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....
Amanda: "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." [reaches out to Brianna.] "When the wind calls to an old gargoyle, it’s best to let them go with dignity."
Brianna: "Aye, it is as ye say, Amanda. I know th’ truth of it." [blinks rapidly and takes a deep breath] "Michael, I’ll take th’ medical supplies north for ye. I mus’ go home."
Michael: "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." [raises 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: "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 cringe.]
* * * * *
Dorcas: "Stop it!" [snarls] "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!!"
Lucy: "Nonsense, Dorcas. We are the children of the clan. They would never abandon us."
Dorcas: "Fat lot YOU know!" [sniffs loudly and hugs her knees to her] "You don’t know anything!"
* * * * *
Caspian: "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.]
Kirstie: "Pony-boy! What a lovely surprise! We had nae idea exactly who’d be comin’ tonight." [disengages herself and pounces on Griff]
Rosalind: [glares] "Pony-boy?" [Behind her, Cervus smirks.]
Caspian: "It’s a just a joke, Roz darling. Kirstie tends to be rather impulsive when you first meet her. She’ll settle down in a minute or two." [pulls nervously at the neck of his tunic] "My, don’t you find that all this traveling makes you rather warm?"
* * * * *
Lew Foster: Be careful, lad. These chaps are hiding something and I don’t think they’re the sort for you to toy with."
Douglas Campbell: "Nonsense," [hitches his pack firmly in place between his shoulder blades] "There’s nothing in these woods that can get the better of me."
On Holiday -- Part II
The late afternoon sun slanted through the pines into the isolated clearing, casting long shadows across the ground. Arthur thrashed his way through the bushes while Mary threaded her way through the brambles without mussing her fur.
"You people are so noisy!" Mary said, rolling on the ground and giggling. "Sounds like you’re all tromping on potato crisps!"
"I’m so terribly pleased that we amuse you," Merlin commented tersely as he pulled his shirt tail free from a bramble snarl. "You’ll excuse the rest of us from being less than thrilled with the situation."
Arthur pulled back a branch to make a wide passage for Dulcinea to lead Rosinante through. "Come now, Merlin," he chided his old mentor gently, "the wilderness was always your preferred choice of refuge to the inner politics of my court. I remember having to traipse through the woods for days just to find you."
"I was young and foolish then," Merlin said testily. "Are we there yet?"
Dulcinea consulted the map in her hands. "According to Brock’s notes, we should be in sight of the main encampment."
"Lucky, having that map," Arthur commented. "When I was here last, I wasn’t permitted this far into the forest."
"Hey!" Mary called. "Here’s a bunch of standing stones! Come and see!"
They found Mary threading her way through a number of free-standing, curiously shaped rocks. As the humans came closer, one by one they began to smile and exchange knowing looks. Merlin gave a snort that sounded remarkably like suppressed laughter.
Mary glanced over her shoulder. "Hey! What’s up with you?"
"Your eyesight is most likely not very good in this form, is it?" Dulcinea asked tactfully. "Most canines have very poor depth perception."
"Well," Mary’s tail dipped lower in distress, "everything is kind of fuzzy, but I’ve gotten used to it."
"Mary, my dear," Arthur said grandly, "I’d like to introduce you to your first gargoyles." He put his hand on the chest of the largest one. "This is Quade, second-in-command of the Caledonians. I don’t remember all their names but I see a number of the London clan here as well."
The wolf sniffed delicately at a stone figure. "You’re kidding."
"No, these gargoyles are in their stone sleep. They’ll wake up at sunset, just as you’re transforming."
"I’ll believe it when I see it."
"Until then," Dulcinea suggested, "let’s make camp back here, out of range. Rosie doesn’t like stone chips flying around her ears."
Grumbling, Mary followed the others away from the sleeping gargoyles. "I still say you’re putting me on."
Smiling, Arthur swung the heavy pack from his back. "My dear Lady Wolf," he said amiably, "you are in for a big surprise."
Arthur’s words were prophetic in more than one sense. While the gargoyles were bursting from their daytime shells, Mary herself was morphing from her wolven form to stand on her own two feet again as a human. It took a few minutes to clear the spots from her eyes, but when she did, Mary stared around her in amazement.
"Brilliant!" the errant schoolgirl exclaimed. "You weren’t just putting me on! They’re real – really real!!"
"Told you," Merlin said smugly.
"Arthur!" Griff crowed as he threaded his way through the crowd. He clasped forearms with the mythical monarch. "It’s good to see you!"
"It’s good to be seen by you, Sir Griff." Arthur answered. "You must tell how things are in London." He gestured to the brown-haired girl standing nearby. "I would like to introduce you to the latest companion to join Merlin and myself in our travels. This is Miss Mary Sefton. Mary, I would like you to meet Sir Griff, the first of my knights in this modern world."
"Lady Mary," Griff said grandly and made a great show of bowing over her hand.
"Wow." Mary blushed and bobbed a curtsey before she caught herself. She elbowed Merlin. "See? Why don’t you have his good manners?"
"It must be the company I keep," Merlin replied tartly.
Similar reunions were occurring all over the clearing. Caspian, Rosalind and Cervus were talking animatedly with their rookery brothers Reg, a barrel-chested boar, and Pip, a sleek blue-gray cat with just a stub of a tail. Most of the Caledonians stood apart regarding the visitors cautiously but Kirstie was darting between groups like a hummingbird, busily playing hostess.
One loud squall from Victoria was answered by two similar cries nearby. Michael looked at Quade ruefully. "If you’ll excuse me," he said apologetically, "I’m afraid I’ll have to skip the social niceties for a while."
"Nae, think naught o’ it," Quade rumbled back. "Rachel an’ Jamie would be happy t’ nurse yuir hatchling wi’ ours."
"A spare spot in your rookery perhaps," Michael said agreeably. He started towards the cave. "I won’t be but a moment."
A small eddy of gargoyle beasts surged around Michael’s feet, nearly tripping him. "Have a care!" he snapped out.
"Sorry!!" Lucy called out as she and Musgrave rushed after them.
The beastlings changed directions towards delicate Jamie as she carried Fergus to the cave for his feeding. She’d only had time to gasp, her dark eyes wide and startled when a staff slapped down between her and the young beasts.
"Stop!" Curran barked out gruffly. "Siddown, ye wee beasties!"
Whimpering, the young beasts cringed and hunkered down in the pine needles at his feet. Curran raised his staff back up and leaned on it to rest his bad leg. "That’s better," he said. "This is nae the place for ye t’ be runnin’ wild. Ye’ll learn to behave here or I’ll skin ye an’ make summat useful out o’ ye."
Musgrave and Lucy regarded the docile beastlings with wide eyes and open mouths. "Whoa… How did you do that?" the little dragon gargoyle asked admiringly.
Curran shrugged. " ‘Tis a knack."
"Dinnae let my sire fool ye," Tori said, striding to Curran’s side. "He’s always had a way wi’ animals. Ye cannae live all yuir lives in th’ woods wi’out pickin’ up a few skills like that."
"Could --, could -- " Musgrave looked desperately at Lucy.
"Musgrave and I want to train our beastlings better," Lucy said in a rush. She came towards the gruff Caledonian, twisting her tufted tail in her hands. "Could you show us how – please?" She gave the flinty Caledonian the same winsome grin that frequently worked on her father.
An unfamiliar smile crossed Curran’s sharp-featured face.
"—Oh, yeah," Pip was saying eagerly. "It was a nasty bit of work dealing with those Unseelie things. My fur was standing on end the entire time."
Reg nodded. "We’d finally been backed up to the main caves by Schiehallion when suddenly, poof! It was like someone, somewhere, had pulled a switch. Some of them ran, some of them vanished into smoke, and some of them melted right into the ground."
"You’re kidding!" Rosalind said, her cat’s eyes wide with astonishment.
The young boar-headed gargoyle shook his head. "Weirdest thing I’ve ever seen."
Cervus laughed. "Hey, you want to talk about weird – I was shot at by a bronze statue of Artemis."
"What about you, Roz?" Pip asked. "What happened out at the estate?"
"Not much really," Rosalind admitted. "Some damage from the freak ice storms and falling debris. Most of the action was in London where Cas and Cervus were. I was a rookery guard for the duration."
"What about Lancelot?" Caspian asked. "Remus told me he met his end bravely."
"Aye, poor lad!" Kirstie chimed in. "I’d been hurt an’ he bought th’ time for Rachel to get me into th’ cave." She smiled at Rosalind. "I got put on rookery guard then an’ Jamie took my place. Her skill wi’ a bow was badly needed."
Pip reached into his belt and took out a tarnished pocket watch. "Here, Caspian," he said as he held it out. "I was with them when we found Lance. He was pretty far gone by then and he could barely breathe much less speak but he made me take this. I think – I think he wanted you to have this."
Caspian took the watch carefully and flipped open the lid for a few seconds, then closed it. "He didn’t say anything?"
"I knew that you’d given it to him years ago, so I asked if he wanted you to have it." Pip swallowed. "He took a breath to speak but – but he just sighed, one long soft sigh like the air was leaking away and he was gone." He put Caspian’s shoulder. "I’m sorry. I know you two were close. I miss our rookery brother too."
"As do I," Reg said and put out his hand. One by one, the five rookery mates linked hands and solemnly remembered their sibling. Kirstie chewed on her lip for a few moments and watched Caspian’s face thoughtfully.
Tiberius and Quade stood quietly as Arthur and Dulcinea filled them in on details of the relief effort. "Ye were quite right in comin’ t’warn us," Quade said when they’d finished. "We’ll need t’be cautious around th’ humans." He glanced at his guests. "Present company excluded, o’ course."
Arthur nodded his head graciously. "Quite understandable. You have young ones to protect now. Defense is of the utmost importance."
"Perhaps we should consider unloading the supplies over the course of several nights," Tiberius suggested. "I’ve got the medicine I need. The rest can wait a bit."
"We have more than enough hands, " said Griff. "Why not do the job all at once and avoid detection? Too many trips risks the chance of being discovered."
"He’s got a point," Weller added. "Let’s divvy up sides and go for it."
"‘Sides?’" Quade asked.
"Sure thing, guv!" the good-natured Londoner answered. "Light hands make much work."
Griff lifted a finger. "Don’t you mean --?"
Weller snagged Dodger as the youngster was attempting to slip away. "And certain light hands have made so much work for themselves that they can only be redeemed by a great deal of honest labor," he said, narrowing his eyes at Dodger, "or I may have to come clean about a few things that our clan leader might be very interested in knowing."
"Ah." Griff raised his browridges knowingly. "Quade, I believe Weller has your first volunteer well in hand. If one or two of your clan would guide us to the campgrounds, we could get the relief effort underway."
"I kin take ye there meself," Quade rumbled. "Rachel has some nets an’ ropes that may be useful."
"I’ll call Rory," Dulcinea said as she started to unzip her beltpouch, "and let him know that you’re coming. He’s parked the caravan fairly close to the forest so it shouldn’t be too difficult to pull this off."
"Good idea," Griff agreed. "Brianna will want to be with Kylie right now so I believe I’ll go with the relief party. Weller, Quade, let’s gather our volunteers."
"—do you mean to tell me," Dorcas’ voice rose an octave, "that this is all there is? A cave in the woods? Catching your own food? No indoor plumbing!?!"
"Well, it’s always been good enow for us," Kirstie answered in a mild tone. "An’ yuir fellow Londoners have adapted to it quite well."
"Come now," Beatrix said cheerfully. "It’s just like the old days when gargoyles lived independently from humans. It’s going to be an exciting adventure!"
"Exactly!" Agnes agreed. "Besides, Dorcas, you’re in your element here. Aren’t you the best tracker in our rookery?"
Dorcas considered this bit of flattery. "Well…, I suppose I can rough it for a while." Her face froze as she looked over her friends’ shoulders and the girls turned to see a fox-headed gargoyle hurrying their way.
"Darling!" Remus exclaimed brightly as he stepped towards Dorcas. "How have you been? You look so grown up – I’ve missed you."
Dorcas merely crossed her arms over her chest and sniffed indignantly as she turned her face away from him. Remus frowned and slowly retracted his arms to let them droop forlornly at his sides.
Lucy exchanged a distressed look with Beatrix and Agnes. "Dorcas!" Lucy hissed. "You can’t treat your own father like that!"
"Father?" Kirstie put a hand on Remus’ arm. "Ye dinnae say a word."
"My mate had died a few years ago," Remus admitted. "I thought a change might lessen the pain of losing her and so I volunteered to come here. I’m afraid my daughter never approved of my choice."
"But how can Remus be her father?" Kirstie asked Tiberius curiously as the healer walked up. "Except for th’ color, they look nothing alike."
Tiberius scratched the fringe of fur along his jawline. "Well, the London bloodline is a right proper Chinese puzzle box as far as genetics are concerned."
"Genetics?" Kirstie wrinkled her nose. "What’s that?"
"Hmmm, how do I explain this?" Tiberius thought a moment. "Genetics is basically the bits and pieces that make us who we are. Each of us has a genetic code that makes us unique." He began pointing around the camp. "It’s what gives Quade rock-textured skin and gives Jamie her large eyes and makes Michael an eagle and me a wolf."
"Now in the London clan, we all resemble heraldic animals." Tiberius raised his hands and shrugged. "Don’t ask me why – it’s the biggest unsolved mystery in our history. However, we healers have kept detailed records over the years and we’ve made some interesting discoveries. When two Londoners mate, what usually happens is that the hatchling takes the dominant physical traits from one parent and the recessive traits such as coloration from the other. Others like Griff and Rosalind sometimes get a mix of traits from both parents, especially if one of the parents is originally descended from another clan."
Kirstie chewed her lip. "So what yuir sayin’ then is that Dorcas’ mother wasna a fox but summat different?"
"That’s right, Dorcas is the offspring of a feline mother and so inherited those physical traits. However, her red-orange coloring is a direct result of her father’s recessive genes."
Dorcas gave an indignant snort. "I am a child of the clan. I have no mother." She glared at Remus with slitted eyes. "Or a father."
"Not so," Tiberius said mildly as he fixed her with a baleful amber stare, "like it or not, my dear, but you are the spitting image of Tabitha and even though she’s gone, that doesn’t make her any less your mother. And your opinions to the contrary, Remus has never stopped being your father."
The fox-headed gargoyle reached out a hand to touch Tiberius on the arm. "Please, Ty, don’t rub her nose in it. That won’t help.
"He is NOT my father!" Dorcas bit out angrily. "He left me behind!! Now look at him!! Running around in a loincloth like a savage!"
Remus took a step forward, eyes glowing. "Now THAT will do, my girl. You will not be rude to our hosts."
"I hate you! I hate you all!!" And with that, Dorcas fled into the forest.
* * * * *
Michael glanced up at the commotion outside the cave. "That sounded like one of the children," he commented. "Brianna, could I trouble you to find out what’s going on?"
"G’wan wi’ ye," Kylie said indulgently to the dappled green female at her side. "I’ll still be here when ye get back."
Brianna smiled and touched Kylie’s cheek. "All right then."
The old gargoyle watched Brianna leave before slumping back into her fur-covered chair. "Seeing my daughter again has been th’ best medicine ye could have sent me, Michael," she said in a tired voice. "An’ who is this young creature ye’ve brought wi’ ye?"
"This?" Michael laughed as he spooned some baby food into a gaping beak. "This greedy thing is my daughter, Victoria."
"‘Tis unusual t’ take such a young hatchling from her rookery," Kylie observed. "Much less t’ be cared for by a male."
"Victoria’s foster mother made much the same observation," Michael answered. "However, I thought it might be a good way for our two clans to get to know each other better." His eyes looked somewhere in the past. "My mate always wanted to travel but she never got the chance. I thought perhaps she could see your woods through Victoria’s eyes."
"Another unusual sentiment," Kylie commented. "Ye’ve brought me one surprise after another, Michael. What else is happening in the outside world?"
"Many things, milady," Michael said as he wiped Victoria’s chin. "I have been in contact with many other clan leaders. It has been proposed to have a World Gathering, a meeting of representatives from all over the world."
"If it is possible, I would like to have a representative from your clan to attend. They could come with us to represent the clans of Great Britain."
"Och, ye have ambitious dreams, Michael o’ London!" Kylie pursed her lips thoughtfully. "I dinnae know. Naught o’ my clan save Brianna has ever dared t’ leave th’ forest before. Couldna she be yuir representative?"
"To speak before the World Council, one must be a clan leader, second-in-command, or elder with the authority to make decisions for the good of their clan."
"I know Quade," Rachel commented from across the room where she was nursing little Meara behind a modestly folded wing. "He wouldna want t’ go, nae wi’ hatchlings in th’ rookery. Curran’s of a like mind, himself. Dinnae look at Jamie an’ me – neither one o’ us will leave our babes t’go so faraway."
"Ye have to understand," Kylie explained, "that we lost our last rookery in a rockslide. That’s why there’s a gap between Brianna’s rookery and this one. You’re lucky, Michael, t’ have those fine youngsters that ye brought up from London. We can’t afford t’ lose any more o’ our clan."
"I understand that but times are changing. I can’t allow myself to be afraid to take my daughter out into the world. The future is what we make of it and gargoyles can no longer afford to live in the shadows." Michael cradled Victoria in the crook of his arm. "Look at our children – so trusting, so unafraid. I’d like to give them that world – a place where they never have to hide who and what they are."
