beak was open, as it didn't have lips to speak of. A second strige landed to Ian's right, and the third behind him.
"Um, Rhodri?" asked the apprentice.
"One moment, lad," the minstrel was still plucking steadily at the lyre's strings.
The head strige stepped forward, raising something that sounded halfway between a growl and a scream.
There was another flash of light. Reynard blinked, irritated, trying to clear the purple spots from his field of vision. He chuckled, deep in his throat, and took a bit of his second -- okay, his third -- stolen piece of poultry.
I'll bet that caught some attention... he thought smugly, with a glance to one of the upper towers.
Janus' older face hardened. His young jaw clenched. He turned toward the tower door and moved with an immortal's grace down the deserted stairway, vainly wishing for some of the more efficient modes of transportation that the greater gods tended to use.
A few moments ago, Janus had not been greatly displeased with the way things were going; he had been largely left alone to watch the exploits of the marsh-troll and his own dear striges. The flamboyant disappearance of the former had been of little more than minor interest.
That of Incipium, Clausula, Porta and Janua was not.
Lacking the flamboyance of Jupiter's thunderbolts, or even the concerted screams of his four striges to herald his arrival, Janus was forced to content himself with a dignified yet impossibly swift approach upon the pair of mortals responsible for the departure of his avian retainers.
The juvenile sorcerer looked up, gratifyingly terrified, a nut-brown feather floating down to land unnoticed on his head. Janus contemplated killing the boy on the spot. He might not have had anything so divinely suitable as Jupiter's thunderbolts or Apollo's arrows, but he _was_ still a god, after all. After a split-second's deliberation, he decided against it. The paralyzed mortal wasn't going anywhere. There were better methods of evoking punishment.
The other human was significantly less easily cowed. Janus' humanly impossible arrival had done little more than raise a set of blonde eyebrows. A pair of mortal hands still labored at the strings of their instrument.
Janus restrained his godly wrath for a moment. Mercy and reason were both virtues suitable for divinities to practice, said the philosophers of Rome, and -- more importantly -- they were no great inconvenience in this case. He would allow these mortals to explain themselves before meeting with oblivion.
"What have you done with my pets?" he demanded regally.
The harper seemed to consider this for a moment. "Merely sent them back to where they were before this whole mess began," he said at last.
Sent them back to Olympus? For a moment, Janus believed this stranger.
Then all four eyes narrowed. An obvious falsehood. Jupiter or Juno might be able to traverse such distance in an instant, but these humans were not they.
The mortal's clear blue gaze was fixed on him, his hands fingers still plucking ceaselessly at the lyre.
"Do not lie to me, mortal," Janus said over the lyre music that was beginning to grow louder. "You have slain the servants of a god, and that warrants that an example be made." He stretched forth one hand toward the impudent musician, an appropriate penalty coming to mind. He might not possess the power to rain down fire from the heavens, but the alteration of mortal form was fairly easy... "Since I am now currently without retainers, perhaps it is fitting that you two shall replace them."
The boy made a fearful sound. Janus sighed inwardly. It would be centuries before he learned to be a proper strige. The minstrel was actually grinning smugly as the music grew louder. Janus' face darkened. Such impudence demanded a reply.
"Your music will not save you," he said grimly. "Though he played to melt the heard of cold Proserpine, it did not save Orpheus, in the end, and he was possessing of far greater skill."
The comment was effective, but not exactly in the way that he'd been expecting. The instrument, seemingly of its own accord, broke off the light and slightly haunting strain that it had been building on and burst out into a fast-paced triumphant piece that even Janus had to admit was worthy of a master.
"Ach, Lyre, not now!" exclaimed the minstrel, for the first time showing a hint of fear.
Divine Janus smiled, preparing to release the energy that would exact revenge -- and grow feathers -- upon the soon to be ex-humans.
There was a rush of air from behind him. Without taking his younger eyes off of the two, he turned his other face to see the female gargoyle landing a few feet off.
"Hey, I'm back, but I still think this latch is a little- oops!"
Something rough and tan in color hit Janus full in the elder face. The pain was insignificant, and the indignity only slightly less so, but it broke his concentration.
"Now, Lyre!" came the minstrel's insistent voice.
The light, haunting melody resumed from where it had left off, growing louder until it filled his ears. There was a bright light...
And when it cleared, Divine Janus was gone.
There was another bright flash, but Reynard had the presence of mind to look away before it could blind him again. A chortle rose from the back of his throat, making him drop the last of the clean- picked chicken bones.
