Change of Acquisition

Outline by Stephen R. Sobotka

Written by Amanda "Mandolin" Ohlin

Illustrations by Damocles


Previously on Dark Ages...

"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!"

~Bandit’s Gambit~

* * * * *

"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 Adopted~

* * * * *

Change of Acquisition


Castle Wyvern, 974

The missive from King Kenneth was longer than Malcolm had anticipated.

As the messenger droned on, clearly equally discomfited by the length of the message, the Prince rested his chin in his hand thoughtfully. Most of the news was regarding politics abroad, and fortunately nothing urgent such as an impending attack. Malcolm smiled to himself; in all seriousness, he should be delighted at the lack of urgency in the missive. There had been far too much trouble for Wyvern at home to deal with more difficulties abroad.

His smile faded at that thought, as his mind drifted to the loss of the Captain. He half-expected to see the big man standing in his customary place, not bothering to hide his boredom at the lengthy message. But the man was gone now, with the guardsman named Robbie standing temporarily in his place. The Captain's loss alone was troublesome in itself, but the fact that he had been struck down by bandits only heightened Malcolm’s concern. If the brigands had grown in strength to the point that they could do away with the Captain, they were an even greater threat than he had first anticipated.

Worse, they weren't the only threat. After the destruction of the chimerae, the Lord Sorcerer had failed to send any more creatures to attack the castle. Malcolm found that puzzling, and increasingly worrisome. It had been made perfectly clear that the Lord Sorcerer wanted the lad Marcus dearly. So it made no sense that the wizard would simply give up, unless he was plotting something.

The messenger stopped and cleared his throat before resuming, snapping Malcolm out of his thoughts. Sighing, he forced himself to focus on the matter at hand. A quick glance at some of the other advisers told him that they were having similar difficulties.

"...I have spoken with the Duke of Normandy, who has expressed a desire to forge an alliance with the Scottish throne. To that end, he has requested that I include a letter by his hand. I have approved of his proposal, and believe that it may benefit you greatly. I wish you Godspeed, my brother.

This by my hand, King Kenneth II, Scone."

Malcolm's attention was recaptured at this bit of good news as the messenger stopped for breath and accepted a cup of water from one of the servants. "If Richard the Fearless wishes to form an alliance with my brother, then I will gladly support it. What does his letter say?"

The messenger finished the water and retrieved a smaller scroll from his belt pouch. Unfurling it, he read the contents of the message.

Richard of Normandy to Malcolm of Wyvern: Greeting.

I have discussed the possibility of an alliance with your brother's throne, a proposal that will greatly benefit both our lands. It has come to my attention, however, that such an alliance would be better sealed by an official marriage. King Kenneth and I have agreed on a betrothal between yourself and my daughter, the Princess Elena.

If this letter reaches you without incident or delay, the Princess shall be arriving at Castle Wyvern within two weeks' time, about the time of the Spring Equinox, to view what will be her new home and meet her future husband. Kenneth has assured me that she will be safe within the walls of your home, and I trust that you shall extend the proper hospitality.

This by my hand, Richard, Duke of Normandy.

Malcolm said nothing for a few moments, stunned into silence at this news, before regaining his composure. "Two weeks is a short time to make the proper preparations," he finally managed. "But since my brother desires it, I shall strive to meet his expectations. In the meantime," he continued, addressing the messenger, "the day grows short, and you have traveled far. You are welcome to spend the night in this castle as my guest. The roads are prowled by thieves and bandits after sunset."

The messenger knelt in response and departed to the guest quarters, escorted by one of the guards. Once he was gone, Malcolm let the mask of calm slip, turning to the advisers who were assembled nearby. Again he noted the absence of the Archmage, whose input he would have liked to have. "Marriage?" he echoed, astounded.

"My lord," one of his advisers pointed out, "'tis a greater good at stake here. An alliance with Normandy is too great an asset to refuse."

Malcolm shook his head. "I understand the need. I suppose that I have never given any sort of thought to marriage at all until now."

"Your brother all but commands it, my liege--" another began.

"This I understand just as well," Malcolm added, letting a hard edge slip into his voice. "And I shall not shirk my duty to my king and brother, no matter how suddenly it is thrust upon me." He scanned the small group of advisers. They fidgeted somewhat under his steely gaze, but none spoke up. "Yet I am uncertain as to what we should do."

Standing in the place of the Captain of the Guard, Robbie cleared his throat somewhat awkwardly. "If it please you, your Highness, 'tis not much we can do but prepare for her arrival."

Malcolm glanced over at the young soldier, then at the faces of his advisers. It was clear that they were in agreement. "Very well." He sat back in his throne, feeling a heavy weight descend upon his shoulders. "Two weeks."

* * * * *

The Archmage's Tower

The Archmage was livid. Not as if that was anything new.

Marcus had quickly learned not to talk back or bother his master when the Archmage was stewing like this. Making eye contact, he mused, wasn't such a good idea either. He kept his eyes lowered as he dutifully continued scrubbing at the floor, trying to remove the stains left from a previous experiment. From the looks of things, no amount of scrubbing would completely remove all traces of the stains. A spell would ... but, he thought the better of it as he glanced over at his master. Now would be a bad time to try something like that.

Scowling, the Archmage paged through one of his older tomes, not quite paying attention to the words on the page. He still couldn't believe it. Despite the efforts of the Prince's men, the artifact remained out of his reach. He should have known not to entrust those blunderers to retrieve the artifact in the first place. Still, the whole mess was yet another in a line of bitter failures. In the back of his mind, he could hear the Lord Sorcerer chuckling at his failure, and clenched a fist, nearly tearing the brittle parchment.

He caught himself and smoothed the page carefully, forcing himself to cool his fury. There was no point in stewing over past failures now. Anger only made one careless. Carelessness, he knew, would only lead to more missteps in the future.

Turning his attention back to his research, the Archmage turned the matter over in his mind. How important was the prize, and what could he spare to achieve it? He had decided a while ago that it could not be one of the Thirteen Treasures. It had been described as a simple crystal necklace with a larger, dark, smoky pendant orb at the center. As an apprentice, he had researched the subject extensively, and was familiar enough with the Treasures to know that this artifact could not be in their ranks. At least he had not lost one of the Treasures, which would have been an even greater loss.

Yet that was little consolation. It was obvious that the necklace had to have some magical value. Perhaps it could even be used as a weapon against his enemies. The Archmage began to chuckle as visions of the Lord Sorcerer's demise flickered in his mind. He started trying to figure out how to maneuver the Prince into taking care of his hated rival, but then grew thoughtful. Malcolm would not be easily manipulated, nor would it be wise to do so since it might jeopardize his place if his machinations were discovered. "If you want something done correctly," he murmured, "you must do it yourself."

Turning the page, he skimmed the text, following the flow of the writing with his index finger. Near the bottom of the page, he passed over a passage and stopped, intrigued. Skipping back to the top of the passage, he reread it more carefully. A smile replaced the scowl on his face as the meaning became clear. "A divining spell," he murmured. "To find what once was lost. How interesting."