Kylie’s eyes passed over the hatchlings as they were placed in the protective rookery pen. Fergus and Meara stared at the new hatchling and Victoria in turn stared back. The little Londoner, accustomed to more playmates, leaned forward and poked Fergus in his round tummy, provoking a shrill giggle. Meara took the opportunity to tug on Victoria’s white-feathered wing. Victoria shrieked and soon all three hatchlings were romping together like puppies.
"There may be summat t’ what ye say, Michael o’ London," Kylie concluded. "If th’ world outside were as safe as th’ rookery floor, so many things would be different for us. I’ll have t’ give it a great deal o’ thought."
Brianna came back in with Tiberius on her heels. "Michael! Dorcas has run off into th’ woods!"
"Did someone go after her?"
Tiberius waved Michael’s concerns aside. "Remus will handle it, not to worry. Griff and Quade are leaving with a work detail to fetch supplies and I’ve sent Reg and Pip off on their patrols with Tori and Cervus."
Jamie stood up and slung her bow over her shoulder. "That leaves me and Curran to fetch dinner. Would some of yuir youngsters like to go along? There’s ripe blackberries to be picked and snares to be checked."
"I think that would be an excellent idea," Michael said as he rose to his feet. "I’ll come with you and tell them so."
Kylie waited until Rachel had left too before speaking to her physician. "I want ye t’ tell me th’ truth, Tiberius," she said softly, "how long do I truly have before th’ four winds claim me?"
Tiberius’ calm golden gaze met hers and she read the answer in his sympathetic eyes.
* * * * *
"Are you sure you don’t mind taking them with you?" Caspian asked. "They can be a real handful."
"Nae," Jamie said in her soft voice. "They’re here to learn th’ ways o’ th’ wood. What better way than by doin’? Besides, I’ve been needin’ some extra hands t’ get in th’ blackberry crop before th’ birds eat it all. We’ll have bubbly tarts for supper tonight!"
Musgrave brightened. "That sounds good!"
"All right then. Have fun, kids." Caspian said but the sad look in his eyes didn’t change. Kirstie came up behind him and pulled him to one side, speaking in a low voice that was inaudible over the excited voices of the young gargoyles. Rosalind frowned but her attention was diverted by Quade’s mate, Rachel walking out of the cave in her curious wardrobe of tartans and leather. It was quite an interesting assortment of colors and Rosalind jotted down a quick sketch in her mind’s eye.
Curran nodded to Rachel. "I’ll run the traps while I’m out. We’ll be back wi’ summat for th’ pot shortly."
"All right," Rachel called back. "I’ll have everything ready for ye. Kirstie! Kirstie?" The russet-colored female looked around. "Where has that girl got to?"
"She was just talking to Caspian over there…," Rosalind said helpfully but the words trailed away as she turned to find an empty space. She frowned. "Where’d they go?"
"Och, no matter," Rachel said. "No doubt they’ve gone off to renew old acquaintances an’ such like. Give me a hand, lass, an’ gather some wood for th’ fire while I fetch the cauldron out."
"Renew old acquaintances, my eye!" Rosalind grumbled under her breath as she stalked around the perimeter of the clearing, savagely snatching up fallen sticks from the branches above. The more images her vivid imagination conjured up, the hotter Rosalind’s temper became. She tossed down her armful of sticks near the cooking pit.
"Lady Rachel?" she called out in a relatively calm voice, "I’m going after more wood. I’ll be right back."
"That’s fine, dear."
Rosalind strode over to the nearest tree and clawed her way up to launching level. When she found Caspian, she was going to make him good and sorry for toying with her affections this way.
* * * * *
"I’m telling you," Caspian yelled out, "Roz is going to hang me for this."
"Oh, rot! Surely yuir lovely wouldna begrudge me a wee bit o’ yuir time – an’ besides, we’re nearly there!"
Kirstie took a sharp turn as they neared the shore of Loch Rannoch, soaring higher on a steep climb towards the rugged outline of the ridge. Caspian had to push himself to keep up with her; the Caledonian was light enough to ride a whisper of a thermal and his bulk forced him to strain his wings to the utmost. Finally, she began to circle in for a landing
"Th’ old tales say that th’ loch was made when two great giants battled here, topplin’ a mountain to th’ ground," Kirstie shouted back at Caspian as she sailed down to a bluff overlooking the loch. "Lance used t’ beg Quade t’ tell that story an’ afterwards we’d always come here. He would stand here, lookin’ out at th’ loch wi’ th’ wild wind in his hair an’ it would fair take my breath away." She smiled sadly as they approached a cairn of stones. "It seemed like th’ right place t’ lay him to rest."
"T-this," Caspian stuttered, "this is the place?"
"Lancelot lies yonder." Kirstie nodded her head towards the cairn. "I guessed from th’ way ye acted earlier, that this is why ye came."
Numbly, Caspian nodded and dropped to one knee before the burial cairn. "Lance," he breathed, unable to put into words all the things he was feeling. The rough and tumble days he and Lancelot had spent together as hatchlings under Una’s care. The way Lancelot helped a clumsy young spellcaster get through their warrior training. The sad way Lancelot would watch Rosalind and Caspian when he thought no one was looking. Solemnly, he took a stone from the pile and replaced it with one of the broken roof slates from the estate that he’d carried with him in his belt pouch. Drawing in a ragged breath, he managed to mutter the traditional words of mourning:
"Wing to wind brings us full circle to the sky
When life flees, the wind helps the soul to fly.
To the corners of the earth, we are one clan.
Our brothers and sisters from this life are gone
And yet in heart and mind live on
A new life to find in a new, eternal land
Our souls cry for those no longer alive
Who saw the sun and then left life behind
No longer to glide beside us under the moon
A gargoyle's mourning roar will sound
Through forest glade and rocky mount
We cry for those we love and hope to see them soon."
The burial litany of the London Clan fell Caspian’s lips by rote but the words gave him no comfort. At the last few words, his polished unicorn’s horn shimmered in the moonlight and for few second, a magic glow covered the rocks of the cairn.
With a whispered, "I’m sorry, my friend." Caspian rose to his feet. Each step became heavier, weighted down with all the unsaid things he’d been holding back for weeks. His breath shuddered and he stopped in his tracks.
"Caspian?" Kirstie uttered softly, reaching out her hand.
"I’m SO sorry!!" Caspian groaned suddenly, falling to his knees. "It’s my fault!! All my fault! I sent him to his death!!" He broke down, tears rolling down his long equine nose.
"Och, nae!!" Kirstie dropped to her knees besides him. "Ye cannae think that way. Lance was happy here. Ye did him a great favor, sendin’ him t’ me." She smiled at the guilty tear-filled look he gave her. "Aye, he told me even that. An’ I thank ye for it, Caspian, because for what little time we did have together, Lance an’ I were verra happy."
"He--"Caspian swallowed painfully. "He was so lonely in London."
"An’ I was lonely here," Kirstie replied. "I remember th’ first night he arrived. He was standin’ a bit behind th’ others, actin’ a little shy but I saw him lookin’ at me wi’ those great dark eyes o’ his. It was nearly dawn before he worked up th’ nerve t’ talk t’ me an’ he said, ‘Milady, yuir photograph doesn’t do you justice.’ I nearly laughed in his face, he was so solemn an’ serious."
Caspian wiped his eyes on his sleeve and managed a small smile. "Oh, he was usually serious until he was ready to spring a joke on you."
"Aye, that’s th’ truth! He was always tryin’ t’ make me laugh." Kirstie sighed. "I loved him for that but I -- " her voice faltered "I never told him how I felt. I was nearly ready t’ make my choice but I wanted t’ be sure – an’ then it was too late. I – I never told him that I loved him."
As Kirstie began to cry quietly, Caspian felt the night grow crystal clear around him. The gray fog that had surrounded him since learning of his milk brother’s death seemed to be lifting. A glimmer out of the corner of his eye caught his attention and there, standing near the burial cairn was Lancelot’s ghostly image. The specter was silent but was looking at Kirstie longingly, his brow twisted with concern. Caspian blinked and the image was gone.
Tentatively, Caspian put his arm around the Caledonian’s shaking shoulders. "He knew, Kirstie."
Moonlight glistened on her upturned face. "But I never--"
"Lance always knew what I was feeling, sometimes even before I did." Caspian gave a wan smile. "He knew Roz and I would be together long before we figured it out for ourselves. I’m certain that Lance knew what was in your heart and that the knowing that he was loved made him happy."
Kirstie stared at him blankly for a moment. Her lip twisted and she threw herself against his chest, blubbering.
"There, there," Caspian said softly as he rocked her in his arms. "It still hurts knowing Lance is gone, but it helps to know I’m not the only one missing him."
* * * * *
"I don’t believe it."
Bobbing in the top of a tall pine, Rosalind stared at the scene taking place below on the bluff. Caspian -- her Caspian – had taken that Scottish trollop into his arms and was holding her. As she watched, Kirstie looked up at Caspian and smiled. Unbelievably, Caspian smiled back as he tenderly caressed her face, brushing his thumb across her cheek.
"This is NOT happening," Rosalind told herself as she blinked rapidly, her breath caught in her throat. A tiny whimpering sob escaped her as Caspian helped Kirstie to her feet and they both turned, arms around each other, to look at some stones heaped up in an untidy pile. "No…, I can’t watch this, I won’t--!"
With tears in her eyes, Rosalind fled silently into the night.
* * * * *
"Climbin’ trees in the dark," Douglas muttered to himself as he stretched up for another handhold. "You ought to have your head examined."
The young Scotsman had used the remainder of the fading daylight to neatly skirt around the two so-called scientists as they returned to camp but it had taken longer than he thought to locate one of the strange boxes.
"Phffah!" A branch caught him across the face and Doug spit some young pine needles out of his mouth. "This had better be worth it," he swore savagely. His fingers touched the smooth plastic casing of the box. "There you are… let’s see what those chaps are up to."
Shining his flashlight at the strange device, Douglas studied it closely, craning around to see it from all sides. Nearly half of the front side was taken up with an inset circular depression made of a spongy black material. Beneath it was a green blinking light and a switch. He waved his hand in front of the device, not noticing the pinprick of light that appeared on his hand.
The green light suddenly began to blink.
* * * * *
Ratcliffe choked on his coffee when the high-pitched chirp from his laptop went off. Spluttering, he coughed out, "We’ve got one!"
"Yes!!" Feldman snatched his rifle and his nightscope and ran off towards the ridge.
* * * * *
"There we go!" Dulcinea said with satisfaction as she stepped back to admire their handiwork. "Arthur and Merlin can share that tent and Mary can share mine."
"Um," Mary began awkwardly, "there is the small matter of waking up with a wolf in the morning."
"Not to worry," Dulcinea said graciously. "I make my living training animals. It wouldn’t be the first time I woke up with something furry in my bed."
Merlin opened his mouth and raised a finger but Arthur quelled him with a sharp look. "No, sir," he said sternly. "Don’t even think it, much less say it."
"What?" Merlin blinked his eyes. "I’m as innocent as a newborn lamb."
"That may be true," Arthur commented, "but there’s a sharp-tongued old wolf beneath your sheep’s clothing."
"So there! Hmmph!" Mary said and turned her nose up at him.
Merlin made a sour face. "So, shall we have a light dinner now or should we wait for our hosts?"
Mary turned to Arthur. "Was he this pre-occupied with his stomach when he was old?"
"Merlin was ever a connoisseur of fine food and wine," Arthur answered diplomatically.
Muffled voices came from some bushes a few yards away. One by one, the young gargoyle beasts tumbled through, followed by the foraging party. Curran had a string of rabbits over one shoulder and some of the children had baskets full of dark purple berries.
Lucy raced over, Ranger bounding along side. "Arthur! Arthur! Guess what? We’re going to have Thumper for dinner!"
There was a whoosh from above and Caspian landed with an audible thud as his hooves hit the ground. "She means we’re having rabbit, Arthur. Lucy used to have a thing for cartoon rabbits when she was younger." He came up behind Lucy and ruffled her hair.
"Cut it out, Caspian. I did not."
Caspian merely laughed and danced out of her way on his way to the cook fires. "Where’s Rosalind?"
"She came back from fetchin’ firewood some time ago," Rachel answered, "then I sent her out for some water. She should be back soon."
Jamie came up with her helpers. "We stopped at th’ east creek to wash th’ berries an’ a mess o’ greens that Beatrix picked for me. There wasna anybody there."
"Hmm, she’s probably found something to draw or something," Caspian said thoughtfully. He strode into the cave and came back with some hides thrown over his shoulder. "I’ll go fetch it for you, Rachel. Two or three skins, do you think?"
"Three if you can manage it, lad," Rachel called after him. "It’ll save us a trip later!"
"Right-o!" Caspian waved and disappeared into the trees.
Michael stared thoughtfully after the unicorn-headed gargoyle. "How far do you have to go for water?" he asked Rachel, Jamie and Curran as they began to prepare the meal. "It wasn’t that far as I recall."
"We used t’ have a small stream just northwest o’ th’ caves that was closer but rocks an’ fallen trees blocked off th’ spring that fed it," Curran commented. "Quade’s been up there an’ he says it’s a full season’s work even wi’ Remus, Tiberius an’ th’ lads helping." He sighed bitterly. "An’ me still bloody useless, nae even able t’ help."
"That’s not so," Michael said firmly. "Many members of my clan may not be physically able to do all that they used to, but that’s not all that they are. They have their wits and their skills and those are valuable commodities to every clan." He clapped a hand on Curran’s shoulder. "You have talents you haven’t even tapped yet. I say that we tackle that mountain and free the water. Come inside and we’ll start planning it with Lady Kylie."
* * * * *
"Hmmm….," Doug commented as he pried the back cover open. "Strangest gizmo I’ve ever seen. It’s not a camera, no lens – just this funny indentation here." He poked the black spongy material with his finger. "Soft, reminds me of --" his eyes widened, "—earphones." Alarmed, he drew back and stared at the device. "Uh, oh…. it’s blinking. What did I do?"
Swearing under his breath, Doug started down the tree. Before he’d got more than a few feet, something crashed through the branches at him. Doug got a startled glimpse of a cat-like face and a flash of orange before he lost his grip on the tree. His fingers scrabbled on the slick bark for a few lingering seconds before the young Scotsman fell, colliding with other branches, all the way to the ground.
Winded, head spinning, Doug groaned. "What was that?" He squinted up, vision blurring. "Looked like mum’s cat with wings…." The stars in the sky overhead spun and he closed his eyes for what he thought was only a minute.
"Wake up!" A booted foot planted itself square on Doug’s chest. "I told you, Alfred, that we should have gone in on our own. This guy’s too nosy for his own good."
"He’s the best trail guide in this area, Jacob. One does not waste a valuable resource."
"He tripped our sensors! That’s not an asset, that’s a pest!" There was the harsh metallic rasp of a rifle bolt being pulled back.
"Wait!!" There were some clicking sounds and Doug risked a peep at his captors. Ratcliffe and Feldman were looking at a blurry image on a laptop. "See? A gargoyle was here!"
"So if these time indexes are right," Ratcliffe said excitedly, "this gargoyle was here for several minutes observing him. We have proof that gargoyles have an overwhelming urge to protect. That gargoyle has an interest in this human, so--"
"—so we set out some bait." Feldman reached down and jerked Doug to his feet. "Well, well," he said with a nasty smile on his face, "it seems you’re still useful after all."
* * * * *
The patrol sweep was just swinging back towards the Caledonian encampment when Kirstie caught up with them. "Well done, Tori!" she crowed. "Three males all t’ yuirself – how ever d’ye manage it?"
Tori made a face at her rookery sister. "There ye go again, thinkin’ wi’ summat other than yuir head. Where’ve ye been? We’ve come full circle on patrol wi’out ye."
"I took Caspian up t’ th’ Loch," Kirstie replied simply. "We had a lovely time an’ then he thought we’d best get back t’ camp before we were missed. He went on wi’out me, so’s nae t’ rile his near-mate."
Cervus was following the conversation with some interest. "What’s that?" he asked. "Near-mate?"
"She means that female wi’ th’ white feathers on her head," Tori answered. "I forget her name but I’m assumin’ that’s th’ one Caspian was fair taken wi’ th’ last time he was here."
"So the spellcaster is keeping secrets from Rosalind, eh?" Cervus allowed himself a little self-serving smirk. "Now, that is interesting."
"What?" Pip asked, flying abreast of his rookery brother. "Is there trouble in paradise with the two lovebirds? C’mon, give, Cervus! I’ve missed all the juicy gossip being way out here."
"Hear, hear!" Reg agreed. "Catch us up with current events, old boy!"
"I shouldn’t say," Cervus started, glancing at the two Caledonian females flying alongside, "but things have not been so rosy between Rosalind and Caspian lately."
"That’s nonsense!" Kirstie said hotly. "Caspian has told me how deeply he cares for her."
"Oh, right," Cervus shot back. "So why’d Caspian go off with you and try to sneak back without her knowing? Seems to me like the two of you have something to hide."
Kirstie’s eyes were round and hurt. "We dinnae do anythin’! I’d never hurt Caspian – he’s my friend."
"A very good friend, so it would seem."
"Cervus!" Pip exclaimed, shocked. "Kirstie is not like that."
"Yuir a horrid beast!" Kirstie screeched through clenched teeth. She turned on a wingtip and swept down to follow the creek below.
Tori swung in and stared grimly into Cervus’ face. "That was a low trick," she growled. "Kirstie may be a flitter-brained flyaway that likes nothin’ better than t’ flirt wi’ a handsome face but she’s never been a poacher. I know my sister better than both o’ ye an’ ye’ve done her a great wrong."
