Dark Ages Ė Equinox
Written by Rahsaan Footman
Outline by Jonathan Cotleur, Rahsaan Footman, Stephen R. Sobotka, Jr.
Illustrations by Jessica Entis
Previously on Dark Ages:
* * * * *
Desdemona about Iago: "He tried to turn you against our brother like he did a thousand years ago. Try to remember."
~ Legion ~
* * * * *
"Your Highness, my name is Oliver. How may I serve you?" the guard asked.
"Lord Donal of Glencarrick and his lady-wife Ingrid shall be arriving at the castle this afternoon with their entourage. Until I can meet with them, I would like you to escort our guests from the gates and attend to their every need. Can you do this?"
"Yes, your Highness. I shall treat them well."
* * *
Desdemona looked at the castle outskirts and decided that it would make her feel better if she left the castle for a while. As she prepared to take flight, a gray-skinned, black-haired female gargoyle approached her.
"You must be lucky, rookery sister, to have all those suitors waiting on you hand and foot, night after night," she said in an almost teasing manner.
Desdemona sighed and turned to her rookery sister. "It is more of a curse than a blessing." She paused before continuing. "If you want one, take one. That would be one less pestering brother for me to deal with."
* * *
Oliver: "Well, it seems to me, lass, that if you want them pestering to stop, you should let them think that you've given your heart to someone else. Then perhaps they will leave you in peace."
"Do you believe that this would work?" the blonde-haired gargoyle asked.
"Well, it's either that or continue to be chased night after night."
She nodded in agreement. "True. Thank you for all of your help."
~ A Guardís Story ~
* * * * *
Desdemona simply shrugged. "I don't know," she said honestly. "You seem to be a nice enough sort, and having you around might convince the other males to leave me alone long enough to actually get some work done."
"A charade, then?" Othello asked. "A deception to play on our brothers?"
"Yes...something like that," she admitted.
"That's rather dishonest of you," Othello teased.
"Well...yes," Desdemona admitted, "but I'm tired of being interrupted in the middle of something each night because of some male trying to win my favor." She paused for a moment before looking into his eyes and saying, "And I'd also like to think we could become friends."
~ Ever Faithful ~
* * * * *
To my betrothed,
I look forward to our first meeting with an eager heart. After enjoying the hospitality extended to us by Lord Donal of Glencarrick, we will travel to your lands. You can expect our arrival at Castle Wyvern by the Equinox.
Until we meet,
* * *
Castle Wyvern, 974 AD, Sunset
Prince Malcolm read the missive a third time as servants cleaned the Great Hall. Princess Elenaís visit gave this yearís spring-cleaning more impetus. The castle staff spent an entire week scrubbing the castle from tower to cellar.
The castleís seneschal, a short man with big ears and a scrunched-up face, picked his way through puddles of water and servants with their whiskbrooms, to present himself before his liege. Prince Malcolm remained preoccupied rereading the letter, until the seneschal cleared his throat, bringing the prince out of his daydream.
"Yes?" Prince Malcolm asked abruptly.
"The musicians have arrived. Also, the flour, fish, and berries you requested are here," the diminutive man reported.
"Excellent. See to it that the performers are properly quartered and send instructions to the kitchen to begin preparing the feast. Our guest should be here tomorrow."
"Yes, your highness," the seneschal nodded.
"One more thing," Malcolm added. "Make sure Marcus is washed and attired and send word to all my advisors. I want everyone present when the Princess arrives."
The big-eared man gave an exaggerated, suffering sigh. "Yes, your highness."
Prince Malcolm did not notice his seneschalís dramatics. His thoughts returned to the letter and expectation about meeting his future wife, Princess Elena.
"Your highness!" A guard came rushing up to him. Two others followed him.
Malcolm noticed that this man wasnít one of his troops. He wore a crest displaying a silver circle divided into thirds on a field of teal, the device of Glencarrick. The Prince also noticed the dusty riding cloak and the manís flushed cheeks that spoke of hard riding Ė at least an hourís worth.
"I bring word from Princess Elena." The rider presented Prince Malcolm with the letter. Prince Malcolm took the letter and read it quickly. The soldier followed up with, "We need your help."
* * *
The Great Road, an hour before sunset
Captain Oliver of Glencarrick conferred with the wagon master over the broken wagon.
"Youíre sure now?" Oliver asked.
The wagon master nodded, "Itís not going anywhere tonight. The rear axle needs replacing and with dark coming, we canít get started 'til dawn."
Oliver ran his fingers through his curly brown hair, when three people came up to him, two women and a man. All were nobles and Oliver's responsibility. The oldest one, a dowager with salt-and-pepper hair, sagging cheeks and a sharp tongue, spoke first.
"Whatís happening?" she demanded in her strident tone.
Oliver put on his patient face. "The rear axle of the wagon is broken. It will take some time to repair it."
"That is unacceptable," the man replied mildly. He was middle-aged, with close-cropped, sandy brown hair. He wore the furred robes of a noble and a sword strapped to his hip, marking him as a knight.
"Then we'll pitch camp for the night," the dowager jumped in, speaking with assumed authority.
"Begging the lady's pardon, but that is unwise. Bandits are in the forest and I have a strong suspicion that this is their doing."
"Your reasoning?" the knight, Sir Geoffroi, asked.
Oliver explained, "Since midday, we have hit many severe bumps and ruts. I think the thieves created them to slow travelers down, making them easier prey. I don't want to risk your lives by keeping us out in the open."
"Your lord charged you with the safe passage of my niece. Safe passage doesnít include staying out in the middle of bandit country." The dowager waved her arms wildly in her dramatics.
"I agree, your ladyshipÖ" Oliver began, taking a deep breath for patience. He had just said that. The dowager started to say more when the third member of their party, Princess Elena, interjected.
"Please, aunt, let the man finish."
The dowager was quiet for a moment, giving Oliver a chance to speak.
"The wagon is damaged. However, we shall move on. Iíll have the men redistribute the supplies to the horses."
"Wonít that slow us down?" Sir Geoffroi asked.
Captain Oliver nodded. "Yes, but Iíve sent a scout ahead to request help from Prince Malcolm. With his troops we should be safe clear through to Wyvern."
Sir Geoffroi nodded and turned to the two ladies. "I agree with the Captainís counsel. We should move as soon as we are able."
Oliver bellowed, "Take only the essentials: food, supplies and weapons. The rest we will have to come back for." The men started unloading the wagon.
"What?" squawked the dowager. "This wagon has my belongings! Are you going to leave them to the thieves?"
"Iím sorry, my lady," Oliver explained. "Please understand, we need to move as fast as possible." He wanted to add, Thatís not going to happen carrying that oaken monstrosity you call a bed.
"I wonít hear of it. You will bring my belongings even if you have to carry them yourself!"
Oliver looked to Sir Geoffroi, but received no help this time. Sir Geoffroi obviously shared Lord Donalís philosophy, Ďchoose your battles wiselyí. Oliver was stuck. If he fought the dowager on this, heíd never hear the end of it and it most certainly would get back to Lady Ingrid in Glencarrick. Oliver just shook his head and gave a sigh.
"Itís a good thing weíre so close to Wyvern," he muttered under his breath.
* * *
The large oak four-poster bed Ė even its components Ė was too large and heavy to carry by horse. They redistributed the supplies in the remaining two wagons to make room for the dowagerís bed. It added another hour to the operation and they didnít get underway until well after sunset. They rode in tighter formation, the Glencarrick men-at-arms on the outside with the Normans on the inside. Captain Oliver rode just behind two men on foot, scanning the ground for any more potholes or other highwayman tricks.
"At least weíve got the full moon with us," Oliver commented before one of the Normans trotted up beside him.
"Her ladyship wishes to meet with you."
"What? Now?" He sighed as he turned his mount and joined the highborns in the center of the caravan.
Sir Geoffroi de Lamord stayed at their side. He was someone Oliver could grow to respect. The knight had his eyes on the road ahead and the woods around them. He understood the gravity of their situation. The dowager, on the other hand, seemed to think this was some extended picnic.
"Yes, my Lady?" Oliver waited to hear the dowagerís next demand.
"Actually, I sent for you," Princess Elena admitted.
"Yes Your Highness?" Oliver turned to address the princess. She smiled, noting his relief.
"I understand you used to serve Prince Malcolm."
"Yes, my lady. I served as a guard to Wyvern and later as an emissary to Glencarrick."
"Then perhaps you can answer her majestyís query," Sir Geoffroi added. "She wishes to know more about Prince Malcolm. Specifically, what kind of man is he?"
"Oh," Oliver hesitated, looking down at his mount. "Perhaps we could discuss it a little later. These woods hardly seem appropriateÖ"
"Please," Elena interjected, "I wish to knowÖ the ill as well as the good. Please, it is important to know what kind of man I can expect my future husband to be."
Oliverís objections fell on his lips. Maybe it was the pleading in Elenaís brown eyes or the way she said 'husband' in a wistful tone. He suddenly remembered his own wife, Alice, and the romantic in him won out.
Oliver shrugged. "Thereís no ill I could speak of Prince Malcolm. Heís given me so much."
"How so?" Princess Elena asked. She steered her mount closer to Oliver to catch every word.
"When I was a guard at Wyvern, I fell in love with my lovely wife, Alice. She is a lady-in-waiting for Lady Ingrid. I lost my heart to her the first time I saw her. However, we both knew that she would leave with Lord and Lady Glencarrick and Iíd never see her again. I guess the Prince saw the lovelorn writing on my face, because before I could blink twice, he attached me to Glencarrickís envoy as their ambassador. When Prince Malcolm and Lord Donal concluded their business, they worked out a commission, where I became Glencarrickís captain of the guard. Shortly after that, Alice and I were married. I would not be where I am if not for Prince Malcolm. I owe so much to him and Iím not the only one."
