A Pendragon Story
Story concept by Christi Smith Hayden, Todd Jensen, and Rahsaan Footman
Story written by Christi Smith Hayden
Artwork by Christi Smith Hayden
Previously on Pendragon…
Arthur: "Milady, it has been my experience that in all creatures, there is an equal capacity for good and evil. Forasmuch as I have known them in both ages past and present, even though most gargoyles of my acquaintance are good and noble creatures, there have been those rogue few with villainy in their hearts, caring naught for others. I am deeply sorry that your clan's experience with mankind has not been pleasant but I assure you, for although there are evil men in the world, they are outnumbered by good men willing to do what is right."
Kylie: "‘Tis a pretty speech, an’ it may very well be as ye say, in th’ outside world." [eyes narrow] "She who led before me used t’ say that our lives were bound t’ th’ forest. Th’ Great Wood sheltered us when we were lost an’ had no home. We owe it a debt, a life debt that cannae be broken. When th’ forest was great, th’ clan flourished. Now -- now, just look at us!" [gestures with her staff angrily.] "Th’ forest dwindles, our numbers are few, eggs in th’ rookery fewer still, an’ no mates for my daughters." [locks stares with Arthur.] "When th’ forest dies, we will die with it."
~~~Into The Woods~~~
* * * * *
Una: Oh!" [raises a brow ridge] "What of Rosalind? Won't she be worried?"
Caspian: [smile fades] "Oh. Perhaps." [looks away, forelock falling over his face]
Una: "Caspian?" [reaches over and brushes the dark gold hair from his brow ridge with her knuckles] "Come now. Tell mother what's wrong. Have you and Rosalind been quarreling?"
Caspian: "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." [sighs and leans over the table with his chin in his hand] "What's a poor spellcaster like me to do to compete with that?"
Una: "Dear me. You are in pickle, aren't you? I'm afraid magic isn't very useful in matters of the heart, my dear."
Caspian: "I know, Mum." [makes a face] "If only it was!"
~~~My Lady Fair~~~
* * * * *
Kylie: "Yuir sisters," [eyes glow faintly.] "Where are they?"
Tori: "They an' that other Londoner are followin' th' trail. Th' humans took Griff and one other away in a motor car." [frowns] "I dinnae know about Kirstie but Brianna's sworn that she's nae comin' back wi'out Griff."
Kylie: "No." [voice trails off weakly.]
Quade: "Curran!! Tori!! Yuir wi' me!" [puts a gentle hand on Kylie's shoulder.] "I'll bring her back safe, Kylie. I promise."
Rachel: "Just be sure ye bring yuirself back home safe as well, my love. I'll take care o' things here."
Quade: "Aye, love. That I will." [gives 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: "What do ye give for their chances?"
Kylie: "Out amongst th' humans? Slim an' none." [closes her eyes and makes a strangled noise in the back of her throat.]
~~~My Lady Fair~~~
* * * * *
On Holiday – Part I
Strangely-colored spirals of wispy smoke curled upwards, leaving a sooty pattern of interlocking Celtic circles on the roof of the cave. A rasping cough broke the silence, erupting into a paroxysm of body-shattering spasms. The two healers attending the patient worked together to soothe and calm the old gargoyle. Slowly, her breathing resumed its shallow, wheezing rhythm and Kylie sank back exhausted into her furs.
"There now, elder," Rachel crooned, as softly as she would to her own hatchling, "rest now, luv. Rest now an’ I’ll guard yuir slumber."
The other, a gargoyle resembling a winged wolf, sat back on his haunches sorting through a large plastic box, which was opened to reveal many small compartments. He filled a hypodermic with a clear fluid and injected Kylie with it. When he spoke, it was with gentleness at odds with his fierce appearance.
"This will reduce the pain for a few hours," he said quietly. "I don’t dare give her more."
"Ye’ve done more for her that any o’ us could," Rachel whispered back. "Don’t fret, Tiberius. Ye’ve done yuir best."
Tiberius shook his shaggy head. "Perhaps, Rachel, but was it good enough? Stay with her for now and I’ll have a word with Quade." He rose to his feet in one fluid motion and slipped through the overhanging hide that served as a door without stirring a breeze.
Outside the cave, the rest of the Caledonian clan waited and enjoyed the pleasant summer night. Quade, the granite-hewn male who had taken over most of the leader’s duties, spoke up almost immediately. "What news?"
"Lady Kylie is resting," Tiberius reported, "but there’s not much I can do. Rachel’s homeopathic remedies are just not having the same effect that they used to and after the battle with the Unseelie, the medications that I could have used to treat her are seriously low."
"Ye should have let me die. Then ye woulda had th’ things ye needed for Kylie." Curran said bitterly. His many injuries had been slow in healing and the quiet warrior was still weak in his leg and in his wings, hampering his mobility. "I would’ve been willing to take my chances."
"Nae, Curran!" Jamie cried, their small son in her arms. "Ye mustna say such things!"
Tiberius regarded him solemnly with golden lupine eyes. "You wouldn’t have had enough blood left in your body to allow it to turn to stone if I hadn’t operated. Bleeding to death would have not helped Lady Kylie and you know perfectly well she would have not accepted your sacrifice."
Curran narrowed his eyes and started forward but Quade held up his massive hand. "Th’ English wolf speaks truly," he rumbled. "We cannae dwell on th’ past. If it be Kylie’s time t’go, than so be it. Th’ least we can do is see that her last days are well-spent an’ peaceful. D’ye have what ye need t’ make her comfortable?"
Tiberius shook his head. "I’m nearly out of everything. I need your permission to go into town and make a phone call." He cocked his head to a gargoyle with a fox’s head standing beneath a pine tree. "Remus can go with me and watch my back."
"So be it." Quade glanced towards the cave, concern creasing his forehead. "Be careful out there among th’ humans."
* * * * *
The Marter Estate
"No, my dear," Brock said patiently for the second time in as many hours, "I’m still not finished with my research on the computer. I promise that you’ll get your turn."
"Promise?" Lucy said, twisting her gold-tufted tail in her hands.
The old record-keeper smiled kindly at her. "I’ll let you know as soon as your friend Graeme logs on. Now go and play with your friends."
With an impish grin, Lucy careened out of the room, nearly missing Michael carrying his infant daughter in his arms. "Here now!" the eagle-headed gargoyle called out after her. "Have a care not to run in the house!"
"The youngsters are restless," Brock observed, returning to his work.
"No kidding," Michael said wryly as he settled down with Victoria in his lap. She burbled at her father and waved a toy at him. "I just had to shoo the lot of them out of the rookery so the hatchlings could take their naps."
A crash resounded down the hallway and both males winced as shouting erupted.
"Oh, dear." Brock glanced up. "Perry sounds fairly miffed at somebody."
A pack of clumsy young gargoyle beasts came pounding down the corridor, yelping and snapping at a string of sausages held tight in their ringleader’s jaws. Faulconbridge and Imogen ran after them with an irritated older hawk-headed female in an apron trailing along behind.
"You horrible little beggars!!" Perry shouted between breaths. "Steal food out of my kitchen, will you?"
Startled by the commotion, little Victoria wailed, flailing her arms and legs. Michael closed his eyes and winced. "Is it just me or does the estate seem smaller than it used to?"
Brock chuckled. "Isn’t it grand?"
The telephone rang. Michael shifted Victoria onto his shoulder and hooked the phone under his chin. "Hello?" he said cautiously. "Tiberius!! By the Dragon, we were beginning to wonder about you lot up there." Michael listened attentively for a few minutes and raised one brow ridge.
"What is it?" Brock hissed.
Michael held up his hand. "I understand, Tiberius. Start from the beginning, and tell me everything."
* * * * *
The distant howling of the young beasts were barely noticed by the inhabitants of the old summerhouse. One wall had collapsed and was lying on the ground. Paint peeled off in long curling strips that quivered as padded feet thundered across the floor.
"—And Cactus Jack zooms in from behind and--"
"Ooomph! Hey, no fair, Lucy!!"
"Oh, come on, Winston, be a sport! You’re the only one big enough to play the Super Cyborg Assault Armadillos’ dread nemesis, Peterbilt von Dieseldourf."
The young gargoyle with the bulldog features huffed, puffing out his jowls. "Dodger does a much better job playing the villain." Broad-chested and sturdy, he stood a head above his rookery mates but his playmate clinging to his shoulders didn’t seem to find him intimidating in the least.
Lucy rolled her golden eyes and slid off Winston’s back. "True, but Dodger’s off somewhere."
"He’s always off somewhere," drawled Dorcas, preening her sleek marmalade fur. "It’s a wonder that Michael allows him to stay on the estate at all."
"If it wasn’t for streetwise gargoyles like Dodger and Weller," Lucy said archly, "we would have never been able to keep on top of problems like the Minions. Father thinks very highly of them."
Dorcas wrinkled her nose in a lady-like fashion. "Leo is hardly one to talk. He and Una have practically gone native living amongst the humans."
The fur along Lucy’s dappled shoulders rose. "If it wasn’t for my parents running the magic shop, we’d all be living harder lives, little miss pussycat. You should be grateful that they have the courage to face the public the way they do."
"Oh, yes." Dorcas extended a hand and examined her fingernails. "Pretending to be wearing costumes. Very brave. Ooooh. Aaaah."
From the shadows, a fourth rookery mate emerged. Barely taller than Lucy, the young male gargoyle was covered with pale green reptilian skin, the color darkening on the backs of his wings. A double row of tiny sharp spikes ran along his brow ridges, his spine from crown to tail, and his arms from shoulder to wrist. "Um, ladies?" he ventured timidly, his large blue eyes liquid and pleading. "Let’s not fight. Lucy, I’m sure Dorcas didn’t mean that." He looked at the marmalade female and smiled appealingly. "Dorcas? Please?"
"Actually, Musgrave," Dorcas drawled slowly, "what I meant to say was that the reason that Una and Leo let humans believe that they’re wearing costumes is because Una and Leo are ashamed of being gargoyles. Why else would they want to live apart from the rest of the clan?"
In less than a heartbeat, Lucy dove across the room and had Dorcas down on the floor in the dust, billowing clouds of the stuff wafting into the air. The two young males backed away, shaking their heads.
"What should we do, Winston?" Musgrave chewed his lip nervously. "Should we break it up?"
Winston merely watched calmly as Dorcas yowled as Lucy yanked a handful of her pale orange hair. He blinked and glanced down at his companion. "You’d be better off wading into that mess than I would, chum. Those girls have their claws out. At least you’ve got armor plating."
"But— but ---," the little dragon gargoyle stuttered.
A dark form swooped down from the sky. "Oh, honestly!" exclaimed the newcomer. "Can’t I make one little run into town without you two goin’ at it?" The dark-furred male with the nondescript terrier features waded into the thick of the catfight, and with a quick glance at each other, Winston and Musgrave joined him. Within a few minutes, the two females were pulled apart, glaring at each other.
"Thank goodness you managed to get here in time, Dodger," Musgrave commented. "I don’t know what we would have done."
"I expect you’d be sweepin’ up what was left of Dorky in a bucket." Dodger ignored her haughty hiss as he adjusted his backwards-facing cap on his head and ruefully examined the new rips in his baggy T-shirt and cut-off jeans. "Ah, well," he said finally, "it was about time to change styles anyway. This look is so last week."
"It’s all right, Winston, let me go." Lucy avoided looking at her adversary as she patted the dust out of her fur. "So what’s new in the city, Dodger?"
"Oh, the usual ragtag collection of Minion has-beens causin’ trouble, royals in an uproar, and, oh, yeah—" Dodger pulled a silvery package out of his pants pocket. "Those Super Cyborg cards you’ve been waitin’ for came in."
"Coolness!!" Lucy grinned as she turned the pack of cards in her fingers, careful not to tear them with her talons. "I can’t wait to tell Graeme!"
Dorcas sniffed. "Graeme, spam. Why, I--"
"And for you, Princess Pussycat," Dodger waved a small cylinder beneath her pink nose, "some of that perfume you’ve been wantin’, endorsed by the Posh One herself."
"Oooooh!" Dorcas snatched it up and purred.
"Dodger, I don’t know how you do it," Winston said admiringly. "One minute they’re homicidal maniacs, the next they’re happy as can be."
"Well, gents, there’s nothing to it," Dodger said magnanimously. "Females absolutely adore me."
Musgrave snorted. "Yeah, but if Michael catches you nicking stuff from newstands, he’ll clip your wings."