Straightening, he turned sharply, peering down at Marcus. The boy froze under the Archmage's imperious stare, half afraid of punishment. "Fetch some clean water at once," the Archmage snapped. "We have work to do."

Somewhat relieved, Marcus nodded hastily and hurried out. Alone in the tower, the Archmage chuckled. Perhaps this was one failure that could be remedied.

* * * * *

Courtyard, after sunset

The young porter glanced up at the parapets with a relieved sigh. "Finally. I thought they'd never be off."

"What's that?" the merchant asked as he lifted the last of the barrels onto the cart.

"Th' beasts, of course. Gargoyles." The porter shuddered. "Ev'ry night I fear I'll be pounced on from above when one of 'em wants a meal."

The older man smiled at that. "Oh, come now, lad," he chortled. "If ye were in any danger, they'd have attacked ye by now. 'Sides," he added, thumping the wiry youth on the back, "ye'd barely make a decent meal as it is." Still chuckling, he took up a length of rope to secure the supplies.

Sighing, the porter brushed him off. "Ye think ye're funny, don't ye?"

"I think you should be off to the stables now," was the gruff answer.

Undaunted, the boy cocked his head. "Are ye sure that cart can hold all that? It looks ready to give at any moment."

With a groan, the merchant turned away from his task to tell the boy off. The rest of their argument was drowned out by the sound of hoofbeats, and Robbie reluctantly turned his attention from their quarrel with mixed emotions. As amusing as their banter was, it was troubling as well. He glanced up to the parapets, catching a glimpse of a winged shadow passing between the towers. Not all of the gargoyles had gone out to hunt; some few had stayed behind, in case the castle needed protection.

Protection. The young guardsman sighed, shaking his head. All this time sharing the castle with them, and still people refused to believe, or notice, that the gargoyles helped protect them.

Robbie forced those thoughts from his mind, turning his attention back to the present. He was supposed to be checking on the guards, not daydreaming like a child. Silently berating himself for his absent-mindedness, he scanned the crowd, looking for anything out of the ordinary. As far as he could tell, most of the men were at their posts or attending to the proper duties.

A glance over at one of the side entrances proved that assumption wrong. Three guards were lounging by the door with a few serving girls. Robbie recognized the three immediately; they were supposed to be patrolling the battlements. But it seemed that they were paying more attention to the girls than to their duties. Shaking his head, Robbie strode across the courtyard to meet them. He was in charge, albeit temporarily, and they would have to respect that.

He hadn't gone five paces when there came a snapping sound, followed by the creak of splintering wood and a panicked cry. Robbie whirled to see the merchant's overloaded cart tip over, trapping someone beneath its bulk with a sickening crunch. The tightly packed load of barrels wobbled and creaked, the strain threatening to break the ropes. They had been tied down securely, however, and did not budge.

Forgetting about the irresponsible trio, Robbie bolted for the cart, shoving his way through the crowd that was gathering. He made his way through to join the merchant and another man, who were already trying to lift it. As Robbie bent to grab hold, he recognized the half-conscious porter, struggling vainly beneath the weight that was crushing him. he planted his feet and strove with all his might to lift it. Despite their efforts, the cart wouldn't budge. The boy groaned in pain, struggling to stay conscious. "Hold on, lad!" Robbie reassured him.

He turned back to where the three guards were still engrossed with the girls. Robbie gritted his teeth in frustration before shouting at them. "Donal! Beistan! Corvin!" he bellowed. "To me, now!"

Seeing the jeopardy the boy was in, the three men completely forgot about the serving girls, dropping their mugs and dashing over to help. Beistan, of course, managed to trip over his the moment it hit the ground, tumbling to his hands and knees. He quickly managed to scramble to his feet and hurried to catch up with his comrades, taking the corner beside Corvin. As they added their strength, Robbie felt the bulk start to budge, but only slightly. The porter, still conscious somehow, let out a choking gasp as gravity began to win the battle. "Heave!" Robbie yelled, pulling all his strength into it. "Heave!"

Just as he began to think his arms would give, a dark shape swooped down from the battlements, landing a few paces away. Robbie looked up in surprise to see the lavender gargoyle approaching the cart. "Allow me," he offered, pushing through the group of exhausted men.

Before anyone could respond, he dipped down, grasped the cart with both hands, and began to lift. To Robbie's amazement, the cart began to shift, creaking in protest as its weight was finally lifted off of the struggling porter. As the men released the cart, Robbie gestured to the merchant, and together they crawled beneath it to reach the porter. Groaning, the youth did not protest as the two men pulled him out from beneath the shadow of the cart.

As he passed the youth over to two of the guards, Robbie turned back to the gargoyle, who still held the cart up. "You can let go now," Robbie informed him. "The lad is safe thanks to your help."

The gargoyle frowned at that, looking at the cart. "What," he grunted, "are in these barrels?"

"Just food an' provisions," the merchant answered. "Dinnae worry yerself, they're well secured."

But the gargoyle was already lifting the cart again, careful not to dislodge the barrels as he strained against its weight. Slowly, but surely, the heavy load began to shift upright. Robbie and the other guards gaped as the gargoyle guided the cart back onto its wheels with a great amount of effort. One of the barrels came loose, nearly toppling to the ground. Instead, it landed in the hands of the merchant, who had hurried over when the barrel started to wobble.

He gently pushed the barrel back in its place as the gargoyle released the cart with a deep sigh. "Thank you," the merchant managed to gasp. Out of breath, the lavender gargoyle could only nod.

The three guards were still standing there, staring in amazement. "Heavens!" Beistan exclaimed. "He's got the strength of a giant, to have to handle that all by himself!"

Donal grinned at that. "Aye, like the giant Goliath!"

Despite himself, Robbie cracked a smile. "But not so likely to be felled by a single stone, I'll warrant." He turned to the gargoyle, who was still somewhat winded. "Again, my thanks for all you've done, my friend."

The gargoyle nodded, but did not get the chance to reply as a much smaller beaked male with a crooked horn landed not far away. He was obviously fatigued, and was oblivious to the crowd as he stumbled over to the larger gargoyle, panting and out of breath. "Brother," he panted. "The Leader - the Leader told me to come find you. You weren't at your post."

"You can tell the Leader that he left with good reason," Robbie interjected, folding his arms. "He saved a man's life tonight."

Casting a grateful glance at Robbie, the lavender gargoyle eyed his rookery brother with some amusement. "I see you kept up with the others – in your usual fashion," he observed as he followed the smaller male back towards the castle.

"It's not my fault," was the petulant response. "No one told me the hunt was going to be a race."

The rest of their conversation could not be heard as the two gargoyles took to the air, gliding into the night sky. Robbie watched them go with some amusement before turning to check on the porter.

The youth had been guided to the stables, and was lying on a bale of hay-- dirty, scratched and quickly bruising --but otherwise none the worse for wear. "How are you faring?" Robbie asked as the boy was handed a cup of water and greedily drank from it.