Oliver paused before continuing. "He cares about his people. More than once, he would ask how the other guards were doing; a stark contrast with Lady Ingrid who is completely self-absorbed. Pardon, my saying so, your majesty."
The dowager harrumphed. She and Lady Ingrid got along famously.
"Itís quite all right." Princess Elena gestured him to continue. "And what about the gargoyles?"
"Oh, they are quite real. Prince Malcolm values their service." Oliver nodded with a hint of a smile. "Iím looking forward to seeing them again."
"Really? Lady Ingrid calls them beasts seeking out her destruction," Princess Elena remarked casting a curious look at the young captain.
"Lady Glencarrick can be overly Ďexcitableí," Captain Oliver explained tactfully. "I donít know all the details, but she didnít have a pleasant time when she visited the Castle. However, I grew up with this clan of gargoyles, even made friends with several of them. Iíve had no problems with them. To the contrary, I find them pleasant company once you get to knowÖ"
Oliver trailed off. Sir Geoffroi also lifted his head, noticing the same thing: the forest had gone silent. The owls stopped hooting and the crickets stopped chirping. Sir Geoffroi loosened the sword in his scabbard. He looked to Oliver. The captain gave a grim nod and moved to warn his men. The two ladies watched all this with growing concern. Sir Geoffroi rode close to the princess and the dowager, but pretended to be nonchalant about it.
"When I give the word, I want you to get your heads down."
Princess Elena and her dowager chaperone exchanged worrisome glances. Oliver spread the word among the men and not a moment too soon. At that instant, bandits bubbled out of the forest and arrows whizzed through the air. Highwaymen on foot rushed the horsemen, unseating many of them in the first moments of battle. From the start, Oliver knew they were outnumbered. He signaled to Geoffroi de Lamord.
"Princess! My Lady! Come with me!" Sir Geoffroi ordered. Oliver and another guard opened a hole through the highwaymen. Geoffroi led the noblewomen through and away from the fighting. Oliver urged them on before becoming embroiled in the fighting. Geoffroi, Elena and the dowager kept riding hard, until a pair of glowing eyes caught them up short. Their horses reared back a little in fright.
"Be at ease," a human guard, Robbie, stepped out from around the tall gargoyle.
"The others need help." Sir Geoffroi turned his head back the way they had come. A number of gargoyle roars came from the forest, followed by even more human screams.
"I think theyíve got all the help they need." Robbie smiled. The human screams became numerous and soon faded as the bandits fled. By the time Robbie, Sir Geoffroi and the others returned, the thieves had been routed.
Most of the men, both Norman and Glencarrick, kept their distance from their gargoyle saviors, but one was talking warmly with them.
"I can hardly believe how much youíve changed," an orange skinned female exclaimed with delight, as she took Oliver in.
"Oh, Iím still the same person," Oliver deferred.
"But with more power," Robbie said with a chuckle. He joined the two and exchanged a warriorís handshake with Oliver.
"Thank you for the assistance," Oliver began. "It was well timed and well needed."
Robbie nodded. "Lucky for us these gargoyles were about a-hunting. The Prince sent his men, but wings are faster than hooves."
Oliver looked to the orange skinned blonde, "Please relay my thanks to your leader for your help."
Desdemona waved it off. "You can thank him yourself."
"My pardon," Sir Geoffroi said, joining the Captain, solider and the gargoyle. "My lady wishes to know when we may resume."
The dowager was with Princess Elena on the far side of the road with the other men. Oliver saw she was within earshot.
"I donít know," Oliver said, loud enough to be heard. "We will have to carry the four poster bed again. It could take another hour and weíll need to have the gargoyles here to protect us in case those rogues come back."
"LEAVE THE BED!" the Dowager shrieked.
"Then we should be ready to move in a few minutes," Oliver answered to Sir Geoffroi.
The Norman knight left to talk to his men. Oliver shared a smirk he could not hide any longer. He patted Desdemonaís arm. "My thanks again."
"Whatever for?" she asked.
"Itís a long story. I hope Iíll be able to tell it to you back at the castle."
"I look forward to it." Desdemona departed to talk to the members in her party.
* * *
"Caravan approaches!" a tower guard shouted down to the courtyard. The castle guards arranged themselves in a corridor from the portcullis to the entrance of the Great Hall, where Prince Malcolm and his court awaited.
The Prince fiddled with his brocade one last time, before looking with nervous anticipation at a column of horses entering the open gates. Marcus, at Malcolmís left, looked up at the newcomers with wonderment and mild worry at the Prince acting so unnerved. The Archmage, on Marcusí left, looked on with bored impatience.
Under his breath, the Archmage muttered, "All this fuss for a woman." Robbie, at the Princeís right, gave a tactful cough to tell the Archmage to be quiet. The Archmage gave him a steely gaze that Robbie tried to ignore.
Captain Oliver signaled for a halt. In unison, the horses came to a stop. The Norman party dismounted and approached Prince Malcolm. When the Norman leader stood before the Prince, he removed his hood, revealing the close-cropped head of Sir Geoffroi de Lamord.
"I bring greetings from my lord, Duke Richard of Normandy, your highness," Sir Geoffroi spoke in his most formal tone as he bowed to the prince. The others in the convoy also bowed.
"Your greetings are most graciously accepted. Please rise and be welcome in my castle," Prince Malcolm returned. Sir Geoffroi and the Norman party arose.
"Permit me to introduce you to those who have traveled with us." Sir Geoffroi led the Prince to the head of their entourage. "Iím sure you remember Oliver, who was once one of your guardsmen."
"I do indeed," Prince Malcolm smiled. "I trust life treats you pleasantly?"
"It does, indeed, your highness," Oliver replied. "Thanks to you."
Sir Geoffroi continued making introductions, until they came to the last robed figure. "Prince Malcolm, it is my honor to present to you your betrothed, the Princess Elena."
The woman who removed her hood astounded Prince Malcolm. Chestnut brown hair flowed into the back of her hood, her tresses framing an elegant face. Almond-shaped eyes with green hazel tints were set above high cheekbones and an aquiline nose.
"It is a pleasure and an honor to finally meet you, my betrothed." Her voice had a musical lilt when she spoke. Princess Elena lifted her mesmerizing eyes to make eye contact with Prince Malcolm. It was a moment Malcolm would recall with perfect clarity in the future years.
"Sheís very pretty," Marcus whispered. The Archmage gave his apprentice a sharp look; but he had to agree. She was a fair woman to look at and, judging by the reaction of the men in the courtyard, he wasnít alone in his estimation.
A pause followed; a pause Prince Malcolm was etiquette-bound to fill. He realized his mistake with a start. "The pleasure is mine, my fair lady. Allow me the courtesy of introducing my advisors. This is my captain of the guard, my ward and my chief advisorÖ"
Prince Malcolm settled into the role of host, presenting his advisors from the Archmage all the way down to the chamberlain. "They are at your disposal. If you have want for anything, please donít hesitate to call upon my staff."
As one, both the Wyvern and Norman parties headed into the Great Hall. Prince Malcolm said to all, "I have heard of your troubles on the road. I have quarters all prepared and food waiting in each," but his eyes never left Elenaís.
* * *
While the nobles went into the castle, grooms and stable hands took the mounts into the stables. Among them was Oliver. He put up the tack and tossed some oats into his horseís trough when he heard, "So the high and mighty captain still has to stable his own horse." Robbie appeared around the corner with a grin from ear to ear.
"I wonít let you rough-handed louts near my mount," Oliver returned playfully.
"Careful boy, dinnae forget where ya come from," the Captain of the Guard added.
"Never," Oliver gave Robbie another hearty handshake. "It is good ta see ye." He slipped back into his common brogue. "Itís good to see that yeíve come up in the world, too. Though itís sad I am, that we had to lose a good man for you to do so."
Robbie looked uncomfortable for a moment, then deftly switched subjects. "So how is married life settling ya?" he asked.
"Couldnít be better," Oliver answered. "You should try it."
"Not if I can help it." Both laughed as they talked of old times and caught up on new ones.
* * *
"You think weíll dance this Equinox?" a young Broadway asked his two rookery brothers.
"Thatís what I heard last night." Brooklyn hopped up on the battlements, imitating their long-winded elder, Agamemnon. "This year we will celebrate the Equinox with dance."
"Provided you finish your chores and stay out of trouble," Agamemnon added, coming up behind them. Brooklyn was startled and stumbled back over the battlements. He was about to fall, but the barrel-chested gargoyle grabbed him by the belt and pulled him back to the parapets.
"Looks like that last part might be an impossibility," Agamemnon commented.
"Thank you, elder, but I could have glided back up."
"Could you now? Then perhaps later we should have some wing drills for your training."
The trio groaned as Agamemnon herded them down the steps.
"Your trial isnít far off. And, judging by that display of grace, you could all use the practice."
* * *
The Eldest and Hudson watched the younger generations from the highest tower in the castle. Those in the warrior's rookery hurried here and there with grins on their faces.
"It is definitely starting," the Eldest commented. Hudson nodded in agreement.
"What?" Agamemnon asked, joining them after he sent the hatchlings to their chores.
"The eagerness in our children, especially our young warriors," Hudson answered. "There is most definitely a romantic scent to that excitement."
"Bah." The dour elder waved it off. "They are still too young, yet, to be thinking such things."
"You and your rookery brothers and sisters werenít much older as I remember," the Eldest interjected. "Besides, we havenít had a dance in a long time."
Hudsonís face suddenly grew sad as he remembered the last time he danced with his mate. He shook it off, "At any rate, we have them readily doing their chores. How often does that happen?"
"True," Agamemnon conceded. "But I still think they lack the maturity to think of such things."
