Only Human

Written by Gray

From an Outline by Damien Tobin and Jonathan Cotleur

Additional Material by Stephen R. Sobotka, Jr.,

Diane R. Flynn, and others

 

Previously on Dark Ages...

"I didn't kill them. I tried."

"I know," said Margaret. "But the monsters thwarted you."

"Yes."

"They wanted me to die, Edward. They wanted me to suffer. The lepers are only their servants. The gargoyles are the true devils," said Margaret.

"Yes."

"They should pay. They should all pay," said Margaret.

"Yes." But not today. He would need more men, more loyal soldiers. Gargoyles were everywhere, even infesting his own beloved country. He would need many more men to kill them all. Then Margaret would be happy, speaking to him only of pleasant things, and would stop reminding him of her death.

--Cornerstone

* * * * *

Sir Geoffroi de Lamord smiled to himself, as he and his entourage rode away from the castle the following morning, and glanced back at the three chests strapped to his pack-horses' backs, three chests that had not been in his baggage when he had come to Castle Wyvern a few days before. He nodded, and twisted the gold ring upon his finger, which depicted a pyramid with a fiery eye crowning its apex.

"The Illuminati will be very interested in this," he murmured, in a quiet voice filled with satisfaction.

--Dragon's stone

* * * * *

"I leave for two nights and this is what happens?!" Atalanta yelled, eyes blazing. "Where is everyone? The prisoners--"

"Escaped," Roland told her evenly.

Her voice shook with barely-contained rage. "And you're not in the least bit worried about remaining here?"

"Well," Roland replied, "not really, since they would've expected us to move on by now, but after that unearthly shriek I don't know..."

Atalanta sneered. "Just finish and let's go, thief," she mumbled and walked away.

"Well, not just yet," said Roland. Atalanta turned to him with a warning look in her eye. "Your meeting... how did it go?"

She sighed irritably. "We are to begin 'increasing our sphere of influence' and 'accelerating our campaign'," she explained unenthusiastically.

Roland nodded thoughtfully as the traces of a cold smile formed on his face.

-- Nowhere to Hide

* * * * *

Only Human

 

It wasn't a bright idea, but they had the advantage of numbers and audacity. Who would have thought that anyone would attack one of the gargoyles, especially this one, in his home castle?

The diminished lighting of the stairway was no bother to the bearded gargoyle, who was called Leader by his Clan, because of the excellent night vision all his people had. He was on his way down to the courtyard after inspecting the placement of his warriors on the outer walls and battlements of Castle Wyvern.

"One side, one side!" called a voice from below as Leader stepped down to a landing in the middle of the stairway. He could see the two men charging up the steps. They were dressed like the castle's guardsmen. The first had his short sword out and the other was carrying a cudgel in his hand.

"What is it, lads?" asked Leader as he backed into the darkened doorway off the landing to let them pass. "Is there somethin'--" The brown skinned gargoyle was cut off as arms wrapped around his face and arms to pull him into the dark room.

The gargoyle was thrown across the room. He rolled with the throw to end up in a three point crouch on the other side of the chamber, near a small table set against the wall. To his other side was the window to the outer wall, but it wasn't large enough to allow him an easy departure.

The two men who were coming up the stairs moved through the doorway, accompanied by another who had come down the steps behind Leader. All of them were wearing hoods now to conceal their features. The last man was carrying a torch taken from a wall bracket and another cudgel. The light from the torch showed the two other men who had dragged Leader into the small room. Both were hooded and carried short swords.

"Are you ready to die, monster?" said one of the sword wielders and one of his cohorts chuckled. The five of them started to approach.

ĎSo be ití, thought the bearded gargoyle. The table flew across the room, shattering against the upper body of the man holding the torch. Both he and the firebrand fell to the floor, changing the odds and dimming the light. The other four paused for a moment, then moved forward together again.

Leader's eyes flared as he straightened into a fighting stance, clenching and unclenching his talons. "Come on then, rogues. All I wanted from dyin' was to go out fightin' and to be havin' LOTS OF COMP'NY!!"

The last word blended in with the warrior's roar as Leader launched himself at the remaining assassins.

The roaring and tumult was mostly muffled by the thick walls, so the first real indication anyone had of the trouble was the body of the man that was thrown out the window. He screamed as he fell down past the north wall to the ground near the cliff-face.

Men and gargoyles immediately moved to check on the source of the disturbance. As the winged warriors neared the ruined window they were surprised to see their leader, covered with cuts and bruises, jump from the same opening.

Leader howled as his wings immediately opened to fill with air. His gliding strained already damaged muscle and prevented his usually smooth movement through the air. His course changed suddenly and erratically which was fortunate, since the changes were enough to render the last attack on him ineffective. A cudgel thrown at him from the window only grazed his wing as he began to bank towards the castle wall.

The gargoyles gliding towards him split into two groups. As two went to assist their leader to get to the ground safely, the other pair turned with blazing eyes towards the window he had emerged from.

The two warriors didn't bother with the chancy prospect of going in through the window. They took up positions on either side of the opening. They roared as they worked to tear at the masonry around the window to widen the opening before rushing in, hoping to put a good scare into their adversaries. A squad of men from above was entering from the doorway at the same time. All of them looked around at the damage to the room's furniture and the bodies of the two beaten assassins.

There were a number of humans and gargoyles in the high courtyard, going about their business or in groups involved in various activities. Nearly all heads turned when Leader and his escorts lighted in their midst.

"Brother!"

"Leader!"

"Elder!"

"Easy now all, I be all right," murmured their leader as a number of gargoyles closed on him. He breathed deeply as he willed his body to work around the pain of his wounds.

"What happened, brother?" asked a smoky blue female with a rounded beak. She looked him over with a practiced eye and could see that most of the blood on his tunic and arms was not his. She frowned when she noticed one of his hands was held against his lower ribs. The female lightly ran her hand over his arm to see if it was hurt.

"Have we been attacked?" asked one of the guardsmen in an anxious voice. He had been walking towards his post when the wounded gargoyle appeared, and had shouldered his way to the injured warrior.

"Nay, nay. 'Tis all over now. I dealt with 'em."

"We have to see to yuir wounds, Leader," said the Eldest, who, like the other female, had come over from where they had been watching over the younger gargoyles.

"Thank ye, Eldest, but I am well enough for now." Leader turned to the guardsman who had yet to return to his post. "I must see the Prince, lad. At once."

* * * * *

In the Woods Nearby

The squad of guardsmen was resting from their patrol more than half a league from the castle. Robbie had stepped away from his compatriots when he heard a noise that did not belong in the thinned woodland they were moving through.

The creak of a swaying branch behind him made Robbie duck just as a dark form swooped past him from behind. The guardsman drew his dagger as his opponent whirled around to face him. All Robbie could see of the attacker were two pale claws and a mask that was even lighter, partially hidden by his deep hood. The rest of the gargoyle was cloaked in dark cloth.

"Roland," said Robbie as he also unsheathed his short sword.

"You know me. Good," growled the rogue in reply. "One shouldn't die not knowing the name of his killer." He leapt to the attack, snarling.

The young man had an advantage in reach, but wasn't as fast and only had two weapons against Roland's four or five. Talons flashed and blades moved in their arcs. Robbie ducked under a swing, blocked a foot sweep with the flat of his sword, then kicked out to keep back Roland's whip-like tail. The return strike with his dagger at Roland's middle made the thief jump back for a moment, before attacking again.

Robbie continued to hold his ground as well as he could against the savage assault. It quickly became apparent though that he wouldn't last long against the rogue gargoyle. Fortunately, he didn't have to.