"He'll live," the merchant chuckled, patting the porter - gently this time - on the shoulder. "What do ye think now, lad, eh?"

"Aye, I'm not about to be a meal," the boy admitted hoarsely, shaking a finger at the older man. "But I think ye need to learn to load a cart properly!"

Robbie laughed heartily along with the others at that, but his mirth was cut short as one of Malcolm's pages rushed up to him. "Sir," the boy gasped, "the Prince requests your presence in the main hall."

"I'll report there shortly," Robbie answered, still concerned for the porter's health. The youth had suffered because of his inattention, he was sure of it.

But the page was adamant. "Immediately, sir."

Robbie beckoned Corvin over to him. "See that the lad is cared for," he advised.

The guard nodded, and with a sigh, Robbie turned and followed the page back into the castle.

* * *

The Archmage turned from the book to glare at his apprentice. "Is it boiling yet?"

"I - I don't know," Marcus coughed. He was kneeling by the hearth, where a small pot containing a mixture of herbs and powders was simmering over the fire. The smell of the vile mix had caused him to cover his nose and mouth with a rag as he stirred with the longest spoon he could find. "I can't tell. It's been over the fire for a long time."

"Perhaps you could see if you took that cloth off of your face!" the Archmage snapped, but calmed himself quickly at the alarmed look in the boy's eyes. No good would come of scaring this one off. "I apologize, dear boy," he managed in lower tones. "The spell dictates that the mixture must be brought to a frothing boil before the final ingredient can be added."

Wincing, Marcus leaned as close as he dared to the pot. "It looks like it's bubbling to me."

"Good enough!" With that, the Archmage reached over, seemingly heedless of the stench, and dropped a handful of powder into the pot. The mixture hissed and frothed, taking on an eerie blue glow. "Quickly!" the Archmage ordered, tossing some rags at Marcus to protect his hands. "Remove it from the flame!"

Marcus obeyed, wrapping his hands and carrying the small pot across the room to the circle that the Archmage had drawn on the floor. In its center lay a large earthenware bowl, intricately painted with symbols that the boy had never seen before. Carefully, so as not to knock over the candles surrounding it, he poured the mixture into the bowl.

"Very good," the Archmage muttered as Marcus carefully set the pot down, out of the way of the circle. He glanced down at the book before murmuring an incantation, too low and too fluid for Marcus to catch. As the final syllables were uttered, the potion flared brightly for a moment. It was so sudden and so harsh that Marcus stepped back, shielding his eyes. Then, the brilliance faded, and the surface of the liquid became still.

Cautiously, Marcus knelt beside his master at the edge of the circle to peer into the bowl. The dark liquid settled to reveal an image reflected on its surface - the entrance to a small cave in the forest. There were a few men milling about, but the cave was not heavily guarded. "I recognize that cave," the Archmage mused.

He fetched a sheet of parchment, unrolling the map out in front of him on the floor. Stabbing a bony finger onto a certain spot, he smiled. "It seems the artifact is close by. This may be easier than I first thought."

Marcus was not so optimistic. "It looks dangerous, master."

"Yes, and ill-guarded," the Archmage observed. "A clever person could sneak in and out without too much trouble."

He would have said more if not for the sharp knocking on the door. Muttering under his breath, the Archmage promptly splashed a hand into the bowl, dissolving the magic and causing the image to fade away. The persistent knocking continued as he leapt to his feet and threw open the door. "What in blazes do you want?"

The page cringed at the outburst before speaking. "B-by your leave, Archmage," he stammered, out of breath from the climb to the tower, "His Highness requests your presence in the Great Hall immediately."

Gritting his teeth to stave off another outburst, the Archmage scowled at the page before regaining his composure. "Very well. Tell the Prince that I must do some tidying up first," he answered, gesturing at the still-smoking hearth. "But I shall arrive shortly."

The page nodded and hurried away. Once he was out of earshot, the Archmage slammed the door shut again, cursing under his breath. Marcus watched his master warily as the Archmage stormed around the workshop for several moments in a rage. Finally, the Archmage composed himself. "I suppose I have no choice but to go," he announced bitterly. Then he smiled slightly. "But, my apprentice, it shall be up to you to go and retrieve the artifact."

Marcus gaped at his master, utterly shocked. "M-me?" he stammered, unable to believe what he was hearing. "Alone??"

"Yes, my boy," the Archmage answered, "consider it a test of your talents!" His manner had shifted again from quiet fury to an almost genial cheer as he spoke. "You have been practicing well with the rudimentary spells I have taught you, have you not?"

"Well, yes, master, but--"

"Now you can truly put yourself to the test," the Archmage interrupted. "After you've doused the hearth and cleaned up, go and fetch the pendant necklace. Bring it to me before the moon begins to set."

Marcus looked doubtful. "I'm sorry, I - I'm not sure."

The Archmage had his hand on the door, and turned back, a thoughtful expression on his face. "My boy, this artifact I seek may be the key to great power. In the wrong hands it could be extremely dangerous. But in the right hands it can be used to help the greater good, preserved and studied in the best interests of the people. If it was up to you, wouldn't you do everything in your power to protect it?"

"Yes, I suppose so."

"Then it is settled." Before Marcus could protest further, the Archmage hurried out the door, shutting it behind him.

Alone in the cluttered workshop, Marcus merely stood there for several moments, staring blankly at the door. His unfinished question was echoing in his mind. How did the Archmage expect him to retrieve the necklace in such a short time? Not only that, how could he do it on his own? The thought of going out into the wilderness alone and unprotected was overwhelming.

Unbidden, thoughts of his mother sprang to mind. Even with the guards to protect her, it had been in vain. Marcus clenched his fists in anger, remembering one of his final glimpses of her through the thick wall of ice. He would never forget the frozen look of terror in her eyes. He would never forget how his fists had pounded uselessly on the ice that entombed her. If he couldn't protect his mother, then how was he supposed to protect himself? He was but a helpless child.

Helpless. The word echoed again and again in his mind. Was that the way it would always be? Would he be unable to protect himself forever?

His sorrow abruptly shifted into anger. "No," he whispered. He hadn't toiled at his studies for nothing. In fact, the Archmage was right. He had been doing quite well, and he was sure that he was far more skilled now than when he had first arrived at Wyvern. Of course, he had a long way to go before he could be considered a true mage, but... he was not helpless.

Perhaps the only way he could learn to use his skills was to be challenged from time to time. If the Archmage was right, the artifact could be used for good. It could be a means to protect against harm, to ensure that no more innocents suffered. And he could be the one to unearth it.

Marcus hesitated for a few moments more before opening a nearby cupboard and selecting a few potions and herbs. On any important journey, it was always best to be prepared.

* * *

The Archmage was the last to arrive in the Great Hall. Malcolm's entire court was assembled, and the Archmage, sensing that this was important, quickly adopted his most contrite manner. "Forgive me, your Highness, but I was caught in the midst of a lesson with my apprentice."

Before he could continue, Malcolm nodded absently. "Yes, yes, that is quite understandable."

