A Tale of Two Gates
Outline by: Todd Jensen
Written by: Todd Jensen
Artwork by: Jessica Entis
* * * * *
The Kingdom of the Franks - AD 780
"Did you hear something just now?"
Lord Humbert turned towards the attendant behind him, as best as he could while remaining on horseback. "Hear what?" he asked.
"A sound," said the attendant, his voice quavering uneasily. "Off in the woods to the left."
Humbert shrugged. "This is a forest, Guido," he said. "There are always noises in it. I hardly consider it anything to be troubled over. No doubt what you heard was naught more than some harmless rabbit or bird. It is nothing for us to concern ourselves with."
"But it did not sound like such a thing to me at all," protested Guido. "I have heard such noises before, and this was not one of them. It sounded like men. Armed men, off the side of the road."
"Donít be a fool, Guido!" said Humbert, with a scornful laugh. "If you are suggesting that we are about to be waylaid by bandits, then rethink your fears. We are only a few hoursí ride from the court of King Charles himself! There are no brigands to be found in this part of Frankland. The King has driven them out. And even if there were any here, none would dare raise a sword against an ambassador from His Holiness the Pope and his train! No, you worry far too much! No ill will befall us here."
"All the same," muttered Guido, "I will be glad to finally be away from this forest. I do not like it. There are too many shadows under the trees." He stared in their direction and shivered.
Before Humbert could make any reply, a sudden shrill whistle sounded from behind the trees to the left, and then, charging down from the woods, a group of men in rough mail-coats, bearing swords and shields, rushed into sight.
Humbert drew his sword at once, and motioned to the guards accompanying him to do the same, as he faced the assailants. He could not be certain as to how many of them there were; he assumed that there were fifteen or so, although it was only a rough guess. What he could tell was that, whoever these men were, they were no mere bandits. Their gear seemed too good for that. They must be from the retinue of some lord or other. It was a mystery that he would have to ponder later, though, for just now, he was too busy defending himself to give it any real thought.
For the next few minutes, all was confusion, as he struck out at two of the men with his blade while dodging their attacks; he could not even see how his train was faring. Shouts and cries filled his ears, the whinnying of the horses, the clang of sword upon shield, a groan here or there when a man was wounded. Grinding his teeth grimly, he concentrated hard on driving back his attackers. He did not know if he had followers enough to rout them, but he would keep on at it until...
One of the attackers thrust straight at his horse, wounding it. Humbertís steed reared in pain, and threw his rider. Humbert fell upon the ground, landing hard upon his back. The other warrior brought the pommel of his sword down upon Humbertís head, hard, and the world went black.
* * *
Humbert came to, to find Guido standing over him. The man seemed somewhat the worse for wear; his clothes were torn from the fighting, and there were some scratches upon his face and hands, though nothing too serious. Guidoís face lit up with relief as his lord opened his eyes.
"So you are still alive!" he said. "At least we have one blessing."
"Guido, what happened?" asked Humbert, painfully raising one arm and clutching his throbbing head with his hand. "We were attacked, were we not? How did we fare?"
"Poorly, my lord," said Guido sadly. "Poorly indeed. The ambushers Ė they drove off or slew most of the men. And they took the goods that His Holiness had given you to deliver to the Frankish king, and then left you for dead."
"They took the Popeís gifts to King Charles?" repeated Humbert. "All of them?"
"All, my lord," said Guido, nodding.
Humbert scowled, as he hauled himself up to his feet. "Guido, those were no ordinary bandits," he said. "They were too well-armed for that. They were dressed like the meinie of some nobleman. Thereís been foul dealing here, I know it! And I am going to tell King Charles about it, when I have my audience with him! One of his lords has played us false! And no doubt played him false as well!"
"Can that be possible?" asked Guido, sounding hesitant.
"Indeed it can," Humbert replied. "Charles may be the greatest king that ever held sway north of the Alps, but heís had vipers in his court before. That caitiff Ganelon may be dead, but there are surely others like him. I will have much to tell the King indeed! The outrage that has befallen us! Emissaries to His Majesty from the Pope, robbed by a nobleman turned bandit! Iíll not rest until I have alerted him to this indignity! So help me I will!"
Guido sighed. "Then weíd best be on our way, my lord," he said. "We have a long journey before us yet before we reach the Frankish kingís castle."
