Into The Woods
A Pendragon Story
Written by Christi Smith Hayden
Into The Mystic, London.
"Merlin Caledonius, known also as Merlin Wylt or Silvestris, fled to the wild woods of Caledon after the battle of Ardderyd when the pagan forces of his ally Prince Gwenddoleu, a king of the north, lost the field against the Christian army." Arthur raised an eyebrow and scribbled a note on the legal pad. "Seems Merlin chose unwisely."
"There's not much wisdom in war," Leo rumbled. He was stocking shelves in his long robes as he kept an eye on the shop out front.
"True enough," Arthur agreed. "Merlin often pointed that out to me in my youth. It wasn't until I was older that I realized the truth of my elders' advice."
"That's what Una and I keep telling Caspian, our oldest. Clever lad, but a bit of a dreamer and more than a little hard-headed." He glanced at the phone. "Una and Griff should be out at the estate by now."
"I'm sure she's in good hands and that she'll call soon," Arthur said wryly. "Why don't your children live here with you?"
"And separate them from their rookery chums? My girl Lucy would have my hide!" Leo snorted. "Besides, Caspian is courting a young female. It wouldn't do to interfere with that." He picked up the empty boxes and started into the back with them. "We go out to the estate regularly enough and the clan takes good care of all the children. It's a sound arrangement."
"Hmmm." Arthur tapped the eraser end of his pencil against a road map of Scotland that was partly covered by books. "I wonder how best to go about this. It's going to be a rough trip. Merlin's haunts are supposed to be in the deepest part of the forest. Even with Griff and Cavall's assistance, it will take several days at least."
"May I make a suggestion?" Leo gestured towards the computer in the office. "Colin booked his last holiday off the Internet. He went salmon fishing up in Scotland and the firm that handled his trip thought of everything he needed, camping equipment, food, everything."
Arthur closed his book. "Then I believe I shall retire for the night and ask Captain Marter for his advice in the morning. Good night, Leo."
"Good night, your Majesty."
* * * * *
Griff looked over to the flying unicorn at his side. Una was still lovely, he reminisced; there was just the barest trace of aging around her eyes to hint at the fifty or so years that had passed since he'd last flown with her. She was so very, very elegant; head held high, pale gold hair streaming out behind her like moonbeams.
Una glanced his way and smiled. "What is it, Griff? Such a look you have on your face!"
"Oh, it's nothing," Griff said with a laugh. "Just occurred to me that it's been a long time since we've flown together, that's all."
"True, true." A sad shadow passed over her face but her eyes lit on an oncoming figure flying towards them and she beamed. "Caspian!"
A golden gargoyle soared up to them. He resembled Leo very strongly in coloring and with his glorious leonine mane, but was less barrel-chested as his father. A spiral horn in the center of his forehead and his stallion's head marked him as Una's child. "'Ullo, Mum!" he said cheerfully. "Lucy has lessons right now or she'd be here too."
"That's all right," Una said. She reached out and her son took her hand eagerly. "I'm going to stay the day this time."
"Well, that's just grand, Mum." Caspian glanced at the green-skinned gargoyle gliding nearby. "What of you, Uncle? Lucy's just dying to hear about your adventures with King Arthur. You're the talk of her rookery mates, you know."
Griff managed a smile. "Oh, I imagine I could spin a tale or two. If Lucy is anything like her mother, she'll probably have me twisted around her little finger in no time."
Their laughter easily covered his discomfort and Griff eased back, giving mother and son a little space. He felt most decidedly odd; the best description he could give for the strange way he was feeling. Una was glowing; she was so happy, arm curled around her son's arm, talking animatedly with him. Caspian's answering smile and solicitous manner towards her, as he cast them on a gentle spiral for a landing on the estate grounds, spoke more of his love for her than mere words.
Griff trailed further behind as he followed them into the mansion. Various members of the London clan came to greet Una but the most touching encounter was when the hatchlings came in and a white lioness with Una's golden hair burst through the crowd to throw her arms around her mother. A lump rose in Griff's throat and he swallowed hard.
A hand clapped on his shoulder. Griff looked into the golden eagle visage of Michael, leader of the London clan. "It's good to see you again, Griff," Michael said solemnly. "You should come visit more often."
"Agreed," said Aper, walking up. "You should get to know some of the other young adults. It would be good for you."
Griff laughed. "Now that's funny. I was from the same rookery as Una and Leo and now I'm considered a 'young' adult."
The boar-headed gargoyle had a deep, rich laugh. "Yes, I can see your point. It must be awkward at times."
Griff cast a seemingly casual look at Una and her children. "You have no idea," he murmured.
* * * * *
It was an hour or so before dawn when Leo heard talons on the balcony. He poured boiling water into a tea pot and put the cozy on to let it brew before looking up. "Hullo, Griff. I didn't expect you back tonight. I was just fixing a spot of tea and a bite to eat. Join me?"
The green eagle-like gargoyle sat down heavily in a gaily upholstered chair and ran his hands back through his crest of tan hair. "Thanks, Leo. I'd appreciate that."
The older gargoyle frowned and popped some bread in the toaster. "So," he asked casually, "How is everyone out at the estate? Una decide to stay the day with the children?"
"Yes." Griff smiled a little. "You're going to have your hands full with little Miss Lucy when she grows up, chum. She's a beguiling little wench."
"Oh, ho? Let me guess, she gave you that wide-eyed look of hers and twisted her tail in her hands?"
"And said, 'Please, Uncle? Tell me another story?'" He laughed. "Little imp! As if I could say no!"
Leo brought in the tea things. His idea of a bite to eat included hot buttered toast, sausages, hard-boiled eggs, cheese, and two flavors of jam in addition to the tea. He chuckled. "Yes, she gets that from her mother. Do you remember how Una could always get us to do anything for her?"
"I do." Griff looked into the amber depths of his teacup. "Just like it was yesterday." He sipped his tea solemnly.
"How are things with you?" Leo asked quietly. "You've been off with Arthur so much, there never seems to be a chance to talk to you."
The green gargoyle put his cup down and frowned. "I don't know, Leo. Ever since Goliath brought me forward through time, sometimes I feel so out of step. Everything's changed: the world, the rest of the clan, you -- but I still feel the same." He sighed heavily. "I couldn't stay another moment out at the estate, Leo. I bolted."
Leo looked over the top of his cup at him with unblinking golden eyes. "Whatever for?"
Griff stared into space. "D'you ever wonder which one of us would have won her," he said thoughtfully, "if I had been there for compete for Una's favor?"
"No contest there, mate, you would have, easily. To be honest, I felt guilty about it for a long time but I wouldn't trade all these years as her mate for the world." He looked over at Griff and smiled. "Una tells me that there's several young females interested in you."
"I know." Griff rolled his eyes and nibbled on some sausage. "Michael and Aper made a point of escorting me around and meeting every last one of them." He sighed. "I don't know what it is with females these days but they're all so forward. I mean, I felt like a piece of meat."
"That's modern romance for you." Leo leaned back in his chair. "Rush, rush, rush."
"Still, I could always wait for Lucy to come of age," Griff said roguishly. "Then I could call you Da. What do you think of that, Leo?"
Leo's eyes narrowed. "You do," he growled, "and I'll knock your bloody fool head off."
* * * * *
"Well, I think the best we could do," Colin said as Arthur peered over his shoulder at the computer screen, "is to book you in here at Wellwood House in Pitlochry. I stayed there when I went on holiday and the owners are very discreet." He cast a sideways glance at the bearded man. "A useful quality, especially if you intend to take along your usual companions."
"Naturally," Arthur agreed. He pointed to the electronic map. "The Caledonian Forest is only a few leagues away. Griff and Cavall will have ample roosting places during the day whether we are in town or in the wilderness."
"It seems to be a convenient arrangement for you." His long fingers clicked on the keyboard. "Yes, there's a train leaving for Edinburgh just after sunset tonight. You can transfer there to go on to Pitlochry."
"Clever thing, this railroad transport," Arthur commented. "Much easier than organizing a convoy with men and horses, grooms, servants and the whole entourage."
"No, now we just have to figure out how to smuggle two gargoyles onto a train."
Arthur laughed. "It's easier than you think."
* * * * *
En route to Pitlochry, Scotland.
Cavall was thoroughly enjoying himself. The gargoyle beast had his nose pointed into the wind and his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth. Griff had moved forward to get out of the spray and was flattened against the train car, peering gloomily at the passing landscape. He had managed to spend most of the ride inside with Arthur. However, when they switched trains at Edinburgh, Arthur wound up sharing a car with the Watkins, a vaguely familiar-looking older couple from London going on holiday.
Secretly, he had been relieved to be on the road with Arthur again. Griff knew that Una was bringing Caspian and Lucy back with her as a surprise for Leo and he had been dreading it. Oh, he was genuinely happy for his rookery siblings and their little family but if not for fate, it could have been his. He sighed bitterly and shook his head. Adventure was what he lived for, Griff told himself firmly, and the quest for Merlin was more important than any maudlin reflections on things he couldn't change.
But deep down, Griff wondered if there couldn't be more.
* * * * *
Wellwood House, Pitlochry, Scotland.
A soft tapping at the door woke Arthur from a sound sleep. He slipped on the burgundy dressing gown Colin had packed for him and padded barefoot to the door. He cracked it open and looked out at the nervous boy standing in the hallway. "Yes?" Arthur inquired.
"Beggin' yuir pardon, sir," the boy said, "But the gentleman from the wilderness tours called to say he was on his way here. Ye asked for a wake up call before he arrived?"
"Ah. Yes, thank you." Arthur ignored the extended hand for a tip. "I'll be down directly." He dressed quickly and was downstairs having a hearty meal in the dining room when a dark-haired man in faded fatigue pants and a black long-sleeved shirt came in, lugging a backpack and a large Army-issue canvas duffel. He was followed by an older man in a dark green uniform.
"Arthur Pennington?" the dark-haired man asked, setting down his load. "I'm Douglas Campbell from Highland Wilderness Tours." He shook Arthur's hand and nodded to the other man. "This is Lew Foster, our local representative of the Scottish Wildlife Trust. Since you're planning to hike the forest, it's necessary to register with him first."
"And why exactly is that, sir?" Arthur asked, regarding the uniformed man carefully.
"As you may or may not know," Foster began, "we have one of the largest remnants of the Caledonian pine forest in this area and many of the trees are at least 500 years old or older. The entire forest, both the recovery areas and the original pine groves, is protected by the Scottish Wildlife Trust. We're trying to save many endangered species of plants and animals so we only allow overnight visitors with registered permits."
"Since Captain Marter is one of my long-standing clients and has vouched for you," Campbell said as he removed a folded piece of paper from the leg pocket of his pants, "I've taken the liberty of pre-filing a permit for you, Mr. Pennington. Basically, you agree to carry out your nonbiodegradeable trash, use the propane stove I've included in your gear for cooking and to report any vandalism, poaching or illegal wood-cutting you might come across."
