by Todd Jensen and Alan "Ordell" Coleman
CASTLE RIVENCROFT, NORTHUMBRIA - A.D. 973
"This is intolerable. Simply intolerable."
The Lord Sorcerer paced back and forth across the floor of his study, under the gaze of his pet hawk and familiar Fraeg. A half-unrolled parchment scroll lay upon his desk, and from time to time the English wizard shot it a bitter glance. At last, he walked over to the window and stood at it, looking out upon the gathering twilight beyond the walls of his castle.
"I had come this close to obtaining that talisman, and the Archmage stepped in and barred my path. Several months' effort lost to me, irrevocably. I tell you, Fraeg, that this cannot continue. I must do something about that rival of mine, to prevent him from interfering again."
"But how are we to do that, master?" asked Fraeg. He spoke in a high, shrill voice, much like the cry of an ordinary hawk, but modified so as to form words.
"I am going to need an ally," said the Lord Sorcerer. "No, not so much an ally as an assistant, someone with strength enough to add to mine and counterbalance whatever magical might the Archmage has. I need to at least even the odds, and preferably tilt them in my favor."
He looked over the books on his shelf. "The answer may be contained in one of these," he said, in a hopeful tone of voice. "Perhaps the Codex of Nectanebus - no, maybe not. Its magic is suited for many things, but none of it for finding potential followers. Or this tome," he continued, fingering a particularly ominous-looking volume bound in black leather, if with mild distaste, "the one written by that sorcerer from Damascus, Abdul something-or-other. No, on second thought, not that one. I never did feel particularly comfortable with any of its spells. Their mood was always far too dark for my liking."
He quickly moved on to the next book, and then stared closer at it, sudden interest showing in his eyes. "Ah, what have we here?"
"What is it, my lord?" asked Fraeg, curiously peering closer himself.
"A journal that I kept of various omens and auguries, seven years ago," explained the Lord Sorcerer, pulling the book down from the shelf and opening it upon his desk as he spoke. "It may have some hints as to where I can begin looking. At least, it can scarcely do me any harm."
He turned over one page after another, reading over their contents, penned in his orderly flowing script. The first ten pages or so passed without any comment from him. Then he suddenly halted, and reread the passage before his eyes, looking increasingly interested.
"Have you found anything helpful?" asked Fraeg.
"Indeed I have," said the Lord Sorcerer. "In truth, I'm more than a little amazed that I never even gave this event as much heed as I ought to have done at the time. I can only assume that I had other matters on my mind then, and did not fully appreciate the importance of this particular foreboding."
"What is it?" asked Fraeg.
"June the 13th, Anno Domini 966," read the Lord Sorcerer aloud. "The auspices which I have observed for this day have revealed this: in the village of Glenbeg, a male child has been born, one who possesses within his blood much talent for magic and enchantments. Indeed, he may grow up to become so mighty a wizard as to overthrow even the great emissaries to the Lord Oberon in battle."
He looked up with a triumphant smile upon his features. "Just think of it, Fraeg. A wizard to recruit for my cause, whose powers can be a match for even those of Oberon's Children. The Archmage would never be able to vie with me once I have the aid of such a one, even if he does possess the Grimorum Arcanorum. I must go to Glenbeg at once, and gain this one's services."
"But how much help will he truly be to us, my lord?" asked Fraeg cautiously. "Your own record states that he was born no more than seven years ago. He'd be a mere child! How could he be of assistance to us?"
"True, I would have to wait a few seasons to reap the full benefits of his art," agreed the Lord Sorcerer. "But there is an advantage to that, even so. He is still very young, and as yet with an unmolded mind. I can shape him according to my needs, Fraeg, forge him into a proper weapon for my hand. If he were older, I would have less hope of achieving that, for his nature would be already set. But while he is still only a child...
"But we are wasting time standing here, Fraeg. Let us be on our way, shall we? We must to Glenbeg this very day, that I may win this great mage-to-be for a servant."
He picked up his falconer's glove that hung upon a hook on the wall by his door, and slipped it onto his hand, then motioned to Fraeg. The hawk at once flew over to him and perched on the glove. Nodding with satisfaction, the Lord Sorcerer opened his study door, and descended the stairs leading down to the great hall.
* * * * *
He didn't remember his father. His mother had told him that he had gone to war, and had been slain in battle.
They led a simple life. Marcus and his mother, Kathleen, took care of a small plot of land in the village of Glenbeg near Castle Wyvern. The food that they grew upon it went only to themselves, and they were looked on with sympathy from the other residents of the village.
The day had been like any other, until that evening, when three horsemen in fine garments rode up to their cottage. Their leader dismounted and announced himself to Kathleen, his falcon perched upon his gloved wrist.
"Greetings, milady," he said, "I am the Lord Sorcerer. My companions and I have traveled far today, and were wondering if perhaps you would be so kind as to let us find rest beneath your roof." His eyes never left Kathleen.
"Oh, of course," said Kathleen, shocked that a nobleman and his retainers would choose her cottage. "Perhaps my boy could water your horses." She motioned to Marcus to do so. "Please come in," she said, turning around. "I'm afraid that all I can offer you is some baked bread and dry meat, but you are welcome to it."
The Lord Sorcerer and his servants made their way to a table in the center of the room. The small boy who had been sitting there must have been the one spoken of in the spoken of in the book. From the corner of his eye, the Lord Sorcerer could see the boy outside tending to his horses.
Kathleen came in with a plate of food and sat it down for the men. She noticed their leader watching her son outside. She shrugged it off for the moment and continued on her way.
The boy soon came back in and went to the back of the house, no doubt to rest, the Lord Sorcerer thought.
"He's a fine-looking boy," he said to Kathleen. "Where is his father, if I may be so bold?"
Kathleen sat down at the table in front of the Lord Sorcerer. The two other men were engaged in small talk of their own. "His name is Marcus," she told him, "his father," she paused and took a breath, "his father was killed in the war between Kenneth and Culen two years ago. He says he doesn't remember his da, and I doubt he does."
The Lord Sorcerer nodded, and sensed Marcus listening to them from behind a corner. He continued, "As you know, I am a magic user, as well as a learned teacher. It would be a shame if Marcus never received a decent education. It would mean a brighter future for the boy, as well as yourself. Can he read?"