* * *
A single man stood in the forest clearing, shrouded in a dark hooded cloak. The hood cast his features in shadow, obscuring them. His tunic and breeches were of fine material and well-cut, proclaiming him to be a nobleman, as did the gold-hilted sword at his belt. A silver chain hung about his neck, with an odd symbol dangling from it. He stood in silence, as if waiting.
Then, from out of the trees, came a small band of armed men, leading three mules with packages piled upon their backs. They halted before him, and the man at their head bowed low.
"Well, Grimbold?" asked the hooded man. "Did the raid go well?"
"Well indeed, my liege," said the leader of the group of ambushers, nodding. "We ambushed the Popeís ambassador and his train, and despoiled him of its goods. Here they are." He pointed to the baggage mules.
"Very well done, indeed," said the hooded man, nodding in approval. "Now let us see if what we seek is here."
He walked up to the first mule, and searched through the packs upon it, one by one. After finding no success here, he turned to the second mule, and searched through the packs upon its back in turn, until he pulled out a small wooden coffer. He opened it and stared inside at its contents, then nodded again.
"Ah, yes," he said. "This will do very nicely."
As he spoke, the light from the lowering sun glinted upon the seven-pointed star that hung from the silver chain about his neck, shimmering in an almost eerie way.
* * *
Evening Ė The Court of King Charles of the Franks
King Charles rose from his throne as Lord Humbert and Guido entered the great hall of his palace. The King of the Franks was in his late thirties, but still an impressive figure, standing at a little over six feet tall and powerfully built. Only a small potbelly marred his overall image of strength and authority. But he was clearly more than just a warrior-king, for his eyes were bright and intelligent. It was these eyes that now fixed themselves upon the tattered condition of the Pope's ambassador and his one attendant.
"Lord Humbert?" he asked. His voice was a high one, much more so than one would have expected from such a man; indeed, it sounded almost like that of a boy of twelve. But it carried with it enough forcefulness that nobody in his court would have felt tempted to laugh at it, aside from the fact that he was their king. "You come in sorry state, sorrier than we had expected. We had scarcely thought that you would bring but one man in your train from Rome."
"That was not how it was with us when we left the Papal court on our errand to you, Your Highness," replied Humbert, with a bow before the king. "But this very afternoon, as we approached your palace, we were ambushed. All of my men, save Guido here, were slain or put to rout. And the gifts that His Holiness the Pope had entrusted us with to present to you were stolen."
"Ambushed?" asked King Charles sharply, his brow furrowing. "This close to our court?"
"Yes, Your Highness," said Humbert, nodding.
"That is ill news indeed!" said the king, his voice now filled with wrath. He clenched his hands in anger and frustration. "The emissaries from the Pope waylaid by bandits and robbed by them, and this close to our court? This cannot be tolerated! And it will not!"
Lord Humbert nodded. Then, he added, "I hope that it is my place to inform Your Majesty of such an observation, but these assailants did not appear to be mere brigands. They were too well-armed and well-garbed for that. I believe that they were part of a nobleman's retinue."
"A nobleman's retinue?" said King Charles, frowning. "So you are suggesting that there may be a traitor among my own lords and vassals, Humbert?"
"I had hoped that it would be otherwise," said Humbert gravely. "But I do not know how else to explain it."
"I had thought that the fate of Ganelon would have deterred others among my nobles from following in his foul path," said the King of the Franks darkly. "It would seem that I was wrong, though. That makes this matter all the more grave. Although it would have been grave enough were they common bandits."
One of the royal advisors, a lean middle-aged man with a short dark beard, dressed in a dark blue robe and mantle, cleared his throat. King Charles turned to him. "Yes, Malagigi?" he asked.
"By your leave, Your Majesty, I believe that we should choose the formation of your punitive expedition with much care," said the man. "If I were you, I would assign some of the foremost paladins in your following to deal with these bandits and recover the gifts that Pope Hadrian had sent to you."
The King nodded thoughtfully. "You suspect that this is more than mere brigands, or even a lord turned traitor, then?"
"I do not know for certain," Malagigi admitted. "But my instincts tell me that there is something more at work here. While you plan your response, I wish to go over my books and investigate these stolen goods. Could you make certain that your men do not depart the court before I have completed my search?"
"Very well," said the King. "But be swift about it. I cannot delay my response for long."
Malagigi nodded and left.