Arthur raised his eyebrows as he carefully signed the permit at the places indicated. "Wood-cutting is illegal?" he asked in some surprise.
"It is in the wildlife preserve area. Scots pine has been planted all over the British Isles and there are dozens of genotypes but only here do we have the original Caledonian pine, the ancestor to all the others." Foster waved his hand at the Victorian Scottish interior decoration of the room. "See the pitch pine woodwork here? Lovely stuff but hard to get these days. Thirty years ago, the government put a stop to harvesting the ancient pines but some of the wealthy will pay handsomely for genuine pine paneling and furniture and there are people who are willing to violate the forest to get it."
"And what should I do if I come across such criminals?"
"Personally, nothing," Campbell answered. He heaved the backpack across his lap and removed a slim box from a side pocket. "We include a shortwave radio with all our equipment packs for emergencies. On the side are the channels for our office, the police and the local ranger station. If you see anyone or anything, call the rangers immediately. Some of these blighters come well-armed and it's best to keep your distance."
"I understand completely," Arthur said firmly. "I shall keep a sharp eye out then. Did you procure the maps I requested?"
Campbell pulled out a bundle of maps, carefully sealed in a plastic bag. "I had a devil of a time finding a decent rendering of the area you wanted but I finally went up to the University of Edinburgh and got a computer enhanced LandSat plot that ought to work. There's a new cartography program they're testing and it's remarkably easy to follow."
"What exactly are you after, Mr. Pennington?" Foster asked curiously.
Arthur laughed. "I'm writing a book on Arthurian myths and legends. I'm following the reported sightings of Merlin through the ages."
"The Madman of the Forest?" Foster blinked and smiled. "My granny used to spin that old yarn when I was just a boy."
"I remember that one!" Campbell said with a wide grin. "All about how Merlin fled the lands of men to dwell in the shadow of the magic mountain of Schiehallion."
"Yes, exactly. You'd be surprised how many of these old tales have some basis in truth."
"Well, sir, I'll wish you luck then." Foster stood and shook Arthur's hand. "I'd like to think there's plenty of mystery left in the deep woods. I hope you'll come back and tell us what you find."
"I'll certainly try," Arthur said earnestly. "I will most certainly try."
* * * * *
The Caledonian Forest, Scotland.
Lit by a gibbous moon, three figures passed through the stark shadows of the ancient pine forest, having long since left the hiking trails for tourists and week-end pioneers. The one leading the way was a bearded man with long brown hair, graying at the temples, wearing sturdy hiking clothes and toting a backpack. His companions were a little more unusual. High in the trees, the watcher leaned forward and studied them intently.
Zigzagging between the human and whatever it deemed of interest, was a reddish beast which was no dog and bringing up the rear, a greenish man-sized creature with wings and a bird's beak carrying a heavy olive-green bag. The watcher kept vigil until the odd crew had passed out of sight before slipping silently away.
* * * * *
"In my day," Arthur said as he tramped ahead, "the great forest of Caledon covered the Highlands from sea to sea. The pines were so thick that walking among them, you couldn't tell if it was night or day. The treetops were so thick that they blotted out the sky. I tell you, Griff, it's quite a shock to see it like this."
Griff cocked his head and cast a sardonic look at the mix of twisted Scots pine, oak and birch surrounding them. He shifted the large Army-issue duffel bag containing the majority of their camping supplies and commented, "It seems pretty crowded to me, your Majesty, but of course I've always been a city dweller."
"According to what I've read," Arthur continued, "there's less than 20,000 acres of native pine wood left. The -- 'Industrial Revolution', I think it's called, caused the first major sweep of deforestation. Only in the last thirty years, have people called 'conservationists' been making a serious effort to restore the forest."
"Admirable people," the rakish gargoyle said. "Leo speaks very highly of the National Trust and other things like that."
Cavall came up to Arthur, whining happily and butted against the human's leg. Arthur chuckled and petted the reddish gargoyle beast's broad head. "Yes, yes," he said, "I can tell you like it here, boy. Lots of new interesting smells, eh?" The gargbeast wuffed and went off, snuffling and rooting around in the underbrush.
"Are you all right?" Arthur asked with a small smile. "You've been rather quiet."
"It's nothing, your Majesty." He rubbed the end of his nose. "Are you sure we'll find anything of Merlin around here? It's pretty desolate."
"Legend has it that Merlin went mad and resided as a hermit here. This is one of the last remnants of the great Caledonian Forest and I suspect it's where we'll find any trace of his whereabouts." Arthur breathed in deeply. "In the meanwhile, let's enjoy this outing. It's the first clean air I've smelled since I arrived from Avalon."
Griff stifled a sigh. He hadn't the heart to tell Arthur he'd much rather have spent the evening in a snug pub, downing a pint or two of Smith's Nutty Brown ale. Instead, he was trudging through the damp like a native porter on safari while Arthur doggedly pursued the paper trail of Merlin sightings over the ages. Still, he told himself, he was Arthur's knight and even though things seem a bit dull at the moment, something interesting was bound to turn up sooner or later.
* * * * *
Deft hands slit the speckled brown trout and cleaned them, the entrails cast away for the other fish to devour, stirring the still surface of the deep pool with bubbles and splashes. The small fire she had lit in the stone cairn near the shore had nearly burnt down to glowing embers. She took a dampened stone, a thin, flat piece of slate, and set it in halfway up the improvised oven. Sprigs of wet rosemary, wild onion, and parsley were laid on the stone as well as stuffed inside the fish, before placing it on the herb bed. A few last twigs were fed to the fire and small rocks were used to seal up the cairn. The cook sat back on her heels and smiled, admiring her handiwork.
She looked up. "Hullo, Kirstie. Would ye like to join me for dinner? I caught more than usual."
"Nae, I need you. Fetch yuir bow, there's strangers in the forest!"
Gravel sprayed in all directions as the cook bolted for the trees.
* * * * *
Cavall lifted his snout from the rustling leaves and pine needles on the forest floor and whined. Arthur looked at him sharply. "What is it, boy?" he asked, reaching for Excalibur. "What do you smell?"
Griff raised his beak and sniffed too. He frowned. "I'm not sure, your Majesty," the gargoyle said. "There's something in the wind. Familiar ... but I can't quite place it." He sneezed again. "Of course, Cavall's nose is much sharper than mine.
"Perhaps an animal," Arthur said, hand on the hilt of his sword. "All the bears and wolves in Scotland were killed off long ago. Whatever it is, I'm sure it's more afraid of us than we are of it and if not, we should be able to handle it."
Flexing his wings nervously, Griff glanced into the shadowy depths of the forest around them. "You're quite right, of course. Nothing to worry about." He switched the duffel to his other shoulder and continued following Arthur. Absently, he began to whistle, a jaunty, cheerful tune in contrast to his mood.
* * * * *
Moonlight gleamed off a polished metal spearhead as the watcher and the cook approached the high crag overlooking Loch Rannoch. A shadowy figure, powerfully built with an antlered crown, unfolded from the cover of the rough hewn rocks and stood, silhouetted against the starlit sky.
"Sisters! What is it?"
"Strangers! Sound the alarm!"
The warrior lifted a ram's horn to her lips and blew three short blasts towards the center of the forest. She waited, poised on her toes for the answering fanfare. When it came, two strides and one powerful leap cast her into the night wind after the others.
* * * * *
Arthur looked up and sighted his direction from the celestial compass of the stars above. He glanced back at the folded map in his hands and pointed into the shadows beneath the trees. "That way, I believe."
"Right-o, your majesty!" Griff answered and launched into another encore of the song he'd been whistling for the last twenty minutes or so.
"Must you continue to do that?" Arthur asked irritably. "You're very musical and it's a jolly tune, but it's getting on my nerves."
The eagle-like gargoyle stopped in mid-whistle, looking down the end of his beak cross-eyed, startled as if he was unaware of his actions. "Terribly sorry. I seem to be a bit on edge tonight. Can't imagine why."
Cavall whined and stayed close to Arthur's side, his tail kept low and switching. Griff frowned as he watched the gargoyle beast. As a guard dog, Cavall was far superior than any canine, his nose more sensitive than that of the average bloodhound. He'd ceased his doggish frolicking long ago, hovering protectively around his human master and whining as he looked up into the trees.
Prickles rose on the back of his neck and Griff ran a hand through his crest to dispel them. They had crossed into the deepest part of the forest and the London gargoyle had never seen such massive trees, their twisted, rough trunks looming overhead. Flying over them would have been no problem but this, this green, growing, pervasive presence was starting to get to him. He could see moonlight streaming down into a clearing up ahead and unconsciously began to step up his pace.
* * * * *
High in the trees, three pairs of eyes watched and wondered.
"Who are they?" a soft, curious voice asked.
"I dinnae know but he's a handsome devil, isn't he?" A wistful sigh followed.
Another snorted, "He's working with a HUMAN, he must be off his nut!"
"I don't care! I'm tired of waiting!" Leaves crackled and branches snapped.
"No, Sister! Wait for--"
* * * * *
Arthur and company reached the clearing just as the foliage exploded around them. "Harpies!" Arthur shouted as he drew Excalibur in a glowing arc.
"No," Griff said as he flattened one with his pack. "Gargoyles." He glared at the fallen winged warrior, a brownish female clad in feather-trimmed leathers. "What is this?" he demanded. "Gargoyle does not attack gargoyle!"
A heavier female garg dressed in leather and fur hefted a spear. "No humans in our forest!" she shouted as she hurled the weapon at Arthur. Cavall leaped and snapped it in two, inches from his master. The female screamed and went for Arthur, talons bared.
A third female, slim and dappled green, zipped down in front of Arthur and Griff and cried out, "Nay, sister! Ye musn't!" She held up her bow to block the attack.
"Stop this at ONCE!" commanded a voice from the trees. The three females froze and looked in the direction of the voice. An elderly female gargoyle walked into the clearing, leaning on a gnarled staff, her eyes sharp and intelligent, accompanied by a male and female gargoyle carrying weapons. All of the forest-dwelling gargoyles were various shades of green, brown and gray, especially adapted to their arboreal environment.
The elder, her hair braided into a silver crown, glared at Arthur. "The young one is right. No human is allowed this far into our forest." She cast a look at Griff and Cavall. "But ye travel with those like us. I would like to know why."
Arthur bowed and said respectfully. "Milady, I am Arthur Pendragon, once and future King of Britain, and with my companions, Sir Griff and Cavall, I am following the trail of my mentor Merlin. He resided here for a time in ages past and I hoped to find some small trace of him."
The old she-garg regarded him carefully beneath heavy eyebrow ridges reminiscent of stag horns. "I am Kylie, elder of this clan. No human has resided here in my time or the time of she who led here before."
