Outline by: Stephen R. Sobotka, Jr.
Written by: Durid the Druid, Mandi Ohlin and Jonathan "Entity" Cotleur
Artwork by: Noel Leas
A road to Castle Wyvern, 974 A.D.
A troop of horses and their riders were traveling down the road. They had been having a hard time of it, for not only were the mounts wet with lather from being driven hard, but many of the riders had bleeding wounds. A few were slung sideways across their mounts and tied down - unconscious, or dead.
The leader, a middle-aged man in a chainmail hauberk and iron open-faced helm, was arguing with one of the older warriors. "Leave the wounded? They are our men, sergeant! I will not abandon my men!" he angrily declared.
"Then you will abandon the village itself. It was bad enough being harassed by the bandits. We can handle them, but the attack by those monsters has left half of us dead or lamed." The leader glared at the old warrior. "Take the advice of an old soldier: do what you can to hide the dead, dying, and lame, and pray for their safety. Then, take those that can ride hard and run for Wyvern as if your lives depended upon it!"
"The horses are already worn out from the last run. Another hard one to Wyvern will kill them," growled the leader.
"Yes, it probably will," the old soldier said as he rubbed his roan stallion's sweating neck. "But you should be able to get warning to Wyvern anyway. Prince Malcolm will then be able to lift the siege the bandits have put on our village, saving our wives and children."
The leader was not convinced. "Elder, we haven't the time to help the wounded hide, nor the strength to put up a good defense if they are found," he pointed out. "The demons can see at night; our injured will most likely be found." The older man did not reply, and he pressed on. "Found and killed to prevent them from warning Wyvern. Are you willing to simply let them die?"
The old soldier smiled sadly. "That's why I say you should pray for them - and me if you decide that." He fingered a rough and hastily made bandage on his shield arm, and a matching one on his hip just under the armor. He didn't have to mention that the pain from the wounds would cause him to faint in his saddle if they started riding hard again. "We'll be in God's hands, lad, and if he decides it's my time, I'll do my best to take as many of those monsters with me as I can!"
The leader shook his head angrily at the old soldier and slowed his pace to get a better look at his troops. He didn't want to follow the old one's advice, but found himself looking over each of his soldiers and laying odds on which and how many of them would still be alive by sunrise. He didn't like the figures he came up with.
He matched speed with one of the horses carrying a dead rider, and stared at him for a long moment. He shook his head, sighed, and spoke to the dead man. "Well, Murdock, I guess you won't be telling me about how you caught a big blue female monster after all. But I promised you I would take care of your missus... If I survive I will find you and drag your sorry carcass back to the village, to give you a proper burial next to your sire and dam."
With that, the leader separated the troops. One group, the walking wounded and dead, were told to dismount and go off into the woods a ways and set up camp. The rest of them would ride hard to Wyvern and bring back help. The wounded followed his orders out of habit, too tired from riding and battle. The leader looked back into the old soldier's eyes for a moment. The old soldier just nodded to him and led the others into the woods, instructing the less wounded on how to cover their trail in the underbrush.
The leader watched him for a moment, then turned his stallion and sent it into a gallop with a yell and a slap on the rear. The lucky unwounded and barely scratched followed him, leading other now riderless horses to use as spares in the last haul to Wyvern.
Despite their fatigue, the wounded soldiers made their way deeper into the shadows of the forest, seeking concealment in the trees. When it finally became apparent that they could flee no longer, the weary group stopped to make camp. Those who were able managed to put up hastily made defenses and traps around the perimeter of the camp, anxiously watching the heavens for danger.
Their preparations were all for naught.
The eerie silence of the night was shattered as piercing battle cries echoed through the trees. Panicked, the soldiers drew their swords as the swarm of creatures burst from the shadows, eyes literally blazing as they descended on their prey. The first group easily swooped through the trees and wounded several men before circling around for another pass. None of the makeshift traps and defenses were prepared to stop an aerial assault. The defenses weren't much use against the beasts who charged the troop on the ground. To the soldiers' horror, their attackers simply leapt over the barricades and slashed through the nets to lay about them with sword and mace. The wounded and lamed soldiers fell before them like wheat at harvest time.
As the old soldier fired off a crossbow bolt, a dagger flew through the air, striking the warrior beside him. The old man turned to see his comrade slump to the ground, dead. He hesitated as he surveyed the chaos about him, seeing some of his oldest friends fall beneath sword and claw. For years he had fought for the safety of his village, through all sorts of battles and skirmishes, and could tell when a battle was doomed to be lost. This was one such battle.
The crossbow was empty. Cursing, he pitched it with all his strength at one of the marauding monsters. If he was going to die here, he might as well die fighting. With his good arm, he unsheathed his sword, waving the blade in challenge. "COME ON THEN!" he bellowed. "TAKE ME, YOU DEMONS, IF YOU DARE!"
A giant tawny-yellow female with a long whip-like tail and saw-edged horns smiled and took him up on his challenge.
* * *
The giant female, who was called Atalanta in Brother Edmund's journals, watched as her warriors tossed the last of the soldiers into a ravine. "All of this effort had better be worth it!" she spat in disgust.
Something landed beside her with a thump. Atalanta turned to see one of her scouts, a small web-winged male, with coloring that made him nearly invisible against the night sky. "The remaining troops are fleeing towards Castle Wyvern. They are just a few miles from the castle's lands."
"Well done." The scout nodded at the compliment as Atalanta turned to her warriors. "Let's fly! We need to catch the rest of them before they get a message to Wyvern!" The entire clan quickly climbed the trees and launched themselves to the winds. They quickly filled the night sky and headed towards Wyvern, following the guidance of the dark web-winged scout.
* * * * *
A mile from Castle Wyvern
"Remember your Trial of Wing, lads? Well, to track game you do the same thing. Try to sight some spoor from up here, then we'll-" lectured Agamemnon.
"We know, Second, we know! We've done this a hundred times, and your prattling on is likely to scare the game!" griped Diomedes.
"Don't interrupt me when I'm teaching ye. Ye might learn something useful other than how to chase females. Now see here..." and the Elder continued, not noticing the look of anger and jealousy Diomedes gave the rest of the group, lingering on the large sable-haired Goliath.
Goliath, however, noticed and sent a helpless look to his other rookery brothers. The white-haired Othello grinned slightly and shook his head in return.
Thersites, his other sibling with the twisted horn, was not so subtle. "Don't look at me, I stay well away from all this female chasing! It's more work, and for what? Another to worry about, work with, and likely as not to nag you endlessly."
"PAY ATTENTION LADS!" Agamemnon bellowed. "Don't ye know that we are not out here just to hunt, but check up on the surrounding villages so that we might find Roland's bandits? They have been attacking the villages for the past several weeks for some reason, and your inattention can cost us the lives of yerself or others that we protect! Now as I was saying--" He was interrupted by gargoyle war cries in the distance, making every one of them tense up and fly in a tighter formation, preparing themselves for a fight. "A perfect example. Be ready lads, there's a battle nearby."
"A fight?!" Thersites slowed, looking around frantically. "Umm, I'll stay back here in case... one of you get injured. Now where did I put the - Oh no, we forgot bandages, I should--"
"I saw a group of Malcolm's guards a while back," Agamemnon told him. "See if they're still there and get them as quickly as possible."