The streetwise young gargoyle was nonplused as he dug into a battered knapsack slung over his shoulder. "Now would I forget my mates? Here, have some candy bars and a few of those popular magazines that Perry won’t allow in the house."
The tips of Winston’s ears turned pink. "Thank you, Dodger. How very generous of you."
"Think nothin’ of it. So where’s the others?"
The bushes rustled and a compact black-and-white figure shoved her way out. The badgerish female blinked and called out breathlessly, "Quick!! We are going to be in such big trouble!!"
"Beatrix!!" Lucy leaped across the summer house steps. "What’s wrong?"
"The beastlings! Somehow they broke out of their pen and got into the kitchens!" Beatrix washed her hands over and over. "Can’t you hear them?"
All of the young gargoyles paused and stood stock still to hear the distinctive sounds of the pack of gargoyle beast pups that were coming closer. Lucy glanced around. "Well, Ranger had breakfast with me. Who was supposed to feed the others?"
"I did it yesterday," Musgrave answered. "I’ve nearly got Treacle tamed down."
Winston nodded. "And I did it the night before."
"Don’t look at me," Dorcas said as she sprayed perfume on her wings. "I despise the horrible drooling things."
"Oops." Dodger grinned sheepishly. "I think, maybe, I was on feedin’ rotation tonight. Sorry."
"Well, sorry’s not going to keep us out of more trouble," Lucy said firmly. "We’ve got to corral those beastlings and quick before the adults are completely ballistic." She started pointing. "Here’s what we’re going to do: Winston, you and Musgrave herd them from the west, Dodger, Beatrix, and I will herd them from the east. Dorcas, you go find Prongs and Agnes and meet us at the pen."
As one, the younger members of the London Clan split up and darted off into the night.
* * * * *
"Oh, Cas," Rosalind sighed as she leaned into the crook of his arm. "What a perfectly beautiful night."
"Indeed it is, luv," Caspian replied. He and Rosalind were taking advantage of the seclusion provided by the cascading pink roses sweeping down to the edge of the small lake on the estate grounds. "Lovely."
"It almost makes me feel like painting."
Caspian raised one brow ridge. "I would rather it made you feel like doing other things."
Rosalind laughed and pushed Caspian back into the grass. "Silly," she said, "I was only teasing." Playful kisses rained down on his equine muzzle and Caspian was content to enjoy her affection until they both took a break to breathe.
"Darling, I was wondering," he said carefully, "you know, Imogen has already said yes to Faulconbridge."
"Yes?" Rosalind blinked her golden eyes. "That’s old news."
"Well, um, it’s just that, things between us have been very good lately." He smiled nervously. "We haven’t had a fight in ages and your career’s going well and I’m nearly to the end of my apprenticeship."
Lowering her eyelashes, Rosalind looked away, hiding a small smile. "What ever are you going on about, Cas?"
Caspian gulped and took her hand. "Darling," he said, with a small tremor in his voice, "will you – OOMPH!!! "
The golden brown gargoyle was pitched backwards into the lake as a mass of madly peddling legs, glowing eyes and slobbering mouths hurdled through the rose bushes. Rosalind screeched indignantly as the pack of gargoyle beasts sent splatters of mud and pink flower petals everywhere. Caspian roared as he lurched out of the water.
"Now, Cas…" Rosalind started to say calmly, "you don’t know that your sister has anything to do with this."
A flash of red burst from the thicket and barreled into Rosalind at full speed on his short legs, hitting her just below the knees. She fell into Caspian’s arms and they both toppled back into the lake. The little gargoyle beast paused for a moment, a jaunty bandanna contrasting with its armor-plated body.
"Ranger!!" Rosalind spluttered. "Bad boy!!" The errant pet merely wagged his tail in return, happy to hear his name spoken.
Caspian helped Rosalind up and slowly stalked through the shallows. "Come here, Ranger," he called, trying to sound friendly through clenched teeth. "Here, boy…. GOTCHA!!!" Grinning, Caspian struggled to his feet with the squirming beast in his arms. "Lucy and her chums are supposed to be keeping a closer watch on these rascals. Let’s see them try to weasel out of it now when we’ve got Ranger here as evidence."
Rosalind clucked at the mud stains on her tunic. "At the very least, we can go clean up and change our clothes so you can get on with whatever it is you were going to tell me." She grinned up at him, only to have her expression turn into a puzzled frown. "Cas? Are you spellcasting? Your horn is glowing."
"What?" Caspian squinted upwards. "That’s odd. No matter, you’re right, luv. Let’s head up to the house and get out of these wet things."
* * * * *
Three pairs of eyes glowed faintly in the shadows as they watched the two older gargoyles make their way up the path past the rose garden and on up towards the manor house.
"That was Lucy’s horrid little pet," Dorcas commented cattily. "She’s going to be in such trouble!!"
"I hardly think that’s anything to crow about," said the falcon-headed female perched in the branches above her. "We were all supposed to be keeping an eye on them."
"Right-o, Dorcas," their companion commented as he absently rubbed his antlers against the tree trunk. "Instead of sniping about Lucy, why don’t you put your stalking skills to use and we’ll catch the others? Cas and Roz are taking the long way ‘round. We could beat them there if we’re quick."
"Prongs has a point, Dorcas. We’ll look responsible to the adults that way."
Dorcas wrinkled her pink nose. "And the others will get full blame. I like your way of thinking, Agnes." She lowered herself to the ground, sniffing loudly. "This way."
"That’s not at all what I meant!" Agnes protested as she and Prongs watched Dorcas disappear into the underbrush.
"I know," Prongs replied, "but it got her to help, and that’s what matters. You go high and scout ahead. I’ll follow Miss Kitty here and collect the beastlings."
"Are you sure?"
"Oh, you know me…" Prongs turned his head and the moonlight gave a strange silvery glimmer to his antlers. "I’ve got a knack for finding things."
* * * * *
"Are you sure about this, Michael?" Brock asked anxiously as he walked by his clan leader’s side.
"There’ll never be a better time for it," Michael said firmly. "If a decision is to be made, we must give both candidates a chance to prove their worthiness."
A shrill voice slowed their pace as they approached the Great Hall and both males stopped to listen.
"---and another thing," Perry’s voice rang out, "we absolutely cannot have any more disturbances like this. The hatchlings need their naps and the rest of us would welcome the peace and quiet to get on with our own tasks. Is that clear?"
"Yes, Rookery Mother," chorused the small group of youngsters huddled in front of her. All of them were looking a bit worse for wear, clothing smeared with mud, feathers ruffled, and faces dirty.
Michael and Brock paused in the doorway, taking in the tableau before them. The London clan leader cleared his throat. "I beg your pardon, Perry? Is there a problem here?"
The feathers on the back of Perry’s head were still ruffled. "Oh, it’s those beastlings from Yorkshire we took in again, Michael. Someone," she glared at young Dodger who had the nerve to grin back at her, "forgot to feed them so they broke out of their pen and got into my kitchens. Then they ran amuck all over the estate making a hideous racket."
"Tell me about it," Caspian said, standing near the fire clad only in a loincloth, toweling his mane dry while his wings steamed in the heat. "The little rotters knocked Roz and me in the lake. Still, the kids had managed to put most of the beastlings back in the pen by the time we got there with Ranger."
"Really, Michael," Perry huffed, "is it necessary to have so many beasts on the estate? Cavall and Ranger are well-behaved enough but some of the others are just too feral to keep."
"I was considering offering one or two of them to some of the other clans at the World Gathering," Michael replied. "Ishimura and Manhattan are the only other clans that I know of that have their own beasts."
Perry blinked and stared at him incredulously. "Oh, dear. I don’t think that would be a big boon to world diplomacy, Michael."
Brock coughed suspiciously, a giveaway twinkle in his eye. "She, ah, has a point."
"Perhaps." Michael scanned the crowd assembled, his eagle eyes counting heads. "Most everyone seems to be here, so I would like to make an announcement. I just had a telephone conversation with Tiberius, who’s with the Caledonian clan in Scotland."
"My clan?" Brianna pushed her way to the front of the crowd, Griff right behind her. "What news?"
"Tiberius reports that the Caledonians are slowly recovering from the effects of the Unseelie attack on them. Our relief effort will be well received and they’re looking forward to having some of our people coming up to give them a chance to rest." Michael frowned. "Is Amanda here? We have an additional list of medical supplies to add to other things we were planning to send up there."
"Oh?" An older female with a bent wing and a barn owl’s face came forward. "What does he need?"
"Here," Brock said as he met her halfway. "Michael let me on to take Tiberius’ order. He was very precise as to what he wanted."
The clan healer studied the paper very seriously for a few moments. "These are very strong heart medications. Did he say why he needed them?"
"His patient has been having difficulties lately." Brock glanced at Brianna briefly and sighed. "I’m sorry, my dear, to have tell you but Kylie’s health has been declining slowly over the past year. She asked Tiberius not to say anything but under the circumstances, he felt you had a right to know."
"Och, poor Kylie." Brianna shook her head slowly, her long braids rasping together. "I knew her time would come but so soon?" Griff put his hands on her shoulders to comfort her.
"Tiberius is one of the best healers I’ve trained," Amanda said soothingly. "When Brock told us of Kylie’s ailments, we sent Tiberius with a goodly assortment of geriatric remedies. It’s a tribute to his skills that she’s lasted this long." She reached out to Brianna.
"When the wind calls to an old gargoyle, it’s best to let them go with dignity."
"Aye, it is as ye say, Amanda. I know th’ truth of it." Brianna blinked rapidly and took a deep breath. "Michael, I’ll take th’ medical supplies north for ye. I mus’ go home."
"No need, Brianna. We’ve been planning a relief effort for weeks now and I think that things have calmed down enough that we can risk sending a good-sized party to Scotland." Michael raised a brow ridge at the cluster of underage gargoyles still cowering under their rookery mother’s baleful glare. "Perry, I think our youngsters are in need of some hard work and discipline."
Perry’s expression did not change but she winked at the leader. "Very hard work, I should think. In fact, I think this lot would appreciate what they have much better if they had to get back to basics and rough it for while."
Lucy and her rookery siblings cringed.
Slipping in besides Caspian while the others were talking, Rosalind handed him his newly cleaned tunic. "I cannot believe you’re out here in just a loincloth!" she whispered, shaking the fine, downy white feathers on her head.
"You know I can’t stand blow dryers. They make me all fluffy." Caspian grinned at her impetuously. "My lack of clothes giving you ideas, is it?"
"Hmmph. Maybe later." Rosalind composed her face and concentrated on listening to Michael, even as she linked her fingers with his.
"My thoughts exactly," Michael agreed. "Therefore, they will be taking the place of the work crew we were planning to send to the Caledonian Forest."
"Us?" Lucy blurted out. "Going on an adventure?" Behind her, various expressions of excitement were crossing the faces of her peers.
"Leaving the estate!"
"Eeeeuw, out in the woods, all dirty and full of bugs? Ick!"
"Well, it’s not going to be all fun and games," Michael said sternly. "There’s been a lot of damage there. You’ll be building dams, clearing away debris, and learning woodcraft from Brianna’s clan. Perry has her hands full with the current rookery so she won’t be going but I have faith that her substitute will be able to keep you kids in line."
Rosalind leaned over to Caspian and whispered "I wonder who’s crazy enough to take them up there."
Before Caspian had a chance to reply, Michael turned his eagle’s glance in their direction. "Caspian?" the clan leader asked, "How soon will you be ready?"
"All the supplies are ready now and transportation has been arranged with our human helpers. Once Amanda has the extra medical supplies ready, we could leave at first light." Caspian replied.
Lucy bounded up and seized her brother’s hand. "Really? You’re going with us?"
Caspian laughed and tweaked her feline nose. "Did you think Mum and Da would cut you loose with just anyone, kitten? We’ll have great adventures together, you’ll see."
"Hold on, hold on!" Michael waved down the rising hubbub of excited voices. "One other thing: I’ve decided to go along too."
"But you can’t--!!"
"Quiet, please!!" Michael thundered. "I know it’s unusual but I feel I must speak personally to Kylie and Quade about clan matters. They can’t come here so I must go to them."
"But there is no Second to take your place! Who will lead us?"
Nodding, Michael continued. "Yes, I know. It’s been difficult trying to find a replacement for Aper but I have settled on two candidates with the approval of the Elders. I want to give them both an opportunity to prove their worthiness to the clan before I make my final choice." An expectant silence filled the room as the clan waited for his next words. "Griff must accompany Brianna to her home clan so his turn will come later. Boz? Step forward."