Hearing the noise, three of Robbie's fellows appeared in search of him and saw the fight. One immediately hurled his spear at Roland. The thief heard the men when they arrived on the scene and caught their movements out of the corner of his eye. He was able to move so the spear didn't hit his torso, but it did put a hole in his cloak, and in the wing it covered. The spear's length hadnít fully passed through the wing before its point entered a nearby tree, and stuck there.

Roland growled as much from anger as from pain at his wound. He turned aside Robbie's next thrust and at the same time broke the shaft of the spear that had him pinned. He used the shortened staff to bat aside the other spear thrown at him.

Robbie saw an opening and slashed at Roland again, managing to cut the gargoyle along the length of his forearm. The pale yellow gargoyle's eyes flared in anger and pain. He swung again at the young fighter, scoring a glancing blow to the shoulder that almost knocked Robbie off his feet.

At this point the other guardsmen had nearly reached the two combatants. This time the weapon was a thrown dagger, and Roland didn't have the opportunity to dodge. It struck deep in his thigh.

"Kill it!!" shouted two of the soldiers together, and they had at him.

* * * * *

Castle Wyvern

Word of the attack on the gargoyle leader flashed through the castle. By the time Leader arrived at the conference room off the Great Hall, Prince Malcolm and the Captain of the Guard had already heard the report from the squad of men who were first to arrive at the scene of the fight, and were questioning them to get further details. Several of the Prince's other advisors were also present. Leader had been delayed by the insistence of the Eldest and others that he clean himself up before meeting with the Prince.

A number of heads turned to look when Leader entered the room, escorted by the guardsman from the courtyard.

"Fair eve, Prince Malcolm, Captain," said the gargoyle, nodding in greeting, as he strode across the room. Malcolm laughed quietly, briefly, at the salutation as he rose from his chair. It took the Captain a few moments to catch the dry humor.

"I wish it were truly so, my friend." The two leaders clasped forearms. "The Captain and I were just hearing about the trouble above. Are ye well?"

"I be well enough, Prince Malcolm. The three I vanquished were ruffians, with nae much skill to back up their bravado. The other two were experienced swordsmen. If they had all been proper trained warriors, I would nae be here to talk to ye about it."

Malcolm grunted and looked from the gargoyle to the guardsman who had entered with him. "How could this have happened?"

The man gulped nervously before answering. "My Prince, one of the two killed in the room off the battlements was dressed in garb near enough the same as mine."

"Aye," agreed Leader, "so was the one I sent out the window, and one o' the others."

"We have bandits runnin' about the castle and creatin' whatever trouble they will, again?!" Prince Malcolm restrained himself from raising his voice, but his tone and glare made his point to the Captain as plain as a shout. "Dressed as some of my men, to boot!"

"I know you would nae order an attack like that against me or my people, Prince Malcolm."

The Laird of the castle shook his head. "Nay, I would not. The question is: who would? Such an attack was a huge gamble, even if it had succeeded." Several of those listening nodded in agreement.

"There are enough who think they would profit by the death of the Leader," mused one of the courtiers. "That English nobleman, Edward, springs to mind."

"The loss of ye would 'ave been a terrible thing for the bea--, gargoyles," said the Captain of the Guard with no sympathy in his eyes. "Especially in such a manner. Mayhap it could have been a scheme hatched by the Vikings, eh? They have been plenty angry about their failures to take the castle."

"Nay, I do not think so." Prince Malcolm looked from his captain to the bearded gargoyle. "Such an act is too crafty for the Vikings. Not for that bunch of thieves and rogue gargoyles though, methinks. They were the ones who easily evaded the castle defenses before."

"I dinnae know what to think, Prince Malcolm. They may have just been some local serfs or some-such, bent on killin' 'monsters' for no good reason. The one who spoke to me sounded plain hateful."

Prince Malcolm stroked his beard, partially in thought, but also to alleviate the itching it created that he still hadn't gotten quite used to. "I hope that is not the case, my friend. I thought all my people knew that you and yours were to be trusted." Both of them grunted in frustration.

"All we know is that we don't have enough information to really understand what happened," continued the Prince. "We cannot take proper action until we do understand what caused the attack." Malcolm looked at the Captain of the Guard. "Captain, hopefully these two troublemakers are still in the castle, where we can deal with them. See if they can be located and held. After that, please take steps to make sure we have no one else runnin' around the castle pretending to be what they are not."

"Aye, my Prince. Right away. Come along, you lot." After snapping to attention and bowing, the Captain and his men departed.

The Prince looked at Leader again. "What really disturbs me is how brazen the attack was. That may be a more important matter then the reason for it. I cannot, we cannot, have such goings on continue. It will only cause more trouble for my serfs, and your warriors."

"Aye. We must go an' speak with both our peoples, to settle them. Hopefully we can stop this spark of trouble from becoming flame." At the Prince's nod, Leader turned and left the chamber.

Prince Malcolm slowly walked back to the chair at the head of the conference table. He spent several minutes thinking about his new problem, trying to find an equitable solution, before looking up at his waiting advisors.

* * * * *

In the Woods

Roland started off well enough against Robbie and the other soldiers, but he wasn't used to prolonged fighting, especially against superior numbers. His swing at Robbie left him open to another man, wielding a mace. Only the gargoyle's musculature prevented a shattered thigh bone. Roland backhanded the mace carrier away and another soldier sliced a hole in one wing, near the wound made by the first spear. The man kicked out as Roland turned to face him, driving the thief back against a tree. The rogue gargoyle ducked the swing meant to take his head off then twirled to lash his tail against his attacker's side. As the swordsman fell away Robbie and the last man moved in from opposite sides.

"The Prince would like you alive, thief," said Robbie in a roughened voice. "Submit, and we'll go easy on you."

Roland started to bark out a short laugh just before the hurled mace hit him in the side.

"Let's see how you like it, you stinkin' gargoyle!" shouted the soldier as he charged Roland. The foolish attack was surprising enough that it worked; the soldier hit low with his shoulder, driving the breath out of his opponent. The guardsman followed up with an uppercut that knocked Roland's head against the tree, shaking him up a bit.

The other four soldiers of the squad had finally begun looking for their fellows after they didn't return quickly. They rushed forward to help as soon as they saw the fight.

The soldier took advantage of Roland's momentary vulnerability and threw him to the ground at the feet of the other men. They continued their attack on the downed gargoyle. Robbie stopped after a few blows, not that the others noticed.

Curses and other scathing remarks were heaped on Roland as blows fell on him. The foul language defamed gargoyles as a people at least as much as it did Roland himself. After a particularly vehement and inventive insult was spit out at the thief Robbie felt a momentary twinge of sympathy.

What's the matter with them? thought the young man as he opened his mouth to shout. "Stop it! What's wrong with you?! The Prince wants him alive!" He stepped forward in an attempt to curb the attack on the pale gargoyle.

Roland saw the other quartet approaching as he tried to fend off the blows raining down on him. He knew his chances were dwindling rapidly, so he did what he had to. Marshaling his strength, Roland pushed himself up into the air with all four limbs, surprising the soldiers surrounding him. The thief used the opportunity to lash out at the men, knocking most of them away. He then jumped over one of the soldiers and ran on all fours into the forest.

"After him!" shouted Robbie as he got to his feet and started after Roland. He was quickly outdistanced by the four fresh soldiers. The new pursuers charged almost blindly for a few dozen feet before coming to a ten-foot ravine carved through the forest by a stream. One man could not stop himself and got a surprise dunking.