"Romance has a way of maturing young ones," the Eldest put in. "Iíve seen many grow up from lessons of the heart."
* * *
The moon slowly sank toward the horizon and the clan prepared for morning. When the females of the warriorís rookery finished their chores, they dominated the baths of the castle. In a short time, nearly all the females were below, preparing for tomorrow nightís festivities.
A smoky gray female preened in front of a sheet of polished metal that served as a mirror, admiring her flattering figure.
"Iím going to catch all our brothersí eyes come nightfall," she said as she combed her black hair with her talons. "They all love me, you know."
"You wonít find a male who loves you more than you love yourself," a violet female with purple hair commented at her arrogant sister. The others in the bath chuckled at their sisterís renowned vanity.
"I am self-confident. As the Eldest would say, Ďit is the shy gargoyle who loses, for victory favors the bold.í" The gray female, Emilia, returned to her ablutions.
"Iíd say you have enough Ďconfidenceí for three gargoyles," Fuchsia of the purple tresses quipped. The other sisters smiled and nodded agreement, then returned to their own preparations.
"I donít see why you all are making such a fuss," added a white female with ice blue wings. "Theyíre just our rookery brothers. Theyíre no different than they were last year and this is no different a dance from last time."
Some of the females in the baths rolled their eyes.
"Come now sister, surely you have noticed the way they have been acting of late, trying so hard to get our attention, like our brother who tried to lift that large boulderÖ" Fuchsia pointed out.
"ÖOr the races they have climbing up the cliff -- but only if one of us is watching to judge," Emilia added.
"Yes, Iíve noticed. Theyíve been acting quite odd of late." The white one, Bianca, nodded.
"Itís not odd if you know why." Emilia grinned.
"All right then, sister. Why?" Bianca asked.
Emilia smiled and moved on. Bianca persisted, but neither Emilia nor the others would tell her, preferring she find out on her own. Fuchsia moved to Desdemona.
"At least there is one brother our Ďself-confidentí sister wonít get." Fuchsia referred to Desdemonaís constant male companion, Othello. Desdemona was still quiet, with a far away look.
"I wouldnít even try," Emilia added in her superior tone. "You two act mated already - and such a handsome male too. Why donít you two declare yourselves?"
"That would be well and good if you ask me," Fuchsia put in, as she adjusted her violet tresses in another style. "Itíll give us a chance to snag the broken hearted lads."
"Maybe you need to eliminate the competition, but I know I can get what I want." Emilia gave one final nod of satisfaction and left the mirror.
"Oh, donít rush our sister." A dark brown female nudged Desdemona, joining the conversation. "Itís always wise to keep our brothers guessing. It keeps them from getting too full of themselves. Right sister?"
Desdemona started. "Hmm, yes, I guess."
"What troubles ye, sister?" the dark brown female, Sienna, asked.
Emilia joined Desdemona and Sienna. She took one look at Desdemona and nodded, "I know that look, trouble with the opposite sex. Has our rookery brother done something he shouldna?"
"No," Desdemona answered quickly, "Itís justÖ"
The other females turned their attention to Desdemona.
"Come on. Tell us, sister. Whatís wrong?" Fuchsia asked in a soft tone.
The orange gargoyle hesitated. Fuchsia added, "Whatever it is will stay between us. Agreed?" She looked to the other females in the bath chamber. They all nodded agreement, promising to keep the confidence.
Desdemona sighed and took another breath before beginning. "Itís not that I donít care for our brother, itís just I donít know if itís in that way or not."
"What do you mean?" Fuchsia asked. "Iíve seen you two together. If thatís not love, I donít know what is."
"Oh, I care for him. Heís sweet and kind and all that, butÖ"
"Yes?" the females in the chamber prompted.
"Remember when the Eldest told us stories about being in love. How our hearts would sing when we would find our true mate?" Desdemona began.
Many of the females nodded. They had heard that story several times.
"Your heart doesnít sing for him?" Bianca asked, a disbelieving look on her face.
"I thought it did. At first, it was as if I didna need the wind to glide. I felt so light and my heart would pound whenever we were close. But, slowly it started to fade. Now, it is as if Iím used ta the feeling. I wonder if it was ever there. Maybe I was more in love with the idea of being in love than with him?"
The others remained silent for a moment. "I hope that isnít the case," Fuchsia said finally. "What hope does it leave for the rest of us?"
The females nodded. Everyone went back to preparing for tomorrow night.
* * *
Down the hall and around the corner, Iago stood next to a wall. Echoes carried very well in this part of the castle and he could hear all the gossip in the baths.
"How interesting? How very interesting?" Iago smiled as he left the hallway.
* * * * *
The day was a disappointment for Prince Malcolm. He expected to see more of his betrothed. Instead, he spent an eternity in the company of Elena's aunt, the dowager, Anne. Her main function on the trip was to chaperone her niece, but her secondary one was to ensure that all the proper customs and traditions were followed. Malcolm privately thought that this was just an excuse for Elena's family to be rid of her for a time.
In the morning, the dowager complained about the poor travel conditions, especially the surliness of Captain Oliver and the mortal peril they were all in at the hands of the bandits. By midday, the complaints shifted to their rescuers, the gargoyles. She didn't hold with anyone, especially a Prince, associating with such creatures. And what kind of Prince was he that needed to supplement his troops with monsters? By afternoon, the subject had altered finally to nuptials, but the Prince found only a little relief there.
"Now I expect fifteen maids of honor for my nieceís retinue. You will provide appropriate groomsmen and I donít mean those ruffians you call guards. I want them to meet gentry."
"Iíll contact King Kenneth." Malcolmís servant responded amiably. Malcolm was grateful to have his aide there. He knew all the rites and rituals of court and even anticipated some of the dowagerís needs, putting her in a better mood.
"That will do. Now for the meal, custom dictates that this be a three day affair, but seeing the poor condition of the land, I think a one day ceremony is in order."
Malcolm took exception to this, "Begging your ladyís pardon, but my lands are well managed. Sample the feast tonight before you make such a pronouncement."
Redness crept up the dowagerís neck and her mouth worked wordless at such impertinence.
"Excuse me, your highness, but I must remind you to check with the troops searching for the rogues who attacked her ladyís caravan." His aide spoke quickly.
Malcolm took the subtle hint.
"Yes, thank you for reminding me." Prince Malcolm stood and made a proper bow. "My Lady, I leave the arrangements for this event in the capable hands of yourself and my trusted aide." With that, the Prince left the dowagerís chambers. Once he was out, he felt relieved.
* * *
"Is it really him?" Oliver asked Robbie as they returned to the castle.
"Aye," Robbie nodded, "That young gargoyle that we thought had perished survived and is now the head of these rogues plaguing our lands."
Oliver shook his head. "I find it so hard to believe. He was a bit of a troublemaker, but he was also a loyal friend. Back when we were little, there were a number of times he took the blame for something I did."
They dismounted and handed their steeds to the stableboys. "Whatever affection that may have been there before, heís a calculating villain now. Before, these thieves were a problem that could be handled, a few here or a band there thatíd get careless and get caught. Now, they are building up towards something. I only wish we knew what."
"Surely thereís been an attempt to talk to him. What about the gargoyles? This was one from the clan."
"As far as I know, heís exiled from the clan. And as far as trying to talk to him?" Robbie paused as he remembered. "I donít know if talking will do him any good."
"Captain Oliver!" a page ran down the steps to intercept the two. "Princess Elena sent me to invite you to the feast, in recognition of your service last night."
"Looks like fine eating for you," Robbie commented.
"Beats rations in the barracks," Oliver replied. "You may extend to the Princess my thanks for the invitation. I will join them shortly."
"The feast starts an hour before sunset - so you better hurry." The page grinned before running off to another errand. Oliver also took off for the barracks to change, waving a good bye to his friend.
* * * * *
The dinner was in full swing when the sun sank below the horizon. The fish was sumptuous. Even the dowager, who had so low regard of everyone and everything outside of her own manor, admitted this was a good meal.
As the sun slipped below the western horizon, the gargoyles awoke from their stone slumber. Roars rang out from the battlements and towers. Within the Great Hall, the Norman visitors looked around with alarm. Many of the men blanched and some of the ladies swooned. Prince Malcolm looked at Sir Geoffroi and both took the awakening with casual aplomb. Seeing their host and Sir Geoffroi so calm did much to ease them. No one wanted to appear unseemly, panicking in front of everyone else. However, etiquette and pride did more to calm people than all of Malcolmís explanations and reassurances.
Prince Malcolm looked to Princess Elena. He was mildly surprised she wasnít among the pale, fainting ladies or the jittery noblemen trying to hide their fear. The seneschal nudged Prince Malcolm discretely. The Prince nodded and gestured for the performers to begin. Soon, the mood in the Great Hall eased up with the comical antics of the tumblers.
* * *
"Ho, lads," Hudson waved Goliath and Othello over. The two young warriors dutifully joined their leader.
"Prince Malcolmís men have searched the forest for the rogues that attacked the Princessís entourage. They havenít found anything. I wanted to send you two to do a sweep of the forest, just to be sure those bandits arenít anywhere near here. I know itís cutting in on Equinox, butÖ"
"Weíd be happy to do it," Goliath volunteered. Othello nodded.
Hudson smiled, "Thank you lads. You best hurry. I donít want you to miss out on too much of the night."
The two gargoyles headed for the highest tower to take off. Iago intercepted them.
"I would like a word with you, brother," Iago asked Othello. Goliath looked to Othello, who nodded. Goliath went to talk with one of the guards who had spent the day searching for the bandits.
"Speak quickly, I must go on an errand for the Leader." Othello walked briskly.