Boz, the massive blue gargoyle with the bristly face and walrus tusks stepped from the crowd. He caped his leathery wings about his broad shoulders with great dignity. "At your service, clan leader."
"I leave the clan in your capable hands during my absence," Michael intoned formally. "You are more scholar than warrior, but your intelligence and cool temper are qualities that I consider valuable in a second-in-command. Brock and the Council of Elders will advise you as necessary. Do you accept?"
"I would be honored, Michael," Boz said, bowing his head.
In the flurry of congratulations and excited conversations that followed, Rosalind tugged on Caspian’s arm and pulled him into a quiet corner. "Why didn’t you say anything?" she demanded. "You never said one word about volunteering to go up to Scotland again, not one word!"
"Well, I was meaning to," Caspian began, "but I hadn’t expected to be going quite so soon. I thought I’d have a bit more time to tell you and besides," he took her hands, "I thought maybe you could come with me this time. The scenery is beautiful, you could paint to your heart’s content and," he smiled warmly, "we’d be together."
Rosalind could barely think with her heart fluttering so. "Why, Cas….? Was that what you were trying to tell me earlier?"
"Well, that would have been part of it, yes." A clouded, sad look crossed his eyes for a moment and then he laughed, looking down at himself. "I really am underdressed for the role of substitute rookery keeper and watcher of young warriors-in-training."
Rosalind laughed and put her arms around him for a hug. "For what’s it worth, I think you look better in Lance’s old loincloth than he did."
For a moment, Caspian froze in her arms and then he pulled away. "I suppose I ought to get dressed. There’s still a lot that has to be done before we leave tomorrow." Caspian kissed her absently on the forehead and left the room.
Puzzled, Rosalind stared after her unicorn-headed suitor. Caspian had been acting strangely for weeks now, come to think of it, ever since the end of the Unseelie War. In one way, he seemed more focused and serious. On the other, he would be moody and lost in thought for hours, only to make light-hearted jokes to cover it up afterwards. It wasn’t like him at all, and it had Rosalind worried.
* * * * *
"—That’s splendid news, Griff," Arthur was saying as Merlin and Mary left the all-night corner store and walked toward the telephone box. "We’ll see you there in a few day’s time. Farewell!"
"Phew!" Mary sat her bag of provisions down on the sidewalk next to their traveling gear. "I thought the talking stomach here was going to buy out the store."
"Hardly," Merlin snorted. "The selection in there wasn’t worth writing home about. Speaking of which," he turned to Arthur, "what news?"
"Yeah," Mary sat down on the curb and pulled off her shoes to massage her feet. "Where we are going anyway? I’d hate to think my feet are getting all sore for nothing."
"We’re in luck," Arthur answered cheerfully. "As it turns out, our friends are heading to the Caledonian Forest as well. Hopefully, they’ll have some good news for us."
Mary raised an eyebrow. "By ‘friends,’ do you mean the ones with wings and tails?"
Arthur nodded. "You’ll finally get to see for yourself, my dear. My knight Griff is escorting his mate, Brianna back to her home clan. Seems they’ve had a bit of a medical emergency." He glanced at Merlin who was staring into space. "I do hope everything’s all right, don’t you, Merlin?"
"Hmm? What?" The curly-headed teenager shook his head. "Oh, I’m sure it’s nothing serious. The Caledonian clan has always been very self-sufficient."
"I thought these gargoyles of yours only lived in cities," Mary commented. "What are they doing in the woods?"
"Before there were cities," Arthur said, "gargoyles lived on cliffs and other high places. Merlin’s old tutor, Blaise, was on good terms with the gargoyle clan that lived near him. I’m sure he could tell you more." He looked to Merlin for a comment but the youth was slipping his backpack on his shoulders, oblivious to the conversation.
Frowning, Arthur cleared his throat. "Well. Perhaps, we should head to the visitor’s hostel for the night. We’ll need to make an early start in the morning."
"All right," Mary yawned. "It’ll be good to sleep in a bed for once." She fell into place behind the two men as they went up the darkened street. Her nose twitched and Mary rubbed it irritably. If it was possible, the city had what Mary wanted to describe as a ‘loud’ smell – a noxious mixture of automotive exhaust, rancid cooking oil, and human sweat. It was all she could do not to gag in the store at the garlic-tinged weight of the clerk’s breath. Merlin hadn’t seemed to notice – not that he’d been paying that much attention to anything lately.
A sudden sound made her jump and Arthur turned around to look at her. "Are you all right, Mary?" he asked gently.
"Didn’t you hear that awful screech?" Mary complained, wrinkling her forehead as she stared down the street they were crossing. "It nearly put my teeth on edge."
"No, I’m afraid that I didn’t," Arthur replied, "but most modern sounds tend to be strange to my ears. We’re nearly to the hostel. I think perhaps we could all use a good rest."
"All right." Mary chewed on her lip nervously. It was one thing to be a wolf by day; to still be hearing and smelling things when she was a human made her stomach do flip-flops. What if the wolf was taking over? She kept her thoughts to herself and concentrated on keeping one foot in front of the other.
* * * * *
Undisclosed location, London
Jacob Feldman entered his flat, fuming. "Blast that brown-noser, Jenkins! That was my assignment! Mine!!" He tossed his jacket at the back of a chair and missed as he headed for the liquor cabinet.
Things had not gone well at the Illuminati meeting held in one of the parlors at one of London’s most exclusive men’s clubs. He had been passed over yet again for another assignment by the Society, and it was a plumb job for which he was uniquely qualified. Feldman sloshed a measure of amber liquid into a glass and tossed it back.
"First it was that bloody fiasco with Powell and that idiot with the sword," Feldman muttered angrily, "and then losing those gargoyles up in Scotland. My luck’s gone downhill ever since I came over to this side of the Atlantic." He re-filled his glass. "I’ll never get re-assigned back to the States at this rate, not with that black mark on my record."
Feldman rifled through a pile of mail. "Bill…. bill… what’s this?" He slit open the envelope and swore profusely at the newspaper clipping of a half-focused gargoyle flying over a building. "If I ever find out which one of those jokers have been pulling this garbage on me, I’m going to string them up by their ears!! I have absolutely had it!!"
A bad day was slowly going worse. The telephone rang and irritably, Feldman slapped the receiver off its cradle.
"Feldman? Ratcliffe, here."
"You?" Feldman’s face darkened. "No offense, Alfred, but you are the LAST person I want to talk to. I am sick and tired of being branded a loser."
"You too, eh?" Ratcliffe sighed bitterly. "I was just passed over for a post as a research fellow. Prime job… I’ve been on the waiting list for years and some young punk fresh out of M.I.T. got the job."
"A lot of that going around, I hear."
Feldman shook his head. "Sounds like you’re in the same boat I am. We’re being black-balled, you know."
"Yes, I gathered as much." There was a tapping sound as if Ratcliffe was drumming his fingers on a table. "You know, I think I know a way to get rid of that mark on our records. Are you interested?"
* * * * *
The Marter Estate
A land rover with a horse trailer and a motoring caravan were waiting in the sweeping circular drive in front of the main house when the London clan woke from their stone slumber. Lucy and her rookery swarmed down the stairs excitedly and were converging on the horse trailer when Dulcinea intercepted them.
"Easy now," she cautioned. "You can’t just rush up on a horse. Rosinante needs to get used to you first."
"But we’re not going to hurt her!" protested Musgrave. "Just one look, please?"
"Perhaps in a bit," Dulcinea agreed. "First we need to give the little beasts something special in their food so this trip will go easier on all of us. Can you show me where they are?"
"Yes!" Lucy grabbed the Spanish woman by the hand. "They’re right back here."
Colin Marter watched as the cluster of young gargoyles escorted Dulcinea out of sight. "Right, that’s got the youngsters occupied for the moment," he commented to the redheaded young man next to him. "Caspian! Come look at the maps with us! Rory has your route all lined out."
Caspian strode out with large satchel over his shoulder, filled with Rosalind’s art supplies as evidenced by the assorted paintbrushes and pencils protruding from various pockets. "The overland route?" he inquired. "The others said they made good time, even if it was a little less convenient than hitching a ride on the train."
"No point in letting our enemies know where we’re going," Griff commented. "It’s too risky taking the train again, at least this close to the estate."
"Exactly right," Colin agreed. "Rory’s come up with an alternative route, since the youngsters are going along. They aren’t going to be able to fly the full distance without resting."
Rory smoothed the road map out on the bonnet of the land rover. "Here’s th’ original route that th’ first relief group took up to Scotland," he said as his finger traced a faint pencil line before transferring to a similar line in bright yellow ink. "Now this is th’ route Dulci an’ I are taking. You’re going to cross a railway track about 50 miles outside of London. Colin an’ I have checked and there’s a northbound train scheduled to run on that track in a few hours. If you’re lucky, you can catch a ride on it an’ give th’ kids a bit of a break."
"Does it go all the way up to Aberfeldy?" Caspian asked.
"No, I’m afraid it doesn’t," Colin answered. He pulled a small notepad out of his pocket. "It changes direction at Glasgow so you’ll have to leave the train," he consulted the map, "here, southwest of your destination."
"That’s not bad," Griff said approvingly. "That leaves maybe two hours of solid flying to the Caledonian Forest."
"Some of th’ kids can come with Dulci an’ me," Rory offered, "but only two per vehicle. We’re stuffed to th’ gills with supplies."
Caspian nodded. "That would probably be wise. Lucy and Musgrave have the best touch with the beastlings. They’ll need to go with Dulcinea. I’d best consult with Perry as to who’d best be riding with you." He glanced around. "Anyone see her?"
Colin took out his pipe and began to fill it. "I think you’ll need to wait your turn, lad." He gestured towards a cluster of gargoyles coming through the front doors. "She seems to be a bit agitated."
"Honestly, Michael!!" Perry glared up at the London clan leader with her hands planted firmly on her hips. "You cannot take a hatchling on such a long journey! It’s too risky!!"
Michael adjusted the straps of the carrier secured around his chest and chucked little Victoria under her chubby chin. "Victoria and I are just as much in need of a vacation as the rest of the clan. You never made this much fuss when Leo and Una took Aslan to live with them at the shop."
"Una was nursing him then, that’s different!" The hawk-headed female sighed. "The leader and his offspring should never be off the estate at the same time."
"What are we, the royal family? Bloodline has never determined who leads the clan." Michael reached out and brushed Perry’s brow ridges gently with his knuckles. "You’ve been a good foster mother to Victoria and I’ve always appreciated that, but you needn’t worry. I am perfectly capable of taking care of my daughter." His eyes took on a faraway look. "And I need to do this. For both of us."
Perry wrinkled her brow. "I don’t understand." She turned to Brock, who was standing nearby with a backpack in hand. "Surely there’s something in the clan scrolls about this. Make him see reason, Brock!!"
The badgerish recordkeeper studied Michael carefully for a few minutes. "It’s Fidella again, isn’t it?" he said at last. "You’re afraid of events repeating themselves."
Victoria burbled and grasped her father’s finger. Michael smiled at her and then looked at Brock with sad eyes. "Am I that transparent, old friend?"
"Not often," Brock replied, "but I know how much having Victoria has made you confront all those things that you suppressed when Fidella died. This little imp may have your eagle features but she’s got her mother’s beauty. You need to put all of your old ghosts to rest if you’re going to have any future with your daughter."
Perry looked between them with an increasingly puzzled expression. Finally she threw up her hands. "I have NO idea what you two are talking about! At least tell me you’ve packed all her things?"
Brock held up the backpack. "All right here, Perry, my dear. Nappies, change of clothes, a few bottles, snacks, and a few toys. There’s more diapers and formula in the supplies."
"Oh, dear." Perry shook her head. "You have thought this out, haven’t you?"
"I’m afraid so," Michael replied with a roguish grin. "But you can still worry about us if it makes you happy."
Dulcinea and her helpers came trooping around the side of the manor house, bearing the young gargoyle beasts from Yorkshire. They were as limp as ragdolls, heads lolling and tongues hanging out.
"Are you sure they’re all right?" Musgrave asked in a very small voice that clashed with his spikes and scales. He had a small dark purplish-brown gargoyle beast cradled in his arms, its wedge-shaped head resting chin up against his chest. "What if they stop breathing or something? I’m sure she’s not breathing normally--"
"Treacle’s just fine, Muzzy," Lucy commented as she walked besides him, her pet hanging over her shoulder. "At least she’s not snoring like Ranger. Count your blessings."