Roland had crossed the water worn cleft in the woodlands shortly before encountering the soldiers. He used it for the perfect launching spot that it was. He wobbled as he glided upstream, trying to maintain a level position above the small river.

Two thoughts kept rising through the thief's aches and pains as he went along: Never go out on a scouting mission alone again, and Got to get away.

Roland managed to glide a few hundred feet away from the soldiers before his strength began to fail him. He landed roughly on the opposite bank from where he had jumped. He leaned against a tree and listened for the sound of the pursuing guardsmen. After a few minutes of not hearing anything the thief staggered off into the woods. With the strain of his wounds it was surprising that he walked a mostly straight line deeper into the woods. Roland had no idea how far he had gone when he reached the limits of his stamina.

He knew the tree he stopped to lean against was at the edge of a clearing but that was all his blurred vision could report to him. He meant to recline against the old elm but instead collapsed to sprawl at its base. The only sound he made when he fell was a grunt as he knocked his head against one of the tree's exposed roots.

The sound of Roland succumbing to his injuries was noted by only one pair of ears.

* * * * *

Castle Wyvern

After the rebuke from Prince Malcolm about the earlier incident, Curran, the Captain of the Guard, was in a foul mood. The fruitless search of the castle and its immediate surroundings didn't help his temper any.

Neither did the questioning of the man who had survived the attack on the gargoyle leader. The poor dupe barely knew more than his own name, never mind anything that may have helped in finding his comrades. By the time the castle had been gone over and all the guards' uniforms had been accounted for it was nearly midnight.

The Captain was surprised to see the number of groups congregated in the courtyard despite the late hour. The buzz of conflicting voices washed over him as he paused for a moment to examine the different speakers. He wasn't surprised at all to hear that the attack was the primary topic of conversation.

"We cannae go on like this," came a shout from one of the bigger knots of people. "We shouldnae have to worry about our safety because o' those winged beasts!" Bryn, one of the castle's craftsmen, was drawing a good bit of attention with his angry shouting. The Captain sighed as he glanced up to the battlements. Leader had ordered his Clan to stay in the heights of the castle, away from the human populace. Only a handful of warriors were away from the fortress, hunting or patrolling.

"The beasts are a menace! We shouldnae have to tolerate their presence among decent folk!" The Captain shook his head as he continued to listen. He had no love for the gargoyles, but allowing such talk to continue could only lead to more trouble. No one would like that.

"The man was always harpin' on the 'winged beasts'," reflected the Captain as he continued to listen from the shadowed bottom of the steps near the outer wall. "He barely needs a reason. Still an' all, he should know better than to be goin' on about it now. Hmm...I wonder..."

Movement to one side caught the Captain's attention. He turned his head to see a man at a nearby table lifting a tankard of mead. The seated man was also paying particular attention to Bryn. He nodded at the craftsman's comments. The Captain studied the stranger and tried to put a name with the face, only to find he could not. The newcomer was dressed in rough spun garb that almost resembled those worn by the local noblemen.

'Probably a merchant, or a bodyguard to one,' continued the Captain to himself. 'Tryin' to fathom what all the commotion is about.' The Captain looked about for a moment to check on his men that were in sight, either at their stations or on roving patrol.

The Captain moved to a nearby bench and sat so he could listen to Bryn's blustering without being observed. A suspicious thought had come to mind and he wanted to hear a little more of what the craftsman was saying, just to be sure.

However, it was not too long before the people began to drift away to get back to the work they needed to do. Bryn was starting to repeat himself, Curran noted, and perhaps the others didn't want to keep listening to the same rhetoric.

The Captain of the Guard was about to rise and approach Bryn when the tall stranger stood and beat him to it.

"You do well to speak your mind about your concerns, friend," said the stranger as he stepped up to Bryn. "It seems that far too few are willing to speak their mind about the menace these... things pose to us men."

"Aye, exactly," agreed Bryn, grasping the hand the newcomer offered. "I cannae understand how Malcolm allows them to stay here an' make a mess of the castle as they do." Curran stiffened where he sat at the craftsman's casual use of the Prince's name.

"Methinks you are exactly the kind of man I came to Wyvern to find, my friend. I think that perhaps you will be able to help me here." The 'merchant' threw an arm around Bryn's shoulders and turned him away from the watching guardsman.

What was said next wasn't completely audible but the Captain heard the mention of 'finding a few more good men'. The thoughts that that phrase raised in Curran's mind made him stop in his pursuit of the whispering pair. He instead stood for a few moments, rubbing his chin, and pondering.

* * * * *

In the Woods

Roland started to regain consciousness not long before dawn. Even in his dazed state, he was startled to realize that he could not see the night sky.

"What? What is this?" He tried to jump up but was stopped by the hand that suddenly fell on his arm.

"Nay, friend. You should not get up. You have been badly hurt and must rest now." Roland looked up at the face of a man roughly the same chronological age as himself. Long reddish-brown hair framed a face with a bandage across its eyes. The thief squinted at the other in puzzlement.

"Where am I?" he asked.

"You are in the home of old blind Dugal, and his lovely daughter, Lissa." A woman of perhaps seventeen years appeared from behind Dugal. She was carrying a bucket of water and some clothes.

"Hello," said the woman, and smiled.

"How did I get here?" asked the gargoyle. "Did you two bring me here?"

"Aye. We carried you in here after you collapsed at the edge of our clearing," answered Dugal. He turned his head. "Lissa," he called, "the tapers are burning, aye?"

"Aye, Father, and the fire is burning in the hearth," she answered from the other side of the bed Roland was lying on. "I think he will be warm enough. Here, let me get that off of you now..."

"No!" The thief grabbed Lissa's hand before she could remove his mask. The sudden movement all but sapped Roland's energy. He sagged back against the rush bags, but did not release the girl.

"What is it?" asked the blind man.

"He is masked, Dugal, and wouldnae let me take it off him."

"Why are you masked, friend?" asked Dugal, turning his head to face Roland. "I felt your heavy cloak and robes when we carried you into the house, but didnae have the chance to look at your face."

"You said you were blind. How could you look at me?"

Dugal chuckled. "I may nae have me eyes anymore, friend gargoyle, but the rest of me still works just fine." His face grew more serious. "How are you called?"

"I.... I am Roland." The rogue cursed himself for giving his true name. He should have thought to give a false one.

Not that it mattered. The only reaction the two humans had was a nod and a smile.

"Nice to meet you, Roland," said Lissa. Now the gargoyle's confusion was caused by more than his wounds.

"How... can this be...? I am a stranger... and..." Roland's next words faded into incomprehensibility as he passed out again.

"You are in need," Dugal answered the unconscious gargoyle anyway. "That is all that matters." He looked up. "Help me, daughter. We have much to do."

* * * * *

Two Nights Later...

"What is this here?!" The heads of the two young gargoyles snapped around at the sound of the angry voice. The fuming Captain of the Guard stomped across the small courtyard towards the kitchens as he closed on them.

"What are ye two doin' near the kitchen? I know ye have been told time an' again to stay away from here." He paused. They just looked at him, too startled to say anything. "Well," continued Curran, his volume increasing, "What have ye to say for yuirselves?" Most of the people in the vicinity of the courtyard looked to see what was happening, including some of those in nearby chambers and battlements.

The gargoyle youths looked at each other, then back at the Captain. The taller of them, a female with bronze skin and honey colored hair, closed her mouth, swallowed, then opened it again to respond.

"Quiet, ye little beast!" barked the Captain before she actually said anything. "I dinnae want to be hearin' any of your filthy lies! I am sick an'--"

"Here now, what's this?" One of the cooks came out of a nearby doorway to see what the shouting was about. With her came the reddish-brown young female gargoyle with the doubled wings and the large curving horns. "What are ye shouting at these bairns for, Curran?"