* * *
Malagigiís study was a rather untidy hodge-podge of the various odds and ends that a wizard inevitably accumulates over his career, and never throws out if he can help it. Old musty tomes and scrolls lurched upon a bookshelf propped up with a broken spear-shaft, held in their place by a couple of dusty skulls. A tattered chart of the heavens hung upon the wall opposite, marked with faded ink notations in Malagigiís spidery handwriting concerning planetary conjunctions and other unusual astronomical events. The desk in the center of the room was so thoroughly covered in open books, parchment scrolls held in place with strategically-located paperweights, stray pieces of alchemical equipment, and other such odds and ends that not even a square inch of its surface could be seen. Malagigi was standing in front of one of the open books just then, turning over its pages gingerly and deliberately ignoring the cheery chaos surrounding him.
"Let me see," he muttered. "Phantoms, Pharaohs, Philosopherís Stone, philters, Phoenix - ah, yes! Here we are! The Phoenix Gate! Now let me see what is recorded about it. Hopefully there should be something relevant in here."
He narrowed his eyes and held a candle close, though not so close as to endanger the pages of the book with its flame. "Precious little written here," he said, frowning. "Some of those wizards and sages who came into contact with the Gate should have been more talkative. I canít find anything penned here that Iím not already aware of."
He shook his head. "But then, perhaps I am being overly optimistic," he said to himself. "The Phoenix Gate has been so carefully guarded that few mages would come into contact with it, and those few would be too discreet to record their observations upon parchment. Still, it would be better if I had a stronger idea as to what I should be looking for."
He was just about to close the book when an odd crackling sound filled the air behind him. Malagigi spun around at once, startled. In the study, between the desk and the window which he had been facing away from until just now, a ball of fire had formed. It was growing larger now, and a shape could be seen within it, a shape with wings. The wizardís eyes widened in amazement and fascination. Then, the fire dispersed and the creature that had been in the middle of it stood in the study, blinking.
Malagigi stared at the newcomer, silent in wonder, for a minute more. Then he spoke to it.
"How very odd," he said to it. "I certainly did not cast any summoning spells just now. So how come you to be in my study?"
"Summoning spells?" repeated the winged and beaked creature before him, sounding startled. Then it added, "Oh, boy. This is definitely going to be a long night."
* * *
It took a while for Brooklyn to explain himself to the wizard whose study he had found himself in, particularly since he had to keep on repeating that he was not any sort of spirit. The magician, who had given his name as Malagigi, seemed to be under the impression that that was exactly what he was, and was particularly convinced that Brooklyn was something called an afrit.
"But you surely must be one," he was saying. "I have never actually met one, but I have read about them; I obtained a book dealing with them once from a merchant from Sicily. They always appear in a burst of flames when summoned by the wizards among the Saracens."
"Well, Iíve never even heard of an afrit before, and Iím definitely not one of them," Brooklyn answered. "Iím a gargoyle. Havenít you ever heard of a gargoyle before?"
"A gargoyle?" repeated Malagigi. "A gargoyle? I have heard about such creatures, yes. They are supposed to be quite rare these days, but can still be found in remote parts, if one seeks them long enough. But I have never yet heard of one that could appear in a room in the manner that you did."
"Well, Iím something of an unusual case," said Brooklyn. "Actually, itís not really something that I do on my own. Itís more due to this." He pulled the Phoenix Gate out of his pouch, and showed it to the wizard. He wasnít entirely certain that this was a wise action on his part, but he felt that he was hardly going to be able to make any headway without showing his questioner the Gate. "Here, see for yourself," he said.
Malagigiís eyes widened. "The Phoenix Gate!" he said. "That is its image exactly!" He turned to the book behind him and consulted the picture in it, before turning back to Brooklynís talisman and nodding. "But if that is the case -" His eyes suddenly grew hard. "How did you come by this?" he asked sharply. "Speak now, and tell me! How did this enter your possession?"
"Itís a long story, actually," said Brooklyn. "Do you really want to sit down and hear the whole thing?"
"If I must in order to learn the truth, yes," said Malagigi in a stern voice. "Do not play the innocent with me, gargoyle. If you have the Phoenix Gate in your possession, then surely you must also know that it has been stolen."
"Stolen?" asked Brooklyn. "Whatís this all about, anyway?"
"You do not know, then?" the wizard asked.
"No," said the gargoyle. "And Iíd like to know a little more about this, too. I certainly didnít steal this thing from anybody - itís more the other way around, in fact," he added, staring down bitterly at the Gate, "and I want to know what happened here that made you think that I did something like that."