Opening the back of the land rover, Dulcinea motioned the youngsters over. "Come along," she called. "I’ve borrowed a barrier grid from a dog trainer I used to work with and put down lots of newspaper. Even if they wake up, I doubt that we’ll have many problems with this lot."
"Right-o," Winston grunted as he heaved the two in his arms into the vehicle. "These fellows were getting to be heavy."
Dodger and Prongs added their beastlings, unceremoniously plopping them down. Musgrave and Lucy took a little more care with their personal pets, draping them over the other young beasts.
"Poor Treacle," Musgrave murmured as he gently rubbed his beastling’s velvety brow. "I hate doing this to her. I know she’d be good, really, she would."
"There, now," Dulcinea said gently, carefully patting his spiked shoulder. "It’s really for the best, you know. I’ve heard that the trip from Yorkshire was much different for these little beasts and if we’d didn’t take these precautions, they might not enjoy the trip very much. The sedative should start wearing off as soon as we get to where we’re going."
Caspian strode up. "Besides, Musgrave, you and Lucy are riding with Dulcinea. You’ll be right there if Treacle needs you."
"Really?" Musgrave brightened up. "We get to ride in a car?"
Dulcinea laughed. "But of course! You two can be my expert beast handlers."
"It’s not fair!" Dorcas protested, stomping her foot. "Why should Lucy get to ride while the rest of us get all sweaty and tired from flying?"
"Actually, Rory has room for two more in the caravan," Caspian replied mildly. "Why don’t you and Beatrix go with him and keep him company?"
Dorcas eyed the recreational vehicle with a proprietary glance. "I think that would be a lovely idea." She sniffed. "It looks much more spacious than the land rover."
Behind Caspian’s back, Rory choked back a laugh. Dulcinea had to turn away in a pretense of securing the land rover door. Only Colin managed to keep a straight face. "Yes," the hereditary guardian of the London clan said pleasantly. "I believe you’ll find the accommodations quite comfy, my dear."
Griff leaned towards Rory and muttered out of the side of his beak. "All right, I’ll bite. What’s the joke?"
"The caravan’s packed to the gills," the young Irishman whispered back with an errant gleam in his eye. "There’s a clear path to the lavatory and that’s about it. If they’re lucky, there will be just enough room for both of them up in the loft over the cab."
Caspian clapped his hands together. "Right! The junior warriors are here, the vehicles are loaded – Michael? Anything else we need to take care of before we go?"
The eagle-headed leader of the London clan scanned the assembled crowd. "Will everyone who’s coming along step to the front, please?" He nodded at them as the traveling party began to assemble. "Griff and Brianna, right; Caspian and Rosalind, you’ll be responsible for Prongs and Agnes; Weller? Where’s Weller?"
"Right here, Michael!" called the older gargoyle, trotting up the driveway. He pulled his pink-and-green striped waistcoat down and ran a careless hand through his wiry hair to smooth it down. "I had to see to a few last minute arrangements with Pickwick, since he and Leo be taking my patrol routes but everything’s squared away."
"That’s fine, Weller," Michael said. He checked his list. "There’s still room for one more. Any takers?"
Faulconbridge nudged the stag-headed gargoyle standing next to him. Cervus cleared his throat and stepped forward. "I believe I’ll go along, if you’ll have me, Michael."
"All right then, Cervus, you and Weller are in charge of Winston and Dodger." Michael turned to Colin and shook forearms with him. "I’m sure that Boz will guide the clan well in my absence but I know it’s your watchful eyes during the day that keeps us safe."
"Not to worry, Michael," Colin answered with a smile. "Enjoy your vacation."
* * * * *
Outside The Thrush and Thistle, Aberfeldy
A tapering rectangle of light flooded the street as the pub door opened and closed. A figure stepped out of a nearby alley, clad in baggy workpants and a long, tattered canvas coat. Casual observers might not notice but a closer look might reveal that beneath the pants, the legs appeared to have an extra joint between knee and foot and the profile being obscured by jacket collar and cap was one that would give Little Red Riding Hood second thoughts.
Tiberius gave one quick glance around the street corner before reaching the telephone box. He whipped a phone card through a slot and quickly punched up the number for the estate.
"Hello?" came a familiar voice over the line.
Tiberius curled his lips back in a tooth-bearing grin. "Brock! How are you?"
"I’m very fine, thank you," Brock replied back. "If you’re calling for Michael, you’re a bit late."
"Yes, he and the others left a few hours ago in two parties – some of them flying and the rest driving up with our human helpers. They should be up there shortly before dawn so try to keep an eye out for them."
A pair of humans stumbled out of the pub and Tiberius turned his back to them. "Is Michael bringing the medications I requested?"
"Yes, Brianna has them. She and Griff will probably fly directly to the caves." Brock paused. "You sound anxious, lad. Is anything the matter?"
"Just that the pub across the way appears to be closing. I need to go before someone needs to ring home or something."
"All right then," Brock answered. "Off with you and keep an eye out for our travelers."
Hanging up the phone, Tiberius sauntered back towards the darkened alley, narrowly missing a weaving pub patron wandering up the street. He waited until he was in the deepest shadows before sinking his talons into the crumbling brickwork and climbing up the wall.
"That was cutting it close," Remus commented as the wolfish gargoyle heaved himself onto the roof. "What news?"
Tiberius shrugged out of the coat. "Michael is on his way with the medicines. Bringing a few of the others, I think. Didn’t have much time to talk to Brock about it."
"It’ll be good to catch up on the news from London," Remus said thoughtfully, his pointed snout turned towards the south. "I’ve written my daughter but I’ve never heard back from her."
"Well, it’s not as though we have a human friend here to accept our mail," Tiberius observed wryly. "I’m sure she’s fine, Remus. You made the right choice leaving her with her rookery mates."
"Perhaps, but I’ve had my doubts since then." The fox-like gargoyle sighed heavily. "We should get back and have some lookouts posted on the southern rim of the forest. The battle with the Unseelies changed some of the landmarks since Michael visited last. They could get lost."
"Good point." Tiberius tucked his human clothes in an old schoolbook bag and settled it across his chest. "I’ll should get back to check on Kylie at any rate."
Remus hopped up on the roof’s edge. "The old one’s tough, Ty. She won’t go without a fight."
"Not if I have anything to say about it."
* * * * *
En route -- airborne…
The edges were crumpled and torn but the faces still smiled out at him as Caspian stared at the photograph cupped in the palm of his hand. The snapspots he’d taken on his last journey to the Caledonian forest had been passed around a lot amongst his rookery brothers. In the end, three males from Caspian’s rookery and some of the older ones had made the long journey to Scotland so many months ago to reinforce the small isolated clan and take a chance at courting Brianna’s sisters. It seemed so very long ago.
"Tag! You’re it!" Rosalind’s voice rang out overhead. Caspian looked up to see his beloved playing hover tag with the younger gargoyles. The rules were simple; players couldn’t move their wings or dive, just let the thermals waft them up and down as they made minute adjustments in their flight angles. It was one of the many learning games taught to the youngsters. "Time out for me!" Rosalind called and dropped down besides Caspian.
"Having fun, luv?" he inquired absently.
"Oh, yes indeed!" Rosalind answered cheerfully. "It’s so liberating getting away from the estate! No wonder you enjoy it so." When he didn’t respond, she peered at him owlishly. "What’s that you’ve got there?"
"Oh, just remembering the last time I came this way, that’s all." Caspian tucked the worn photograph back in his belt. "Michael?" he called out. "We should be within striking distance of the railway line. I’d like to scout on ahead to make sure, if I may."
"Certainly," Michael shouted back. "Take the point."
"I’ll go with you, shall I?" Rosalind offered brightly.
"Now, darling, if we both leave, who will watch the children?" Caspian pulled her in for a quick kiss. "I won’t be a moment." With that, he swooped into a rising thermal and soared high into the night sky, not noticing the crushed look on Rosalind’s face.
Cold air rushed into his lungs as he crested the cloudbank and looked down are the countryside spread out before him. There were only a few drifting clouds to obscure his vision as Caspian pulled the map and a compass out of his belt pouch. It only took a few minutes to get his bearings and he soon pinpointed a faint glimmer of moving lights in the distance.
"There’s the Midnight Special," he murmured. "Right on time."
Caspian started to put his things back in the belt bag but one of his talons caught on the photo he had been looking at earlier. The edge had caught on his belt and was sticking out. Sadly, Caspian took it back out and stared at it, letting his memories drift back in time.
* * * * *
"Lancelot of London, meet Kirstie of Caledonia, daughter of Quade, leader-to-be."
The equine gargoyle shoved his dark mane back from his face as he looked over Caspian’s shoulder at the photos he was displaying. He picked one out of the pile and whistled. "She’s quite something, isn’t she? I like the feathers in her hair and um ---" His eyes widened.
"Ah, yes," Caspian said archly. "I was rather stunned by those feathers myself."
Grinning wryly, Lancelot handed the picture back. "Still, what makes you think she’d be interested in me?"
"Well, I told her all about you," Caspian replied. "How you and I are cousins and how my mother nursed you when your own mother couldn’t." He laughed. "Kirstie called you my milk brother."
"An apt description, I suppose. You and I have always been more than just cousins." Lancelot pulled a different picture of Kirstie from the photo pile. "She looks very… friendly." He eyed Caspian shrewdly, both brow ridges raised. "Hmmm?"
Caspian tugged at the neck of his navy blue tunic and looked uncomfortable.
"Come on, Cas – give."
"All right!" Caspian gave an exasperated sigh. "But one word of this gets back to Roz, and I’ll mount your head on the wall. Kirstie was extremely friendly. She was fascinated with my velvety hide."
"Oh, ho!" Lancelot grinned. "The truth comes out!"
Caspian glowered at him. "I let her stroke my nose, that’s it!!"
"But that puts you to sleep!"
"And you have NO idea how hard it was NOT to fall asleep around that female!" Caspian lowered his voice. "There was some concern that I might not wake up with my virtue intact!!"
Lancelot stared him, eyes watering. His lips twisted and his upper body began to shake. Finally, the equine gargoyle burst out laughing, clutching his mid-section and chortling at his cousin.
"I’ll have you know that was a big concern at the time," Caspian said disgustedly as the laughs began to die down. "That’s the sort of thing that can affect my magic if I’m not properly prepared for it. And besides," he sighed, "it’s important to me that my first time be with Rosalind. I love her. I wouldn’t hurt her for the world!"
"I know, cuz," Lancelot said, sobering up. "How could I not know? You two were always meant for each other. That’s why I’m so jealous of what you have." His fingers crimped the edges of the photograph and he absently tried to smooth it out. "It’s my dearest wish to know what it’s like to have a soulmate."
"Then make that your quest," Caspian said earnestly. "I bid thee, Sir Lancelot of London, to venture to the Great Forest of Caledonia and claim the heart of the lovely Lady Kirstie."
Lancelot crossed his massive arms. "Wizard, you are completely off your nut."
"Maybe, but I do know that you’ll never know what it’s like to be in love if you never try. You and Reg and Cadbury and Pip, you’ve got a second chance to court a mate." Caspian put his hand on Lancelot’s shoulder. "Please, Lance. I can’t stand to see you unhappy."
The two gargoyles stood in silence for a few minutes. Then Lancelot put his hand up and patted Caspian’s shoulder. "You and I have been closer than brothers," he said finally. "It’s going to be strange not seeing you every day."
"Michael’s going to need someone to keep in contact," Caspian answered. "And Scotland’s not at the end of the world, only a few hours away."
"Then, Wizard, I will choose your quest." Lance smirked. "Friendly girl, eh?"
"Be sure to pack your vitamins, cuz." Caspian’s eyes danced. "Lots and lots of vitamins."
* * * * *
"Hey!! Hey, Caspian – wake up!!"
Shaken from his memories, Caspian came back to the present with a start. He glanced down to see Cervus soaring up to him. "Sorry, just daydreaming, I guess."
"Michael sent me ahead to find you," Cervus said. He thrust a thumb back to the wing of gargoyles approaching. "And what did you say to Rosalind? I’ve never seen her look so broody before."
Caspian blinked. "Huh? I don’t know what you’re talking about." He pointed to the string of lights snaking through the dark countryside below. "Here comes our ride. We’d best tell the others."
He didn’t notice Cervus’ speculative look.
* * * * *
En route – locomotive….