"They were hiding out here! They were prob'ly scheming to steal some of the Prince's dinner again! Stinkin' little brats." He turned to look at the young gargoyles once more. "Get out of 'ere, back to where the rest of the beasts are waitin'!"

The two youths looked at the cook and their elder. The smaller of the two, deep green with big pale blue eyes and a mop of dark brown hair, was obviously upset and trying to hide it.

"They werenae doin' anything wrong, Curran," said the cook. "In fact, these two were here so I could say thanks for the help they gave me early this morning bringing in wood for the fires." With a smile, the cook pushed some fresh baked rolls, wrapped in a large napkin, into the hands of the bronze female.

The Captain went to knock the bread out of the youth's hands, but his wrist was caught by a quick talon. His angry eyes met two blazing orbs.

"What do you think you're doing?" they snarled at each other.

"Let go of me, beast, or I'll gut ye where ye stand."

"You two," said the female, turning her head toward the children but keeping the Captain in her sight, "back to the Rookery. I imagine the Eldest will be starting her storying soon. She and the other rookery mothers will be looking for you before too long." The pair nodded and nervously scampered off.

"Curran, what in blazes do ye think ye were doin'?" the cook queried with anger sparking in her eyes. "To snatch food out of the mouths of children? Y--"

"They are nae children, Hetti; they're little beasts with no manners! Ye are a -- Aggk!" The Captain was distracted by the sudden increase in pressure on his wrist. His free hand fell on his sword grip.

"If we were the wild animals you have been claiming, you would be dead right here," growled the female, her eyes blazing still.

Hetti noticed the bunching of the muscles in Curran's sword arm. She wedged herself between the two of them as best she could, putting her hands on both their chests and trying to push them apart.

"Stop it ye two, right now. I'll nae have blood spilt near my kitchens." She doubled her efforts. "Stop it now, I say!" The gargoyle yielded and backed up, letting go of the Captain's wrist, but both of them were still obviously furious.

Whoosh. Thump. Curran and Hetti looked towards the pair of new arrivals. As they watched another pair of younger males landed by them. The double-winged female didn't take her eyes off the Captain.

"Sister...?" the red-skinned female stepped closer to the three of them. The small male with the twisted horn and the larger male looked around at the guardsmen who had been watching the argument and were moving closer since the arrival of the three new gargoyles. "Are you all right?"

The double-winged female backed up another step and made an obvious effort to control herself. She blinked a few times and her eyes returned to normal.

"You are terrible," she snapped before turning away from the Captain and Hetti. She walked right by her rookery siblings and one of the guardsmen without a word and started climbing the courtyard wall. When she was high enough she jumped away to glide up and over the outer walls. The other young gargoyles looked from her retreating form to trade puzzled looks with each other. The two males looked at each other and shrugged, then the smaller male also left.

The red female turned back to look at Curran.

"What are ye lookin' at, beast?" he snarled at her. Hetti, very angry now, placed herself in front of the Captain. The cook was the elder of the two of them by a few years. She had, in fact, looked after Curran from time to time when he was a child. He remembered that look in her eyes and knew instantly that he had said more than enough.

"Ye two had best be off," she said over her shoulder, "The devil's in our Captain tonight, for certain." The red female nodded as the younger male put his hand on her shoulder and the two of them turned away to walk out of the courtyard.

"Curran," said Hetti, after looking at him for several seconds, "I donnae know what is wrong with you, or what made ye so foolish, but I do know that there are better ways to die than beggin' the gargoyles to rip you to pieces. Ye'd best get yuir temper back under control, before it causes everybody more trouble then we can all stand." She whirled away before he reacted, and stomped back to her kitchen.

His face dark as a storm cloud, the Captain turned to leave the courtyard. He took two steps before seeing all the people crowded before him.

"What are ye lookin' at?!" he bellowed. The guardsmen either turned back to their posts on the battlements overhead or made themselves scarce. Most of the others ducked and scurried off.

Above, the male with the high, thin crest on his head and, the elder warrior that Leader had appointed interim second-in-command watched Curran climb a staircase that led to a higher level of the castle before going inside. They looked at each other.

"I do nae believe he did that. I know that the Captain is nae fond of us, but to go on at two hatchlings like that..."

The younger male nodded and looked back at the courtyard. "He has been very angry since the attack on Leader. Three or more times already has he gotten into spats with someone from the Clan. Why is he striking out at us? It makes no sense."

"That female, the cook, is wise in her counsel. Hopefully we will see that he follows it."

"He may not. Perhaps you should make sure Leader is aware of how riled up the Captain has gotten."

The Clan Second looked at the other warrior for a few seconds, then nodded.

* * * * *

In the Woods

For the first time since he awoke to find himself in Dugal's cabin, Roland was able to sit up by himself. Not being fully healed by a day's rest had been very unsettling to the gargoyle. Even more disconcerting, he had spent the previous night drifting in and out of consciousness, fevered. The kindly ministrations of Lissa had kept him from being too uncomfortable.

Roland was overjoyed to feel that he was making progress. Being fussed over by Lissa was making him a bit uneasy. It brought back memories he'd rather had stayed buried.

"...Thank you," he said as the woman gave him a bowl of broth, before taking a seat at the table nearby. She smiled her welcome.

"I'm glad to hear that you are feeling better, Roland," said Dugal.

Roland answered unsteadily. "Yes. So am I." A pause. "I ...I probably would have died if not for your taking care of my wounds two nights ago. ...Thank you."

Lissa smiled at him again. "You are just lucky that Father heard you when you fell over at the other side of the clearing. We could nae just leave a body out there to die. It would have attracted too many scavengers to me garden." The smile fell from her face and she gave her guest a hard look. "They cause me enough grief as it is, without ye going an' makin' it worse."

Roland couldn't help the indignant reaction to her words. The woman covered her mouth with her hand to hide the returned grin when she saw his scowl. Also noting the bunching up muscles of his arms made her laugh outright at him.

"I was only jesting, Roland," said Lissa between her snickers. The weakened gargoyle gaped for a moment, then colored in embarrassment. He relaxed again, feeling completely foolish and not caring about letting it show anymore.

Roland nodded and smiled ruefully before answering her unspoken question. "I guess you could say I've been lucky for some time. I would have died as a hatchling if I hadn't come across some... traveling craftsmen. Their leader took me in, taught me their way of life."

"Ye are nae from Wyvern then?" asked the man. "I did not know there were other gargoyles living anywhere near here."

"Can you tell us of the places you've been?" asked his daughter, hope obvious in her face.

Roland was quiet for a few seconds, debating. "I doubt my story is as interesting as yours, Dugal. How did you end up living here all by yourselves?"

"Ah, that's not much of a tale, truly. Trappers like me usually live in the wild by themselves. Takes a bit of gettin' used to, being alone all the time. I was not much of a hermit, obviously." Dugal tipped his head in his daughter's direction. "My wife, Marva, was a sweet young lass from a village a few leagues east of here. She liked the woodlands and was not put off by my work, so it was easy for her to get used to life out here with just the two of us. The garden you almost fell into was started by her. Marva lived long enough to teach her pride and joy, Lissa here, all she knew about taking care of it."

"Lissa has been almost as great a help to me, also. My eyes started to fail when she was a little girl. I could still take care of the animals once they were trapped but not being able to see where to put the snares made things hard for me. I would nae 'ave lasted out here without her."

"I love you, Father," said the woman, smiling at him.

"An' I, you."