"No," said Kathleen. "We're humble folk, and reading and writing are beyond us. The priest is the only man in the village who knows such mysteries."
"I see," said the Lord Sorcerer. "Then, Madam, I propose that you let your son come with me. I could teach him how to read and write, and even how to perform a little magic. I promise you that he will be safe there, and may even be permitted to visit you from time to time."
Kathleen said nothing at first. She saw the intent stare in the Lord Sorcerer's eyes, and it chilled her. There was something about this man that made her feel uncomfortable, and although she did not know what it was, she knew that she did not trust him.
"Your offer is generous, my lord," she said, "but I cannot let Marcus go. He's my only son, all that I have. Without him, I could not look after what little we have."
"And you are certain that that is what is best for him?" the Lord Sorcerer inquired. "Why not ask the boy?"
"Very well, if it please you," said Kathleen, and called for her son. Marcus entered the cottage moments later. "Marcus," she said to him, "this man wishes to take you on as his apprentice. He claims that he will teach you magic and letters. What say you?"
Marcus looked at his mother, and then to the man. "I'm sorry, sir, but my place is here, with my mother," he said innocently.
The Lord Sorcerer sighed, and raised his hand, uttering a Latin phrase as he did so. A plate appeared in the air. On it sat cooked venison, steaming. "I can teach you tricks such as this, boy. Simply come with me, and you or your mother will never know heartache again. What say you now, madam?"
"Sir, as I said before, Marcus shall remain with me. I could never survive without him."
The Lord Sorcerer arose, a troubled expression on his face, and turned to his two retainers. "Prepare for our departure," he told them, then turned back to face Kathleen. "Well, madam," he said, in a quiet voice, "you have made your decision, and so be it. But be warned. You may have cause to regret your choice. Good night." And with that, he left the cottage.
Kathleen watched the three men mount their horses, and ride away into the distance. She sighed, and told Marcus to finish his chores, before the sun set. After he left, she sat down in her chair, and wondered about the meaning of his words. She hoped that this was the last that she would see of the man, but something in her heart told her that it was not.
* * *
A little ways down the road, the Lord Sorcerer and his entourage halted. The Northumbrian wizard-thane turned about and looked over his retainers, scanning each one thoughtfully. Then he motioned to two of them. "Come forward, both of you," he commanded.
The two warriors obeyed at once. "What is it, sire?" one asked.
"Aelfric, Leofsige, I have a mission for you," said the Lord Sorcerer. "You are to return to Glenbeg, go to the widow's cottage, and there capture that boy. Bring him back to Castle Rivencroft, once you have him. But do not harm him, at any cost. I must have him whole and uninjured, or else he will be of no use to me."
"And the widow, my lord?" asked Aelfric. "What of her?"
"She's no longer of any concern to me," replied the wizard, with a shrug. "In truth, she ceased to be of any importance to me once she gave birth to the child. Do whatever you will with her."
Aelfric and Leofsige nodded, and turned their horses around. They rode back quietly towards the village, while the Lord Sorcerer and the rest of his retinue continued on back to Rivencroft.
* * * * *
Kathleen had not been easy in her heart ever since the Lord Sorcerer had departed from her cottage, and now, as the evening drew on and the shadows grew, her feeling of discomfort grew with them. Every owl's hoot, every cricket's chirp, seemed to her a possible sign of his return. To make matters worse, it was the night of the new moon, and many of the stars in the darkening heavens were obscured by clouds. With so little light, anything could be lurking outside her hut, anything at all. She also recalled, with a shiver, all the stories that she had heard about the powers of sorcerers. Their evil arts, it was said, were stronger at night, waxing after the sun set in the west. If the Lord Sorcerer intended to steal her child, this would be an excellent time for him to do so.
"Mother?" Marcus's voice broke in upon her troubled thoughts. "Is anything the matter?"
She looked down at him. "Nothing, Marcus," she said, trying to keep her voice steady. "Nothing at all. Why don't you put those loaves of bread away into the cupboard?"
"Very well, mother," said the boy. He walked over to the kitchen table, to begin clearing it of the loaves that lay upon it.
Kathleen still did not feel at ease, however. She had already closed and bolted the door, and the two narrow windows that the cottage had, but even this was not enough to reassure her. She stood by the door, listening and waiting. The silence was so strong that she could hear her own heart beating.
And then, she could hear something else, something that seemed to her ears like footsteps approaching. For a moment, she hoped that it was merely one of the other villagers, passing close by. But then she dismissed the possibility at once. The footsteps had a stealthy, furtive quality to them, which was enough to proclaim their maker to be no honest man. In which case, there was only one possibility to what they might mean....
With trembling hands, she picked up a stout ash-wood staff that leaned against the wall, and gripped it tightly. Ever since Crinan her husband had been slain two years ago, she had kept it in her cottage in case violent men ever came there to do her or her son harm. She had never had need of it so far, fortunately, but was certain that things would be different on this particular night. She held it tightly, as though it was a cudgel, and advanced to the door, hardly daring to breathe. She wished that she could feel more certain that it could be sufficient defense for her and Marcus, but her heart was not fully convinced. Could the minions of a man with the resources of the Lord Sorcerer be thwarted with mere earthly weapons? She wondered if perhaps the local priest and his prayers would be more effective here. But it was too late to seek him out now She would have to make do with what she had.
There came the sound now of fumbling at the door. Whoever it was quickly guessed, apparently, that it was locked, for now the wooden portal began to shake and shudder, under the weight of heavy blows. It seemed as though the men outside were hurling themselves against it, with considerable force. The timbers began to strain under their impact, and then to crack. And then, with a terrible splintering sound, the door was brought down, and two men stood in the doorway, moving towards her.
Kathleen acted at once. She closed her eyes and frantically swung her staff at the first man, striking him hard in the chest. He staggered back, and struck his head against the lintel, stunning him for a moment. His companion, however, sprang forward, and seized hold of Kathleen. She struggled to get free of him, but he held her too tightly.
"Tell us where the boy is," he ordered her. "Tell us, now!"
"Leave my mother alone!" cried Marcus, suddenly dashing to the doorway from the part of the cottage that formed the kitchen. He hurled himself at the second man, pounding frantically at him with his little fists.