Somewhat discomfited by the brusque dismissal, the Archmage took his place without comment. He scanned the crowd of people in the hall: Malcolm's court, the head cook and several guardsmen were present. Perhaps he had not been called away on an entirely trivial matter.

"I am sure that you are wondering why I have called you all together with such haste, and I thank you for responding so promptly," he began. "I have matters of the utmost importance to announce.

"As some of you already know," he continued, "my brother is seeking to gain an alliance with the Duke of Normandy. To seal their pact, they have agreed that an arranged marriage will best cement such an alliance - that is, a marriage between myself and the Princess Elena, the Duke's daughter."

Malcolm paused to let the news sink in. "While this may be rather abrupt," he added over the startled murmurs, "I shall, as always, honor the wishes of my half-brother. I have also been informed that she will be arriving in two weeks' time to view what will become her new home. We will extend any and all courtesy and respect to the Princess as befits her title and status.

"I must admit," the Prince finished, "this is not how I expected to be wed, but it is in the best interests of the crown. I make this decree public: I fully intend to honor our impending marriage."

As he finished speaking, the hall erupted with the buzzing of excited conversation. Even the Archmage looked somewhat surprised at the news. "It appears that I am not the only one who did not expect this," Malcolm observed wryly, drawing smiles from around the hall. Again he raised a hand for silence, his expression turning grim. "I regret that my next announcement is far more grave. As many of you know, the Captain of the Guard was slain on the field of battle. He was a great warrior and an honorable man, and his presence will be sorely missed."

A solemn silence filled the hall at that. Malcolm waited a few more moments before continuing. "Therefore, a new Captain must be chosen." He scanned the room as he spoke, his gaze falling on numerous faces before he focused on the group of guardsmen assembled there. "The Captain commanded one of the finest garrisons I have ever seen, and from so many able men I am hard pressed to select just one."

He turned to one of his advisers, who handed him a familiar sword and scabbard. A few people recognized the Captain's old sword as the Prince faced them again. "Yet I have chosen the one man whom I feel is the most worthy of the position." Malcolm stopped, looking straight at his choice. "Robbie, please step forward."

His declaration brought forth almost as much surprise and conversation as the wedding announcement. The young guard nearly jumped in startled surprise before some of the others urged him forward, shoving him from their ranks into the crowd. Robbie nervously made his way through the assemblage. From the blurred murmur of the crowd, he could hear bits and snatches of conversation as he passed.

"Aye, a good choice. Th' lad's got a good head on his shoulders."

"Him? I know others who could do much better."

"Such as?"

"Corvin, perhaps? Or Beistan?"

"Beistan? Are you mad? Beistan trips over his own feet. And I hear he talks to his sword."

"At least the Prince picked one well-liked among the men. It never helps to begin a position of command with lots of enemies."

"Nay, that's how you end it!"

"That boy! Captain of the Guard? He's barely a stripling!"

"'Tis a better choice than some of those drunkards, I'll say."

Robbie flinched a bit at some of the barbs, but their sting faded as he dropped to one knee before the Prince. Malcolm was holding the Captain's sword in both hands, the blade still in its scabbard.

Malcolm waited for the chatter to die down before speaking. "The position of Captain carries a great weight of responsibility. You must pledge your life not merely in the service of the crown, but for the safety of all the souls within these walls and beyond, those who are under the protection of Wyvern."

He beckoned for Robbie to rise. As the young man got to his feet, Malcolm placed the sheathed sword in his hands. "Do you swear to uphold the laws of this land and protect its people?"

"By my life," Robbie replied, still a bit shaken, "I do swear it."

"Then in the presence of God and those here assembled," Malcolm said loudly, "I declare that henceforth you shall hold the position of Captain of the Wyvern Guard." With those words came a swell of applause which began at the back of the hall and swept through the crowd. Several of the guards cheered as Robbie buckled the sword and scabbard to his belt, unsheathing the blade for all to see.

The ringing cheers soon faded away and were replaced by the easy babble of conversation as it became apparent that this was the last of the Prince's formal announcements. The crowd began to disperse as the kitchen staff and the tradesmen moved off to their duties, although several people remained to talk and congratulate the new Captain. Robbie found himself surrounded by a handful of the men he now commanded, all of whom were congratulatory. But once the serious congratulations had passed, they couldn't resist making a few jokes at their friend's expense. "Now that yuir the Captain, what are ye going to do?" one of the men was asking as Malcolm approached the group.

"He'll be bellowin' at us ev'ry chance he gets, that's what," another retorted. In a deeper voice, he added, "What d' ye think yuir doing? I've seen donkeys wield a blade better'n the lot of ye!"

His mimicry was met with laughter and a bit of solemn silence at the memory of the former Captain. "Nay," the first man said to break the silence, "ye'll be givin' lads duties they deserve. I'll protect the ladies' chambers from harm!"

"Aye, and then who'll protect ye from the ladies?" someone asked, and the others erupted in laughter.

Their mirth subsided as Malcolm reached the group, and the guards quickly dispersed to allow the Prince to speak with Robbie. A moment later, however, the Archmage emerged from the crowd. "Your Highness, an excellent choice indeed," he praised, although to Robbie his smile seemed almost condescending. "I must extend my congratulations to you as well, Captain," he added to Robbie. "I trust you will defend this castle as ably as your predecessor."

Robbie looked somewhat uncomfortable. "I'll do my best."

"It was a difficult decision," the Prince began, but broke off as something occurred to him. "Archmage, where is your apprentice? I requested that you both be present for these proceedings."

"Marcus?" The Archmage hesitated before responding. "Unfortunately, I happened to send the boy on an... errand shortly before your message reached me."

Robbie's brow furrowed. "What sort of errand?"

"A simple errand, to further his studies," the Archmage replied coolly. "Only a few hours' ride from here, at most."

"A few hours' ride?" Malcolm echoed, frowning pensively. "And you thought it wise for him to leave the grounds alone – at night?"

"For a simple errand, of course. What of it?"

"It's been quite some time since those creatures attacked," the Prince answered. "In fact, the Lord Sorcerer has not made another attempt. I find it difficult to believe that he would give up so easily."

Aghast, the Archmage paled as the implications struck him. "And I allowed him to leave the grounds alone..." he murmured. "Blast! How could I have missed it? Such a fool!" He cursed softly under his breath as he realized that his own greed might cause him to lose both his apprentice and the artifact to the Lord Sorcerer.

"We haven't time to cast blame," Malcolm said. He turned to Robbie. "Assemble a search party at once. The lad must be found and brought back safely."

"Your Highness," Robbie proposed, "perhaps some of the gargoyles could be persuaded to help."

The Archmage scowled. "You suggest enlisting those creatures?"

Robbie nodded. "Aye, they could find the lad from the air faster than troops on the ground. With your permission, your Highness," he added hastily.

Malcolm nodded thoughtfully. "Indeed. You have my permission, Captain. Seek out their Leader at once. As for you," he addressed the Archmage, "it would be of great help if you could tell us exactly where the boy is headed."

