My Lady Fair
Written & Illustrated by: Christi Smith Hayden
Story concept by: Christi Smith Hayden
Previously on Gargoyles...
Arthur: "And you seek to imprison every gargoyle in the world to keep them from being hunted down. And thereby deprive them of their freedom."
Ratcliffe: "Freedom is nothing compared to survival! The gargoyles cannot survive in today's world without our help! They're not designed to live in a world filled with hostile humans. Unless we step in, this race will be extinct by the year 2000! Trust me. This is the only way."
Arthur: "No, it is not."
Feldman: "I beg to differ with you, sir. We [the Illuminati] made up our minds on this long ago. The only way of preserving this species is to keep every last member of it in captivity, far from prying eyes. Nothing else will work."
Arthur: "That is where you are wrong. "Have the two of you not considered speaking to the people? Telling them that their fears of gargoyles are unjustified? Telling them what these beings are truly like? You will be helping them more that way than by confining them in cages, depriving them of their liberty."
Ratcliffe: "The public will never listen. They're too easily swayed by hatemongers like Castaway. If we tried to convince them otherwise, they'd merely laugh at us - and then brand us 'gargoyle sympathizers' and try to kill us the same way that they try to kill these creatures. It won't work."
~ The Watching Eye ~
* * * * *
Griff: "I couldn't leave without doing one thing," (takes her hand)"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."(kisses her hand) "With your permission, milady."
Brianna: "I read once that when a knight goes on a quest, he takes a favor from his lady fair, for luck." (tucks a coil of her hair inside Griff's leathers) "If ye will be my knight, (deep breath, hopeful look) then I would love to be yuir lady fair and I will wait for ye."
~ Into The Woods ~
* * * * *
My Lady Fair
* * * * *
February 4, 1998 -- London
"Leo!!" Griff called as he grappled with his opponent. "Caspian! Give your father a hand!"
"Never mind that," Leo answered. "I can take care of this rotter myself." The leonine gargoyle managed to bunch his legs up under the Vampyre that knocked him flat on his back in the snow and hurl him off the warehouse roof. He glanced over at the golden unicorn-headed male to his right. "How are you doing, son?"
"Oh, I'm -mmph!" Caspian grimaced at the fetid air in his face as the wild-eyed human hissed at him. "Have a breath mint, will you?" He drew back a fist and popped it cleanly on the jaw. The genetically-enhanced street person tried to struggle to its feet. "They're a persistent lot, aren't they?" the younger gargoyle observed.
"They need to get a hobby," Griff grunted and heaved his Vampyre over the side to land in the empty dustbins below. "This is getting to be tedious. This is the third warehouse robbery we've taken care of this week."
The remaining halfling scrambled to his feet and scuttled down a fire escape. "Should I go after him, Uncle?" Caspian asked.
Griff pointed at the flashing lights and wailing sirens coming closer. "No, the local constabulary is close at hand and those poor blighters down there aren't going to be moving anytime soon."
"In that case, lads," Leo said, gingerly rotating his arm, "I say we go back to the shop. Una said something about making her special cake for tea tonight."
Caspian's ears perked up. "Really, Da? Are you sure?"
Tapping his nose, Leo winked at his son. "There were raspberries and chocolate in that kitchen or this nose is a liar."
Griff patted Leo's barrel-shaped midriff in passing as he jumped up on the roof's edge. "Are you sure it's your nose or your stomach talking, eh, chum?" Caspian chuckled at his uncle's joke as he prepared to glide off the building as well.
"Hmmph!!" Leo snorted. "That will be enough cheek out of both of you!" He chased both of the younger gargoyles off the roof as they headed back to Soho.
* * * * *
Una was just setting the table when Leo, Griff and Caspian landed outside on the roof. She smiled as they walked into the room. "There you are," she said brightly. "I was beginning to think I'd have to ring up Arthur and go look for you."
"Not to worry, luv," Leo said, affectionately reaching out to brush her brow ridge with his knuckles. "We surprised a bunch of those transformed humans breaking into a warehouse. They were a bit rambunctious."
"Oh, no. Not again!" Una turned her attention to her son, in the next room washing his hands. "I'm so sorry this had to happen on your first patrol, darling. Are you all right?"
"Honestly, Mum," Caspian said as he wiped off his hands. "I'm hardly a hatchling any more. Besides, Lucy could have handled this lot."
Leo scowled. "I'll thank you not to repeat that in your sister's hearing. She's too keen on those Super Cyber-whatsis videos as it is."
"Sorry, Da. Just making a point." Caspian came back in and kissed Una's cheek in passing. "No need to worry about me, Mum. Uncle Griff's been showing me the ropes about this guardian business."
"Thank goodness for that," Una commented as she busied herself with the tea things. "This whole business with these transformed humans, strange portents and all reminds me of right before the Blitz. All my auguries were pointing to something big happening then too."
"That's not good," Leo rumbled. "I distinctly remember the summer of 1940 when the Germans first started to venture across the Channel. Just little things at first and then boom! Next thing we knew, we were in the middle of the Blitz."
Leo's words ringing in his ears, Griff accepted a cup of tea from Una and eased back in his chair, the voices of the others fading into the background. He remembered those times before the war all too clearly; for him only a few years had passed. As he sipped his tea, he saw all the wrinkles and silvered hair fall away from Una and Leo until they were
all the same age again. They had been rookery mates and more in those days; Una accepting both Leo's and Griff's romantic overtures with equal grace. Eventually, the Battle of Britain had occupied him so much that Griff had left Leo and Una together to run the shop while he had gone off night after night to defend the city.
He looked at them over the rim of his tea cup. They were both listening intently to Caspian regaling them with some gossip from the estate. The unicorn-headed gargoyle had his mother's winning smile. Griff was reminded of another smile; a slow, sweet radiance that carried with it a promise engraved on his heart. His eyes drifted to Una. Once, he'd
made a promise to her too, but fate had stolen away that chance for happiness away from him. His first love was gone to him forever.
"Well, not this time!" Griff said out loud. Everyone looked up. He became vaguely aware that he'd lost track of the conversation.
"What ever is the matter, Griff?" Una asked. "Are you feeling all right?"
"Yes, Uncle," added Caspian. "You've been so quiet. I was beginning to feel like a regular chatterbox."
"I've made up my mind," Griff said firmly. "Before anything else happens around here, I'm going back to the Caledonian Forest and ask Brianna to be my mate. I made her a promise, and by the First Egg, I'm going keep this promise."
Una smiled tearfully and looked at her mate with shining eyes. Leo reached over and enclosed her slim hand inside his massive paw. "Right-o, chum. It's about bloody time. Arthur owes you some time off to yourself after spending the better part of a year chasing after Merlin."
"Yes, indeed, dear Griff," Una said, her composure restored. "I know how much you've wanted to return to Scotland and Brianna. You've denied your own needs far too long."
"Hmmmm..." Leo tapped his talon against his chin. "You'll need the schedule for the next trains headed up to Edinburgh. I'll just nick down to the shop and warm up the computer. I know Colin's got that bookmarked on his Internet browser." He stood up and gave Una a quick buss on the cheek. "I won't be but a moment, luv." He left the room.
"Uncle," Caspian said thoughtfully, "I was wondering, would you mind terribly if I accompanied you up there? I promise I won't intrude."
"Caspian!" Una blinked and regarded her eldest child with astonishment. "Why on earth would you ask such a thing?"
"I dunno, Mum," Caspian replied. "I've never really been anywhere but London or the estate. Hearing Uncle Griff's adventures with King Arthur just sort of makes my wings itch." He nodded his head towards Griff. "And besides, it's hardly safe to travel alone these days. You know what Michael's been saying."
"Oh, he's right, Griff." Una frowned. "It was one thing to accompany Arthur on his quest, but without a human friend to guard you during the day, it could be very dangerous."
Griff considered it for a few minutes. "You both have a point, I suppose. I was only thinking of myself." He pushed back from the table and stood up. "I'd better ring up Arthur and tell him I'll be gone for a few days." Pausing in the doorway, he looked back and smiled. "And yes, Caspian. If Una and Leo have no objections, I'd be glad for your company. Last trip, I had to travel with Cavall and he wasn't much on conversation."
"Smashing, uncle!!" Caspian reached over and took Una's hand. "Please, Mum. I'd really like to go."
Una covered his hand with her other one. "Darling, you passed your Adult Rit es months ago. You don't need Leo and me to give our permission on anything you do any more."
"I know, Mum, but you're still my teacher and as your apprentice in the magical arts, your approval still means more to me than anything."
"Then, apprentice," Una said, sitting up very straight in her chair, "I give you leave for one week." She smiled, crescent-shaped wrinkles crinkling the corners of her eyes. "Any longer than that, and your father and I will be after you in a heartbeat."
Caspian smiled back at her. "Thanks, Mum. I really appreciate that."
"Oh!" Una raised a brow ridge. "What of Rosalind? Won't she be worried?"
His smile faded. "Oh. Perhaps." He looked away and his forelock fell over his face.
"Caspian?" Una reached over and brushed the dark gold hair from his brow ridge with her knuckles. "Come now. Tell mother what's wrong. Have you and Rosalind been quarreling?"
"Not exactly. It's just-- Cervus and Faulconbridge, they've turned her head with their stories of living here in London and 'defending the night.' Every time they're at the estate, Rosalind's just like the other females, hanging all over them." Caspian sighed and leaned over the table with his chin in his hand. "What's a poor spellcaster like me to do to compete with that?"
Una chuckled. "Dear me. You are in pickle, aren't you? I'm afraid magic isn't very useful in matters of the heart, my dear."
"I know, Mum." He made a face. "If only it was!"
Loud voices preceded the entrance of the other two males into the room. "I don't see what bloody business it is of his," Griff said tersely. "This is between me and Brianna and nobody else."
"Calm down, chum," Leo said patiently. "All Michael said was that he wanted to have a word with you before you left. He's very reasonable, and he's clan leader. He's got a right to know your travel plans, at the very least."
"True enough," Una agreed. "Besides, Caspian will need to tell Michael he is going too, with our approval."
Leo blinked and glanced at his mate. "He is?"
"Yes, my dear. He is." The look that passed between them hinted at a private discussion to come. "Young warriors cannot stay rookery-bound forever, you know."
"Oh." The leonine gargoyle cleared his throat. "Anyway, the next available train going north to Edinburgh isn't until next evening and it makes a stop at the station near the estate. There's still time to talk to Michael tonight and be done with it."
Griff scowled. "Well, if I must, then the sooner it's over and done with the better." He stalked over to the balcony doors. "Coming, Caspian?"
"Right behind you, Uncle."
* * * * *
At the estate of the London Clan
"--- and now that Merlin has been found in the form of Emrys Hawkins, I'm going to keep my promise to Brianna. I'll be leaving for Scotland tomorrow night."
The council of elders sat staring at Griff as he finished his story. Michael, the leader of the London Clan, stood up, his cool eagle's gaze studying the room. "Thank you, Griff. Although Una had mentioned that you had met someone, I had not heard the circumstances surrounding that event. What I would like to know is why you had not been more forthcoming with this story before."
"I've been so busy with Arthur that I had only told Una and Leo." Griff took in the roomful of disapproving faces. "I suppose I should have made the time. I'm very sorry."
"You should be!" Aper, the boar-headed gargoyle, spoke up. "There's been rumors of gargoyles in Scotland for centuries but no proof until now." He gestured at Brock, sitting quietly in the corner taking notes. "Even the clan records have the Scottish gargoyles as lost. It was only recently that we recognized that group that popped up in Manhattan as being the last of the Scottish bloodline."
"True," Michael agreed. "For that reason alone, you should have told us about these new gargoyles immediately. It's taken ages for our clan to build up to its current numbers and that would have been impossible without the addition of gargoyles from other clans over the centuries. This... Caledonian Clan is the very same position we were once in. They're dangerously close to extinction now."
"Kylie, their leader, is all too aware of that," Griff answered. "That's why she wanted me as a mate for one of her daughters. They've got eggs in their rookery but I can't imagine there's very many."
A walrus-tusked, powder blue gargoyle stood up, expanding his barrel chest impressively as he drew breath to speak. "I say, perhaps we should open diplomatic relations with this new clan? There are many strange things afoot these days, what with these Minion scoundrels and what all running amuck."
"That's a very good observation, Boz," Michael said approvingly. "Would you object to a few companions on your journey, Griff?"
"Leo and Una have already agreed to let Caspian accompany me," Griff said. "As long as they don't interfere with my courting, I've no objection to others joining me. Brianna's clan would probably welcome the company."
"Actually, I'd like to come along."
"Michael!" Aper was on his feet instantly. "But why? These are dangerous times!"
"Two reasons. First, I'd like to let this Caledonian clan know that they are not the only gargoyles in the British Isles. And as for the other reason," he walked over and put a hand on Aper's shoulder, "you are my second-in-command. What sort of a leader would I be if I did not on occasion let you lead the clan? As you said, these are dangerous times and I
may not always be here."
Aper opened and shut his curve-tusked mouth. "I am honored, Michael," he said finally. "I will lead the clan in your absence to the best of my ability."
"I would expect nothing less." Michael scanned the room. "Are there any others who would care to join us on this journey?"
There was the sound of a throat clearing. "If Griff does not mind," Brock said haltingly, "I would like to meet this new clan."
"Brock?" Aper gaped at the badger-like gargoyle. "But you seldom ever leave the estate! In fact, I can count the number of times you've been into London on one hand!"
"Scotland is an even greater distance away, old friend," Michael said kindly. "Are you certain that you wish to go?"
"I am the clan's record keeper," Brock replied in a quiet, firm voice. "I want to hear this new clan's stories for myself, so that there can be proper record."
Michael turned to Griff. "What do you say? Brock is perhaps a bit bookish, but he's a good fighter when the chips are down."
"I've no objections," Griff replied. "Welcome aboard, Brock."
"And that, I believe," Michael said firmly, "is enough for a suitable diplomatic mission. This meeting of the council is adjourned so that we may make preparations for the journey."
"Hmmm..." Griff glanced around. "Do you mind if I use your phone? There's a few things I really ought to be taking with me."
"Go right ahead," Michael answered. He walked off with Aper and Brock, leaving Griff alone with the telephone.
* * * * *
The three London gargoyles entered the small room adjoining the estate library that served as Brock's private workspace. The badger-like gargoyle wrinkled his graying snout at Michael as he sat down at his old-fashioned roll-top desk. "What's the real reason you're going, Michael?" he asked gently. "You've haven't taken time for yourself in ages."