This assault would, under normal circumstances, have troubled the man no more than the stinging of a gnat. However, the attack took him enough by surprise for Kathleen to recover, and loosen herself from his grip enough to strike at him freely with her staff. He lurched back, only to collide with his friend. Both fell into a confused heap upon the ground, thrashing wildly about.
"Go, both of you!" shouted Kathleen, advancing upon them, her staff held ready to strike again. "And leave my son alone, or else I'll give you both such a pummeling as you'll never forget, not if you live to be older than Methuselah!"
A few more sound blows were enough to convince them. The two men broke free, and scrambled away to flee into the darkness.
Marcus clung to his mother's skirt, his moment of youthful bravado now gone. "Who were those bad men, mother?" he asked. "What did they want?"
"I don't know, Marcus," she replied. "But I fear that they wanted you. I feel certain that the Lord Sorcerer must have something to do with this. He must have been the one who sent those men."
"What is going on here?" asked a sudden voice, approaching them from the village. Kathleen and Marcus turned, to see several of the villagers, carrying torches to light their way, coming towards them.
"There was noise here," said another man. "It sounded like a fight. What happened, Kathleen?"
Kathleen let out a long sigh of relief. "Donal, Aedh!" she cried. "Thanks be to Heaven that you're here! Two men tried to kidnap my son! I drove them off, but they may return! You must help me protect him!"
"Two men?" asked Donal. "Why did they want your son?"
"They were sent by the Lord Sorcerer," she replied. "He wants Marcus to serve him, and when I wouldn't let him, he became angry. He must have sent those two to take away my boy! You have to help me, in case they come back!"
"Lord Sorcerer?" repeated Donal, his voice quavering. "The Lord Sorcerer, did you say?"
She nodded. "Please help me!" she pleaded. "With your help - "
"Nay, Kathleen," Donal replied. He, Aedh, and the rest were slowly edging away from her now, almost as if she had been struck by the plague or leprosy. "You're on your own. We can't help you."
"But I need you!" the widow protested.
"I'm sorry, Kathleen," said Aedh, retreating. "But there's nothing that we can do. I'm not losing my crops to blight or risking my cow drying up just because you've got some problems with the Lord Sorcerer. Your son's not worth the trouble."
"Then what am I to do?" cried Kathleen.
"Give him what he wants, or go as far from here as possible," said Donal. "But whatever you do, do it before his wrath falls upon this village! Good night, Widow Kathleen!"
The villagers disappeared into the night, leaving Kathleen and her son standing alone upon the threshold of their cottage. Marcus turned to his mother, looking up fearfully at her.
"They won't help us, mother," he said. "What are we going to do?"
"There's only one thing for it," said Kathleen, shaking her head sadly. "We must leave this place, and find another refuge."
"But where?" asked Marcus.
"I don't know," she replied slowly. "In truth, I doubt that any place may be safe from the Lord Sorcerer. But we must look for one, all the same."
She was silent for a moment, evidently thinking over the problem, and then spoke. "Perhaps there is a way," she said. "Marcus, do you remember that minstrel that passed through the village last year?"
"The one with the funny name?" asked Marcus. "Rodley, was it?"
"Close to it," she replied. "He said that there was a castle a day's journey from here, where there were gargoyles. Those creatures protect the castle, so firmly that not even Vikings would be able to take it. If any place in Scotland is safe from the Lord Sorcerer, it would be that."
"Gargoyles?" asked Marcus. "I don't want to go near any place that has gargoyles living there, mother. They're horrible monsters."
"I don't like it either, child," she said. "But it's our only hope against that horrible man. If we're going to be safe at all, then that's where we must go."
* * * * *
"That settles it," grumbled the Archmage, sitting down in his chair. "I am going to have to find a new apprentice."
He gazed ruefully at the blackened mark on the study wall, left by Demona's latest practice spell. "No control," he said. "No control at all. And that could have been part of my library that she had consumed, or one of my experiments. Or even me." That last thought was enough to truly unnerve him; the ignominy of being reduced to a charred pile of ashes by a mere gargoyle apprentice.
"I should never have taken that gargoyle on," he continued. "I've been keeping her as my apprentice for two years, and what does she do? She destroys the 'dragon-stone' that I braved unmeasured perils to win, repeatedly risks burning down my lab with mishandled magic, and in general, makes herself a trial! She's almost as bad as that sniveling waif Ian! In some ways, worse. At least Ian could perform tasks for me in the daytime, rather than being trapped in stone sleep upon the battlements. He didn't perform them very well, but at least he performed them.
"I need a human apprentice, desperately. Just as long as it's not that brat Ian again." He shook his head. "He's scarcely even an option, anyway," he added. "I haven't heard from him at all since he left; not that I'm disappointed at all, of course. No, it'll have to be someone else. But who?"
It would have to be someone young, of that much he was certain. The youthful make the best apprentices. But there was not one human under the age of twenty in the entire castle who seemed to him a potential helper. They were all serving-lads just as dull-witted and unkempt, if not more so, than Ian, or pages serving Prince Malcolm, the sons of neighboring lords, who were far more interested in the practice of arms, all of them, than in the arcane arts.
"I'm just going to have to search for one," he grumbled. "But where do I find one? Where do I even begin looking?"
* * *
"So you failed to recover the boy," said the Lord Sorcerer, with a sigh.
"We're sorry, sire," said Aelfric. "His mother was much hardier than we had expected. If it please you, my lord, we can try again - "
The Lord Sorcerer waved them away impatiently. "No, you have done enough," he said. "I can see now that I used the wrong tactics in employing you. Go attend to your regular tasks, and begone."
His two retainers left the study. The Lord Sorcerer rose from his chair, and turned to Fraeg.
"I have been acting like a fool," he told his hawk. "I discover this youngster Marcus, and immediately attempt pitifully mundane means to acquire him, as though I were a common thane. What nonsense! What avails a man to become the greatest sorcerer in all Northumbria - perhaps even all of England - if he never makes use of his arts?"
"You have a plan, my lord?" asked Fraeg.
"Indeed I do," said the Lord Sorcerer, smiling coldly.