I guess having eyes in the back of your head didn't help you there. Serves you right, Mr. Smarty-Toga! Then he shook his head. Grendel and Janus had both been too busy trying to cause some damage to notice what they'd stumbled upon.
He rose from where he'd concealed himself to watch the exchange -- behind a pile of firewood that some porter had left, when Grendel had begun attacking the guards, no doubt. He looked at the collection of bones at his feet, and then gazed longingly for a moment at the fires across the courtyard, and gave a brief sigh. No time for another snack now, anyway. They would come after him next, and he'd best be gone by then or at least better hidden. He'd tarried long enough already, finding out what had happened to his fellow newcomers. There was a way out of this human-made mountain, and he was going to find it.
I'm not going back, he decided. Reynard stretched his legs, taking a breath of the strangely sweet night air, and looked around. This new world was dark and strange, but somehow deeper, more vivid, making his old life seem paper-thin by comparison. Thoughts came faster, colors looked sharper, and the horizon seemed ten times farther away.
A canine grin stretched over his muzzle. He didn't have anywhere to go just yet, but the horizon was starting to sound pretty good.
The door opened, and a pair of feet stepped carefully inside.
The Archmage didn't bother turning around. "Well?" he asked, almost as if he truly expected the boy to have anything to show for this whole fiasco.
"I- I don't have the stranger's talisman, master," he said timidly. The Archmage made a noncommittal sound. After all that had been going on, he was surprised that Ian had even remembered what he'd been sent for in the first place. "But you won't believe what's been happening! The striges kept trying to dive at me, and I got used for bait, and-"
"You're fired," he said.
The boy broke off his prattle, "What?" he asked.
"You are dismissed," the Archmage told him. "It's all for your own good, though, you realize."
Ian shook his head, "But master, I-"
Thick-witted oaf! "Really, Ian," he said in a dull, almost bored tone. "Stealing the visitor's lyre in the hopes of selling it. Stupid. Very stupid. For that alone, the Prince would see you whipped, or worse." He turned around at last, giving the boy a look of utter blandness, save only for the steely grin tugging at the corner of his mouth. "But I've forgotten. When your theft was discovered, you also released a number of monsters to cover your escape. Another half-witted feat. A few of them turned on you, but not before they'd killed some of the guardsmen.
You're probably in for a hanging, now." The Archmage had to fight to keep his expression bland, seeing the insipidly horrified look on Ian's face.
"B-but," Ian found his voice at last, "I was only doing what you t-told-"
"And trying to lay blame on your guiltless mentor. What next?" he shook his head. "But, despite your depravity, your indulgent teacher has grown fond of you over the years," he said pointedly, "and -- though perhaps unwisely -- decides to speak with the Prince on your behalf, pointing out to him that your youth and essential lack of wit may be explanation enough for your actions, and that a demotion from your esteemed position of apprentice to the Chief Advisor just may be enough to steer your life to a proper course, and place in society." The Archmage gave up and grinned openly. "As a swineherd, perhaps?"
"Of course, Ian," he went on, "your neck won't be completely safe even then. The slightest misstep could cause the Prince to think you beyond saving. A minor theft, for example, or a lie..." he trailed off for a moment, "...a lie concerning your motives for tonight's disaster." His eyes narrowed. "A lie that no one would believe anyway. Even so mere an infraction could see you dangling at the end of a noose."
The ex-apprentice said nothing, staring emptily at the thin-faced man.
"They'll probably start looking for you at dawn," the Archmage told him. "I suggest you make yourself most difficult to find -- and speak to no one -- until I have a change to talk with the Prince about granting you a pardon. We wouldn't want the Captain to do anything irreversible, now would we?"
Ian gave the Archmage one last horrified look, turned, and fled down the hallway, and the sound of his footsteps on the stones faded shortly after he was out of sight.
"Any luck?" asked Rhodri.
Asrial shook her head. "No," she told the human. "We looked everywhere."
"Is there any way that he might have gotten out?"
"Out of the castle?" she shrugged. "Probably. This place was built to keep human invaders out, not enchanted foxes in." There was a silence, "So now what do we do?"
Rhodri seemed to consider this for a moment, "I dinnae' see what we can do."
"We're just going to let him go?" she asked.
"Well," said Rhodri, "while Grendel and Janus were tryin' to rip the guards and yuir clan to shreds, Reynard was off stealing from the kitchens, or so yuir brother told me."
Asrial thought for a moment. "And what about Lyre?" she said at last. "What if he acts up again?"
Rhodri gave a little sigh, looking at his stringed companion. "He won't," he told her. "I've a place to leave him behind. I'll be leavin' tomorrow -- today, rather -- to take him there."