"Ugh." Griff grimaced distastefully and pointed his beak into the wind. "I don’t know how you can stand that."
Brianna laughed at him as she held Victoria in place while Michael changed her. "Yuir bein’ such a big silly, my love. ‘Tis a perfectly natural thing an’ wee Victoria will grow out o’ it soon enow." The Caledonian gargoyle dipped her head down and let the hatchling bat at her long braids.
"Just as long as she doesn’t grow up too soon," Michael murmured as he tucked the diaper things away in his backpack. "Thank you for your assistance, Brianna," he said gravely as he took Victoria back into his arms.
"Think nuthin’ o’ it, Michael," Brianna replied politely. "I’ll go help Rosalind with th’ young ones now." She rose and popped her wings open, hovering for a moment while the train passed beneath her before setting back down on the next car with the others.
"Are you two going to act like that forever?" Griff asked ruefully. "So terribly polite to one another?"
"I’m doing my best to be sociable, brother, for your sake," Michael replied, "but it’s very difficult. My loyalty to the clan is somewhat stronger than my relationship with you and your mate." Victoria distracted him for a moment by grabbing his hand and sucking greedily at his knuckle.
Griff laughed. "Hungry again, I see."
"She’s a bottomless pit," Michael agreed as he dug around in his backpack.
"Brianna says she’s the first in the rookery to cry for her bottle and sometimes is on her second one before the others are finished with their first." Griff looked down the train at his mate. "Bri’s very good with the little ones."
"So Perry tells me," Michael said as he offered a bottle to his infant daughter and she snatched it up with both hands. "I don’t mean to act cold to her, but when Brianna befriended that woman—"
"The point is, Griff, that this Jane Nelson person is a complete unknown. It’s not like Colin and his family, people that the clan has known for generations."
"We haven’t known Arthur or Emrys for very long and you trust them."
Michael snorted. "Oh, yes… King Arthur and Merlin the Magician. One can safely say their reputations preceded them. We can trust them. These are dangerous times. What makes you sure that you can trust this woman with your mate’s life?"
"I --" Griff faltered. "I can’t really, but I trust my mate’s judgment. Brianna’s got a knack for observing things that the rest of us miss and how many times has her intuition about something been dead on?"
"That’s true enough, I suppose," Michael admitted reluctantly. He concentrated on Victoria for a few moments. "I like Brianna and I always have. She’s an important part of the family I thought I’d never have." His eagle eyes hardened. "But make no bones about it, Griff, if this human friend of hers threatens the safety of the clan -- that is a risk I cannot afford to take."
The train blew its whistle and drowned out any further conversation. Griff looked over his shoulder at Brianna, sitting with Rosalind and young Agnes, chattering away as if they were sisters. Brianna saw him looking and flashed him a quick smile in that way that made his heart melt. What Michael said about protecting the clan was entirely true; the problem was that Brianna felt just strongly about protecting her new friend.
"It’s six of one and half a dozen the other and me in the middle," Griff muttered to himself. "What’s a chap to do?"
* * * * *
En route – automobile…
"Look!" Lucy crowed, pointing between the front seats. "There’s another mile marker, Dulcinea."
"Oh?" The Spanish woman squinted into the distance. "If you’ll pardon the expression, Lucy, you see in the dark like a cat. What does it say?"
Lucy chewed her lip as she concentrated. " ‘Ten miles until Aberfeldy.’ That’s nearly there, isn’t it?"
A whimper followed by a series of muffled whines drew their attention to the back of the land rover. "Sounds like we’re arriving none too soon," Dulcinea commented. "How do the pups look, Musgrave?"
"Hey! Stop it!!" Musgrave giggled. His pet gargoyle beast had her muzzle pressed into the chrome grid and was licking his left ear. "Treacle, that tickles!"
"Dulcinea?" Lucy said thoughtfully. "How are we going to meet up with the others?"
"Good question," Dulcinea answered and picked up her cellular phone. "Let’s hope Rory knows."
"—No, I don’t know what time we’ll be gettin’ there! Yes?" Rory snapped into the receiver, as a petulant voice whined in the background.
Dulcinea curved one elegant eyebrow. "The girls giving you trouble?" she inquired calmly.
"Just the one," Rory growled. "And she really makes me want to NOT have children of me own, she does. What’s up?"
"Lucy informs me that Aberfeldy is not far up the road. Did you and Caspian discuss how we were going to meet up to drop off the kids and the pups?"
Rory muttered some choice Irish phrases under his breath. "I knew that there was something Colin and I needed to do! Blast!"
Lucy and Musgrave looked at each other. "Dulci?" Lucy said tentatively. "Since we’re so close anyway, why not let one or two of us fly overhead?"
"I don’t know, nina. You are all a long way from home. I wouldn’t want you to get lost."
"But we wouldn’t!" Lucy protested. "We could stay right over the cars and keep an eye out for Caspian and the others."
"What’s she sayin’?" Rory asked over the phone.
"Lucy suggests letting some of them fly overhead," Dulcinea replied. She glanced at the white gargoyle leaning forward between the seats and smiled to herself. "You know, the more I think of it, the more sense it makes. Lucy’s coloring would be very easy to see at night."
"It could also attract a lot o’ unwanted attention," Rory commented. "Still…," there was a renewed spat of quarrelsome voices in the background, "I wouldn’t mind a little peace an’ quiet on my end. Let’s try it for a while. At the very least, it’ll give th’ kids somethin’ to do."
"I agree. Follow me," Dulcinea ordered and pulled her vehicle to the side of the road near a stand of thick trees. Rory followed closely behind in the caravan. The lanky Irishman stretched as he got out and walked over to the land rover.
"A-a-a-a-h! What a night!" he commented as Dulcinea opened her door. "How are you holding up?"
The Spanish woman smiled slyly. "Other than being a little saddle sore from all this driving, I’m fine. Lucy and Musgrave have been very well-behaved but I will admit that I now know more about the Super Cyborg Assault Armadillos than is really necessary."
"Are we there yet?" Dorcas called irritably as she stepped down from the caravan, followed closely by Beatrix. "Eeeeeuw! It’s the middle of no place."
"Nonsense," Lucy snapped back and pointed at the road sign a few yards away. "We’re very nearly there, so stop your grousing."
Beatrix peered at the sign and then at the folded map in her hand. Taking a pencil from the book satchel slung across her chest, she carefully made a notation on the paper. "Mr. Rory, sir?" she said timidly. "If I understand this properly, we’re very near the edge of the Caledonian clan’s territory."
"Really?" Rory said interestedly, coming over to look over her shoulder. "That’s not my map, is it?"
"No, sir. It’s one Brock gave me. It’s a map of the Caledonian clan’s home territory." Beatrix wrinkled her snout in a little smile. "He drew it when he came up here and then he transposed it over a regular road map to modernize it." She pointed to a dotted line. "This is a patrol route. It comes very close to this road here."
"That makes sense," Lucy commented. "There’s a very good chance that we might even run into the other clan all by ourselves."
A pair of headlights bobbed over the top of the hill. "Quick!! Hide!!" hissed Rory but before the words had left his lips, the young gargoyles had already blended into the bushes and trees around them. As the lights came closer, the vehicle began to slow and they could see the word ‘CONSTABLE’ printed on the side.
"Oh, just great," Rory muttered. "The local police."
"Just play it cool," Dulcinea said calmly. "I’ll handle it."
The constable pulled up and rolled down his window. "I say," he called, "are you folks all right? Having a bit of car trouble?"
"No, officer," Dulcinea replied, smiling slightly. "We’re on our way to a horse show and we just stopped for a moment to stretch our legs."
"Ye mean th’ West Highlands Invitational?" The constable turned his engine off as Rory gave a stifled groan. "That’s a grand show, that is. You’re entering this horse, are you, miss?" The man walked up and peered into the horse trailer. "That’s a beautiful mare. Does she jump well?"
"Yes, quite well." Dulcinea motioned with her eyes for Rory to place himself between the police officer and the land rover. "We weren’t planning to enter the Invitational but an opening came up. Rosinante placed fourth overall at--"
Rory leaned against the back of the land rover casually as Dulcinea concocted some plausible-sounding fiction about Rosie’s horse show career. Whatever it was she was saying, the constable seemed to be buying it. As he listening, something kept nagging at him. It took him a few minutes to realize it, but things inside the car were too quiet. He glanced down.
All the beastlings were gone.
* * * * *
"Here you go… and one for you… there’s a good boy!"
"Musgrave, are you insane?" Lucy hissed as Ranger bounced around her, begging for attention. "We aren’t supposed to unload them here!"
"Well, I couldn’t very well leave them there in the car," Musgrave protested in a whisper. "They were all awake and besides, they were hungry. And here’s one for you too, Treacle." His pet rose up and put her paws on his knee as he crouched in the midst of the milling beast pack. "That barrier thing came out pretty easily. It wasn’t that hard to get them moving once they knew I had their kibble treats."
"Get away from me! Yuck!" Dorcas leapt up the side of a tree to get out of the reach of the slobbering beasts. She peeped through the branches at the humans. "Bother. That constable seems to be a horse fancier. He’s looking in the trailer and asking Dulcinea all kinds of questions."
"Perhaps it’s just as well Musgrave let the beastlings loose," Beatrix suggested. "They would’ve been bound to make some noise."
"What’s Rory doing, Dorcas?" Lucy called up.
"He’s leaning against the land rover. I think he knows they’re gone. He’s trying to be casual about it, but he’s looking around."
Lucy hunkered down next to Ranger and straightened his bandanna. "Well, I guess we’ll just have to wait the constable out. He’s not likely to stay too much longer."
"At least, I’m out of that tin can," Dorcas commented sourly. "He had me crammed in that loft like a sardine."
"It wasn’t that bad," Beatrix commented. "I, for one, had a very nice chat with Rory." The badgerish gargoyle lifted her nose in the air slightly while deliberately not looking at Dorcas.
"I’m looking forward to meeting the Caledonians," Beatrix continued. "Brock told me all about their way of life in the forest. It sounded very interesting, just like that book about the city boy that went back to nature and--"
"I read that one!" Musgrave interrupted in an excited whisper. "He had a pet hawk and all kinds of animal friends and --"
"Stop it!" Dorcas snarled. "Stopit-stopit-stopit!! Don’t you get it? This isn’t some great adventure!! The clan sent us away because we were in the way. They hate us!!"
Her three rookery siblings stared at Dorcas silently for a few seconds. With a careful glance at both Musgrave and Beatrix, Lucy said quite firmly, "Nonsense, Dorcas. We are the children of the clan. They would never abandon us."
"Fat lot YOU know!" Dorcas sniffed loudly and hugged her knees to her chest, as she remained perched high in the tree. "You don’t know anything!"
"Hush!" Beatrix whispered, holding up a hand. "I hear something!"
Lucy grabbed Ranger and two other gargoyle beasts and pulled them under the spreading branches of a low bush. "Musgrave! Gather them in!"
As soon as the beastlings were quieted, the young gargoyles could hear the sound of leaves crunching and branches popping, coming closer. Lucy glanced up at Dorcas questioningly. Dorcas shook her head and shifted around the trunk of the tree to conceal herself. The noises came closer. Beatrix put the strap of her book satchel in her mouth and bit on it to muffle the tiny whimper she couldn’t help from making.
What’ll we do? Musgrave mouthed.
Just wait. Lucy mouthed back.
A twig snapped.
Dry leaves suddenly swirled around them, obscuring their vision. Before they could react, two strong hands parted the bush. A wolfish apparition dropped to his haunches and grinned at them.
"Well, well, children," Tiberius said lightly, "look how you’ve grown!"
"Uncle!" Lucy started to crow but lowered her voice as Tiberius put his finger to his lips. "We weren’t sure how to find you!"
"Remus thought it would be a good idea to double the patrols up on the southern rim so we could keep an eye out for you. I saw the cars below and thought I check it out." Tiberius looked around. "This isn’t all of you, is it?"
Quickly, Lucy explained their situation. Just as she finished, Rory came crashing through the brush.
"Kids! Oh, glory – there you are!" Rory exclaimed. "Just as well you decided to hide. I thought that copper was goin’ to have Dulci take her horse out o’ th’ trailer and look at her teeth." Tiberius moved suddenly and Rory took a step back. "Hello! Who’s this?"
"It’s all right, Rory," Lucy said cheerfully. "This is Tiberius, one of our clan healers. He’s been living with Brianna’s clan."