Roland shifted uneasily again as more memories of his childhood tried to push to the surface.

"What about you, Roland?" asked Lissa. "How did you come to be so deep in the woods, as hurt as you were?"

"...My friends and I are not well liked by some of the people around Wyvern. A few of them attacked me and hurt me, as you could tell."

"The castle is still there, still lived in, then? I have not been there since I was a young lad." Dugal smiled at his memories.

"Yes," ground out Roland. "It is still lived in."

"You know it too?" he asked, quicker than his daughter to pick up the change in his guest's manner.

"Actually, yes. I was hatched there. I was driven from there by the harsh treatment I received from my elders when I was young. They always blamed me when there was trouble, usually when I had nothing to do with it." He shuddered in anger. "I one day went afield from the castle to get away from being always blamed and ridiculed. They barely made an effort to find me. As soon as they found an excuse, the elders called me dead and tried to make the Clan forget all about me. That was a mistake." His eyes flared as his words rolled into a growl.

"It could not be that bad, Roland," said Lissa, trying to calm him. "You found a new home, and a new Clan. Haven't they helped you find a place for yuirself?"

"Yes," he agreed slowly, "they have. I am leader of my new family now."

"Have you been hurt before, Roland?" asked the woman. "Is that why you are masked, to hide the scars?" Even while fevered the previous night Roland had not allowed Lissa to remove his mask.

"...No, not really. I am not much to look at, even by gargoyle standards. Some of my new family found it difficult to look on me, so I wear this mask to stave off problems with them."

"That is a shame."

"Aye," agreed Dugal. "Those who think what you look like to be important have not gotten to know the you that is in your heart. If they did, they would nae care about your face."

Roland had no answer for that; he could only slowly nod in agreement.

Lissa saw her guest's anxiety, and turned the conversation to something more pleasant. She was awhirl with curiosity about the lands beyond the woods she knew so well, and here was a willing fount of information. It took little effort for her to get Roland to spin tales about the places he'd seen and visited.

The two of them spoke long into the night, until the toll of Roland's wounds reared its head once more and he nodded off into slumber.

* * * * *

Castle Wyvern

"I would speak to you, Captain." Curran spun to face the shadowed doorway where the voice had come from. After a few seconds a man moved out into view.

He was a stranger, and his clothing bore no markings or standards that would say where he had come from.

"What is it?" he snapped. When he had not been fitfully dozing during this early morning the Captain had been anxiously pacing in his quarters. He was in no mood to deal pleasantly with anyone, least of all a stranger that didn't even say hello.

"My... colleagues and I have noted your treatment of the beasts that have the run of the castle here. We would like to talk to you about it a bit." His voice was strange too; the Captain couldn't place the accent. He did note, however, the bandages and somewhat faded bruises showing under the other man's tunic.

"Oh, really?" He purposefully kept his voice neutral. "About what, pray tell?"

The stranger looked up and down the hall nervously. They were in a side corridor between the guardsmen's barracks and the guest rooms set aside for minor nobility. "This is not a good place to speak. Could you meet with my friend tonight, after dark?"

"Aye, I could. Where and when?"

"Good." The stranger smiled. "I shall let you decide where in the castle, but we shall meet halfway through the evening watch tonight."

The Captain nodded, and thought about it. "Hmmm. The castle library is not used much at night. We shall meet there, by the corner away from the doors."

The man seemed to think about it for a few seconds. Probably for show, thought Curran to himself.

"All right," he said after a few more seconds. "The castle library, at the middle of the second watch." He put out his hand. Hiding his surprise, the Captain took it, and they shook on the agreement. A moment later, they went their separate ways.

The rest of the day passed quickly for Curran as his head was filled with thoughts about the coming meeting. His behavior was subdued because of this. Some thought him quiet because he was tired. All were glad that his temper was calmer than it had been in recent days.

When the Captain entered the library there was a man seated on a stool under the torch by the doors. He was yet another unknown face. Curran's anxiety increased a bit at this. The two of them looked at each other for a few seconds before the man nodded and jerked his head towards the back of the chamber. The Captain continued towards his rendezvous.

"Good evening, my Captain," said the same man who had talked to Bryn three nights ago. "How do you do? My name is Linley." He didn't extend his hand.

"I be all right, Linley. Thanks." The Captain didn't get too close. Instead of stepping forward he moved around the end of the bookshelves to his right and surprised the armed eavesdropper that was there. The skulker, who thought himself to have been keeping quiet, nearly went for the dagger at his waist.

"Don't worry about it, Hollis," said the man seated by the corner. "The good Captain isn't here to cause trouble for us. Go wait by the doors."

Curran kept his eye on Hollis until the man had walked to the other end of the long bookcase, then fully focused his attention on Linley. "Now, what do ye want with me?"

"My, aren't you hasty... and rude."

"I've too much on my plate already to worry about makin' the effort to be kindly to men that may be a danger to me and mine."

Linley's face didn't change expression, but his eyes darkened. "We are not a danger to any of the people of this castle."

"Really, an' that is why your men nearly started a war between us and the gargoyles?"

"I'm surprised to hear you say that, Captain. Haven't you been doing much the same these past few days?"

"I want the gargoyles out of the castle; this is a place for MEN. If they think they are nae welcome, they should leave on their own. Without unnecessary bloodshed."

Linley chuckled quietly for a few seconds before his eyes grew more serious. "I may have made a mistake arranging this meeting. I thought you knew the extent of the threat those things pose. There will be no way to get them to leave these cliffs that doesn't involve bloodshed."

"Ye seem to know a bit about the castle; a help for this work, I reckon, but ye 'ave nae made a mistake in wanting to talk to me. This is my place. No one save the Prince could be a better aid to ye."

"Hmmm," mused Linley, "that may be so, but we need to be sure of your loyalties."

Curran's face grew hot. "My loyalties have not changed a whit! Wyvern is my home and I will protect it an' its people with my last breath!"

"Relax, relax." Linley had a hand up to forestall the situation from becoming a problem. "My friends and I have to be sure you're with us, Captain. Until we are sure, we have to be careful."

"If ye are here to force the gargoyles from the castle, then I'm the man you want. If you doubt that, then you're wastin' both my time and yuirs."

"Mayhap."

"Mayhap, nothing," growled Curran. "Ask yuir friends. I know they've all been watchin' me these past few days."

"Really, do you now? How did you come to that conclusion?"

"I'm not blind, Linley. I do see it when a new face is interested in me too much."

"Yes, I wager you do." Something in Linley's manner made the Captain nervous suddenly.

"Will I be able to meet all of yuir friends before long? After all, I've seen nearly all of them."

"Perhaps that would be a good idea, but my friends are... shy. Also, they too want to be sure of you."

"I don't like to repeat meself, Linley. We have a common task, we should work together."

Linley mulled the situation over. "...There is a way to be sure that your commitment to our task, as you put it, is true."

"Name it," said Curran instantly.

"If you want to be welcome into our circle, then you must prove yourself to us. Our effort to assassinate the leader of the beasts failed. We will see if you, whom he trusts, can get close enough to him to do better." Linley was watching close for the Captain's reaction to finding out what his labor was. He was a bit surprised when all that happened was the slight widening of the man's eyes. "Once you do that, the others will definitely want to congratulate you in person."

Confusion quieted the Captain for a few seconds. "Will Edward come back to the territory himself for the meeting after I get the job done?"

"Edward?" Linley laughed again. "Edward of Devonshire?" He shook his head and kept on smiling. "Somebody has been misleading you, Captain. We have nothing to do with that loon. We are much more than Devonshire could ever dream of." A pause. "That, too, will be something else that will be explained more fully to you, after you take care of our mutual problem. How soon do you think the beast could be put down?"