Lyre gave a protesting minor chord.
"There's no help for it," he told the enchanted piece of metal and twine. "If ye canna' learn to control yuirself, then ye'll just have to stay at home."
The instrument was not consoled.
"Ach, Lyre," said the minstrel. "It's a long walk back to Wales. Ye've got a little time yet..."
"Wales?" asked Asrial. "Would that be safe enough?"
Rhodri nodded, "The place I'm thinking of is. I've kept things of value there for a long time, and it's not been discovered yet."
"And you?" she asked. "Will you be back here again?"
The wanderer grinned, "I never know, lass. ...but if the road does lead me to Wyvern again, I'd like to see that quail trap. Considerin' what it's done already, I can't imagine what it'll be when ye've finished it!"
Asrial smiled back. "The sun's going to rise soon," she said. "I'd better be-"
"There you are!"
"We've been looking all over for you."
"He got us kicked out of the stables!"
"It wasn't my fault!"
Rhodri rolled his eyes toward the lightening heavens as the three gargoyle fledglings approached, "Let me tell ye one thing, lass," he told Asrial. "If I do come back here, it'll be after these three have grown to be less pestersome."
Asrial chuckled, "That'll be the night..." Then she looked sternly at the trio, "Shouldn't you be at your cornices by now? The sun's about to rise."
The white-haired one scuffed one taloned foot on the ground, "We know..." he said.
"We just wanted to say thanks," his olive-green brother went on. "Tonight's been really fun."
"Even though we've been banned from the kitchens," the pale blue one finished glumly.
The minstrel gave a short laugh as the three ran off. "Almost makes me wonder which they'll miss most."
Again, Asrial was watching his eyes as they went blank. This time, his face stayed empty, even after his pupils had returned to full size. After a moment, she found him still looking at the retreating trio -- or rather, at the web-winged fledgling -- with something that was both sadness and dull fury.
"Bad enough he comes after me," Asrial was certain that he'd never meant for her to hear. "Bad enough, but what's that lad ever done? What's he ever going to do? No matter what, it wouldn't be enough to deserve..." his voice trailed off as the three hatchlings left.
"Are you sure you can't stay another day, Rhodri?" Asrial asked at last, breaking the silence.
Rhodri shook his head. "It isna' safe here for Lyre. Or for me," he told her. "Which reminds me. There are a few people that I hafta' speak with before I go."
The Archmage muttered sourly to himself as he stared out the window. Not only did he not have the Avalonian talisman, but that shelf vaporized by the blast from the Grimorum had held a part of his collection of scrolls. Most would be difficult to replace. Some were irreplaceable.
And on top of this, he would have to go about the incredibly bothersome business of finding a new apprentice.
As if on cue, he heard the sound of the door sliding open.
His scowl deepened. Ian's disappearance was almost as good as an admission of guilt, and if he wasn't gone... "What are you doing back here, boy?" he nearly snarled. "I said get out!"
"Might that be how ye always go about speakin' to yuir guests?" came a voice in a light Welsh accent.
The Archmage turned around, coming face to face with Rhodri ap Iefan. "I must apologize, it seems," he said at last. "By now you've found that the boy responsible for the theft of your instrument was my apprentice." He shook his head, "I knew that he was an ungrateful wretch, but I never dreamed that he'd turn to thievery."
"Did ye, now?" asked the minstrel.
The Archmage managed a fairly convincing display of looking taken aback.
"Ye see," Rhodri went on, "I've had a wee bit of trouble with these 'ungrateful wretch thieves' before, quite common when ye're on the road. They go after purses, coins... Small things that they could spend, sell, or use themselves. A full-sized lyre?" He shook his head. "I don't think so. Not unless he already knew that there was someone who wanted it."
"I don't know what you're talking about," the Archmage answered sternly. "And even if I did, I don't believe you have any proof at all of the matter."
"No, that I don't," conceded Rhodri, "which is why I'm here talkin' to ye, instead of to Prince Malcolm."
The Archmage's eyes narrowed. The minstrel, insufferably unconcerned, stepped into the room. The blue eyes fell upon something near the far wall, and he walked toward it.
"The Grimorum Arcanorum," he said, almost but not quite daring to lift its cover. "I'd thought it would be a bit longer before I ever saw this thing again."
"Do not touch my book," the Archmage said darkly, accenting each word.