"If you will allow me," Tiberius said formally, "I can shepherd these young ones and their beasts to the Caledonian camp. Do you have my medical supplies?"
"Brianna’s carrying the medicines herself," Rory replied, "but we’ve got th’ rest o’ it. I’ll be taking th’ caravan on to th’ campgrounds near Lake Rannoch but Dulcinea’s gettin’ a permit to camp in th’ forest proper."
Tiberius nodded. "I know those campgrounds. I’ll organize a crew to meet you tomorrow evening to help unload." He glanced skyward. "The night wears on."
"So it does," Rory agreed. "Be good, kids. I’ll see you around."
* * * * *
As they grew closer and closer to the land of her birth, a light came into Brianna’s eyes. Her mood became more free-spirited and ebullient. It took Griff back to those glorious nights when they were newly-mated and he found his mind wandering.
Brianna took a deep breath and sighed rapturously. "Aaaah! I could barely breathe in London. Good clean Scots pine – have you ever smelled anything so wonderful?"
Griff regarded his mate with an amused grin. "Oh, I don’t know about that, darling. I think the aroma of a fresh pint of Smith’s Nutty Brown would go down a treat."
"Here, here!" Michael agreed heartily.
"If you’re buyin’, Griff," good-humored Weller said, "I’ll stand a round!"
Brianna laughed and barrel-rolled around them. "Silly males! As if any o’ ye will see th’ inside o’ a pub in these parts!"
"Which is precisely why I made sure a few cases of libations were stowed away in the caravan," Michael said confidentially to Griff and Weller. "Curran brews a fine mead but that scumble of his nearly took my head off."
"Scumble?" Weller asked curiously.
"Apple brandy," Griff answered. "Doubles as a first-class solvent."
"A-ha!" Weller said archly. "And here I thought I’d be roughing it. It’ll almost be like home!"
Rosalind, who had been giving Caspian the cold shoulder, not that he’d noticed, spoke up. "Brianna? What’s that building down there?"
"Oh, that’s Castle Menzie," Brianna replied. "Normally, there’s naught there but th’ caretaker, but they’ve got th’ clan colors flying. Th’ Menzie family mus’ be in from th’ city."
"Do you suppose they would mind if I dropped by and sketched it, do you suppose?" Rosalind asked as her eyes greedily soaked up a million tiny details for later.
"I wouldna know." Brianna shrugged. "Kylie once said that some of Clan Menzie were friends to my clan in th’ olden days but summat happened. The Menzie clan went away for a generation or more, an’ those that came back were strangers to us. My clan isn’t like yuirs, Rosalind. We watch from th’ treetops an’ from th’ shadows, because we cannae trust th’ humans."
"But you don’t still feel that way," Agnes said, hesitantly in the presence of the adults, "do you, Brianna?"
"Och, no!" The Caledonian gargoyle smiled gently at the juvenile female. "It took a bit o’ gettin’ used to, yuir clan an’ th’ Marters livin’ together, an’ London an’ all, but I’ve learned more from talkin’ t’ humans than I ever did by just watchin’."
Michael made a sound suspiciously like a snort but was busy with Victoria when Griff looked his way.
"Look!" Brianna said excitedly. "There’s Schiehallion!! Th’ locals call it th’ magic mountain because that’s where Merlin the Magician once lived."
"Merlin?" Dodger made a face. "You mean Emrys? Mister Hoity-Toity?"
"Here now, lad," Weller said lightly. "You try being a immortal wizard trapped in the body of a teenager and let’s see what kind of mood swings you have!"
"The magic mountain?" Prongs said thoughtfully to Caspian. "Is it truly magic?" When the older gargoyle did not respond, the youngster reached over and touched him.
Caspian jumped, as though he’d been shocked, and his unicorn’s horn glowed softly for a moment before subsiding. "Huh? What?"
"Brianna just called Schiehallion the magic mountain," Prongs persisted, immature antlers shining silver in the starlight. "I wondered if there was any truth to it."
"Oh." Caspian looked Prongs over carefully as he rubbed his arm. "Well, there was quite a bit of residual energy present in the form of will o’ wisps and some dissipating wards near Merlin’s old digs. I only had a week or so to investigate so I wouldn’t be surprised if there were still pockets of undiscovered energy here and there."
"You know, Rosalind," Cervus said mildly, "if you do want to go back to that castle and paint, I’d be more than happy to go with you. It looks to be good hunting around there."
"Really?" Rosalind looked curiously at Caspian flying just ahead of them talking animatedly with Prongs. "That’s very generous of you to offer. I’ll consider it."
The sound rose up from the trees and soared past them in an eerie Doppler effect, taking Brianna with it. The first-time visitors gaped at the sight and Cervus started after them but Caspian suddenly pushed by him, feathered wings pumping to gain altitude.
"Hey, Kirstie!" he called. "Save some of that for the rest of us!"
A warm brown figure zoomed back down out of the sky with Brianna in her wake and tackled Caspian with a big, bone-crushing hug. Rosalind had the impression of a mass of dark curls, fluttering feathers and a voluptuous figure.
"Pony-boy!" Kirstie crowed. "What a lovely surprise! We had nae idea exactly who’d be comin’ tonight." She disengaged herself and pounced on Griff, who tolerated her affections gamely.
Rosalind gave Caspian a crimson stare. "Pony-boy?" she asked in a dangerously quiet voice. Behind her, Cervus smirked.
"It’s a just a joke, Roz darling," Caspian said lightly. "Kirstie tends to be rather impulsive when you first meet her. She’ll settle down in a minute or two." He pulled nervously at the neck of his tunic. "My, don’t you find that all this traveling makes you rather warm?"
Another gargoyle swooped their way as Kirstie led them towards the forest’s center. "Michael!"
"Remus!" Michael called back at the fox-headed gargoyle gliding towards them. "So glad to see you! Life here seems to agree with you, I see."
The transplanted Londoner nodded absently, his eyes passing anxiously over the members of the relief party. "You’ve got some young ones with you," Remus observed.
"Yes, their rookery got into some mischief and I sentenced them to a fortnight of hard labor up here," Michael said wryly. "I do hope that they won’t be too much for the Caledonians."
"The entire rookery?" Remus’ ears pricked up. "Is my daughter with you? I don’t see her."
"Perry and Caspian had the weaker fliers come up with our human helpers. I shouldn’t worry, Remus. You’ll see her soon enough." Michael unconsciously cradled Victoria closer. "How are the others holding up? Reg and Pip?"
"They took Lancelot’s death pretty hard," Remus replied, "but they’re both adjusting."
"Lancelot?" Caspian did a neat wingover and fell into place besides Michael. "Tell me, how did he die? He was my rookery brother too. I’d hate to think that he suffered."
Remus glanced across at Kirstie chattering away with Brianna. "Come closer," he said quietly, "for what I have to say isn’t to be heard by some ears. Lancelot fought very bravely, buying the time for Kirstie to reach shelter when she was injured. Then Curran fell and Lance was left alone to defend his position. He was dying when we found him, bodies of the Unseelies laying all around him." Remus sighed. "Lancelot died with honor, defending the clan, as all gargoyles should if necessary. He was a good lad."
"Caspian!" Rosalind called indignantly. "I’m not done with you!"
The two older males looked at Caspian with a strange mixture of humor and sympathy. Michael nudged him. "The proper response is, ‘Yes, dear,’" he advised. "And by the Dragon, don’t keep her waiting. That only makes it worse."
"That’s what I’m afraid of," Caspian muttered and went off to face his agitated artist.
* * * * *
A smile lit the wrinkled landscape of Kylie’s face as the old gargoyle sat propped up in a corner of the rookery watching the clan’s greatest treasures – their only two hatchlings. Fate had blessed the Caledonians with a rare male hatchling and it was this young adventurer that Kylie’s eyes followed as he crept around the enclosure on chubby hands and feet. The other hatchling, a gray female with auburn hair, sat by Kylie’s side, chewing industriously on a scrap of tough leather.
The little male pulled himself up on the rim of wooden gate blocking the hatchlings from entering the main cave. Kylie clapped her hands together and laughed. "Och, there’s a good strong lad!"
Startled, the hatchling flopped down on his bottom and started to cry.
"Kylie? What’s wrong?" Rachel and Jamie both came rushing to the entryway in a panic.
"Nae, nae," Kylie said with a weak, dismissive gesture. " ‘Tis naught wrong wi’ me. Our lad has surprised himself by tryin’ t’ stand, that’s all."
"Fergus? Standing already?" Jamie scooped her tearful hatchling up in her arms and snuggled him up close. "What a good boy! Hush now, luv. Shh…"
Curran limped up behind her. "What? Is summat wrong wi’ him?" he demanded curtly, although his eyes were soft as they passed anxiously over his son. Jamie quickly whispered an answer and the taciturn gargoyle gave a rare smile, nuzzling his mate’s browridges.
"Ye should be proud, all o’ ye," Kylie commented. "These are two fine, strong hatchlings, they are." She chucked the little female under the chin. "Meara will have her milk teeth soon an’ Fergus will be toddlin’ around in no time." She sighed and closed her eyes briefly. " ‘Tis more than I ever thought I should have, t’ live t’ see this day."
Rachel put on a brittle smile. "Now, none o’ that talk, Elder," she said as she stepped over the barrier into the rookery. "Tiberius is expectin’ some more medicine comin’ from London so ye’ll be feelin’ right as rain shortly."
"Th’ only thing I’d like from London is Brianna," Kylie replied tersely, "so that I may see her once more before I die."
Before Rachel could remonstrate Kylie for that comment, a loud commotion erupted from outside the cave. Curran lurched away, snatching up a spear to lean on or to fight with as necessary. Handing Fergus to Rachel, Jamie ran after him.
"What it is?" Kylie demanded.
"I dinnae know," Rachel replied, passing Fergus back down to her. "Best t’ be safe, Elder. I’ll have a look." She took two steps before Tiberius’ wolfish frame filled the doorway.
"Good morrow, Lady Kylie," Tiberius said cordially. "I have some young people from London to meet you." He motioned and Lucy, Beatrix, Dorcas and Musgrave peered timidly around the doorway.
"Well! Such fine-lookin’ youngsters!" Kylie straightened her back and folded her hands in her lap as though she was seated on a throne instead of a hay-strewn rookery floor. "This is a night for surprises!"
"It seems that the London clan is bringing a relief crew with them," Tiberius said. "I found this lot traveling with a load of beastlings near Aberfeldy. The others are flying in from Glasgow."
"And Brianna?" Kylie asked hopefully.
"She’s coming with my uncle Griff and my brother Caspian," Lucy piped up, twisting her tail in her hands nervously.
"Then you must be Lucy." Kylie smiled kindly. "Your brother said many fine things about you when he was here last."
"Yes, m’m," Lucy answered, suddenly shy.
"Rachel," Kylie said suddenly, "if we’re havin’ company, I’d like t’ be sittin’ up in my chair."
"As ye wish, Elder. I was about t’ suggest it myself." Rachel scooped Kylie into her arms as easily as if the elder weighed no more than a child and carried her into the larger cave.
Tiberius helped settle Kylie into her chair, discreetly checking her pulse and breathing as he did so. He exchanged a concerned look with Rachel. "I believe some herbal tea would go down well right now," he suggested.
"Aye, a cup o’ tea is just th’ thing for gettin’ acquainted," Rachel said brightly. "An’ these youngsters look fair parched."
Kylie regarded them with a sour expression. "Y’know, ye two are just about as transparent as mud, so ye might as well give me yuir nasty herbs an’ be done wi’ it."
Lucy started the giggling and the laughter spread like wildfire all around the room, including Kylie herself. The old gargoyle was holding court, dozing as she listened to the young gargoyles telling her about their trip when the rest of the Londoners arrived. Brianna quickly pushed herself to the front of the crowd.
"Kylie!" she cried as she fell to her knees at her elder’s side. "Elder, I’m home!"
Tears glistened in Kylie’s eyes as she lifted shaking fingers to caress Brianna’s face. Brianna gave a ragged cry and pressed the withered hand to her brow ridges. They stayed like that, the old gargoyle and the young, in silent communion as Rachel discreetly shooed everyone outside. Only Griff remained, standing watch in the entryway.
"How is she, Tiberius?" Michael asked softly. "She’s aged so much since our last visit."
"It’s the effects of old age on a gargoyle’s physiology," Tiberius replied. "We’re blessed with a hypersensitive immune system, superior cardiovascular structure and superhuman strength but there comes a point where a gargoyle’s body simply wears out. Kylie’s at least two decades older than any of the London elders. It’s a wonder she’s lasted this long."