"An errand? Then I wonít keep you long. Iím guessing you are eager to dance with only one tonight," Iago commented, as he fell in step with Othello. The gray-blue gargoyle nodded with a sappy grin on his face. Iago schooled his expression.
"It does my heart good that you and our sister are so close. It makes those rumors easy to dispel."
"Rumors?" Othello turned to Iago, "What rumors?"
"Oh, you know how gossips are always sowing doubt and mistrust. There is talk of our sister finding comfort in the arms of another. That her relationship with you is only a ruse to dissuade unwanted suitors."
"Thatís preposterous!" Othello shook his head, though he couldnít quite hide a smile thinking about the second part, knowing how close he was to the truth on that score.
"It is indeed. If she didnít want our affections she had only to say so. She wouldnít be so duplicitous as to play with someoneís heart. It wouldnít say much about her to carry on such a deception, pretending to love someone else."
Othello frowned. "So it is a rumor. Is this what was so urgent you had to tell me?"
"Oh no," Iago replied. "I just wanted to wish you well on this Equinox. Please hurry back. Iím sure our sister will be waiting with most eager arms."
Iago stopped at the base of the stairway. Othello continued to join Goliath and fly patrol. As soon as they were gone, Iago smiled slightly. He quickly headed back down to join the others.
* * * * *
In her workshop, Asrial looked at her reflection in a burnished breastplate that she had found left on the last yearís battlefield. Taking a careful hand, she placed an errant lock of blonde hair back in place behind one of her spiral horns. She scrutinized every inch of her body in the makeshift mirror, then straightened up to face her reflection.
"Brother, I want to tell you something very important," Asrial said in a frank tone.
Asrial frowned. "No."
"Brother, you know how I feel, right?" she said in a more casual voice. She shook her head at this too.
She tried her best to strike a seductive pose; hip sticking out and talons running through her hair.
"Brother, if youíre looking for a mate, here I am," Asrial said in her most seductive voice. She almost would have laughed-- if it wasnít so serious. None of this felt right.
Asrial lowered her head and sighed. "Brother, I think I may love you. PleaseÖI hope you feel the same," she whispered the words to herself.
Asrial snapped out of her reverie and gathered herself together before Thersites poked his beaked head through a crumbling window.
"Hurry up, sister. They are about to start," Thersites called to her.
"When are you ever in a hurry to do something?"
"For Equinox, Iíll make an exception. Come on!" The gray-green gargoyle urged her on, excited. Asrial looked at herself in the mirror one last time before exiting.
* * *
Everyone in the Great Hall was enjoying the antics of the jugglers when the Archmage came up behind the Prince.
"Your majesty, if I may have your leave?" he asked the Prince.
Prince Malcolm laughed as one of the jugglers thwacked himself on the head with one of his balls. "Hmmm? Oh yes, you have my leave. Are you sure you will not stay? The troubadours will be up next."
"My apologies, your highness, but I have pressing matters to attend." The Archmage bowed and left the Great Hall. As soon as he was alone in the corridor, his civil demeanor dropped into an ugly scowl.
"Like I have nothing better to do than laugh myself silly over a bunch of bumbling buffoons. If that were the case Iíd watch you go foolish over that Princess."
The Archmage climbed the steps up to his tower. "Iíve wasted half the evening already. And Equinox is not the time."
He opened the door and found his blue gargoyle apprentice waiting for him.
"Youíre here. Good; and you have everything set up, excellent. Let us begin. We have precious little time to lose."
Demona nodded her head and got to work.
* * *
The clan gathered in the courtyard; the hatchlings in front, with the elders behind and the young warriors on either side. Hudson stood before them and spoke.
"A gargoyleís duty is to protect. Not just the castle, but to protect our home and those we care about. Tonight we celebrate each other, to remind ourselves who we protect and why we protect and to strengthen our commitment to keep that which we hold dear safe."
As Hudson descended to join his clan, the elders began clapping in rhythm, followed by the warriors and then the hatchlings. The rhythm changed as the clan spread out into a circle and began the dance. The tempo sped up and some added their voices to the rhythm. The different ages held hands and formed circles; the youngest hatchlings making the centermost circle, the warriors in the middle and the elders on the outside. Slowly, they danced in opposing directions. The hatchlings and elders going clockwise, while the young warriors turned counter-clockwise. Soon the dancing took on a life of its own as the dancers ran in circles that grew larger and larger. Laughter and singing spread quickly among the dancing gargoyles.
* * *
"Youíre sure the prince wanted us to play on the balcony?" a musician asked.
"Absolutely," Oliver flashed a charming grin. "When he and the Princess return from their excursion, theyíll want all the space inside for dancing."
"I donít know why we canít just play off to the side there." Another musician with a fiddle pointed to the recess that blended into the fireplace.
"In front of a hot roaring fire?" Oliver asked, surprised. "You players deserve every comfort. Tell you what. I will have a page keep your mugs filled with ale. Will that help?"
The leader of the quartet, a large man who played an equally large bass fiddle, leaned towards the captain. "Eh, what about the gargoyles?"
"Gargoyles?" Oliver looked around in mock surprise, "What gargoyles? Oh, the Princeís gargoyles. What about them?"
"I donít want my friends or myself carried off by those demons." A second musician, who played a smaller size fiddle, voiced his concerns. The others nodded in agreement.
"Carried off?" Oliver smiled. "Donít you know music hath charms to soothe the savage beast? If anything, you fair players have the advantage. Why, I wouldnít be surprised if they started dancing from your skilled fingers. Moreover, would it not be something grand to tell your patrons. Musicians so skilled youíve played for princes and princesses and even made gargoyles dance."
"You talk a better tune than we can play," noted the third musician, a piper. "But a reputation we donít need, especially if itís our last performance."
Oliver thought about that for a moment.
"Would freshly cooked fish and warm tarts thrown in change your mind?" a woman wearing an apron, denoting her status as a cook, interjected.
The fiddler and the piper nodded, but the leader and the quiet drummer still held out. Oliver thought fast.
"All right, then suppose I attach a guard here?" Robbie added, joining Oliver and the cook, Hetti, in convincing the musicians. "Just in case the gargoyles have a tin ear. That should keep you safe?"
The drummer nodded and, with some cajoling from the others, the leader of their group agreed. Hetti flashed an attractive smile, leading the players to the kitchen to enjoy the meal before Prince Malcolm and Princess Elena returned.
"Are we going to have music for our dance?" young Lexington asked, hanging down from the wall like a squirrel.
"Looks so," Robbie answered the hatchling.
"Wait until I tell the others." Lexington scrambled up the wall again.
"You may want to make that two guards for the players," Oliver commented to Robbie.
"Iíll see to it." Robbie turned to leave.
"And make sure a page brings up ale," Oliver called after him.
"Thank you," the warm voice of Desdemona spoke over his shoulder. Oliver turned around and saw the smiling young gargoyle. Oliver smiled and shrugged.
"Just something I could do to make this night special for you all."
"Itís a wonderful gesture. Iíll be sure the leader hears of it."
Oliver waved it off. "Friends help each other. Iím glad I was able to."
Desdemona smiled. "I must go. Again, thank you for the music."
* * *
An interlude in the meal gave Prince Malcolm the opportunity to invite Princess Elena on a tour of the castle grounds. The dowager and one of the castle guards followed them. He was hoping for a more intimate encounter, but he took what he could get.
"The garden path leads to the sea wall. It offers a spectacular view of the ocean." Prince Malcolm guided his guest up the stairs to the top of the wall.
"You do not lie, my Prince," Elena said with awe, as she saw the ocean laid out before her. The full moon gave the sky a soft powdery blue hue. The crashing waves were a muted roar from the distance; a soft, crunching sound that added to the tranquillity of the scene.
Malcolm tried to play things aloof until he got a better sense of his bride-to-be, but he couldn't stop noticing how lovely she was. The wondrous awe with which she took everything in made her even lovelier. A shadow swooped overhead. Elena and Malcolm looked up as a pair of gargoyles glided by. The dowager gave a cry. Both prince and princess turned in time to see the elderly woman fall into a fainting spell. Fortunately, the guard sprang to her aid, keeping her from falling onto the flagstones.
Prince Malcolm recognized an opportunity when he saw one. "Can I show you more of my castle?"
Elena looked hesitantly. "My aunt?"
"She is in good hands," Prince Malcolm assured her. Elena gave her chaperone one more look, then followed the Prince into the tower archway.
"I apologize if I seem too forward. Itís just that Iíd like to get to know you without it being a diplomatic mission."
"I think I understand," Elena answered. "My aunt can be a bit draining at times. So, youíve absconded me to this locale. What are your intentions?"
"Completely honorable, I assure you," Malcolm replied. Silence followed as Princess Elena looked at him expectantly. Malcolm fumbled for words to fill the void, "Iím sorry, my lady, Iím not coming across at my best. I guess I should ask if there is anything about me youíd like to know."
"Now that you mention it, why donít you tell me about the gargoyles?" Princess Elena asked, with a frank gaze that bored into him.
Prince Malcolm stammered for a second, not sure what to say. He had a whole speech picked out to explain the gargoyles; but faced with the princessís gaze he couldnít recall a single word of it. The hesitation got a small giggle out of Elena.
"You didnít expect to hide them from us, did you?" Elena asked smartly.
"No!" Prince Malcolm answered quickly, then sighed, "But I was hoping for a more opportune time to explain their presence."
"As I see it, they provide a valuable service to the castle," Princess Elena commented. "Similar to other places."
"Other places?" Prince Malcolm asked.
Princess Elena nodded, "Yes, Iíve heard many tales of gargoyles both in England and in my own homeland. Though I never thought them real until Sir Geoffroi came back with tales of them here."
Prince Malcolm crossed his arms, taking in the Princess in another light, "So why didnít you say something earlier?"