"A mite protective of it, are ye?" he asked. Then he seemed to stare off into space for a moment, eyes focusing on something that no one else could see. When he turned back to the Archmage, his tone of voice was lower, almost pitying, "There's more to this world than this ultimate magical power that ye're so set on findin'. Even when ye get what ye want, ye won't be keepin' it for long."
The minstrel turned and strolled out of the Archmage's chambers before he could say another word.
"Brother Edmund?" came a light voice from the door.
Edmund picked his head up from off the desk, blinking. A glance to the slitlike window showed that it was near dawn, though whether before or after, he couldn't tell.
Fell asleep on the writing desk again. Serves me right for staying up so late...
"Hello?" he called out.
I've probably got ink over half my face, he thought dimly as he moved to open the door.
"Sorry Brother," said Rhodri, "did I wake ye?"
"No," answered Edmund, with some semblance of cheerfulness. "Come on in."
The minstrel obliged, "I really only came to bid ye goodbye," he told him.
"You're leaving?" Edmund asked, a bit surprised. "So soon?"
Rhodri answered affirmatively. "I must say I'm sorry that we dinnae' get to talk more, but I've got the strangest feeling that I've made an enemy or two."
Edmund nodded regretfully while moving to the desk to see what sort of damage had been done. "It is a shame," he said. "Good luck, sirrah."
"Thank ye, Brother," the minstrel answered with a grin. "I do believe that I'll be needin' it." A faint frown crossed his face, "If ye don't mind my askin', Brother, what might that be?"
Edmund followed his line of sight to the book, lying open on his desk, "This? I've been keeping a record," he picked the book up and showed it to Rhodri, "I've written in it almost every night."
The minstrel took the book in his hands, flipping through the first few pages -- the only ones that were already written on.
He frowned, "Pardon me for asking, Brother," Rhodri pointed to a word in the text, "but who might be 'Thersites' be?"
"Oh!" Edmund realized. "I had to give the gargoyles names, to keep track of them. I only use them in here, though," he tapped the leather cover of the book. "Thersites is the grayish-green one with the beak and the twisted left horn."
"Ah yes," said Rhodri, "We've met. Isna' he the one that's always about after how clever he is?"
Edmund nodded, "That's him."
"Ye used all Greek names?" inquired Rhodri.
"Greek and Biblical. I tried to find names that were somehow fitting," Edmund frowned, turning to an earlier page in the volume, "There are a few, though, that my mind draws a blank on. I'm sure I'll come up with something sooner or later. Until then, it's only an inconvenience."
Rhodri's hand fell from the book. Edmund looked up to find him blinking repeatedly, as if trying to focus his eyes on empty air.
"Sirrah, are you alright?" he asked.
"As rain, Brother," the minstrel said at last. "...might I see yuir log again? I think I might be able to help ye with yuir little 'inconvenience.'
Rhodri stifled a sigh, settling lyre's case more comfortably on his shoulders. He was dead tired from the events of the previous night, but somehow felt safer about the stretch of bandit-infested road before him than about falling asleep with that badger of a magician nearby.
He scanned the battlements, thinking for a moment that he'd caught sight of Asrial and her rookery brother in stone sleep, though it was really too far away to tell.
Lyre gave a complaining thrum. This time Rhodri did sigh. The poor creature was going to be in a foul mood for the entire trip back to Wales.
"Will ye be goin' so soon?" asked the Captain of the guard, rough demeanor only enhanced by the sling around his right arm. "I'm fair sure that the Prince wouldna' mind keepin' ye another day or two..."
Rhodri shook his head, "No, good sir, I'd best be off."
The Captain didn't hide his relief; Rhodri wasn't even sure that he'd tried. "Then farewell, Rhodri ap Iefan."
"Farewell, Captain," Rhodri answered as he stepped past the gates toward the road.
And the world went dark.
...Dawn came, and then ...oblivion... ...I haven't lived this long by taking foolish chances!.. ....Was there anyone else in the rookery? No. Just us... ...And they died for you! Smashed to dust by the humans you trusted!.. ...He shattered them! You lying scum!.. ...Brothers? Sisters?.. ...My Angel of the Night... ...It was not supposed to be this way... ...These bowstrings were cut. There was betrayal here...
Rhodri's vision came back, but he didn't move, shivering in spite of the sunlight.
He found himself looking back to the Captain, "Is- Is it a good life that ye have here, sirrah?" he asked, not caring if he sounded like the stuttering Ian.
The Captain gave him a confused look. "Enjoy it while ye may," Rhodri told him. Then he found himself shouting, to anyone within earshot, "Enjoy it while ye may!"
Then the traveler turned, without another word, and started down the road.