Michael slumped against the door frame. The stern mantle of leadership visibly left his shoulders and he became for an instant simply a brown gargoyle with red inner wings. He turned his eagle's head towards the older male and sighed. "I know what you're thinking, Brock, but I can't think of any other way to go about it. This may be my only chance to confront him about it."
Aper shot a sharp look at Brock and then another back at Michael. "What? What are you two talking about?"
"I'm sorry, old friend, but it's a personal matter," Michael replied. "One that's fifty years overdue." He looked distantly into space for a few seconds and then shook his head. "There's some things I must attend to. Excuse me, won't you?" With that, the London clan leader turned and left the room.
Brock watched Michael go impassively. "It's been troubling him more than I thought," he murmured, raising a brow ridge. "Hmmm."
"Blast it all, Brock!" Aper exclaimed, throwing up his hands. "I'm supposed to be his second-in-command! What is it that he can tell you but he can't tell me?"
"Well, for starters, it's something deeply personal to Michael which has nothing whatsoever to do with clan business," Brock answered calmly. "And for another, although I know about it, there's someone else who needs to know the story before it becomes common knowledge."
"And you're not that person."
* * * * *
He could hear her favorite music playing as he rounded the last turn of the winding staircase leading to the attic garret. It was a familiar journey Caspian had made ever since he and Rosalind were hatchlings. Her artistic talents had been discovered early and encouraged by the dowager Dame Mary, Colin Marter's mother. Perhaps Caspian was a little biased, but he did think Rosalind had quite a gift for painting. Colin's wife had started selling them in local art faires along with other handicrafts from the estate so Rosalind's hobby was encouraged as a benefit for the clan.
As always, the old nursery rhyme "The Owl and The Pussycat" ran through Caspian's head as he caught his first sight of her. Rosalind's parents were a feline female and an avian male and the resulting gargoyle was quite striking. She was a very pale pink with a deeper rose color on the insides of her wings - hence her name. Her feathery mop of 'hair' was actually long thin plumes like ostrich feathers, white as the frost on the windowpanes. The high arch of her brow ridges and her heart-shaped face gave her an owlish appearance. This was further enhanced by the hard beakish curve of her mouth, but, as Caspian knew from experience, those lips could also be sweet and pliant.
Her cat's ears twitched. Rosalind looked over her shoulder, blinking her large, almond-shaped eyes. "So, there you are," she said absently, returning to her painting. "I thought you were going to be studying with Una this week."
"Well, I was," Caspian replied. "Griff and Leo took me on patrol with them. Cervus and Faulconbridge are right. It is sort of exciting, fighting crime in London."
"You fought?" Rosalind actually set down her paintbrush and took a few steps towards him. "But, Caspian - you're a scholar, not a fighter. You could have been hurt."
He shrugged in what he hoped was a devil-may-care fashion. "I passed my battle skills tests just as you did. I did all right." He lowered his head and smiled. "You were worried about me?"
Flustered, Rosalind fussed with the cuff of her painting smock. "Maybe. For a minute." She sniffed. "After all, it's not like you were really in danger. You were with Griff. Cervus says Griff's the best fighter he's ever seen."
"I know. I'm going to Scotland with him."
"Scotland?" The distance between them disappeared. "But, Cas--! That's so far away. Why are you going there?"
Encouraged by her use of his childhood nickname, Caspian reached over and caressed her brow ridge. He let his fingers drift into her soft feathers. "I'll be all right, Roz. Uncle found another clan up there and he fell in love with one of them. He promised that he'd return to court her once the quest for Merlin was over. He decided just tonight that it's time to go."
"That's so romantic... wait a minute!" Rosalind's mood abruptly changed. "Why is he taking you along?"
"You know what Michael's been saying, no one travels alone these days." Caspian laughed at her arch expression. "They live near one of Merlin's old haunts so I thought I'd go look around. Mum's always keen to add to her collection of magic paraphernalia."
"Ha!" She poked him playfully in the chest with a paint-stained talon. "I know you, Cas. You love mucking about in musty old places, you bookworm, you. It's a wonder you ever come out of the library at all."
"So, Roz, do you want me to bring you back something?" He flicked the crystal prism earring dangling from her left ear. "A new sparklie for your collection, hmm?"
Rosalind lowered her eyes. "Just... just come back home to me safely, all right?"
"What?" A foolish grin threatened to break out across his face.
"Oh, you heard me!" She stalked away, muttering.
Caspian watched as the pale pink gargoyle turned back to her canvas, savagely mixing colors on her palate. He smiled. They might be at a difficult point in their relationship but perhaps, just perhaps, there was still something there worth saving.
* * * * *
February 5, 1998 - Sodor train station, north of London.
More than a few people glanced at the ruggedly handsome man in the dark overcoat standing on the platform with a backpack slung over his shoulder. The distinguished silver in his long brown hair and beard only added to his mystique. He was joined by a curly-headed young teenager in a parka with a red-and-blue striped school scarf knotted around his neck.
"There you are, Arthur," the boy called. "Leba dropped me off. She's playing at some coffeehouse tonight."
Arthur Pendragon consulted the large clock above the ticket counter. "There's still plenty of time, Emrys. The train isn't due to leave for another fifteen minutes."
"Here's what Griff asked for," Emrys said, as he handed a small square package over. "We had to go to six bloody shops before we found all of them." He rolled his eyes and sighed. "I suppose we're lucky he didn't decide to give her nylons and chocolate bars."
"Well, I think Brianna would enjoy the chocolate," Arthur commented, putting the parcel into the backpack he was carrying and giving his ward a puzzled look, "but I don't know what she'd do with the nylons."
Emrys looked up through his mop of gold curls. "I'll explain *that* to you later, Arthur."
The older man crossed his arms. "This has something to do with the fact that you always read your morning newspaper starting with page three, isn't it?"
Emrys' cheeks turned a bright pink that had nothing to do with the crisp winter wind swirling through the station. Before he could answer, he was saved by a hail from a dapper middle-aged man in a gray overcoat limping their way.
"Arthur! Emrys!" called Colin Marter. "So good of you to make it!"
"Captain Marter," Arthur said, extending his hand in greeting, "We wouldn't miss this for the world. Besides," he brandished the backpack, "I have a few things for Griff to take along."
Colin nodded. "Good, good. I know he's been anxious about that. If you'll just follow me, gentlemen, we'll give our travelers our best wishes."
Captain Marter led the way out of the railway station and behind a neighboring restaurant, where the three humans climbed to the roof. Several gargoyles were waiting there, talking quietly with Griff and the others. Cervus, Imogen and Faulconbridge were arguing with Arthur's gargoyle knight.
"-But this is a major quest!" Cervus protested. "You need us to go with you. There's no telling what you might run into up there!"
Griff looked over the young stag-headed gargoyle's shoulder directly at Arthur. His desperate look needed no explanation. Arthur bit back a bemused grin and went to rescue his companion.
"Here are the items you requested, Griff," he said calmly, holding out the backpack. "Leo, Una and I put in a few gifts for the rest of the clan - some coffee for Kylie, some warm wool tartans and a few other things to take the edge off this cold weather."
"Thanks, your Majesty." Griff leaned towards Arthur, lowering his voice. "Did you get the 'special' items I requested?"
Arthur smiled and nodded. "Yes. Leba and Emrys had to spend a few hours in the shops, but it was the least we could do."
Griff turned to Emrys. "That was very generous of you, Merlin. Thank you."
"Think nothing of it," Emrys answered with a shrug. "Romance isn't all it's cracked up to be but even I'll admit that it is one of the greatest forces in the universe. I wish you well with your young lady."
"Yes, indeed!" Arthur clasped forearms with Griff, smiling broadly. "Congratulations, my friend and know that I wish you the best of luck on this adventure. I only wish I was going with you but I know that someone must remain behind in these dangerous times."
"Thank you, your Majesty. I'm terribly sorry to be leaving you short-handed but -"
"But nothing!" Cervus stepped forward, Imogen and Faulconbridge right behind him. "What are we, chopped liver? My siblings and I will watch over London and help King Arthur."
"Are you sure?" Arthur asked. "Serving as my squires is a serious responsibility. Doing Griff's job in his absence will not be easy."
"We're up to it, your Majesty!" Faulconbridge said eagerly.
"Yes!" Slender Imogen agreed. "We're ready!"
"Sounds like you've got an able crew to take on either the Minions or those Vampyre creatures," Griff said. He winked discreetly at Arthur. "You'll probably won't miss me at all."
"Nonsense, friend Griff," Arthur responded. "Please pay my respects to Lady Kylie and give Brianna my fondest regards."
Colin Marter pulled back his left sleeve and checked his watch. "It's almost time, gentlemen. The train to Edinburgh will be leaving track number four in a few minutes."
"All right then," Griff tucked his backpack in place between his wings. He nodded at Michael and Brock who took their places besides him on the roof's edge. Looking around, he called over his shoulder. "Caspian?"
"Hmm?" The unicorn-headed gargoyle was scanning the surrounding buildings. He shook his head. "Oh, sorry, Uncle. Coming."
Two sharp blasts from the train's whistle signaled the locomotive's departure on the northbound track. The four male gargoyles glided down over the train as it passed from the view of the station and latched onto the roof of the luggage car. Caspian sighed bitterly and Griff looked at him curiously.
"Here now, what's this then?"
"It's nothing, uncle." Caspian glanced back at Michael and Brock before leaning towards Griff. "I thought someone would be here to see me off but I guess she changed her mind."
"Oh, I see. Pink with white hair, by any chance?" Griff smiled smugly as Caspian pushed himself up to look with a start, nearly unbalancing himself in the process. "Coming up on the right, mate."
Caspian grinned and waved at Rosalind perched on the top of a billboard. She waved back and pointed at the sign below. In the corner of an advertisement for chips, there was a hot pink heart with a stylish 'R' in it, the spray paint still dripping down the canvas. She blew him a kiss.
"Fulmenos venite!!" Caspian called and tossed a handful of fireballs in the air, to explode like fireworks in the sky above. Rosalind clapped her hands and waved until they were out of sight.
"Caspian!!" Michael said sternly. "That was bloody foolish! What did you think you were doing?"
Griff blinked and turned to look at the London clan leader. "I think that's obvious, Michael. He's just showing off a little for his beloved. What's the harm in that?"
The golden eagle-headed leader scowled at Griff. "Drawing attention to ourselves is the last thing we should be doing. Anyone could be watching or have you forgotten how you and Cavall were captured?"
"That was mere coincidence," Griff said with a snort. "What are the chances of that ever happening again?"
Michael frowned. "That's fuzzy thinking, Griff, and as clan leader, it's something I can't afford to do. You've been living with Arthur far too long. The safety of the clan must always come first."
"What exactly are you trying to say, Michael?" Griff asked, arching one brow ridge. "That I've turned my back on the clan?"
"I really can't say," Michael replied coolly. "I was only a few years old and barely out of the rookery when you disappeared during the Blitz. Ever since your return, the only gargoyles that you associate with are the ones living in town. There are more of us than just Leo and Una, you know."
"I don't know that I care for your tone-"
"It doesn't matter if you do or not-"
Caspian cast a desperate look back at Brock, who had been listening quietly. The badger-like gargoyle cleared his throat. "Perhaps," he suggested calmly, "we should postpone this conversation to another time? You're both raising your voices to be heard over the train and it's only a matter of time before the conductor or some other human notices."
Blinking, Michael harumphed and gave Griff one last glare. "You're right, of course, Brock. We will continue this later." He turned his beak into the wind and settled down, his expression brooding and hinting of arguments to come.
"Why me?" muttered Griff. He fingered the braided coil of dark green hair tucked inside his leathers. "Ah, Brianna, luv.... I suppose I can put up with anything to be with you again." That happy thought kept him occupied as the train raced off into the Scottish highlands.
* * * * *
The offices of Powell Industries, London.
"Replay the last two minutes of the tape."
His aide quietly did as he was told as William Powell sat silently, fingers steepled before him as his elbows rested on the armrests of his chair. There was a brilliant flare of light and four figures were outlined in stark contrast against the baggage car's roof.
"Freeze frame," Powell ordered. "Zoom in and enhance."
As ordered, the video image went blurry for a few moments before re-focusing with larger images. Powell stood up and went to examine the picture more closely. "Gargoyles," he murmured. "How fortuitous." He paused and leaned forward, tapping the screen. "This one," he said, "the greenish one with the crest and the eagle's beak. I want a closer view."
"Right away, sir." The room was silent save for the clicking of fingers on the keyboard. The focus of the picture shifted and the selected area filled the screen, revealing Griff's profile.
"Well, well...," Powell said, leaning back in his chair. "Now there's a familiar face. Ratcliffe and Feldman captured that particular specimen in Carmarthen. Where did you say this train was going?"
"Edinburgh, Scotland, sir. It's due to arrive shortly before midnight."
"Curious. Why would gargoyles hop a train when they're perfectly capable of flying?"
"Sir?" His aide swallowed nervously. "Perhaps they're conserving their energy. If their destination is quite some distance away and they flew, it's quite possible that they might be exhausted by the time they arrived."
Powell raised an eyebrow and pondered that. "You're probably right, Pratchett. Have our spy satellites track them and contact Feldman and Ratcliffe. I want them to intercept these train-going gargoyles at their earliest convenience."
* * * * *
Awdry Station, Edinburgh, Scotland.
Griff, Michael and Brock watched nervously from the top of the railway station as Caspian mingled with the humans below. To their eyes, the sight of a golden winged unicorn walking up to the ticket window and exchanging pleasantries with the attendant inside was astonishing. Caspian took some papers from the woman and strolled nonchalantly down
the platform. He acted like he was headed into the canteen for a snack but then ducked sharply into the narrow alley next to it and scaled the walls.
"Una would be proud," Griff commented. "You've really come along with your magic lessons."
"Thanks, Uncle. It's only a minor illusion spell but it comes in handy." Caspian started to unfolding a map. "I've got good news and bad news. We've missed the train to Pitcholry."
"However," Caspian continued as he dropped to the roof and anchored the map with some loose gravel, "there is a train leaving for Aberfeldy shortly. It'll put us several miles southeast of where we wanted to go but it is bordering the Caledonian Forest." He looked up at Griff. "We could probably fly into the clan's territory from there, couldn't we, Uncle?"
Griff sank to his haunches besides the young gargoyle. He traced landmarks on the map with a talontip. "Yes, here's that lone mountain near Brianna's grotto. It might actually be a lot closer. Well done, Caspian!"
Michael stood up to his full height and stared out at the railway yard. "Which track is this new train leaving on?" he asked.
Caspian looked at the crumpled train schedule in his hand. "It says here that train number four-oh-one for Aberfeldy is leaving on track three at twelve-thirty a.m."