Reg frowned. "You and I will be discussing this later, chum, but for now, I don’t think Kirstie should be alone." He swooped down after the brown female speeding ahead of them.
"Now you’ve done it," Pip said regretfully. "Reg has got a soft spot for Kirstie. He’s been working up the nerve to court her for ages."
Cervus shook his head and sighed heavily. "I’ve made a right bloody mess of it, haven’t I?"
"Yes," Tori answered bluntly. "Ye most certainly have."
"It just really bothers me the way Caspian has been treating Rosalind lately," Cervus said. "He’s constantly neglecting her. She hasn’t said anything but I know she’s upset with him."
"Ah." Pip scratched his whiskers speculatively. "As I recall, you and Caspian were both courting Rosalind for a while before she settled on him. You’re still hopeful, aren’t you?"
Cervus shrugged. "Who wants to spend their life alone?"
Tori’s eyes softened. "Aye, who does?"
"Speak of the devil!" Pip piped up. He pointed below. "There’s a couple of gargoyles down there by the creek, about a quarter of a mile apart."
"Kirstie an’ Reg see them too," Tori observed. "They’re checkin’ on that one upstream, we’ll get this one."
* * * * *
Caspian was knee-deep in the swift-moving current when Kirstie and Reg touched down on the gravel shore. He smiled over his shoulder but didn’t start towards them until the waterskin was full.
"I see Rachel has managed t’ talk ye into doin’ her little chores," Kirstie said with some of her normal good humor restored. "She has ye twisted around her little finger, she does."
"You know me," Caspian said laughingly, "anything for a lady." He waded into the shallows and handed the waterskin out. "Here, Reg. No point in all of us getting wet." He nodded to Kirstie. "Pass me the other one and I’ll finish up."
"Here you go," Kirstie said as she tossed the empty skin over. She glanced at Reg a moment, chewing on her lip. She lifted her brow ridges questioningly.
Reg frowned as he tied off the waterskin. He sighed and began, "Caspian? Could I ask you something, well, personal?"
"Certainly, Reg," Caspian replied as he dipped the skin into the current. "What’s on your mind?"
"How are things between you and Rosalind?"
"Fine," Caspian answered absently. "Oh, we have our little tiffs and I have to go into London more often than she likes sometimes but it always seems to balance out. Una says I’ve learned nearly all she can teach me so I’ll soon be able to be able to spend more time with Roz. Rather looking forward to it, actually." He turned his head to look at Reg, the ends of his long golden mane trailing in the water. "Why’d you ask?"
"Well…," Reg drawled out as he scratched behind his ear. "I’m not exactly sure why, but Cervus seems to think that you and Rosalind are having problems."
"An’ he was bloody happy about it!" Kirstie retorted hotly. "He thinks that we were off in th’ woods foolin’ around earlier."
"What? That’s preposterous!" Caspian exclaimed and inadvertently let the waterskin slip through his fingers. "Blast the bloody fool thing!!" He splashed through the stream after it. "Quick, catch it! Rachel will have my hide if I lose it."
Kirstie dashed across the loose shale, her feet sliding against the slippery rocks. "I’ve got it! I’ve got it-- " With a ear-splitting shriek, her right foot slipped on a mossy stone at the edge of a deep pool, and Kirstie fell in with a dull plunk. However, she surfaced triumphantly with the waterskin in hand.
"Well done, old girl!" Reg crowed appreciatively and applauded.
"I said I’d get it," Kirstie said, tossing her wet curls out her eyes. "An’ which one o’ ye is goin’ t’help me out o’ here? I’m up to my neck here an’ I dinnae want t’risk tossin’ th’ skin an’ losin’ it all over again."
Gleefully, Reg eyed Caspian. "Don’t look at me -- you’re already wet."
"Gee, thanks awfully, Reg." Caspian waded into the deeper water, wincing as the cold water went higher up his body. He took the partially-filled waterskin from Kirstie and flung it toward Reg, who caught it easily. "All right, Kirstie," he said reaching down, "out you go."
"Nae, laddie," Kirstie said with a low chuckle, "in wi’ ye!" She grabbed the front of his tunic and toppled Caspian into the pool with a loud splash. His startled bellow shook the treetops.
* * * * *
It would have been a perfect evening, Rosalind reflected tearfully – an icy crescent in the sky, the starlight reflecting off the ripples in the water, the soft piney breeze that rustled the fine downy feathers that crowned her head. After what she’d seen, Rosalind couldn’t go back and face the others, knowing that Caspian – her Caspian! -- had been with that backwoods harlot. She now understood why he had been carrying Kirstie’s picture with him and all those times that he’d been distracted for no apparent reason.
"What a fool I’ve been," Rosalind sniffed. "All this time, he’s been daydreaming about her. He probably had a fling with her the last time he was here, and the only reason he brought me along was to make up his mind between us." She drew a shuddering breath and sobbed into her arms.
So deep was she into her own personal misery, that Rosalind didn’t notice footsteps crunching through the gravel towards her.
Startled, she looked up into Cervus’ warm brown eyes. The stag-headed gargoyle raised his browridges and smiled encouragingly. "Here now," he said, "what’s all this then?"
Blubbering, Rosalind let Cervus pull her into his arms to comfort her as she stammered out all her heartaches to him. "—And, and, you see? He doesn’t love me any more!"
Cervus stroked her feathery crest and rocked her. "You don’t know that for sure," he said wistfully. "You should talk to him before you go jumping to any conclusions."
"That’s right," Pip agreed. "We’ve all been guilty of letting our imaginations get the best of us from time to time. Let’s go find Caspian and hear his side of it."
"Aye," Tori said firmly. "That’s th’ thing t’do. Best t’get everythin’ out in th’ open."
"Well…," Rosalind said slowly, pushing away from Cervus, "if you’ll go with me. I’m not sure I can do this alone without going all to pieces."
Cervus took her hand. "That’s what rookery mates are for, feathertop," he said lightly. "We’ll get to the bottom of this, you’ll see."
An indignant roar shook the leaves in the trees and startled birds rose into the night sky. Tori’s antlered head snapped around as her spear sprang to the ready in her hands. "That’s close by, that is!"
"Caspian’s in trouble!" Rosalind cried. "I’d know his voice anywhere!" She dropped to all fours and galloped towards the sound, scattering gravel in all directions. The others followed in her wake. What they saw when they rounded the bend, made them all pull up short in surprise.
"Wench!" Caspian shouted as he swept a huge wave of water over Kirstie. She spluttered and disappeared beneath the surface, only to re-appear behind him.
"Try t’ best me, eh, Pony-boy?" Kirstie shrieked gaily. "Take that!" She rose out of the water and landed on Caspian’s back between his shoulder blades, the momentum pushing him face down into the water.
"Good one!" Reg cheered from the shore. "Are you sure you’re all gargoyle, Kirstie? You could be part nymph!"
Rosalind finally found her voice. "What the devil is going on here?!?" she screeched at the top of her lungs.
Slowly, Caspian’s horn rose from the water like a periscope, followed reluctantly by the rest of his body. He very deliberately kept Kirstie behind him, out of Rosalind’s line-of-sight as he faced the new arrivals. "Well, uh, hello, dear… been off sketching, have you?"
"Don’t you ‘dear’ ME, you, you," Rosalind’s eyes blazed, "you two-timing, cheating swine!!"
"Here now, old girl," Reg said sternly, wrinkling his porcine snout. "I take umbrage at that."
"Rosalind," Caspian said calmly as he waded towards her, "it’s not what you think."
"Oh!" The feathers on Rosalind’s head stood up. "It’s not what I think, is it? I think it’s pretty bloody well obvious!! First, I catch you hugging her and now this – by the heavens, Caspian, what am I supposed to think?" She sobbed, chest heaving. "I thought you loved me and this – THIS is how you show me?"
Cervus came up besides her. "Don’t waste your tears on him, Roz," he said, scornfully looking down his nose at Caspian. "He doesn’t deserve you."
"What did you say?" Caspian demanded, splashing through the shallows. "This does not involve you, Cervus – keep out of it!"
"Not a chance," the stag-headed male shot back. "I’m not going to stand by and watch you dishonor Rosalind."
"Dishonor?" Caspian snorted as he stomped up, droplets of water shaking free with the impact of each hoof. "What utter nonsense! I love Roz – I always have. If you don’t have someone to court, it’s because you’ve always been too busy being a gloryhound, trying to be a cheap imitation of Griff."
Cervus glared and lowered his antlers. "At least I’m a warrior, not some wanna-be Houdini playing around with glittery bits of light."
"So what? Roz prefers brains over brawn any day."
"Then she deserves better!"
Pip took Tori by the arm and began to sidle over to Reg. "Come along -- this is only going to get uglier."
"Aye," Tori nodded. "I know fightin’ words when I hear them." She glared at her rookery sister. "Kirstie! Get yuirself out o’ th’ crick before ye cause any more trouble!"
"And you!" Rosalind left the two males and stalked towards Kirstie, eyes blazing. "What do you mean, throwing yourself at him like that? Have you no self-control at all? Caspian has been courting me all these years, not some jezebel like you!!"
Tori wrinkled her brow. "Jezebel? What’s that?" she asked Pip and Reg.
The two transplanted Londoners exchanged a frantic look. Reg finally took the plunge. "Roz refers to a female that’s too overly free with her affections," was his tactful answer.
The tall Caledonian female considered it. "Och, then that’s all right. That’s Kirstie to a tee, that is."
"Nae!" Kirstie protested. "We were only havin’ a bit o’ fun after I fell in, chasin’ after th’ waterskin when Caspian lost his grip on it."
"You went off with him earlier!" Rosalind said defiantly. "I saw him holding you!"
"That? Kirstie stepped back. "Nae, lass, ye got it all wrong. I took Caspian up t’see his milk brother’s grave, that’s all! He’s been grievin’ after Lancelot all these weeks an’ so have I. We were only sharin’ our memories o’ someone we loved."
Rosalind cocked her head and raised one brow ridge. "You? And Lance?"
"Aye!" Kirstie smiled. "Dinnae ye know? Caspian filled my head wi’ stories o’ Lance an’ he did th’ same wi’ Lance in London. Yuir Caspian is a sly one, he is. He fair had me an’ Lance as good as mated, all wi’out ever meetin’! There was never anythin’ between me an’ Caspian other than friendship."
"I’m sorry." All the fire had gone out of Rosalind. "Caspian has been acting so strangely that I thought – I just jumped to conclusions."
"Then there’s summat more that ye should know, lass. When we went up t’ Lance’s grave, Caspian broke down an’ cried. It seems he’d been blamin’ himself for Lance’s death." Kirstie sighed and shook her head. "Until I heard th’ pain in Caspian’s voice, I hadna been able t’ cry for Lancelot meself an’ we both needed t’put our grief t’rest."
"I didn’t know," Rosalind said wonderingly. "I knew Cas was unhappy about Lance’s death but he never said a thing to me."
"Aye, he’s a deep one, your Caspian. Always puttin’ one face forward an’ hidin’ th’ other." Kirstie took a step closer. "Here in th’ woods, we rely on more just our eyes an’ ears. Ye need more than that t’ get t’ th’ heart o’ th’ matter." She put out her right hand. "I’m sorry I made ye think badly o’ Caspian. He’s my friend an’ I’d like t’be friends wi’ ye too."
Rosalind nodded and clasped forearms with her. "I’m sorry I let my imagination get away with me. I -- I should have trusted Caspian more. Let’s make a new start of it."
"This is all very well an’ fine," Tori interrupted, "but ye two might think about reinin’ in yon males before things get totally out o’ hand."
Things had deteriorated between Cervus and Caspian to the point where the two males had stopped talking and had begun growling as they circled each other. Like two wrestlers, they lunged at each other, unicorn horn crashing against stag antlers. Caspian and Cervus were close to the same size, tall and broad-chested.
"Looks like an even match," Pip commented.
"Cervus has more fighting experience," Reg replied. "See how his feet are planted?"
"But Caspian’s a spellcaster," Pip argued. "All it would take is a few words and Cervus is a toad with tiny little antlers."
Rosalind pushed by them. "Oh, shush up, you two! You’re not helping!" She approached the fighters. "Caspian! Stop it! Stop it at once!"
Caspian’s hooves slipped on the damp gravel as he and Cervus grappled. "Not now, Roz -- I’m a little busy." He doubled up a fist and managed to lift Cervus up by his chin. Cervus shot back with a powerful undercut to the body, staggering Caspian back.
Tori and Kirstie stepped up besides Rosalind. "Daft fool idjits," Tori muttered. She spun her spear out to full length. "Come along, girls – let’s cool down these hot heads."
With one lightning fast move, Tori struck, striking both males just below the knees. Kirstie and Rosalind rushed in and shoved Caspian and Cervus into the water. They came up spluttering.
"What the devil?" Cervus exclaimed.
"Now that we have yuir attention," Tori said sternly, "mayhaps ye’d like t’hear th’ whole story?"
Quickly, Rosalind explained what had happened. "—So you see," she finished, "it was just a big misunderstanding. It was never worth fighting over."
"But it was," Caspian said, hauling himself out and dripping streams of water with every step. "You have always been worth fighting for. I may get preoccupied sometimes and forget to show it, but I love you more than anything in the world." He reached out and took her hands. "Kirstie is a lovely female, but she’s not you. You’re the one that I’ve always wanted to be my mate."
"Oh, Cas…!" Rosalind breathed and became lost in a damp embrace.
"C’mon, you," Tori said, holding out a hand to Cervus. "No point in sitting around in there, catchin’ yuir death o’ cold."
Cervus gave a envious look to the happy couple. Pip thumped him on the shoulder. "It’s all right, brother mine," Pip said, "you just come with me and Reg. We’ve got just the thing to take care of you, inside and out."
"Oh, ho!" Kirstie exclaimed as she wrung the last of the water from her hair. "Sister, methinks th’ lads have found their way into Curran’s stillworks. D’ye think they can spare a bit wi’ us?"
"They will if they know what’s good for them." Tori smirked. "Besides, I think the lovebirds need some privacy. We’ll come back for them later."
* * * * *
"—An’ once we got everything explained," Kirstie said, as she combed out her wet curls near the fire, "Cervus an’ Caspian made up." She glanced slyly to where Caspian and Rosalind were curled up together in a tartan blanket. "As did a couple o’ others, but that would be tellin.’"
"Well, now I know why th’ lot o’ ye straggled in after everyone else." Rachel started to collect the bowls from various diners. "It’s just as well. We’ll be eatin’ in shifts around here until we can make more pottery."
Beatrix examined the earthenware dish in her hands. "You made this?"
"Oh, aye, one o’ us did, although I couldna tell ye just exactly who made that particular one," Rachel answered the young gargoyle. "We pass th’ knowing down so that it’s never lost."
Kylie sniffed the steaming aroma coming from the earthenware mug in Brianna’s hands. "Have I told ye, King Arthur, how much I’ve enjoyed this coffee brew o’ yuirs?"
"Indeed? I’m gratified to have provided you with some small modicum of pleasure." Arthur sipped from his own cup. "I know it’s been one of the pleasant surprises I’ve discovered in this modern world."
"You should take it easy on that," Tiberius said sternly as he looked over at his patient. "That’s more caffeine than you’re used to."
"Och, codswallup," Kylie scoffed, "I feel fine, healer, stop yuir fussin’." The Caledonian elder raised an eyebrow at Arthur. "Have ye heard o’ this grand scheme o’ Michael’s? A gathering o’ gargoyle clans from hither an’ yon?"
"There was some talk of it before Merlin and I started on our recent journeys," Arthur admitted. "I believe that getting representatives from all the gargoyle clans together is a wise move. In many ways, it reminds me of the early days of Camelot."
"Oh?" Kylie leaned forward in her chair. "How so?"
"When I first became king, the land was in turmoil. The nobles fought amongst each other like dogs on a bone and the peasants paid dearly for their folly. It was a dark time, eh, old friend?" Arthur said, glancing to Merlin.
"Very dark," Merlin agreed, distracted by Mary leaning against his shoulder. "There were times when I wondered if we’d ever get things straightened out."
"The main problem was that everyone was too isolated within their own realms and it was too easy to let misunderstandings grow into conflict." Arthur set his metal cup on the ground and began to gesture. "That’s why we began gathering the nobles together at Camelot. By bringing the various factions together and encouraging open discourse between them, many problems that they had had in the past were peacefully resolved without going to arms. New alliances were formed and old enemies became friendly neighbors, bringing a new age of prosperity to the kingdom."
"My point exactly," Michael commented, rocking a sleepy Victoria in his arms. "Think of the advantages – no more isolation. We could share information on gargoyle culture, our healers could consult each other on health care, and it could expand the education of our children. The possibilities are staggering."
"Children?" Rachel looked interested. "What do you mean?"
"Yours is not the only clan with low numbers. The Manhattan clan has only two juveniles and their mother has told me that she is concerned about her children not being able to interact with other young gargoyles their own age."
"A good point," Kylie conceded, "an’ one that we had fretted over wi’ my daughters long before Arthur an’ Griff made their way into our woods. ‘Tis important that th’ young ones be given a chance to find their heart’s desire an’ bring new blood into th’ clan." She smiled indulgently at Griff and Brianna.
"So what does this other mother propose?" Rachel asked.