Thersites didn't have the grace to look anything but relieved. "Oh, great. I'll do that!" He quickly turned around and headed back the way they'd come.
The acting Second growled a little. "The lad will never amount to much. Though I admit, he might outlive the rest of us! Now then, we should remain up here as high as we can. With luck the battle will be on the ground, if they are attacking another group of villagers. If they are still in the air - listen up now - the winner of any battle is usually the one who is highest. If we-"
"Excuse me, Second, but is not silence also a requirement if we are to be unnoticed?" asked Goliath.
"That's right! At last one of your generation is listening to me! Silence is-" the Second stopped himself this time, and scowled at Goliath. "We'll talk about this later, laddie." Amazingly, he followed his own advice. Othello looked at the Second in shock, and gave his rookery brother a surprised and admiring look.
The four gargoyles glided as quickly as they could towards the sounds of battle. What they found was alarming. Several humans had taken shelter under an outcropping of rock, trying to protect themselves from a group of armed gargoyles, led by Atalanta, who was shouting, "Finish the humans!"
The bodies of several humans, horses, and gargoyles were already scattered around the area.
Atalanta's band couldn't dive upon the humans because of the outcropping, but even with that it was plain that the remaining humans would not last. They were on the defensive, just trying to survive as long as they could and make Atalanta's victory as costly as possible. Diomedes suddenly dove into the fray, heedless of the Second's warning to wait for reinforcements. Agamemnon scowled and signaled the other two to take the rearguard as he dove to help Diomedes.
The four Wyvern gargoyles plunged into the fight with height and surprise on their side. They diverted the attention of Atalanta's warriors from their prey, landing between them and the soldiers. "Cover their retreat, lads, protect the humans!" shouted the Second as he turned to one of the soldiers. "Are you all right- Urk!" The soldier, seeing only another monster before him, slashed at Agamemnon, leaving a deep gash in his side.
The battle intensified with their arrival, and Goliath found himself confronting Atalanta directly. "At last we meet again! You are one of the few warriors who still merit a challenge from me." She cracked her talons in front of her as she spoke. "This time I see you're in better condition."
Goliath ignored her taunts. "You are a gargoyle, it is your nature to protect. Why do you constantly try to destroy us?!"
Atalanta tried to trip him up with her tail, but Goliath easily jumped over it, lunged forward, and nearly grabbed her throat, but Atalanta easily slipped out of his grasp. "I do whatever it takes to protect my clan!"
"We could have been allies!" he replied as he backed away from her slashing talons, then tried to knock her down with a swinging tail into her head.
"No, we could not," she hissed into Goliath's face. The move distracted him and the lavender gargoyle fell to his knees, his head ringing from a sneak blow by the web-winged scout's war club. Atalanta raised her sword to bring it down upon him, only to find a Wyvern guard's blade blocking the deathblow. The guard's action made her aware of the new presence of Wyvern guardsmen. "Retreat!" she called, with the sudden realization that her troops were outnumbered.
Her clan quickly retreated to a nearby cliff and took to the skies. Diomedes started to follow, but checked his motion at the sound of Othello's voice.
"Brother, wait!" yelled the silver-haired male. "Our Second is wounded and our brother is on the ground. Tend to him while I take care of the Second!" Diomedes scowled at him, but let the attackers go. Othello went back to checking Agamemnon's wounds, but then a few of the foreign soldiers and their leader approached them with raised swords.
"Hold! These folk just helped rescue ye! Slicing them open would be very rude!" yelled the leader of the Wyvern guards.
"What?! You're allied with these monsters!" yelled the leader of the foreign troops, shocked.
"Aye, and unless you are prepared for another fight I suggest you sheath yer sword. Now why were those rogue gargoyles after ye, and who are you?"
Surprise and dismay crossed the leader's face, but he managed to control himself quietly. "I am Cecil, the chief soldier of the town of Braddock. Bandits have laid a siege upon our town, and we were coming to Wyvern for aid."
The lead guard nodded. "We can help you the rest of the way. I don't think they will brave another attack if we're together."
He turned to the gargoyles. "Any serious injuries? Can you come with us? It isn't safe out and about right now."
"Ack, I've taken worse in practice, I'll be fine. What about our unconscious brother?" Agamemnon looked at Thersites, who was helping Goliath sit up.
"I'll be fine, Second, except for an aching head."
Agamemnon looked closely at him and told Thersites, "Watch him and support him if need be, whatever he says!"
"Second, I'll be fine!" Goliath tried to prove it by standing up, but had to grab Thersites' shoulder to keep from falling.
"Lads, you wouldn't admit yer bad off unless you have a spear poking out of yer gut! That's the trouble with ye young ones, never knowing-"
"If you are finished, we really better get going!" said the leader of the guards impatiently.
"Ah, leave them here, we can make it ourselves," Cecil groused. "Their fellows can take care of them." The Wyvern guard just gave him a hard glare and waited patiently for the gargoyles to climb a cliff and get into the air. Only then did he start leading the Wyvern guards and surviving soldiers to Wyvern.
* * * * *
Castle Wyvern, Great Hall
"My Lord, I ask for your aid. Bandits have laid siege on our town, and we do not have the strength to repel them. Please help us before everyone is killed!" begged Cecil.
Prince Malcolm signaled him to get up. "Yes, of course. But why would Roland go to such trouble? His bandits usually attack quickly, take what they want, then run back into the forest. Staying in one place like this is foolhardy!"
"How am I to know how those monsters think?" Malcolm frowned at him, and Cecil continued hastily. "But it probably has something to do with an artifact we have... The ancestors of our village were entrusted with it. It's rumored to be from the age of King Arthur."
"No artifact is worth all the trouble you say Roland is going to. Even if he gets it, how many of his bandits will he lose?"
The Captain of the Guard spoke up, "Pardon me, your Grace, but Braddock is under your protection. Is not Wyvern duty-bound to help them, no matter what?"
Prince Malcolm glared at him for a second, then relented and said, "You are right, of course, Captain. I'm beginning to get suspicious of everybody." He turned back to Cecil. "But I still want to know why Roland is going to this much trouble!"
"My Lord! We have ridden far under constant attack by bandits and those monsters," again Malcolm glared at him, "to seek your help. When we left, Braddock was under siege from those bandits and now those beasts as well, no doubt. We need your help!"
"Why does Roland go to this much trouble for a mere artifact? Any leader who has so little regard for his men's lives would not stay leader for long!" The Prince and the soldier glared at each other.
"Umm, your Highness?" asked a timid voice from beside the Archmage.
"Ah, yes, Marcus, what is it?"
"If the artifact is magical in some way, Roland may want to seize it and exploit it somehow."
"Hah, my apprentice speaks truly, and it's very likely that it is magical in some way if this artifact is from Camelot and is still intact after all this time," the Archmage said. "If it is, we should bring it to Wyvern so it could be better protected and studied."
Prince Malcolm looked from his advisors, the Captain of the Guard, Robbie, the Archmage, to his apprentice Marcus. Then he looked at Cecil. "You're right, Archmage. Would you object to that, Cecil?"
"The artifact is really in the care of one of the elders. If he is still alive, you will have to ask him. Though he probably isn't, since he was among the ones too wounded to make it to Wyvern. Then again, I wouldn't mind." He laughed a little. "You'll be helping me in fact, if something like that brings this much trouble to my town!"