Brock pulled an old-fashioned pocket watch out of the vest covering his barrel chest. "That will be in fifteen minutes, gentlemen." He pulled a thermos out of the large satchel he had been carrying. "Anyone for tea?"
"I'll have some," Caspian said brightly. He took a bundle wrapped in waxed paper from his belt pouch. "I stopped in the kitchens before we left. Sandwich?"
"None for me, thank you." Michael cast another piercing look at Griff and took a deep breath. "If you would, Griff, I believe we need to have a long overdue talk."
Griff raised a brow ridge curiously but merely commented, "Very well. Don't eat all the food, eh, Caspian? We'll be back shortly."
"All right, Uncle." The young unicorn-headed gargoyle watched as Michael and Griff made their way to the far side of the roof. He nudged Brock with the back of his hand as he offered the elder a sandwich. "Here now, what's up with them? I've never seen Michael look so stern before. Is Griff in trouble?"
"No, young one," Brock said kindly. "There's an old story that Griff's long overdue in hearing." He sipped his tea gingerly, his sharp eyes memorizing the scene unfolding before him like a video camera. "And it's one that only Michael can tell him."
* * * * *
Griff regarded Michael carefully for a few moments. Although he'd spent a few weeks with the London clan after the Phoenix Gate had brought him and Goliath forward in time, he hadn't really made an effort to socialize with them. It had been so terribly painful realizing that time had passed for his rookery mates and knowing that they had continued on with their lives without him. In truth, Griff felt like a complete stranger in the very clan of his birth.
Michael seemed equally ill at ease with him. Several times over the past months, the clan leader with his proud eagle's visage had made an effort to single Griff out, but inevitably their conversation would be interrupted, by Arthur or Aper or any number of gargoyles wishing to speak to either one of them. Michael let out a deep breath and studied the trains passing by on the tracks below.
"So," Griff asked, in an effort to break the ice, "what's up, Michael? You've seemed tense since we left the estate."
"I seldom leave the estate," Michael admitted. "In my youth, I did venture into the city like Cervus and his cronies, but as clan leader, I do not have that luxury."
"Leo has always spoken very highly of you," Griff said. "Una, as well."
"They both supported my nomination when the old leader stepped down a few years ago." Michael blinked and a faraway look came into his eyes. "I am a true child of the clan. It's the only family I've ever known."
"As it should be, I wager. Even though Leo and Una recognize Lucy and Caspian as their children, they've raised them in the rookery with the others. It's the gargoyle way."
"It's more than that," Michael replied. He turned his eagle's beak into the wind. "Have you ever wondered why our numbers are about the same as they were back in the 1940s when you left?"
Griff looked thoughtful. "Hmmm, I had been wondering about that. Why is that?"
"During the war, after you disappeared, a German plane strayed off course and dropped its load on the Marter estate. A complete fluke, you understand, but deadly all the same. I was safe, hidden away in the rookery underneath the main house but we lost over half of the adults."
"Blimey." Griff took a few steps back, his expression stunned. "No wonder Una got so misty the other day. She was looking at some old photos of our rookery days. I couldn't understand why she and Leo were the only ones left."
"They were in the city where it was supposed to be dangerous," Michael commented bitterly, "and yet, it turned out they were the ones that were safe." He shook his head. "I lost my parents and a sibling in the attack. It was only years later that that I learned that my brother had not been killed with the others, but rather had disappeared under mysterious circumstances."
"Did you ever learn what happened to him?"
"He went on a long journey and when he came back, he was younger that I was."
"What?" Griff frowned. "How can that be?"
Michael ignored that question and countered with another. "Do you remember your birth parents, Griff?"
The green eagle-headed gargoyle blinked. "Well, we really didn't go in for that sort of thing back then, but of course, it was easy enough to find out. Victoria had the same coloring I do and I got my beak from James. In fact," he continued, "he rather looked a lot... like...," his eyes widened, "...you." Griff swallowed hard. "Good heavens, why didn't I see it before? You're my ..."
"I hatched in '38," Michael said flatly, deliberately not looking at Griff. "I was only two or so when you disappeared. I barely remember you because, according to Brock, you were living at the magic shop, following Una around like a lovesick puppy." He sighed. "I didn't say anything when you returned because I wanted to know if you remembered me. It was clear that you didn't when you went off with Arthur on his quest."
"I'm sorry, Michael." The quiet words sounded so inadequate even as they left his mouth. "So many of the gargoyles that I grew up with were gone, I just couldn't bear to be around the clan. It hurt so much that I left when Arthur gave me the chance. It was wrong of me, I realize that now."
"Hurt?" Michael turned, eyes blazing. "You don't know the meaning of the word." He kept his voice even and low, but his body language conveyed all the anger and resentment the clan leader had been keeping bottled up for months. "I don't even remember my parents. I was twenty before anybody bothered to tell me that I had a brother but by that time, no one ever thought they'd see you again so I got on with my life. But I always wondered and I always hoped and my mate said hope was never wasted-"
"Wait a moment! You have a mate?"
"I had a mate." A whistle sounded and Michael looked away into the train yard. "Brock! Caspian!" he called. "Come along! Train's preparing to pull out!"
Griff reached out and gripped Michael's arm. "Michael....?"
"It's too late!" he snapped fiercely and pulled away. "All of it, it's just too late." Michael jumped on the roof's edge as the others approached. "You can't give me back my lost childhood, Griff, but I was hoping....," he sighed, "I just felt you should know. That's all."
* * * * *
William Powell switched on the speakerphone. "Report."
"The satellite picked the gargoyles up at one of the Edinburgh suburban stations. They switched trains before we could get there."
"Do you know where they're headed?"
"The train schedule has it as a non-stop run to Aberfeldy. It's on the edge of a large nature conservation area."
"Aberfeldy." Powell mulled over that word as he stirred his tea. "That sounds familiar... hmmm." He set down his cup and saucer and turned to his computer. A few taps of the keys and he had his answer. "Oh, yes... that's where that Trees for Life group is based. They and the World Wildlife Fund seriously set back my plans to expand my petroleum industry interests, with all their ecological recovery programs."
"Trouble with the tree-huggers, sir? Feldman and I could pay them a little visit while we're up here."
"No, they've been rather useful to me in their own peculiar way." Powell pursed his lips and squinted as he scrolled down the screen. "Hmmm.... Interesting, I still have some property there. A warehouse near the railway yards."
"Have someone else track the train, Ratcliffe. I want you and Feldman to go ahead and set up an ambush in Aberfeldy. I'll ring up my agent there and have him open up the warehouse for you. Use whatever means necessary to subdue these gargoyles and keep them in the warehouse while I confer with the Inner Circle."
" 'Any' means necessary, sir?"
Powell sipped his tea calmly. "Minimize the damage if possible. Our agenda requires viable specimens."
"We'll do our best, sir."
"See that you do."
* * * * *
Somewhere near Allcroft Station, Aberfeldy, Scotland.
All four of the London gargoyles left the train as it thundered into the rolling hills surrounding Aberfeldy, letting the rush of the train's momentum send them high into the sky. Since they left Edinburgh, the conversation had been decidedly chilly and terribly polite. Griff moved up into the point position and called, "This way!" before leading them towards the dark outline of the woods in the distance.
Brock tucked his satchel under his arm securely as he glided alongside of Michael. He studied the London clan leader discreetly for a few moments before speaking. "You're brooding again," he commented. "That's not healthy, you know."
Michael sighed and looked ahead to where Griff and Caspian were flying. "You were right. He'd completely forgotten about me."
"Things were very different then, Michael. Only the Keeper of the Scrolls knew the bloodlines in those days. Griff was present at your hatching -- I was there, I remember - but you were in the rookery from that point on. The war had all the young warriors' attention and Griff was the most vocal in wanting to take action." The badger-faced gargoyle smiled apologetically. "There were bigger things in your brother's life then than taking notice of a small brown hatchling, I'm afraid."
"Your arguments are sensible as always, old friend," Michael replied. "But they donít make me feel any better. Itís stupid of me because I owe so much to the clan for raising me, but I had hoped that I could form some closer ties with Griff." He sighed again. "Take young Caspian for example. He and Lucy arenít happy unless they see each other, even if itís only to tease. And the way they act with Leo and Una -- it isnít traditional but I canít help wondering what thatís like, being a family."
"I think I see what you're getting at," Brock said thoughtfully. "But, Michael, it wasn't until Caspian's rookery that some gargoyles starting recognizing their own children and becoming family units within the clan."
Michael nodded. "Fidella was always keen on the idea." His eyes grew distant and sad. "Our egg will hatch this year and I have no idea how I'll manage without her."
"You've made a fine leader," Brock said firmly, "and you'll make a fine father. The clan will help you weather this storm as it always has."
Managing a small smile, Michael regarded his elder wryly. "When did you become so wise?"
"The day I started with these gray hairs," Brock replied, tapping his muzzle with a talon. "Now let's catch up to the others, shall we?"
* * * * *
Griff was humming under his breath as he soared higher, carried aloft by ambient thermals coming from the railway below. Caspian cocked his head and listened carefully. He could just barely make out the words, sung low in Griff's mellow tenor.
"The stars are aglow and tonight how their light sets me dreaming.
My love, do you know that your eyes are like stars brightly beaming?
I bring you and sing you a Moonlight Serenade."
"Uncle?" Caspian asked curiously. "What are you singing? Sounds like those moldy oldies that Mum plays when she's feeling in the mood."
"Lad, Glenn Miller was one of the greats of the Big Band era." Griff snorted, giving an indignant laugh. "I don't know what it is, but I've had that song stuck in my head every time I think of Brianna."
"So what's she like?"
"Beautiful," Griff replied instantly. "But not so you'd notice right at first. Brianna is so very quiet and the dappled green of her skin blends in so well that when she moves, it's like a forest nymph coming to life. I could get lost in her eyes, they're such a deep, deep blue."
It was Caspian's turn to laugh. "Dear me, Uncle, you have got it bad, haven't you? I haven't seen such devotion since Michael and Fidella."
Griff glanced back sharply over his shoulder at the brown eagle-headed gargoyle trailing behind with Brock. "There's a lot I don't know about Michael. I had no idea that he had a mate. What--?"
"-- happened to Fidella?" Caspian finished Griff's question. "Sad thing, really. It had been only a year or so after she laid their first egg. Fidella and Michael were going to a concert in London. They were nearly there when Fidella flew into some power lines in the fog. Michael got her back to the estate as soon as he could but she was very badly hurt. The healer kept her going until Mum could get there to try a healing spell but the damage was too severe." He shook his head. "She died in Michael's arms just before dawn."
"I think I understand now," Griff said slowly. "Everyone he ever loved was taken away from him."
Caspian shrugged. "All I know is that Michael seldom left the estate after that. He said he'd never take another mate and as far as I know, he's never even looked at another female, just concentrated on his duties."
"I see," Griff replied absent, staring into space. Deep lines creased his forehead.
Caspian frowned. He'd never seen Griff act quite like this. Admittedly, there was a lot of things he didn't know about his uncle but Caspian had heard stories about Griff all his life. He knew that Griff had once vied with his father for Una's favors and it was only fate that Griff hadn't become her mate instead of Leo. Since he spent quite a bit of time studying with Una, both at the magic shop and at the estate, he'd come to recognize the dynamic exuberance that was Griff's personality. This strange introspective mood that had come over Griff since his talk with Michael at the train station seemed quite unnatural and Caspian sighed as he looked down at the sparse groupings of trees on the edge of the forest.
A sharp white-orange flash caught his eye. Caspian reacted instantly. "Uncle!! Look out!!" He lashed out with a hoof and knocked Griff away. Both gargoyles barrel-rolled out of the path of a small projectile. "What the bloody--?" Caspian exclaimed.
"On your guard!" Griff snapped. "Sniper!"
"Caspian!! Griff!!" Michael called. "Head for the trees! We're sitting ducks here in the open!" He and Brock were already diving down.
"No, Michael, wait!" Griff called, zigzagging towards them. "Fly high! Get out of their range of fire!"
His warning came too late. Brock's white-and-black coloring made him an easy target against the night sky. The older gargoyle twitched as he was shot and folded up, falling to the ground. Michael managed to slow Brock's fall, but he too was struck down by the mysterious assailant.
"Blast!" Griff swore as they soared skywards, higher into the thinner air over the mountain. "We've got to rescue them but how to do it? That sniper's too good of a shot."
"I've got an idea, Uncle," Caspian said. "Mum taught me a spell of warding not long ago. It's not perfect. It'll only last a few minutes but if I combine it with the illusion spell, they won't see us until we're right on top of them and we'll be shielded by my wards."
"Are you sure about this?"
Caspian shrugged. "We don't have a lot of options. There's not really time to go for help."
"But if we strike now, we might surprise them." Griff nodded. "All right, chum. Make with the mumbo jumbo."
Caspian closed his eyes and concentrated, whispering the incantations and gesturing carefully. His golden horn glowed suddenly and the air around them became filled with swirling motes of energy.
"This is kind of showy, isn't it?" Griff said, poking the wall of tiny lights with a finger.
"Not really," Caspian replied. "We can only see those little spots because we're inside the wards. If you stop seeing them, it means you're outside of the protective field."
"That's going to make for some tricky flying."
"I'm game if you are, Uncle."
"Right-o, then." Griff locked eyes with Caspian. "Stay close. We'll make this quick" He nodded and both gargoyles folded up their wings, plummeting to the ground at break-neck speed. As they approached the place where Brock and Michael went down, they could see several men moving amongst the trees, clearly searching for the downed gargoyles.
Fortunately, Griff and Caspian had a better view of the situation from the air. Brock had landed in a snowy thicket which had partially concealed him from the searchers. Michael was only a few yards away, slumped against a tree and covered in snow. The London gargoyles glided in low over the trees on silent feathered wings and landed near the thicket.
Caspian knelt next to Brock and looked the old gargoyle over. "Brock's breathing," Caspian murmured softly, "but he's not coming around."
"Same here," Griff whispered back. He turned Michael over and plucked a slim, sharp-tipped, metal cylinder from his tunic. "Blast! They've been drugged!" He hefted Michael up into his arms. "Come along, brother. Let's get out of here."
He was starting back towards the others when a thin man in a hunting jacket pushed through into the small clearing. Griff noticed two things immediately as the man raised a strange-looking gun; the sparkling particles of light were gone and that the man was looking straight at him.
In less than a heartbeat, a hollow bang was followed by a hissing sting that struck so forcefully that it knocked Griff down in the snow with Michael's dead weight pinning him. His head lolled towards the thicket but Caspian's illusion spell was cloaking both him and Brock. Griff opened his beak to tell Caspian to go for help but no sound came out. The night sky and cold snow swirled into a black-and-white blur and the world faded into oblivion.