"Well, it’s only just been suggested," Michael continued, "but the idea is to start with a series of limited visits to each other’s clans." He swept his arm towards the members of Lucy’s rookery. "As you can see, we’ve made a start here. We’re fortunate in that our clans are not as far apart as the others and that we can manage to travel between them. Perhaps when your hatchlings are much older, they will visit us in London. Victoria’s rookery is of moderate size and they might enjoy the experience."
"That sounds a great deal like fostering," Arthur commented. "I was fostered in the household of Sir Ector away from the intrigues of the court and found my experiences there useful when I came to the throne."
Kylie frowned. "I dinnae know – none o’ our clan has ever left the Great Wood." She nodded at Griff and Brianna sitting close by. "None, that is, until Sir Griff came t’ steal our girl’s heart away."
"It was the best adventure I’ve ever had," Griff said grandly. "London was quite a shock to her but Bri managed to cope with it, Minions and Unseelie and all."
"An’ I’ve never regretted a moment of it," Brianna replied softly. "Th’ outside world isn’t nearly as frightening as I once thought it was an’ some humans aren’t nearly as bad as ye might think."
Michael cleared his throat. "It’s something to think about," he said, "after all, it will be years before you’ll want Fergus and Meara interacting with other young gargoyles their own age. If the World Gathering is successful, things may be much different for all of us then."
"Yuir an optimist, Michael," Kylie stated, sharp eyes focused on him. "How can ye put so much hope in a thing that is so much stardust?"
"Hope is never wasted, milady; it’s a lesson I’ve learned all too well." Michael’s eyes were far away. "Gargoyles cannot continue to be silent. We deserve to have the right to live as equals with every other living being on this planet. If we never speak out, nothing will ever change. The World Gathering is just a start in the right direction."
"Truer words were never spoken," Arthur commented. "Change can sometimes be frightening but we cannot let our fear of the unknown rule us." He smiled and nudged the young man sitting beside him. "Otherwise, I would have run screaming from Merlin the first time I met him."
"Nonsense, Arthur," Merlin replied, his voice strained as he sat awkwardly, leaning to one side, "you were an uncommonly rash youth in those days. You’d have rushed into a dragon’s cave to rescue a maiden if there was glory and adventure in it." He sighed. "Mary, would you please get off? You’re putting a kink in my neck. Mary?"
Dulcinea reached over and gently lifted the curtain of brown hair that obscured Mary’s face. "Poor thing, she must have been exhausted. She’s fast asleep."
"Don’t wake her then." Arthur came over and gently lifted her up. "Come, Dulcinea, and we’ll get her settled in your tent."
As the adults’ conversation moved on to other subjects, Lucy tugged on Tiberius’ arm. "Uncle?" she asked worriedly. "Dorcas has been gone a very long time. Shouldn’t we go and look for her?"
The wolfish healer raised a brow ridge. "What do you mean, Lucy? Remus should have been back with her long ago."
"Well, they’re not here." Lucy shrugged. "All I know is that Dorcas is very good at not being found when she wants to be. She’s tricky."
"Hmmm, that’s not good." Tiberius strode to the edge of the clearing. "I’d better see what going on."
Lucy trotted along besides him. "Uncle! Could we go with you?" A number of her rookery mates trailed along behind her.
"No, you stay here," Tiberius said firmly. "When you’ve learned the proper landmarks and are more familiar with the surroundings, perhaps then you may go out on your own but not until then." He tapped Lucy lightly on the nose. "We don’t want any more of you going astray, do we?"
"I suppose not," Lucy sighed reluctantly. She and her rookery watched as Tiberius disappeared into the forest.
"Who do they think we are, babies?" Musgrave asked disgustedly, holding Treacle in his arms. She squirmed and he set her down to romp about his feet.
Dodger adjusted his baseball cap. "It’s nearly as bad as the estate," he commented, wincing as he rotated one shoulder. "Worse really – they expect you to work!"
"Don’t remind me," Winston murmured gruffly. "At least you lot got to explore while Weller put Dodger, Prongs and me to work."
"I would have gladly traded places." Beatrix shuddered. "You didn’t see what Curran did to the bunnies after he took them out of the snares. Eeeeeuw…."
"That’s just because you’re vegetarian, Bea," Agnes commented. "Just imagine how much damage those rabbits would do if their population remained unchecked?"
Prongs laughed. "Somebody forgot to leave her schoolbooks at home. Have you forgotten we’re supposed to be on holiday?"
"Good point, Prongs." Lucy eyed the adults still chatting near the fire. Her eyes narrowed. "They seem to be pretty busy. Where’s Caspian and his friends?"
Musgrave casually walked across the clearing after Treacle, picked her up and came back. "I didn’t see Caspian or Rosalind but the rest of them are busy flirting with each other." He rolled his eyes. "Some gargoyles act so dumb!"
"Well, I say that we go have some fun." Lucy looked her rookery mates in the eye. "Who’s with me?"
Beatrix chewed her lip. "But -- but we’re not supposed to leave the grounds!"
"That’s just at the estate," Dodger said with a roguish grin, "but HERE, our territory is the whole forest." He began edging towards the trees. "Besides, when we flew in, Brianna showed us lots of landmarks. It’s only fair that we give you guys that drove here the grand tour."
"Come along, Beatrix," Prongs said encouragingly. "I’ve been dying to get a closer look at Schiehallion. Local legend says it’s a magic mountain. Wouldn’t you like to find out if it’s true?"
"Well….," Beatrix cast a sidelong look at the adults, who were still deeply engrossed in their own pursuits, "all right, I’m in. Let’s go!"
* * * * *
"There," Dulcinea’s dulcet voice said softly, "she’s comfy enough with just her jacket and shoes off. I don’t want to treat her like a child – her self-esteem must be very fragile as it is."
"Yes," Arthur’s voice agreed. "Mary’s been a very brave girl through all of this. A lesser spirit would have never been able to cope with what she’s been through."
"Oh?" There was a silken rustling and a metallic rasp of a zipper. The voices became muffled. "You must tell me the whole story…"
Mary sighed and rolled over, rubbing her face into the soft lining of the sleeping bag. It felt so good to be still -- she seemed to be constantly in motion these days. Everything was so jumbled up. The wolf in her was forced to be up and about when a normal wolf would be resting and the human was awake when Mary would normally be sleeping. Her head ached with the paradox of it all.
The night sounds of the forest permeated the nylon walls of the tent as Mary sank deeper into R.E.M. sleep. Her nostrils twitched as the green scent of damp earth and moss filled her senses. Leaves rustled and the dim call of a owl echoed in her ears.
Into the dark warmth of her dreams, Mary ran.
* * * * *
Locating Remus took the wolfish healer less than a half-hour. Tiberius sailed in for a landing on the gravel bar leading to the grotto where Remus was casting back and forth in frustration. "Lost the scent?" Tiberius inquired. "We missed you at the evening meal."
"Can’t be helped," Remus replied, without once lifting his nose from the search. "The little minx has outfoxed me somehow. I must be slowing down."
"Nonsense." Tiberius began sniffing around as well. "Between you and Tabitha, you’ve managed to produce one clever kitten."
"Pity Dorcas got a double helping of our bad tempers as well." Remus sighed. "I thought I was doing the right thing, leaving her with her rookery. Instead she’s got it in her head that I abandoned her. What did I do wrong?"
Tiberius paused to examine some markings high on a tree trunk. "You mustn’t blame yourself, Remus. When gargoyles reach their twenties and start approaching puberty, everything changes. It’s the most difficult decade to get through, developmentally wise. Even if you hadn’t chosen to re-locate, Dorcas would have still been temperamental."
"You mean she would have still been a brat." Remus laughed at the wry lift of Tiberius’ browridge. "I am her father, after all. I know that Tab and I spoiled her too much when Dorcas was younger. It was so hard to deal with things after Tabitha’s death. I shouldn’t have shut Dorcas out – I see that now. It only pushed her away."
"Better late than never, I always say. You’ve still got a chance to make things right with her." Stretching up, Tiberius set his fingers into the grooves in the tree bark. "Look here," he commented, "the claw marks are still fresh. She must have double backed and climbed up here."
"I’ve looked at that tree a dozen times and completely missed that!"
"Your fatherly concern was in the way," Tiberius said dryly. He pulled himself up into the branches. "Yes, here’s where her back feet dug in when she launched."
"Where does she think she’s going?" Remus frowned deeply. "Dorcas doesn’t know any of the landmarks! She could get terribly lost!"
"Don’t panic." Tiberius held his muzzle up, sniffing the wind. "Her scent is still here so she couldn’t have gotten too far. I’ll backtrack over the route that I took them last night. She might remember enough to try for the main road."
"Right." Remus started scaling a neighboring tree. "I’ll continue to the south. Give a howl if you spot her."
"It’s going to be fine," Tiberius reassured his friend. "We’ll find her."
"By the Dragon, I hope so." Remus cast a worried look over the forest. "She’s still my little girl."
* * * * *
Grimacing, Doug struggled up the small rise and paused at the top, breathing heavily. He supposed he should be grateful that Feldman bound his hands in font; he could only imagine how difficult it would be hiking with his hands tied behind him. A gun barrel jabbed him in the back.
"No rest breaks!" Feldman snapped. "You’re supposed to be taking us to those caves, remember?"
Doug glared over his shoulder. "Unless you like nasty surprises, I need to be sure of our footing here. This whole area is riddled with sinkholes. One misstep and you could break your ankle or worse."
"He’s got a point," Ratcliffe commented, his face lit eerily from the blue glow of his laptop. "The geographic survey reports dozens of minor limestone pockets throughout this region. Best to be cautious."
Feldman pulled his night vision goggles down and scanned the sky again. Doug had seen him do this several times since his capture and it puzzled him. There were very few creatures in the woods that roamed the skies at night to Doug’s knowledge and he couldn’t image what the two Yanks were up to.
"Still no sign of activity," Feldman reported as he pushed up the goggles. "Are you sure about the sensor data?"
"Yes," Ratcliffe nodded. "After our friend here tripped that one module, at least three more registered something following us. It’s there all right – it’s just watching for now." He glanced at Doug and leaned close to Feldman, lowering his voice. "We’ve made it curious. I think if we did something to provoke it, that might flush it out."
"Right." Feldman flicked his eyes back to Doug. "It’s high time he made himself… useful."
* * * * *
High in the trees overlooking the ridge, a pair of bright eyes watched the three humans below. Dorcas didn’t know why she should even bother – the humans meant nothing to her -- but they were acting strangely and strange humans were always something to keep an eye on. The dark-haired one that she’d almost flown into up in the tree had his hands bound with a plastic loop and was being prodded ahead by another man with a rifle. She couldn’t help feeling just a little guilty about his predicament.
"This can’t be anything good," Dorcas said to herself. "I wonder what I ought to do." She wished that Lucy or Dodger, who were so good at thinking on their feet, were there, but dismissed that thought in an instant.
The truth was, Dorcas had no idea where she was, much less anyone else. In her fit of temper, she had simply run blindly into the forest, only coming to her wits when she realized she was being followed. She smiled at the thought of the convoluted trail she had left – a tangled, knotted path full of gnarls and loops. Whoever was tracking her would be in for a night’s hard work.
The smile faded. "Chances are," Dorcas muttered angrily, "he’ll find me, and if he does, he’ll want to talk, and I don’t want to!!" She sniffed and blinked furiously. "I won’t give him the satisfaction. I won’t!!"
Raised voices from below caught her attention. The humans were arguing, something about caves, and in the heat of it, the dark-haired one was knocked down. Dorcas’ eyes grew hot. "How dare they?" she snarled. "He can’t fight back! That’s not fair at all!"
They pulled the dark-haired one to his feet and he began leading the other two men towards the solitary mountain before them. Without once considering why she was doing it, Dorcas followed on marmalade wings.
* * * * *
Blue moonlight filtered through the trees, leaving long glowing zebra stripes across the forest floor. Myriad scents flooded her senses, from the musty brown aroma of rotting leaves on the ground beneath her feet, to the sharp sweet tang of over-ripe berries on the vine. A sudden shift in the winds and her ears pricked up.
A deep-throated howl rose up over the treetops, a wild invitation to the hunt. Inside the nylon cave, Mary struggled to sit up in her sleeping bag, face raised to the tent roof to silently answer the wolf’s cry with her own. Moving in a sleepwalker’s trance, she fumbled with the zipper, almost tearing her way out before she had the door open.
Padding forward in her sock feet, Mary pushed her way into the forest beyond the clearing, oblivious to the branches in her face and the brambles snagging on her clothes. Her eyes were vague and unfocused as she stumbled on, led by the call of something she couldn’t explain. The distant howl sent strange messages bubbling into her brain, awakening feelings and instincts that were dormant in the nighttime hours.
The wolf in her ran on two legs, heedless to anything but the hunt.
* * * * *
"—And so," Caspian said, dipping his head towards Rosalind, "we’ve decided to become mates, with your approval, Michael."
Michael smiled indulgently at the young couple. "And is this your wish as well, Rosalind?"
"It is, clan leader," Rosalind answered, curling her arm around Caspian’s. "I’ve taken a long time to think about it and I know that Caspian and I are meant to be." She smiled up at the unicorn-headed male. "I just didn’t know how much I needed him until I nearly lost him. I’m never making that mistake again."
"Ditto, luv." Caspian rubbed his browridge against hers.
"Seeing as you are both full adults in the eyes of the clan, I have no objections to this match." Michael stood up and clasped forearms with Caspian, followed by a fatherly hug to Rosalind. "Well done, my young friends! I give you my blessing as leader of the London clan, however---"
"Ah, yes… Mother," Caspian sighed.
"And Perry," Rosalind added.
"The thing is, Michael," Caspian plunged on, "they’ll make a big production of it. You know how Una and Perry are when they get really excited about something. Everything will get all blown out of proportion. We’d rather prefer something simple."
Griff smirked. "In other words, you two want to elope."
Laughing softly behind her hand, Kylie’s eyes twinkled as she took in Caspian’s exasperated expression. "Michael," she said lightly, "if they wish t’ take their vows here instead o’ in London, that’s fine wi’ me an’ mine."
"Aye," Rachel agreed. "Give us a night or two, Caspian, an’ we’ll give ye a fine mating feast. It’s been ages since we had summat t’ celebrate in these woods."
Quade nodded. "Besides, it might put th’ right idea into our lasses’ heads." He cast an amused look at Tori and Kirstie sitting with their admirers. "They grew up wi’out males, an’ now that they’re bein’ properly courted, our daughters cannae make up their minds!"
"Oh, tosh!" Kirstie shot back. "Let Tori an’ me enjoy th’ chase a bit longer, Quade. ‘Tis half o’ th’ fun!"
Tiberius swooped down into the clearing without warning and the backdraft of his gray-banded wings made the campfire to splutter and spit. As sparks danced high about their heads, he demanded breathlessly, "Have they come back yet? I was nearly to the main road when I heard Remus howl."
"No," Michael replied cautiously. "What are you talking about, Ty?"
"Remus and I split up to search for Dorcas," Tiberius panted, "and we agreed to howl whenever one of us picked up the trail. I was backtracking over the route I brought the children last night. He chose to sweep south, just in case Dorcas got it into her head to go back to London."
"Howl?" Curran stood up from where he had been sitting with the gargoyle beasts and looked into the distance. "I heard that howl when I took th’ beasts into th’ woods. It sounded like it came from over Schiehallion way."
"Schiehallion?" Dulcinea pursed her lips as she consulted the trail map that she took from her pocket. "Hold on, that’s near Allt Mor Pass."
Merlin snapped his fingers. "That’s right! The scientists!"
"What’s this?" Quade asked sharply.
"When we were coming in," Dulcinea explained, "we came across a trail guide. He told us that he’d left some scientists there and that we should try to avoid that area if possible."
"That’s right, it was Douglas Campbell, a young man I’d met before on my last visit," Arthur commented, nodding his head. "I was just close enough to hear that the scientists were doing a wildlife survey or something."
"Why dinnae ye say summat sooner?" Curran snapped. "Are ye in league wi’ these strange humans?"
"Nae, brother," Quade said stoically. "There’s nae use wasting more time on who’s t’ blame. We need t’ move quickly." He glanced around, gratified to note his clan already on their feet and moving to claim their weapons. "Curran, you are in charge of our defenses here. Michael?"
"My fellow Londoners and I are with you," Michael said firmly. "Rosalind, round up the young ones and have them report to Curran immediately."
"We’ll help as well," Arthur said firmly. "You may need someone to intercede with these scientists if something unfortunate has happened."
Dulcinea was halfway across the clearing, heading for the tents. "I’ll fetch our gear. We’ll need some flashlights."
"Michael!" Rosalind cried as she ran up. "The children! I can’t find them anywhere!"
"What?" Michael’s eagle head snapped around, scanning the area. "Caspian! They were your responsibility! Where are they?"
"I don’t know, Michael," Caspian stammered. "They were here at dinner but I left with Roz to see if my clothes were dry yet. Lucy and the others were busy talking so I thought they’d be fine for a little while." He raised his brow ridges. "After all, the rest of you were here with them."
"True," Kirstie piped up, coming to his defense. "Dinnae I see Lucy speaking to you, Ty, just before ye left earlier?"
Tiberius’ golden eyes widened. "Uh, oh."
"What?" Michael snapped.
"Lucy asked if she and the other children could help search too." A sick expression crept over the wolfish gargoyle’s face. "I’ll bet you anything that they’ve gone off after Dorcas on their own."
"Arthur!" Dulcinea came out of the darkness. "She’s gone!"
"Not Mary too!" Arthur exclaimed.