" ‘Tis in no small part thanks to yuir skills," Quade said solemnly. "Ye chose well in sendin’ Healer Tiberius t’ us. My Rachel has learned a great deal from him."
"It’s important for both of our clans to learn from one another," Michael said, gesturing to the youngsters nearby. "Our young ones have reached the age where they must begin training seriously for their warrior skills. Here in your forest, they will learn the traditional skills that we’ve let slide in the city." The London clan leader smiled ruefully. "That’s one thing your Brianna has taught us; there’s been times where her talents have made all the difference."
"So many…" Rachel said wondering, clearly taking a mental inventory of her stores as her eyes passed over the crowd.
"Don’t worry," Michael said reassuringly. "We had been organizing a relief detail to come up here long before Tiberius rang us up. Our human friends have brought up more than enough food and supplies to replenish your stores."
"That’ll be our first task tomorrow evening," Caspian said firmly, eyeing his young charges. "You lot still have that punishment to work off before this turns into a holiday trip."
"Aaaaaaw!!!" came the chorus from Lucy and her rookery just as the sun began to peek over the treetops.
* * * * *
Midday, Allt Mor Valley
"—Now as you can see here," said the dark-haired young man at the top of the trail, "there’s still extensive damage left over from those freak ice storms we had." He pointed at the ragged treeline on the ridge. "Those were fifty year old Scots pines and they were snapped in two like toothpicks."
"And how has this affected the local biosphere, Mr. Campbell?" Ratcliffe asked in his guise as ecological researcher. "Any changes in the local wildlife patterns?"
The guide nodded. "We noticed that the local eagles’ migratory patterns shifted. The Wildlife Trust put a few nest boxes up in an effort to keep them in the same territory but it’s been a limited success."
"What about predators? Any signs that they’ve been affected by the climatic changes?"
Feldman listened with half an ear as Ratcliffe and their treehugger guide droned on about the environment. He’d let Ratcliffe hire Douglas Campbell to take them off the usual tourist trails and into the heart of the Caledonian Forest but the sooner they could ditch this guy, the better Feldman would like it.
"Predators?" Douglas paused in mid-stride and frowned. "Well, that’s a curious thing. Technically, all the big predators like bears and wolves died out long ago. The only ones that we know about are relatively small, wildcats and the like."
Ratcliffe raised his eyebrows. "But--?"
"Well, sheep have always been a nuisance in conservation areas all over Scotland. The bloody things play havoc with new growth. Still," Douglas drawled out, "something here has kept them in check. What, we have no idea."
"Could it be one of the species previously thought to be extinct?" Ratcliffe suggested. "There have been instances where species have re-surfaced in remote areas."
"Perhaps, but I’ve been guiding people in and out of this forest for nearly nine years now," Douglas began awkwardly, looking up into the surrounding trees, "and there’s been times that I could swear I could feel something watching me."
"Like what?" Feldman asked, in spite of himself. "Ever seen anything?"
"Once." The dark-haired man pointed to a solitary peak not faraway. "It was two winters ago out near Schiehallion. Something jumped out of the top of a tree and flew away, like a eagle, only bigger. Much bigger." Douglas shook his head. "I would’ve said my eyes were playing tricks, only that a couple of hikers saw something similar on the same night. It makes you wonder just what might be in these woods."
"Interesting," Ratcliffe commented. He made a show of panning around the area. "I think this will make an excellent base camp for our purposes, don’t you, Jacob?"
Feldman narrowed his eyes as he spied a game trail nearby. "Yes, this will be suitable. We can manage on our own now, Mr. Campbell."
"That’s what you paid for," Douglas said stiffly. He handed a compact shortwave radio to Ratcliffe. "This is for emergencies. In case of bad weather, the Forestry Station will broadcast a general alert on channel nine. Other than that, no one should trouble you out here."
Ratcliffe exchanged some social niceties with the guide while Feldman busied himself with setting up their camp beneath the shelter of some low-spreading trees. He glanced over his shoulder to make sure he had some privacy and neatly disassembled his backpack. The support rods joined together to form a rifle barrel, the stock was hidden in the provision bag, and the firing mechanism was concealed in the workings of their small camp stove. When Ratcliffe returned, Feldman was adjusting the sights on his sniper rifle.
"Well, I think he bought the cover story," Ratcliffe said encouraging as he began his own preparations. "We shouldn’t have any trouble with him."
"Good," Feldman answered curtly, "because I don’t want to waste good ammo on him."
Ratcliffe raised an eyebrow at the comment but continued his work. He popped up a small satellite dish and adjusted it, checking its settings on a laptop computer. "There we go," he murmured. "I’m linked to the Illuminati’s orbital tracking system. I can access satellite maps of this entire area."
"How close are we to where we were the last time?"
"Here," Ratcliffe tapped a command in and red dots danced into place. "I’ve taken the liberty of researching this area. There’ve been quite a lot of random sightings for decades, maybe more, around the Caledonian Forest region. The earliest records I could find was back in 1812 but even that account refers to old wives’ tales that had been around for generations."
Feldman studied the map for a few minutes. "The sightings seem to focus on that solitary mountain," he commented, pointing at Schiehallion. "Is there a pattern, do you think?"
"I agree." Ratcliffe popped up an additional window. "Geological surveys list a number of cave systems through the Cairngorm mountain range. There’s some limestone formations there on the southwest flank of that mountain. I’d say they would be ideal dwelling places for gargoyles."
Raising the rifle to his shoulder, Feldman targeted the base of Schiehallion in his sights. "Then let the hunt begin."
* * * * *
A shiny new land rover was parked in front of the Central Perthshire Forestry Station when Douglas Campbell drove up in his mud splattered workhorse. He looked over the newer vehicle, comparing it wistfully to his own older land rover.
"Hmm…," he commented at last, "that’s set somebody back a pretty penny."
Douglas was walking backwards, still admiring the car when the station door opened and he nearly walked into an attractive dark-haired woman coming out. "Oh!" he stammered. "Sorry, miss. Wasn’t looking where I was going." He laughed nervously.
"So I noticed," she returned with a cool smile. "Thank you for the trail maps, Mr. Foster. You’ve been very helpful."
"It was my pleasure, miss." Lew Foster stood in the doorway with Douglas as they watched the woman drive away in the land rover.
"Whoa," Douglas said, visibly deflated. "now that was a spot of breath-taking scenery."
Lew raised an eyebrow and smiled knowingly. "You’d be surprised what’d you see if you’d come out of the woods more often, lad. Nice lady – she’s going to do some horseback camping with some friends."
"Lucky bloody horse." Douglas followed the older man into the station. "I just dropped off a couple of campers at Allt Mor Valley. Odd ducks."
"Oh?" Lew picked up a box of push-pins and marked a spot on the map. "What do you mean?"
"They just rubbed me wrong," Douglas said, helping himself to a mug of tea. "This chap Feldman kept scanning the area, glancing around sharp-like at the least little sound. If it wasn’t for the fact that I’d had them break down their packs for me so I could check for weapons and contraband, I’d swear he was a hunter of some kind."
"Poachers, do you think?"
"That’s the odd part. His partner asked all the right-sounding questions though. They said they were doing an ecological survey of the Cairngorms."
Lew frowned. "That is odd. The Wildlife Trust did a survey less than a month ago and posted the information on the usual forums. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to duplicate the same sort of work when it’s already publicly available, unless of course, they wanted to confirm the original findings."
"Hmmph." Douglas sipped his tea and wrinkled his forehead in thought. "I suppose so. Still, something about those two just isn’t right. I just know it."
"If it’s bothering you that much," Lew said, walking past the partition that separated the office from the public area of the station, "I can always run a background check on them. What’d you say their names were again?"
Douglas followed him to the doorway. "Jacob Feldman and Alfred Ratcliffe." He peered curiously around the corner at the computer screen. "I don’t suppose you’ve got the name of that fine-looking horse lady in there? Just in case I run into her out there in the woods."
"Don’t be daft, lad," Lew snorted. "What do I look like? A dating service?"
* * * * *
Loch Rannoch campgrounds
The farm truck paused just briefly outside the campgrounds to allow two men of differing ages and a large wolfish dog to untangle themselves from the load of vegetables in the back. Arthur raised a hand to salute the driver and called, "Thanks again, sir!! Good journey to you!"
"And if I see another cabbage," Merlin grumbled, "it’ll be too bloody soon."
"What are you griping about?" the gray wolf at his side said. "I’ll never get that smell out of my nose!"
"We wouldn’t have had to resort to hitch-hiking," Merlin retorted, "if someone hadn’t gone sleepwalking last night and made us miss our train."
"It’s not my fault that conductor wouldn’t let us get on the next available train."
"All you had to do was get in the pet carrier and ride in the baggage car!"
"Oh, no! Not in a million years!" Mary snapped. "THIS is a temporary condition!"
"That will do, you two," Arthur admonished them. He went up to the campground office and returned shortly, smiling triumphantly. "We’re in luck! Rory checked in early this morning. The manager gave me directions to his campsite."
The three travelers trudged along the pitted road, going farther from the main road and closer to the forest’s edge. There beneath the spreading branches of an old tree, they spotted Rosinante on a tether, placidly cropping grass. The black Arabian lifted her head and sniffed the air, nickering nervously.
"Easy now, Mary," Arthur said gently. "That’s Dulcinea’s horse and she’s a spirited steed. I think perhaps it would be wise for you to approach her downwind for now. She’ll need time to get used to you."
"Hmmph! Dumb animals!" Mary complained but she disappeared into the high grass bordering the forest.
"Where’s Rory and Dulcinea?" Merlin asked. "Surely they wouldn’t leave the horse here alone?"
Arthur held up his hand. "Hold!" he commanded. "What’s that sound?"
A grating, nasal rumbling appeared to be coming from the far side of the caravan. Arthur and Merlin carefully crept around the vehicle. The sound grew in intensity. Hand on the hilt of his sword, Arthur led the charge – and nearly burst out laughing.
Swaying gently in a hammock between two trees, Rory was stretched out with a newspaper shading his face. The paper was rising and falling with his snoring. Arthur and Merlin rolled their eyes at each other and promptly dropped their backpacks. The clatter as the heavy bags hit the ground made the sleeper awaken with a start.
"Huh? Hey? What?" Rory snorted, sat up, and stretched both long legs to the ground to keep from toppling out of the hammock. "Arthur! Emrys! It’s good to see you!"
"And it is good to see you," Arthur said heartily, striding over to clasp forearms with the young Irishman. "You’re a welcome sight for a weary traveler." He glanced about. "But where is Dulcinea? I thought she was coming with you."
"She went off to get her camping permits," Rory replied, "an’ maps for all th’ horseback trails. I dare say she could manage without them but when Dulci plays a part, she doesn’t skimp on the details."
"The play’s the thing, or so I told old Will." Merlin stretched and eyed the caravan speculatively. "So, since we’ve got to wait anyway, what’s for tea?"
They were polishing off the last of the sandwiches when the land rover drove up. Dulcinea waved as she strolled leisurely over. "I see you’ve made yourselves at home," she commented calmly as if she hadn’t seen them in weeks. "Arthur, Emrys, how are you?"
Arthur stood up and offered her his camp chair. "We’re fine," he answered. "I must say you’re looking quite fit."
Dulcinea gave a little throwaway laugh. "Well, that’s one good thing to come out of my undercover assignment with Darien Montrose. All I learned during my stint as his personal trainer is that he really hates to exercise."
"You mean that’s all?" Merlin asked with a scowl. "We know he’s got his fingers in lots of pies."
"Oh, Montrose is no saint," Dulcinea admitted. "But he’s only interested in turning a profit and there’s just no money in persecuting Arthur."
"I don’t know whether I should be pleased or terribly offended by that," Arthur said wryly. "I was king, you know." He made a face while the others laughed.
In mid-laugh, Dulcinea’s whole mood abruptly changed. She turned her head sharply towards her prized horse. "Something’s wrong," she said curtly. "Rosinante is terribly afraid of something. It came over her all at once." She began to run towards her horse.
Arthur drew his sword from his pack and followed. "Dulcinea! Wait!"
The black Arabian mare reared back and churned her legs in the air, pulling at her tether. Dulcinea rushed in and got a grip on her halter. "Rosinante! Hush, it’s all right! I’m here. What’s the matter?"