* * * * *
Deep in the Black Woods, heart of the Caledonian Forest.
Hidden high up in the branches of a twisted pine, the watcher sat patiently. The thick foliage of the pine needles cut the edge off the worst of the winter wind and blended with the watcher's own dappled green skin. In the clearing below, a group of humans, two or three adults with eight adolescents, were gathered around a small campfire, talking and eating dinner. Their dome-shaped tents were nestled together like grouse in a thicket. What they were doing camping in such bitterly cold weather was anybody's guess. As Kylie was fond of saying, who knew why humans did anything?
These humans, Brianna decided as she shifted around to a more comfortable position against the boll of the tree, were quite harmless. She had realized that on her first fly-by. But then, one of the boys had brought IT out. And turned IT on. And that was all the reason Brianna needed to sit quietly in a tree so dangerously close to a large group of humans.
They had a radio.
Admittedly, the music had changed somewhat since the last time she had listened to it but Brianna was more than willing to hear something new. The driving beat of the new songs made it very difficult to sit still. Somehow, she managed it, although the tip of her tail kept twitching to the rhythm. She very nearly groaned in disappointment along with the youngsters when one of the adults switched off the radio.
"Now, lads," the woman said, "we dinnae come all th' way up here ta listen ta tha' noise." She brought out a wooden flute and some of the others brought out instruments of their own - flat, hand-held drums played with a fat wooden stick, an octagon-sided accordion and a tin whistle. The musicians had apparently been planning this, for they merely glanced at each other before starting a tune.
Brianna suppressed a delighted squeal, covering her mouth with her fingers. Like most of her clan, she had never had the experience of hearing music in person before. As they played, Brianna realized that this exhilarating feeling must be what Griff meant when he was telling her about going to the USO to hear - and the smile fell from her face. It had been months since she had seen the roguish gargoyle who had captured her heart. She looked forlornly at the small rounded feather she wore in one of her many braids and pressed it to her lips, breathing in deeply. If she concentrated, Brianna could still catch a whiff of his scent.
Below her, the musicians changed tunes. The woman put down her flute and began to sing, encouraging everyone to join her.
"Cauld winter was howlin' o'er moor and o'er mountain
And wild was the surge of the dark rolling sea,
When I met about daybreak a bonnie young lassie,
Wha asked me the road and the miles to Dundee.
Says I, "My young lassie, I canna' weel tell ye
The road and the distance I canna' weel gie.
But if you'll permit me tae gang a wee bittie,
I'll show ye the road and the miles to Dundee".
At once she consented and gave me her arm,
Ne'er a word did I speir wha the lassie micht be,
She appeared like an angel in feature and form,
As she walked by my side on the road to Dundee."
The singing was loud and enthusiastic but Brianna was barely listening. It had been so long and by the way Griff had spoken of them, the London Clan was quite numerous. Perhaps, Brianna dreaded the thought but couldn't help thinking it, perhaps some other female had caught his eye. She shook her head. No, no, she had to believe in him. Griff had promised he would come back for her and something told Brianna that he wasn't the sort to break his word idly.
A high-pitched electronic trill interrupted her melancholy thoughts. A dark-haired man stopped clapping to the music and rifled through a backpack sitting next to him. He pulled out a handheld shortwave radio and put it to his ear. Frowning, he stood up and walked away from the campsite, winding up beneath Brianna's tree. The slender gargoyle regarded him curiously and her sharp ears picked up his words quite easily.
"Douglas Campbell, here. Ranger One, can you speak up?" He paused and pressed a gloved finger to his free ear. "That's better. What's up?" Campbell listened for several minutes. "You're kidding. Two hikers saw some men shooting some large winged creatures on the trail just northwest of Aberfeldy? Eagles? Well, yes, there's a few breeding pairs up near Loch Rannoch. This is the time of year that they normally return to mate but it's been so bloody cold this year, I don't know that-" He listened some more, making an incredulous face, clearly not believing what he was hearing. "These things had the face of an eagle but were man-shaped with wings and a tail? What were these hikers drinking?"
Up in the tree, Brianna gave a start, her dark blue eyes wide.
"Cold stone sober? And they told you that? Well, maybe they did or maybe they didn't. Sometimes people are so tired by the end of a long hike, their minds play tricks on them."
"Griff," Brianna breathed softly. "He's come back for me."
"Oh, you can hear them, can you?" Campbell laughed and looked back at the campers over his shoulder. "Yeah, they're not bad singers for a bunch of Wilderness Scouts. I'll be taking them on towards Schiehallion and back to Pitlochry on Saturday so they can get their winter survival certificates. We'll check in with you then."
The musicians started another tune and the woman leading them began to sing solo, her lilting soprano rising to the treetops.
"Now simmer blinks on flow'ry braes,
And o'er the crystal streamlet plays,
Come, let us spend the lightsome days
In the birks of Aberfeldie!
Bonnie lassie, will ye go,
Will ye go, will ye go,
Bonnie lassie, will ye go
To the birks of Aberfeldie?"
Brianna chewed her lip pensively. As her rookery sister, Tori, was fond of saying, " 'If it sounds tae good t' be true, tha' it probably isn't.' " But if Griff had in fact returned and he was in trouble - her heart skipped a beat and she sprang from the tree, heedless of the snow shaking loose from its branches and falling on the campers.
Douglas Campbell looked up sharply and gaped at the shadow passing in front of the moon. "What the bloody ---?" He blinked and shook his head. "No," he told himself, "Couldn't be. No way." Muttering, he turned back and returned to his clients.
* * * * *
Curls of grey smoke cast lazy patterns on the ceiling of the cave the Caledonian clan called home. Brianna stopped a moment in the passageway to still her breathing and calm her thoughts. Quade and Rachel were whispering intently to each other in low voices, an incongruous sight, the large, rough-hewn male looking more like he had been carved than hatched and the russet female with her blaze of red hair and bold green tartan draped across her torso. They both looked up as Brianna entered.
"Och, lass! Where've ye been?" Rachel asked anxiously. "Yuir sisters were back from their patrols long ago and Curran and Jamie have gone off hunting."
"There's some campers out near th' Tay. 'Tis mostly young ones, out to learn their wilderness skills." Brianna shrugged. "I stayed long enough to tell they were harmless."
"Are ye quite sure?" Quade rumbled. "I dinnae like th' thought o' humans in th' forest this time o' year."
"Quite sure, Quade," Brianna answered firmly. "They're wi' that dark-haired fellow that guides people into th' woods. He's a trusty sort, for a human."
"She's right, love," Rachel said, patting her massive mate on the arm. "We'll keep an eye out for th' humans but they're naught but children, an' right now, we need t' worry more about Kylie."
"Kylie?" Brianna glanced at the sheltered alcove nearest the fire. A soft glow flickered around the edges of the leather hide hung up as a windbreak. "But she was getting better."
"Aye, that's what we all thought," Rachel replied. "This winter has been too hard on her. She took a bit o' exercise earlier but a fit o' coughin' took her before she could get more than two steps into th' clearing. Her lungs are still too weak to tolerate the cold air outside."
Brianna frowned and went quietly to the alcove and peeped around the deer hide. Kylie was dozing in a heap of fleeces, propped up to ease her troubled breathing. The bitter winter had been difficult on the old gargoyle. Although normally the minor ailments that troubled humans did not affect gargoyles in general, Kylie's great age had begun to weaken her. Joint-ill inflamed her bones and impaired her mobility. She fell sick with lungfever just after the winter solstice and was still not yet fully recovered.
Someone had set up a small brazier in the alcove with a pot of bubbling water. The steam filling the room was warm with the scent of rosemary and mint and as Brianna breathed it in, she could feel her own nasal passages opening with the aroma of the medicinal herbs.
"Och, poor Kylie. I dinnae want to go without talkin' to ye," Brianna said softly as she closed the drape. She looked up at Rachel. "How are we doing on supplies? Th' herbs I dug up for winter were doing well enough in th' grotto cave."
"Well...," Rachel tapped her chin thoughtfully. "We could use more rosemary. I used almost all o' it tonight."
"Then I'll go fetch some more," Brianna said resolutely. "I know exactly where I need to go." She cast one last contrite glance at the alcove and dashed back outside.
Brianna climbed the tall tree next to the clan cave out of habit, talons slipping into the worn grooves in its weathered bard. Her thoughts far away and troubled. She'd hoped to tell Kylie that she thought Griff had returned and that he was in trouble. Without the elder's support, there was no way under the heavens that Quade and Curran would let her leave the woods to go in search of Griff. The thought of going to the human settlement gave her an uneasy pang in the pit of her stomach.
"I'm a hunter," Brianna told herself firmly, "an' my aim is straight an' true. That's all a gargoyle needs."
"What are ye mutterin' about, Bri?" Kirstie asked as she soared up besides her rookery sister. "Daydreamin' about yuir cock o' th' walk again?"
Tori arrived a minute or so later. "Och, leave off teasin' th' lass, lazywings," she said tartly. "Where are ye off to, Brianna? Rachel said summat about fetching some herbs for Kylie an' we thought we'd help."
Brianna looked at her rookery mates and bit her lip. "Sisters, can ye make me a promise?"
"What kind o' promise?" Kirstie swoop up and over them in a lazy display of aerial acrobatics. "We're rookery mates an' friends besides. We loves ye, Bri, ye know that."
"Please, it's important." Brianna shifted directions, heading for the tiny lights in the distance. "On the shell of your egg, swear it or I cannae tell ye a thing."
The other two females blinked in surprise and looked at each other. "Is it that serious, Brianna?" Tori asked. "Ye never asked us to swear before."
"It is." Brianna chewed on her lip. "It's important to me."
"Then I'll swear," Kirstie said hastily, "and so does Tori. What is it, Bri?"
"Aye, are ye in trouble?" Tori took a new grip on her spear. "Tell us what it is an' we'll help ye sort it out."
Quickly, Brianna told her rookery sisters of the conversation she had overheard at the campsite. "-An' when I got back to th' cave, I found Quade an' Rachel frettin' over Kylie. Ye know as well as I do that they'll not leave her while she's sick. I didn't dare tell them an' ye know what Curran would say."
"Aye," Tori said, nodding her antlered head. "I know my sire well. He'd never let any o' us past th' edge o' our territory, to say nothing o' going near humans." She narrowed her eyes. "Here now, Brianna. Yuir nae thinkin' o' doin' summat rash, are ye?"
"Well, th' first thing is see if I can pick up th' trail. Th' human said they were seen on th' northwest trail to Aberfeldy. If there's even a whiff of Griff around, I'm going to follow." Brianna set her jaw firmly but her eyes looked worried.
Kirstie frowned. "I don't know, Bri. I'll come wi' ye as far as th' trail but that's as far as I'll go. I dinnae want anythin' to do wi' humans."
"An' if humans are takin' to shootin' gargoyles," Tori said grimly, "we'll teach 'em to sing a new tune."
* * * * *
It took all of Caspian's willpower to stay with Brock in the thicket and watch as the strange men came and carried Griff and Michael away. He used the cover of the noises they were making to drag Brock deeper into the foliage. Rosalind was dead right about one thing - Caspian was no fighter. He wasn't a coward but if there was one thing he had learned from his studies with Una, it was that sometimes one must wait for just the right moment for optimum results. Despite what his gargoyle instincts were telling him, bursting out of the underbrush to rescue his fallen comrades while all these humans were about, some armed with nightscopes and rifles, would only end up in getting them all captured.
To conserve his energy, Caspian dropped his wards and concentrated on beefing up his illusion spell to project the image of the thicket. It was one of his easier spells but the effort of his earlier spellcasting was taking its toll on him. His head was already beginning to ache. Una was going to terribly cross with him over that - assuming he ever made it back to London.
Two men stopped a few yards from the thicket. Caspian had been watching them order the others around as they kept circling the area with their rifles held ready. "I can't find any more traces of them," the thin one in the hunting jacket said. "The satellite photos clearly showed four of them on that train."
The other man turned the collar of his coat up and blew his breath on his hands to warm them. "Personally, Jacob, I think we've bagged our limit for the night. Let's get the ones we have back to the warehouse and get them secured. Let's not take any chances of losing them this time."
"Let's keep the beta team searching for another hour or so," Jacob suggested. "I'm betting that the other two gargoyles aren't too far off and there's the chance that we just might flush them out."
"All right then," the other said. "I'll go back with the two we have and report in while you stay and hunt a little more."
Jacob laughed harshly. "You're too much of a city slicker, Alfred."
"Maybe, but at least I'll be warm and indoors while you're tromping around in these woods." Alfred started picking his way out of the clearing, shaking his feet clear of the snow with each step.
"I'll check in an hour from now. If nothing turns up, we'll call it a night."
The voices of the humans grew dim but Caspian continued to stay still with Brock's body in his arms. The older gargoyle's pulse was slow but steady. Whatever they shot him with, it didn't seem to be affecting him too badly. A lorry engine started up in the distance and Caspian cursed under his breath.
"Blast! They're moving them. How will I ever rescue them now?"
Something snapped behind him like a bombshell in the still night.
Caspian turned his head slightly and saw one of the searchers out of the corner of his eye. The human was obviously a hunter of some experience by the way he was panning back and forth searching for him. Caspian found himself holding his breath.
High above them in the trees, an owl's eerie cry wafted through the chill air. Branches rustled suddenly in the top of a twisted pine and the hunter aimed up into the treetops. There was a sharp snap as he cocked the rifle but he never had a chance to fire the shot. A tall antlered figure came out of the shadows and thumped him smartly behind his ear with the butt of a spear. She, Caspian realized as he stared unblinkingly, caught the human as he fell and pulled him into the underbrush.
"Hey!" Caspian struggled out of the thicket. "Wait! Brianna, is that you?"
A pair of scarlet eyes stared at him from out the shadows. "Sister? Th' bush is talkin' to ye."
"Aye," a softer lilt answered from the treetops, " 'Tis a curious thing. I've never seen a bush walk before either."
Laughter bubbled high up in the trees behind him. Caspian smacked himself on the side of the head. "Stupid bloody me," he muttered and released the illusion of a snow-covered bush. He stepped out into the clearing and glanced around. "Please, if you are of the Caledonian clan, I need help!" His tone was quiet but insistent. "My name is Caspian of the London clan. I was traveling here with my uncle Griff and-"
The treetop shook and a lithe, slender form sprang forth, landing nimbly only a few feet before him. Caspian blinked as the dappled green female stood up and looked at him with shining dark blue eyes. Her delicate features were framed by row upon row of dark green braids. One plait hung over the front of her shoulder, a rounded crimson feather protruding from the end like a glowing candle's flame.