The male, a thick-bodied creature who looked as if he'd been carved of rough granite, spoke up. "There is the old place where the bard slept."
Kylie snorted and dismissed it with a wave. "That old wreck? That was in ruin and rot four generations back."
"Revered Elder," Griff said, stepping forward. "The one we seek is an immortal sorcerer. We've found clues to lead us in the smallest places. Please, milady, we must see this place for ourselves and then we will leave you and your clan in peace."
While he spoke, Kylie hobbled towards him, eyes examining him intently. She reached out and touched his muscular arm and clucked thoughtfully. She turned her head and gazed at the three young females, who were casting sidelong looks at the new gargoyle with various degrees of interest.
She walked back to her bodyguards, turned and said, "I'll make a bargain with ye, Arthur Pendragon. The place ye wish to go is a pile of rotting timbers and tumbled stone. But some things from there were found by the clan in ages past and we have them still. A small chest, some parchments with scratchings on them, baubles. I will trade these things wi' ye."
Arthur exchanged a look with Griff. "I will gladly give you anything you ask, Lady Kylie, provided it is within my ability to give it. What do you require? Food, supplies, medicines?"
Kylie extended a withered talon and pointed at the eagle-like gargoyle at his side. "Him."
Griff was understandably shocked. "'Ullo! What's this, then?" Then he noticed the hungry looks of the young trio of females. "Oh, not here too!" he muttered under his breath. "Why me?"
"Griff is his own gargoyle," Arthur protested. "He is not something to be given ... or to be asked for, for that matter. I pray you, Elder, please explain!"
Kylie lifted her sharp gaze to Arthur's face. "We are the last clan in Scotland. In the days when we were hunted, the last few clans gathered here and found shelter in this place. But our numbers have dwindled in past years and our males are few. We need new blood for strong hatchlings." She straightened and for a second, Arthur had a vision of the strong leader she once and still was. "We will have the male, whether ye agree to bargain or not."
"Here now!" Griff protested.
Kylie silenced him with a gesture. "Jamie! Curran! Show yourselves!"
Light glinted off of burnished arrowheads as another male and female emerged from the treetops on opposite sides of the clearing, bows drawn and aimed at Arthur.
Kylie looked sternly at Griff. "Make the bargain and the human goes free. Don't and we kill the human. Either way, I intend to keep ye."
Griff thought. "I have a counter offer," he said gallantly. "I propose a race. I get a few minutes headstart and the three young ladies," he smiled winningly in their direction, "try to catch me. If they don't catch me before moonset, you give us the artifacts and safe passage from here."
"And if one of my daughters catches you?" Kylie asked shrewdly.
"In that case, I will have that fortunate young female as my mate, as you wish it." The eyes of the three young females blazed scarlet as they glanced from Griff to their elder.
Kylie's eyes glowed. "Done."
Arthur took Griff aside. "Are you quite sure about this?"
"Trust me, your Majesty," he answered confidently. "If I could out-maneuver Messerschmidts and Fokkers, I can certainly outfly this lot."
Arthur looked around his gargoyle knight at the three unmated females. The largest, as fierce a warrior maid as any valkyrie from Valhalla, kept a wary eye on him as she listened to her sisters whispering together. Feathers adorned the voluptuous neckline of the brown female's garment, as well as the hairband holding back her mass of black curls. She was talking intently with the last of the three, a slender, willowy gargoyle with a staghorn brow ridge similar to the clan leader's. Whatever it was she was saying, the other two females were nodding in agreement and casting anxious if somewhat carnivorous looks at Griff.
"You're going to have your hands full," Arthur murmured to Griff.
The English gargoyle had been observing the elder and her bodyguards. "Speak for yourself," he answered back. "You've got to deal with them, and frankly, your Majesty, I don't think they like humans at all."
Cavall whined and Arthur patted his head reassuredly. "Don't worry, Griff. Cavall will be here to protect me. You keep your mind on your flying."
Kylie walked to the center of the clearing and raised her hand solemnly. "The challenge has been set," she proclaimed in a firm voice. "My daughters, ye have until the moon sets behind the trees to capture this male and take him as yuir new mate." She nodded at Griff and gestured towards the trees. He began climbing as she continued to speak. "I know as sisters, ye three have competed for many things but only one may win this night. A gargoyle's heart knows only one true love and when ye find the right one, naught in the world will ever come between true mates. It may be Tori's strength, Kirstie's swiftness, or Brianna's cleverness that will claim the prize but know that yuir clan is behind ye." The elder's sharp eyes glanced up. "Now away wi' ye. Good flight, my daughters!"
The three Scottish gargoyles swarmed into the trees, their colors blending with the foliage so well that they temporarily vanished from sight until they launched into the midnight sky after Griff, their high-pitched battle cries echoing into the night.
Cavall ran to the edge of the clearing and howled after them. Arthur watched him for a few seconds before approaching the gargoyle elder. His way was instantly blocked by the massive male, his rough features glaring down at the lone human.
Arthur cleared his throat. "Lady Kylie, with your permission, I'd like to set up camp. I believe it will be quite a while before we hear from Griff and the young ladies."
A withered hand patted the gray male's massive forearm. "I agree," Kylie said. Her voice was pleasant but her eyes were cold. "This is as far as any human is allowed in our forest. King or not, ye go no further than this." She cast a look up. "Quade, fetch me something to sit on, please? These old legs grow weary."
While Quade lumbered off, Arthur used a bundle of small branches to clear fallen leaves and debris from his campsite. He could feel their eyes on him from Kylie's frosty gaze to the sharp watch of the archers in the trees. To counter their extreme apparent distrust of him, Arthur kept a pleasant expression on his face and dredged up the best of his court manners. Quade returned with a large log and set it down just beyond the campsite. Kylie settled herself on it with as much grace and poise as if the rough wood were a throne but Arthur could her bones popping and cracking and saw a flash of momentary pain cross her face.
Opening the large duffel, Arthur dug out the pop-up tent and flicked it open in mid-air just as young Campbell showed him back at Wellwood House. He caught the startled look of surprise on the forest gargoyles' faces and suppressed a small smile. The next item he produced out of his bag, he presented directly to the gargoyle elder.
"My Lady," Arthur said grandly as he set up the folding sling-back chair made of tough rip-stop nylon, "it would be most unbecoming of me not to offer you what little I have in the way of hospitality." He nodded at Quade. "That log is much too hard for a lady to sit upon. May I offer you this chair? It is quite comfortable."
Kylie eyed the chair suspiciously. The other female gargoyle in the clearing, a russet brown color with a blaze of foxy red hair, came forward and examined the piece of camp furniture carefully. After sniffing, poking and prodding it, she finally looked at Kylie and nodded. Leaning heavily on her staff, the old gargoyle carefully moved over and sat gingerly in the sling-back chair. Slowly, in increments, Kylie allowed herself to sink into the strange seat, letting herself lean back fully, her arms touching the armrests thoughtfully. Her tail curled around her ankles in a regal fashion as she closed her eyes briefly and let out a delicate, barely audible sigh.
Arthur took that small gesture as approval enough and busied himself with setting up camp.
* * * * *
Griff was climbing high above the forest's edge when he heard the battle cries behind him. He took a glance back over his shoulder and spied at least two females coming up quickly. Adrenaline pumped through his body, like the old days during the Battle of Britain when he had taken it upon himself to go against the Luftwaffe pilots attacking London. He grinned like a madman and dove for Loch Rannoch, glittering below in the moonlight.
The two Scottish gargoyles dropped into the tight stoop with him, following him down, snarling like wildcats. The larger of the two was gaining, her wings tucked tightly in for maximum speed. Griff intentionally kept his a bit loose even though it cost him some of his headstart. Within a few feet of the water's surface, he suddenly leveled off, his tail skimming the water. The heavier female couldn't unfurl her wings in time and plunked into the water with an enormous splash.
Her brownish sister managed the abrupt turn with only one wingtip dipping into the water to leave a roostertail of spray in her wake. Griff let her a merry chase through the small islands of the southern shore of the loch but this female was clearly a much better flyer than the first. As the loch began to narrow, the eagle-like gargoyle used massive strokes of his feathered wings to rise into the upper air currents above the forest.
The dark crags of a solitary mountain rose above the shadowy foliage. Griff could see the deep crevasses and tumbled rocks, a glint of water in the tree-covered ravines leading into the foot hills. He noted the spacing between the scraggy pines and made some mental calculations. It meant taking a risk but -- he glanced back at the pair of glowing crimson eyes following -- anything was better than a lifetime commitment to a man-hungry female.
Without breaking speed, Griff dove for the tall trees, threading his way through them. The female followed like a hawk on a hare, eyes bleeding red fire. He set his jaw and increased the pace, zigzagging recklessly through the tree line. As they entered the higher elevations around the mountain, they began to pass through low clouds. Griff smiled grimly and aimed directly at a rocky outcropping far ahead. At the last second, he pulled up into a tight barrel roll, ducking into the clouds and darting down the mountain to dive into a deep ravine.
His feathered wings made his descent almost completely silent. Griff stilled his heavy breathing as he heard the frustrated screams of the female circling the mountain. As her cries grew fainter, he sniffed. There was fresh water close by, he could just barely hear it. Griff followed the sloping banks of the ravine inwards to the mossy, fern-covered banks of the brook bubbling over smooth, rounded stones. Abandoning all cosmopolitan veneer, the green gargoyle dipped his beak into the first clear pool he could find and drank heavily of the icy cold water.
Thirst quenched, Griff looked around. The canopy of branches was so thick that not even the stars could be seen and since it was headed in the right direction, he began walking down the ravine. The little stream gradually widened and deepened as it traveled down the mountain. It eventually turned into a stair step series of small waterfalls and Griff was forced to detour around it on a game trail. He pushed through some tall rushes into the high stone walls of a grotto. The waterfall cascaded down into a still, deep pool where the moon reflected on the water's surface through a break in the tree cover. So enchanting was the calm stillness of the starlit scene that it was almost a full minute before he realized that he was not alone.
Sitting on a wide rock by the pool was the quiet female, looking at Griff with large, dark eyes. She spoke, her voice soft and lilting. "Dinnae worry, Sir Griff. Yuir safe here from my sisters."
"But am I safe here from you, milady?" Griff said with a small bow. "It appears you have caught me."
"A good hunter stays still and lets the game come to her." She smiled sadly. "Yuir a grand male, but I dinnae want a mate that's forced to love me. If I dinnae touch ye, then yuir still free, to win yuir friend's freedom."
Griff smiled, intrigued by her honest frankness, and sat down on a nearby log. Unlike her more warrior-like sisters, this young female wore a modest tunic of soft tan deerskin with a diagonal slash of cream-colored leather at the neckline and elbow length gauntlets to guard her arms for archery; her bow and quiver leaning against the rock near her. "You seem a sensible lass. Thank you. What's your name?"