Princess Elena grew unsure, "I donít know if I should tell you this, but I was really unsure about this wedding. I am prepared to do my duty to my kinsmen and fulfill this alliance, but I also wanted to know what type of man you are. I know it is unconventional, but I wanted to know if you are someone Ė I could love. I wanted to see if you are truthful."
"So, have I made your measure of a man?"
Princess Elena added, with that precious smile of hers, "So far."
The dowager groaned to wakefulness. When she couldnít find her charge, she called Elenaís name in a shriek that cut like a knife. Malcolm and Elena both gave a sigh as they emerged from the archway to rejoin their chaperones.
* * *
Goliath and Othello returned from patrol in short order. After two quick sweeps of the surrounding lands, they returned. Goliath went to report to the captain what they did not find. Othello was hurrying to join the others when Iago intercepted him.
"Ah, brother. There you are." Iago joined him with good-natured humor.
"Yes, brother, what is it?"
"I was thinking about all the rumors concerning your and our sister. If only there was some way to silence them. You two are both too good to be slandered by such gossip."
"True, but what can be done." Othello shrugged.
"What indeed," Iago perked up. "What ifÖ? No." Iago shook his head, dismissing the idea.
"What?" Othello asked curiously.
"I was just thinking - but it is unnecessary."
"Speak," Othello coaxed.
"What if you proposed to her tonight and she said yes? There would be no doubt in anyoneís mind where her heart lies. You two have been close for so long, she must have thought of mating at sometime."
"Yes," Othello nodded, remembering the last time. "And she was looking forward to pairing, but I was not."
"There you go then. And what could be more romantic than proposing on the Equinox. Surely, sheíll consent to be your mate and what will the gossips have to say then?"
Othello and Iago walked up to the battlements overlooking the circles of dancing gargoyles. Othello scanned the crowd some more until he spotted her. She smiled and laughed as she danced within the circles created by hatchlings and elders.
"If she loves you, she will say yes," Iago added, almost as a whisper, before leaving Othello on his own.
* * *
Prince Malcolm, Princess Elena and the dowager returned to the Great Hall.
"Players!" he called to the musicians. The quartet began to play. Prince Malcolmís guests left their seats.
"Your highness, if I may have the first dance," Prince Malcolm asked the dowager. The dowager was surprised, but took the offered hand. As they joined the others dancing, Malcolm cast a glance at Princess Elena. She shared a smile with him.
The music carried from the balcony into the Great Hall. It also floated out across the courtyard. Most of the gargoyles had stopped singing and when they heard the music, the rest stopped to listen. Lexington had a smug look on his face.
"Told you so," he said to his disbelieving rookery brothers.
The dancing circles grew larger and larger until it was impossible to track the many gargoyles. The young warriors began climbing the walls to take the dancing to the sky. The hatchlings eagerly followed, while the elders broke off in their mated pairs for more intimate parts. Hudson joined the Eldest off to the side watching the others with remembering eyes.
The warriors started skydancing in groups. The males went first to impress the women with their aerobatics. The females shortly followed not to be outdone by their brothers. The hatchlings tried to imitate their older rookery brothers and sisters, spinning in less graceful arcs and twirls. More than once, Brooklyn nearly collided into the tower while trying intricate swoop and pinion turns. Broadway darted effortlessly through the swirling currents, weaving through the older warriors with aplomb. He landed next to his rookery brothers with a smug smile on his face.
Most of the youngsters gravitated toward the Great Hall and the music. The Eldestís apprentice watched with fascination as the fiddler played and the flutist trilled. The performers kept their eyes trained on each other rather than look up at the clusters of gargoyles. Robbie and another guard made sure the young ones kept their distance. Inside, the Prince was a perfect host, as all enjoyed the dance. In stately grace, they moved in step to the music and each otherís movements. Malcolm was fortunate that the dance ended with Elena next to him. They gave a small round of applause and all returned to their tables for something to drink.
"It seems we are not the only ones enjoying tonight," Princess Elena commented, noting the many gargoyle hatchlings and young warriors dancing beyond.
"Yes, the gargoyles hold nights like these special. The Solstices and the Equinoxes hold special meaning for them."
"Do they dance every special night?" Elena asked, after taking a sip of mulled cider.
"No. I believe it is up to the Leader to decide how they will celebrate. This year he chose to dance."
"Really? It looks so beautiful. More like angels playing than anything else."
Inwardly, Prince Malcolm breathed a sigh of relief. If this were any indication, she would have no problem adjusting to live with gargoyles. It caught Malcolm by surprise how much Elenaís happiness meant to him.
"Perhaps a little later, you could take me on another tour." Princess Elena looked into Malcolmís brown eyes. "Iíd love to see them dancing."
"Iíll see what I can do." Prince Malcolm returned a smile. The musicians took an Ďat attentioní stance, indicating they were ready for the next set. He offered his hand to Elena. She smiled warmly and took it as all returned to the dance floor.
* * *
Goliath finished his second flight with the other males. The flight path involved a deep dive from the far tower, a steep climb at the other end of the courtyard, and then a stylistic flourish before dropping down to the courtyard. Goliathís flourish was an inverted twist with wings flaring out at the end. It certainly impressed the females, judging by the longing looks that they sent him. It also did not escape Goliathís notice that not all the females were eyeing him. Many had eyes for other rookery brothers yet to show off their ability and some were already seeking private cornices with rookery brothers theyíd chosen.
"I wonder when we started seeing our sisters as something more," Goliath pondered aloud. That put him in mind to look around. He scanned the sky and the many groups of females, looking for one in particular.
"Now, I know you wouldnít hide out in your tower. Not tonight," Goliath spoke to himself. He saw a flash of pumpkin orange wings and straw blonde hair on the balcony above the courtyard. Goliath started to pursue when Desdemona barreled into him. He caught her from falling to the ground.
"Iím sorry," she apologized in a strained voice. Goliath helped her up.
"No harm done." He looked at her and noticed her distressed look.
"Is everything alright?" Goliath asked.
"No it isnít." Desdemona shook her head and wiped eyes brimming with tears. "Excuse me." She bolted for the stairs. Goliath gave one look to the balcony, then turned around and went after Desdemona.
* * *
The central tower served as both a launch site for the dancers and a resting place for tired ones. It also served Iago as a perfect spy post. From his vantage, he saw Othello pull Desdemona aside. He saw even, if he couldnít hear, Othelloís proposal and he saw to his delight Desdemonaís refusal.
Iago frowned when he saw Goliath get involved, but then relaxed.
"Itís not like heíd know what to do with a female. Even if she drew him a map," Iago sneered. "Besides, his good nature might come in handy."
Iago took flight and made a small pinion turn as his flourish, before sweeping around the castle. He found Othello by the sea wall, staring out at the ocean.
"There you are, brother. What are you doing so far from the others?" Iago greeted Othello.
"She said Ďnoí," the deep-voiced gargoyle said despondently.
"What?" Iago feigned surprise.
"I asked her to be my mate and she said Ďnoí." Othello lifted his hands and let them drop to his sides.
"Did she say why?"
"She said that she wasnít sure of her heart and that weíd be better off as friends."
"Friends?" Iago repeated the word with distaste, as if it were something bitter in his mouth.
"I donít know why she changed her mind. Not long ago she wanted to be mates. But nowÖ"
Iago looked distressed. "PerhapsÖ" he hesitated.
"Perhaps what?" Othello asked.
"Perhaps all isnít it as seems." Iago gestured for him to follow.
* * *
"Sister? What troubles you?" Goliath asked, coming up behind Desdemona. The young female quickly cleared her eyes of tears and turned around.
"I think Iíve hurt someone I care about." Desdemona looked up at Goliath. He placed a comforting hand on her shoulder and led her to the privacy of the battlements. They walked quite a ways into the garden, before they found a place quiet enough to talk.
"You know how close Iíve grown to our brother?" Desdemona started, "Tonight, he proposed to me and I said Ďnoí."
Desdemona blinked again to stop the tears from coming. Goliath gave his sister a moment and encouraged her to finish.
"It seemed so sudden and I was so unsure. I have so many doubts."
"Like what?" Goliath prompted.
"What if he isnít the one my heart sings for? What if we are too young? He makes me laugh and is very sweet but is that enough to choose a mate?"
"What else do you want?" Goliath asked, his eyes concerned.
"I donít know!" Desdemona threw up her arms. "Itís just that when he proposed it didnít feel right. Like it was for all the wrong reasons."
"Then you made the right decision." Goliath walked up to her. "Your heart will know when and who is right for you. Until then, our brother will just have to wait and if it isnít him, then heíll just have to accept it. It may hurt, but in the end youíll both be happier for it."
Desdemona smiled and gave him a hug, her head resting on his chest. "Thank you, brother. I really needed to hear that."
At the sea wall entrance to the garden, Iago and Othello watched the exchange between Goliath and Desdemona. They couldnít hear the conversation, but their embrace spoke volumes to the gray-blue gargoyle.
Othello sank his talons in the castle stone and dug deep furrows of anger. Iago, at his ear, added, "They betray you!"
* * * * *
Diomedes scanned the various knots of females dancing. His tail twitched impatiently as he searched for Demona. Even after the harsh words he had spoken to her some time ago, he still could not keep the fire-tressed gargoyle from his mind. He thought about searching the castle a third time, but shook his head in frustration.
"She should be out here," he grumbled aloud.
"Who should, brother?" Fuchsia asked as she landed next to him.
"Hmm. Oh nothing," Diomedes replied.
"Good. Then you can come dance with me." Fuchsia beamed as she pulled on his hands.
"Iím waiting for someone."