"Milady Brianna," Caspian said, bowing courteously as he smiled at her, "I think that I should know you anywhere. You are exactly as Griff described you."
"Griff?" Brianna fingered the braid with the feather and smiled nervously. "H-he's here? Truly?"
"We traveled together, he and I and two others of our clan but," Caspian paused and gauged his next words carefully, "we were ambushed by that man and several others. They shot two of us down with tranquilizer darts and got the third on the ground."
To her credit, Brianna barely trembled as she lifted her chin. "And Griff?"
"They took him and Michael, our clan leader away in a lorry. It left only a little while ago."
Brianna looked sharply over his head. "Kirstie!!"
A dark shape launched from the treetops. "I'm on it!"
The antlered female stepped forward. Caspian's mouth gaped open. The females of his clan, many of whom were fine warriors, were not quite as tough-looking as this forest Valkyrie, who stood as tall as Caspian himself. She was a dark olive green with her blonde hair pulled back severely into one thick braid and she wore fur-trimmed leathers. She was sizing him up warily.
Caspian shut his mouth and bowed properly. "My lady."
"Hmmph." She walked around him. "Ye said there were three o' ye that fell to th' humans. Where's th' other?"
"Here, my lady." Caspian lead them into the thicket where Brock was lying. "This is Brock, my elder." He eyed the Caledonian females apologetically. "I hate to ask but I've got to go after Griff. Could you ladies look after him?"
Brianna raised her brow ridges. "Tori?"
The antlered gargoyle knelt and hefted Brock easily. "I can manage." She frowned. "Ye realize I'll have to say something to th' clan now."
"I know." Brianna tucked Brock's satchel more securely on his lap and reached up to touch Tori's brow ridges. "Ye do what ye thinks best, sister. I'll be fine."
"Ye watch yuir back out there among the humans," Tori said curtly. Her eyes passed over Caspian. "An' his." She climbed up into a tree one-handed and set off into the night.
Caspian watched her go and commented, "She thinks I'm an idiot."
"Nae, Tori thinks we're both idiots, ye for comin' an' me for goin'," Brianna answered. She started up a tree. "Come along then. Kirstie's a grand flier an' she's probably followed that 'lorry' thing halfway to town already."
"You're coming with me to rescue Griff and Michael?"
"Aye." She looked down at him, eyes crimson. "I never want to be apart from Griff ever again, nae matter where I have to go. Now let's be off."
* * * * *
Flashing lights behind his eyelids and an almost seismic rumbling brought Griff back to consciousness. He winced as he slowly cracked his eyes open to assess the situation. A balding man in a dark suit had his back to the gargoyles, pouring himself some coffee from a thermos, as he examined the contents of the backpack. Griff attempted to move but found his appendages secured in a complicated steel contraption with an electronic lock - arms, legs, wings and tail bound tightly in metal cuffs with a wide bar across chest and thighs. Whoever these people were, they weren't taking any chances.
"Hello there, gargoyle. Fancy meeting up with you again."
"I'm afraid I can't say that I'm particularly pleased to see you, whoever you are." Griff looked up into the coffee-drinker's face and narrowed his eyes, scowling. "Now I remember. The manor house at Carmarthen. Blast."
"I'm glad to see we at least made an impression on you," the man commented. "You have no idea of the amount of trouble you and that nutcase with the sword caused us."
"King Arthur and I did our best to entertain you," Griff replied curtly. He twisted in his bonds, trying futilely to free himself.
"Don't bother, gargoyle. I did some research on your kind and there's no way you're going to get away this time, even if those animal tranquilizers did wear off too soon." A chirping came from his pocket and he reached in to retrieve a cellular phone. "Ratcliffe here." He listened for a few seconds and started moving away to the far side of the warehouse. "Yes, sir. We have two of the gargoyles. Feldman is still out in the field searching for the others." The rest of the conversation became muted as he walked out of range.
Griff glanced to his right. Michael had his eyes half-open as he surveyed the room. "Michael! Are you all right?"
The London clan leader swallowed painfully. "Considering I was shot out of the sky and my mouth tastes like cotton wool, I seem to be fine. What does this fellow want with us?"
"I'm not sure," Griff answered, "but Arthur and I had a run-in with him before. He's with a bunch of loonies that think the only way to save gargoyles is to gather them up and keep them in captivity."
"This is just grand," Michael muttered disgustedly. "Just grand."
"Look on the bright side. Caspian and Brock are still free."
Michael snorted. "Brock is hardly in his prime anymore and while Caspian is enthusiastic, he's too inexperienced. Their chances aren't very good."
"Listen to yourself!" Griff shot back. "You can't give up hope, not now, not ever."
"Leave me alone." Michael closed his eyes. "There's nothing you can say that will change anything. I've had a lifetime of heartbreak and I've already reached my limit."
"Would Fidella want you to give up like this?"
Michael's eyes snapped open. "What you know of her?"
"Not much," Griff admitted, "but I'd like to hear more about her. I do know that she meant the world to you, just as much as Brianna means to me. I don't know what I'd do if anything happened to her."
"You'd go on," Michael answered. "You'd mourn and curse and weep but you'd go on. That's all anyone can do."
Griff smiled and shook his head. "It's uncanny. Ever since the Phoenix Gate brought me forward in time, I've wondered just who you've been reminding me of all this time and now I know. Even though you never really knew James, you definitely took after our sire. You've even got his mannerisms."
Michael frowned, looking around the room idly, but his curiosity got the better of him. "Really? What was he like, our father?"
"Stoic, disciplined, and one of the best warriors in the clan. James was the second-in-command back then." Griff laughed. "I guess I took more after Victoria. She took care of the rookery and she always had a ready smile and somehow she could make anyone laugh, even James. He told me once that was what he loved about her." He made a face. "We didn't always get along when I was a young warrior. He was responsible for training my rookery and I think he was a little disappointed that I didn't take it as seriously as he did."
"But you're one of the clan's best warriors," Michael protested. "You were a legend when I was growing up."
"Maybe, but legends don't start out that way. James had a devil of a time whipping me into shape." Griff grinned. "I've been thinking back ever since your little revelation back at Edinburgh and unless I'm mistaken, you were that chubby little fellow that Victoria used carry around on her hip whenever I went back to the estate to visit."
"No! Never!" His tone of voice was shocked yet vaguely amused.
"A thumb-sucking little butterball," Griff continued, "Victoria loved all the hatchlings in her care but she always knew which ones were hers. I remember the special treatment she gave me and I know she doted on you too. When we have the time, I'd like to tell you more."
Michael stared at Griff for a few seconds. "That's it, then. We have to get out of here now." One corner of his mouth turned up. "I can't very well have you dangling a carrot like that in front of my nose, now can I?"
* * * * *
Kylie coughed as she hobbled from the steam-filled alcove. The two mated pairs looked up from the central fire in concern. Rachel was halfway across the room before Kylie could take another step.
"Elder! Ye shouldna be out o' bed!"
"Och, away wi' ye," Kylie said irritably with a wave of her withered hand. "I'm nae a wee hatchling that ye must fuss over. I'll rest soon enough, ye knows that."
"None o' that now," Quade said firmly. He pulled a stoutly built chair with thick cushions closer to the fire. "Ye'll see another spring thaw, Kylie, right enough."
"Ye always were an optimist, Quade." The old gargoyle eased into her chair wincing. "How was the hunt, Curran?"
The flinty gray-blue gargoyle chewed on the end of a peeled twig. "Th' deer are farin' little better than we are. I dinnae have th' heart to take one." Curran cast a sly smile at his dark green mate who was kneeling by the fire and basting a haunch of meat with its own juices. "Lucky for us, Jamie caught a sheep in one of her deadfalls."
"Aye," Rachel sighed. "That's one good thing for this long cold spell. It's certainly thinning out those bloody sheep."
"Even if it does mean another night o' roast mutton," Quade said ruefully. "Still, it warms th' belly an' that's all that really matters."
"Aye, that it is," Kylie agreed as Rachel draped a warm fleece across her lap. "Ahhh! That eases th' aches a mite, thank ye, Rachel. How be th' eggs t'night?"
Rachel dropped to her haunches by the chair. "Th' eggs are warm an' safe, tucked away in th' rookery. They're just fine."
"Good." Kylie closed her eyes and sank back into the cushions.
The others watched the old gargoyle silently. Jamie looked up at Curran, her brow wrinkled and her lower lip curled under with worry. Her mate simply let out a deep breath and held out his arms to her. Quade and Rachel looked away at this rare display of affection by their rookery brother. The embrace lasted all of two minutes.
"Quade!! Kylie!!" Tori staggered in, a black and white mass of fur and feathers in her arms. "We've got company!"
Rachel's mouth fell open. "What th' devil is that?" She hurried to the young female's side and pulled a feathered wing away to reveal a badger-like face with a graying muzzle. "A gargoyle? But from where?"
"He's a visitor from th' south," Tori answered as she lowered the strange gargoyle to the cave floor. "He came up from London wi' Brianna's Griff an' some others. They ran into trouble."
"Trouble?" Curran released Jamie and stepped forward, eyes blazing.
"Aye, wi' some humans." Tori stood up. "According to this one's clansman, they were shot wi' summat that drugged them." She nudged the sleeping gargoyle with her foot. "Just like this."
"Yuir sisters," Kylie said sharply, her eyes glowing faintly. "Where are they?"
"They an' that other Londoner are followin' th' trail. Th' humans took Griff and one other away in a motor car." Tori frowned. "I dinnae know about Kirstie but Brianna's sworn that she's nae comin' back wi'out Griff."
Kylie's eyes grew round. "No." Her voice trailed off weakly.
"Curran!! Tori!!" Quade snapped out. "Yuir wi' me!" He put a gentle hand on Kylie's shoulder. "I'll bring her back safe, Kylie. I promise."
Rachel covered his massive hand with her own. "Just be sure ye bring yuirself back home safe as well, my love. I'll take care o' things here."
"Aye, love. That I will." Quade gave his mate a brief smile and the barest brush of his fingers against her brow ridge before following Curran and Tori out the door.
Jamie stood and watched them go with shining dark eyes. She glanced at the other two females. "What do ye give for their chances?"
"Out amongst th' humans?" Kylie shuddered. "Slim an' none." She closed her eyes and made a strangled noise in the back of her throat.
* * * * *
The lights were getting closer by the second. So bright, too bright - Brianna tried to ignore the queasy feeling in the pit of her stomach as they approached the forest's edge. Not since Curran's first mate had been killed had any of the forest-dwelling Caledonian clan ventured into the realm of the humans. All her life, Brianna had viewed people from the safety of the treetops. The mere thought of being among them was terrifying, to say the least, but she had spent months dreaming of Griff's return. Surely that was reason enough to venture into this bustling metropolis looming in the distance.
"How quaint," Caspian commented.
"I beg yuir pardon?"
"Aberfeldy," Caspian said, gesturing with a casual wave of his hand. "It's a very picturesque little village. I'll have to snap a few pictures for Roz."
Brianna made no comment as she glanced at the strange male gliding besides her. Her clan had become adapted to their arboreal lifestyle over the centuries and evolved colors and body shapes to blend into their environment. Caspian resembled a fanciful illustration from a storybook more than the gargoyles she was familiar with. Brianna was rather intrigued to see what other surprising variations there might be in the London clan.
"Sister!" Kirstie sprang from her roost in a tall tree in a shower of pine needles. "'Tis good ye got here so quick. I trailed th' humans as far as th' main road an' double-backed to find ye." She took a good long look at Caspian, pursing her lips appraisingly.
Brianna ignored her rookery sister's behavior. "Where'd they go?" she asked.
"I dinnae know, Bri. They got into a big mess of other motor cars and I dinnae know which way they went."
"This is a bit of a pickle," Caspian commented, tapping a finger on his chin, "and time is not on our side. There's maybe two or three hours to dawn." His eyes lit on the crimson feather in Brianna's hair. "Hmmm. Then again, maybe we can take a shortcut. Follow me, ladies."
Brianna and Kirstie exchanged a curious look and glided down to the ground after Caspian. He was unfolding a map and pinning it down with handfuls of snow on the corners. As they watched, he traced circle around the map with a talon, his lips moving silently. Finally, Caspian looked up and held out his hand.
"Milady Brianna, if could I borrow Griff's feather for a moment?"
Brianna was puzzled but delicately plucked the rounded feather from the end of her braid. She felt strangely undressed without it. "Here ye go," she said, as she handed it to him. "But I dinnae understand what ye mean to do wi' it."
"Oh, you will, trust me." Caspian held the feather out at eye level in the palm of his hand, focusing on it. His eyes, and curiously enough, his golden horn began to glow.
"By the four corners of the earth; by moonlight and starshine,
Return thee to thy place of birth; red feather, Seek and Find!"
The scarlet father was suddenly rimmed with a brilliant, glittering light, each tiny quill clearly outlined. A miniature whirlwind snatched it from Caspian's hand and sent it skittering across the map, spinning and leaping and dancing. It came to a swirling stop on the top right section. Caspian pursed his lips as he pinned down the spot with a talontip.
"Ah-ha! Griff's being held somewhere just east of Allcroft Station." He gave the feather back to Brianna with a little bow. "My thanks, milady. Shall we be off?"
"Bide a wee!" Kirstie said skeptically "Ye means to tell me that yuir goin' to let a bit of sparkly light an' fancy words guide ye?"
"Why not?" Caspian flashed her a roguish grin. "I've done it before."
His words seemed a bit too bright for Brianna's taste. "Truly?" she asked, drawing out the word meaningfully and adding an arch look.
Caspian ran a hand along the back of his head, ruffling up his golden mane. "Um, well, I've done it lots of times in practice. It always works though."
"Very well," Brianna said, tucking the scarlet plume back in place. "That will have to do. We dinnae have any more time to waste." She turned to Kirstie. "Well, sister? Will ye stay or go?"
Kirstie stared at the town nestled in the rolling hills below them for a few seconds and shook her head. "I'll wait for ye here. If yuir not back before dawn, I'll head back to th' clan an' tell 'em what's happened." Impulsively, she swept her slender sister into her arms. "Be safe among th' humans, sister. I dinnae want ye to go but I know ye cannae help it."
Brianna swallowed hard and hugged back. "Thank ye, sister. Tell Kylie I love her. I love ye all." She released Kirstie and turned resolutely to join Caspian at the top of the hill.
"Ready?" Caspian asked calmly.
"Aye," Brianna answered. Her fingers tightened on her bow. "Let's go."
For the first time in a generation, a Caledonian gargoyle left the forest.