"Then perhaps you may be innocent after all," said Malagigi thoughtfully. "Although the circumstances whereby you appear with this object in your possession seem suspicious all the same. But this you must know: The Phoenix Gate was being sent here to the court of my royal liege, King Charles of the Franks, by Pope Hadrian, as a gift to him. This afternoon, the ambassadors from the Pope arrived to report that they had been waylaid by robbers, and the Gate stolen. The King is even now planning to outfit an expedition to find the thieves, bring them to justice, and recover the goods that they took. But before he has even dispatched his men, you appear with the stolen Gate in your possession."
"Well, the Gate, yes," said Brooklyn. "Stolen, no. Maybe Iíd better explain this to you a little better, Mr. Malagigi. What do you know about the Phoenix Gate?"
"That it is a magical object of great powers, and exceedingly ancient," the wizard replied. "And that to whoever possesses it and speaks the correct Latin incantation, it grants the gift of traversing time forthwith. So the texts on it record, although few have ever read them. I very much doubt that either the Pope or King Charles know the true nature of this talisman. To them, it seems no more than a work of fine art. And I will confess that I have no intention as yet of enlightening either of them as to its true nature. There are some things better left unknown by laymen."
"Well, I know all about the Phoenix Gate and time travel," said Brooklyn. "You see, Iím kind of from the future. I found the Gate and it just whisked me off, and now I canít get back home." He added sorrowfully, "Either one."
Malagigi stared at him even harder, but the look in his eyes was now that of curiosity rather than of suspicion. "From the future? How far into the future are you from?"
"Well, what year is this?" asked Brooklyn.
"It is the Year of Our Lord 780," the wizard replied, "and the twelfth year of the reign of our good King Charles of the Franks."
"780?" repeated Brooklyn. "Well, letís see, Iím from the year 1996. Thatís where I was from originally. Iíve been bounded around quite a bit by the Gate since then." He decided to conclude without an attempt at the math.
"Twelve centuries into the future?" said Malagigi, awed. "That is truly a great feat. But you speak as though you could not use the Gate to return to your own time. Surely all that you need do is speak the Latin spell, and -".
"I wish that it was that easy," Brooklyn said with a sigh. "But this thingís busted, and it doesnít work right any more. I canít get back home, and I canít even get back to my mate. I tell you, if this thing was bigger, Iíd like to be giving it a good hard kick."
Malagigi took a closer look at the talisman in the gargoyleís clawed hand, scanning the cracks forming on it. "It looks much different than how the illustration depicted it, and surely not in a condition presentable to a King," he said musingly. "Almost as though it were decaying. That is indeed quite strange - but perhaps not so much so if it indeed comes from the distant future. Most unusual."
He straightened up and looked Brooklyn straight in the eyes. "It may very well be that I have misjudged you, then," he continued. "Perhaps you are indeed innocent of this theft. But nevertheless, the matter remains serious. The Gate will need to be recovered, if it was stolen for its magic. And I very much fear that it was."
"You really think so?" asked Brooklyn.
Malagigi nodded uneasily. "I have no proof of this, I know," he said. "But still, that is what my wizard's intuition tells me."
"So you think that somebody wants to use it for time travelling?" Brooklyn asked.
"Perhaps," said Malagigi. "But I am not quite certain. I recall having read other things about the Gate, darker things."
"You mean, as in something really nasty being trapped inside?" Brooklyn asked. "Marie Laveau told me something about that in New Orleans - " He suddenly broke off, remembering that an 8th century Frankish wizard wouldn't be likely to recognize either name.
"So you have heard the legend too," said Malagigi. "Then you understand the importance of this errand. I have heard rumors about secret orders in the kingdom, orders that want dark things to return to the world of men, for darker purposes. And if those ambushers served such an order - well, you understand my concern, in that case."
"Then maybe I can help you," said Brooklyn. "Just tell me where the attack took place, and I can head over there and track the thieves."
"It is not quite that simple, I fear," Malagigi said. "The King has already been informed, and has determined to dispatch some of his men to bring the thieves to justice. You will have to accompany them - which gives us a certain problem. There've been no gargoyles seen in this land for many years - not since the King's father, Pepin the Short, ascended the Frankish throne, and your presence would need some explaining to the men. It would only delay us further, and assist the robbers all the more, if they responded poorly to you."
"Yeah, I know what that's like," said Brooklyn. "So, got any ideas on how to solve it?"
"I do have one," said Malagigi. "There are two paladins in the King's service, currently at court, who are more prepared to meet with the - well, uncanny - than others. Their names are Ogier the Dane and Huon of Bordeaux. I can arrange with King Charles to have you accompany them."