"I will fetch my maps at once," the Archmage replied hastily. The two men hurried from the hall, heading in opposite directions.

* * *

"Whoa! Easy!" It took Marcus a bit of effort to bring the horse to a stop quietly. He had borrowed the skittish animal from the stables with little difficulty, so its temperament outside the gate had come as something of a surprise. But there was no time to go back and change horses. He slid out of the saddle carefully, trying not to excite the beast into making any loud noises. The journey had been enough of a chore with his imagined fears lurking in the shadows. Marcus didn't want to make a real attacker aware of his presence.

He could see the golden-red glow of a campfire through the trees. It was distant enough for him to escape notice, yet he could still make out the shapes of men and the general layout of the camp. There were only two men moving in the glow of the campfire. "Bandits," Marcus murmured, squinting to see better. Past the brightness of the flame, partially hidden by a copse of trees, he could just make out the black maw of a cave - exactly like the one revealed in the finding spell. It wasn't very well guarded, true, but it was still two against one.

The horse snorted nervously and tossed its head. Marcus patted the animal's neck. "I know how you feel."

For a few moments, he seriously considered getting back in the saddle and heading back the way he'd come. The night seemed to be closing in on him, and every shadow seemed to grow fangs and claws as he passed. This is crazy, he told himself. I can't possibly do this alone.

But what would happen if he returned to the castle empty-handed? The Archmage would be displeased, that was certain. And there was no guarantee that the artifact would still be there the next night. Worse, the Archmage might tell the Prince of his failure. If he turned back now, more might be lost than a simple artifact. Besides, he had to prove to the Archmage that he was a worthy apprentice. If he succeeded, perhaps that would convince his master to teach him more powerful spells.

Marcus took a deep breath to steady himself. He reached into the saddlebag, retrieving several small pouches and jars, checking the labels carefully to make sure he had the correct components for the spells. Once he had everything he needed, he tied off the horse and quietly made his way towards the camp.

It was time to put his talents to the test.

* * *

"The Archmage says the lad left nae two hours ago," Robbie explained to the small group of men gathered in the courtyard. At the last moment, he had decided to use ground troops as well. "He's probably reached the cave by now."

"If he hasn't been eaten already," someone murmured.

Robbie shot the speaker a sharp look. "If you think that's funny, perhaps you should stay behind." At the penitent expression on the other's face, he turned back to business. "The Prince wants him found as soon as possible. He's but a child, and could be in great danger."

"So what are we waiting for?" another retorted.

The corner of Robbie's mouth quirked in a wry smile. "The Prince agreed that we get some extra help." Having said that, he glanced up at the parapets, where the shadows of several gargoyles could be seen.

High above them, the Leader stood and waited patiently for silence, looking at the members of the clan before him. Although Agamemnon had already given out duty assignments to most of the clan, the Leader had still been able to assemble a few elders and several of the adolescent gargoyles at a moment's notice. As the group quieted down, he cleared his throat to get their attention. "I've just spoken with th' new Captain," he began. "Seems the Archmage's young apprentice went out inta th' forest alone. Prince Malcolm fears the Lord Sorcerer might try ta capture the lad once again."

"And what does this have to do with us, Leader?" Iago asked, his tone devoid of concern.

"If ye'll be quiet, I'll gladly tell ye," the Leader retorted. "The Captain believes - and the Prince agrees - that we'd have a better chance finding the lad from the air than men on the ground. He asked if we could spare a warrior or two to search."

The group's reaction was far from promising. Iago merely smirked. Desdemona looked uncomfortable. Ajax was frowning at the stone beneath his talons. Thersites was too busy making his fatigue evident to the world to react. Even Goliath seemed a bit doubtful.

It was Demona who broke the silence. "Why should we help him?" she demanded. "Brothers, you've seen how he behaves towards us. We've saved his life before, and yet he still insults us."

"The boy does so out of fear," Goliath mused thoughtfully. "After all, he is but a child."

"That child should learn some manners," Iago argued calmly. "I don't see why we should even bother."

"Because th’ Prince asked us, that's why!" the Leader exclaimed, startling them with his fury. "And because th' boy is under his protection!" He was silent for a few moments, fixing them all with a stern glare. The other gargoyles looked somewhat mollified at his outburst. "He's headed towards a cave north of here," he continued, glancing down at the courtyard. "Now, I'm nae forcing ye ta help in a time of need, but 'tis a serious matter if the Lord Sorcerer is involved."

Thersites was slumped against the wall. "Count me out," he groaned melodramatically. "I haven't the strength to make such a journey."

The others regarded him with a mixture of scorn and amusement. "Are you so sure about that, Brother?" Desdemona inquired, cocking her head to one side.

"Indeed I am," Thersites moaned. "I'm already worn down after you," he said, glaring at Demona, "turned the hunt into a mad race. No, I'd just be in the way."

"That ye would," the Leader observed. "Ye'll report ta th' rookery for the evening; I'm sure they can find something that won't tax ye."

Hearing this, Thersites fairly shot up several inches in shock. "What?" the beaked gargoyle exclaimed, forgetting he was supposed to be fatigued.

Iago did not bother to hide his amusement, chuckling at his rookery brother's discontent. "As for ye, lad," the Leader addressed him, "I think ye'd be better off staying behind as well. In fact, I think picket duty is th' job for ye."

The olive gargoyle's mirth faded, replaced by a look of utter distaste. Although he was not as unwilling to fight as Thersites, Iago shared his attitude about picket duty. Neither of them looked pleased.

The Leader turned back to the others assembled, focusing on the lavender male. "Lad, ye'll be leading the search party." A quick glance at the remaining three showed that they had no objections to the choice. "Bring the boy back safely. The Prince is countin’ on ye."

Goliath nodded and motioned to the other three, as Hudson waved down at the party of soldiers in the courtyard. At the signal, Robbie spurred his horse forward, thundering out the gate with the other soldiers following. With that, the four gargoyles unfurled their wings and launched into the air, gliding into the night.

Once they were out of sight, the Leader turned back to Thersites and Iago. "Well? Are ye planning ta report ta yuir posts sometime tonight?"

Grumbling under his breath, Iago stalked to the edge of the battlements before unfurling his wings with an indignant snap, then glided silently off. The Leader turned to Thersites, who was watching the other go with an almost wistful expression on his face. He became abruptly aware of the Leader's gaze, and his shoulders slumped as he turned and trudged towards the edge.

Thersites sighed in defeat as he glided down towards the lower levels of the castle. "Well, this is a first," he murmured to himself. "I never thought I'd be jealous of anyone doing picket duty."

* * *

The wiry, black-haired man leaned back against the trunk of a tree, looking disinterestedly out at the dark forest. "See anything?"

His companion, a stocky thief with rust-colored hair, glanced up idly. "Not a soul in sight." He turned his attention back to picking crumbs out of his beard. "As always," he added, nibbling at some of the crumbs he picked out.

The first man made a face. "Yuir sickening, Danno. D' ye even know what's in there anymore?"