"Our sister?" Fuchsia asked, referring to Demona, "I havenít seen her all night. Maybe she doesnít want to dance. What about you? Donít tell me you enjoy standing here, while the rest of us have fun."
"Perhaps later," Diomedes added, with a tone of finality. Fuchsia gave him a sad look.
"As you wish, brother, but donít let the night pass away. Itíd be the greatest shame not to join us," Fuchsia added, as she climbed the stairs to join Bianca. Young males besieged the white gargoyle.
"Where are you sister?" Diomedes asked the sky.
* * *
In the Archmageís tower, Demona struggled with a spell for the twentieth time. The spell conjured fire on water and required the absolute concentration that she couldnít supply. A strain of music or the laugh of a couple of gargoyles would distract her and sheíd have to start all over again. She had hoped to finish things early and have a chance to at least speak with her breastplated brother. Although he had spoken so harshly to her some time ago, Demona still retained her earlier feelings for him and was hoping the evening might provide an opportunity to patch things up between them. She looked to the Archmage hoping to get his permission to leave, but he was still absorbed in his mystical readings.
"Yes, of course," he crowed. "That is how it is done. The Eye is power and the Grimorum channels it. Now, I must find out how the Phoenix Gate fits. Get me the red tome."
"But Archmage, Iíve almost finished thisÖ."
"Do as I say!" he shouted.
Demona turned away from her work. She could feel the flame flicker out and almost cried from exhaustion. Instead, she swallowed her tears, went to the far bookcase and reached up for the requested volume. "It will be worth it," she whispered to herself.
* * *
The musicians were starting to doze off, when the fiddler nudged the two next to him with his bow. He pointed to their comrade who had new admirers.
"Now, you hold these holes like this andÖ" The piper got a high note. His students, a tan female with peach and purple colored wings and a mustard green male with web wings, both looked with amazement. "Hold these others and you get thisÖ" The piper now blew a low note. "ÖAnd the way you put them together you get music."
"Wow," Lexington approached a little closer to get a better look. One of the guards cleared his throat, a subtle warning for the hatchlings not to get too close.
"It's okay." The piper looked to the guard, then the gargoyle children, Lexington and the apprentice, stepped cautiously forward. Once they were at armsí length, the piper turned the pipes over to get a better look.
"You can make a set of pipes yourself."
"Really?" the girl asked.
"Absolutely. You just need to find some reeds and cut them to different lengths. Put some holes in them. Just remember toÖ"
The piper was nudged in his ribs by the drumstick of his fellow. He looked up just as Prince Malcolm and Princess Elena approached. The two gargoyle children quickly disappeared. The musicians sat at attention to play anything their patron requested. Instead, they walked past them onto the balcony.
"It is most incredible," Elena commented, watching the gargoyles dance in the sky. She pointed out a pair gliding hand in hand from one tower to another.
"They are so graceful."
"Yes, they are," the Prince agreed, though his eyes were on Elena all the time.
The leader of the musicians signaled to the others. They began a slow love ballad to help the mood along.
Unobtrusively, Prince Malcolm edged closer to her. Elena kept her head tilted toward the sky, but noticed Malcolm's presence. He moved cautiously, slowly, giving her an avenue to escape if she wanted to. She felt her heart begin to pound as she sensed him so near. Malcolm felt his stomach flip-flop, but he couldn't stop. He was drawn to this ravishing Norman beauty. And then their hands touched. They both felt a current of energy from that touch. Malcolm looked at Elena, but she was staring at the ground.
"Elena?" Prince Malcolm cupped her chin and lifted it up until they made eye contact.
"Yes, MalcolmÖ" But words were no longer required.
* * * * *
The hatchlings yawned their protest as they were herded out of the courtyard. Hours of dancing had exhausted them. Hudson and the other elders helped them up to the positions to nap until sunrise.
The young warriors were still dancing. Their energy seemed inexhaustible. From the castle wall, Asrial watched her twirling brothers and sisters, but saw no sign of Goliath.
"I donít know whether I should be angry or relieved," she mumbled to herself.
"So there you are." Goliath appeared out of nowhere. "Whatís a beautiful flower like yourself doing sheltered by the wall?"
"You think Iím a flower?" Asrial teased back.
Goliath nodded. "And the most fair one at that." He offered his arm. "Care to dance?"
Suddenly shy, all Asrial could do was smile and take his arm. Goliath returned the smile and led the way to the towers.
* * *
Desdemona found Othello talking to Iago. She tapped him on the shoulder. Othello turned around. Desdemona was surprised at the harshness in his face. His jaw was clenched tight and his angry eyes were almost glowing.
"Is something wrong?" Desdemona asked.
"No!" he said, with a hard edge to his deep voice. "Nothing is wrong."
"I wanted to explain why I saidÖwhat I said. I want you to understand," Desdemona started, but Othello wasnít listening. His gaze was trained on Goliath who was climbing the tower wall with Asrial. His eyes narrowed.
"Letís dance!" he said abruptly.
Desdemona was surprised by his tone, but saw a chance to talk to him alone.
"All right then," she answered in a cautious tone and let him lead the way.
* * *
Goliath and Asrial lifted off hand in hand. Things started off quietly as they glided around the high tower, but soon smiles spread on both faces as the turns and banks made the flight enjoyable. They caught an updraft and climbed higher.
"Iíve been waiting to dance with you," Asrial said, blushing with shyness.
"Weíre here now. Where to?"
"Why donít we see where the winds carry us?" Asrial answered. Just then a strong crosswind knocked her in front of Goliath. He caught her other arm and they glided down face to face.
"That is quite a wind," Goliath commented on the freak gust. He was about to let go, resuming their hand-in-hand flight.
"No." Asrial asked. Their descent was more direct, but they spun down in pinwheel fashion. "This is interesting."
Their brothers and sisters looked at their new dance style with interest. Soon, others tried out the new face-to-face way, pinwheeling their way from the towers to the courtyard. Asrial blushed at the attention they were getting. Goliath didnít see the others. All he could see was how lovely his dance partner was.
"You look extremely beautiful tonight."
"Like a flower, you mentioned that," Asrial commented and then smiled broadly, indicating she was teasing. Goliath smiled ruefully.
Asrial took a deep breath. "There is something I wanted to tell you. IÖ"
The couple were jostled as Othello collided with Goliath. It looked like an honest mistake. Just two couples bumping into each other in the crowded sky. Othello glided off.
"Rude. He didnít apologize," Asrial commented.
"It doesnít matter." Goliath turned back to his dance partner. "You wanted to say something?"
Asrial nodded. "I feel Iím fallingÖ"
"Canít get enough, can you?" Othelloís voice shouted from above.
Both Goliath and Asrial looked up. Asrial immediately blushed with embarrassment. Desdemona admonished her partner.
"Brother, what has gotten into you?" She tried to lead Othello away, but they were within the castle walls close to landing.
Goliath looked to Asrial, but she was already preparing to land, not looking up to him.
"Care to dance agaiÖ Ow!" Goliath looked behind himself, where Othello landed fully on his tail.
"Brother, what is wrong?" Goliath asked after he retrieved his trod-upon tail.
"That is enough!" Desdemona shouted.
"I agree," he grabbed the split winged female and looked at Goliath, "You want her! Take her! The lot I care!" He shoved Desdemona to Goliath and stormed off, leaving everyone staring at the aftermath of the disturbance.
"Are you okay?" Goliath asked Desdemona. She nodded. Goliath looked to Asrial.
"Watch her until things calm down. Iím going to talk to him."
Asrial agreed and led Desdemona away.
* * * * *
"What was that all about?" Diomedes asked.
"I donít know," Fuchsia answered with a shrug. Soon the excitement died down. The musicians continued playing and the young warriors started climbing the walls and dancing again. Fuchsia looked to Diomedes hopefully.
"Come with me, brother."
"Perhaps later," Diomedes repeated.
"It is later." Fuchsia refused to give up, grabbing his arms. She gently tugged him to the wall.
"I know you care for our sister, but that devotion shouldnít come at the cost of being with the clan. If she doesnít want to join us, thatís her decision, but that doesnít mean you have to."
"Why do you care one way or another?" Diomedes asked.
At this, Fuchsia had no response. A deep red rose in her purple cheeks as she blushed. Diomedes blinked in recognition: she liked him.
"Oh, perhaps oneÖ" Diomedes started, but Fuchsia held up her hand.
"I asked you to join us because I care for you. Donít ask me to dance out of pity or obligation."
"No, itís not that at all." Diomedes moved a little closer. "I really want to dance with you."
Fuchsia smiled. She tugged on his arm and they both climbed to the tower to join the others.
* * * * *
"Brother!" Goliath called after Othello as he marched past the stables. "Brother!" He finally caught up to him and put a hand on his shoulder.
"Betrayer!" Othello spun around. His fist connected with Goliathís jaw in a surprising right cross. Othello sprang on Goliath. Goliathís quick warrior instincts took over. He grabbed Othelloís wrists before his claws could cause any damage.
"I donít want to hurt you," Goliath grunted under the strain.
"You already have!" Othello growled. His tail flicked out trying to trip Goliath. Goliath knew the same trick and blocked with his own tail. Othello shifted direction. Instead of pushing down, he pulled back, flinging Goliath across the pathway.
Goliath scrambled to his feet, as Othello made another swing. The lavender gargoyle held up his arms to block the blows. He pulled away from a series of jabs, not returning any. That earned Goliath another growl from Othello and more punches thrown. Goliath needed a plan. He backed into something. He spared a quick look behind before looking back to Othello.
"Brother, please listen to me." Goliath tried one more time.
"Listen? Your actions have spoken for you." Othello lunged for him. Goliath sidestepped and Othello went headfirst into the water trough. Othello came up, sputtering. Goliath dunked his head in the trough again. Othelloís arms flayed around wildly, but Goliath kept his grip and, after a count of ten, he pulled his brother up.