* * * * *
Jacob Feldman knelt in the thicket and felt the slushy ground where a body, perhaps even two, had melted a hollow in the snow. He didn't know how he had missed these signs before and he had supervised the search of this area personally. Some of the trees had dropped snow on the ground but it was clear that someone else had been here after his team had left.
"Odd tracks," Feldman muttered to himself. One set looked almost like horse's hooves while the others, one set narrower than the other, were the more typical three-toed gargoyle feet. He pulled down the satellite photo that Powell had faxed down from London. The picture was grainy and distorted but there was clearly four distinct figures. One of them did have equine features so that might explain the hoof prints but Feldman was puzzled. He pulled out his phone and punched his auto dial with his thumb.
"Feldman here," he responded. "I've found something odd here, Al. I'm not sure but I think there may be some other gargoyles in the area."
"Really? What do you mean?"
"I found some tracks in the snow. At least three gargoyles were here after we caught those first two."
"But that would mean--?"
"Yeah, there were only four on the train." Feldman stood up and looked up into the trees. "This whole area is part of a wildlife preservation area. It's secluded and isolated."
"Perfect for a breeding colony."
"Maybe." Feldman studied the smaller set of prints. "One of the men turned up missing and when we double-backed to find him, we came across these new tracks. Our man said he saw something big up in the top of one of the trees when everything went black. He's got a pretty big goose egg on the back of his head where someone hit him."
"Someone or something."
"Exactly." Feldman checked his watch. "I don't think we're going to get any more action out here tonight. I'm going to call in the men."
"That's probably a good idea," Ratcliffe agreed. "Mr. Powell called a few minutes ago. He wants to move the two gargoyles we have into one of the Inner Circle's more secure facilities."
"Have you had any problems with them?"
"These two chatterboxes?" Ratcliffe made a rude noise. "The new restraints I designed are working like a charm. They're not going anywhere unless we say so."
"Good," Feldman replied. "I'm on my way now."
A hooting sound erupted from the treetops. Without thinking, Feldman fired off several shots, scaring up a flock of sleeping birds. He shook his head.
"Blasted forest," he muttered. "Gives me the creeps."
Three pairs of eyes watched him go from the shelter of the shadows.
* * * * *
The first thing Brock became aware of was the blessed warmth that had seeped into his aching bones. A soft cloth bathed his grizzled face with herb-scented water. Dimly, he heard lilting voices in the distance.
"There, there, old fellow... he's got a nasty scrape here on th' side of his head here. Jamie, see if there's any tincture left. I dinnae want it to fester."
Unknown persons scurried around him as Brock assessed his situation. All he could remember was Griff shouting and then a sharp pain following by the ground hurtling towards him at a dizzying speed. He tested his limbs gingerly. Save for the familiar aches and pains of age, nothing seemed broken. A firm hand gently gripped his chin and turned his head. Some sort of liquid touched his cheek -- and stung like bloody murder.
His eyes flashed open. "I say," Brock said to the foxy-haired female that was attending him, "That stuff would wake the very devil. I'd rather you didn't use any more of that on me, if you please."
She sat back on her heels. "Well, that's gratitude for ye."
Brock eased himself up, taking note of his surrounding. He was nestled in a rough pile of animal hides, several thick wool blankets heaped on top of him. Three female gargoyles were regarding him silently with dark unblinking eyes. Griff had been rather vague in his descriptions of the Caledonian clan but Brock had no doubts that these were the very same ones.
"Lady... Kylie?" he ventured tentatively.
The silver-haired elder sat a little taller in her well-padded chair. "Aye. Ye know of me?"
"Yes, Griff told us all about you and your clan." Brock bowed his head with as much dignity as he could, rumpled and unkempt. "I thank you for your kindness in rescuing me, my lady, and for your generosity." He looked around quizzically. "If I may ask, where are the others?"
Kylie's proud mask crumbled and she covered her face in her hands, shoulders shaking beneath her homespun shawl. The dark green female with the large eyes went to comfort her.
"Oh, dear," Brock murmured. "This does not look good."
* * * * *
The warehouses bordering the railyards went on for nearly a mile. Brianna would have been in tears of frustration if not for Caspian's city-wise observations.
"What we need to do is look for signs that one of these buildings is being occupied. Look at the vehicles parked outside the buildings. If their windows are frosted, then they've been here all night." He pointed them out as they glided overhead.
Brianna nodded. "Th' lorry that had Griff in it would have been too warm for frost to form."
"Exactly! Another thing is that humans don't have very good night vision. Even if these people are trying to be secretive, they're bound to turn on the lights." Caspian laughed. "It drives Colin's wife bonkers to see Rosalind painting in the dark."
"You... live with humans?" Brianna pressed her lips together. "How can you trust them?"
Caspian looked at her, surprised. "Well, the Marter family has been protecting our clan for centuries. They were our friends when the whole world was against us. If you can find friendship in a human's heart, trusting them is easy."
"I dinnae know," Brianna said slowly. "My clan doesn't have anything to do wi' humans. I dinnae know if I can be friends wi' a human."
"Just try to keep an open mind about it," Caspian replied. "Hullo! That's interesting." He canted towards a blocky red brick building on a side street. A panel lorry was parked in the alley behind it, water dripping onto the ground beneath it.
Brianna dipped down and snagged a bit of foliage that was caught on the radiator grille. She soared up to join Caspian on the roof. "Look here! This is Scots pine! It doesn't grow in th' valleys but there was a grove of it near where we found you!"
"Then I think we'd best give this place the once over." Caspian started across the roof when a man with a rifle stepped out of the shadows.
"Hold it right there!"
"Uh, oh." Caspian raised his hands carefully, muttering an arcane formula under his breath. Moonlight reflected off his spiral horn.
"That's right," the man continued, "Keep those hands where I can see 'em."
"Oh, puckernuts...." Caspian said softly. He realized suddenly that it was very quiet behind him. Turning his head slightly, he scanned around for Brianna. She was nowhere to be seen. "Now let's not be hasty," he said, refocusing his attention to the gunman before him. "I'm not going to hurt you."
The man snorted. "Right, like you'd be hurtin' me. I've got the bloody gun, you--"
In one smooth move, Brianna snatched the rifle out the man's grip and whacked him smartly across the back of the head with the butt of the gun.
Caspian ignored the unconscious man at his hooves and looked at his fingers, wiggling them. "I was afraid of that."
"What?" Brianna asked, as she pulled the man into the shadows.
"That little bit of scrying I did earlier tapped me out," the unicorn-like gargoyle answered. "I've cast more spells tonight than I normally do and it's used up all my energy reserves."
Brianna regarded him calmly as she took out her knife. "Then we will simply rely on what skills we have." She hunkered down and began to pry away at a raised square on the roof.
"I don't think you quite understand, old girl. Spellcasting is the only talent I really have."
There was a soft click. Brianna returned her knife to her belt and gently lifted the hatch open. She carefully lowered her head to the opening, peering inside and sniffing deeply. Frowning thoughtfully, she looked up at Caspian.
"I cannae see much, there's too many things in th' way but that's Griff's scent for sure."
Caspian looked at the small hatch and shook his head. "There's no way I'll fit through there." He started to raise a hoof. "I'll enlarge it. Won't take but a moment."
Like a striking snake, Brianna's hand whipped out to catch him just above the hock. "Ssssh! Don't be daft, lad!!" she hissed in soft urgency. "Th' last thing we need is to attract more attention. We'll split up. I'll slip in through here an' ye can go in through one of th' big doors down below."
"Are you sure?" Caspian asked. "I'm not going to be much use now that my spells aren't working."
"Caspian," Brianna said firmly, fixing him with an unblinking dark blue gaze. "Ye were a gargoyle before ye were a magician. I'm sure there's more to ye than just that. Ye just dinnae trust yuirself to look for it. Now, I'm goin' in here to save my love. Ye can help or ye can stay, but make up yuir own mind about it." With that, the slim gargoyle shimmied through the hatchway and was gone from sight.
"Oh, bother." Caspian frowned deeply as he replaced the hatch cover, leaving it slightly ajar. "If I didn't know better, I'd say she's been talking to Roz." He gave an irritated, equine snort and leaped from the building.
* * * * *
"Here he comes again," Michael murmured. His eyes were barely cracked open.
"Right-o," Griff answered back. He concentrated on trying to twist his wrists free. Both he and Michael were wearing gauntlets and they had discovered that while the restraints were clamped tightly on the metal ornaments, they were able to move slightly within the gauntlets. "I'm still stuck. How are you doing?"
"I almost have my left hand out," Michael grunted. "My knuckles are never going to be the same, though."
"Lucky for us, you've inherited Victoria's delicate hands."
Michael snorted and was about to reply just as the balding man calling himself Ratcliffe came around a pallet of shipping crates. The human shook his head and made a clucking noise in his throat. "I see you gents are too stubborn to know when you're licked."
"What?" Griff shot back. "You didn't actually expect that we'd just lie here and let you kidnap us?"
"Such a poor attitude," Ratcliffe continued in the same mild tone a mother might use with a stubborn child, "We're only doing this for the preservation of your species. The least you could do is act a little grateful."
"Grateful?" Michael exclaimed. "Listen here, you idiot! Our species has been surviving quite well without you and your mysterious misguided philanthropists, thank you very much."
"Oh?" Ratcliffe blinked and regarded the brown eagle-headed gargoyle mildly. "I'd like to know how you've been managing that." He opened an attaché case that had been resting inconspicuously on a nearby crate and removed a small nylon kit, unzipping it.
"Not another word," Griff hissed, brow ridges burrowing together. "Never lose your temper with a villain. It's what they want. Don't give it to them!"
Michael winced. "Stone me for a fool!"
"Yes, we learned about your companion's stubbornness last time," Ratcliffe agreed. "I decided not to waste my time waiting for him to crack. You, on the other hand," he took a hypodermic from the case and began to fill it with a clear liquid, "look to be an ideal informant."
"What are you doing?" Michael asked warily as the man approached. "What is that stuff?"
"Oh, nothing too exotic," Ratcliffe answered calmly. "Just your standard truth drug. I'm not sure how it will work with a gargoyle's biochemistry but I've been instructed to use any means possible to discover where you gargoyles have been hiding in London. It's clear now that there's more of you than we thought there were." He swabbed the crook of Michael's arm with some cotton wool dipped in alcohol and neatly injected him with the substance. "There now. It didn't hurt a bit, now did it?"
"No!" Michael cried out. "I'll never betray my clan!"
"How dare you?" Griff cursed. "How can you keep saying this is for our own good and that you want to help us when you treat us this way?"
"Hard times call for strict measures," Ratcliffe responded. He replaced the items he had used back into the attaché case and took out a small sophisticated-looking video camera, placing it on a crate facing the gargoyles. "The drug will take a few minutes to take effect. I suggest you relax while I go check on your travel accommodations." He walked out of their sight and they heard a door open and shut.
"Michael!" Griff asked urgently. "How do you feel?"
"Woozy." The London clan leader's eyes were becoming vague and unfocused. "The lights are swirling and whirling about." He giggled incongruously.
"Listen to me, Michael." Griff took a deep breath and tried desperately to sound calm and reasonable. "You need to relax and try to free your hands, remember? You've almost got your left hand loose. Just relax and pull your hand free."
Michael's chin thumped against his chest as if he had no strength to hold his head up. He made a few half-hearted attempts to do as Griff directed but his limbs were as limp as noodles. Finally, Michael lolled his head to the side. "I'm sorry, Griff. I just can't do it." He blinked and squinted. "And I'm seeing things."
"Try to ignore it, Michael," Griff said firmly. "It's just your mind playing tricks on you."
"I'll try." Michael shook his head. "But it's such a very nice thing." He smiled dreamily. "Pretty too."
"Blast it!" Griff exploded. "This is no time for daydreaming, Michael!!"
A pair of slender hands shut his beak. "Hush now, love," Brianna said with gentle firmness. "Yuir right. 'Tis time to be quiet."
"Brianna?" Griff stared dumbfounded at the delicate features of the dappled green female before him. Her dark eyes were wide and shining as she brushed her trembling fingertips across his brow ridges. He breathed in her scent and smiled. "Oh, darling, this is not the way I thought we'd be meeting."
Brianna sniffed tearfully and spared him one brief nuzzle before smiling back at him. "This wasn't what I had in mind either."
"How did you know we were here?"
"Och, ye hear all sorts o' things in th' forest, if ye keep yuir ears open. Besides, we found yuir other friends. Caspian had to find another way in but he should be here shortly." She tugged at his bonds. "What are these strange bindings?"
Michael snorted. "Silly little woodland nymph. She can't even figure out a simple thing like freeing us."
Griff growled, glaring at him. "Drug or no drug, mind your tongue, mate. She's not the one tied up at the moment, now is she?"
"Good point, brother dear. Sosorry." Michael giggled and turned on a silly grin as he gazed at Brianna. "Here now, ducks. These things are electronic. Just switch off the power."
" 'E-lec-tron-nic?' " Brianna asked, making a curious face at Griff.
"I'll have to explain later," Griff said quickly, "but he's right. There should be some sort of power box or something-"
"The LED display," Michael interrupted. "The thing with the red blinky lights. That's the control panel. Tear that off and that ought to do it."
"This thing?" Brianna looked at Michael as she tapped the small box centered in the metal bar over Griff's chest.
"Yes, that's right." Michael blinked and shook his head, trying to shake off the effects of the drug. "Just grab it and jerk it right out of there. Go on, there's a good girl. That ought to break the circuit and short out the system."
Brianna chewed on her lip for a moment, took a deep breath and sank her talons into the metal casing. Tiny dancing streamers of electricity cascaded over her hands and involuntarily she cried out in surprise and pain.
A door slammed open. "What's going on out here?"
Griff glanced up at the approaching footsteps. "Darling, hide!" He had only taken his eyes off of her for a few seconds but while he turned back to her, Brianna was gone.
* * * * *
A can clattered against the pavement. Cigarettes flared red-hot as the men lounging against the parked lorry became instantly alert. A bedraggled alley cat leaped out and glared at the men before scurrying away into the shadows of the nearby paddock where cattle waited for the morning trains. Loud laughter echoed up the alley.
Caspian let out a barely audible breath. "I don't believe this," he muttered. "Where did all these people come from? They weren't here before."
The young London gargoyle had made a hurried search of the outside of the warehouse. There was an armed guard standing watch on the front door and the side door was blocked with dust bins. The loading doors were wide open but Caspian didn't like the odds. He could count at least four men from this angle and there was no telling how many there were inside.