"Within a day or two, easily enough. As you said --" There was a creak from above, where a narrow walkway circled the room. Curran paused because of Linley's reaction, not because of the noise. The newcomer was looking along the upper level of the chamber, intently scanning for the source of the sound.

"The wood of the shelves and balcony up there is old," explained the Captain, slowly turning to look himself. "It sometimes squeaks like that." He hoped Linley would accept his hasty fabrication. Only one thing could cause such a noise at this time of night, and one of them showing up now could put him in serious jeopardy.

"The only people who go up there are the archivists," continued Curran as both he and Linley looked over the balcony. Too little light from the torches on the lower part of the room reached up that high for them to see anything worth mentioning.

"They don't work in here after nightfall. Even if it was one of them you'd see the light from his candle. It's nothing to be worried about." He looked back towards Linley.

The ringleader nodded slowly and turned to face to him again. "Yes, you're right. It's nothing. I'm glad to see you are taking this matter seriously, but a day or two is longer than we can allow, I'm afraid. That thing must be put down this night, before dawn. If you are successful, you will be openly welcomed by all my compatriots."

"Tonight..." The Captain rubbed his chin and mulled it over. "All right," he said finally, "it may be a little difficult, but I can do it." His face was calm and resolved, not giving away how his mind was racing.

"All right, then. I'll let you get to it then." Linley went to leave, paused. "We'll be watching, just in case a situation develops that you may need... assistance with."

Curran nodded, his face not betraying his realization of just how small a corner he was backed into, and Linley left with his men.

"Blasted fool" were the kindest words the Captain muttered at himself as he also left the library.

* * *

She lay there for a few minutes after the Captain of the Guard left the large chamber, trying to calm her racing pulse. The slender golden female, known and feared for her tinkering with machines that were... eruptive, was surprised to see others in the library. It was a rare thing for anyone to also visit it at night.

Knowing it was bad form to disturb others in the library, she proceeded quietly from the upper window, on the same end of the room as the doorway, towards the shelf where she knew the book she wanted to see was kept. Treading silently, she heard every word exchanged between Curran and Linley. Their speaking of a killing made her pause and turn towards them. The revelation that one of her people was the target for the Captain's attack made her jerk back in shock and alarm. Her wings and tail pushed against a small reading desk between two book shelves, causing a sudden noise as it shifted across the floor. The spiral horned gargoyle immediately dropped to the floor of the balcony without another sound.

The young female barely allowed herself to breathe, trying to hear what the men were saying over the sound of her pounding heart. She was relieved when the Captain diverted Linley's attention back to the matter at hand. As soon as she was sure everyone had left, she raced for the window and glided away.

She landed, trembling, on the seaward battlements. Looking around, she saw only the Castle's guardsmen. The female saw a crowd of warriors and her rookery siblings practicing below in a courtyard. She jumped over the interior wall, expecting to leap again from a lower walkway to the ground As she landed her head turned towards the man who was exiting a doorway only a few feet away.

"No!" she gasped at the sight of the Captain of the Guard. Curran was also startled by the sight of the golden female dropping out of the sky in front of him. Quick as a wink, his hand snapped out, grabbed her wrist and pulled her towards the same doorway.

"Come with me, girl, now!"

"Let me go!" she burst out in a raised voice, not yet shouting. A few heads turned; none of them from below. The Captain clamped his hand over the female's mouth.

"Don't fight me, girl, or we're both finished!" he hissed in her face. Confusion battled with her anxiety just long enough for Curran to get her out of sight.

"Listen t' me girl. I mean ye no harm." He released her wrist. "Please, listen to what I have to say." He took his hand off her mouth. "I'm trying to help you, to protect you."

"A hollow claim, considering how you've been treating my Clan of late," she snapped back. "I know you hate us. Why bother saying otherwise?"

The Captain sighed in exasperation. "That was an act, lass. I needed to do that to attract the attention of the men who are causing trouble for all of us. I didnae mean it."

"Liar. Even before the attack on our Leader you made it plain that you do not want us here."

"I may not like you and yours, gargoyle, but I'll not let someone come in here and cause problems for both our peoples. Even if I wanted that myself, I wouldn't go against the Prince's wishes. My spats with the gargoyles got the men who attacked yuir leader to seek me out, as I meant all along."

The female was quiet for a few moments. "You know who they are?"

"Nay, not all of them. Before I learn that, I have to pass the test they set before me."

"You have to kill one of us." She didn't quite growl.

"That's what they want, for me to kill yuir leader."

"If you succeed, you get what you want, but we lose the best of us. That isn't a fair trade."

"I have to do it, Lass. It's the only way to rid the castle of those troublemakers." Curran smiled wickedly. "And you know something else, clever girl? You are going to help me do it."

* * * * *

In the Woods Near Dugalís Cabin

Roland had managed to get outside before the previous dawn, and woke from his stone sleep with the customary roaring stretch at sunset.

Feeling almost completely well, the thief indulged himself in something he had not done for nearly two weeks, and went hunting. He returned with as much small game as he could carry.

While Dugal and Lissa were preparing some of the meat for a dinner with their guest, Roland spent some time breaking up dead wood so they would have kindling for their fire in the coming days.

After stacking up the wood in an interior corner Roland had gone back out. He stopped, looked up at the stars, and just breathed deeply of the night sky. He stood there for a few minutes, just reveling in the feeling of being alive.

Lissa came up behind and put a hand on the back of his caped wing as she also looked upwards. "Hmm, yes. 'Tis a beautiful sight."

Roland turned to look at her and just stopped himself from agreeing with her.

"Thank ye for getting that meat for us, Roland," she said, still with eyes high.

"You two saved my life. I had to do something in return, even if it was a small something."

She hugged his arm and smiled. "It wasn't necessary, my friend, but it is definitely appreciated." She gave a small pull as she stepped backwards towards the cabin. "Come along now. You need some proper food in you before you'll be totally well again."

Around a fine dinner the three of them made small talk and the two males traded stories about some of the places they'd seen as well as fables that had been handed down to them. The storytelling continued after Roland had helped Lissa clean up after the meal. The three of them sat outside, talking, until Dugal claimed fatigue and went in to sleep.

"You are a wonder, Roland," said Lissa eventually. The gargoyle started at the compliment.

"Nay, not really. I'm just a traveling craftsman."

"Who has survived hardship after hardship. You must have had considerable strength inside since you were young. The trials of your life have only made you stronger. Some, mayhap many, would not have done so well as you did."

"...Mayhap."

"You would not have done so well, if you didn't have a fighting heart. You have never let yourself be stopped by your troubles. That is a good way to live."

"You must have learned that from your father."

She smiled at him and he couldn't help the grin that grew on his face. "Aye, I did. He doesn't have to worry about --" She stopped as Roland suddenly jerked up to an alert posture. "What is it?" she asked, joining him in looking towards the woods at the far side of the clearing.

"Someone is coming this way. At least four, possibly a few more."

"Come on!" said the woman excitedly as she got to her feet and grabbed his arm. The two of them darted into the cottage. A moment later six uniformed guards- men stepped out into the clearing.

"Guards. From Wyvern probably," growled Roland as he looked out an opening in the wall and saw the men with his enhanced night vision. "They must be looking for me, to have come all this way." He looked at Lissa. "I'll have to lead them away from you two, before I can try to fight them."

"You won't fight them, Roland. You don't have to." Lissa moved to her father's bedside as she spoke. She shook him awake.