"The tent’s empty," Dulcinea said breathlessly, "and she’s left her jacket and boots behind."
Merlin slapped a hand across his face. "To think I thought that this kind of great cosmic jest would be over once Madoc was gone."
The camp broke out into a babble of excited voices. The hubbub would have lasted longer if not for the loud ringing clash of Kylie’s staff against an empty stewpot.
"Be still!" Kylie called out in a loud, if wavering voice. "What are ye, a covey o’ frightened birds, jumping in all directions at once?" The old gargoyle gave them all a stern glare that made them all look abashed at their feet.
"That’s better." Kylie stepped forward, with a steadying hand on Brianna’s shoulder. "It’s clear enow t’ me that we mus’ work together here. Quade, ye’d best be off t’ Allt Mor an’ check on things there. Take Tori, Michael, Griff, an’ Brianna wi’ye."
"Kylie!" Brianna said urgently. "I cannae leave ye!"
"Nonsense, lass," Kylie said crossly. "Ye know that area better than all o’ us. If that child is there, ye’ll know all th’ hidey holes. Do yuir duty t’ yuir clan."
Brianna swallowed and bowed her head. "Aye, Elder. I will."
Kylie patted Brianna’s arm gently and continued. "Caspian, take Pip, Reg, Kirstie, an’ th’ young stag wi’ ye t’ look for yuir young imps. They couldna have gotten too far, even if they were flyin’."
"If I may, mum," Weller spoke up, "I’d like to go along. I’ve had to track down certain young troublemakers before."
"Then ye may do so again, wi’ my blessing." Kylie nodded. "Arthur, I’ll leave ye t’ deal wi’ yuir lost lamb." She cast a sidelong glance at the flinty Caledonian standing apart with the young beasts. "Curran, ye’ll go wi’ King Arthur an’ his friends."
"What!" Curran yelped indignantly before dropping into an impassioned tirade in Gaelic. No one but the Caledonians could understand his words but the startled expressions on their faces made his meaning plain enough.
Kylie listened intently for several minutes before holding up her hand. "Aye, Curran, ye’ve made yuir dislike o’ humans known before, an’ I know well th’ reason why, but ye’ve got t’ put these feelings aside. This is an emergency an’ yuir trackin’ skills are needed."
"Please, Curran!" Arthur pleaded earnestly. "Mary is not as woodwise as you are. She could have fallen in the dark and injured herself. To aid those in need, even if they are those that we despise -- that is an act of nobility."
Curran said nothing but looked down into the dark moonlit eyes of his mate standing quietly by his side with their hatchling in her arms.
"He speaks rightly," Jamie said simply. "A child is a child, whether it be human or gargoyle. A child should never be frightened an’ alone."
"Verra well," Curran conceded gruffly. "Come along then, human. Th’ trail grows cold." He whistled and the four remaining gargoyles trotted along at his heels.
"Does he mean for us to follow?" Dulcinea asked uncertainly.
"I believe so," Arthur answered. "I’ve know many warriors like him in my time and this has been a great concession on his part." He stepped out briskly. "And he’s right – there’s no time to waste."
"Fine babysitter you are," Rosalind said as she helped Caspian buckle on the belt pouch that contained his magic-working tools. "Losing eight children in one go."
"Not to worry, Roz," Caspian said lightly with a wry grin, "I’ll be much more careful with ours." He kissed her on the forehead and disappeared into the trees with the others.
Rosalind sighed. "And here I am again, old granny-sit-by-the-fire again." She wandered back towards the campfire, where Quade’s party was assembling.
"You too, lass," Kylie was saying as Rosalind approached. "Quade is waiting."
Brianna motioned Rosalind closer and placed Kylie’s withered hand on the Londoner’s shoulder. "Please take good care o’ her, Roz," Brianna said soberly, "she’s everythin’ t’ me."
"I’ll keep her safe until you return," Rosalind replied. "Good luck!"
The young gargoyle and the old watched as the searchers dispersed in three different directions. Rosalind felt the minute tremors coursing through the elder’s body as Kylie forced herself to remain standing, head held high and regal. Without appearing to change position, Rosalind slid her right wing behind Kylie to support her. She felt Kylie lean back into her feathers and the elder’s weight was almost nothing.
"So," Kylie said as if nothing else was going on, "yuir Caspian has told us that yuir an artist. He said you were very talented. Ye mus’ show me some o’ yuir paintings. That would be treat for these old eyes."
"Well, I don’t have any of my oils here," Rosalind said as she began to help Kylie back to her fur-lined chair, "but I’d be happy to show you what I’ve got in my sketchbook."
"That would be grand, lass." Kylie sank into her seat with a soft sigh. "An’ while ye do, mayhaps ye might be so kind as t’ tell me o’ th’ outside world." Her lips twitched into a curious smile. "I’d like t’ hear more about it."
* * * * *
"You stay right there!
Doug winced as he was shoved roughly against the cave wall. An outcropping of rock caught him right below his left shoulder. The best Doug could do to alleviate the painful ache was to rotate his shoulders while he watched Ratcliffe scurry about, picking up bits and pieces of things in the light of his halogen torch. Feldman had backed away to cover Doug with the rifle but he too was curious about his colleague’s activities.
"Well?" Feldman asked impatiently as Ratcliffe paused to slip some purplish fragments into a small plastic bag. "What did you find?"
Ratcliffe shone his flashlight on his discovery and Doug could see the light through the thin shards. "I’ll have to confirm it with the central archives but this looks like an egg shell."
"It’s very rare to get a sample like this." Ratcliffe sealed the bag inside a plastic case. "Gargoyle rookeries are usually too well concealed for us to obtain proper specimens."
Doug’s eyes widened but he said nothing. He’d already decided that the two Americans were crazy; the last thing he needed would be to rile them up further by drawing further attention to himself.
"However," Ratcliffe continued, "I think this cave has been abandoned." He shone his light around towards the back of the cavern. "There’s been a cave-in here, by the look of things, and there’s no sign of recent habitation."
"He’s tricked us!" Feldman grabbed Doug by the front of his jacket and jerked him up. "Isn’t that right, treehugger? Thought you’d protect those creatures, didn’t you?"
"Mister, I don’t know what you are talking about," Doug protested. "You wanted caves. I took you to the closest one. There’s lots of caves around here if that’s what you’re interested in. There’s no reason to get upset about it."
"Calm down, Feldman," Ratcliffe said reasonably. "We need cool heads now. Remember your training."
Feldman glowered at both his partner and his captive for several minutes before his breathing slowed and his angry expression faded. "I am NOT wasting any more of my career chasing shadows, Ratcliffe. We have to find something here to dazzle the Inner Circle or neither one of us will move forward in the Brotherhood."
"Geez," Doug muttered under his breath, "why do I get all the flaming nutters?"
"What was that?" Feldman snapped.
"Um, there’s some more caves in the next valley," Doug said with what he hoped sounded like eager enthusiasm. "It shouldn’t take more than a half-hour to make our way over there, if we take the shortcut over the ridge."
"This one is a deadend," Ratcliffe commented. "Let’s check out these new caves and if that pans, you can take care of the loose ends and we’ll proceed as planned."
"Right." Feldman shoved Doug towards the cave entrance. "Get going."
Doug wasn’t sure he liked the sound of the ‘loose ends’ remark and had a sick feeling it applied to him. He kept his eyes on the ground before him but his mind was racing.
* * * * *
Curran dropped to his haunches in the middle of the game trail and stared intently at the ground. The gargoyle beasts moved to either side, snuffling loudly as they rooted around in the underbrush.
Frowning, Dulcinea asked, "What is it?"
The Caledonian ignored her and continued to study the tracks they had been following. Arthur came up behind him and pursed his lips thoughtfully.
"Three more sets of footprints," he observed. "Men, all wearing hiking boots."
"Ye see that, d’ye?" Curran commented. "Th’ girl’s trail crosses theirs an’ goes into that ravine."
"Yes, but look here…" Arthur went along the set of footprints, careful not to disturb them. "The set of tracks in front stumble here and here, as if this person is being pushed by the other two."
"That’s what I was thinkin’," Curran admitted grudgingly. "Sharp eyes."
Merlin threw his arms up. "Who cares? We’re looking for Mary, remember?"
"I agree," Dulcinea commented. "We need to focus on our more immediate goals."
"I’m not sure," Arthur said slowly. "Mary goes off steady enough on her own two feet so she’s not in any apparent danger but these prints trouble me. What kind of people would drive another person before them?"
"Fine!" Merlin snapped. "Do as you please! I can see you’re determined to follow this new trail. I’ll go after Mary myself!" The curly-headed young man stomped off, twigs and dry leaves crackling beneath his feet.
"Dulcinea, go with him," Arthur commanded. "We’ll meet you back here in a half-hour. I have a feeling that we must see what these strangers are up to. It may have some bearing on our other disappearances."
The Spanish animal trainer nodded. "Be careful." She broke into a light jog after Merlin and soon caught up with him. The halfling youth had illuminated the trail with a glowing ball of radiant energy and was mumbling irritably to himself.
Dulcinea waited a few moments before speaking. "You’re worried about her, aren’t you?"
"Of course, I’m worried!" Merlin snorted. "She’s been walking in her sleep for several nights now. There’s no telling what state her mind is in right now."
"That’s not exactly what I was asking." Dulcinea met his glower with a cool stare of her own. "I’ve been watching the two of you. There’s something there, isn’t there?"
"Nonsense!" The color rose in his cheeks, raising vivid freckles. "After that fiasco with Corbie, I’d be a fool to get involved with another teenaged girl! Really, I can’t believe you’d even think of such a thing!"
Dulcinea merely smiled.
The trail started going downhill, winding around old gnarled tree roots and over fallen rocks. They found themselves following a steep stone wall that disappeared up into the night sky. A low growl stopped them in their tracks.
"Wait!" Dulcinea cocked her head. "Something odd here – that doesn’t feel quite like an animal to me." She cast her flashlight about, lighting up the narrow hollow bracketed by the cliff on one side and densely-packed trees on the other. There was something huddled against the stone wall, looking almost like a pile of debris… until it moved.
"Mary!" Leaves were tangled in the young girl’s hair and her eyes were wild and white-rimmed. Merlin caught her hands as she leapt at him, her fingers curled like claws. "Mary! Calm down! We’re here to help you!"
The sleepwalking girl screeched like a wild animal, and her teeth snapped as she tried to lunge in to bite him.
"Hold her!" Dulcinea said sharply. "Her mind is just feral enough that I might be able to reach her."
"Hurry up!" Merlin grunted as Mary’s attack began to drive him back.
Dulcinea thrust her arms in between the two combatants and turned Mary’s face towards hers. "Listen to me," she said calmly, speaking in low, gentle tones. "You are safe, Mary. You are not a wolf." Mary snapped and tried to struggle free but Dulcinea’s grip was firm. "Calmly, sssshhh. You are Mary Sefton. Remember who you are."
"Yes, Mary," Merlin said urgently. "You’re only dreaming. Wake up, Mary. Wake up!"
Her eyelids fluttered. "What…?"
"That’s done it." Dulcinea dropped her arms to her sides. "Her thoughts are human again."
"Huh?" Mary glanced about her in confusion. "What’s going on? Where am I?"
"Mary….," Merlin started but the expression on his face made Mary stare at him in shock.
"Oh, no." Her lip trembled. "I did it again, didn’t I?" She looked down at her tattered socks. "Not sleepwalking again…. nonononono…." Mary collapsed in Merlin’s arms, weeping hysterically.
"Dulcinea," Merlin said quietly, "give us a few moments, will you?"
The Spanish woman arched one elegant eyebrow at the teenaged wizard and the schoolgirl sobbing in his arms. "Only if you will promise me that you won’t move from this spot," she said sternly, "I’ll go fetch Arthur. I shouldn’t be more than a few minutes."
"That should do nicely, thank you." Merlin waited until Mary’s sobs began to subside, before offering her a handkerchief. "Are you all right?" he asked in a curiously gentle tone of voice. "You had us all worried, disappearing like that."
"I – I don’t know what’s happening to me," Mary answered. "Half the time, I don’t know if I’m me or the wolf." She sniffled and blew her nose. "Oh, Merlin! I’m losing track of who I really am!"
"Nonsense. You’re Mary Sefton, adventure seeker and no one can take that from you." Merlin wrinkled his nose in barely concealed distaste as she attempted to hand his handkerchief back. "Please, keep it – I insist."
With a ragged sigh, Mary twisted it in her hands. "I don’t even know how I got here. All I remember was sitting at the campfire and getting sleepier and sleepier and then I was here." She shook her head sadly. "That seems to happen more and more lately. And there’s something else – I’ve noticed that my human hearing and smell have gotten a lot sharper --- almost wolf-like, you might say."
"I begin to see a pattern here," Merlin murmured. "Tell me, what kind of dreams have you been having?"
"Strange ones." Mary frowned and blew a wayward lock of hair from her face. "Tonight, I dreamt I was running through a moonlit forest, almost as if someone was calling me."
"It sounds to me that your subconscious is manifesting what your conscious mind is trying to suppress," Merlin commented, stroking the peach fuzz on his chin. "Ever since that curse blew up on you, you’ve been denying the duality of your nature."
"But it’s like the wolf is taking over!" Mary protested. "This is my life! I’m meant to be one hundred percent girl, not some monster half the time!"
"You’re going about this all wrong, Mary. The only way you’re going to achieve any balance is to accept all of your nature, both wolf and girl, good and bad."
"What?" Mary gasped. "Do you have any idea how hard that is?"
The curly-headed youth was silent for a few moments, but when he looked up again, his eyes were filled with an ageless sorrow. "I know it all too well." Merlin stood up and walked a few steps away, looking around him at the foliage. "This isn’t my first time in these woods. There was a time when I was in such profound despair that I went mad and knew myself not." He reached out and touched the trunk of a ancient Scots pine. "This tree was a sapling when I served as advisor to King Gwenddolau, only decades after I hid Arthur away on Avalon. I had such high hopes for Gwenddolau, but he perished at the Battle of Arderydd."
Merlin sighed and hung his head. "Something in me snapped. I cursed my halfing nature, that strange quirk of genetics that made me outlive all those around me. Something in me compelled me to seek out those individuals whose valor set them apart and yet time and time again, no matter what I did or said, they would perish." He glanced up at Mary, his boyish face somehow strangely aged. "What good did I do, interfering with their lives?"
"So what happened?" Mary prompted.
"I went out of my mind for a number of years, becoming known for a time as ‘the Madman of the Caledonian Forest,’ but slowly, surely, I came to my senses. The peace and quiet of the deep woods settled my mind. I became a hermit and reflected on my life, my reason for being." Merlin came back and sat besides Mary. "We all have a purpose, a reason for being the way we are. It took me years to accept the fact that my halfling nature has given me the tools to nudge mankind in the right direction from time to time when necessary. It hasn’t been easy watching my friends grow old and die but I know that there will always be new friends. I will never walk alone."
Mary chewed on her lip. "Are you saying that I should stop fighting my wolf instincts because they might serve some higher purpose?"
"It’s a start." Merlin nodded. "People like you and I walk a narrow path. It’s not going to be easy, but we’ll find a way to cure you."
"I’m not the only sorcerer in England, you know. There’s Una in London and we should have Caspian take a look at you while he’s here. His magic is at its prime while mine -- "
"—is going through puberty." Mary laughed weakly. "That tired old joke again."
Merlin drew himself up indignantly. "I’ll have you know I’ve worked some real miracles in my day." He looked down at her feet clad in tattered socks. "That, for one, will never do." He muttered a series of cryptic words under his breath and made a flourishing gesture.
"Oh!" As Mary watched, a tingling glow swept over her feet, healing various scratches and bruises and knitting the frazzled threads of her socks back together. She wiggled her toes and grinned.
"And for my next trick," Merlin said grandly, "Voila!" He reached in his jacket and pulled out her boots, one after the other. "Sorry, I don’t do the glass slipper bit anymore."
"Good," Mary said tartly as she took her shoes from him, "because Prince Charming, you’re not."
"And thank goodness for that!" Merlin snorted. "Pure romantic drivel!" He glanced up while Mary was lacing up her boots and spied the ragged silhouette of a weathered pine on the ridge above them. "I’ll be – at least that old landmark is still here. Come along, Mary, there’s something I’d like to show you."
* * * * *
Dorcas climbed higher up the tree trunk, sinuously winding her supple body around the bole as if she were boneless. Remus had been following her unseen for some time, curious as to what his temperamental daughter was up to. He’d discovered as he’d tracked Dorcas through the woods, nearly losing the trail more than once, that he really didn’t know the young gargoyle his daughter had become at all. Gone was the soft kittenish appearance of her hatchling days – this Dorcas was growing into a sleek, smaller version of her mother.
"If only you could see her, Tabitha," Remus sighed. "She’s going to be just like you, a beautiful hunter."
As he watched, Remus became aware of movement on the ground beyond Dorcas’ tree. Three humans emerged into the clearing, one being pushed in front of the others.
Remus frowned. "I’ve seen that one before," he mused. "That’s the human that runs that wilderness business. I don’t know who the others are but I don’t like the look of this."
He was so intent on observing the humans that it was only a flash of orange in the corner of his eye that made him aware of his daughter’s movements. Remus gaped in disbelief as he realized just what Dorcas was doing.
"What the devil does she think she’s playing at?" Remus growled. "The cheek of it!"
Nimbly, the fox-headed gargoyle sprang from the tree after his errant child.
* * * * *
"Feldman!" Ratcliffe hissed. "The target is within range."