"I'm Brianna." She stared at the moon reflecting on the surface of the pool. "I told my sisters I was not interested and would stay here while they hunted for ye. Ye've picked a very good spot to hide."
"I wish I could repay your kindness," Griff said.
"We-e-ell, " she said wistfully, "there is something. Ye were whistling earlier. 'Twas a merry tune." She bit her lip. "What was it?"
Griff laughed. "An old nursery song. 'If you go down into the woods today, you're in for a big surprise!' And I certainly got one!"
Brianna burst into a musical birdsong of laughter. "A good surprise or a bad one?"
"Let's just say the night's still young, hmm?" Griff cocked his head. "You liked my whistling then?"
"I like all kinds of music," she answered. "A few years ago, I found a radio that someone had lost but it hasn't worked for a long, long time. I used to listen to it every night." Her eyes brightened and she sat up a little. "Have the Beatles done anything new?"
"I'm afraid not," Griff said regretfully. "I was reading that one of them died in New York City years ago. John somebody, I think it was. Terribly sorry."
Brianna sniffed and her eyes were wet as she looked up at the night sky thoughtfully. "I thought the stars were shining more brightly than usual," she murmured softly. She gave him a sad smile. "What kind of music do they play on the radio now?"
"Rock and roll but all sorts really. I'm a little behind the times myself. My favorite music was the Big Band era, Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey ... my all-time favorite was Glenn Miller. I used to sneak in on the concerts he gave at the USO." He started to hum a familiar tune. "Dat-dit-dahDAH-ditditditdit-BAHditditDatdit DAH..."
The quiet gargoyle leaned towards him, a slow smile spreading as she began to pick up the melody and hum along with him. They both grinned at each other as they realized that they knew the same tune. Brianna clapped her hands. "I remember that one! Saturday nights, they used to play this on the Golden Oldies hour out of Perth. 'In The Mood,' aye?"
"And ye say ye got to hear the band play? In person?" She propped her elbows on her knees, chin on her hands. "Was it exciting?"
Griff laughed. "It was absolutely super! Let me tell you all about it...."
* * * * *
The Thrush and Thistle, Aberfeldy.
Blue-tinged tobacco smoke drifted up to the dirty yellow, nicotine-stained ceiling of the small pub. The regular patrons lined the bar and exchanged pleasantries with the husband-and-wife team keeping their pints topped off with the house's best ale and bitters. A barmaid delivered four dark brown beers to the taciturn men at the corner table and turned back to more familiar customers.
One of the men watched her go. "So, Seamus," he said gruffly. "What's the plan?"
The tall man sucked up a good amount of his drink before answering. "They want premium, seasoned wood down in Edinburgh. When I was workin' for Clan Menzie over at Farleyer, I saw a grand stand of mature pine out Schiehallion way. They'll never miss it."
"That's rugged country," the youngest man observed. "'Ow are we going to get at it?"
"There's an old forestry road that'll get us close," Seamus said. "That's where your fancy Yank 'all terrain vehicles' will take over, 'Arry. I figure they can haul two or three trees at time."
Harry pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Aye, that they can. Both my ATVs have full tanks of petrol and are ready to go."
"Well, then," Seamus said, taking a sip, "Let's drink up and get on wi' the job, boys." As one, all four men drained their draughts and left the dimpled glasses on the table.
* * * * *
Kylie eyed the thin brownish glop in the small aluminum cookpot uncertainly. "Ye mean to say, mixin' that wee bit o' powder wi' water makes a full meal?"
"That's what I understand," Arthur answered with false confidence. Both Capt. Marter and Douglas Campbell had explained about the practicality and economy of dehydrated food but the revived monarch had serious doubts about it. If he wasn't sure that it might be a serious breach of protocol with these xenophobic gargoyles, he would have tried to find a few sleeping grouse and made a meal of them instead.
Quade, who had remained standing on guard no more than two steps from his clan leader, gave the bubbling stew an incredulous look and muttered something under his breath in Gaelic. The foxy-haired female laughed, casting a sly look in Arthur's direction. She whispered in Kylie's ear. The elder nodded.
"Aye, be off wi' ye, Rachel." The old gargoyle looked up in the trees. "Jamie! Go wi' her!" The branches shook loose a shower of leaves as the female archer left the trees, her dark green coloring making her almost invisible against the night sky.
"I see you are cautious as well as wise, Lady Kylie," Arthur said lightly. "In town, I was told to look out for any illegal activities here in the forest. Has there been trouble lately?"
Both Kylie and Quade looked sharply at him. "Who has told ye this thing?" she demanded, sitting up in her chair. "What do ye know?"
Arthur sat back on the log and regarded her calmly. "Only that while there are good people trying very hard to save wild places like your forest, that there are also bad people who care only for the money they can make by destroying it."
"Humans care only for themselves," Quade rumbled in a low, gravely voice.
"Not so," Arthur countered. "Good people worked together to make sure this area is protected by law. No one may interfere here."
"Then why do the men still come? Every night we wake to find a newly cut stump here and there." Kylie's eyes blazed. "They steal our home from us, a tree at a time!"
Arthur wrinkled his brow and chose his words carefully. "Milady, it has been my experience that in all creatures, there is an equal capacity for good and evil. Forasmuch as I have known them in both ages past and present, even though most gargoyles of my acquaintance are good and noble creatures, there have been those rogue few with villainy in their hearts, caring naught for others. I am deeply sorry that your clan's experience with mankind has not been pleasant but I assure you, for although there are evil men in the world, they are outnumbered by good men willing to do what is right."
"It is a pretty speech," Kylie said, sinking back in the chair. "And it may very well be as ye say, in the outside world." Her eyes narrowed. "She who led before me used to say that our lives were bound to the forest. The Great Wood sheltered us when we were lost and had no home. We owe it a debt, a life debt that cannae be broken. When the forest was great, the clan flourished. Now -- now, just look at us!" She gestured with her staff angrily. "The forest dwindles, our numbers are few, eggs in the rookery fewer still, and no mates for my daughters." She locked stares with the human before her. "When the forest dies, we will die with it."
Silence filled the campsite, broken only by the scraping of a spoon on the bottom of the cookpot.
* * * * *
Sitting in a moonlit grotto with Brianna was stirring up feelings Griff had been fighting to keep buried. Despite her insistence to the contrary, the quiet Scottish gargoyle was quite lovely with her dappled green skin and long, dark green hair in row after row of tight braids. The first time her smile lit the dark blue depths of her eyes made Griff want to see it again and his conversation became more witty and animated.
His stomach decided to growl rudely and Brianna raised an eyebrow, as well as the corner of her mouth. "I'm sorry, ye dinnae get a chance to eat. Ye mus' be hungry."
Griff shrugged. "I'm a bit peckish," he admitted. "Nothing to worry about."
Brianna hopped off her boulder and Griff realized she was much taller than he thought, it was only her quiet stillness that made her seem small. She scampered across the loose gravel and began unpiling a cairn of flat stones. She looked over her shoulder and said, "I hope ye like trout. I went fishing earlier and set it to cook before ye crossed into our territory. I'd all but forgot about it."
An indescribably delicious smell came out of the cairn, a combination of aromatic herbs, roast trout, and wood smoke. Brianna took a small knife from her belt and disappeared into the trees, reappearing with two large pieces of bark to dish up dinner on. It wasn't fish and chips, Griff admitted as he licked his fingers clean, but it was quite good and he was sure he was eating much better than Arthur. He told the cook exactly that and Brianna blushed prettily.
" 'Tis nothing," she said, embarrassed by his praise. "I'm a good shot with a bow but I dinnae like to hunt. My sisters say I'm too soft-hearted." She shrugged. "Truth of the matter, they've never had the patience to fish but I rather like it. Kylie's teeth won't let her chew properly so I always catch plenty to share."
Griff looked down aghast at the bare bones of his dinner. Brianna laughed at him.
"Dinnae worry, Kylie was to sup with Quade and his mate tonight." Brianna looked up into the tree branches. "We all take turns minding the eggs in th' rookery and taking care of our elder. Kylie likes my company, I guess, because I'm her last hatchling."
"I had wondered," Griff said, pointing at her forehead. "You've got the same brow ridges."
Brianna smiled and for a few seconds, their eyes met. Part of him wondered why on earth he was sitting so far away from her and Griff had to fight to remember his mission. Brianna suddenly stood up and clambered up the damp, mossy rocks near the little waterfall..
"Hullo! What's this then?" Griff said as he followed her over.
"Dessert!" she called back. She stretched up, extending her wings and tail for balance as she plucked grapes from the vines wound tightly around the trees. Griff found himself studying the smooth contours of her legs. He shook it off and concentrated on catching succulent bunches of dark red grapes as she tossed them to him. Finally, Brianna started down but her feet slipped on the damp stones and she pitched forward.
Griff was there in a flash to stop her fall. Her forehead collided with his shoulder and his beak was buried in her braids. A delicious shiver went up his spine as he breathed in the warm scent of heather from her hair. He put his hands around her waist to steady her and marveled at her slenderness as his fingers almost met. He wondered if she could hear how loud his heart was beating. Brianna pushed her braids out of her face and looked at him nervously. Griff returned her look and unconsciously tightened his grip.
She placed her hand lightly on his left biceps. Her touch was soft and trembling. "Sir Griff?"
"Yes, milady?" His voice was a hoarse whisper.
"Ye can put me down now."
"Oh. Yes, right, sorry." He set her down hastily and stepped back, cursing his luck.
* * * * *
Cavall sniffed at his share of Arthur's dinner and looked up at his human master with the most incredulous expression ever seen on a gargoyle beast. He tipped the tin plate over with his nose and scraped pine needles over it with one massive paw, wuffing rather huffily the whole time. To make sure he had made his point, he started to hike a hind leg.
"Oh, no, you DON'T!" Arthur admonished firmly, shaking a finger. "I've gotten the point, thank you very much."
Whining, the gargoyle beast trotted off into the underbrush at the edge of the clearing. Personally, Arthur thought Cavall had the right idea. Perhaps young Campbell considered this brown muck adequate nutrition, but it was definitely not up to the proper standards of camp rations in his day. It was the texture of Una's book paste and the taste -- Arthur didn't want to speculate on what could possibly taste like this.
Kylie regarded the whole exchange with veiled amusement. " 'Twould seem yon beast doesn't like yuir dried food." Her granite-faced escort snorted.
Arthur smiled as he attempted to unstick a glob of something off a molar. "It would appear to be an acquired taste, milady."
Quade turned his head and sniffed. "Rachel and Jamie are coming."
"Ah." Kylie nodded. " 'Tis about time."