"Very well then, I'll be sending some of my best guardsmen with you, along with a few gargoyles."
"WHAT? We don't need nor want help from their kind! Likely as not they're already working with these bandits and will kill all of us in our sleep!"
"The gargoyles of Wyvern are loyal to me! Do you doubt me?"
Cecil hastily bowed. "Forgive me, your Highness. I do not doubt you. But why do we need a gargoyle escort?"
"Because if those rogue gargoyles attack you again, even with help from my guardsmen, how well do you think you will do? At the very least, you'll be delayed long enough to prevent you from returning to Braddock in time."
Cecil growled, "Very well. But I will be watching them for any treachery." He bowed low to the Prince and turned to leave the main hall.
Prince Malcolm glared at him as he left. "The gargoyles are as much under my protection as you are. Don't forget that."
Throughout this exchange, the Captain of the Guard was growing more and more frustrated with Cecil, which was clear from the expression on his face. Bowing to Malcolm, he turned and stormed after Cecil, muttering imprecations under his breath as he left the hall. The Archmage bowed hastily and herded Marcus off in another direction, heading for the tower. Shaking his head, Malcolm stood and turned to leave, intending to find the gargoyle Leader.
Robbie hurried after him, catching up to the Prince in the corridor. "Excuse me, your Highness. But why are you so distrustful of Cecil? It seems to be more than his dislike of the gargoyles. You don't honestly believe he's lying, do you?"
Malcolm gave an exasperated sigh. "No, it's not that. For some reason he reminds me of the bootlickers that flock around the throne, and I'm afraid I have very little patience for that in my court."
* * * * *
Castle Wyvern Courtyard
"All right, listen up lads!" Hudson yelled to all the gargoyles. "The Rogue and his band are attacking th' town of Braddock and tryin' tae steal an artifact from the townsfolk. I need some good warriors to accompany the guardsmen and help them, not only with the bandits, but the rogue gargoyles. You," he told Othello, "and you," here he pointed at Diomedes, "try to follow your leader this time. You," he pointed to Agamemnon, "Ye're the Second. You'll lead this party. And you," he added, pointing to Asrial, "yuir devices, particularly yuir far-seer, may be helpful." He scanned the remaining youths critically, and selected three more, passing over Goliath. "Now let's get prepared, ye're leaving first thing taemorra night. Be ready."
As Hudson turned to leave, Goliath called to stop him. "Why not me, Leader? I'm one of the best warriors of my rookery."
Goliath's question was selfless, Hudson knew. "Because ye're still suffering from that knock to th' head. Ye may seem to be all right, but I've known warriors to suddenly fall dead later if they strain themselves after such an injury. Rest up, lad, there'll be another time."
"I'll be fine by tomorrow night. That is when we are leaving, is it not?"
"Aye." Hudson sighed, drawing a pause. "Very well, ye may go. Now rest up!"
* * * * *
Nighttime, nearly two days later
"I can't believe this," Cecil groused for what must have been the hundredth time. He glanced up at the shapes gliding above them, scouting out the area, before turning to the Captain. "Can't you order those beasts to fly a bit lower? The rogues will see us coming a mile away!"
Standing beside him, a few paces from the resting party, the Captain rolled his eyes. From the beginning of their journey, every time Cecil opened his mouth, a complaint about the gargoyles came out. At first, the Captain had silently agreed with the man; now, however, the incessant stream of criticism was starting to irritate him. The gargoyles who were not scouting the treetops were conferring several paces away, keeping their distance from the men. That was enough for him, although it apparently didn't satisfy Cecil one bit.
The Captain looked up to see that some of the Wyvern clan were practically skimming the treetops, and sighed. "If they flew any lower," he replied, looking around at the other men resting in the clearing, "they'd be right in our laps. I don't want that any more than ye do."
"At least I could keep an eye on 'em," the soldier growled. "You never know when one of those monsters is going to swoop down and sink its claws into one of us. Just as they cut down our venerable Elder," he added in a louder voice.
Most of the Wyvern soldiers simply rolled their eyes, tired of hearing the same complaints over and over again. Seemingly oblivious to their scorn, Cecil continued ranting.
"They can't be trusted, believe me." The warrior folded his arms, sneering at the gargoyles grouped on the other side of the clearing. "No better than a pack of wolves, they are, for all the high-minded talk that fooled the Prince!"
That was the last straw. Insulting the gargoyles was one thing, but bringing Prince Malcolm into his tirade was another. The Captain whirled to face Cecil, grabbing him by the collar of his tunic and lifting him up an inch.
"What'll it take for ye ta hold yer tongue, ye brazen lout?" he demanded, his eyes blazing. "I may not like 'em much meself, but th' Prince is no fool! The gargoyles dinnae have t' come and help yer people at all," he added. "Shut yer trap now before I have second thoughts about saving yer sorry hide."
With that, he let go of the other man's tunic before turning and stomping off to join the rest of his men. Cursing under his breath, Cecil followed, but not before casting a wary eye above him.
As the Captain approached the group, something pushed its way through the foliage. The guards drew their swords, a few leaping to their feet, but immediately relaxed as the disheveled scout emerged from the trees. Seeing this, a few of the gargoyles broke away from their group and approached the men.
The scout hurried up to the Captain, obviously out-of-breath. Reluctantly, the Captain beckoned the gargoyles over as he turned to the scout. "What d' ye have for us, lad?"
"The bandits are forcing their way into the village," the scout gasped. "They're probably through the last of the defenses as we speak." He hesitated, seeing the dark look on the Captain's face. "They're aided by a group of gargoyles."
Cecil slapped his thigh, making a coughing sound to get the Captain's attention. He didn't say anything, but the look on his face plainly said, "I told you so."
The Captain glared at Cecil before turning to Agamemnon, who looked pensive. "Friends o' yours?" he asked for Cecil's benefit.
"Most likely th' same warriors working with the Rogue’s bandits," the elder gargoyle responded. Exchanging glances with the other gargoyles nearby, he added, "No friends of ours."
The Captain nodded brusquely before turning to the men, who were still resting. "On yuir feet, lads!" he bellowed, sending the guards hastily scrambling for their bearings. "We've got no more time ta spare."
* * * * *
Near the Village
Atalanta threw the table across the room in her fury, adding to the destruction in the cottage. "Nothing," she scowled, straightening up as a cloaked figure appeared in the doorway. "I hope you have good tidings."
"That depends on what you want to hear," the masked bandit responded hoarsely, stepping aside to allow one of her warriors to enter. "Besides, I'm not the messenger."
Glaring sharply at Roland, the giant female turned to the warrior, a stout blue-gray male. "What do you have to report?"
"We've gone through almost every dwelling or structure," was the response. "No sign of the pendant."
Atalanta kept her expression carefully neutral, unreadable. "And what of the humans? Have they finally been eliminated?"
"No." His answer was clipped, tense, a sign that it frustrated him as much as she. "They are still holding out in the watchtower at the northern end of the village. Even our swiftest flyers and strongest warriors cannot break past their defense."
"Still?" Atalanta echoed. "It's been nearly two days."
Roland cleared his throat. He was obviously fatigued, like most of the raiders. "They probably have a store of provisions and weapons there in case of attack."