"When I get my hands onÖ"
Goliath dunked him again. When he let Othello up again, the slate-blue gargoyle still struggled to get at him. Goliath dunked him one more time. This time Othello was more subdued.
"Are you ready to speak now?" Goliath asked.
"Yes," Othello seethed. Goliath let him up. Othello coiled to pounce, but a swoosh of wings caught both of their attention.
"What is all the ruckus?" Hudson asked, landing in front of the two males.
Both looked like erring hatchlings, neither saying a word.
"Well?" The leader peered at Othello. "Why are you soaking wet?"
Othello stammered, trying to think of a good answer.
"He was just cooling off," Goliath spoke, "You know how hot it can get dancing."
Hudson crossed his arms across his chest with an ĎI am not buying that for a minuteí look, but he remembered being a headstrong youth once.
"Fine," he relented. "Just keep that 'cooling off' to a dull roar, mind ye."
Both males nodded in agreement and watched their leader turn and leave.
Othello shot a glare at Goliath. "Donít think that makes up for what youíve done," he spat at Goliath.
"What is it you think I have done?" Goliath asked.
"Donít play innocent. I saw you with her. Your arms wrapped around her so warmly."
Goliath realized at once he was talking about their orange sister.
"I was offering her comfort after you and she had words. Is this about you asking her to be your mate?"
Othello scoffed, "Like you donít know. Tell me brother, is it funny to watch me try and win her favor knowing she is yours all the time? Did you get a tremendous laugh out of it?"
"Our sister was never mine. Iíve never sought her favor."
"Though it explains why you've been reluctant to favor any female. I canít believe all the rumors were true. "
"Rumors?" Goliath straightened up, "I think Iím beginning to understand. Brother, what you heard is not true. I am not in love with our sister."
"I saw you."
"You saw me comfort an upset friend. You know I would have done that for any in the clan, sister or brother, elder or hatchling."
Othello crossed his arms across his chest, but the look on his face showed growing uncertainty.
"Didnít our sister talk to you? When I left her, she wanted to explain things to you."
Othello looked abashed. "She did try to say something, butÖ"
"You were busy stepping on my tail," Goliath finished.
"She was just going to tell me the whole thing was a cruel trick." Othello stubbornly clung to his side.
"How can you say that?" Goliath asked.
"I know what I saw." Othello turned around. Goliath shook his head.
He jumped up and spun around so his tail smacked Othello in the back of his head. Othello stumbled forward, nearly falling into the trough again. He turned around snarling, but Goliath was already at his side, helping him up.
"Sorry, brother, but I had to get through your ego." Goliath straightened him up. "Ask yourself something. Does your heart tell you this love for her is false? Or has doubt made you thoroughly unworthy in your own eyes?"
"But I saw you together."
Goliath nodded. "Yes and I have told you what really happened. Do you believe your brother or the words of a few gossip mongers?"
Othello straightened up, reflecting on Goliath's words.
* * * * *
Diomedes and Fuchsia landed, laughing at a joke he had made. They were about to climb the wall for another dance when they ran into Demona. The young redhead took in the couple, gave Diomedes a wordless, fathomless expression and turned around, walking briskly in the other direction.
"Sister!" Diomedes called after her. He gave one look at Fuchsia before chasing after Demona.
* * *
Asrial gave Desdemona a dipper of water. The orange gargoyle sipped it gratefully. When she finished, she wiped her eyes of brimming tears.
"Are you all right sister?" Asrial asked. "Do you need more water?"
"No, thank you." Desdemona leaned against the archway to the kitchen.
Asrial started to say something, but two raised voices got their attention. It was Diomedes catching up with Demona. He turned her around. Both wore angry scowls.
"Leave me alone. Youíve obviously made your choice," Demona said hotly.
"Only because you made your choice, not to be with me."
"I never didÖ"
"Oh really? Then where have you been tonight? For that matter, where have you been for the past several nights?"
Demona still looked angry, but held her tongue. Diomedesí anger softened to concern.
"I understand you want your privacy. Iíve tried being very patient since that night. But whatís so important that you shut out the clan? Shut out me?"
Still, Demona remained silent, but her face changed from hard anger to sadness. "I wish I could tell you."
"Then why donít you? You should know that you can trust me."
Demona stammered, "I-I canít."
There was a moment's pause. Diomedes looked into Demona's eyes and gave a shuddering sigh.
"Good-bye sister," Diomedes said, in a tone of such finality that it chilled even Asrial and Desdemona watching the scene.
"Donít go!" Demona cried.
"I have to." Diomedes turned around. "Whatever secrets you are keeping, maybe you can pay the price they asks, but I can not. I care about you, but I wonít cut myself off from the clan like you have."
Diomedes continued walking, shaking his head, and leaving Demona alone. He joined Fuchsia.
"You're right. Her decisions are not my own. Letís enjoy the night."
Demona remained head down, trying to hold off the tears. Asrial and Desdemona watched as Demona climbed the stairs and disappeared into the night. Asrial felt for her sister and her brother.
"Itís times like these that love isnít worth the aggravation," Desdemona said from behind Asrial.
"How can you say that?" Asrial turned to her sister.
"Because it hurts so much," Desdemona answered. "I know what our sister is going through. The pain is tremendous."
"Easy for you to say," Asrial mumbled to herself.
"What was that?" Desdemona asked. Asrial turned around and looked at her sister squarely.
"Itís easy for you to say love isnít worth it. You can have any brother you want just by smiling at them. For some of us, love is all we have."
At first, Desdemona looked shocked, then chuckled a little. "Is that what you think?"
"It is the truth." Asrial crossed her arms. "Iíve seen our brothers chase after you just to be in your presence."
"They chased me down like I was a hart in the wild. Most of them only saw me as a prize to be won. If it werenít for our brother, Iíd still be trying to dodge and avoid them." Desdemona smiled at the thought of Othello, then shook herself out of it.
"If anything, I envy you," Desdemona added offhandedly.
"Yes. You do exactly what you want to do. You want to build a device, you do it, and you donít let anyone stop you. Youíre beautiful and interesting. Best of all, our brothers donít see you as an object."
"They donít see me at all." Asrial looked down at the ground.
"Thatís not true." Desdemona shook her head. "Iíve seen a few brothers with their eyes on you and not just our good hearted one."
"Youíre fooling me," Asrial said with disbelief.
"No, Iím not. Iíll even prove it to you. Come on!"
Desdemona grabbed Asrial and pulled her away.
* * *
Half of the quartet had turned in, but the piper and the bass fiddler were still up. Although Prince Malcolmís party had died down hours ago, these players were performing exclusively for the gargoyles. The leader of the musicians said it was to make sure all his friends were safe, but he had stopped looking over his shoulder and had even started to take requests.
Desdemona dragged Asrial back to the courtyard. She pointed to a side of the yard where a string of males talked and laughed.
"Now watch," Desdemona whispered into her ear.
The group of brothers continued talking, but soon one brother noticed Asrial. He had dark gold skin and a short white beard. His eye contact was shy, but definitely there.
"They could just be looking at you," Asrial said turning around, but found Desdemona had disappeared.
"Up here," Desdemona called from above. She was on a landing above Asrial, well beyond the line of sight of their brothers.
"That doesnít prove anything," Asrial called up to her sister.
"Umm, may I have a dance with you?" their gold brother asked Asrial as he approached.
"Dance. Would you like to dance? Iíd like to learn how you and our brother did it facing each other."
Asrial was stunned smiling. "Ah, yes. Sure." She let her brother lead the way up to the tower.
From the landing, Desdemona smiled as Asrial and their brother climbed to the heights.
"At least one of us can be happy," she said to herself.
"Why only one? When we could all be happy?" Iago eased in next to her. Desdemona gave her brother a look that said plainly that she wanted to be left alone. A look Iago ignored.
"I saw you had troubles with our brother."
"Yes," Desdemona said tersely.
Iago sighed, "I donít know whatís going on between the two of you, but you seemed troubled. I just thought I could help. Sorry if I disturbed you."
Iago got up and started to walk away. Desdemona turned to him. "Brother, Iím sorry for being short with you. I put my anger for him on you. Thatís not right. Youíre not the cause of my problems."
Iago smiled and joined her back on the landing. "So what got our brother so upset?"
"Please, I donít want to talk about it." Desdemona looked up to the sky to see Asrial show her brother the basics of this new dance.
"A dance might take your mind off things." Iago stood up and offered his hand. Desdemona hesitated, but finally shrugged-- it was Equinox after all-- and took his hand.
* * *
"I have been a fool," Othello admitted. Goliath tactfully said nothing.
"It happens to the best us," Oliver added, emerging from stables. "I saw the scuffle coming back from the feast. Care to explain?"
"Just that I accused my brother without getting all the facts," Othello answered shamefacedly.
"Admitting it is the hardest part." Goliath patted his brotherís shoulder, "Now comes the next trial - asking for forgiveness."
Othello looked up to Goliath. "I am sorry I accused you, brother. Even more so since I attacked you."
"Iíve already forgiven you, my brother. But there is someone else youíve wronged more than I."
Othello nodded. Oliver gave a yawn. "Iím sure youíll work it out. If you need my help, donít hesitate to ask."
Goliath and Othello returned in time to see Desdemona follow Iago out into the air. Othelloís face crumbled. Goliath followed his line of sight and saw Desdemona gliding with Iago.
"I have lost her." Othello sounded disheartened.
"Not yet. If you truly love her, then you must work to win her," Goliath encouraged.
"You are right, my brother, but how?" Othello then hit upon something. "I have a plan. Will you help me?"
"Always, my brother."