"Nay," was the response. "But I dinnae make me livin' on account of me groomin' habits."

The other man simply stared at him in disgust. "I hope ye eat a fly, ye great lout." Danno ignored him, preoccupied with his beard.

After a few seconds, the thin man spoke again. "Where are those fools? We should've been relieved hours ago."

Danno did not look up. "Forgot, most likely."

"Well, if the relief don't get here soon," the other muttered, yawning, "I'm certain ta fall asleep."

Crouched in the bushes nearby, Marcus started at that comment. Both of the men guarding the cave looked ready to fall asleep right where they were, regardless of their duties. Hastily, but quietly, the boy retrieved a few packets of herbs, a tiny vial and a small flask from his pouch. With shaking hands, he poured the contents of the vial and the packets into the flask, mixing them into a milky elixir. Since the men were so eager to get some sleep, he reasoned, it wouldn't hurt to give them a nudge in the right direction.

He very nearly breathed in the vapors that were starting to issue from the flask, but caught himself, stoppering the flask with the palm of his hand. Cautiously, he rose and slipped into the shadows, moving closer to the camp. If this was going to work, the two men absolutely had to be in range. A mistake could cost him dearly.

When he had slipped as close as he dared without being seen, Marcus pitched the flask at the two men. It landed perfectly on target, striking the rocky ground right between the men. The flask shattered on impact, causing the two men to jump in surprise and look around in confusion for the source of the noise. Marcus ducked down low, praying that he wouldn't be seen. But he didn't have to worry about discovery.

Pungent vapors rose from the shattered remains of the flask, swiftly forming into an opaque fog. Alarmed, the men jumped back as the fog expanded, opening their mouths to shout for help. Before either of them could make a sound, however, the vapors overwhelmed their senses. They crumpled to the ground, unconscious. Marcus couldn't hold back a grin of triumph. It had worked! He had worked magic on his own, and had succeeded!

He was about to emerge from his concealment in the brush when a sudden sound from inside the cave made him stop. Marcus froze, pulling himself back down in time to see a figure - a very large figure - stumbling outside and head-on into the mist. A fearful chill gripped him as he saw exactly what had left the cave. It was a gargoyle, and one equipped with armor and weapons at that. Marcus bit his lip, silently praying that the mist would overcome the creature as well.

But he had mixed the potency to affect a human, not a gargoyle. The creature had considerably more body mass than either of the men, and it staggered out of the vaporous cloud, dazed and coughing. Marcus ducked down lower to avoid detection as the gargoyle stumbled about, racking his brain for some way to distract the beast before it shook off the elixir.

An idea came to him, and he closed his eyes, concentrating on a talent he hadn't used in a long time.

"Hey, ye ugly brute!"

Confused, the gargoyle whirled at the taunt, hearing a gruff voice echoing from the forest to the north, far from where Marcus was hiding. Smiling to himself, Marcus concentrated harder, hoping the distraction would antagonize it enough.

"Stupid animal," another voice added. "Can't even find us."

"Will ye two be quiet? We got what we came for! Let's go!"

"Ha! That dull-witted beast will never catch up."

With a snarl, the gargoyle staggered off in the direction of the sound, blindly stumbling through the trees and muttering angrily under its breath. Marcus sagged with relief as the creature finally made its way out of sight of the camp. Quickly, so as not to be caught by any other newcomers, he gathered up his things. Covering his nose and mouth with his cloak against the vapors, he slipped inside the cave.

* * *

The azure gargoyle dipped low, swinging out in a wide arc from her companions above her. She fairly skimmed the treetops, scanning for anything out of the ordinary, before turning and picking up altitude, rising back up to meet the others as she completed her sweep in a perfect curve.

"Show off," she heard Desdemona say. Demona tensed for a moment, but caught the teasing smile on her rookery sister's face. She relaxed and smiled back before turning back to the search.

They had been swinging back and forth in the air the moment they'd reached the forests. Since they weren't entirely sure of the path Marcus had followed, Goliath had elected that they sweep the area periodically while keeping themselves and the soldiers in sight of one another.

Ajax was already swinging out to check the left flank as Demona approached Goliath, who was following the path of the ground troops for the moment. "Still nothing out of the ordinary," she informed him. "If the boy came this way, he's long gone by now."

Goliath nodded, preoccupied. Demona hesitated, gliding beside him for a few moments instead of resuming her sweep. "Brother... do you think this is wise?"

"I know how you feel about this, Sister," he replied. "But protecting others is the Gargoyle Way."

Demona snorted. "As the Leader frequently reminds us."

"True, but it is the best way to survive in these dark times." He favored her with a small, wry smile. "Even if you are not fond of those whom you protect."

She sighed, but could not help but smile back at him. "I suppose you are right."

Ajax chose that moment to swing past them, a perplexed look on his face. "What is the matter?" Goliath asked.

The crested gargoyle frowned. "There's some movement in the vale up ahead. It could just be an animal, yet it didn't seem to move like one."

"Stay with the Prince's men," Goliath advised him. "I will have a look for myself."

He banked away from the other two, gliding in the direction that Ajax had indicated.

In moments he came in sight of a shadowy vale, and slowed, seeing some movement between the trees. As he came closer, he could see not one, but several dark shapes prowling through the shadows. Goliath dipped lower to get a better look, all the while keeping his distance in case there was an enemy below. Even from less of a distance, though, the creatures were keeping to the deepest shadows, their forms concealed in the darkness. Despite a gargoyle's excellent night vision, the creatures remained indistinct. Goliath frowned, perplexed, as he circled the area, trying to see at a better angle; any closer and he might alert whatever was down there.

Then one of the shapes moved into the moonlight, and Goliath relaxed slightly to find that it was just a wolf. But then two more joined the first, breaking from the group to crowd around the first one. From their positions, it almost looked as though they were conferring, standing nose to nose in an almost perfect triangle. The rest of the shadows halted abruptly, instead of continuing with the rest of the pack.

"Brother? What do you see?" His flame-haired sister had followed him out of curiosity, but she, too, was wise enough to keep her distance.

He glided upwards, gesturing her to follow as they rose to meet the other two. "Wolves."

"Is that all?" Ajax asked. "They seemed too odd to me."

"Those are not behaving like ordinary wolves," Goliath told him. He glanced over at Desdemona. "Alert the Prince's men at once. You two," he added to Demona and Ajax, "follow me."

As Desdemona dived down to meet the search party, the other three turned east, winging their way towards the vale with Goliath in the lead. Coming closer, they could see that the pack was once again on the move. "Hurry!" Demona cried, zipping past her rookery brothers in her haste to overtake the creatures.

But even her burst of speed was no help, as the three gargoyles touched down just in time to see the last gray shape disappear into the trees.

* * *

Marcus fumbled through his pockets for the talisman, pulling the small stone out and laying it in his open palm. "Luminus," he whispered.

Immediately, the walls of the cave were bathed in white light, which emanated from the stone with a soft pearly glow. Blinking a few times to let his eyes adjust to the light, Marcus turned his attention back to the contents of the cavern, hoping to find some glimpse of the artifact.