"Eh? What is it?" he muttered, shaking his head and sitting up.

"There are soldiers outside, Dugal. They may be after Roland. You have to slow them long enough for Roland to get away."

The blind hunter turned his head to listen for a few seconds as he woke the rest of the way up. His furrowed his brow as he heard the approaching men at the other side of the clearing.

"Hmmm, yes. All right. I'll take care of it." The old man stood up, reaching for his tunic and cloak. At the same time Lissa grabbed a cloth from a chair and laid it on the table. She immediately started putting food from the larder on it.

Dugal stepped outside. "Hello, hello. How are you, fellas?" he called to the guardsmen. They returned his greetings and moved toward him. Inside Roland donned the cloak and hood he'd set aside days before.

Lissa finished tying the cloth over the food and pushed it into Roland's arms. "Quietly now, come on." The two of them moved to the back of the cabin. Lissa began to remove stones from the wall near the corner.

"Father has been meaning to repair these stones for weeks." Lissa chuckled. "Lucky for you he is slow about these things sometimes."

The hole was quickly big enough for Roland to pass through. He had one foot through it before looking at Lissa. "Again, you've saved me. I will never forget your kindness, Lissa. I swear one day I will somehow find a way to pay you back for what you did for me."

The woman nodded and smiled as the pale gargoyle slipped out of the cottage. He was quickly swallowed up in the shadows of the forest.

As he left the clearing behind, Roland heard Dugal talking to the soldiers. The gargoyle nearly stopped when he heard one of the men speak of searching for someone named Edward. Dugal told them that he could not help them, then reprimanded them for carelessly stomping through Lissa's garden.

* * * * *

Castle Wyvern

Curran and the young tinkerer parted after a few minutes of rapid discussion so each could make their preparations. Less than an hour later the Captain was climbing the stairs to one of the towers along the sea wall.

Leader was pacing in the top-most room of the tower, waiting for the Captain. He turned with a slight frown as Curran entered the chamber. They nodded in greeting.

"Hello Captain," said Leader flatly. "One of my warriors told me you had an important matter to discuss..." Curran walked past the gargoyle and looked down from the one window.

"Yes, I did," said the Captain quietly as he looked down. He stepped aside and gestured for Leader to join him. "Come and look at this. You'll find it of int'rest." The bearded warrior moved to the window to see what the other was pointing down at. When Leader was bent forward slightly to look down, Curran struck.

The large gargoyle tried to struggle, to get away, but he was off-balance since the Captain had pushed him forward when he attacked. Leader groaned when the human hit him again, and gasped when he was pushed out into the open air.

Curran turned away from the window, the stained dagger in his hand and a wild look in his eyes, to see Linley already halfway across the room. The ringleader had taken up the task of following the Captain himself just to be sure that he kept to his promise.

Linley looked out the window just in time to see Leader's body fall beyond the top of the bluff that the castle stood on. He had a thin smile on his face when he turned to face Curran. The sound of a body hitting the water echoed up to them, and made the grin spread from ear to ear in satisfaction.

"Well done, my friend." He clapped the Captain on the shoulder. "Well done indeed." There was noticeable relief in his voice. "A few of my men were not sure you would follow through on your oath. Come, now that you fulfilled your part of the bargain, it's time for me to fulfill mine. The others are waiting. The two men left the room, Linley in high spirits. Bryn and two unknown men were waiting outside on the stairway landing. All had short swords in their hands and were twitching with restrained energy.

"It's all right fellows," Linley reassured them. "The good Captain has just sent the leader of those foul creatures to a watery grave. It's time for a bit of celebration." Linley gestured for the trio to proceed downstairs ahead of himself and the Captain. When they neared the bottom of the steps there were half a dozen men watching for them.

"He did it?" asked one.

"Aye, he did," confirmed Linley "I saw the body fall myself, heard it hit the water."

"Good," answered the other. "More than a few of us had our doubts about you, Captain."

"So Linley here said."

The other brandished his sword. "I'm glad you stayed true to your word. Killin' the beasts is one thing, I would nae have liked taking my blade to another man."

"But ye were ready to, if I failed ye."

They locked eyes. "Failure was never a choice for you; neither was betrayal." The man ran his hand along the flat of his sword before sheathing it.

Curran nodded. "Don't worry, I always keep my promises."

Linley was frowning. "Where is Hollis? He was supposed to be here also."

Another man shrugged. "He's a bit late is all. Don't worry, Linley."

"It will be the death of him one day," muttered Linley.

The Captain grunted in response. "Are ye ready?" he said in a curiously raised voice.

The men on the steps below were confused for a moment, which was all the Captain needed. His backhanded blow threw Bryn against the wall. At the same time he kicked the man below him in the small of the back, sending him sprawling on his fellows. The confusion was added to by the sudden appearance of a number of the castle's guardsmen, coming up the stairs.

The fighter who was not knocked off balance by the first man's falling swung his sword at the Captain. Curran dodged the attack and struck with his fist in return, smashing the man's nose and knocking him away.

Before Linley could collect his wits, Curran's bloody blade was against his throat. The man had no choice but to step back until his back was pressed against the stone wall.

"Betrayer," ground out Linley once he'd collected his wits, and was glaring at the Captain. "At least I know you have removed the biggest obstacle to us here." He smiled wickedly as he glanced at the bloodied metal.

"Oh, you mean you wanted that old pig killed too?" asked the Captain, in a mockingly light voice. "A pleasure to be of service, Linley." The troublemaker goggled at Curran for a moment before his face was shrouded in anger.

In short order all ten men were in chains and on their way to the dungeons.

* * *

Hollis, in fact, wasn't late. He didn't trust the Captain either, so he again donned a guardsman's' uniform and stationed himself where he could watch Leader's body fall. He saw the gargoyle drop over the side of the cliff too, and heard the sound of the body hitting the water. Laughing to himself, he turned away, but a sudden movement caught his eye.

It was Leader and the young female.

After the Captain had struck the bearded gargoyle with the butt of his knife, slathered with animal blood, he had pushed him out the window. When the spiral horned young gargoyle had seen her leader fall she threw a good sized boulder out from her cave. That was what caused the splash as it fell into the ocean.

Leader had to fight the reflex of snapping out his wings to catch the wind as he fell. He was almost too low when he did finally spread his wings, and he had some difficulty catching an updraft back up to the castle. The young female glided down to help him after seeing his problem and together they made it back up to the battlements.

Hollis crept through the shadows to where he thought the gargoyles had landed. He was beyond angry when he saw Leader alive and unharmed. He could not keep his rage in check at the sight of them. As they moved past where he was hiding he sprang out to attack.

Still feeling the strain of his glide back up to the castle, as well as surprised at the unexpected attack, Leader did not defend himself well and barely turned aside the flashing blade.

The block left Leader off balance and Hollis was able to knock him off his feet. As he hit the ground, Leader's head struck one of the flagstones and he was badly dazed.

Hollis grinned contemptuously as he went to stab a final time at Leader. His attack was blocked, to his surprise, by a golden talon that grabbed his sword arm. The female, furious at yet another cowardly attack on her mentor, whirled Hollis around until they were nose to nose.

The rage expressed by her blazing eyes and loud screech stole all of Hollis' bravado away. He dropped his dagger as his wits fled. The assassin put his arms up, crossed before him to protect himself and squealed like a stuck pig.

Attracted by the noises a few of the castle's guardsmen, including Robbie, arrived on the scene. They saw a mewling comrade being shrieked at by the furious female.

Knowing of the female's gentle nature, some of the soldiers were unsure of what they were seeing. Others just reacted. Before she knew it, the young female was forced to release Hollis so she could fend off the blows and weapons of the guardsmen.