"Are you sure?"
Doug glanced back to see Ratcliffe take a palm-sized device from his jacket pocket. The scientist pecked on it briefly, then nodded.
"Approaching north by northeast. I’m picking it up on several sensors now."
There was a quiet clack-clink of a rifle bolt being slid back. "I’ll fade back into cover when we get over the ridge," Feldman murmured, "You stake out the goat."
"Goat?" Doug asked over his shoulder.
A strange look came over Ratcliffe’s bland face, like an icy mask that had been there all the time but had only just become visible. He pulled a nine-millimeter pistol from the depths of his jacket. "The name suits you, Mr. Campbell," he said quietly. "I may not be the crack shot that my associate is, but I don’t think I can miss at this distance." He gestured with the gun. "Keep going."
A hot prickle started between his shoulder blades as Doug trudged forward, trying desperately not to think of the bullet aimed at his back. He tried to think of his alternatives but he was only aware of his heart beating in his ears. His feet automatically turned towards the ragged tree on the ridge.
* * * * *
"—And then the legend says, that mad hermit disappeared into the shadow of the magic mountain but on summer nights, when the moon shone through the trees like harp strings, music rose from the depth of Schiehallion and soared to the stars," Prongs concluded. "Cool, isn’t it? Quade told that to me on the way back from the campgrounds."
"Lucky you!" Lucy chirped as she flew alongside with Ranger in her arms. "I hope he’ll tell us some more stories. Brock’s great, but it’s always exciting to hear something new."
Beatrix laughed. "Not to worry, Lucy. Brock made me promise to write down any new stories that I heard while I was here. He likes them just as much as we do."
"All I know," Dodger said surly, "is that my blisters have blisters. Weller was on my case the whole time we were on the supply run. I didn’t even get a chance to nick any of Rory’s dinner and it was setting out in plain sight too." He made a face. "Weller must have eyes in the back of his head."
"You know what they say, old bean," Winston quipped. "Chip off the old block and all that. You two look more alike everyday."
"I should bloody well think NOT!" Dodger huffed. "We look nothing alike."
The other young gargoyles had a good laugh at Dodger’s expense. They knew all too well how much he and Weller both denied having any familial ties and yet the two canine gargoyles were nearly mirror images of each other.
Prongs stopped in mid-laugh. "That’s odd," he commented as he rubbed the back of his neck. "Something just made the fur on the back of my neck stand up."
"Oh, please!" Dodger scoffed. "You’re just suffering from caffeine withdrawal like the rest of us. If I don’t get a cola soon, I’m going to drop right out of the sky from lack of energy."
"Clean living is not going to kill us, you know," Agnes teased gently. "Just think of all the things we can do here that we can’t do in London – swimming, exploring, flying wherever we want –"
"I do that anyway!"
"Yeah," Musgrave said wryly, "and you get in trouble for it too."
"Hey!" Lucy called out as they glided lower over the southwest slope of Schiehallion. "Isn’t that Merlin and that girl down there?"
"You mean Timothy," Beatrix corrected her. "That’s his alias now."
Winston frowned. "Hang on, I thought his name was Emrys?"
"Who cares what flavor-of-the-week he is?" Dodger exclaimed. "He’s still the same over-bearing little twit that he always was!"
"Dodger!" Lucy rolled her eyes at him. "You do realize that you’re bad-mouthing the one person who could magick your favorite takeaway here, don’t you?" She snapped her talons. "Just like that."
"Oh, really?" Dodger considered the possibilities. "Well, that’s different. Let go see what Mr. Wizard Whatsizface and his girlfriend are up to then."
The eight juvenile gargoyles spiraled down into the snug valley below, neatly sheltered by high pines and spreading aspens. Merlin and Mary were picking through the rubble of what appeared to be a house-shaped pile of stones.
Mary held up a triangular object and giggled. "Here’s another piece of pottery. You certainly weren’t much on housekeeping, were you, Merlin?"
"Hermits generally don’t concern themselves on such mundane matters," Merlin commented as he searched with a flickering globe of light suspended between his fingers. "We had our minds on higher, more worthier things."
"Oh, really?" Mary crossed her arms and looked unconvinced. "And who’s ‘we?’ I thought being a hermit was a one man job."
"Towards the end, I had a companion of sorts." Merlin busied himself with poking a stick at a pile of rocks. "A wolf that I had found in a woodsman’s snare. I mended its leg and it used to come around every so often. I got to where I would look forward to its visits and after a while, I realized I missed being with people." He tossed the stick into the shadows. "So I packed up my things and went out into the world."
"A wolf, eh?" Mary raised an eyebrow. "I think you’re making this up."
"If I am, may I be struck down by the fiends of the infernal pit." No sooner did the words leave his lips, when Merlin was suddenly tackled by an armored plated, bandanna-wearing gargoyle beast. He toppled Merlin into a pile of leaves and deposited a drool-covered stick on the young man’s chest, wagging his entire back end.
Mary’s eyes widened and she burst out laughing. "Boy, did you call that one!!" she chortled.
"Hello, Merlin!" Lucy called out as she strode out of the shadows. "I think you should know that a thrown stick just isn’t safe around Ranger. He can’t resist a good game of fetch."
"I would have never guessed," Merlin said dryly, pushing the eager beastling away. "Does Caspian know you’re out here?"
"Oh, him." Lucy gave an adolescent shrug. "He and Rosalind were too busy playing kissy-face." She smiled at Merlin and fluttered her eyelashes. "Not that YOU would know anything about that, hm?"
Dodger stepped into the circle of Merlin’s glowing orb, the other youngsters not far behind him. "Yeah, how about that, Merlin?" He winked at Mary. "She’s kind of young – you’re not robbing the cradle at your age, eh, old man?"
Merlin glowered at him. "That’s none of your business, you scruffy knave. I’ll warn you to keep a civil tongue in your head. This is my house you’re standing in."
"It’s a bit rundown," Dodger observed. He kicked some rocks. "Maid’s day off, it is?"
"That’s rather what I thought," Mary quipped, eyes dancing at Merlin’s discomfort.
"Five or six centuries of the seasons turning will do that to a thatched hut," Merlin protested. "My house was biodegradable long before it was politically correct!"
"Wait a minute!!" Prongs stepped forward eagerly. "If you were here that long ago, then that means that you must be the mad hermit! The one that was in Quade’s story about the magic mountain!"
"Oooh!" Musgrave’s blue eyes were as round as saucers. "What happened to the magic harp?"
"Please tell us!" Beatrix pleaded. "Oh, please-please-please!!"
"Well," Merlin said, a small smile on his face, "let’s see what memories I can stir up." He made a swirling gesture with his outstretched hand. A greenish glow began to glimmer from beneath the leaves piled here and there, from the piles of tumbled stone and from beneath the gnarled roots of the trees around them. Dozens of tiny glowing wisps drifted into the air, surrounding Merlin with a green halo.
"Whoa," Mary breathed in a hushed voice. She reached out and touched one. "What are they?"
"Will o’ the wisps," Merlin answered. "Remnants of a shattered ley line. One of the casualties of the First Unseelie War, I wager. It was one of the reasons that I chose to live here, because the magical energy of this area was terribly depleted. There was nothing to remind me of my heritage."
"But what are they doing?" Beatrix asked, her long pointed muzzle following the dancing specks of light above her head. "Can they hurt us?"
"No, they’re just harmless blobs of protoplasm." Merlin gathered a cluster of them in his hands and tossed them skywards. "A bit of a nuisance really, because wisps tend to gravitate towards magic users."
Agnes frowned. "Well, that explains why they like you," she commented, "but why are they doing that to Prongs?"
All eyes turned to the young stag-headed gargoyle. Wisps were darting around Prong’s velvet antlers like animated Christmas lights as he tried futilely to bat them away.
"Now that is interesting." Merlin crossed his arms and stroked the bristles on his chin. "Tell me, Prongs --- have you ever had a thaumagenic event?"
Prongs blinked. "A whozis-whatzis?"
"Lucky guesses? Dreams that come true? Things happening that you can’t explain?"
"He’s got a knack for finding things," Agnes said proudly. "He always has."
"I just see whatever it is in my head," Prongs said diffidently, "and I just seem to be able to find it, that’s all." He shrugged. "It’s no big deal."
"Oh, no, my young friend," Merlin said, eyeing him shrewdly. "It is a very big thing and something that must be examined thoroughly."
"Why didn’t you tell us you could do that?" Lucy demanded indignantly. "You mean you could find Dorcas? Right now?"
"Well," Prongs said slowly, "I suppose I could try." He screwed his eyes shut, brow wrinkling in concentration. The wisps curled above his head in a loose spiral, twisting and turning high into the sky. "She’s close," he said finally, "very close."
"No kidding," Dodger said skeptically. He raised his nose and sniffed. "In that case, we ought to be able to smell ole Dorky by now, what with that stinky perfume that she wears."
* * * * *
Doug struggled over the top of the ridge and stood dumbfounded. "What th’ --?" Below him in the sheltered little dale was a strange cluster of figures – two teenagers and a bunch of strange creatures straight out of a twisted fairy tale. They were half-animal, half-human – but somehow strangely familiar. He was trying to puzzle it out when he became aware of movement besides him.
Ratcliffe had exchanged the pistol for a strange weapon with a long barrel and was loading it with feathered darts. "Feldman!" he hissed. "Payday! Seven viable targets!"
Glancing between the creatures down below and Ratcliffe cocking the tranq gun, Doug came to a rapid conclusion. "Hey!" he yelped. "You can’t do that! This is a wildlife preservation area! There’s no hunting here!" He wrapped his hands into a double-handed fist and caught Ratcliffe with a wild, underhand swing, cartwheeling the tranq gun into the air. "Not in my forest!"
The Illuminati scientist staggered back. "Feldman had the right idea about you," Ratcliffe murmured as he brought up the nine millimeter pistol out.
An orange-striped blur burst out of the trees and knocked Ratcliffe to the ground. Doug gasped as the winged creature bounced to her feet and turned her tabby cat face to his.
"Shut your mouth and run, you stupid man!" she snapped, sounding like a peevish London schoolgirl. "Have you forgotten there’s two of them?"
Something whistled between them and both of them ducked. The cat girl grabbed Doug by the arm and started down the side of the steep slope with him.
"Wait a minute!" Doug protested. "I can’t see the trail!"
"I can!" she shot back. "And they can hear us, so shush up!!"
* * * * *
Remus nearly jumped out of his skin when Dorcas flattened the man with the pistol but he couldn’t fault her actions. No gargoyle could have possibly stood by and allowed an innocent to be harmed. She had the wilderness guide by the arm and was trying to lead him away when the other one began to stir. He scrabbled in the grass for a few seconds, coming up with something that had a metallic gleam in the moonlight.
"No!!" Remus roared. He launched himself in a shower of pine needles. The balding man below reacted much faster that Remus thought. Blindingly sharp pains ripped through his right wing and shoulder as the fox-headed gargoyle plummeted to the ground.
"Dorcas!!" Remus shouted as the human came closer. "Run!"
* * * * *
The cat girl glanced back, her green eyes wide and horrified. "Daddy? Daddy!!!" She dropped to all fours, ripping the hem of her pleated shirt as she tore back up the hill.
"Hold on!" Doug cried out. "Get back here! You’ll be shot!" He started to turn but the earth gave way beneath his boot. Doug tumbled through the ferns and brambles of the underbrush, winding up at the bottom of the hill. He shook his head, leaves and dry grass falling from his hair and tried to get his bearings as the world spun around him.
Hands came from nowhere, gripping him firmly and pulling him to his feet.
"Are you all right, mister?"
"It’s okay, we’ll take care of you."
"Ick! These plastic thingies won’t break!"
"Just a minute! Don’t pull on them like that, it’ll hurt his hands. I’ve got a pocketknife."
Doug’s vision cleared just in time to see the aforementioned pocketknife neatly cut the plastic restraints. He shook out his hands and rubbed the red marks on his wrists. "Thanks," he said gratefully. "I was starting to lose the feeling in my hands."
"No problem," answered the brown-haired girl folding up the knife. "I’m Mary and this is Merlin." She nodded to a freckled teenager with curly blond hair.
"Where’s Dorcas?" another girl asked.
Doug turned his head to look at the speaker and was astonished to find a white winged lioness with blonde hair and faint brown markings on her cheeks. Beyond her were a number of similarly strange creatures. He blinked, shook his head and dismissed it as yet another strange event in a very peculiar evening. "Um…, if you mean that tabby cat girl, she went back up the hill. Yelled something about her da."
"We heard gunshots," Merlin said quickly. "What’s going on?’
"You got me," Doug blinked and did a double take. "Hey! You’re that kid that was with Dulcinea this afternoon. She’s not here too, is she?"
Mary smirked and mumbled something to Merlin. He rolled his eyes. "No, Dulcinea isn’t here at the moment. Never mind about that." Merlin gave Doug a piercing stare that made Doug wonder if the boy was reading the thoughts on the inside of his head. "Just tell us how you came to all this."
"All I know is that these scientists have turned out to be some kind of poachers. They’ve had me taking them to different caves all night, talking about gargoyles and viable targets and who knows what." He looked over his audience and realized that as strange-looking as they might seem, they were little more than children. "Look, those guys up there have got guns. We need to contact the rangers so they can arrest them."
"How many are there?" Merlin demanded, speaking with a sense of authority at odds with his appearance.
"Just the two," Doug replied, "but they’re heavily armed. You kids don’t want to mess with them."
"Nonsense," the lion girl said. "Agnes, you’re the fastest. Go topside and get the grownups. Winston, Dodger, Prongs -- spread out and circle around. Beatrix, you and Mary take mister -- " She looked up expectantly at Doug.
"Campbell. Douglas Campbell."
"You two take Mr. Campbell here and find some place to hide. Merlin, do you want to come with me and Musgrave? A human face might come in handy."
Merlin nodded. "Sounds good, Lucy. We should be able to wrap this up quickly."
"Wait a minute!" Doug yelped. Something zinged over their heads and cut a groove in a nearby tree. "We’re being shot at! Aren’t you kids scared?"
Lucy smiled slowly, revealing a mouthful of sharp feline teeth. "Let’s just put it this way – somebody’s going to be scared, all right. It’s just not going to be US."
* * * * *
"Feldman!" Ratcliffe called out in a loud stage whisper. "I’ve wounded the male!" He approached Remus cautiously, fishing for something in his pocket while keeping the pistol on target. "I’ll immobilize him while you go after the female."
Remus growled weakly at him. "You stay away from her!"
"I don’t believe you have much of a choice, my furry friend." Ratcliffe started to bring his hand out. "In a moment, you won’t have worry about that at all."
"rrrrrrrrrRRRRRRAAAAAWWWrrrrrrrr!!!!!!" Dorcas sprang out of the tall grass like a tiger and slashed her outstretched talons across Ratcliffe’s face, first the right and then the left. She looked over her shoulder. "Remus! MOVE!!"
Remus struggled to his haunches, one hand on the ground for support. "I can’t fly. I’ll only hold you back. Go!!"
"You talk too much! Just move!!" Dorcas turned back to Ratcliffe only to be met with a faceful of aerosol spray. She swayed for a few seconds and made a mewling sound before her legs folded up beneath her.
"NO!!!!!" Remus lurched forward and caught her in the crook of his arm. He had just a moment to glance at his daughter’s unconscious face before the same aerosol sedative overwhelmed him.
"And that’s two for me," Ratcliffe said smugly as he straightened up, spray can in his hand. "Science rules."
"You babble like a magpie," Feldman’s voice crackled from the button on Ratcliffe’s lapel. "There’s something moving in the woods. What’s on the sensors?"
Ratcliffe paused in wrapping Dorcas’ wrists with plastic restraints to check. "Yes, you’re right. Units four, seven, nine and fourteen have all been tripped. Multiple targets."
"Right. How long until things are wrapped up there?"
"Soon. I’ll want to put a loose dressing on the male’s wounds but it’s not an immediate concern. The blood loss should make him sufficiently docile." He arranged Dorcas more securely on top of Remus and, taking the male’s legs in his hands, began to drag both gargoyles into a nearby thicket.
"Hey! You’d better stop that right now!"
Ratcliffe looked up to see another juvenile gargoyle, this time a white female with a lion’s head. "Well, well," he murmured. "It’s payday."
"Ranger!" Lucy shouted. "Get him!"
A short-legged armored beast surged towards him. Ratcliffe brandished his aerosol can and sent a cloud of anesthetizing vapor at Ranger. The little creature began to stagger ludicrously before collapsing in his tracks.
"Oh, no, knockout gas!" Musgrave cried, pulling his own beast back. "Lucy! What’ll we do?"
"My turn, I believe." Merlin stepped out besides Lucy and swept out his hands.
"Gentle zephyrs rise to hurricane
Let no poison mist remain!"
A strong breeze whipped up from out of nowhere, encircling Ratcliffe in a whirlwind embrace and blowing his own knockout gas back at him. Wisps became caught up in it, turning it into a miniature neon twister, reaching high into the sky. Merlin made a dramatic slashing motion and abruptly the winds disappeared and Ratcliffe fell to the ground.
Lucy punched him playfully in the arm. "Showoff."
Merlin merely grinned.
Kneeling by the fallen gargoyles, Musgrave gasped. "Lucy! We need to get Tiberius. Remus has been shot and I think Dorcas has been gassed just like Ranger."
"Agnes will be bringing help," Lucy assured him, "but Beatrix will know what to do. I’ll be right back." She loped back down the hill.