"Think, come on, think!" He glared at his useless fingers ruefully. Always give yourself time to recharge between spells, Una was always telling him, Magic comes at a price and you must be prepared to pay it. "Well, Mum, I'm in hock now," Caspian said softly. "I'm no better than those blokes pulling birds out of their sleeves on telly." He shook his head. Humans just thought magic was no more than sleight-of-hand and illusions. They were so easily impressed- Caspian paused as his train of thought switched tracks.
Maybe he didn't need the real thing. Maybe all he really needed was the power of suggestion and a little gargoyle elbow grease. Caspian smiled to himself and slipped across the street.
* * * * *
Brianna held her breath as she crouched in the dust between two tall crates on the upper level of the warehouse. A human in dark clothing had shown up and seemed fairly excited as he examined the damage she had caused. He took a device out of his pocket and snapped it open.
"Jacob? Where are you?" He paused, eyes shifting around the room. "Well, step on it. I've got an uninvited guest in here." He took an odd-looking gun out of his jacket and began to walk around the warehouse cautiously, clearly looking for her.
"Come on out now," he said in a calm, pleasant voice. "There's no reason to be afraid."
Wisely, Brianna held her tongue. She silently unslung her bow from its place between her wings and notched an arrow. The man was saying one thing but given what he had already done to Griff and Michael, she didn't trust him one bit. She watched him carefully as he searched the ground floor. He went back to the two captured gargoyles.
"Come now," he said firmly, "I know these are gargoyle talon marks. One of your companions must have found you. Where is he?"
"Nonsense," Griff replied. "We are the only gargoyles here."
The man turned to the brown, eagle-headed male. "Is that true?"
"Yes," Michael answered a bit hesitantly. "We're the only gargoyles down here."
"Really? That's very interesting." Brianna could hear some faint beeping sounds as the man worked his talking device again. After a few seconds, he frowned. "That's not good. The guard on the roof isn't responding."
"Perhaps he's taking a break," Griff suggested glibly. "It's so hard to find good help these days."
"Ordinarily, I'd agree with you," the man said, "but I don't really think that's the case at the moment." He started for the door. A loud rumbling stopped him in his tracks.
* * * * *
"Come on, you nags! Get a wiggle on!" Caspian slapped the backside on the nearest horse with a loud smack of his hand. He had slipped in amongst the horses in the holding pen with very little difficulty; unlike other gargoyles, horses were not afraid of him due to his equine appearance. The large animals were nervous but they were letting him blend in like one of the herd. Their noises neatly covered the sound of Caspian breaking the latch on the gate.
The horses surged out of the paddock into the street. Caspian trotted out between two of the largest animals, his talons twisted in their manes to steer them. The men left their post by the loading bay doors to gape at the spectacle.
"All right now," Caspian muttered as he glanced over the high shoulders of the Shire mare on his left, "look at the pretty horsies, gents, and don't pay any attention to me." He nudged his escorts towards the alley. He was pleased to note that several other horses followed.
At that moment, a car turned into the street and blocked the horses' path, causing several of them to rear and whinny alarmingly. Caspian glanced in their direction just in time to see the thin man in the hunting jacket getting out of the car. He gulped when he saw that the man still had his rifle.
"Hey!" the man called angrily, "What is this, a Scottish rodeo? Get these horses out of the road!"
Caspian took advantage of the extra distraction and dashed inside.
* * * * *
Brianna backed up to the wall and risked a peek through the dirty window to see what was going on outside. There were a large number of horses milling around in the street below with several men fussing over them. She smiled to herself. "Very cleverly done, Caspian."
The dark-suited man swore. "Blast! I knew things were going to smoothly."
"I guess that's just your luck tonight," Griff commented.
"No matter," the man answered back. "It just means we speed up the time table."
He pointed the gun at Griff's chest. "And since your restraining harness is damaged, we'll just the precaution of making sure you don't give us any trouble in transit."
The arrow had been nocked, sighted, and released before Brianna had even finished thinking about it. It whirred down across the room, striking the gun and spoiling the man's aim, causing the gun to discharge into the cable-laden metal box positioned between Michael and Griff. There was a sharp, crackling sound and an acrid-smelling tendril of smoke curled up from the small round hole in the box.
"Albert!" Another human rushed in, this one thin and wearing a sturdy hunting jacket. "What's going on?"
"Keep your eyes open, Jacob!" Albert snapped, reaching into his pocket. "There's another one up there!"
Brianna froze like a highland deer, barely breathing as Jacob looked up and whistled. "A female! We bring in a female and the Inner Circle will forget all about that fiasco in Carmarthen."
"Right," Alfred agreed and reloaded the tranquilizer gun. "Let's get her."
"Brianna! Run!" Griff shouted as he struggled to free himself, rattling the bonds holding him. The bar across his chest began to move. "Get out of here!"
"She has to get out of here?" Michael said incredulously. "I bloody well don't want to be here either!" He yelped as he pulled his left hand free and began to pry at the control box on the bar across his own chest.
"Albert!" Jacob shouted as he reached the top of the stairs. "Secure those gargoyles!"
The dark-suited man was just raising his gun when the stairs began to creak and shake. Caspian lowered his shoulder and rammed into the supports again like an irate rugby player going for the goal. Albert grabbed the railing just as the stairs ripped free of the wall. He held on for dear life, throwing himself free just before the stairs hit the ground and shattered to splinters.
Stunned, Albert started to crawl towards the tranquilizer gun that fallen just a few feet away. A polished hoof came smashing down upon it, reducing the weapon to so many useless pieces.
"Uhn-uhn-uhn!" Caspian admonished, shaking a talon at him. "I believe we've had quite enough of that tonight, thank you." He picked up Albert by the back of his jacket and dropped him in a narrow space between several crates and slid another one on top to seal him in. "There you go. That ought to keep you out of trouble."
A sudden creak and a shifting of the floor between her feet drew Brianna's attention away from downstairs and back to more immediate concerns. She dropped to all fours, draping her dark wings over her as she became one with the shadows. Unlike the first human, this one was silent as he searched, careful, steady. This one was a hunter and like all gargoyles, Brianna disliked the sensation of being hunted.
She forced herself to breathe softly and still the pounding of her heart in her ears. As she focused all her senses on his approach, Brianna noticed the way the warped boards of the vibrated with each footstep. She rose to a low crouch and timed her own footsteps with his as she crept down the long line of stacked boxes to gain a better vantage point. It was too cramped up here for her liking. The roof itself seemed to be pressing down on her.
Brianna turned and walked backwards, checking for signs of the human. She could hear voices from downstairs but nothing, absolutely nothing from the hunter stalking her. It was unnerving. She gave a loud gasp as cold stone made contact with her shoulders and belatedly she realized that she had backed into the wall.
Footsteps pounded towards her. Brianna barely had time to raise her bow, much less pull it before Jacob came around the pile of crates. He smiled grimly as he approached. "So there you are," he said in a low voice. "Let's try to make this easy on both of us, shall we?" He lowered the rifle barrel as he aimed at her.
A large shape rose up behind Jacob and threw him to the floor. The rifle landed neatly at Brianna's feet. "I've a better idea," Griff said tersely. "Let's call the whole thing off, shall we?"
Michael climbed up the wall to join them, a coil of cable wrapped around one shoulder. "Here you go," he said, tossing the cable to Griff. "That ought to hold him, although it's better than he and that other fellow deserve."
"We need to hurry," Brianna said anxiously. "It's not long until sunup."
"Quite right, my dear." Griff tied off his captive. "Caspian! Hurry up!"
The young gargoyle followed Michael's claw marks up the wall to join them. "Sorry, thought I'd lock the doors before we left." Caspian handed a green backpack to Griff. "And we wouldn't want to leave this, now would we, Uncle?"
Griff winked back at him. "No, we certainly wouldn't."
A massive set of hands suddenly ripped away a section of roof, showering the gargoyles below with bits of wood and plaster. Brianna shielded her eyes from the resulting clouds of dust and peered up, breaking into a wide smile. "Quade? Ye followed me?"
"Aye, lass," the Caledonian second-in-command rumbled. "Hurry up while th' humans are distracted. We mus' get back to th' forest an' quickly."
* * * * *
"-An' off they went into town," Kirstie finished. "I promised to wait but I knew ye'd want to know an' I dinnae want to leave them but-"
Rachel put an arm around the younger female. "There, there, lass. Ye did th' right thing, comin' back when ye did."
"Aye, Kirstie," Kylie agreed. "Things have been so strange lately. Here ye are bein' the sensible one while yuir sister is off bein' foolhardy and rash. I dinnae know what to make of it."
"Love makes fools of the best of us," Brock said quietly. He had recovered well enough to make himself useful to the Caledonian females. A quiet word with Rachel had confirmed his suspicions about Kylie's poor health and he had been careful to keep her entertained with stories of his own clan. "Even you and I have let our hearts rule our heads from time to time."
"True enough." Kylie sighed. "It's th' whim of a silly old female, but I dinnae want to see th' last o' my hatchlings leave me. I knew that Griff will whisk her away from us one day. I just dinnae think it was going to be like this."
There was a rustling outside and Jamie was outdoors like a shot. Rachel and Kirstie followed and the sound of excited voices drifted back into the cave. Kylie frowned and began to lever herself out of her chair. "Well, friend Brock," she said testily. "Come here and make yourself useful. Let's go see what all the fuss is about."
Brock levered himself up out of the folding camp chair he had been sitting, grimacing at the popping and cracking of his own bones and went over to escort Kylie. He took her arm gingerly and noted the telltale signs of arthritis in her swollen joints. It made his own aches and pains seem insignificant in comparison.
The sky outside was beginning to lighten on the eastern horizon as the two older gargoyles made their way out of the cave. Dark green Jamie was speaking quietly with a flint blue male, her mate, if Brock was any judge of such things, and Kirstie was chattering animatedly with another young female, tall and muscular with striking antlers, while Rachel listened intently.
"Curran! Tori! Where are th' others?" Kylie called anxiously.
The flint blue male merely gave a wry smile and pointed upwards. Sailing down towards them were five shapes outlined against the purpling sky. The largest was a gray gargoyle so massive that Brock felt the ground shake as he landed. Rachel rushed forward and embraced him so Brock concluded that the big gargoyle was Quade, her mate.
A slender nymph of a female came to earth as lightly as a butterfly and bounded straight to Kylie. "I'm sorry," she said in a sorrowful rush, "So sorry, Kylie, but I couldna-"
Kylie smiled and blinked back her own tears. "Ye had to follow yuir heart, Brianna. I'm nae happy about it, but no one can fault ye for that, nae even me." The two females exchanged an affectionate brow rub as they hugged.
A shout from above caught Brock's attention. He smiled and hurried forward as the remaining gargoyles landed. "Michael! Caspian!" Brock clasped forearms with both of his clan members. "I'm so glad to see you're all right!" The old gargoyle paused as he glanced over at Griff, standing hand-in-hand with Brianna, both of them becoming lost in each other's eyes. "Well, well... I see our knight errant has found his lady fair."
"I should say so, old friend," Michael said as he clapped a hand on Brock's shoulder. "It's been an eye-opening night all around."
Kylie cleared her throat and started to speak but she was silenced by the first rays of the sun rising over the Caledonian forest.
* * * * *
February 6, 1998 - Powell Industries, London
William Powell was most displeased.
"Gentlemen," he said with all the due dignity of a barrister, "when I spoke to you last, you had two gargoyles secured and ready to transport." He paused and let his icy gaze pass from Jacob Feldman to Albert Ratcliffe. "What happened?"
Feldman cleared his throat nervously. "Apparently their companions somehow evaded the hunting party and tracked them into town. They broke into the warehouse and overpowered both Albert and myself."
"We did discover something interesting, sir." Ratcliffe inserted a video tape into the VCR. "I had planned on videotaping my interrogation of one of the gargoyles and had left the camera on during the rescue attempt."
Powell leaned forward, eyes narrowing as he studied the images on the screen. When the female gargoyle entered the picture, his mouth fell open. "Where did this one come from?" he demanded. "Our photo experts identified the four gargoyles on the train as being males."
Ratcliffe exchanged a careful look with his partner. "We have a working theory, sir. We think perhaps there is a clan of gargoyles living in the forested area protected by the Wildlife Trust."
"I went back out to the capture site after sunup and found some more tracks," Feldman added. "It was impossible to get an exact number of how many of these creatures were there but it was clear that there was more than just the four from London."
"Look here," Ratcliffe paused the tape at the moment that the female and the green male with the crest touched, "look at their expressions. That's an affectionate look. These two know each other and know each other well. My hypothesis is that these gargoyles went to Scotland for a specific reason, perhaps a biological drive to mate like salmon or migratory birds."
William Powell leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers. "I don't know about that, Mr. Ratcliffe. Over the years, the Illuminati have accumulated quite a library of information on the nature of gargoyles."
"Yes, sir, I realize that, but there's been very little recorded about their social behaviors. Gargoyles guard their private lives too well and as result, we've observed very little of what makes them tick. Even we failed in our primary mission, I propose that we've discovered proof of another gargoyle clan."
Feldman unfolded a map on the desk. "This whole area is one big nature conservation area. There's everything there to sustain a colony of these things - game, water, shelter. The terrain is rough and difficult for the average human to travel through and there's several documented cave systems."
"Plus, local folklore tells of the spirits that haunt the Black Woods, the oldest part of the Caledonian Forest." Ratcliffe folded his hands in front of him. "The evidence would suggest that there's a very isolated group of gargoyles in this area."
"An interesting proposal, gentlemen," Powell said after a few moment's of thought. "I believe the Inner Circle will find these new developments very interesting indeed." He nodded approvingly. "Consider yourself redeemed... for the time being."
* * * * *
Dark green shadows stretched out across the still figures standing in the clearing. Slowly, the winter sun sank past the lone peak of Schiehallion, leaving only the molten orange traces of its passing on the canvas of the overcast sky. The first words out of Kylie's mouth after the shards of stone skin had hit the ground were, "So, Sir Griff... you've finally decided t' come callin' on our lass then?"
"Indeed, I have, Lady Kylie." Griff smiled and, remembering how impressed the elder had been with Arthur's courtly manners, gave her a deep, sweeping bow. "Milady, may I present Michael, leader of the London clan and Caspian, apprentice sorcerer. I believe you are already acquainted with Brock, the clan's record keeper."
Michael took his cue from Griff and also bowed. "As one leader to another, I must say that it is an honor to meet you, Lady Kylie. We of the London clan have been eager to meet our Scottish cousins." He smiled apologetically and nodded his head at Brock. "Our records have the Scottish bloodline as being lost forever. We were very excited to learn of your clan."