Rosinante whinnied, a wild desperate cry and pulled Dulcinea with her as she backed away to the end of her tether. Dulcinea glanced back and was horrified to see a gray wolf crouching low in the tall grass, eyes intent on the great black horse and her rider. A low, rumbling growl rose as the predator rushed towards them.
"Mary! No!" Arthur put himself between Dulcinea and the wolf. "Wake up, Mary!" He flourished his sword and Excalibur blazed brilliant white like a star.
"¿Que?" Dulcinea gave a puzzled stare to the past and future king but her eyes widened further still when the wolf spoke back.
"Wha--? Arthur, what ARE you doing with that sword?"
Arthur dropped to his knees besides the wolf who was now sitting placidly like any house pet. "The question is, Mary, what were YOU doing?" He gestured to Dulcinea standing behind him, soothing Rosinante. "This lady is Dulcinea, one of the friends we were coming to meet. You were stalking her horse."
"I was?" A girl’s voice sounded incongruous coming from a wolf’s muzzle. "But – but I had just finished the sandwich that Merlin had sneaked out to me and I was lying under those hawthorn bushes. How did I get here?"
Mary sounded genuinely upset and Dulcinea couldn’t help coming closer. "Perhaps the sandwich has made her ill," she suggested. "Canines cannot always digest processed foods. Let me check her temperature." Dulcinea reached down to touch Mary’s nose but the wolf snapped at her, missing her fingers by inches.
"No way!" Mary growled. "I’m NOT sick and I’m not a dog!"
"Charming lady," Dulcinea commented.
"Now, Mary…," Arthur said sternly. "Dulcinea is a skilled animal trainer and she knows more about these things that we do." He looked up at Dulcinea. "We came upon Mary in a village which was cursed by a transformation spell. When Mary broke the talisman causing the trouble, it backfired, transforming her into a wolf during the day. At night, Mary reverts back to a normal human girl."
"I see," Dulcinea said, nodding her head. "Still, some foods that you might have enjoyed as a human can be quite bad for your current metabolism. I was only concerned that you might have made yourself sick without realizing it."
The wolf stared up at her for a few seconds. The sensation of two baleful eyes boring into hers was unsettling, to say the least, but Dulcinea returned the gaze without hesitation. Finally Mary dropped her eyes and turned her head away. "Sorry," she said reluctantly. "I hadn’t thought of it in quite that way."
"That’s quite all right," Dulcinea said calmly. "Why don’t we all go back to the caravan and we can go over the camping arrangements."
"Funny, this one doesn’t have wings either," Mary grumped. "I think you’ve been making all these gargoyle stories up."
Arthur laughed. "Oh, you’ll see, my dear. When are we going to meet them, do you know, Rory?"
"Tiberius said he’d bring a crew to help unpack tonight," Rory answered. "I don’t know if that’ll be a good idea or not." He pointed as another camper pulled up several yards away. "We’ve got more company here than I thought we would."
"Perhaps we should take some things now and take it in ourselves," Arthur suggested. "There’s plenty of daylight left to make it to the Caledonian encampment on foot. We could give them warning before they leave."
Merlin flopped down in a camp chair. "There goes my afternoon nap!"
"Lazybones," Mary sniffed.
"I think Rosie would be favorable to being a packhorse for the occasion," Dulcinea said brightly, "and I would enjoy the walk. I’ve never liked just sitting around."
"Then we should not waste any more time," Arthur said decisively. "Rory! Break out the provisions!"
* * * * *
Douglas Campbell grimaced as his battered land rover bounced along the ruts of the old logging road. He wasn’t entirely convinced that his clients were what they seemed, especially when they didn’t turn up on the membership logs of any of the conservation groups in the Wildlife Trust’s database. That got Lew’s attention and Doug had left the forest ranger rooting around like a badger on the Internet, running down any trace of the mysterious Mssrs. Feldman and Ratcliffe.
As reward, Lew had generously provided the cel phone number of the brunette Doug had bumped into at the station but unfortunately, her brother (Doug certainly hoped) had informed him that she had already left camp. The young Scotsman took the romantic setback with good humor, having regarded it as a longshot anyway, and whistled absently to himself as he drove along….
The shortwave radio crackled as Doug began to crest the top of a hill. He pulled the vehicle over and snatched up the mike. "Doug, here. What’s up, Lew?"
"Not much, really," Lew’s distorted voice reported, "except that now I’m even more suspicious of your mystery clients."
"Well, Alfred Ratcliffe is apparently a scientist. He’s published a number of papers on anthropology and genetic research but as far as I can tell, he’s never had anything to do with ecology, botany or biology."
"That’s peculiar." Doug frowned as he dodged a pothole. "What’s an anthropologist doing here?"
"You’ve got me," Lew replied. "The nearest Neolithic site is a pre-Bronze Age barrow in the upper Highlands."
"Hmm." Doug chewed on his thumbnail. "This is getting fishier by the minute. I’m really tempted to hike back up there and see what those guys are up to."
"Be careful, lad. You don’t know who these guys are."
"Maybe, but I know these woods like the back of my hand and they don’t." Movement at the bottom of the hill caused Doug to sit up straight in his seat, craning to see what was below. "Hello, hello, what’s this?"
"What?" Lew asked.
"Some people and a pack horse just came out of the woods. I’m going to see if they’re lost."
Lew chuckled. "Cross your fingers, lad, and maybe you’ll get lucky."
Douglas ignored that and slowly idled down the hill towards the newcomers. They didn’t seem to notice him at first, and as he rolled down his window, their arguing voices soon told him why.
"I’m telling you, it’s a shortcut!"
"It’s not on the map."
"I don’t need the ruddy map! I used to live here – I know these woods like the back of my hand!"
The dark-haired woman raised an eyebrow at her companion. "That was quite a long time ago, Emrys. I believe you and the land have changed several times since then."
The curly-haired teenager threw up his hands. "Oh, please! Not that again!" He glanced around. "Arthur, tell her—Arthur? Where did he get to?"
A girl’s voice called out from behind the horse. "He’s gone back up the trail to check something. Shall I fetch him?"
"Excuse me," Doug called out. "Do you need any help?"
"No, thank you," the teenager said coldly. "We’re fine."
"Nonsense, Emrys," the dark-haired woman said. She narrowed her eyes at Doug as he got out of the car. "You seem familiar. I know you, yes?"
Doug gulped and ran his fingers back through his hair, wishing he’d had taken time for a shower and hoping that he didn’t smell too horrible after the morning’s hike. "Um, we kind of bumped into each other at the ranger station." He smiled sheepishly. "Douglas Campbell, Wilderness Tours. I take people into the woods."
"Dulcinea el Taboso," she said with a cool nod of her head. "I’m afraid we’re a bit lost. Emrys has been here before and he insists there’s a trail that way."
"Well, there is a very old trail back there," Doug admitted. "My grandfather took me on it years ago."
"Ha!" Emrys snorted.
"However," Doug continued, "there’s no way you could get there from here. Last winter’s icestorms caused a lot of erosion. The snow melt washed out the entire lower part of the trail." He stroked the horse’s flank gently. "You don’t want to take this grand lass on that loose shale, miss. It’d be too easy for her to twist a leg or worse."
Dulcinea favored the Scotsman with a slow smile. "My thoughts exactly, Mr. Campbell. Can you suggest an alternate route?"
"If I may see your map for a moment?" Doug studied it for a few seconds. "Yes, if you continue down this road for about a half-mile, you’ll reach an old logging cutoff road. It’s overgrown and you’ll have to ford a stream but it parallels the original trail. It should take you close to wherever you’re going and it’s a lot safer."
"Thank you, Mr. Campbell," Dulcinea said pleasantly. "You’ve saved us some travel time. I’m terribly pleased that you stopped for us."
"Oh, it was nothing, really." Embarrassed, Doug jammed his hands in his back pockets as he thought frantically for something else to say. Unfortunately, Dulcinea had other ideas.
"If you’ll excuse us, we’ll be on our way."
"That’s right," Emrys said. "You and I really must be going."
Dulcinea raised one eyebrow as she gave the curly-haired teenager a puzzled look before turning back to Doug. "Thank you again," she said politely and started to walk away.
Doug sighed and watched her go. He’d learned long ago that there was no point in putting the moves on a girl with a teenaged audience around. "Well, Dougie boy, it looks like you’re in for a lovely time spying on the Yanks all by your lonesome," he muttered to himself. His eyes widened as a thought occurred to him and Doug called after them. "Oy!! Dulcinea! You might want to steer clear of Allt Mor Valley."
"Why is that?"
"There’s a couple of scientists over there doing an ecological survey. That’s where I’m headed, to check up on them."
Dulcinea waved back at him. "We will give them a wide berth then. Thanks for the warning!"
Douglas watched Dulcinea and her party get a good distance away before starting up his land rover. "Lew must be right," he told himself, "I have got to stop hanging out in the woods. I haven’t been this tongue-tied since I was a teenager."
Shaking his head, Doug drove away.
* * * * *
Giving the barest glance over his shoulder, Merlin said loudly, "Arthur? What are you playing on about?"
"Is he still there?" Arthur called out cautiously.
"Yes, but we’ll be out of view shortly." Merlin scowled into the brush. "What’s the matter?"
"It was a good thing I’d gone in search of the trail. I did business with that young man when I was here before with Griff. He may or may not know that Arthur Pennington is a wanted man but there’s no point in taking the risk so close to the Caledonian clan’s territory."
"Oh, tosh." Mary came out of the woods and trotted along at Merlin’s heels. "That guy was too busy ogling her to notice me or you." She gave a barking laugh. "Dul-ci’s got a boy-friend…!!"
The Spanish woman gave the gray wolf a dark look. "Pity there’s a human brain inside that wolf’s body," she said gravely, "or you would be learning a new set of behaviors."
"Promises, promises!" Mary flicked her tail at them as she bounded back into the woods.
"She’s acting more wolfish," Arthur observed as he emerged cautiously from the trees. "There were some moments while you were talking with that young man when I caught her stalking him. She was actually growling until I approached her and spoke to her softly. That seemed to calm her."
"Curious," Merlin commented and scratched the peach fuzz on his chin. "I wonder…"
* * * * *
Working quickly, Feldman strapped the lightweight box to the trunk of the tree with nylon ties. He checked to see if it was secure, flipped on the switch, and descended thirty feet to the ground. Ratcliffe was there at the bottom, busily pecking away at his computer.
Ratcliffe looked up. "All the motion sensors are registering on-line," he reported. "I’ve programmed them to only respond to gargoyle-sized targets so that the odd owl or bat flying by doesn’t trip them."
"This had better work," Feldman said grimly. "I didn’t come on this little venture to climb trees and be your fetch-it boy."
"Of course not," Ratcliffe answered. "That’s why we were put together as a team. I set out the bait and you spring the trap." He flipped his laptop shut. "That’s all we can do for now. I suggest we head for base camp and get some rest before sundown."
"Good idea," Feldman replied. "I need to get in some target practice."
* * * * *
Lowering his binoculars, Doug frowned. "What the devil are those fellows playing at?" he wondered aloud. He had been perched up on the ridge in a thicket for the past hour or so, watching the two alleged scientists put compact boxes up in the trees up and down the pass. It wasn’t an uncommon procedure; Doug had gone along with Lew on some of his wildlife surveys and employed the same method of leaving a camera with a motion sensor along a game trail. The thing that puzzled Doug was what sort of animal they expected to find so high off the ground.
"It doesn’t make any sense," he muttered again. "Most of the eagles roost near the loch. There isn’t anything over here that’s worth all this trouble."
His radio crackled and Doug picked it up. "Yeah, Lew?"
"I got something on your Jacob Feldman," Lew’s distorted voice said. "Definitely not a scientist."
"I found him on one of Greenpeace’s black-listed pages. He used to belong to a group called the Quarrymen in the States – caused quite a row in New York City, and they’re still involved in a number of court cases. I’ll bet you a pound that he’s over here lying low while the Yanks finish sorting out that mess. What he’s doing here, I have no idea, but he’s a hunter of some sort. I don’t like it – I don’t like it at all!"
Doug swore under his breath. "Blast! I’ve just been watching them put some sort of devices up in the trees all along the pass between Allt Mor and Schiehallion. You sit tight, I’m going to see what they’ve been up to."
"Be careful, lad," Lew warned him. "These chaps are hiding something and I don’t think they’re the sort for you to toy with."
"Nonsense," Doug answered as he hitched his pack firmly in place between his shoulder blades. "There’s nothing in these woods that can get the better of me."
To Be Continued….