She snarled before storming out the door, nearly knocking Roland over as she did so. The masked gargoyle and the other warrior exchanged looks before following her out into the night.
They caught up with her within sight of the watchtower. "I don't have the patience for this," Atalanta said after a moment. "I say we smoke them out."
"Wait," Roland snapped. "The fire may cause some damage--"
She whirled on him, her eyes burning crimson. "So we fry a few humans, what of it? Don't tell me you're backing down."
He didn't look intimidated in the least. "I don't care about the humans," Roland snarled. "If we try to burn them out, the talisman may be at risk. That tower is the last place that has yet to be searched. Besides," he pointed out, "I doubt the Prince will send a large force to aid these people. All we need do is wait the humans out. Their supplies won't last forever."
Atalanta snorted. "You must have taken a blow or two to the head. The Prince is weak, overly compassionate. He would never let his subjects suffer."
As if on cue, a dark shape landed a few paces away, somewhat out-of-breath from a hard flight. It was the web-winged scout who had alerted them earlier. "A force of men are approaching," he managed, catching his breath. "Wearing Wyvern colors, with gargoyles among them."
Nodding briefly to the scout, Atalanta rounded on Roland, getting right into his face. "He won't send a large force, will he?" she sneered. He could sense her desire to grab him by the throat, but remained unfazed by it. "You fool! Take a few warriors and break into that tower. I don't care if you have to tear it down stone by stone!" She turned to the scout and the warrior. "Tell the others to prepare for battle. If those humans want a fight, we will not disappoint them."
* * *
"Halt!" the Captain cried as the troops crested a rise, coming within sight of the village. Seeing the guards stop, the gargoyles landed as well, taking care to land behind the crest of the hill and out of sight of the village.
Agamemnon stood by the Captain at the crest of the hill, frowning as he took in the sight below them. Even from a distance, Braddock was clearly in shambles, save for the watchtower at the northern end. Several gargoyles were trying to break into the tower. But the most alarming detail was the larger group of bandits and gargoyles forming defensive lines along the perimeter.
Goliath joined them, looking down at the remains of the village. "It seems they knew we were coming," the lavender gargoyle observed. Diomedes, joining the group, let out a derisive snort.
Asrial had been carrying a fair-sized pack during the course of their journey. It rested against her chest, supported by a harness she had made herself, the straps reaching across her shoulders and back without getting in the way of her wings. Goliath had feared that the weight would hamper her ability to fly, but she had kept up with the rest of them without complaint. Now she undid the straps, letting the pack fall to the ground. After a few moments of digging through its contents, she retrieved her far-seeing glasses.
She hurried up to join them. "Captain, this might help," she offered tentatively, proffering the device.
The Captain frowned, looking over uncertainly at Agamemnon. The Second merely shrugged, and the Captain accepted the device. He was quite surprised to see that it did work, but made no comment as he scanned the perimeter, mentally running through the enemy's numbers and weaponry.
After a moment, he lowered the device and turned back to the men, taking a quick stock in his forces. Nodding, he handed the far-seers back to Asrial. "Thank ye... lass," he said uncomfortably.
Before she could react, he strode back down the hill to address the men. "Listen up, lads! Th' rogues are prepared for us, although they've got a few attacking th' watchtower." He beckoned to Robbie to step forward. "Lad, ye'll take half the men ta lay on the main defenders." He gestured to the men on his right as he spoke. Turning to another group, he continued, "As for ye, I'll take a force ta attack th' defenders' flank. The rest will go with th' gargoyles ta free the villagers," he announced.
Hearing this, Cecil cleared his throat loudly. Shooting the soldier a withering glance, the Captain sighed and added, "And t' seize th' artifact if possible." At the other man's satisfied smirk, the Captain cast his gaze to the heavens, praying for the strength to keep from strangling Cecil before the night was over.
As the ranks split up into groups, Goliath approached Asrial, who was pulling the pack and harness back on. "Sister... if these bandits are the Rogue’s men, then he will undoubtedly be there as well. If you wish to remain behind as a lookout, I will understand."
Inhaling deeply, she closed the pack before giving him her bravest smile. "I know, brother. I'll be careful, I promise." Fastening the straps, she stood up. "Besides, I can't keep hiding forever."
"True," Goliath added, still concerned. "But you should take care."
Asrial shrugged, trying to conceal her nervousness. "I can take care of myself. Besides," she added, patting the pack strapped to her chest, "this time I've got my bag of tricks to protect me."
Goliath smiled as they launched into the air, gliding into the forest.
* * *
The ranks of warriors stood ready, weapons drawn, and bodies tense in the anticipation of battle. Even when the enemy did not immediately appear, Atalanta's warriors did not allow themselves to relax. "By the Dragon, are they waiting for dawn?" someone muttered.
"No one is that patient," another responded.
At those words, a familiar sound reached the defending gargoyles: the muffled roar of an attacking army. Arrows rained down on the defensive lines, mostly striking shields instead of flesh. A moment later, a wave of Wyvern colors crested the hill as Prince Malcolm's men charged the rogues as one body. "Straight down the middle," one of Atalanta's scouts muttered. "Typical."
The gargoyle beside him frowned. "You'd think there were more."
He didn't get another chance to comment as the Wyvern forces met the raiders with the clash of blade against blade. While the first wave of soldiers fought with drawn swords, the wave behind them drew crossbows, aiming at the gargoyles attempting to take wing. Soon the battle was joined in a storm of swords and talons.
Suddenly, there was movement in the trees to the east, and another group of armed guards charged from the forest, intent on striking the flank. But they met with the same fierce resistance as the frontal charge, as the defensive forces surged to meet the rush.
* * *
Several yards away, perched in the branches of a tree, Asrial surveyed the battle through her far-seeing device. "What do you see there, lass?" Agamemnon inquired in a low voice from below. The Wyvern gargoyles were concealed in the shadows of the forest, along with several of the human scouts.
"They've met the first attack," Asrial answered, keeping her eyes on the battle below. "Now here come the Captain's men. But there are more warriors blocking them!"
Agamemnon frowned darkly at that. "Aye, they were prepared for this."
"Perhaps we might still catch them by surprise, Elder," Diomedes suggested hastily.
"Not so fast!" The older gargoyle held up a hand. "I'm not about to let you rush headlong into the fray this time."
"We can't just sit here," Othello insisted. Before Thersites could correct him, he added, "What of the humans in the lookout tower?"
From her perch, Asrial answered. "There's about half a dozen gargoyles and twice as many men laying siege to the tower. One of them almost made his way in - no, wait, he's veered off!" She smiled in spite of herself. "And drenched, too, from the looks of that pot they threw on him."
"They won't hold out forever if they’re throwing out the kitchen water," Diomedes pointed out, "and we can still surprise the attackers."
"Not from this position," Goliath said suddenly, startling everyone. As Agamemnon peered at him and Diomedes glared, he shifted uncomfortably. "That is, they still have a great amount of forces concentrated on this side of the village."
To his surprise, Agamemnon agreed. "True. I doubt they'd expect an attack from the north." He turned to address the others. "All right then, lads. We'll try to circle around to the north as far as possible without being seen. They've got greater numbers than we, so surprise is the advantage we'll have."
One of the human scouts nodded. "Seems the best way to go." His companions, eyeing the talons and wings of the gargoyles, did not contradict him.