The russet and the dark green females came into the clearing, carrying baskets and sharing the weight of a cast iron cauldron between them. "Sorry we're a mite late," Rachel said apologetically as she and the other female set the large blackened pot down, "But Jamie said Curran was fair hungerin' for oatcakes an' I made a batch while she shredded yuir meat fine the way ye likes it, Kylie."
The elder chuckled. "Ye hear that, Curran?" the old gargoyle asked, face turned up to the trees. "Ye best get down here before Quade an' I gobble them up before ye!"
The last remaining gargoyle shot down from the trees like an arrowhead; an apt description, Arthur decided, for the second male was lean, sharp-featured and a flinty blue color. He cast an openly hostile look at the human before bumping brow ridges with the dark green female in the manner of mates and taking an toasty brown round pastry from the basket she carried.
The aroma of fresh baking was heavenly. There was a bakery around the corner from the magic shop that could wake Arthur from a dead sleep. He resolved to be firm. After all, they had politely refused his food and he though it was unlikely they'd share with him and Cavall.
Quade whistled. "Here, boy!!" He brandished a meaty mutton bone, catching Cavall's attention before tossing it to him. The gargoyle beast caught it neatly in his jaws and found a comfortable spot to settle in for a good, long chew.
Arthur growled under his breath and envied Cavall his bone.
* * * * *
Griff sat on his log, barely tasting the sweet tang of the grapes and gloomily spitting the pits at a yellow leaf hanging over the deep swirling water of the pool. He was sure of it now; somehow, he'd broken some sort of taboo. After washing off the grapes and returning to her rock, Brianna hadn't said a word to him. The rational part of him kept telling him that he was making a fool of himself, but the romantic in him desperately wanted her friendship, if nothing else.
He puckered up for another shot when he noticed the leaf twitch as it was hit from another angle. Griff peered at Brianna out of the corner of his eye. Lifting her hand gracefully to shield her mouth, the quiet gargoyle glanced in his direction before aiming and spitting her grape pit. The yellow leaf jerked free and fell to float on the surface of the pool.
The prim, lady-like way Brianna had done it had Griff in tears laughing. He spat out the grape pit before he could choke on it. "Ho, ho ... oh, very well done, old girl!" Griff crowed, grinning like a fool. "But what's with the hand?"
Brianna raised an brow ridge. "Kylie says it's very bad manners for females to be seen spitting." She shrugged. "But since my sisters and I had no rookery brothers, well....." She shot him an impish little look.
"You had spitting contests." He kept chuckling. "Hatchlings will be hatchlings. Coo, but that takes me back."
"You have siblings?"
"Oh, yes. Lost a few over the years but the ones I'm closest to are Leo and Una. We used to do everything together, even when Leo and I were both courting Una ... " He frowned and let his words trail off, sighing deeply.
There was rustling and he felt the log shift slightly. He looked up to see Brianna sitting down just out of arm's reach, chastely crossing her legs at the ankles. "What happened?" she asked softly. "I mean, unless ye don't want to talk about it."
Griff looked into her eyes, the innocent curiosity in those dark blue orbs drawing him out, and found himself telling her the whole story. What it was like living in London during the Battle of Britain, the nightly bombing raids, and of that fateful night when Goliath appeared with the Phoenix Gate and bought Griff forward in time.
"...And there I was, one minute in the 1940s, and the next, the 1990s." He shook his head and sighed. "I lost fifty years in a heartbeat. Everything had changed, the world, ... my life. I went from being Una's suitor to being a glorified boarder. I don't begrudge Leo for becoming her mate, one look at them and I could tell they loved each other deeply. They've got two children and an egg in the rookery due to hatch in the next year or so. I just --" He faltered and looked away. "--I just feel cheated somehow."
" 'Tis only natural," Brianna said quietly. "Ye were in love and ready for the mating flight and it was all taken from ye, like being thrown in the snowmelt, clothes and all. It was a great shock."
"Yes," Griff said slowly, "that's it exactly. Una used to chide me about my recklessness, but sometimes I'd take chances just because I knew it thrilled her so. Leo was dependable, steady and she had time to study her magic, really concentrate on it so now she's a brilliant sorceress. If she'd been my mate, she probably would have been too busy worrying to do anything else."
"Kylie says yuir future is what ye make of it." The Scottish gargoyle flipped a piece of bark into the water. "The spring thaw rushes through here every year and it changes everything but the trees are still here and the rock is still here and I am still here. Mayhaps this Phoenix Gate thing just took ye where ye needed to be."
Griff watched the ripples traveling across the surface of the water and smiled sadly. "Maybe. Lately, I've been feeling like I was meant to be here in this time, to be Arthur's knight and to serve some greater purpose. I just know that when we find Merlin, everything will come into place and I'll know the reason why." He half-heartedly laughed. "It probably doesn't make any sense. I'm rambling."
Brianna smiled. "I dinnae mind." She chewed on her lip thoughtfully, casting little sideways glances at him. Finally, she stood up and took up her bow and quiver. "C'mon then. I have summat to show ye."
"What is it?" Griff asked, following her.
"The old place where the bard lived," she answered, tucking her quiver in place between her wings. " 'Tis not far from here and 'tis nearly the right time o' night."
He cocked a brow ridge. "Right time of night for what?"
Brianna's braids swirled as she looked back over her shoulder at him, a mischievous glint in her eyes. " 'Tis a surprise!" she said playfully.
Griff rolled his eyes dramatically. "Another one? Be still my heart!" He chuckled and followed the lithe forest gargoyle up the game trail.
* * * * *
The beat-up old lorry rattled past the darkened walls of Castle Menzie. The three men squashed together in the cab of the truck gave it a cursory glance. The rear window slid open and the youngest member of the wood-cutting party stuck his head in.
"Seamus, aren't ye worried that we'll be seen? Surely, there's somebody in th' castle?"
The driver shifted his battered hat back on his head. "Nay, 'tis only the keeper an' he's older than Moses an' twice as deaf." He grinned. "In an' out, lads. Nothing to it."
"How much further then?" asked the man siting by the passenger door.
"Another half-hour, Angus," Seamus answered, "An' then I'll leave you here with th' lorry an' I'll go to the base of the mountain with Harry and Francis. The trees I have in mind are good seasoned wood. They'll fetch a fine price."
Francis, sitting in the middle, spoke up. "I hear that th' forests around Schiehallion are haunted. Me grand-dad got caught out after dark up that way once an' he said the souls of th' dead walk the forest at night." He looked out the window uncomfortably. "He said th' trees screamed at him."
"Your grand-dad was coming home from th' pub an' got lost, y'mean." Angus snorted. "I dinnae believe in ghost stories."
Francis said nothing but looked nervously into the darkness.
* * * * *
The trees were getting decidedly bigger, Griff noted, as he followed Brianna down into the sheltered little canyon. Some of the trunks were several feet in diameter, their branches twisting widderskins into the sky above. He was looking up when he walked into Brianna. His heart skipped a beat as he stepped back, her heady perfume lingering in his nostrils.
"Whoops, so sorry --" he started to say, but she put a light finger on the end of his beak and hushed him. Since she didn't push him away, Griff stayed right where he was, only a few inches between them.
"Quiet now," Brianna said softly. She pointed to a solitary tree up on the rocky ridge on the far side of the canyon. "When the moon shines past the lightning burn on the Grandmother, that's when we'll see them."
"Why do you call it the Grandmother?" Griff murmured in her ear.
"Quade says she's the oldest tree in the forest, the mother of them all. See, she's up there so she can keep watch over all her children."
"Ah...I see." Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a glimpse of white teeth as Brianna delicately bit her lower lip and looked away from him. Griff allowed the far side of his mouth curl up. She may have said she wasn't interested but beneath her quiet, lady-like demeanor, Brianna was clearly attracted to him. She simply wasn't allowing herself to show it and Griff found that very appealing.
Keeping his eyes straight ahead and his hands in plain sight, the English gargoyle let his tail slide lightly over the top of Brianna's tail. Her eyes widened and she stifled a little gasp in her throat but she kept her cool as she pointed into the clearing.
"There! Look now!"
Griff stared. Rising from a rough tumble of moss and fern-covered stones were glowing orbs of a greenish gas, floating eerily around like tiny spectres. "What are they?" he asked softly over her shoulder.
"Will-o'-wisps," Brianna answered. She stepped further into the clearing and approached one. "They cannae hurt ye. They're just balls o' swamp gas, but the clan tales say that they mark the spot where the old Bard left his treasure." She laughed, her face lit by green luminescence. "But that's silly. All that he left, th' clan found long ago."
"Huh." Griff swiped at a glowing orb and watched the gas vapors trail from his talons. "Maybe Merlin buried something. Did your clan ever look?"
"Nae, we dinnae have anythin' to do wi' humans, if we can help it." Briana was standing inside a circle of will-o'-wisps, her head crowned with a green halo. "As I understand it, th' Bard kept to himself for a long time and one day, he was just gone."
"I wonder..." The English gargoyle cleared his throat. "Hear me, Merlin Ambrosius! I am Sir Griff, knight to His Majesty, King Arthur Pendragon and we have come in search of your wisdom." His voice boomed out in the clearing, echoing off the steep ravine walls.
To her credit, Brianna stood perfectly still, leaning against her bow and listening. The barest trace of a smile and the dancing light in her eyes was the only sign of amusement she gave as she looked at Griff.
The London gargoyle shrugged. "Well, it was worth a shot. I've seen stranger things happen."
Brianna smiled and started to step towards him when the will-o'-wisps began to vibrate in place for a few seconds and then swirl together in a glowing, neon tornado rising up into the sky. They clustered and then suddenly formed the face of a bearded man. The lips moved silently before the will-o'-wisps regrouped and shot off like a meteor over the tops of the trees.
"Blimey!" Griff breathed.
Brianna's eyes were wide and startled. "Was that...?"
"Yes," he answered. "That was Merlin."
* * * * *
The brown female soared high over the forest, south of Schiehallion. She didn't know how he could have eluded her for so long. It was almost like he'd disappeared into thin air. She gave a frustrated screech that sent the nightbirds all a-flutter in the trees below.
"Kirstie!" The larger sister called out as she glided towards her, damp leathers gleaming in the moonlight. "Did ye catch 'im?"
"Nae, he's a tricky one." Kirstie frowned. "I even swung by Brianna's hideaway but she was gone. Probably went back to camp."
"Just our bloody luck."
"My feelings exactly," Kirstie sighed. "D'ye suppose there's more males where he came from?"
"Sister?" The other female let an errant updraft push her higher. "Yuir eyes are sharper than mine. What do ye make o' that?"
She pointed. "That pair o' lights moving down there on th' old road."
Kirstie hovered as she sighted along Tori's arm, her brow ridges lowering as she squinted. "Blast! It's a motor car o' sorts!"