* * *
"As I recall from one of my efforts at scrying the future," he commented some minutes later, as he finished stirring the cauldron in his study, and added in one final pinch from his phial of powdered griffon's claw, "the humans a thousand years from now have a saying: 'Location, location, location.' From my own experience, Fraeg, I would deem it a most wise adage. There is indeed an advantage in having a castle built upon the ruins of one of those fortresses that were once part of Hadrian's Wall. Those Roman legionaries always brought such interesting rituals to these parts with them, and were careless enough to leave them lying about where I could excavate them a few centuries later."
He picked up a stone tablet lying upon his desk. "The Tablet of Amisodarus," he told his hawk, "brought here by the Romans all the way from Lycia in Asia Minor. I've studied it many times, but never needed to use its powers before now. But now is the time."
He held it out at arm's length, and recited the archaic Greek inscription that had been engraved upon it. There was a rumble of thunder outside, and dogs howled in the distance. The cauldron bubbled furiously, and strange groaning noises began to emanate from it. Then, as the ground beneath the foundations of Castle Rivencroft trembled for a moment, three creatures began to climb out, groaning and stretching.
"Splendid," said the Lord Sorcerer, looking them over with a satisfied nod. "Most effective, Fraeg, would you not say?"
Fraeg looked at the beasts in silence. They looked something like wolves, but had lions' manes, boars' snouts and tusks, and great bat-like wings protruding from their shoulders. Their tails were long, scaled, and serpentine, and lashed about freely. They approached the Lord Sorcerer cautiously, and sat upon their haunches, gazing up at him with expectant looks in their eyes.
"Here is your mission," the English wizard instructed them calmly. He snapped his fingers, and a sphere of blue light appeared hovering before the eyes of the three strange beasts. In it, for a few minutes, long enough for them to register it, appeared an image of the boy Marcus. "Seek out this child, and find him. Bring him back here to me, alive and unharmed. And as for the woman his mother who protects him - I give her to you, as your prey. Now go!"
Howling eagerly, the three beasts leaped through the open window, one after another, to fly off into the night sky, heading northwards. The Lord Sorcerer watched them go, nodding in approval once again.
"Will they be sufficient, my lord?" asked Fraeg.
"I never yet knew of an occasion when chimerae were anything other," replied the Lord Sorcerer, with a cold smile.
* * * * *
"Not a mouse stirring," said Othello, as he stood at his post at the battlements, overlooking the castle drawbridge. He shook his head. "In truth, I would much prefer that it was otherwise."
"I would not," said Goliath. "I very much welcome a peaceful night such as this one."
"For once I'm ready to agree with you, rookery brother," commented Thersites. "This is just the sort of night that I prefer."
"But do you not find it most tedious, brother?" Othello asked him. "These endless nights with no incident, no battles with which to test our strength? I find them most dull."
"They might be dull, true," said Thersites. "But I can live with that, when you consider what the alternative is. I much prefer boredom over - say - a flock of octopus-headed creatures that want to find out what my insides look like, and don't seem to realize that I'm not the least bit curious about that particular matter myself. In truth, I'm almost ready to question your sanity, brother, if that's indeed what you prefer."
"You have no warrior spirit within you," said Othello, shaking his head sadly.
"That's because I have a realist spirit within me," Thersites replied. "You, on the other hand, clearly wouldn't recognize a realist spirit if - ".
"What was that noise?" Goliath suddenly asked, breaking in on their exchange.
"Noise?" Othello asked. "What noise do you mean?"
Goliath pointed towards the road running into the distance. His gargoyle's keen sense of hearing had picked up some strange cries coming from that direction, and drawing nearer. "Something is approaching the castle," he said. "Something which is unfamiliar to me."
"Ah, finally," said Othello. "Now we can have a true adventure."
"We?" asked Thersites. Nobody heard him, however. For Goliath and Othello had quickly
descended from the battlements, to find Hudson.
They located the aging leader of the Wyvern clan in the courtyard, talking to Agamemnon and to the Captain of the Guard. Hudson turned disapprovingly towards the two young warriors, on their approach. "What are ye doing away from yuir posts, lads?" he asked them sternly. "Ye're supposed to be at the gates, in case anything comes!"
"But something is coming, leader," said Goliath. "Come and see for yourself!" He motioned towards the walkway over the castle drawbridge.
Hudson, Agamemnon, and the Captain followed the two young gargoyles back to their post, and gazed down from the battlements. And then all five of them stared in amazement.
Two humans were running frantically up the slope towards the castle, a peasant woman and a small fair- haired boy. And three nightmarish winged beasts were flying after them, creatures like nothing that the gargoyles or the Captain had ever seen before. While it was hard to tell in the darkness, the monsters seemed to be overtaking their prey.
The Captain rushed down the stairs at once to the courtyard. "To horse, men!" he shouted. "To horse! And lower the drawbridge at once!"
On the battlements above, Hudson shouted, "Follow me, lads!" and then swept down towards the flying horrors. Goliath, Othello, and Agamemnon were not far behind.
* * *
Marcus doubted that he could run much further, but still ran anyway. The creatures, whatever they were, had surprised him and his mother only a few minutes ago. If they had not made the mistake of howling loudly as they approached, they might have successfully ambushed the two of them. As it was, the monsters were threatening to overtake him and Kathleen now, just as they were within sight of Castle Wyvern. And there seemed to be nothing that either of them could do about it.
His legs were just about to collapse from underneath him, and one of the monsters about to grab hold of him by the back of his tunic, when it happened. A large lavender - something - rammed into the flying beast hard, knocking it out of the sky and onto the ground. Marcus screamed in terror, and grabbed his mother even more tightly.
The two monsters were fighting each other, and Marcus, huddled against Kathleen's skirts, horrified by what he beheld, but watching anyway, now could see the new arrival clearer. It looked something like a man, but with great bat-like wings and a tail, and was clad only in a loincloth. It growled savagely at the monster as they rolled about on the ground, struggling, and its eyes flared white.
Three more monsters of that sort had joined in as well, fighting the remaining two flying beasts. One was brown-skinned and white-bearded, wearing a tough leather jerkin, another powder-blue, white-haired, and horned, and Marcus could not get a clear view of the third. They seemed almost like demons escaped from the infernal regions, and fought with a ferocity to match.