Instead, he found himself staring at a veritable treasure trove of weapons, food, supplies, and a variety of other objects. There were piles of barrels and crates and chests lying before him, and Marcus' shoulders slumped as the enormity of the stockpile before him registered. Finding the artifact in this mess would be next to impossible. But then again, he'd come too far to turn back now. Gathering his courage, he set the talisman on the floor and started opening chests and rifling through sacks.

He had to hurry. Although his sleeping potion had succeeded in putting the guards to sleep, he wasn't sure how long it would last - and he certainly didn't want to be trapped by those two. Frantically, the young apprentice doubled his speed, fairly tearing into packs and crates in mad desperation. But there was no sign of the artifact. Just when Marcus was sure his situation could not get worse, he heard the snapping of twigs outside. In a panic, the boy stumbled backwards, tripping over a stone and crashing headlong into a nearby stack of crates.

A metal chest, grown dull and rusted from age, was perched precariously at the top of the crates. The collision caused the crates to wobble a bit, but the chest teetered on the edge before it fell to the ground. It landed face down in front of Marcus with a crunch of rust against stone.

Shakily, Marcus got to his feet, checking for injuries, when a glint of crystal caught his eye. Hardly daring to hope, he knelt down and turned over the battered chest. To his surprise, the fall had broken the rusty lock in half, and the lid was already open a crack. With some effort, Marcus pried his fingers into the opening, forcing the lid to open. To his delight, the necklace tumbled into his lap like a pile of dark crystal tears. He knew it immediately, having studied enough by now to be attuned to the presence of magic. "I found it!" he exclaimed happily, still keeping his voice low. "I truly did!"

He shoved the chest aside and pulled off his cloak, wrapping the necklace in its folds. That done, he picked up the still-glowing stone and made his way back to the mouth of the cave, hardly able to contain his glee at his success.

As he rounded a bend, reaching the cave's mouth, a low, menacing growl made him stop dead in his tracks. Marcus was horrified to find a pack of gray wolves gathered before the entrance to the cave, just within striking distance. They were crowded in front and to the sides of the cave, forming a ring of snarling, bristling menace. Any and all avenues of escape were blocked off. All traces of cheer at his discovery faded as the boy realized that he was trapped.

The largest wolf, who was directly in front of him, stepped forward, and the boy could clearly see the medallion around its neck catch the moonlight as it bounced. Paralyzed with terror, Marcus could only stare as a golden glow issued forth from the medallion, seemingly blinding in the deep shadows of the forest. The light flowed from the metal in a bright cloud, which coalesced into an amorphous shape. It dimmed slightly, and the shape resolved itself into a chillingly familiar face.

The Lord Sorcerer smiled smugly. "We meet again, boy. I suppose now you wish you had agreed to my original offer."

"You," Marcus whispered, a mingling of fear and fury in his eyes. "Your monsters killed Mother."

"Believe that if you must," the apparition answered flippantly. "But listen well. If you had come in the first place, your mother would still be alive today. And I wouldn't have had to wait so many months for the day that you would leave the castle walls." At Marcus' shocked look, he nodded. "I am not the sort of man to give up so easily, boy. I knew the day would come when you would be out in the open once again. Now come along, boy, there's no point in prolonging this any further."

Marcus was nearly in tears. "No. Never!"

"Then I'll just have my servants bring you. Of course," the Lord Sorcerer added, seeing the bundle in Marcus' arms, "I wasn't expecting you to bring me the talisman I have sought after for so long. Now I shall have two weapons to use against my rivals."

With those words, the glowing visage faded away, and the wolves advanced as one, closing in on Marcus. He glanced this way and that, seeing only gleaming fangs and glowing eyes. In his hand, the talisman he had prepared flickered, its magical light dying out. The illumination spell was spent, turning the cave into a black maw which could easily swallow him up. Marcus shut his eyes tightly, waiting for the inevitable, tensing in anticipation of the attack.

A fierce roar split the air, too deep and too loud to have come from the throat of a wolf. Marcus' eyes flew open in time to see a lavender blur crash through the treetops, diving between him and the wolves. The creature landed in a crouch, its back to Marcus, as two more shapes followed in quick succession. Before the boy knew what was happening, he was surrounded by a snarling wall of wings and claws and tails, blocking him off from the wolves. Some small part of him realized that the gargoyles were protecting him, but fear pushed it away. He backed up a step in terror, unsure which enemy was worse.

The three gargoyles and the wolf pack faced off at a standstill, snarling and tensed to strike. For a few moments, neither side moved. Then, in the distance, the sound of hoofbeats could be heard, and a fourth gargoyle soared over the trees, coming within earshot of the cave.

Hearing this, the wolves' snarling grew deeper. "Get the boy to safety!" Goliath shouted up to Desdemona. "We'll cover your retreat!"

Barely had the words left his mouth when the lead wolf pounced, slamming into the lavender gargoyle's bulk. Goliath was expecting it, however, and batted the leader away -- only to face two more as the pack surged forward. In a second, they were entangled in a melee of fangs and fur, drowning out the subdued sounds of the forest with the roaring and snarling of their battle.

Three of the beasts knocked Demona to the ground. With a hiss of rage, she kicked one away, turning her ankle so her talons slashed at the wolf's hind leg. She was satisfied to hear the animal's yelp of pain as the second went flying. The third beast, however, did not give up so easily, its fangs snapping inches from her throat as she tried to keep it at bay. Putting most of her weight into it, she suddenly rolled to one side, shifting their center of balance and distracting the wolf enough to shove it off of her.

Ajax rolled, literally throwing one of the wolves off of him and jumping to his feet to meet further attacks with tail and claws. As he did so, he saw his lavender brother about to be attacked from behind. "Brother! Behind you!"

Turning, Goliath managed to fend off his attacker in time, but the distraction had cost Ajax. He hadn't noticed the wolf climbing to the top of the large boulder nearby. But he did notice it as the beast literally leapt onto his back, its claws raking his shoulders. Ajax let out a howl of pain. Instead of distracting him, however, the injury seemed to give the crested gargoyle a second wind. Backpedaling, Ajax slammed his back into one of the massive boulders near the cave, the impact crushing his attacker. He shrugged the wolf off and dove to intercept three more.

Goliath was tossing attackers left and right. One moment he seemed to be buried in the mass of snarling gray bodies, then the next he sent the wolves flying. But even with his efforts, one of the wolves managed to slip through the fray, diving for Marcus. The boy screamed at the sight of the flashing eyes and dripping fangs as the wolf pounced--

--only to be thwarted as Desdemona swooped down from the sky, slamming the wolf into the ground a foot away from its goal. Frightened, Marcus stumbled away as the wolf slunk off to lick its wounds and his savior turned to meet a few more. He backed up against the wall as the fighting raged on. He closed his eyes, clutching the bundle to his chest, and waited for either the wolves or the monsters to get him.