Agamemnon scanned the ranks of gargoyles and men thoughtfully, taking in a glimpse of the tower in the distances as he turned ideas over in his mind. "When I was young, the clan leader broke up an attack such as this," he said thoughtfully before turning back to the others. "All right then, lads. Here's what we're going to do..."
* * *
The gargoyle on lookout duty glared up at the dark web-winged scout perched on the tree branch above him. "Not a soul, of course. Wyvern's as predictable as you said." He cast his gaze back at the dark and still horizon.
"Humans frequently are," the scout responded dispassionately.
"Never hurts to be cautious, though." The lookout peered out at the shadows, searching for hints of danger. "You're sure no one will come this way?"
"They've already expended all their forces at the southern edge of the valley. Who would--ulp!"
His answer was cut off with a strange hissing sound and a thunk. The lookout unfurled his wings with a snap, his head whirling upward to see the scout snared between three branches, tangled in a strange mass of rope and twine. He had apparently struck his head on a branch, and hung there limply.
Before the lookout could question this development, the distraction cost him as something moved in the bushes to his left. He turned too late as a heavy body barreled into him, sending them flying. Caught off guard, he was no match for his attacker, a burly youth he vaguely recalled as having fought against their leader before.
He could only manage a gasp of surprise before his head struck the ground and the world went black.
* * *
From a safe distance atop the roof of one of the charred buildings, Roland watched the siege on the watchtower. A large green female neared the narrow windows of the tower, only to be doused with a bucketful of steaming liquid. She veered away with a shriek of pain and disgust, and Roland winced. He had to give the humans some credit; they were putting up quite a fight. But it wouldn't last long, he knew. With the attackers' sheer numbers, they could wear down the resistance easily.
One of his men, a skinny fellow they called Spider, was scaling the wall nimbly. With all their efforts to hold off the aerial assault, the humans did not notice his presence as the bandit neared the top. Pulling a knife from his belt, the lanky human put a hand on the rim of the windowsill, ready to use it on whatever unlucky soul happened to be closest to that window.
Suddenly, an unfamiliar grey blur swooped down from the sky. As preoccupied with the battle as he was, it took Roland a moment to recognize the breastplated newcomer as one of his former rookery brothers, a fairly hotheaded youth. But the revelation came too late. With a roar, Diomedes dived straight for the skinny bandit, grabbing the man by the wrist and fairly plucking him off of the wall. "Gaaah!" the bandit shrieked, dropping the knife in surprise at being suddenly airborne.
"'E's got Spider!" one of Roland's men yelled.
"That's obvious, you lout," Roland growled, unfurling his wings as a group of his men drew blades and charged in the general direction of the newcomer.
Spider let out a howl. "Let me go, you beast!"
Grinning, Diomedes banked sharply, heading for the group of bandits on the ground. "Well, if you put it so politely..." With a heave, he pitched the bandit at his comrades. As skinny as he was, Spider proved to be an effective missile, plowing into the group of men and sending them to the ground in a pile of flailing limbs.
Several of Atalanta's warriors broke off their attack from the tower, diving towards Diomedes as the gargoyle swung around for another pass. The breastplated gargoyle suddenly found himself surrounded, dodging the sweep of one blade only to have to duck away from another attacker's talons. As Diomedes disappeared in a tangle of wings and claws, Roland leapt into the air, troubled. Something was wrong. Only one gargoyle? Where were the rest of them? And how had he gotten past the lookouts?
Some of his men were getting into the fight, especially the ones who had been knocked down. As a result, the rogues attacking the tower were few and far between, most of their number having rounded on Diomedes. "No!" Roland shouted, realizing the deception. "The tower, you fools, the tower!"
His cries of warning came too late. Those with the wit to continue their assault on the tower suddenly found themselves under attack as still more gargoyles dived from the darkness of the night sky.
Roland seethed as he witnessed the surprise assault. The Wyvern clan toppled the humans of his band effortlessly, and he scowled as he saw several fleeing. Shadows passed over them in the opposite direction as Atalanta's warriors finally realized their error and returned to the tower. The two clans clashed with talons bared, eyes aglow, and fierce cries igniting the air.
Diomedes was left somewhat bruised, but not incapacitated. He eyed the masked leader of their enemy intently and curved his wings to swoop toward him from behind. Roland remembered Diomedes a moment before it would have cost him, turning just in time to dodge the warrior's dive. They both snarled as they caromed past each other.
"Your warriors aren't so tough when it's the real thing," Diomedes spat. Roland sneered, turning the opposite way Diomedes expected. He grunted as Roland's tail lashed him square on the head, and he plummeted to the ground. Satisfied, Roland glided away to join the main battle.
He found the Wyvern gargoyles in heated combat with Atalanta's warriors. The fighting refused to tilt to either side's favor, but Roland knew the numbers were in favor of Wyvern. He eyed the colossal lavender youth who was fighting off one of Atalanta's armed gargoyles with ease. The lavender youth's eyes weren't even lit, although the other gargoyle roared and swung a mace feverishly. Goliath ducked and swerved with expert reflexes, and punched the gargoyle in the chest. He then grabbed the arm with the mace and flipped the other over his back. Roland circled the fray watchfully, edging slightly closer and closer to Goliath as he did.
Meanwhile, Othello and Thersites surprised each other and found themselves fighting side-by-side. Although Othello's fighting was noticeably more offensive than Thersites' conservative approach, the gray-green gargoyle was holding his own against his sword-wielding adversary.
Goliath caught a glimpse of his twisted-horned rookery brother's fighting and grinned, remembering back to his performance in the cave rings and noting the improvement of form.
Thersites succeeded in irritating his opponent enough that he charged him, sword raised to strike. The beaked gargoyle jumped to the side and helped acquaint the other gargoyle with the tower wall. The attacker's sword slid into the moss-packed crack that lay between two of the stacked stone blocks composing the outer wall. Snarling, he tried to pull his weapon free. While so occupied, he failed to notice the vat of steaming liquid tipping from a high-story window.
Thersites smiled in self-satisfaction as the gargoyle's pained wail echoed over the sounds of clashing swords and shields.
Roland came around, his eyes locked on Goliath. The large Wyvern warrior was turned towards him, fighting off a pack of humans who feebly attempted to stand up to him with their swords and shields. As he maneuvered himself into a clear dive for his target, Roland felt along his belt for the knife he kept.
The breath was suddenly knocked out of the yellow gargoyle as something slammed into him from above, sending both Roland and his attacker plummeting to the ground. Just before they hit the hard-packed earth, the other gargoyle let go, rolling clear as Roland crashed face-first in the dirt. As Roland staggered to his feet, dazed and coughing, he got a good look at the gargoyle. His sneer faded in a look of surprised amusement. "Well, if it isn't my pretty little sister," he taunted, drawing his knife, as Asrial got to her feet a few paces away. "Don't tell me you actually want to resume our little games."
To his surprise, Asrial returned his steady gaze, keeping her fear from showing. "This isn't a game anymore, brother."
Some distance away, Thersites slowed to watch the scene unfold. Goliath spotted his brother's gaze and followed it curiously. His eyes widened when he saw the two facing off. Both he and Thersites were on the opposite side of the battlefield, a slew of combating men and gargoyles separating them both from their rookery sister.