"Beatrix?" Merlin asked as he dug through Ratcliffe’s backpack.
"When our healer gave us our basic first aid training last winter," Musgrave explained, "Bea got picked to study further with her. She’s very clever, our Beatrix."
"She’s not the only one," Merlin murmured as he flipped open the laptop. "I daresay we’ll want to take a closer look at this. Someone’s been very busy."
Lucy and the others came back up the hill in a rush. Beatrix was digging through her satchel even as she was dropping to her knees besides Remus.
"It’s messy," she observed, "but it’s a clean shot. I’ll do what I can to stop the bleeding but we’re not going to be able to move him for a while."
"All right." Lucy stood up. "Musgrave, you and Treacle go down the trail and guard from there. I’ll go into the woods and try to track that other guy."
"I’m going with you," Doug said firmly.
"No buts, missy. I know more about these woods that any of you." He set his jaw. "And I owe that jerk for pulling a fast one on me."
* * * * *
"Blast!" Feldman jerked the earpiece off and tossed it aside. "Stupid desk jockey -- he got too overconfident." He adjusted the infrared night goggles he’d donned when he had faded back into the heavy cover of the woods. A number of glowing bodies swarmed around Ratcliffe’s inert body on the ground. Feldman scanned the night skies above and smiled coldly.
"Well, Ratcliffe, you’re still some use to me after all." Feldman adjusted the scope on his rifle. "You were right. Helpless victims draw gargoyles like moths to a flame."
There were a number of creatures approaching, totally unaware that he had them in his sights. The larger group towards the south was flying slowly in a curious intertwining pattern so Feldman focused on the smaller group coming from the northeast. They were clustered in a tight V-pattern like so many sitting ducks.
A rustling in the bushes made Feldman swerve sharply to the right, staring down the barrel of the gun. The head of a young stag blinked at him benevolently before giving a start and bounding away out of sight.
"Lucky for you I’m after bigger game tonight," Feldman muttered and returned to scan the skies.
* * * * *
"Blimey!" Winston swore softly as his stag-headed companion slipped back into the thicket besides him. "You’ve got some nerve, Prongs. I nearly lost it when you poked your head up like that!"
"Well, what better to find in a wood than another deer?" Prongs replied in a whisper. "I think that’s our man, all right. No honest sportsman would use all that fancy gear to hunt regular prey."
"No kidding," Dodger murmured, peeping through the thick mesh of branches. "That’s a top-of-the-line sniper rifle, that is."
"And how would you know that?" Winston hissed.
Dodger raised his shaggy browridges. "Hey! It was in Shooter’s Weekly only last month. The ‘Mercs’ Perks’ columnist gave it five stars out of six."
Winston started to make a rebuttal but a slim white hand slapped over both his and Dodger's mouth. Lucy scowled at them. "Stow it, you two! We just captured our man." She bit her lip as she looked directly at Dodger. "He shot Remus and gassed Dorcas before we took him out."
The scruffy terrier-headed gargoyle muttered some choice swearwords under his breath. "Are they going to be all right?"
"Beatrix thinks so. I left her and Musgrave with them, along with Mr. and Mrs. Merlin." There was a rustle of leaves as Doug crawled into the thicket besides her. Lucy pointed over her shoulder with her thumb. "This is Mr. Campbell. He’s on our side."
"What’s he doing?" Doug asked, pointing.
"Well, the last time I looked," Prongs said, "he was tracking something with those goggles of his."
"So why are you still here?" Lucy demanded quietly. "How come you haven’t take care of him yet?"
"He’s got a bloody great gun," Winston protested, "or haven’t you noticed?"
"Wait a minute!" Prongs whispered, peered over the top of the thicket. "Something’s happening!"
* * * * *
"Just a little closer," Feldman crooned subverbally as he watched the targets cresting over the ridge. "Closer…"
* * * * *
"Are ye sure this is th’ way they came, Caspian?" Kirstie asked.
"Oh, yes," the unicorn-headed gargoyle answered grimly. "One of the first spells I ever cast was the locator charm I put on Lucy." He glanced at the glowing compass in the palm of his head. "She was forever wandering off, even as a hatchling, but I can find her halfway around the world with this charm."
"Some things never change, eh? I remember all the times we had rookery duty and all the trouble the hatchlings got in." Pip laughed ruefully. "Little rotters, what were they thinking?"
"Now, now…," Reg said with a tusk curling smile. "Remember what we were like at that age – sick to death of the rookery and ready for big adventures on our own."
"And right proper little imps you were too!" quipped Weller amiably. "Your sisters were angels but you lads were nearly the death of us!"
Kirstie laughed and swung in to swat Reg playfully with her tail. "And some o’ ye are still cheeky devils!"
"I do my best, milady," Reg replied with a lofty lift of his brow. He was rewarded with another rich laugh.
* * * * *
Feldman’s finger started to squeeze the trigger.
* * * * *
"Look!" Lucy whispered urgently, "We have to do something. We can’t just sit here and watch!"
"Divide and conquer?" Doug suggested. "Two of you stay here, the other two come with me. We’ll make our way around to the other side of the clearing. When we’ve got him between us, we can rush him."
"I like it," Winston nodded. "Good tactical move."
"All right," Lucy agreed. "Dodger, you and I will go with Mr. Campbell. Winston and Prongs, stay here and wait for our signal."
* * * * *
The tight cluster of targets sailed into the crosshairs of his scope. Feldman drew in a breath, braced himself and fired.
* * * * *
Weller caught a flash on the ground and was in the process of turning toward Caspian when a projectile caught him on the side and spun him around. "What the!!" he yelped as he glanced down at the tore pink-and-green striped material flapping in the breeze. "Some bloody fool idjit’s ruined my Sunday vest!"
Cervus, who was nearest, grabbed the older gargoyle by the arm. "Weller!! You’ve been shot!!" A narrow red slash showed clearly through Weller’s dark far covering his ribs.
"Scatter!!" Caspian bellowed at the top of his lungs. "We’re too good of a target bunched up like this." To accentuate his point, two more fast-moving objects passed through their midst.
"What is it?" Kirstie cried out. "I dinnae see it!!" The Caledonian was hovering, looking frantically about.
"Kirstie!" Reg yelled. "MOVE!!!" He stroked his way into an updraft to soar up in front of her.
"Reg! What are ye doin’?"
"Nnngh!!" Reg’s upper body convulsed suddenly and he crashed into Kirstie. He looked dimly at the tufted cartridge protruding from his chest and then up to Kirstie’s face before going limp in her arms.
"Och, Reg!" Kirstie plummeted dangerously low towards the trees before Caspian dived beneath them to take Reg’s dead weight from her. Kirstie glided next to Caspian, frightened eyes passing over the unconscious gargoyle’s body. "What is that thing there? What has it done t’ him?"
"Tranquilizer dart," Caspian answered curtly. "Fairly heavy duty and," he frowned, "vaguely familiar."
"Caspian!!" Cervus shouted. "Weller’s spotted some of the kids on the ridge. He’s not feeling very well. We’re setting down there."
"I’ll follow you in!" Caspian dipped into the treetops for cover and glided in behind Cervus and Weller. The older gargoyle definitely wobbling as he came in for a landing and only Cervus’ guiding hand kept him arriving in an inelegant heap.
"Go back up," Caspian told Cervus, "and try to pin down where the shooter’s at. I’ll be there in a minute." He set Reg down next to Remus and Dorcas. "What’s going on here, Beatrix? Where’s the others?"
"Lucy and the guys are tracking down this blighter’s partner," the young badgerish female said as she plucked the dart from Reg’s chest and sniffed it delicately. "We sent Agnes back to camp for help. Isn’t she with you?"
"Partner? Whose partner?"
"That fellow Merlin and Mary are tying up over there." Beatrix pointed over her shoulder as she helped Weller sit down. "Here, Uncle. Let me see to that nasty cut there."
Caspian hadn’t heard a word the young female had said, for his gaze was transfixed on the unconscious human’s face. "Ratcliffe!"
Merlin looked up sharply. "You know him?"
"Yes! He and his partner, Feldman tried to capture Griff and Michael the last time we were up here. I think Arthur had a run-in with them before that as well."
"Arthur?" Merlin screwed up his face in an indignant scowl. "He never said anything to me."
Mary rolled her eyes. "Like Arthur needs to tell you everything, duh."
"But if you’ve got Ratcliffe here…" Caspian’s eyes widened. "That means Lucy’s gone after Feldman. Puckernuts!" He turned and spread his wings even as his powerful legs launched him into the air.
"Uh, oh….," Mary said as she watched Caspian soar off the ridge. "That can’t be good."
* * * * *
"No!!" Lucy cried out when the first of the fliers began to fall. She and Dodger hurled themselves out of the bushes at Feldman. Prongs and Winston threw themselves into the clearing a split-second afterwards.
"Kids! Hey, wait a minute!" Doug protested. His jacket was snagged on a tree branch and he struggled to free it.
"What’s this?" Feldman swung the butt of his rifle around and caught Dodger on the chin with it, then doubled up Winston with a hard backward thrust to the gut. "School’s in session, rugrats, and you’re just lucky I need you in one piece."
Prongs lunged in and grabbed the barrel of the gun. He got a boot in the ribs for his trouble. Feldman swirled and pointed the rifle straight at Lucy.
"One move and the little girl-garg gets it!"
At that moment, Doug’s sleeve tore free and the tree branch whipped around, smacking Feldman’s left side and sending the rifle spinning away. Lucy took advantage of his momentary confusion and hit Feldman low, staggering him back. Feldman stumbled, swearing inarticulately as he tried to free himself. Finally he landed a backhanded swat that sent Lucy tumbling away in the fallen leaves. Feldman grabbed her while she was still stunned and jerked her head back by her hair. He reached inside his jacket and pulled a knife. The three young males had been preparing to attack but at the first glimpse of the shining blade, froze in their tracks.
"That’s it!" Feldman snapped out. "Back off!" He laid the sharp edge of the knife against Lucy’s snow-white throat. "Nice and easy, or I’ll bleed her right here."
"Don’t be stupid, Feldman," Doug said in a calm, even voice as he circled around. "You’re out-numbered. Let the girl go and you can walk out of here, no questions asked. I won’t say a word to the rangers."
Feldman snorted. "Your so-called rangers have no authority over me. They’re nothing compared to the people I work for."
"I really don’t care who you work for," Doug retorted. "All I care about is here in this forest and I won’t let you kill anything or anybody in here."
"Typical treehugger pap," Feldman sneered. Lucy tried to squirm free and he gave her a sharp jerk. "Stay still, you!"
Lucy’s lip trembled and she began to whimper.
Feldman began to edge his way to the game trail. Just as he set foot on the path, a yipping, yapping, snarling, howling, bright-eyed mass boiled out of the shadows. The little gargoyle beasts leapt at Feldman, finding good holds on his limbs. Startled, Feldman danced back from the snapping jaws, dragging Lucy with him.
A blazing sword swept through the darkness. Feldman looked up the length of the weapon to King Arthur’s face. "Sir!" Arthur shouted imperiously. "You will release that child at once!"
"You!" Feldman snarled. "You started me on this downward spiral within the Brotherhood. The day you crossed paths with Powell was a dark day for all of us!"
"I’m gratified you remember me so fondly," Arthur said coldly, without breaking eye contact. "Release the girl and I will give you satisfaction."
"Right!" Madness flickered in Feldman’s eyes as he rudely shoved Lucy from him. "Bring it on!" But before he or Arthur could move, there was a dull thump and Feldman’s long frame folded up to reveal Douglas Campbell standing behind him with a stout broken branch in his hands.
"I say!" Arthur exclaimed indignantly with his hands on his hips. "That wasn’t very chivalrous."
Doug shrugged. "Sorry, it’s just been a really long day."
* * * * *
Quade and the others followed the falcon-headed female as Agnes spiraled down to the ridge. Tori frowned and called down, "What strange manner o’ gatherin’ be this, Quade?"
"I dinnae know," the rough-hewn leader of the Caledonian clan responded, "but I wager we’ll be quick for findin’ out."
Merlin was tending a fire and either he or Caspian had conjured a copper kettle and other provisions out of thin air. Mary was passing around tin cups of tea to various gargoyles. Tiberius had gone ahead when he’d heard Agnes’ report of hearing gunshots and was tending to the wounded with Beatrix’s assistance. Caspian was sitting on a log, rocking his sister Lucy, who seemed upset. The most baffling thing to Quade was the presence of a dark-haired human sitting in the midst of everything, listening to some of the younger gargoyles.
"—Anyway," Musgrave was saying, "there was this artist that was staying at a cottage not far from the estate and I was hungry and I smelled cookies so I let myself in through the cat door." He looked embarrassed. "Well, I was only a hatchling at the time."
"No kidding!" Doug laughed. "I always wondered how those little ceramic dragons got started. My sister has almost a whole set!"
"Yeah, well." Musgrave occupied himself with petting Treacle as she sniffed curiously at Douglas. "Luckily, Mrs. Marter knew him pretty well and he agreed to keep our secret. The clan gets a little bit of the royalties from him so it all worked out."
All conversations broke off as the rest of the rescue party landed. It took several minutes to catch everyone up on current events. Griff took a closer look at the captured humans and whistled.
"Come and see, Michael!" he called. "These are the two scoundrels that tried to capture us before, aren’t they?"
Michael scowled at them. "So they are! Why do these two keep popping up? What is their interest in us?"
"Other than the fact that we’re gargoyles, you mean?" Griff shook his head. "The devil if I know."
"I have a few suspicions," Merlin said as he looked up from Ratcliffe’s laptop, "but it’ll take someone with a better affinity for computers than I have."
"Rory’s got time on his hands," Dulcinea commented. "Why not let him have a look at it?"
"Rory?" Doug murmured to Musgrave as he scratched Treacle’s ears. "Is that her boyfriend?"
"Naw." The little dragon gargoyle shrugged his spiked shoulders. "Rory’s got a girl, or so I hear."
"Miss?" Doug stood up and dusted himself off. "My friend Lew Foster has a computer out at the ranger station you could use if you like," he offered. "He’s got Internet access and everything."
Arthur, Dulcinea and Merlin all exchanged a worried look. Doug could tell by their expressions that they had some kind of secret and weren’t certain they should involve him. "Look, it’s clear to me now that you people and these, um, gargoyles have something going on and maybe you think it’s none of my business, but it is!" Doug gestured to Feldman and Ratcliffe. "These two maniacs hired me and that makes it my business. They used me to find you. I’m the best guide around but I’m not the only one. Sooner or later, there will be others in these woods after the exact same thing."
"There’s something to what he says," Merlin commented shrewdly. "We can’t let this happen again."
Quade had been listening to the conversation but suddenly he stepped towards Doug and the bound humans. "Enow wi’ this talk! May I remind ye that this is our home an’ ye are all visitors here. If anyone is t’decide what is t’ be done wi’ these humans, ‘tis me an’ mine that will be doin’ it!"
"Aye, brother!" Curran said, coming to stand at Quade’s right side with Tori and Kirstie flanking them both. "Th’ clan lore is clear on what mus’ be done an’ th’ sooner, th’ better."
Brianna’s eyes grew wide and round. "Och, ye cannae be thinkin’ o’ that!"
"What?" Griff asked his mate.
"In th’ old days, back when we first settled in th’ Caledonian Forest," Brianna said, "th’ clan was hunted by humans. We made a pact that none should see us an’ if they did, that should be th’ last thing they ever saw."
"Whoa!" Doug put up his hands. "Just a minute – that’s a little extreme, isn’t it?"
"Extreme or not," Quade said firmly, "that’s how we’ve survived. This forest is our home an’ we will defend it as we always have, an’ if a few humans go missin’, than that’s th’ price we’ll pay. Th’ safety o’ our clan an’ our forest is worth more than you, human."
Douglas straightened up and glared back at Quade. "It’s not your forest," he said firmly, "and it’s not mine and it’s most certainly not theirs," pointing at Feldman and Ratcliffe. "This forest belongs to no one but the sun and the wind and the sky and the mother earth beneath our feet. Look at what yours and mine have done to it! We owe this forest and all that’s in it to take care of it or it’ll be gone forever."
Quade regarded the dark-haired man in surprise. "You care for th' forest," he rumbled, "just as much as we do. Mayhaps, you humans aren’t as bad as we¹ve always thought."
"You know," Michael suggested, "it might be to your clan’s advantage to have a human ally. The London Clan and the Marter family have co-existed for generations by helping one another."
"Think of it," Griff said, "he could tell you what the forestry department is up to and you could tell him about things like the illegal woodcutting that you were having such trouble with the first time Arthur and I came here."
Arthur put a hand on Griff’s shoulder. "It’s never easy learning to trust in the unknown," he said succinctly, "but I’ve always found I can rely on the strength of my allies."
Quade turned his head slowly and regarded Douglas Campbell for an uncomfortable length of time. Finally, he nodded. "I will consider th’ idea. It’s nae our way but then th’ world is a much larger place than it once was."
"Good enough," Doug agreed. "I’m in and out of these woods all the time. I expect you’ll find me when you want me."
"That we’ll see." With that, Quade and the other Caledonians moved off to inspect the wounded.
"Friendly bunch," Doug commented wryly. He turned back to Arthur, Dulcinea and Merlin. "You, I remember from a few years ago. Arthur something, was it?"
"Yes," Arthur nodded. "That was my first contact with the Caledonian clan." He smiled. "This may surprise you, but you just received a warm welcome."