Kathleen drew him to the shelter, such as it was, of a withered and leafless tree, at some distance from the battle, but neither of them went a step further. They merely watched the battle, frozen with a fascinated horror. The winged monsters on both sides were now on the ground, all struggling with each other and growling; neither side seemed to be gaining the mastery.
"Withdraw!" came a sudden shout, from up the road. Marcus turned his head to see what it was. A group of men in armor, all mounted on horses, had ridden down from the castle, bows in their hands and quivers of arrows attached to their belts. It was their leader who had spoken. "Withdraw, gargoyles! We'll settle those monsters for you!"
The gargoyles - for such the newcomers must be - pulled away from the unearthly winged beasts, in obedience to the command from the horseman. The flying monsters paused for a moment to catch their breath, then prepared to lunge at the riders. But before they could do so, the archers reined in their horses, quickly set arrows to their bows, and let them fly.
One rain after another of arrows met the charge of the three winged wolf-like animals. The creatures staggered in their tracks, stumbled, then fell upon their sides. Marcus and Kathleen both gasped as their former pursuers began to simply wither away into nothingness, leaving only three charred places upon the ground where they had been.
"Are you all right, woman?" asked one of the men, riding over to the two. He had been the leader of the mounted archers. "Neither of you are hurt, are you?"
"No, sir," said Kathleen, her voice still trembling. "And th - thank you," she added, looking back for a moment to where the strange beasts had met their end.
"This is no fit night to be abroad," said the horseman. "By your leave, woman, if neither you nor your son object, I would ask of you that you return with us to the castle. It will be safer there than without."
"In truth, it was to Castle Wyvern that we were going," said Kathleen. "We thank you most kindly, good sir."
Marcus said nothing, however, but merely cowered behind his mother's skirt at the sight of the four gargoyles - for such they must be - gliding back towards the battlements against the night sky. He could not take his eyes off their great outspread wings, in particular, which had seemed far too much like the wings of the savage beasts for his liking. Not for the last time, he wondered if he truly wanted to find a refuge in this place.
* * *
Kathleen was in silent awe as she and her son were led into the great hall of Castle Wyvern. Her old cottage seemed so small and trivial by comparison. But what weighed upon her spirits all the more was her forthcoming meeting with Prince Malcolm.
What if he refused to give her son and herself shelter from the Lord Sorcerer? What if he rejected their plea? She trembled within herself as she was led up to his throne. She curtsied in silent reverence.
"Please, good woman, that is not necessary," said Prince Malcolm gently to her. "Rise, I pray you. Now, what brings you here before me?"
Kathleen rose up again, and told the Prince her story. He listened quietly until she was finished, and then nodded. "You acted wisely," he said to her.
"My lord," said Kathleen, "I beg of you to give us the shelter of your castle, so that my son and I will be safe from the Lord Sorcerer. I fear that I can offer you no more than my work in the kitchen. But give us refuge, I pray you, for my son's sake at least."
"That I grant, and right willingly," Prince Malcolm replied. "I promise you that we will protect your son against whatever force is after him."
Kathleen thanked Malcolm, and the two were escorted to a room to sleep for the night.
Prince Malcolm turned to the Archmage, who had been standing by the throne. "Archmage, what were those monsters?" he asked.
"From the description that your men gave, I would assume that they must be chimerae," replied the Archmage thoughtfully. "The fate of their bodies after they were slain makes that all the more likely. Chimerae are composed of magic, and disperse when killed."
"Those creatures were chimerae?" said Malcolm, astonished. "Archmage, I've heard of such monsters before. I was told a story about one when I was a boy, and how it was slain by a hero mounted on a winged horse, in the days of ancient Greece. But the tale that I heard gave a somewhat different description of that beast."
"Chimerae vary in appearance," said the Archmage calmly. "I know the tale of the one slain by Bellerophon and Pegasus as well as do you, sire. The chimera that they overcame was conjured up by the Lycian sorcerer Amisodarus: the first wizard known to have employed the spell that forms such creatures. But those chimerae were most likely the work of the Lord Sorcerer. It seems that he has discovered Amisodarus's spell, and made use of it. I had not known that. That is most interesting.
"But to continue, his own imagination must have taken a different course than Amisodarus's. Where the Lycian wizard made his creation a blend of a lion, a goat, and a serpent, the Lord Sorcerer must have decided upon a different mixture. But it does not matter. What does matter is taking action against further such beasts."
"Then I entrust that duty to you, Archmage," said the Prince. "See to it that no further sendings of the Lord Sorcerer reach Castle Wyvern."
The Archmage nodded and left the hall. As he did so, he was deep in thought, however.
"So the Lord Sorcerer wants the boy Marcus to serve him, does he? Then that must mean that he has great magical potential in him. And if that is indeed the case, I may have solved my own problem in seeking an apprentice."
Off to the corner, the Archmage lurked, listening to their conversation. The realization that it was the Lord Sorcerer after the boy intrigued him. He considered approaching the boy now, for his need for a new apprentice was rising every minute. He decided to watch him for now, for there must be a reason his rival was after a mere child. The Archmage retired to his room.
* * * * *
THE NEXT DAY
To Kathleen's surprise, she and Marcus were welcomed by all in the castle. It was time for her to go to work in the kitchen, and she started to get her things ready.
"Mama," she heard Marcus say, "can I go with you today? Please?"
Kathleen smiled, and looked at her son. "Marcus," she said, "you know you did much work for me back home - " - he nodded - " - and that as of yet, you have no duties here." He nodded again. "then rest here, my child. Stay here for today, and I shall see you tonight."
She stood and left their small room. He sat on his bed, wondering what he was to do today. When he was sure his mother was gone, he got up and headed towards the door, ready to explore the castle on his own.
* * * * *
"Three chimerae dead," said the Lord Sorcerer, sighing. "This is not good news, Fraeg. The ingredients needed to create these beasts are very rare and found only in the far-off lands of the Saracens, and my stock is not high. I only have enough to conjure up three more, and then I will need to renew my supplies."
He paced uneasily back and forth across the red-and-white-tiled floor of his study, as Fraeg watched silently from his perch. "The boy is now lodged in Castle Wyvern, which only makes matters worse. I must find a way of getting him away from there. And it won't be easy."