Asrial smiled, resulting in a slightly perplexed reaction from Roland. But then her eyes shifted focus ever so slightly, seemingly staring at something behind him. The little tinkerer was predictable as always. Roland snarled, his eyes glowing white, making as if to lunge for her. But he pivoted, spinning to meet the attack from behind he knew was coming. He didn't notice Asrial frantically reaching into the pack she carried as he turned away.
The roar died in his throat as he realized that there was no one about to pounce on him. But his former rookery sister had distracted him long enough. In the distance, he could see several more soldiers approaching, moving from shadow to shadow as they prepared to charge into the fray. Roland started to call out a warning to his men just as an odd thunk and a whooshing sound reached his ears.
He whirled back too late to see Asrial aiming an odd-looking crossbow at him and firing off a volley. Roland dodged to the side, but his action came too late as he realized that the stones sailing towards him were connected by a web of rope. Before he knew what was happening, he was suddenly tangled up in the net, the ropes catching his ankles and wrists. Surprised, Roland lost his balance and tumbled to the ground again. The knife flew from his grip, skidding several feet out of his reach. Frustrated, the bandit leader slashed at the ropes with his claws, but the folds of his cloak got in his way, blunting each attempted slash.
He shot a baleful glare at Asrial, half-expecting her to gloat. But she only looked at him with a curious, almost pitying, expression before clambering up the side of the nearest cottage and leaping into the air.
* * *
The tide of battle was turning.
At first, the wall of bandits and gargoyles seemed to be impenetrable, withstanding the relentless assault of the Wyvern soldiers. But bit by bit, the resistance was weakening. The Captain was sure of it.
He parried the blade that arced towards his head, knocking it from his attacker's grasp. The move earned him a moment of reprieve, and he signaled to the soldiers at the farthest edge of the melee before turning to meet his next opponent. The men at the fringe of the battle seemed to break off for a moment before attacking with renewed vigor, making their way around the edge of the defensive lines. While the defensive forces had been prepared for his attack, they hadn't moved swiftly enough to completely defend the flank. His men were slowly but steadily making their way to attack the defenders from behind.
Suddenly, he spotted a familiar form in the midst of the slashing blades and claws; the tall golden female – the leader of the beasts – was not as far removed as he had thought. He could hear her shouting orders to the warriors around her, trying to get the bandits and gargoyles to regroup. With all her concentration focused on rallying her troops, she didn't notice the Captain fighting his way through the battle towards her.
But she did notice it when he finally reached her, easily parrying the Captain's strike. She turned on him, eyes sparkling with warrior lust. They narrowed into glowing slits on the sight of him, but when she spotted the rank insignia on his breast she pulled her lips back in a mirthless grin. "Ah, the leader of the party from Wyvern – come to throw himself at my feet."
The Captain's face remained hard. "Far from it, beast. Now ready your weapon. I am here to remove you from this land for good."
"I had hoped so." Atalanta beamed, tossing her sword aside and flexing her talons. "I'm going to enjoy this!"
* * *
With the arrival of the last of Wyvern's troops, the battle turned drastically. The fight was more to the humans now who fought heatedly amongst themselves, the colors of Wyvern drowning within the indiscernible garb of the rogues.
Agamemnon brought his fist around to collide with a human, sending him hurtling in an arc through the air to land in a hay pile a distance away. He turned to Diomedes, as the younger gargoyle limped towards his elder.
"Are ye all right, lad?" he asked with concern.
Diomedes waved it off. "Yes, I am fine. It is our rogue brother’s work," he replied bitterly.
As he spoke, a human carrying a torch raised high overhead charged at him from behind, a wail emanated deep from his throat. Diomedes spun around to face the assailant, but could do no more than duck and snarl as Agamemnon punched the assailant square in the face. The human fell - and his torch with him.
"They're meanin' ta set us afire now!" the old gargoyle exclaimed.
Elsewhere, Roland inched towards his knife. Through the tight netting he reached for it with an extended talon. He winced, growling as he pushed farther. Finally, he grabbed the knife and slit open the twine cords with ease. Discarding the scraps resentfully, he stood to examine the status of the fight, his cloak swirling about him on the wind as he did.
Wyvern had not committed all its forces at once, and now that realization was costing the bandits the battle. Roland gritted his teeth. Prince Malcolm was indeed a weak-hearted fool to send so much. The bandit leader swore that it would be the last time he overestimated someone.
His men were already fleeing to the surrounding woods, and Atalanta's fighters would soon follow. None of them were willing to lay down their lives for some petty village, no matter their loyalty to Atalanta.
With a snarl, he turned and left the field.
* * *
Curran, swerved with his blade held firmly in his hands, as Atalanta pounced on him. She swiped at him with her sharp talons, fueled with an inexhaustible fervor. Left to right, right to left, she pushed him further back as she went, her claws sailing through the air with lightning speed.
The Captain ducked, bringing up a shield he had procured from a fallen comrade and blocking the next of her onslaughts. He caught her slash with the metal buffer and, with a grunt, pushed her back. She grinned as he swung his sword at her, dodging easily, and savoring the fight.
She fell prey to the misdirection of the next blow, dodging to one side and giving Curran an opening. He quickly took it – striking her on the back of the neck with the flat of his blade. She growled, her eyes blazing into sight in the dark, as the Captain wasted no time in taking another swing. She leapt out of the way, barely in time, as the blade slashed downward, hitting the pebble laden earth instead.
He looked up at her undaunted, his chest armor heaving as he breathed. "Not so pompous anymore, are ye, beastress?"
Atalanta sneered at her adversary, showing her fangs, her eyes still aglow. The captain was unimpressed. "That display nae intimidates me. I've seen it many a time before – and from better foes than you!"
He lunged for her again, his sword slicing the air with force seemingly too strong for his tired muscles. Beads of sweat hung on his forehead, but he was no more weakened by exhaustion than she.
All around them, far and wide, fights the mirror of their own were taking place between the respective forces. The battle had dwindled from the large-scale pitting of army verse army to one-on-one, or two-on-two fighting between small parties of adversaries.
* * *
"We are of Wyvern!" the soldier shouted at the top of his lungs. His voice carried through the dead air that hung over the now vacant battlefield, and up to the top of the stone tower within which the villagers still remained fortified.
"It's a lie," they heard someone say from within, "dinnae believe them!"
The solder stepped back farther so that the villagers could see him fully. Some faces peeked out from one of the high windows and took in the lone soldier dressed in Wyvern's colors, as he stood amidst the empty, shield-and-sword-littered field.
Agamemnon stood off to the side, working his jaw. "We don't have time for this..."
Asrial joined the others, swooping down to the ground. "Sister," Goliath greeted, "is there any sign of our rogue brother?"
Asrial shook her head. "He's disappeared."
Finally, the sounds of movement were heard inside, as the villagers moved away the blockade they had accumulated at the foot of the tower where the entrance lay. The guardsmen and gargoyles moved back as heavy banging and creaking sounds issued from behind the steel-reinforced oaken doors. Finally, the doors creaked open, and initially everyone inside shrieked and hollered of deceit, seeing the gargoyles present.
Agamemnon rolled his eyes and flung up his arms in a defeated gesture, as a crossbow fired from the opening. It barely missed Thersites, who jumped to the side with a yelp.