"I'll stay wi' it," Tori growled, testing the edge of her spear. "You go get th' others."
"Right-t-t-t-t!!!" Kirstie's last word trailed away on the wind as she sped away, wheeling on wingtip like a falcon.
* * * * *
Arthur was busying himself with his maps and charts, trying without much success to ignore the forest gargoyles eating around a small fire a few yards away. The cauldron had turned out to contain mutton stew and as it warmed, the rich, meaty aroma filled the air. It was an exquisite form of torture directed specifically at him for Cavall had been welcomed into their midst. Even now, the gargoyle beast was lying on his back, tongue hanging out of his head, having his belly scratched by one of the females.
"Man's best friend! Ummph!" Arthur grumbled and set some water on the fire to make some coffee.
A shrill electronic chirp caught his attention and that of every single gargoyle in the clearing. Arthur reached over and reached inside his backpack for the shortwave radio. "Hello?"
"Mr. Pennington?" a voice crackled out, "This is Douglas Campbell, from earlier today?"
"Yes, I remember you. What can I do for you, Mr. Campbell?" Arthur watched as the curious gargoyles edged closer.
"The forestry station just got a call from the keeper at Castle Menzie, just south of your itinerary. His grandson spotted a large vehicle driving up one of the old access roads. They've asked me to check in with all my clients that I have in the area in case any of you might have seen or heard anything."
Arthur glanced at Kylie. She was standing very straight, her bony knuckles turning stark white as she clutched her staff. "No, I haven't, but I'll keep the radio handy if I do."
"Right, we'd appreciate it. Campbell out."
"What do they mean?" Kylie demanded even before the crackle of the radio died down. "What is that thing?"
"Apparently, I'm not the only human in your forest tonight." He stood up and buckled on his sword. "I understand that it's illegal to drive in here after dark, so someone must be up to no good." He sorted through his maps until he found the one he wanted. "Here," he pointed with his finger, showing Kylie and Quade, "they spotted someone driving in here."
Kylie frowned. " 'Tis a large area to search. It gets into rugged country on towards the mountain."
"Then we should get started immediately." Arthur folded the map up and stuck it inside his jacket. "Can one of you gentlemen give me a lift?"
The clan blinked as one and stared at him. Kylie scowled. "Whatever for? This is nae o' yuir concern!"
"My Lady Kylie, I swore an oath to defend this land and I've yet to break my word. Protecting this forest is everybody's job and besides," he brandished the radio, "I can call the authorities to come and bring these people to justice so that they will never threaten your home again." The gargoyle wrinkled her brow and Arthur added, "Please, milady, let me prove that I can be a human worthy of your trust."
Kylie glanced sharply at her clan. They, in turn, were looking to her for a decision. Finally, she nodded. "Curran, you take him up. Quade, Rachel, Jamie, go with 'em."
"But ..." Quade started to object but Arthur interrupted.
"Cavall!" he commanded, pointing at the gargoyle elder. "Stay, boy! Guard Lady Kylie with your life!"
The reddish gargoyle whined and nuzzled his master's hand but did as he was bid, going to Kylie's side. She patted his broad head and he wuffed back at her in response.
"Off wi' ye," Kylie said sharply. "Hurry!"
Curran and the two mature females were into the trees like squirrels. Quade rather abruptly tossed Arthur up to be caught by Curran, and then the rough-hewn gargoyle dropped to all fours and galloped from the clearing at an amazing speed for his bulk.
"Where's he going?" Arthur asked as he followed the gargoyles up the tree.
Rachel, the foxy-haired one, called back, "Och, Quade's too heavy to climb the trees here. He'll run up to the nearest crag and meet us on the way."
Curran stopped on a broad branch and cast a flinty gaze at Arthur. "Try not to fall off, human," he said curtly as Arthur took his accustomed perch between the gargoyle's wings.
"I'll do my best," Arthur replied, "Mind your crosswinds. Griff usually has to adjust for them."
The blue-gray gargoyle grumbled under his breath and cast himself into the night sky. They teetered dangerously for a few moments but Curran soon got the hang of gliding with a passenger. Rachel and Jamie flanked them as they soared south over the forest.
* * * * *
Seamus tossed the truck keys to Angus as the two younger men finished unloading the four-wheeled all-terrain vehicles and securing their equipment, chainsaws, axes, ropes and a good length of stout chain. He pulled his battered old hat down on his head as he looked at the dark trees around them.
"Now as I recall," he said, pulling a folded, had-drawn map from his pocket, "The trees I've got in mind are north-northwest of here."
Angus had out his pipe and was tamping in tobacco with his thumb. "What's wrong with th' trees here? Seem like good stock to me."
"Nay," Seamus replied. "We cut back from the road an' there's a better chance of coming back for more. Harder for the Trust people to spot it."
"How far are we goin' in then?" Harry asked, buckling on a helmet over his curly red hair.
"About two miles or so." The tall man pointed towards the mountain. "See that twisted old granny pine on th' ridge there? Th' one wi' th' moon behind it? There's a huge stand of prime timber there. That's where we're going."
Harry nodded. "Well, come along then, Seamus. We'd best get on wi' th' job."
* * * * *
Quade joined them several miles later. Arthur could see why the large gargoyle had needed a more secure launching point. With his bulk and wingspan, he dwarfed even Goliath, the largest gargoyle Arthur had seen since his awakening on Avalon, but the granite-faced gargoyle was a surprisingly good flyer. He moved into the point of their flying formation, the females falling in on either side and Curran higher and a bit back. A high-pitched screech drew their attention.
"Kirstie!" Rachel called out, "What's th' matter, lass?"
The brown-skinned female that had been one of Griff's suitors circled in, coasting down to match the group's slower speed. "There's a big motor car or summat th' like, between the castle and the mountain!" She panted, sweat glistening on her skin. "Tori stayed to track it."
"Where was it headed?" Quade rumbled.
"Dinnae know exactly," Kirstie answered, "but it was headed up th' old road on towards Schiehallion."
"Where's Brianna?" Rachel asked.
"And Griff?" Arthur inquired.
"Och, I dinnae know." Kirstie shook her head and stared at Arthur on Curran's back. "Hey! What's he doing here?"
"It doesn't matter," Quade said firmly. "We must stop the wood cutters."
"Where is this 'Schiehallion' from here?" Arthur asked.
Curran pointed ahead to the single dark mountain that they were fast approaching. "We're comin' up on th' north face of it now. Th' castle is further south." He adjusted his course slightly and the others followed.
Just as they passed the mountain's crest, the warrior sister intercepted them. "It's about ye got back," she said bluntly. "Yuir fat backside's slowing ye down, sister."
Kirstie narrowed her eyes and prepared to give a saucy retort but Quade interrupted. "Where are they, Tori?"
"That bloody big motor car stopped where the road gets rough. One of th' humans stayed wi' it." She pointed back at the mountain. "Th' other humans went up that way."
Quade nodded, and with a quickness of mind at odds with his stone-like appearance, snapped out, "A'right, we split up. Tori, Rachel and I will take care of th' thing down on th' road. Curran, you take th' rest and track th' others. Do what ye have to but don't be seen."
"Luck be wi' ye, Quade." The flinty blue gargoyle turned back towards the mountain.
Arthur glanced at the two females gliding low over the trees, looking for their quarry and asked, "What did he mean, 'don't be seen?'"
"Exactly what it means, human," Curran answered. "It's been the clan rule since th' first o' us came to th' forest. Men can't hunt what they can't find." He grinned darkly over his shoulder, the first show of emotion Arthur had seen in him. "And if they do, we make sure they never do again."
"I see." Arthur fished the compact shortwave radio out of his pocket. "I think, however, in this case it might be prudent to steer the authorities in the proper direction." He pressed a few buttons with his thumb and listened intently for a response. "Is this the ranger station? My name is Pennington, I'm one of Douglas Campbell's clients that's camping in the forest tonight. I'd like to report some lights, possibly automobile lights, moving in the distance over by that single mountain." He paused, listening. "Yes, I saw them through my telescope. I was doing a bit of astronomy when Mr. Campbell called earlier. No problem, glad to help."
"And bringing more humans in is supposed to help?" Curran asked. "Are ye daft, man?"
"Trust me on this, Curran. Human justice can work for you," Arthur said resolutely. "It's just a question of knowing how to use it."
* * * * *
"And ye say th' stories are true?" Brianna asked as she watched Griff poke through the pile of tumbled rock. "That's really and truly King Arthur, come back to save England at the time of its greatest need?"
The London gargoyle cocked his head and smiled. "You've had your nose in a book or two."
Brianna smiled back. "Aye, we may live in th' woods but we've picked up a wee bit o' a library over th' years. So, is it true?"
"Well," Griff stood and dusted off his hands, "the problem is Arthur woke up too early. That's why we need to find Merlin."
"I see...." Brianna stopped and snapped her head around like a owl. She became so completely still that Griff could barely see her breathing.
"Brianna!" he hissed. "What is it?"
She blinked at his voice. "Someone's in th' forest. Cannae ye hear it?"
Griff cocked his head and tried to concentrate. To his citybred ears, there was nothing but the sounds of the night wind in the trees, the creaking and rustling of the branches, and the odd animal call. He felt what Brianna was sensing long before he heard it -- a low, mechanical rumble. A sharp, acrid smell of petrol and motor exhaust was carried on the breeze.
Without speaking, both gargoyles began moving up the ridge.
* * * * *
Blue-tinged smoke ringed around Angus's head as he sat in the open doorway of the truck cab, smoking his pipe. He was content to mind the lorry, prepared to spin a tale about engine troubles and a dutiful son hiking into town to fetch help. Leave the heavy work to those who had the young backs for it, that was his motto. It was a pleasant enough evening and he'd be well paid for his part in this night's work.
A branch snapped like a rifle shot. Angus blew a puff of smoke out of the corner of his mouth and calmly reached for the shotgun on the floor of the cab. It was only loaded with birdshot but that should be good enough for anything that might be lurking around. He took a firm grip on the pipe with his teeth and stepped down from the truck, gravel crunching beneath his feet.
Leaves rustled across the road. Angus squinted and raised the gun to his shoulder. " 'Ere now!" he called out, "Whoever ye are, come out!"
A gentle, thrumming croon lured him closer to the quivering underbrush. "What th' devil?" he muttered and cautiously moved closer.
A flash of reddish fur zipped into the trees. Squinting, Angus aimed and started to fire only to be smacked firmly behind the ear. He stumbled, falling to his knees in the bracken. His cap was shoved down over his eyes roughly and he was lifted off his feet to be hauled to the nearest tree. His face was shoved against the rough bark and his arms were stretched around the trunk to be tied in place with a twisted leather cord.
Strange fingers probed the back of his head. "Och, Tori! Ye've given 'im a grand lump!"