He sat down at his desk, dipped his quill pen in its inkpot, and began writing something on a parchment scroll before him. "Fraeg," he told his hawk, "make ready to fly to Castle Wyvern as soon as you can."
* * *
The Archmage was interrupted from his thoughts by a sudden harsh cry, coming from the study window behind him. He spun around to see a hawk perched upon the sill, staring at him with great golden eyes. A rolled-up parchment scroll was clutched in its talons.
"Yes?" asked the Archmage. "What do you want, bird?"
"I bring you a message from the Lord Sorcerer, Archmage," said the hawk, extending the scroll towards the wizard with one upraised claw. "He bids you read it at once."
The Archmage snatched the scroll from the hawk at once, broke its seal, unrolled it, and began to read it. Its contents read:
"To the Archmage of Castle Wyvern,
"My sources have informed me that there is a young boy travelling in the part of Scotland in which you reside, a child of seven or eight years of age, with silvery-fair hair. He journeys in the company of his mother, a widowed peasant woman. Both are escaped serfs of mine, fled from my estate. If you should come upon them or discover any evidence of there whereabouts, please send either them or the information pertaining to them to Castle Rivencroft at once.
The Lord Sorcerer."
The Archmage rolled up the scroll and turned away from the waiting hawk, stroking his beard thoughtfully.
"A child of seven or eight years of age," he said to himself. "Silvery-fair hair, journeys in the company of his mother - ha! That confirms it! The Lord Sorcerer is involved in this!"
"Master Archmage?" asked the hawk, tentatively behind him. "I await your reply."
"Ah, yes," he replied, turning back towards the messenger. "Give me a few minutes, and I'll be able to present it to you."
He sat down at his desk, got out a blank scroll of parchment, a quill, and his inkwell, and began to compose his answer.
* * *
As Marcus made his way back to his room, he noticed a tall old man with a long and full white beard standing by the door. He slowed down in astonishment.
"Ah, greetings, young one," said the man, walking towards him. "I am the Archmage, primary advisor to Prince Malcolm. I was wondering how you were faring in your new home. Well, I trust?"
Marcus looked at him uncertainly, then nodded. "Er, yes," he said. "Well enough. I was just exploring, and then decided to come back to my room, because Mother would be back soon."
"Yes, yes," said the Archmage, in an offhand voice. "But maybe you'd care to come back to my room, and see it for a while? There are many wonders that might interest you."
"But mother will be back soon," Marcus protested.
"Nonsense, my boy," said the Archmage. "We'll only be gone for a short while." He laid his hand gently upon the boy's shoulder, muttering something in Latin as he did so.
The worried look disappeared from Marcus's face, and he obediently followed the Archmage to his chambers, without any further protest.
* * *
"What are these, sir?" asked Marcus, staring at the books in the Archmage's bookshelf.
"Why, books, of course," said the Archmage. "Have you never seen them before?"
Marcus shook his head. "I don't know how to read," he said. "Mother doesn't, either."
"Indeed?" asked the Archmage. "Well, we will need to remedy, that, then. Sit down, and let me begin teaching you."
* * * * *
"So the Archmage has decided to keep the boy," said the Lord Sorcerer, frowning. "It seems that we are going to have to attempt more extreme measures."
"Such as, sir?" asked Fraeg.
"Summon more chimerae," said the Northumbrian wizard. "They will have to recover the boy for me."
"More chimerae?" asked Fraeg. "But the last ones were slain by the human archers at Wyvern, sire. How can these new ones succeed where the old ones failed?"
"I've got an idea as to how that may be accomplished," said the Lord Sorcerer. "Just wait and see, Fraeg."
* * *
As the contents of his concoction bubbled in the cauldron once more, the Lord Sorcerer pulled a stone tablet covered in angular runes down from his shelf, out from underneath a crudely-shaped figurine of a haglike woman with odd runic carvings on its stand, and placed it upon the table before him. "Stand clear, Fraeg," he advised his hawk. "This particular experiment has never been done before, and I do not know how well it will fare. Mixing magics has always been dangerous, and what I am about to do will combine the enchantments of the Viking warlocks of the North with the Tablet of Amisodarus. If it succeeds, however, we will have mightier servitors than before."
He stretched out one hand and spoke. "Ignis venite!"
In answer to his incantation, a ball of fire sprang forth from his hand, and landed in the cauldron with a steaming hiss. The Lord Sorcerer nodded, then spoke again. "Glacies venite!"
A spear of ice formed in his hand, which he hurled into the liquid that bubbled and seethed within the cauldron in turn. An eerie grumbling noise resounded from the depths of the vessel, but he barely noticed. For he spoke one last time. "Solum venite!"
A cube made of earth now materialized upon his palm. He threw it into the foaming brew, where it dissolved with a hiss. The Lord Sorcerer now raised the stone tablet, and spoke.
"I bind you by the might of Surtur, Ymir, and Jord! Become forged of the very elements that they rule over, and partake of their nature and essence!"
The cauldron trembled, and then a blast of smoke shot out from it. Immediately following, three fresh chimerae emerged from its depths and stumbled upon the floor of the workshop, blinking and stretching.
But these were of a different nature than the chimerae that the Lord Sorcerer had summoned before. The first seemed to be made of living fire, and left charred marks upon the stone floor where its feet trod upon it. The second was formed of ice, clear blue and jagged, and its breath was chill. The third appeared to be wrought of the very earth itself, and was thicker and more massive in build than the other two. The Northumbrian wizard-thane smiled with satisfaction as he looked upon the result of his summoning.
"Excellent," he said. "And now, your instructions."
He conjured up a fresh image of Marcus before the eyes of the elemental chimerae. "Go to Castle Wyvern, find this boy, and bring him back here alive. And destroy all who seek to prevent you in fulfilling this task!"
The conjured beasts roared their assent, and were quickly gone.
* * * * *
The Archmage started to prepare a small talisman. It would show him the boy's true power, if he really had any. The Archmage glanced over to him and saw Marcus still looking at the book.
He held out the talisman and muttered something in Latin, quiet enough not to disturb the boy. A light wave of energy fell over Marcus.
The Archmage gasped silently.
His potential was amazing. Marcus had an untapped ability and affinity for magic, and with practice, the boy's power could grow more powerful than his own or even the Lord Sorcerer's.