"I’ll count my lucky stars then." Doug kicked Feldman’s foot. "So what are you going to do with the scientist and the Quarryman?"
"What?" Michael snapped. "Did you say ‘Quarryman?’"
Doug rubbed the back of his neck, uncomfortable with the sudden attention. "It’s something Lew dug up on them, when we first suspected that they weren’t what they said they were. This guy, Feldman, is on a black list for crimes against the environment. He belonged to some Yank group called the Quarrymen." He blinked. "Is that important?"
An audible groan rose from those who knew about the Quarrymen and all the trouble they had caused in New York. Douglas only looked more confused.
"Nevermind," Merlin snapped. "Dulcinea, you explain the Quarrymen to him." Douglas looked remarkably cheerful as the Spanish woman turned towards him and Merlin rolled his eyes as he continued. "I think I know what we can do with these two troublemakers – a spell of forgetfulness. Caspian and I will alter their memories so that they don’t have any knowledge of anything having to do with gargoyles."
"A memory charm?" Caspian asked, sending a shaken Lucy off to join her rookery mates. "That’s irreversible, you know. We should probably try to pick their minds first and find out just why these blighters keep showing up like the proverbial bad penny."
"A good point," Arthur commented. "I, for one, would like to know if they’re still acting under William Powell’s bidding. That could possibly pose a threat to milady Jennifer, for he has seen us together."
"Hmm…." Merlin pursed his lips and pondered the matter, idly scratching the peach fuzz on his chin. "There is something we could try and we do have the proper number of magic-users on hand." He motioned to Prongs. "Come here, boy."
"Prongs?" Caspian asked curiously. "But he’s not--"
"Not yet," Merlin said, "but after a decade or two of study with Una, he will be. Trust me, Caspian – I know magical potential when I sense it." He held out his hands. "All right, form a circle."
"The Celtic Triad?"
"A variation." Merlin closed his eyes and a stern expression passed over his fifteen-year-old face. "Prongs, you’re just here to stabilize the circle. Just make your mind a blank and let the power pass through you. Caspian and I will be doing all the work."
"A-all right," Prongs answered nervously.
"Now," Merlin’s brow furrowed, "let’s see what these two have been up too."
Arthur, Griff and Michael watched anxiously as the two sorcerers and the new apprentice become deadly quiet. Caspian and Merlin both began to chant silently to themselves as they reached deep into Ratcliffe and Feldman’s subconscious minds. A cone of swirling energy manifested above the circle. Loose will o’ the wisps drifted up from the valley below and circled them in a mystical orbit.
Muttering, Merlin tossed his head from side to side. "Strange…"
"A barrier," Caspian ground out between his teeth. "A wall…"
"A watching eye," Prongs moaned.
The raw power of the spell surged – and a powerful pulse disrupted the energy pattern woven between the three magic users. Caspian, Merlin and Prongs were thrown to the ground as the spell was broken.
Arthur hurried to Merlin’s side. "Old friend," he asked hurriedly, "What happened?"
"I’m not sure," Merlin said weakly, "but there’s something strange about these two. Someone else has been in their heads before. We were able to erase all their memories of the Caledonian Forest and of the clan that lives here but something stopped us from going further."
"Yes," Caspian agreed as Griff helped him to his feet. "There was a barrier. They both had one – a sort of memory shield." He glanced at Prongs. "And you? What did you sense?"
"I’m not sure," Prongs murmured. "All I know is I have a killer headache."
"Just as well," Caspian said, clapping his hand on the younger gargoyle’s shoulder. "Una would skin us if we involve you in any more magic without her say-so."
"You think she’ll take me on as her apprentice?" Prongs asked hopefully.
Michael prodded. "I think that the best thing to do would be to get these chaps as far away from here as possible."
"I agree," Quade nodded. "We found their campsite but I don’t believe that there is anythin’ there that they deserve to keep."
"Well," Douglas offered. "I’ve got my jeep parked on the logging road just east of Menzie Keep. If you could help me move them, I could haul them into town and put them on the first train away from here."
Michael raised his browridges at Quade. The Caledonian leader frowned but finally agreed. "Very well. T’would be th’ fastest way." He cocked his head at Doug. "Pip, Tori, go wi’ Michael an’ see these humans on their way."
Doug grinned at Dulcinea. "And don’t forget – The Thrush and Thistle in two days."
"I’ll be there." Dulcinea dipped her head graciously and graced him with a small smile. "Good luck!"
Mary walked over and nudged Dulcinea. "What’s this?" she asked coyly. "Looks to me like somebody’s got a date!"
"Somebody needs to get her eyes checked," Dulcinea murmured as she waved at those gliding away from the ridge. "The pub is neutral territory and I’ll be able to find out if he’s hiding anything from us."
"A wise move," Arthur agreed amiably, "but I have a good feeling about our Mr. Campbell."
* * * * *
"Remus?" Tiberius’ voice sounded muffled and fuzzy. "Can you hear me?"
"Errrmmph." Remus slowly opened his eyes to find the night sky blocked out by his friend’s wolfish face.
"You’ve had a rough go," Tiberius said gently, "but it’s all right. You won’t be flying anywhere tonight but Beatrix here managed to stop the bleeding by the time I arrived. A good stone sleep and you’ll be right as rain."
Memory returned and Remus winced as he sat up too quickly. "Dorcas! Is she--?"
Tiberius moved around to support Remus’ weak side. "I should have known that would be the first coherent thought in your head." He pointed to where Beatrix was fanning Dorcas and Ranger. "She and the beastling got a snootful of some kind of anethestic gas. They’re both starting to breathe more easily so it shouldn’t be much longer."
"Tiberius?" Kirstie called. "Could you check Reg? He’s not waking up." She had Reg’s head cradled in her lap, anxiously combing her fingers through his bristly hair.
"A healer’s work is never done," Tiberius quipped. He helped Remus over next to his daughter. "Since I probably can’t talk you into resting, you might as well help Beatrix with our sleepers."
Remus reached over with his good arm and gently brushed a tendril of ginger-colored hair away from Dorcas’ warm forehead. "Poor little kitten."
"She doesn’t really hate you, you know."
Glancing up at Beatrix, Remus sighed. "She has every right to."
"My rookery sibs and I have learned that Dorcas is, well, Dorcas." Beatrix chuckled lightly. "She may be difficult but when someone’s in trouble, she doesn’t run away. She didn’t have to go back up the hill to help you tonight, but she did it without thinking. That’s just the way she is."
Remus smiled and shook his head. "Just like her mother."
Dorcas moaned faintly and moved her head weakly from side to side.
"Darling?" Remus leaned towards her anxiously. "I’m here. Daddy’s right here."
Her eyes flickered open and Dorcas looked up at him for several seconds. She tried to speak but no words seemed to be able to come so she simply threw her arms around Remus, oblivious to his injuries, and burrowed her head under his chin.
Very quietly, Beatrix picked up Ranger and moved to a discreet distance. Tiberius caught her movement and observed the tableau between father and daughter for himself. "We’ll leave them be for now," he said quietly. "You’ll find, young Beatrix, that sometimes the best healing doesn’t require a healer at all."
Beatrix merely nodded.
* * * * *
A fortnight later…
Time passed quickly once the immediate danger of the rogue Illuminati agents was over. The Londoners and the Caledonians teamed up to tackle the remnants of the Second Unseelie War from clearing away rock slides to replanting slopes swept clean of trees. The young gargoyles ran wild in the woods, safe from prying eyes. It was a rare moment of peace and everyone made the most of it.
Eventually, however, the time soon came when Michael decided to return to London. Victoria had to be pried away from her playmates Meara and Fergus. The wails of the hatchlings began so intense that Rachel and Jamie finally brought them along when the Caledonians accompanied the Londoners to the campground where the humans were packing up.
Arthur was fitting Excalibur into the hidden sheath on his backpack as the gaggle of gargoyles arrived. He nodded to Michael as the eagle-headed gargoyle touched down lightly, provoking a cheery peal of laughter from Victoria strapped to his chest. "You seem to be a few members short," Arthur observed. "Anything the matter?"
"Oh, just a matter of locating the honeymooners," Michael laughed. "Brianna suggested a few secluded places to them so I suspect she and Griff should find them soon enough. Is Merlin still put out with Caspian?"
"Merlin is back to his normal moody self," Arthur replied, "just like any other teenager. He had been hoping that Caspian could lift Mary’s curse."
"Not with the state Caspian was in after that big spell they did," Michael commented. "Still Caspian did manage to capture the essence of the original spell in a crystal so that he and Una can study it. Between the two of them, they should be able to come up with a cure."
"I certainly hope so." Arthur stood up. "Merlin and Mary went with Dulcinea to take care of a few last minute things but they should be back soon."
The grove of young aspen trees began to shake and quiver as something crashed through the underbrush. Curran and the young gargoyle beasts emerged, the beastlings melting into the tall grass around the campsite. The flinty blue Caledonian limped towards Arthur and Michael.
"Best let th’ wee beasts have a good run before ye have t’ take t’ th’ road," Curran said gruffly. "They’re nae bad beasts, just young an’ full o’ spirit."
"You’re probably one of the few people who would see them that way," Michael remarked. "Victoria’s rookery mother threatens to skin them on a regular basis." Both of the male gargoyles watched as Lucy and Musgrave claimed their pets. "You know," Michael continued, "Ranger and Treacle are the only beastlings that formed an attachment to any of the clan. We’ve never been able to tame the rest."
"That’s not surprising," Arthur said. "When we found the barghests in Yorkshire, they had been running wild for generations. It was only Dulcinea’s talent with animals that enabled us to catch them in the first place."
"True, and the two adults left on their own long ago." Michael watched the beastlings that had come up to sit at Curran’s feet. "I was wondering if perhaps you would like these beasts for your clan, Curran? If someone were to train them properly, they could guard the rookery or help in the hunt."
Curran was silent for several minutes. One of the little beasts came up and gnawed playfully on the butt of his spear. Curran allowed himself a barely visible smile. "Aye," he said slowly, "I’ll do right by them, Michael." He reached out and slapped forearms with the Londoner.
"They’re going to stay here?" Musgrave exclaimed. "Treacle, better say goodbye to your friends." He knelt down and began petting various gargoyle beasts.
"Goodbye and good riddance, I say!" snorted Dodger. "One less chore on my plate is fine with me!"
"Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure of that," Weller said amiably. "I imagine we can find new duties to keep you out of trouble."
"Michael?" Dorcas spoke up, from her spot next to Remus. Ever since the night when Ratcliffe had overcome her and Remus, Dorcas had spent a great deal of time with her father. The temperamental little she-cat had been radically changed by her experience; everyone approved of the way the sharp edges of her personality had been smoothed away under Remus’ influence.
"Yes, Dorcas? Are you ready to go?"
"Well…," she looked up at Remus, who nodded. "I was hoping to stay, if I could, just a little longer."
Michael raised a brow ridge. "Remus?"
"I’ve talked it over with Quade," the fox-headed gargoyle said, "and he has no objections to Dorcas staying for the rest of the summer. However, I do want her to return to school in the fall. She needs to keep up her studies with the rest of her rookery, after all."
"Please, Michael?" Dorcas said hopefully.
"We’ll need to make some arrangement for bringing her back," Michael mused. "She’s much too young to make the trip alone."
"Actually, Michael," Cervus said casually, "I was thinking of staying a bit longer myself. I could escort Dorcas back if you like." He glanced briefly at Tori, who smiled slightly.
Michael turned to Quade. "Well, what do you say? Care to have a few extra Londoners to help out for a while?"
"It has been good t’ have new faces around th’ campfire," Quade rumbled. "You are our London cousins an’ family will always be welcome here."
"Besides," Kylie said struggling up from her chair, "they can fill my place while I am away."
"What?" The clearing was filled with the voices of the Caledonians as they stared at their former leader.
"Elder, what d’ye mean?" Rachel gasped. "Ye cannae mean it – ye wouldna survive th’ trip."
"Hush, now --- hear me out!" Kylie drew herself up, leaning heavily on her staff. "I’ve been thinkin’ about it long an’ hard since Michael first told me about it, an’ I’ve made up my mind. We need t’ have a voice at this World Gatherin’ an’ I mean t’ be that voice."
"I’m th’ best choice for th’ job," Kylie said firmly. "I led here for many years an’ I am Elder to this clan. Both o’ those things have great respect among our kind." She turned to the London clan leader. "Michael! Will ye still allow me t’stand wi’ ye before th’ World Council?"
Michael dropped to one knee and bowed his head. "Lady Kylie, it is I who is honored. I will do everything in my power to see that you travel safely there and back again."
Quade stepped forward, members of his clan close besides him. "This is unheard of, Elder," he said in a choked voice. "We and the forest are one. Ye, above all others have said this, an’ for ye to leave--"
Kylie reached up and stroked his rough brow. "But I’ve also said that everythin’ in this forest is put here for some purpose. It is for us t’ know th’ right an’ proper time for th’ doin’ o’ it." She smiled. "Lad, ye have been leading for years now, wi’ verra little help from me. This is my chance t’ do one last thing for my clan. Before th’ winds take me, I will do this thing for my children an’ my children’s children."
Rachel, Jamie, and Kirstie were openly weeping. Curran swallowed hard. "But, Kylie," he said in a ragged voice, "we may never see ye alive again."
"That mayhaps be," Kylie said, "but I am a part o’ all o’ ye, an’ always will be. If I die on this journey, th’ four winds will carry me home -- that I promise."
Rory cleared his throat. "Why don’t we settle her in the caravan? There’s a lot more room in it goin’ than there was comin.’"
"Yes," Tiberius said thoughtfully. "That would do nicely, especially if I can build a bit of a nest for her so Kylie can stand the vibration of the road." He cocked his head at them. "Well, what sort of healer would I be if I let my patient go off and risk endangering her health?"
"Och, nae ye too!" Rachel sighed. "Just when we were gettin’ used t’ ye!"
"Don’t worry," Tiberius said lightly, "I plan to come back when this World Gathering business is over and done with. I like it here too much to ever go back to London!" He glanced at Michael. "No offense."
A shrill whistle made humans and gargoyles alike look skywards. Griff and Brianna sailed down with Caspian and Rosalind in their wake. Griff was chuckling to himself and casting amused looks at Caspian.
"What’s so funny?" Michael asked.
"I’ll tell you later," Griff chortled. "If I say anything now, Brianna will kill me."
"It wasna funny," Brianna said sternly, but with a smile dancing at the corners of her mouth. "Ye did some fairly daft things yuirself when we were newly mated."
"But upside down in a tree?"
Fortunately any further discussion was interrupted by the sound of an approaching car and the gargoyles all edged to various hiding places. The land rover dimmed its headlights as it drove up to the campsite and backed up to the horse trailer. Dulcinea promptly got out and began hitching up. "Sorry, it took so long," she called out. "We were unavoidably detained at the petrol station."
"Dulci’s sweetheart was there," Mary commented tartly. "He’s pretty hunky when he cleans up."
Dulcinea glared at her. "Douglas merely wanted us to know that Feldman and Ratcliffe have left the country. According to his sources, Ratcliffe went to Paris to attend a science symposium and Feldman returned to the United States."
"Exactly as I intended," Merlin said smugly. "When I realized we couldn’t change all of their memories, I simply gave them new programming. Neither one of those men remembers ever coming here. It’s as if that part of their lives never existed."
"Isn’t that going to be a little difficult for them to explain?" Rory asked. "I never did manage to access all the files in that laptop. Whoever programmed it knows more about file encryption than I do. We may have just gotten ourselves in over our heads."
"What?" Arthur laughed. "More in over our heads than usual?"
Dulcinea came around the land rover, wiping her hands on a rag. "If we’re going to make it to London by daybreak, Rory, we need to get on the road." She nodded at Merlin. "He’s says that you aren’t coming back to London with us. Is that true?"
"I’m afraid so," Arthur replied. "It’s been grand seeing all of you again but I can’t return to London until I’ve cleared my good name. Merlin and I must keep after our unknown adversary and I have every confidence we’ll run him to the ground soon."
Kylie hobbled forward on Brianna’s arm. "Just promise me one thing, King Arthur," she said, cocking her head to look up at him. "Come t’ see me off before Michael an’ I go traispin’ off t’ yon World Gatherin’. I have a feelin’ t’will bring us luck."
"Then, Lady Kylie," Arthur said, taking her withered hand and bowing gallantly over it, "I will endeavor to do so. No matter what the outcome of my own quest, a lady of such courage must come first."
Kylie raised her browridges and smiled broadly. She turned her head and commented, "Males, take heed. This is how t’ turn a female’s head!!"
"Yeah!" Mary bumped Merlin with her hip. "Take notes, will you?"
"That’s it, Arthur!" Merlin scowled at the once and future king. "Holiday is over! Back to business!" He slung his backpack across his shoulders and started walking down the rutted road to the highway.
"Well, that’s it, my friends. I’ve been given my orders." Arthur regarded the assembled party. "Until we meet again, fair weather and godspeed! Farewell!!"
"That’s it then," Musgrave said wistfully. "Holiday’s over."
"Not to worry, young one," Kylie said. "An ending is sometimes just another beginning."
The Burial Litany of the London Clan
by Valerie Howson aka Ithica
(I got stumped after writing the first three lines of this, and felt there should be more. Luckily, there was a chatter in S8 with a lot more talent for writing poetry than I had. She may think otherwise, but she’s a promising young writer. Thanks again, Ithica!!)
Scottish Wildlife Trust