* * *
"That foolish brother of ours doesnít know what he threw away," Iago commented as they banked around the high center tower. "To treat such a lovely thing as you in such a coarse way should be a crime."
Desdemona sighed and smiled politely. She wasnít completely taken in by Iagoís charm, but it was nice to be complimented. This was the first time all night she felt at ease, but her thoughts did not stray far from Othello.
Iago smiled to himself. He did a slight twirl with Desdemona, enjoying the fruits of his machinations.
"You certainly arenít like our rookery brother," Desdemona said breathlessly, after the maneuver.
"Of course," Iago poured on the charm. "Iíd never treat you with such suspicion or need such pity."
"Pity?" Desdemona asked.
Iago smiled. "Yes. You only chose to be with our brother to avoid our more aggressive attentions."
"Yes, butÖ" Desdemona halted. She wanted to say that the deception had grown into more, but had it?
"For my own part in chasing you, I am sorry, my sister." Iago guided her out over the ocean before turning back to the castle. "But if you had to choose someone, why our slow-witted brother?"
ĎBecause he is kind and gentle and honest,í Desdemona thought to herself. It put to mind all the things Iago couldnít be. He was kind now, but even she could sense the immodesty in it. Something clicked for Desdemona.
"I must admit the deception was very convincing. For the longest time, I thought it was the real thing," Iago continued talking. "It must be a relief to be rid of such a bother."
Desdemona looked doubtful. "Is it?"
"Iíd think so, no longer having to pretend that youíre in love with our brother. Finally, free to choose someone worthy."
"You mean yourself, of course?" Desdemona asked shrewdly.
"Iíd love to be the one," Iago started. "But Iíd rather see you happy with anyone, than with me."
Iago waited for her reaction. She smiled. Inwardly, Iago congratulated himself, feeling he had placed his lies well. They glided to a landing in the courtyard.
"Care to dance again?" Iago asked.
"Maybe a little later. I need to rest a bit." Desdemona departed. Iago felt flush with his success. He could feel victory within his reach.
"Just a matter of time." Iago smiled to himself.
* * *
"There you are, brother," Asrial smiled as she found Goliath.
"Hello, sister." The lavender male seemed preoccupied, but she didnít notice.
"I wanted to tell you something. Could we go somewhere a little more private?"
Othello appeared at the far wall. He waved to Goliath, signaling him. Goliath looked down at his burnt-orange sister. "Iíd love to, but right now I must help our brother."
Without another word, he departed. Asrial just folded her arms across her chest. "I can see what she means about love not being worth the aggravation."
Oliver ran out to the courtyard and found Desdemona sitting with Emilia and Sienna.
"Iím so glad I found you," Oliver puffed out breathlessly.
"Oliver? What is it?"
"Two of your brothers are brawling."
"What?" Desdemona and the other girls exclaimed.
"Come with me." Oliver hurried back the way he came. Desdemona ran after him. Sienna and Emilia followed. Their exodus caught the attention of others. Soon half the young warriors were hurrying after Oliver and Desdemona, with the word Ďfightí whispered among them. Iago suppressed a smile before following them.
* * *
The warriors crowded the battlements and looked below. Outside the castle wall, Goliath and Othello squared off, circling each other. Iagoís grin grew wider as the two circled a second time.
"Weíve been here before. Hopefully this will yield better results."
"Stop this!" Javin jumped over the side, landing between the two. "Fighting isnít the solution. I should know."
Desdemona landed next to them with Oliver in her arms.
"What is the meaning of this?" she demanded.
"This one is lying!" Goliath accused. "He does not love you."
"I do so!" Othello roared.
"Liar! Someone who loved you would never treat you like this," Goliath replied.
"I do love her," Othello argued. "I have always loved her."
Goliath signaled to Javin. He gave him a wink and a nod to let him know it was all right. Javin gave him a questioning look, but stepped aside. From above, Iago peered at the encounter a little closer.
"Would a love be so suspicious of you?" Goliath challenged.
"I was only afraid I might lose her."
Desdemona turned around to face Othello. "Lose me?"
"Yes," Othello eased up slightly. "Iíve always been afraid that I might lose you. That Iíll wake up one night and youíll choose someone else."
"So seeing what you saw was your worst fear coming true," Oliver supplied.
"Yes," Othello nodded. "Iím sorry, sister. I just didnít want to lose you."
Desdemona looked at Othello, so open and wanting. She slowly walked over to him. In a single motion, she wrapped her arms around him. Everyone on the battlements clapped and cheered at the coupleís make up. Everyone save Iago, who looked on with a scowl of disgust.
* * * * *
Othello helped Desdemona up as they took a glide into the early morning night. From his vantage in a cornice, Iago watched the couple giggle as they flew overhead. He cast a dagger-look at Othello and stared down at Goliath in a similar manner. If glares could kill, the clan would be short two brothers.
"Such a foul countenance on you, brother," smoky black Emilia remarked.
"Go away, sister. I wish to be alone." Iago waved her off.
"Oh, I donít believe that. Come dance with me. Maybe we can leave that foul mood behind?"
Iago looked Emilia over. She wasnít nearly as fair as Desdemona, but right now, he didnít care. He took her hand and stepped off the cornice.
* * *
Goliath gave a satisfied sigh as he saw Othello and Desdemona glide happily through the sky. If they could patch things up, he had no doubt they could make it. Now, Goliath searched for Asrial. He looked up and saw her dancing with a gold skinned male. Goliath let out another sigh, this one a little disheartened. Quietly and unobtrusively, Goliath melted into the crowds.
* * * * *
The clan prepared for a dayís rest. The hatchlings were already asleep, with the Elders not far behind. In a cornice facing the east, Desdemona leaned back into Othelloís arms.
"This is nice," Desdemona purred contentedly. "I wish it didnít have to end."
"It doesnít have to," Othello replied. "My love, this night has opened my eyes to many things. The most important of them is that I donít want to be without you. Before, when I asked you to be my mate, fear was in the asking. Now, I ask out of love. Will you honor me and be my mate? Not just now, but forever."
Desdemona started to reply when the gloom of night lightened. A strong wind suddenly sprang up, blowing hot and cold at the same time. It seemed to twirl about for a moment, before disappearing as suddenly as it came.
"What was that?" Othello asked, just before Desdemona kissed him fully on the lips.
When she pulled away, she smiled at Othelloís surprised countenance. "That was my answer, my love."
Othello swept her up in his arms and hugged her tightly. Desdemona held him equally tightly, ecstatic to know that her heart finally sang, and it was for him.
* * *
Goliath searched the courtyard for any gargoyles about to make sure they headed for their perches. He looked above and noticed how many new couples found places next to each other. He was happy for them, but he also felt a little down.
"I hope you have one more dance left in you?" Asrial asked. Goliath whipped around to see her smiling face.
"UhÖ" Goliath looked a bit awkward.
Asrial smiled and grabbed his hands. "Letís dance."
"Uh, donít we need players? Music?"
"Does that mean you donít want to dance?" Asrial asked.
"No, but we wonít have time to get up to the tower and glide."
"Then weíll just have to dance down here." Asrial placed her arms around his waist and slowly rocked from side to side.
Goliath slowly put his arms around Asrial and moved in time with her. "You wanted to say something to me."
Asrial hushed him, "Itís not important."
They continued to dance, letting the world slip away. With the insects and waking birds as their choir, and the muted crashing of the surf as their orchestra, it was a moment of perfect peace. Soon, the moment ended and they had to get to their places before dawn.
Asrial detached herself from Goliath and started to move away.
"You could spend the day with meÖ if you like?" Goliath offered, nervousness in his voice.
Asrial paused for a moment to consider this, then shook her head. "Perhaps another time."
She started climbing the wall and looked back, "You know, brother, you have a good soul. I envy the lass whoíll be your mate."
Goliath watched her ascend to her perch before climbing to his own. When he reached the top, he was surprised to find Demona already there.
"Donít you usuallyÖ"Goliath started to ask, when he looked down at his sisterís usual roosting spot . He saw Diomedes with Fuchsia. He didnít finish his query, only offered Demona an understanding pat on the shoulder before the sun rose and turned the entire clan to stone.
* * * * *
The Norman caravan mounted up, ready to leave. Their time had been brief, but Prince Malcolm and Princess Elena knew that this was more than just an arranged marriage. That this had a chance of becoming more.
"Send my best wishes to Duke Richard," Prince Malcolm saluted Sir Geoffroi. When Elena rode by, a beaming smile passed between them.
"I hope you enjoyed yourself. I eagerly await our impending marriage."
"I do, too." Princess Elena said stately, but her eyes sparkled with warmth. "I hope the time passes quickly, my love," she whispered to him before the dowager urged her to join the rest of the envoy.
Oliver finished speaking with the Captain of the Guard and rode up to Prince Malcolm.
"Iíll keep a watchful eye out for them," the young Glencarrick captain promised.
"I have no doubt of that. Oliver, you are married?"
"Yes, your highness."
"Definitely," Oliver smiled. "I canít imagine being happier."
"I hope Iíll be that happy," Malcolm commented, as the envoy departed from the castle.
* * *
Malcolm stood on the topmost tower, watching until the caravan vanished beyond the horizon. He felt like walking on air. He didnít believe it was possible, but in such a short time, he knew he was falling in love with Elena. He stayed up on the tower a while longer, to savor the feeling, when he noticed the gargoyles around him.
The battlements sported many new couples; gargoyles happily near the ones they loved. However, two gargoyles caught his eye because they werenít happy. One was a pensive Goliath. His features closed, as if he had lost something he didnít even know was gone. The other was a heartbroken Demona. Her pain was more evident. Her face still fresh with the pain. Malcolm studied these two for a moment, before heading back into the castle, leaving the statues to the first day of spring.