Another female voice answered, this one huskier with a bit of an edge. "He should be grateful I didn't use th' sharp end."
"Come away from there," a deep, gravely voice rasped. Angus felt cold prickles run up and down his spine. There was the sudden screech of tearing metal and a thump as something heavy was tossed aside. "Give me a hand with this."
"Shall we tip it over?" the husky female asked.
"Nae," Gravel Voice answered, "I don't want the ground tainted wi' th' poisons this thing runs on."
"Look here," the first female said, "all th' funny straps an' cords. See, they cut easy enough. Let's just snip everything we kin find an' that should do it."
Helplessly, Angus could only listen as his unknown assailants rather gleefully dismantled the truck's engine. He could hear motor parts hitting the ground all around him and then an abrupt silence. It was as if the entire forest was holding its breath. Angus found himself holding his breath too, his heartbeat pounding in his ears.
"Listen to me, human," the low, rumbling voice said suddenly in his ear. "This forest is not for you or your kind. Stay out of it." Just as quick as the mysterious speaker appeared, he was gone.
* * * * *
"Cor, would you look at that?" Harry ran a hand through his unruly curls as he looked up the hill at the ancient, twisted pine growing on the ridge. "That's the biggest granny pine I've ever seen."
"Aye," Seamus said as he unstrapped the chainsaws from the back of Francis's ATV. "An' th' only reason it is, is because it's growing up there where we can't get at it." He hefted the heavy chainsaw and began walking towards a stand of mature trees. "These, on th' other hand, will do nicely. Must be three-four feet across."
"It's going to be heavy," Francis commented, bringing the rest of the equipment.
"Nae, I kin drop a tree on th' head o' a pin if I want," Seamus said. He stood back and lit a cigarette. "You lads stand ready wi' th' chains. This won't take long." He moved the cigarette to the corner of his mouth and pulled the cord on the chainsaw, revving the engine to life.
* * * * *
"Who cuts trees in the dead of night?" Griff asked as he and Brianna watched the top of the ridge. "Something's not quite cricket here."
"They're thieves," Brianna answered grimly. She narrowed her eyes and set her jaw. "I cannae let this happen."
Griff nodded. "Then let's get down there." He started to rise but Brianna caught his arm.
"We cannae be seen," she said urgently. " 'Tis one o' our rules."
"How do you want to handle this, then?"
"First, we give 'em a warning," Brianna answered, "An' then we scare th' life out o' them." Sticking to the shadows, she crept silently on all fours down the ridge with Griff close behind. As he watched, Brianna loosened the fletching on one of her arrows and deliberately aimed just over the men's heads.
Francis put the last of the chain in place on the ground. "All right, Seamus," he called out. "Whenever yuir ready!"
A high-pitched, twittering whine passed over his head, disappearing into the darkened forest. "Saints!" Francis swore, glancing around wide-eyed. "What was that? Did ye see it, Harry?"
The red-headed young man frowned. "Nae, I didn't. But I heard it, sure enough. What th' devil was it?" He yelled at their ringleader, making a slashing motion across his throat. "Seamus! Cut th' engine! Summat strange is goin' on here!!"
"What?" The older man shoved his battered hat back on his head. "What is it?"
"We dinnae know but summat just went through here. Made an awful racket."
"Och, for th' love o' Pete!" Seamus took a deep drag on his cigarette and blew the smoke at them angrily. "Yuir both acting like a couple o' runny-nosed schoolboys! There be naught but trees here!!"
An eerie, keening wail came out of the treetops around them, echoing off the valley walls around them. A second, deeper roar joined it, creating an discordant resonance that rose the hair on the back of their necks. Seamus's jaw went slack and his cigarette dropped unnoticed to the ground. It began to smolder in the dry pine needles at his feet.
"Oh, Sweet Mother!" Francis moaned. "Me grand-dad was right! Th' trees are screamin' at us!!" He bolted for the all-terrain vehicles, detaching the tow chains they were originally going to haul the trees out with and kicking the engine to life.
"Blast," Harry murmured under his breath and followed Francis's example. "Come on, Seamus," he yelled as he fastened his helmet on, "Let's get out of here!"
Seamus shook his head. "It's just some sort o' animal, lads, that's all. There isn't any manner o' beast that I'm afraid of --" A fierce snarl drew his attention to a pair of burning scarlet eyes framed in a darkened silhouette against the face of the moon.
"What are you waitin' for, lad?" Seamus bellowed as he ran for the ATV. "Get that bloody machine going!!"
Flames crackled as the forgotten cigarette ignited the pine needles and dried debris beneath the ancient trees. The dappled green gargoyle swooped down and began clearing away the bracken down to bare earth to form a firebreak. "Griff! Help me! Th' forest will go up like tinder if we don't stop it now!"
"I'm right behind you!" Griff grabbed a fallen branch and swept the area clear. He dug his talons deep into the moist Scottish loam and tossed huge handfuls on top of the fire.
"How could they be so careless?" Brianna asked angrily as she threw dirt on her side of the fire. The flames were soon subdued under the joint effort of both gargoyles. The forest-bred gargoyle stood and glared at the departing humans with glowing eyes. She growled and scrambled back up the ridge.
"What are you going to do?" Griff asked, kicking dirt over the last of the fire.
Brianna leaped up the side of the ancient, twisted pine and climbed to the flattened lightning scar high in its branches. She stood and drew her bow grimly. "I'm going to teach them a lesson."
The eagle-like gargoyle glanced at the two ATVs roaring away down the trail and back up at Brianna calmly drawing a bead on them with her bow. "Brianna, NO!" Griff shouted as he started up the tree.
Her first shot pierced the engine of the lead vehicle as it started up a slope. The second and third arrows blew out the back tires of the other four-wheeler. The men tumbled off and stared back. Brianna cocked another arrow and neatly shot the battered hat off the tallest man's head, pinning it against a tree. The tree cutters let out a chorus of horrified screams and bolted.
Griff raised an eyebrow ridge and felt a grin growing as he watched Brianna make an indignant little face and snort, "There! They can just walk back to town, th' blatherskites!"
"You're full of surprises, aren't you?" Griff asked admiringly.
The quiet gargoyle shrugged and kept her eyes on the men. "If I killed them, they wouldna learn anything, would they? This way, they've had a good scare that will stay with them a while."
"Still, you're a regular Errol Flynn. There's absolutely no way I could have done it. That was smashing!"
She turned her head towards him just slightly and he saw the sparkle in her eyes, like two pools of starlit sky. A rosy blush tinted her cheeks as she lowered her lashes and smiled. There was an awkward silence while Griff shifted his feet and Brianna toyed with end of her bow. Finally, she looked up at the sky and said, " 'Twill be moonset soon."
Griff swallowed. "Perhaps we should be heading back then."
"Would ye like to fly? 'Twould be quicker."
"No." A smile curved around his beak. "I think I'd rather walk." He stepped down to the next branch and held out his hand, brow ridges raised hopefully.
Brianna regarded him enigmatically for a moment and then reached out, setting her hand lightly on his and followed him down to the forest floor.
* * * * *
"That was a BLOODY arrow!" Francis exclaimed, looking back over his shoulder.
Seamus scowled and snapped out, "Well, at least you know it's not been th' friggin' trees that's been screamin' all these years, now don't ye, lad?" He was panting heavily and put a hand against a tree trunk to steady himself. "Hold up here while I gets me breath."
For the next minute or so, Seamus was too occupied with his heaving lungs and pounding heart to notice anything else. After a nicotine-induced coughing fit, he got his breath back and said, "All right, lads. Let's head back to th' lorry. We kin come back for th' ATVs later."
Silence answered him.
"Lads?" Seamus looked around. Both Harry and Francis had disappeared. Wide-eyed, Seamus stumbled farther into the forest clearing. " 'Arry? Francis?" His breath came quicker as his anxiety level went up. "This isn't funny, lads!"
"No," a regal voice said coldly, "I am most certainly NOT amused."
Seamus turned abruptly, almost falling over his own feet, to face the speaker. It was a man, he was sure of that, but the newcomer's face was obscured by the brilliant glow of the sword he held pointed at Seamus's chest. "A-are ye a ghost?"
"I am the sworn defender of this land," answered the shadowy figure. "Listen to me carefully, for I want you to carry my words to others like you."
The tip of the sword pressed into Seamus's chest and he could feel the point against his breastbone. He gulped and stammered, "What do ye want?"
"Know this, and know it well. This ancient forest is not without its protectors, and any transgressions against it will not tolerated." He emphasized his words with the point of his sword. "There will be no more illegal wood-cutting in these woods. Do you understand?"
"Aye, sir, I do!" Seamus said reverently. Closing his eyes, he could imagine himself being run through, just like in the movies.
"For your sake, I hope you do." The swordpoint eased up. "Now get out of here."
Seamus opened his eyes. The ghostly knight with the glowing sword was gone, without a trace of his ever being there. He blinked and rubbed his eyes. A moan attracted his attention and he saw Francis and Harry laying a few yards away on the narrow game trail they had followed to get into the deep forests.
"Lads!" He rushed up to them. Both young men were stunned and slowly regaining their senses.
"Wha' happened?" Harry asked groggily. "Summat grabbed me an' wrapped me up in a leather cape. I couldn't hardly move."
"Never mind that now," Seamus said anxiously. "I want to get out of these woods before anything else happens."
Francis rolled onto his side and pointed. "What's that?"
Bobbing lights came over the rise into the forest clearing, darkened figures outlined in the glare. All three woodcutters stared at them in horror as the strangers approached. An older man in an ordinary-looking dark green came out of the light first.
Seamus's shoulders sagged. "Blast, it's the blokes from th' Wildlife Trust."
Lew Foster shook his head at them as the navy-clad constables and brown-clad park rangers joined him. "Seamus Maccabee. I should have known when we found Angus MacDonald down the road. Up to your old tricks again, eh?"
"Just arrest me, Foster," Seamus said resignedly, "and get me out of this cursed forest. I've seen more here tonight to last me a lifetime."
* * * * *
Kylie was sitting in the sling chair by the small campfire, turning a spit with several plump birds on it when Arthur and the Caledonian clan returned. Cavall wuffed and rose from the old gargoyle's side, bounding across the clearing to tackle Arthur.
"Yes, yes," Arthur chuckled as he fended off the beast's affections, "I'm glad to see you too, Cavall." He looked over at the clan clustering around their elder, filling her in on the night's events. "I trust he was well-behaved for you while we were gone, Lady Kylie?"
"Aye, we got along well enough," Kylie answered. "He's a fair hand at flushing out game."
Rachel bent down and whispered in the elder's ear. Kylie regarded Arthur thoughtfully for a moment and looked back at her clan. "Yuir Majesty, would ye like to join us for a wee bite to eat? 'Tis only roast fowl and leftover stew, not yuir fancy powdered food but it'll fill yuir belly."