But the snarling and howling was starting to fade away, replaced by pained yelps and the hiss of arrows piercing the air. Surprised, Marcus opened his eyes again to see a small group of horsemen cutting their way through with swords and arrows to reach him. He didn't notice the gargoyles finishing off the last of the wolves, nor did the fact that they had saved him cross his mind. All that his confused mind could latch on to was the rough-looking and thankfully familiar face of Robbie.

The few surviving wolves, seeing their comrades felled, immediately broke off their attack. Instead, they literally turned tail and bolted away from the cave, disappearing into the shadows of the forest.

Coming up to the boy, Robbie reined in his mount long enough to reach down and pull the stunned boy onto his horse. "Come on, then, lad," he reassured Marcus. "We'll have you back at the castle in no time!"

Numbly, Marcus nodded, unable to protest. Robbie turned to face Goliath, nodding his thanks. Goliath managed a small smile of understanding as the Captain of the Guard spurred his horse, leading his men back towards Wyvern.

* * * * *

Later, back at the Castle

Prince Malcolm looked up at the stars for the hundredth time, wondering just how long the search party had been gone. He had to force himself to remain outwardly calm, but still he was worried.

Of course, it was hard to remain calm the way the Archmage was pacing about the courtyard. Malcolm couldn't remember the last time he'd seen his most trusted advisor so agitated. True, the Archmage knew just how great of a threat the Lord Sorcerer was, perhaps better than anyone in the castle. But his behavior was beginning to irritate the Prince. "They've been gone far too long," the old man snapped. "Your Highness, perhaps it is time to send out another party."

Malcolm was saved from answering as shouts came from the stables as the newly arrived horsemen dismounted. The weary Captain of the Guard emerged from the crowd. Both men turned at his approach, looking at him expectantly. "Captain?" Malcolm inquired. "Have you found the lad?"

"Yes, and in the nick of time," was the answer. Smiling, Robbie stepped to one side, revealing Marcus, who had been trailing behind him like a shadow. The boy was dusty and disheveled, his silvery-fair hair mussed and somewhat dirty, and he was clutching a bundle to his chest nervously. But he was unharmed-- a sight that relieved the Prince greatly.

Robbie put a steadying hand on the boy's shoulder as they came before Malcolm. The Prince looked down at Marcus with a warm and compassionate smile. "Welcome home, my boy. I trust no harm came to you?"

Marcus shook his head. He was still shaken, but the protective hand on his shoulder and the compassionate tone of the Prince seemed to bring him out of it. "N-no, your Highness. Your - your men saved me from the beasts."

At Malcolm's questioning look, Robbie explained, "Marcus was surrounded by wolves when we arrived, your Highness."

"Not ordinary wolves," Marcus put in, his confidence slowly returning. "The Lord Sorcerer sent them after me! They would have taken me back to him!" He looked up at Robbie then. "Thank you... Captain."

"You're welcome, lad," Robbie answered, although he looked a bit troubled at the boy's words.

Malcolm was nodding. "Indeed, Captain, I am grateful as well to see the boy out of the Lord Sorcerer's clutches."

The Archmage had been hovering back a few paces away, trying to see what his apprentice was holding. Just then, the corner of something shiny protruded from the bundle, and the white-bearded wizard's eyes widened. "The artifact!" he cried, shoving his way past the Prince. "You found it! Give it here, boy!"

Speechless, Marcus started to unwrap the bundle, but he didn't get a chance. In a swift motion, Malcolm pulled the boy behind him, interposing himself between Marcus and the Archmage. "You sent Marcus out for the sake of retrieving a single artifact?" he exclaimed, aghast. "Beyond the castle walls, alone? Knowing full well that your apprentice was in mortal peril?"

A small crowd was gathering as they spoke. When their Prince raised his voice, more of the castle's residents joined the crowd, wondering what was happening. The Archmage suddenly found that a large group of people were staring at him expectantly, as well as Malcolm. He swallowed nervously. "For a single artifact, no, your Highness," he replied hastily. "It was also intended as a test of his abilities. If the lad - if any wizard's apprentice, for that matter - wishes to become skilled in the magical arts, he must be challenged from time to time."

Malcolm cut him off with a wave of his hand. "Enough." His eyes were hardened by anger. "If you are willing to endanger the life of a child for the purposes of study, then perhaps you should not be his guardian."

As the Archmage gaped, Malcolm raised his voice. "From this day forth, Marcus is no longer the responsibility of the Archmage. Instead, the boy shall be my personal ward, and no longer subject to the Archmage's whims." He turned to Marcus. "If you accept, of course."

Hearing this, the Archmage tried to protest, but all he could do was splutter in shock and anger. Murmurs of surprise echoed through the crowd assembled.

Marcus hesitated, glancing uncertainly at his old mentor before answering. "Your Highness, I thank you for your offer, but I would like to - to continue my studies."

Several moments passed as Malcolm considered the boy's words, stroking his beard thoughtfully. Finally, he turned and addressed Marcus. "While I do not wish to deprive you of what you most desire, I will not allow you to be placed in that sort of danger again." As both the Archmage and Marcus looked down in defeat, he continued. "My decision stands; if you wish, you will live in my house as my personal ward."

The Archmage uttered a curse under his breath, so low that only Robbie could hear. The Captain could not suppress a faint smile at that.

"But," Malcolm continued, startling the crowd, "I will permit you to continue your training with the Archmage." His gaze traveled to the bearded wizard as he added, "Provided, of course, that he remembers that you are only his student... and his servant no longer!"

Marcus nodded solemnly, uttering the words that had bound him to the Archmage once before, words that would now release him. "I accept, Your Highness." Malcolm smiled as the boy added, "I will not let myself be placed in that position again."

All eyes turned to the Archmage. "Very well," was the gruff response. "I understand."

Pleased, Malcolm clapped a gentle hand on the boy's shoulder. At a glance from Robbie, the guardsmen started breaking up the crowd. Seeing that there was not much more to see, the people scattered back to their duties, leaving Malcolm, Robbie, and the Archmage alone with Marcus. Almost as an afterthought, the boy unwrapped his bundle, revealing the necklace hidden in the folds of the cloak.

"What will become of this?" he asked the Prince, holding it up so that the pendant caught the light and glowed darkly.

Malcolm took the bundle from him, then turned and proffered it to Robbie. "Captain, see that this is placed in my personal treasury. It will remain there until such time as it can be returned to the village that claimed it."

Robbie took the talisman. "Yes, Your Highness."

Malcolm glanced at the Archmage, the anger still flickering in his eyes. "Archmage, you are dismissed. Come, Marcus."

With that, he turned and walked away, with Marcus right beside him. Still shocked at what had just happened, the Archmage could not find the words to protest. Again he had lost the artifact, and again he had made the foolish mistake of employing another. His scowl deepened as he caught a glimpse of several gargoyles alighting on the castle parapets.

As he crossed the courtyard, Marcus tried to hold his head high as the Prince guided him into the castle proper. For the first time, Castle Wyvern was beginning to feel like home.

The End