"Now that's enough!" Agamemnon shouted angrily, turning back around on the tower. "Are ye daft?! Dinnae see us out there fightin' off the Bandit Leader’s men?!"
Conflicted murmurings came from the crowd. The guardsmen took over now, herding the villagers out of the tower and instructing them to seek shelter in the forest until the battle was won and it was safe to return.
"It is not over yet?" an old man questioned without comprehension as a guard maneuvered him in the right direction.
"No, sir, the battle is still to be decided on the southern end of yuir village."
Diomedes and Othello responded to the villagers distrustful stares with narrowed eyes as the disheveled people ran past them.
"Hurry now!" one of the guardsmen ordered.
Agamemnon turned to face Asrial. "Did you gain any glimpse of the battle on the other end of the town?"
"It's hard to tell. The battle is less congested now, more spread," Asrial answered.
Agamemnon nodded approvingly. "Take to the air, lads and lassies! We mustn't sit here idly while the night has yet to be decided for good!"
Othello, Diomedes and Goliath nodded briskly, clenching their fists and spreading their wings. Thersites followed suit - if without the same level of enthusiasm.
* * *
Atalanta snarled, dismissing another of the Captain's slashes, and unfurled her wings. Leaping back, she perched herself on a high rock and lunged down at him. With her wings spread she was able to catch enough wind to keep a decisive distance above the Captain. She snapped at him with a grin as she passed, reaching out at him with her claws. The Captain ducked and defended with his shield, but in the process lost it, as Atalanta plucked it from his grasp.
Curran stood back up to his full height as Atalanta flapped her wings to try and gain some more height of her own, and turned for a second pass. He narrowed his eyes, his hand securely gripping the handle of his sword. He was no slouch. If Atalanta thought that mere wing would give her the winning advantage, he would prove her wrong. He had fought alongside the Wyvern Clan on more than one occasion.
As she swooped back towards him, she dove in low to the ground to catch a discarded mace. When she came soaring up on the Captain, the two locked their weapons in the air. Atalanta overpowered the Captain at first, pushing his sword aside as she passed, but as she came back around he was able to slice through the opposing weapon's handle just below the steel ball. The wood split easily and the ball fell to the ground with a thunk.
Atalanta heaved the remains of the bludgeon at him, irritated. Curran knocked it away with his sword.
"Is that all you've got?" he challenged.
His answer came in the form of a shrieking howl as Atalanta snapped her wings out to their full breadth and soared for him. The Captain expected a ramming, but she pulled up instead, lashing her tail around the blade of his sword and yanking it from his grasp. He seethed, momentarily frustrated by the move. Atalanta whipped the battered weapon aside and landed. As her tail unfurled he saw no traces of abrasion on the callused skin.
"Regroup on me!" a shout rang out over the field. Robbie held a sword aloft to signal his remaining men. The Captain's forces were farther in the fray, still engaged. Once Robbie's men were regrouped, he led a charge against the exposed flank of Atalanta's forces – exposed as a result of the lack of leadership while she had been battling the captain.
Atalanta's eyes grew vacant and her mouth gaped as she realized the dilemma her single-mindedness had caused. She started to yell something to her nearest soldier, but Curran didn't let her, grabbing a random weapon from the grassy ground -- a double-sided ax -- and lunging at her with it. Atalanta backed away, barking orders to form a line against Robbie's vanguard in between fierce growling directed at Curran. When he swung at her again, her growling culminated in a deafening roar. She grabbed the axe by the handle and tried to pry it away from him.
"Curse you!" she snarled as she wrenched it towards her, surprised as the Captain managed to wrench it back.
"I'll not be defeated by the likes of you," Curran growled in response.
Atalanta summoned her superior strength and finally wrenched the coveted weapon fully from the Captain's hand, but he didn't back away. Instead, he threw a punch, earning an astonished reaction from Atalanta, who, not anticipating such a bold move, barely reacted in time to catch his fist. The Captain writhed under her grip, grinding his teeth, as she raised the axe with her other hand and prepared to finish him off.
But sounds of clashing metal and hearty battle cries caught her attention and she looked up to see Robbie's forces meeting with her own. In one concentrated push, Robbie succeeded in overpowering them. She now looked on with helpless, infuriated eyes as the bandits fled the field. She called for them to heel, her voice strained and hoarse, her eyes burning desperately, but no one heard her.
Curran wasted no time taking advantage of her distraction. Bunching his other hand into a fist, he forced it forward into her gut, causing her to arch over in startling pain and loss of breath. He then freed his intercepted fist and with both clamped together hit her on the back of her neck. She dropped like a stone, the axe falling to embed itself in the earth.
The Captain hunched over and nearly followed her onto the hard earth, barely able to breathe in enough air to supply his exhausted body. Atalanta lay in a heap on the ground, groaning, with her hand on her neck. The sounds of victory echoed in the distance, as he heard the rushing footfalls of the enemy's retreat. His eyes fell on the axe, then on Atalanta.
Breathing heavily, he limped over to the fallen weapon and bent down to reclaim it. Then he rounded on Atalanta. His eyes faded in and out of focus on her as he raised the sharpened blade as if to finish it. But then he stopped.
The axe dropped to the ground beside his boot. "Ye'll make a better prisoner than a corpse, methinks," he resolved.
A fine shiver ran down Curran's back as he sensed someone coming up behind him. He turned to stare into the masked face of Roland. A smile was visible beneath his mask, as he brought his arm forward in a fierce punch. The fist met with Curran's face, causing him to stagger back as he felt a rush of stinging warmth to his nose. Roland bared his talons for another strike. The Captain tried to dodge, but was beginning to lose his orientation. Roland's talons scraped three deep gashes through his chest armor, followed by a second slash from his other hand that left three more going the other way.
Curran turned, seeking the axe he had let fall to the ground, but his eyes found only the empty earthen gash where it no longer rested. Instant realization sunk into his awareness as a female winged shape rose from behind, axe in hand.
There was a dull sense of pain as something struck him. Suddenly, his balance failed, and he collapsed to his knees. Behind him, Atalanta wrenched the axe out of his back and threw it aside with a satisfied chuckle.
Curran fell back. His sight blurred and fuzzed, but he could make out the face of Roland as the gargoyle stared down at him, and a thin voice said, "That's one less Captain for the Guard..."
* * *
Robbie surveyed the hard won landscape with satisfaction as, in the distance, the last bandits retreated into the woods. Higher up, he glimpsed approaching forms, and knew them to be the Wyvern gargoyles. A revelation that meant the battle at the tower had also been won.
His elation was interrupted by several cries coming from the other direction. He glanced over his shoulder and spotted their source - two of his guardsmen. Swords drawn, they faced down the two rogue gargoyles – Roland and Atalanta – between whom lay a body.
His face fell as he realized it was the body of his Captain. A shiver ran down his whole spine, and he drew his sword, running towards the scene with uncomprehending eyes.
When he came within distance of his men and the two gargoyles, his voice seemed to resurface. He shouted madly, pushing past the two safely-distanced guardsmen who were attempting to keep the gargoyles at bay. When the two realized what Robbie was doing they reached out and grabbed him by the shoulders, in time to stop him from lunging into suicide. Robbie fought against the men's grips, slashing his sword at the gargoyles.
"Captain!" he yelled, "Captain!"