Arthur tried not to sound too eager. "My dear Lady Kylie, I would be honored to dine with you."
They were all licking their fingers clean and pitching the bones into the fire when they heard a trilling laugh approaching. Quade stood up and looked into the forest. "That's Brianna," he rumbled, "She's in a good mood."
"Blast!" Tori swore as she exchanged a look with Kirstie. "You don't suppose?"
Griff pushed his way out into the clearing, courteously holding the branches back for Brianna to step through. He was talking animatedly to the dappled green female, for the moment oblivious to the presence of an audience. "If you ever come to London," he told Brianna earnestly, "I'll have to take you to this club I know in Soho. The clientele's a bit on the geriatric side but the band plays a fantastic medley of Tommy Dorsey tunes! You'd really enjoy it, I promise."
Brianna regarded him amusedly beneath lowered lids. "Oh, is that so?"
Arthur smiled as he watched the interplay between his knight and the young female. Griff and Brianna were keeping a chaste distance from each other but there was a sparkle in Griff's eye that Arthur had not seen for some time. He reached over and topped off Kylie's mug of coffee. "What do you make of that?" he asked her softly.
" 'Tis promising," Kylie murmured back. She straightened up and called out, "Brianna! Ye've been gone all night, lass. Have ye anything to tell us?"
"Oh, aye!" Brianna stepped towards them eagerly. "We found three humans trying to cut down some trees. They were using these nasty, noisy things -- what did you call them?" She turned back to the eagle-like gargoyle behind her.
"Chainsaws," Griff supplied helpfully.
"Aye, chainsaws. An' one o' them started a fire too! Lucky for me, Sir Griff was there to help. We sent them off wi' their tails between their legs."
"But, lass," Kylie prompted gently, "did ye win th' race?"
Brianna held her chin up. "Nae, I found him tryin' to catch his breath after my sisters had flown his wings off. Gaspin' an' wheezin' like a fish, he was." She shrugged. "I'd prefer a male with a wee bit more endurance." She gave the London gargoyle an arch look.
Griff crossed his arms and harrumphed indignantly but the amused look remained in his eyes. The corners of Brianna's mouth twitched at some private joke between them.
Kylie struggled to her feet with Rachel's assistance. "Well, I shall have to proclaim Sir Griff the winner then. Curran, run and fetch the old Bard's chest back here for his Majesty." She held out a hand to Arthur. "Never let it be said that I dinnae keep my end o' a bargain."
Arthur shook forearms with her, gargoyle-style, and then bowed low over her hand in his most courtly fashion. "You are as gracious as you are wise, Lady Kylie. Thank you."
Raising her brow ridges, the old gargoyle laughed. "If there's more flatterers like you in it, then perhaps humankind's not all bad." She took Rachel's arm. "Come along, dawn's not far off."
Arthur and Griff watched as the Caledonian clan melted into the forest. Brianna gave one last wistful smile over her shoulder before disappearing from view. Griff gazed after her and gave a deep blissful sigh.
Chuckling, Arthur asked, "So, did you have a good evening with Lady Brianna?"
"Yes," Griff said thoughtfully. He smiled. "It's strange but I had an excellent time. She's -- she's quite a female."
"Such a lovely shade of green," Arthur prompted.
The London gargoyle smiled. "Indeed. A beautiful smile, too --- Arthur!" He glared at the human beside him. "Don't you start matchmaking too!"
Arthur threw up his hands. "Not at all, but as one friend to another, I don't think you could do much better for yourself." He stifled a yawn. "Would you mind terribly waiting up for Curran to come back with Merlin's things?"
"Not at all. Have a good rest." Griff took a seat by the dying fire and stared thoughtfully into the coals.
* * * * *
"So, Brianna...," Kirstie said slyly, "ye actually got to be alone with yon cock o' the walk. What's he like?"
"Nice." Brianna walked few steps further in silence. "Griff's very nice. I liked talking to someone new."
Tori snorted. "Talkin' 'twould nae be what I'd be doin' with him! Yuir a little mouse, sister. He should thank his lucky stars ye came across him instead of me."
"Aye! Yuir a dear soul, Bri, and we loves ye," Kirstie gave her a one-armed hug around her shoulders, "but sometimes yuir too lady-like for yuir own good."
Brianna let her rookery sisters walk ahead, talking animatedly about Griff and their foiled intentions towards him. She had kept back what she wanted to say, that Griff was noble, intelligent, and witty. She could still see the way he looked at her, his eyes kind and good-humored but behind them a growing longing. When she had slipped and he had caught her, maybe she was just a stupid young female but a strange thrill had gone straight through her at his touch. It was like nothing she'd ever felt before in her life.
Back at the caves, Brianna went through their small collection of books and took out the one on King Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory. She was reading quietly by torchlight when Kylie found her.
" 'Tis almost sunrise, lass," the gargoyle elder said kindly, her braided coils a burnished silver crown in the flickering light. She noted the book in the young female's hands. "Reading up on our visitors, hmm?"
"Yes," Brianna answered, returning the book to its place and taking up the torch. "Would ye like me to read it to ye?"
"Perhaps another time." Kylie took the arm offered her and began walking. "Ye seem occupied, Brianna." She paused. "I suspect ye could have claimed a mate tonight and ye didn't because it wouldna be right."
Brianna gasped and gave her elder a worried, upset look.
Kylie merely nodded and patted the young female's hand. "I thought so. I knew it was a foolish request the minute it left my lips but ye girls deserve a chance to have mates of yuir own. Dinnae worry, the others never need know. I'm actually quite proud of ye. Yuir sisters wouldna done it."
"I should have been more bold," Brianna said simply. "Maybe he would've...if I had..." A sudden intake of air and a loud sniff ended the sentence.
Kylie stopped in her tracks and gently turned the dappled green face towards her. Silent tears trailed from the corner of each eye. "Och," the elder finally said. "Yuir heart sings for him then."
Brianna looked away, mouth working, trying to regain her composure. "He mus' serve his king. This quest for Merlin, 'tis more important than th' likes o' me."
"Arthur said they wouldna leave until nightfall. Mayhaps there's still time..."
"Nay!" Brianna was openly crying now. " 'Tis better he never know!"
Outside, the sun rose over the Caledonian forest, turning tears to stone.
* * * * *
It was early afternoon by the time Arthur woke up. He stretched and yawned as he set about making a fresh pot of coffee. Griff and Cavall had retreated to the cover of a nearby thicket; he could just see the outline of their stone forms beneath the sheltering leaves. A small oak chest, darkened by age, was sitting next to the tent and as the coffee heated, Arthur opened it.
Inside was the cluttered remnants of Merlin's life. Arthur was reminded of the eclectic mess of his mentor's chambers; piles of papers here, a stuffed owl there. The chest had a few trinkets; a large chunk of amber set in a bronze pendant, a pottery flask swaddled in a woolen fleece and its cork sealed with a gilded symbol in red wax, but the most valuable items were bundle after bundle of aged vellum.
Arthur took one out at random and began to read:
"My heart is dust,
And callous is the soul that once was thrilled
By every pure and gentle thing of earth;
No more for me is blessing or to bless, --
Mine, -- the power that smites, but cannot save;
Mine, -- dreaded memory that wakes to hate;
Mine, -- vision more that man's that can foresee
The future of my race, and what befalls
Of fateful contest and of storied deed."
"My stars, old friend," Arthur murmured softly. "What are you trying to tell us here?" He looked over the remaining scrolls carefully but finally re-packed the chest. They were much too valuable to risk by examining here in the open, where he might risk damaging them. Arthur could wait until he had Una's assistance. Her skills in both sorcery and book restoration could be valuable and he knew she was anxious to read more of Merlin's lore.
The once and future king sat pondering the cryptic verses on the scrolls and wondered just what Merlin's premonitions held in store for him.
* * * * *
He hadn't had dreams like these in years. Kaleidoscope images of Brianna filled his daytime rest, perfumed with the scent of heather. He relived the moment in the grotto when she was in his arms, only this time he drew her in, to embrace like lovers, her kisses as sweet as wine. He danced to the simple music of her laugh and basked in the warm radiance of her smile. When sunset came, Griff awoke to the bitter emptiness in his arms and a longing in his heart.
Arthur looked up as he folded up the tent. "Good evening, Griff. As soon as we've had dinner and everything's packed away, we'll be off."
Griff looked into the forest. "If you don't mind, your Majesty," he said thoughtfully, "There's something I need to do. I won't be long."
Arthur stopped and sat back on his heels, looking at his companion curiously. He smiled and waved Griff off. "I have to rearrange the packs anyway. Take your time."
It took him surprisingly little time to relocate the grotto. As he threaded his way in, he became aware of a persistent soft sound. Griff moved as silently as he could as the passageway widened. His heart leaped in his chest. Brianna was there but this time she was laying face down on her rock, head buried in her arms, quietly sobbing her heart out. Griff forgot all about stealth and headed towards her, promptly stepping on a small branch that snapped loudly.
Brianna looked up like a frightened doe with tears in her dark blue eyes. "I thought ye'd be gone by now," she sniffed. "Ye shouldna keep yuir king waiting."
"I couldn't leave without doing one thing," Griff said and took her hand, going down on one knee. "You may have not caught me last night but you've captured my heart. I promise on my honor that when the quest for Merlin is over, I will return here and court you properly." He kissed her hand. "With your permission, milady."
She wiped off her face with the back of her free hand. "D-do ye mean it? Truly?"
"With all my heart." Griff looked up into her eyes. "I never thought I would feel this way again. I seldom remember my dreams but, Brianna, I dreamed of you all day long." A smile curved around his beak. "I'd love for that dream to come true."
Brianna slowly smiled. She took back her hand and drawing her knife, reached into her hair and cut free one of her many braids. Carefully coiling it up and tying the ends together, she bit her lip and looked at him solemnly.
"I read once that when a knight goes on a quest, he takes a favor from his lady fair, for luck." She reached out and with trembling fingers, tucked the coil of her hair inside Griff's leathers, just over his heart. "If ye will be my knight," she took a deep breath, "then I would love to be yuir lady fair and I will wait for ye."
Wordlessly, Griff plucked one of the short rounded feathers from his inner wing and gently inserted the scarlet quill into the end of one of Brianna's braids. He let his fingers softly trace the curve of her face as they became lost in each other's eyes. In less than a heartbeat, she was in his arms and he found them filled with the promise of paradise.
* * * * *
Cavall stopped and barked sharply. Arthur looked up to see Griff strolling into the clearing, a jaunty spring in his step.
"Is everything all right.?" asked Arthur.
"Right as rain, your majesty!" Griff replied as he shouldered the heavy duffel bag and tucked the oak chest under his arm. "Shall we go?" He started whistling and, high in the treetops, the tune was echoed.