"Excuse me, my boy, but I must step out for a moment. Please, make yourself at home."
Marcus merely nodded. The Archmage left, continuing with his plan.
* * *
Kathleen opened the door and stepped inside her new home. She was happy with herself, having put in a good day's work in the kitchen. All she wanted to do now was rest and talk with Marcus about her day.
Kathleen looked around her room, and saw a tall, bald man with a long white beard, standing by the narrow window. She had seen him briefly at the meeting with Prince Malcolm. The man didn't seem to be doing anything, but he startled Kathleen just the same.
"Excuse me," she said, getting his attention. "Can I help ye?"
The Archmage turned around. "Oh, I apologize for barging in, madam, but are you the mother of a small boy, about yea high," he put out the hand to show the boy's height, "I believe his name was Marcus."
"Why, yes," she said, realizing her son wasn't around. "Why?"
"Well, my good woman, I saw the lad leaving through the front gate, saying something about wanting to see the grounds outside the castle. I thought you should know."
Kathleen gasped," Oh my! Thank you sir." She turned and ran out the door, off to look for her son, and maybe get some help from the guards.
The Archmage smiled and left back to his quarters. He saw the sun setting and walked a little faster, lest his apprentice arrive first.
* * *
Marcus was still immersed in the book. He still didn't understand its words, but he liked to look at the pictures. He looked up, and noticed that he was alone and that it was dark outside.
He stood up to go back home, hoping his mother had not returned. He heard a noise outside, and thought the worst. The beasts had returned for him. Cautiously, he went to look out the window.
Before he got there, something jumped in. It was female, with fiery red hair and blue skin. Marcus screamed.
Demona saw the book in Marcus' hand. "Thief! Who are you?" she asked.
"I'm ... wait, who are you?" Marcus asked. "Go away, demon," he said, moving his hands as if he were shooing away a cat.
"My kind have no names, thief," Demona said.
"I'm not a thief. The Archmage invited me here."
"Then where is he?"
"I don't know, he -" Marcus was cut off.
"Apprentice," the Archmage's voice came through the room, "this is Marcus, and he is a guest." He turned to the boy. "Marcus, this is my apprentice."
"You allow that ... that monster in your room?" he asked, shocked.
"I found she has some small talent for magic," the Archmage explained, ignoring the indignant look on Demona's face, "and I need someone to teach my secrets to, lest they be lost when I die," he said, lying for his own purpose. "Perhaps you would like to stay and watch her lesson for tonight?"
"Oh no, I really must get back. Mother will be so worried that I left in the first place."
"I've already spoken to your mother, and assured her that you are safe with me," replied the Archmage. "She has given me permission to attend to you for a while. So it's quite all right."
"Very well, then," said Marcus, his worries somewhat assuaged by the sorcerer's words.
The Archmage led Marcus back to a chair, where he sat down, not fully certain if he was ready for what was to come. Demona glowered at him, her eyes turning dangerously close to crimson, and hissed at him, but then turned to her lessons.
* * *
OUTSIDE CASTLE WYVERN
"There's still no sign of him," one of the guards said to Kathleen, apologetically. "My comrades are still searching for him, but I very much doubt that we'll find him."
"I will not give up," she replied in a firm, almost grim voice. "Even if the Lord Sorcerer has indeed abducted Marcus, I must know where that scoundrel has taken him. We must continue searching - ."
Her words were suddenly interrupted by a screeching coming from the south. Kathleen and the guard turned towards the sound, and both started with horror at what they beheld, rapidly approaching them.
It was a group of three beasts, like the ones that had pursued Kathleen and Marcus all the way to Castle Wyvern, but yet different at the same time. One seemed made of fire, another of ice, and the third of earth and stone. And all three were closing in upon them, flapping their great ponderous wings.
"Go, woman!" the guard cried in alarm, drawing his sword. "Now! You'll be safe inside the castle - or at least, safer than out here! Run!"
She fled back towards the castle drawbridge, in obedience to his commands, but it was already too late. The three creatures were already surrounding her from above. Before Kathleen could run very far, the earthen beast alit upon the ground, and smote it forcefully with its front paws. Immediately a wall of rock erupted from the ground all about the frightened peasant woman, hemming her in. She rushed to that part of it nearest the castle, and began an attempt to scale it.
But she never completed it. The ice-monster perched atop the wall, staring down at her, and opened its mouth. A blast of ice shot forth, engulfing her. All that Kathleen could do was give one loud, frantic scream, before she became entirely encased.
* * *
In the Archmage's workshop, Marcus started. A loud scream filled the air, coming from outside the castle. And he knew at once who had made it.
"Mother!" he cried. Then, he jumped to his feet, and ran out the door. Down the stairs he ran, and then down a hallway, full haste, until he emerged onto the battlements.
He was just in time to see his mother become encased completely in ice from the breath of the ice-chimera, and cried out in horror again. "Mother!" he screamed. "Mother!"
The chimerae turned, and gazed up at him, a tiny figure high above upon the battlements. Then, bellowing eagerly, they soared up towards their target.
But others had heard Marcus's cry. Even as the child watched, too afraid to run, as held to where he stood as if he had shared his mother's fate, the castle gargoyles - with only Demona and Thersites absent - glided towards the monstrous intruders.
Drive them off, lads and lasses!" Hudson shouted. "Keep them out of our home!"
With those words, he, Ajax, and Iago dove towards the stone-chimera in the middle. Othello, Desdemona, and Agamemnon were attacking the fire-chimera, and Goliath, Asrial, and Diomedes the ice-chimera.
The stone-chimera made the best target, for while it was airborne, it was unable to muster its full strength, that of the earth that the Lord Sorcerer had infused it with. Even so, however, it was still a formidable adversary, and lashed out at its three assailants with its claws and teeth. Ajax was hurled back by a blow, to land in a pile of hay in the courtyard below, somewhat dazed. Hudson and Iago, however, managed to seize hold of it, attempting to grapple it and sinking their claws into its rocky hide, with as much success as when they dug them into the stone walls of the castle. Even so, their grip upon it was uncertain, and the creature was doing its best to shake them off.