Kylie dipped her head graciously, her crown of silver braids shining in the moonlight. "As were we, last summer when King Arthur an' Sir Griff came into our woods. I hope you'll forgive our poor hospitality. It has been a difficult winter."
Griff removed a couple of small packages from the backpack before handing it to Caspian. He whispered briefly in the young gargoyle's ear. Caspian nodded and Griff took Brianna's hand, edging away from the crowd.
"If I may," Caspian said politely as he came forward, "My mother packed a few things for you and your clan. She says it's only good manners to bring a gift with you when you come to pay a visit." He gave a boyish grin that brought return smiles from even the sternest of the Caledonians. "And Mum'll tear strips out of me if I forget my manners!"
"Yuir mother is a most gracious female," Kylie replied approvingly. "Be sure t' give her my thanks when ye return home." She shifted her weight awkwardly and Rachel was at her side instantly. Kylie patted the russet-colored female's hand. "Nae mind me, lass." She nodded at Caspian. "Come, lad, let's see what yuir mother has so kindly thought fit to send us."
"Let's see," Caspian muttered, slipping the backpack straps over his arm. "Here's a pound bag of coffee, that's from Arthur."
"That black brew o' his that smells so good?" Kylie brightened considerably. "Och, that I liked! Very considerate o' him."
Caspian brought out a vibrant blue-and-green tartan bundle and unrolled it with a flourish. A glass jar flew out from the center of the woolen fabric and only Michael's quick reflexes saved it. The eagle-headed gargoyle looked at the jar in his hand curiously, turning it so the multicolored beans inside shifted around. "What's this then?"
"Hullo! Da threw in some of his special five-bean soup!" Caspian said cheerfully. "Wonderful stuff on a cold winter's evening. Puts hair on your chest!"
Kirstie blinked and shifted her weight to her other hip. "I beg yuir pardon?"
"Um, ah...," Caspian's cheeks deepened in color. "That's just something my father likes to say, not to imply that, um..." The young male became visibly tongue-tied as Kirstie inhaled, making the decorative feathers on her bodice flutter and drawing his attention to her ample charms. A coy smile hovered on her lips. Michael looked away with what sounded like a stifled laugh.
"Och, none o' that, girl!" Rachel said tartly. "Leave th' lad alone, ye bold vixen." She took the jar of mixed beans and spices and examined it carefully, opening the hinged lid to sniff cautiously. "It smells verra good," she said approvingly. "Kirstie, g'wan an' fetch th' big kettle. That'll keep ye out o' trouble. Quade, you and Curran see t' th' fire now."
In the meanwhile, the other mature female, dark green and quiet, had brought out Kylie's camp chair and settled her in it, wrapping the new tartan around the elder. Caspian hunkered down next to her and continued to pull new items from the backpack. Two more rolled-up tartans revealed some jars of Una's strawberry jam, some dried fruit, and another jar of Leo's soup mix. A small wheel of cheese sealed in red wax and a tin of chocolate-covered biscuits followed.
"Well, well!" Kylie said, well-pleased with the bounty spread at her feet. "This is almost as grand as th' feast on Solstice Night! Brianna, lass, I'm almost glad you went against my wishes now!" Silence answered her, and the elder sat straight up in her chair. "Brianna?"
Brock, who had been watching silently, smiled. "I believe our young lovers have slipped away from us," he said gently as he pulled up a log next to Kylie. "Until they decide to join us again, dear lady, I would love to hear the history of your clan. Would you permit me to record it, so that future generations will know it too?"
* * * * *
Even in winter, the grotto was beautiful. The waterfall had turned into a dancing ice sculpture and the bare branches of the trees were shimmering with icicles. Griff swept Brianna into his arms even before their feet touched the ground.
"I do hope you'll forgive me, Brianna," Griff said with a nervous laugh, "but I've wanted to hold you for the longest time."
Brianna rubbed her cheek against his shoulder as she folded her wings around him. "Aye, me too. It feels much better than in my dreams."
The events of the previous night and the months of separation made further conversation completely unnecessary for quite some time. Eventually, in the midst of their bliss, Brianna became aware of a hard lump between her and Griff.
"What is that?" she finally demanded, pulling away from him.
"Oh, that." Griff reached inside his leathers and took out a flat black box with a tangled mess of wires attached to it. "It's the custom in my clan to give your intended a gift to show her how much she means to you."
"Och, but Griff," Brianna protested, "I dinnae need anything like that." Her eyes, however, danced with excitement. "Ye came back like ye promised. That's all I really need."
Griff merely smiled and fitted two round soft things over her ears. "Now let me know if this is too loud," he said and touched the small box in his hand.
Brianna's eyes grew wide with wonder as her ears filled with one of her favorite Beatles songs. The sound was so clear, not crackling and popping like the radio she'd had years before. It was so beautiful that she wanted weep. As the last verse repeated, Brianna couldn't help but look up into Griff's eyes and see the song echoed there.
"Bright are the stars that shine
dark is the sky
I know this love of mine
will never die
and I love her"
"Ye gave me music," Brianna breathed softly as she removed the headphones. "It's th' most beautiful thing anyone's ever done for me." She bit her lip and looked down. "I dinnae get ye anything."
Griff tipped her face back up. "I let love slip away from me once. Don't let that happen again, Brianna. I would be honored if you would let me be your mate."
"Then there's something ye need to be saying first," Brianna said with a fetching tilt of her head. "Something simple an' to th' point."
"I love you?" Griff raised his brow ridges amusedly.
"Aye," Brianna curled her arms around his neck. "I love you. If we are to be mates, I want to hear that every sunset and every dawn for the rest of our lives. Just that, and I'll be happy."
"You're a very easy female to please."
Brianna merely laughed at him and Griff became lost in the music of her laughter.
* * * * *
The bubbling pot over the fire gave off a delicious savory aroma as the impromptu gathering of gargoyles became more festive. Jamie had been persuaded to bring out her wooden flute and was piping a merry tune. Caspian had brought out his small camera from his belt pouch and was snapping pictures at random as he chattered at Kirstie and Tori. The older gargoyles were clustered around Michael and Kylie as they traded information about each other's clans.
"Ye say the winter's just as bad down south?" Quade asked.
Michael nodded. "Yes, and the humans don't know what to make of it either. Not a day goes by without some meteorologist talking about it." He shrugged. "There's a lot of strange things going on in the world, too many to just be coincidence."
"We know naught o' th' world beyond th' woods," Kylie said, "an' we've gotten along just fine wi'out it until now." She glanced around at her clan. "Still, since King Arthur and Griff stumbled upon us, things have changed. In a way, it's been a relief to know that we're not alone in th' world."
Brock reached over took her hand gently. "None of us are alone any more. There's gargoyles all over the world. There's hope for all of us now."
Michael sat up a little straighter on the log he was sharing with Brock. "Lady Kylie, I would like to propose an alliance between your clan and mine. The gargoyles of Great Britain should not be strangers."
"What do ye propose?" Kylie asked. "Your clan is much larger and stronger than mine. We would not be able to match what you could bring to such an alliance."
"Bigger does not mean better, milady." Michael gestured around the clearing. "These woods would be an ideal training ground for our young ones. They learn their warrior skills on the safety of the estate but this environment would provide new challenges."
"I see where you're going with this, Michael." Brock nodded approvingly. "You see," he said, turning to Kylie, "Next summer things will be rather hectic for us. Our eggs will be hatching and the current batch of hatchlings will be ready to start their warrior training. It would be difficult to care for the new hatchlings with the young ones underfoot."
"But we will have our own hatchlings to take care of," Curran said sharply. "They come first."
"Och," Rachel said, rolling her eyes, "we have only two eggs in our rookery, brother, ye knows that. They mus' have much more than that in London."
"Fifteen," Michael answered. He smiled sadly. "My only child will hatch then so I'll be staying there. However, if you are agreeable to my proposal, we would bring extra provisions, medicines, anything you might need in exchange."
Brock merely smiled and spoke up. "Caspian, do you suppose any of your rookery brothers would like interested in visiting our Scottish cousins?"
"You're putting me on, right?" Caspian paused and snapped another picture of Kirstie. "Once I show these photos around, they'll be queuing up!"
Tori crooked at eyebrow ridge at him. "And why would that be?"
"Well, in my rookery, the males outnumbered the females, twelve to seven. At least five of us will be going mateless." Caspian looked at his camera wryly. "Hmmm, I'd better make sure only the guys see these."
"Rosalind sees them, my young friend," Brock joked, "and you will certainly have some fast talking to do!" Everyone had a good laugh at Caspian's chagrined expression.
"Seriously, I wouldnít be surprised if some of our younger warriors might find your way of life more appealing," Michael said seriously, once the laughter died down. "It would be good for both our clans. It would give my young warriors who think city life is too tame a taste of something different and it would give you the chance to get new blood in your clan."
Kylie pursed her lips and regarded her second-in-command. "Quade, ye will be leader after me. What say ye to this?"
The rough-featured gray gargoyle rumbled, "We've been hidin' from th' human world for so long that we've also hidden ourselves from our own kind. It's high time for a change and I think our clan will be stronger for it. I favor the alliance."
"So be it." Kylie held out her withered hand. "Let our two clans stand together against whatever may come."
Michael clasped forearms with her and then with Quade. "I say, we should really formalize this alliance."
Curran suddenly stood up, face to the sky. Brock followed his gaze and smiled. "I agree, old friend. Perhaps a more intimate joining of clans, yes?"
All eyes were on Griff and Brianna as they landed, their faces flushed and happy. Griff straightened his leathers and attempted to act nonchalant. "Hullo, all. I do hope we haven't missed dinner. It smells marvelous."
Michael stood up and walked over to him. "Lady Kylie and I have agreed to an alliance and we were just talking about how we could formalize the joining of our clans."
"I dinnae suppose ye two would have any ideas about it?" Kylie called as Rachel helped her up from her chair.
Griff and Brianna exchanged a bemused look. "I believe we can accommodate you on this," Griff said drolly. "With your blessing, Lady Kylie, Brianna and I have agreed to be mates."
Kylie hobbled forward, pulling herself straight with the aid of her gnarled staff. She regarded them with a calm dignity. "Brianna, this a decision to be made carefully. If ye wish to be mates wi' Griff, it means going where he goes and sharing in one life together, even leaving th' forest an' all o' us. Is this what ye want, lass?"
Brianna went to her and bowed her head. "It is, Kylie. My heart sings for Griff an' I cannae bear wi'out him, even if it means leavin' my home an' all I love."
"Nonsense, lass." Kylie reached out and stroked Brianna's brow ridges. "As long as ye hold all that ye love in yuir heart, ye'll always be home. Be wi' Griff, an' be happy yuir whole life long."
"Brock?" Michael asked. "Is there a ritual for the joining of two clans?"
"Hmmmm, possibly, but without my records, I couldn't say for sure." The badger-faced gargoyle straightened his clothing and ran his talons through his hair. "We'll just have to wing it." Brock clapped his hands. "Let's get these two properly mated!"
Instant chaos broke out as everyone moved at once. Tori and Kirstie disappeared into the trees, only to reappear later with a wreath of mistletoe and holly for Brianna's hair. Brock, Michael and Kylie huddled together in quiet discussion and occasional argument. The remainder of the Caledonian clan went into the cave and came back dressed more festively; the males with plaid tartans draped across their chests and the females in long tunics with tartan sashes stretched from shoulder to waist.
"You know," Caspian quipped as he took in the festivities, "it's not too late to elope, Uncle."
Griff laughed. "Don't tempt me. Still, I prefer this to the grand party your mother would arrange for us."
"Who says Mum still won't do just that?"
Rachel and Kirstie took Brianna aside and concealed her behind their spread wings. When the whispering and giggling stopped, they led Brianna back to stand besides Griff in the center of the clearing. The sight of her nearly took his breath away. They had exchanged her deerskin tunic to one of finely woven material in snowy white and decorated with white fur around the neck and sleeves.
Kylie stuck her staff against a flat stone on the ground. She, too, wore a tartan sash like the others of her clan and stood tall and straight, with only the barest tremor to mark her illness. "Come, gather together beneath th' open sky," she began, in a clear strong voice. "Let th' stars above be witness to th' miracle of two hearts that beat as one. Join hands an' repeat after me."
Brianna slipped her slender hands into Griff's and he squeezed it gently.
"I promise to take you as my mate -"
Griff's voice was hoarse and anxious as he picked up the words. "- to love and protect -- "
"-an' know forever that -" Brianna's soft lilt floated about his tenor.
Together, they intoned, "-- You and I are one."
"What th' heart joins together will stand forever until stone crumbles and th' sky falls." Kylie stamped her staff twice and Michael stepped up to join her.
"Brianna of Caledonia, from this night forth, consider yourself one of the London clan. Be welcome, dear sister, in both my clan," Michael glanced at Griff and smiled, "and in my family."
Kylie lifted her chin as she raised her eyes to the green male before her. "Griff o' London, be welcome in th' Great Forest o' Caledonia. Know that yuir life is now joined wi' ours. Grow in love, my children."
"Let it be written," Brock said solemnly, "that on this night, the clans of England and Scotland were united in the meeting of two hearts. Blessings be on this union now and forever."
There was a palpable silence. Caspian finally nudged Griff and whispered none-too-quietly, "Kiss the bride!"
Amidst the ensuing cheers and laughter, Griff wrapped his feathered wings around Brianna and kissed her with all due ceremony. He would have been perfectly content to stay that way, with his new mate in his arms if not for the jubilant presence of their friends and family. Rachel insisted in serving them the best of the communal feast. Brock and Caspian joined Tori and Kirstie in serenading the newlymates while Jamie accompanied them. It was stern Curran that provided Griff and Brianna with the chance that they had been looking for.
Curran, it seemed, had a talent for brewing and the mead flowed quite freely.
"-and here's to my long lost brother and his beautiful bride!" crowed Michael.
"Here, here!" answered Caspian, flourishing his earthenware tankard. "Here's to Griff and Brianna, wherever they are!"
Brock paused in refilling Kylie's mug to squint around the clearing. "Hullo! Where did our guests of honor get off to?"
Kylie laughed. "Where else?" She flicked her eyes skywards. "Off on their mating flight, as it should be!"
As one, the gargoyles below raised their glasses to salute the shadows of the winged couple passing across the face of the moon. For one brief, crystal moment, all the troubles of the outside world did not exist and all that mattered was the mingled cries of two gargoyles in love echoing across the Scottish Highlands.
* * * * *
Credits and Notes:
Edward Lear, "The Owl and The Pussycat"
The Road and the Miles to Dundee
The Birks of Aberfeldie
(This one has a Midi to listen to!)
"And I Love Her," lyrics by The Beatles © 1964, used without permission.