"What are you doing? He's an assassin!" she shouted at them, to no avail. Robbie and another of the men took a few seconds before joining the melee. The former saw Leader struggling to rise and yelled at the guardsmen to stop, having realized the female was speaking the truth.

Hollis, in the meantime, had gotten his head together and picked up his long dagger. Seeing that the bearded gargoyle was too far away, with other men between them, he decided to vent his frustration out on an easier target.

The orange-brown gargoyle was distracted by her efforts to block or evade the weapons of the guardsmen. She was also thrown off balance by the insults they hurled at her. Seeing an opening, the female jumped away from her opponents. What she didn't see was that doing that put her too close to Hollis.

Robbie shouted a warning just as the assassin pounced. The gargoyle dodged just enough to turn a fatal thrust into a deep slash from hip to mid-thigh. Gasping in pain, she grabbed Hollis' wrist. He retaliated by punching her in the stomach. Robbed of her breath, the female released him and dropped to one knee.

Robbie jumped forward to help the female as most of the others went to restrain her, still not knowing what was happening. She grabbed Hollis' sword arm when he went to stab her again. A moment later Robbie did the same.

In seconds, the young female was trying to throw off the three men piled on her and pinning her to the ground. Hollis was still struggling with her and Robbie for control of his dagger, which was slowly moving towards her face.

"Leave off, you fools!" shouted Leader as he staggered up to the mass of bodies and pulled a guardsman away by his belt. "She is nae the danger here, blast it!"

The removal of the guardsman from the pile shifted Hollis' weight and before he could recover Robbie knocked his knife away. The loss of the warrior from on top of her also gave the gold female just enough room to squeeze her unhurt leg up between herself and Hollis. Just as the assassin realized what she was doing, the female pushed him away with a strength born of frenzied desperation.

Robbie was also knocked aside as Hollis flew backwards in a short arc that landed him with too much of his body beyond the outer wall of the parapets. The assassin's screams as he toppled backwards and out of sight froze everyone right where they were.

"Oh, no..." moaned the young gargoyle when she realized what she'd done. Her mentor dropped the man he had holding by the belt, shaking his head at Hollis' demise.

Robbie jumped to his feet and looked around. "Get off of her, you two. It's over."

"Nay! Hold the animal down!" Angus, the man Leader had let go of, had Hollis' dagger in his hand and was rushing forward to finish the job. He would not let the death of one of his comrades go unanswered.

"Wait!" shouted Robbie as he jumped into the other man's way, wrapping both hands around the fingers holding the knife The struggling pair fell on top of the female, who couldn't quite roll out of the way, and got her wing wrenched the wrong way. Her sudden scream of pain amidst the press of bodies froze the blood of Leader in his veins. He only had time to take one panicked step forward.

The disconcerting howl behind him galvanized Robbie and he managed to push the other guardsman off both of them, staying with the man and continuing to struggle for possession of the knife. They rolled around once, there was a sickening noise, and both of them were still.

Robbie slowly moved back onto his haunches. Both men still had their hands on the dagger, now buried half its length in the side of the other man. The wounded man groaned as he slowly pulled the dagger out of his flank. He gasped his last as the blade fell from his dying hand.

All eyes were on Robbie as the young man, trembling and ashen, struggled to his feet.

The Captain of the Guard arrived at a dead run after being informed of the fight between gargoyles and men. With him was the guardsman who had given him the information, rather than trying to help stop the fight himself. Both of them skidded to a halt at the sight before them. Curran was quickly able to determine what happened by the expression on Robbie's face as he looked down on his fallen compatriot.

The golden female reached out to Robbie in sympathy and the guardsman all but collapsed into her arms.

* * * * *

Later that night the two gargoyles, Robbie and the other guardsmen who had witnessed the deaths of Hollis and Angus were in one of the chambers off the Great Hall.

Two more guards were posted outside the chamber until relieved by the Prince or the Captain of the Guard.

"Robbie sure enough looks in a state, nay?" whispered one of them.

"I was told he killed Angus MacArlen while the two were fightin' over that troublesome female gargoyle inside," answered the other.

"That be nae true," was the retort. "Robbie would nae do such a thing. I had to pass by the Prince's meeting chamber b'fore and I meself heard the Captain agree with the Prince that Robbie acted to save his own skin. Do nae --" The guardsmen shut up when Curran came around the corner.

The Captain strode right up to them and through the door without acknowledging either of them. All of those waiting inside turned to look when he entered the room.

"I've just finished tellin' Prince Malcolm what has happened and why. He's nae pleased about the way it was done, but he is glad to know that the men stirring up trouble are locked away."

"So am I, Captain," said Leader. "Glad I was too, to be knowin' that you were only having us on these past days, instead of truly helping those hateful knaves."

"I may think the castle would be a much better place if ye and yuirs were long gone from here, but I cannae deny that you are honorable beasts. Ye are a far sight better than Linley and his toadies. They are a sure bunch of fools to think that I would ally meself with men who come into my castle and stir up trouble without thinkin' about the consequences."

The bearded gargoyle nodded, nearly chuckled at the Captain's posturing, before his eyes rested on the young man sitting on the other side of the table. Robbie's color had come back but he still had a haunted look in his eyes.

Leader cleared his throat. "What will happen to the lad, Captain?" The golden female looked up at her mentor, then at Curran. "I do nae want to see him punished for riskin' his neck to protect on o' my warriors."

"I spoke to the Prince about that too. We know that Angus' death was nae intentional. We both agree that it would only cause more problems if we punish Robbie here for lookin' to his own life."

The gargoyle leader opened his mouth to speak, then closed it and nodded slowly in understanding. "... I see. If he had killed the other man while protectin' one of mine, he would have been faulted."

The Captain nodded. "Yes, exactly. A man killin' another, especially a fellow guardsman, over one of the be-- gargoyles; that could nae have been tolerated."

"Is that supposed to make me feel better?" demanded Robbie as he nearly jumped to his feet. He turned and left the room without another word. The young female watched him go, then turned to look at her leader. He shook his head sadly. The look in her eyes mirrored that of her elder.

Robbie made his way back up to the battlements, a little ways away from where he and Angus had struggled. He spent a long time there, one foot up on the parapet as he looked out over the ocean.

'I killed to protect, as I have been taught to, but it was only acceptable as a means of defending myself, not defending the lass. To say that's wrong or untrue will only shame the Prince and the Captain, and mean my death. Blast it all; I did the right thing!'

'I did.'

* * * * *

In the Woods

The thieves under Roland's command sat around their fires, drinking their mead. It had been two days since Roland had come back after his unexpected absence, but it seemed like he was still away. He'd spent nearly all his time in his tent, working on they only guessed what, since his return. A number of speculative jests were passed between the men about what exactly the gargoyle was up to.

Inside his tent Roland finished wrapping up his bundle. He quickly donned his cloak and mask before picking up the parcel and exiting from the back of the pavilion.

* * *

As was their habit, Dugal and Lissa were up shortly before dawn. As the left their small home the blind trapper stumbled and nearly fell when he tripped over an unexpected obstacle placed right outside the door to the cottage.

"What the blazes was that, Lissa?" he demanded.

His daughter looked at the ground around the sack before her. She smiled as her eyes followed the large, three-toed tracks that led from around the bundle back to the trees at the other side of her garden. Lissa bent over and untied the knot at the top of the parcel to reveal pieces of cloth as well as some foodstuffs wrapped in a large piece of hide.

"A gift, father, from a grateful friend."

 

THE END