The guardsmen, at a loss for what else to do, raised their swords and began to advance.
"Keep back!" the one guardsman ordered nervously to the pair as he advanced cautiously, his sword extended. The other did the same. Roland and Atalanta put up their hands in mock obedience, and Atalanta firmly locked her gaze on the second young guardsman. He faltered under her stare, desperately trying not to look away, sure that it would cost him his life if he did.
As they stepped away from the Captain's body, Robbie broke through the guardsmen's grasp and fell to his knees before his commander, dropping his sword carelessly and holding the Captain's head up. His eyes were still open, but only barely.
Roland smirked at the display, and was about to finish Robbie, unable to resist the convenient irony, when Goliath and Othello landed between the rogues and the guardsmen. Goliath glanced at Curran, then turned and growled at Roland and Atalanta.
"Come on," Roland bid. "We may as well leave." He glanced in Curran's direction with overt casualness. "Let them 'beat us'."
Atalanta agreed silently, letting the red-tinted axe fall limply from her grasp as she followed Roland up a nearby house and took to the air after him. Goliath noted the axe for the first time as it hit the ground.
"Brother, are we just going to let them leave?" Othello asked desperately, his body tensed to pounce.
Goliath worked his jaw. "We won. Going after them will only bring more death," he replied in a low tone.
"Get him off the field!" Robbie hollered, cradling the Captain's head in his arms. Goliath saw bleakly that the man's eyes were completely closed. Cecil looked on timidly from some distance away.
"Help me get him off the field!"
* * * * *
Some hours later
The sound of crows cawing echoed in the distance as some villagers and guardsmen worked their way through the battlefield, towing a wagon behind them as they searched for survivors.
In the village itself, within one of the houses still standing, a guardsman, Cecil, Robbie, and Agamemnon were gathered. The Captain of the Guard lay on a bed in the adjoining room. When the village healer emerged, the anxious looks of the men were met with a sorrowful bow and a shake of the head.
Agamemnon sighed heavily. "I'll go tell those of my clan." He left the room.
Robbie turned, facing the wall of the cottage with vacant eyes. The guardsman approached him quietly. With a low voice, he said, "With the Captain gone, you will have to take charge of us until we return to Wyvern. Prince Malcolm will no doubt choose a successor, but the men need a leader now."
Robbie nodded his head mutely, and the guard withdrew, leaving the cottage to inform the men of their Captain's passing.
Outside, the gargoyles stood silent, their eyes to the ground. Agamemnon finally spoke. "The Captain of the Guard... may have not liked us all that much. But he was a good man. He was an honorable man. And a great warrior." There, Agamemnon stopped – his shortest speech in history – by far.
From behind them approached Cecil, who had observed the brief sermon. His gait was noticeably more humble. When the gargoyles turned to him, he stopped and gulped nervously. "I... just wanted to... thank you. For saving my village." He added unsurely, "Thanks to your help, the village artifact is now safe again, as well."
Everyone was surprised when Robbie approached next. He exchanged brief glances with the clan, all of whom gave him sympathetic looks. He then turned to Cecil. "You say the village artifact has been found to be safe. Then you have it?"
Cecil nodded slowly. "Yes, that is right."
Robbie nodded. "I would like to be able to return to Castle Wyvern with it. It was Prince Malcolm's decree that we bring it back safely. Roland and Atalanta's men could return," he added, but Cecil's expression was already hardening into objection.
"I assure you," he insisted, "the artifact is safe at hand. It couldn't be safer, in fact. If the rogues were to return, they would not find it. But... they might not return at all if they only think the artifact has been taken away. Meanwhile... it can reside here, in safety, where it was entrusted and where it belongs."
Robbie drew in a deep breath, and nodded. "Very well," he conceded. "The artifact may remain."
It was not long after when the parties separated. Robbie gathered the remaining guardsmen together and split them into two groups: one was to return to Wyvern, while the other stayed behind for a short while to ensure the rogues did not attack again as soon as their forces withdrew; and, to help the people of Braddock rebuild their village.
Before they left, Cecil gave the gargoyles a personal salute - a gesture that he performed with the utmost solemnity. It was a sign of the bittersweet parting. The battle had been won, the village had been saved, but the cost was represented in the six men detailed with carrying the former Captain of the Guard's body back to Castle Wyvern...
* * * * *
Outside Braddock, an hour before sunrise
A figure stumbled through the morning mists, its passage far from stealthy due to the stream of muttered cursing that accompanied it. As it approached the clearing, a small shape could be seen bulging from the folds of its concealing cloak. The stranger stopped in the clearing, looking about in confusion.
"Do you have it?"
The sudden sound caused the first figure to jump and draw his sword, whirling about to face the source of the voice. The second figure, similarly cloaked, stepped out from behind the thick trunk of a nearby tree. "Well? I asked you a question."
"Aye." Glaring at the newcomer, Cecil sheathed his sword. "And it's yours. A small price to pay to have what I want!"
"Indeed," Roland replied, mildly. "With the Elder dead, no one will stand in your way of becoming the leader of your town. Who will challenge the authority of the fearless protector who stood up to his village's greatest threat?"
Cecil frowned, retrieving a small wooden chest from his cloak. "No one, of course. Especially when I bring his body back to be buried properly after being ravished by a bunch of soulless monsters and bandits." He placed great emphasis on his last few words, and Roland's eyes narrowed. "Where exactly is it anyway?"
"The bodies of the Elder and the rest of the soldiers are in a ravine just a little way from where they separated from you. You should be able to find it easily, and bring them up with a few townspeople to help and watch."
"Just as planned," the human finished bitterly.
Roland smirked. "Don't tell me you're having second thoughts. This was the plan."
A scowl twisted Cecil's features. "True. But you didn't have to kill so many of my people!" Furious, he practically threw the chest at Roland, who caught it nimbly. "I needed those men! The sword is what rules this day and age, and now I have fewer! For all I've done for you, I deserve more than this..."
Roland cautiously opened the lid, peering inside. A necklace of small rounded crystal pieces with a larger, dark, smoke-coloured orb as its central piece lay nestled within. "It was necessary," he responded coolly. Seeing Cecil's unsatisfied expression, he added, "So no one would suspect the subterfuge. After all, a few people die in each bandit attack, if suddenly none were..." He looked up at Cecil again, letting his eyes glow briefly white. "Well, the other elders wouldn't have shared the artifact's location with you." Tucking the bundle into his cloak, Roland chuckled. "Besides, my band will be able to move around this area more easily now without so many guardsmen present."
"Why, you - !" Cecil sputtered, red-faced with anger.
"You said it yourself, it is the sword that rules this day and age. Have a good day, Cecil."
Grumbling to himself, Cecil stumbled to his feet. Not all of his barbs were intelligible, but Roland could hear him sputter some in particular: "Demon... Monster... silver-tongued son of Loki..." Finally, the soldier turned and strode back to the village, fuming all the way.
As soon as Cecil had disappeared from sight, a new group of shadows appeared from the mists, solidifying into the tall figure of Atalanta and two of her warriors. Both were armed and ready to fight. Roland nodded to them, straightening up. Atalanta caught his eye and smiled, knowing precisely what he was thinking.
She turned to her subordinates. "Well? Let's give him what he deserves."
With that, the two drew their swords and dashed off after Cecil, disappearing into the morning mists.