The other gargoyles were faring even more poorly. The very nature of the fire-chimera prevented Othello, Desdemona, and Agamemnon from making any direct contact with it, and it shot out one blast of flame after another at them, which they only barely managed to evade. As for the ice-chimera, it had shot out a blast of frosty breath at its assailants, and grazed Diomedes with it. The breastplated gargoyle was fortunately not struck head on, and thus avoided the fate of Kathleen, but even so, he was forced to fall back, alighting on the battlements, as Goliath and Asrial fought desperately on.
Marcus suddenly became aware of the Archmage standing just beside him. The old white-bearded wizard was gazing up at the monsters in a thoughtful silence, before he spoke.
"You need not fear, boy," he said to Marcus, in a reassuring tone of voice. "I do not know from where these new chimerae came, nor who was responsible for their creation. But they will not trouble us for long."
He gazed up at the stone-chimera, which had just shaken Hudson and Iago off of it, and now hovered in the air alone, then raised one hand, pointing his index finger straight at the monster. "Fulminus maximus venite!" he shouted, in a great voice.
A blast of blue forked lightning shot out from his finger-tip, and flew straight at the chimera, striking it head on. The monster was immediately shattered into a shower of falling stones and rubble, which rained down upon the castle below. At the same time, the Archmage staggered back, drained for the moment from the sheer force of his spell. He gripped his staff tightly to anchor himself, however, and maintained the grim and determined expression upon his face.
"That's one of them destroyed," said Goliath, as he and Asrial watched. "But what do we do about the other two?"
"I know!" cried Asrial suddenly. "Follow my lead, rookery brother!" And with that, she turned and dove straight at the fire-chimera.
Goliath stared after her in disbelief. "What on earth are you doing, rookery sister?" he cried.
"Follow me," she replied. "I know what I'm doing. But we must get that beast of ice to follow us."
Goliath did as she bade him, and swooped towards the fire-chimera alongside her. The ice-chimera at once dove after them. Halfway to the fire-beast, Asrial swerved, and Goliath followed suit. The ice-chimera tried to bank and follow them, but its impetus was now too great. It collided with the fire-chimera in mid-air.
There was a tremendous burst of steam where the two monsters met, and a powerful gust of wind flying out in all directions. The gargoyles were forced to alight upon the battlements, to watch as both chimerae vanished in the cloud above, leaving not a trace behind.
After the steam had dispersed, Goliath turned to Asrial. "How did you know that that would happen, rookery sister?" he asked her.
"I didn't know for certain that that would be the result, in truth," she admitted. "But I had expected something of the sort. Fire and ice are natural banes of each other, after all. So the same would have to hold true with the creatures that were composed of them."
"Well, the battle is over, thanks to you," said Goliath, smiling. "Thank you."
Marcus let out several breaths of relief at the destruction of the three chimerae. Then he remembered what had drawn him out into the open. "Mother!" he cried, and ran for the nearest set of stairs descending into the courtyard.
Already a crowd of people was issuing across the drawbridge to gather around the block of ice in which Kathleen was entrapped, and the boy found it hard going to make his way through them. Nevertheless, that was what he did, until he reached the ice.
"Mother!" he cried again, pounding upon the cold surface with his fists, as if the impact of his blows could crack it open and free her. "Mother!"
"It's no good, lad," said a gentle voice from behind him. Marcus turned around to see the gruff-looking guard named Robbie standing there. The man placed one hand lightly upon the boy's shoulder, drawing him back.
"But she's in there!" cried Marcus. "I have to get her out!"
"I fear that it's too late," said Robbie sadly. "She's frozen in ice so thick, that there's little hope of her survivin' beyond now. She may already be dead."
"But - " Marcus began, almost stammering. "But - we must do something!"
He turned to see Prince Malcolm and the Archmage making their way through the crowd, and ran to them. "Archmage!" he cried. "Get her out of there! You can do it! You're a wizard!"
The Archmage frowned. "I do not know if I indeed can do it," he said. "I have expended much of my magic already to destroy the stone chimera, and it may well be that I have not recovered enough strength to perform such a feat. However, I will try."
He gestured towards the block of ice, and cried out something in Latin which Marcus could not identify. But nothing happened. The Archmage looked at the ice, shook his head, and sighed.
"My fears are proven true," he said. "I can do nothing for her now."
Marcus burst into tears, and was unable to stop. Prince Malcolm looked down at him compassionately, then turned to Robbie.
"Lead the boy back to the castle," he said, "but gently. I know myself what it is like to lose a mother. Marcus, I can assure you of this; when we can free your mother from the ice, we will do whatever we can for her."
* * *
Marcus didn't sleep that night. The man named Robbie had let him stay in his room, and when morning came, Marcus was called before the Prince.
"My son," Malcolm began, "I am truly sorry for your loss. Had there been anything we could have done, we would have. The guards spent all night trying to thaw her out. When they finished, there was nothing they could do."
Marcus started crying, and Robbie put his hand on his shoulder to comfort him.
"But the fact remains," the Prince continued, "that you are now an orphan. I would offer that you be brought under my protection and become my ward, but I feel it might be better, and safer, if perhaps a foster parent would take you in."
"Your Highness," said the Archmage, "would you allow me to speak on the matter?"
"Very well," said the Prince. "Speak, Archmage."
"Well, it is in the interest of the boy to be fostered, but perhaps the boy might find an alternative more to his liking. I no longer have an apprentice - "
Marcus looked at the Archmage in surprise.
" - but if Marcus agrees, I would be willing to take him as my new apprentice. It would give him a roof over his head, food to eat and the best kind of protection against those who seek him."
The Prince looked at him, and then at the boy. "Is this arrangement to your liking?" he asked.
The Archmage went to Marcus and bent down towards him. "I can teach you power, boy! Power so great, that no one can hurt you or those you care about again, no matter what!"
Marcus looked at his face, still crying. He remembered the Lord Sorcerer's similar words, but soon forgot as his mind came back to the matter at hand. The boy knew he had no other path to walk. Finally, Marcus turned to the Prince and said with more courage than a boy his age should usually have, "I accept, your Highness."
* * *
The funeral was that afternoon. Marcus and Prince Malcolm stood near the body, with the Archmage and Robbie close behind them.
Marcus tried to be brave, but his emotions got the better of him, and he began to weep. The Archmage stood behind him, acting like he was there to offer his support. Nobody saw a smile of triumph steal across his face.