"Well, all right," said Brooklyn. "If you think that they'd get along with me, then I'm ready to give it a try. I've gotten along with Danes before anyway," he added, thinking back to Prince Amleth.
"Then it's decided," said Malagigi. "I will meet with King Charles at once."
* * *
King Charles shook his head somewhat bewilderedly. "Malagigi, this is a very strange request indeed," he said. "Only two of my paladins to venture on this errand? And no soldiers to accompany them? That borders on rashness, to me."
"Nevertheless, that is the expedition that you must send to bring the bandits to justice, and recover the goods that they stole," said Malagigi gravely. "All of my searchings have presented me with that answer."
"And it is not an answer that I entirely like," said the King. "Two paladins without followers, pitted against a traitorous lord and all his retinue? If this plan miscarries, I could lose Ogier or Huon - or both of them. I must remind you, wizard, that I have already lost too many of my best knights at Roncesvalles. I cannot afford further such losses."
"Do not fear, Your Majesty," said Malagigi, in a reassuring tone of voice. "Ogier and Huon are among the best of your peers; even Roland and Oliver, were they still alive, could scarcely fare better against this renegade nobleman. And they will have some assistance on this quest. I cannot tell you much about it, my liege, but suffice it to say that I very much doubt that I will be imperilling either man."
The King thought it over for a moment, and then nodded. "Then I will follow your counsel, Malagigi," he said. He turned to face two of his warriors, standing at attention in the palace hall. "I assign you both this quest, Ogier of Denmark, Huon of Bordeaux," he said. "Track down the bandits, and bring them back to face our justice. Malagigi will inform you of what must be further done, outside the court."
"Very well, my lord," said one of the men, nodding. "We go at once."
And with that, the two paladins left the hall, following Malagigi out.
* * *
Brooklyn waited, perched on a tree branch in the woods overlooking the forest clearing near King Charles's court, for Malagigi to bring the two knights whom he would be joining forces with on this adventure.
It had taken him a little while to fully identify his surroundings, but he had succeeded in the end, all the same. He had now figured out that this "King Charles of the Franks" was none other than Charlemagne or Charles the Great, the famous French king who had been the strongest ruler in Europe two hundred years before the days of Prince Malcolm of Wyvern. Brooklyn had heard scraps of information about him in his youth at Castle Wyvern in the 10th century - not much, perhaps, since the education of the hatchlings of his rookery had been mostly in the hands of the gargoyle elders, particularly the Eldest, and had focused on traditional clan lore rather than human knowledge - but he, Lexington, and Broadway had occasionally eavesdropped on visiting minstrels, and Brother Edmund had mentioned a few snatches of history involving this man as well. In particular, Brooklyn recalled how a travelling Breton conteur had visited Prince Malcolm's court once, not long after the prince had taken Princess Elena to wife, and sang a tale about some of Charlemagne's best warriors being slain at a place called Roncesvalles, somewhere just north of Spain. It was supposed to be quite popular in Europe, in fact; Brooklyn wished that he could have remembered more of it. It could have come in quite handy.
He broke off from his thoughts, as he heard the sound of mounted men approaching the clearing. Malagigi must be approaching with the two paladins. Brooklyn prepared to descend from his perch to meet them, as soon as it was safe to do so.
"And you are quite convinced that this - gargoyle is reliable, Malagigi?" a man's voice was asking.
"You have my word as a loyal man to King Charles on that, Ogier," Malagigi's voice replied. "He may seem fearsome at first, but do not let that deceive either of you. He'll be a fine and redoubtable ally for this mission."
"I don't know about this, Malagigi," said a second voice, a younger-sounding one. "Join ourselves with a gargoyle? It sounds - unnatural."
"I had expected better from you, Huon," said Malagigi reprovingly. "I persuaded the King to choose you both for this mission, since of all the surviving paladins in his service, you had had the most experience with remarkable beings. Have not both of you encountered many of the Children of Oberon? A gargoyle is scarcely any more unusual than are they."
Malagigi now came into sight, on foot. Behind him were two men on horseback, dressed in rough coats of mail and wearing leather caps. One was a fair-haired man with a thick moustache and beard, whose shield depicted three hearts in between three golden lions in what the heralds called a passant guardant pose, Brooklyn vaguely remembered. The other was brown-haired and clean-shaven; his shield was white with a green horn painted upon it. Swords hung from the knights' belts, and both carried spears. The brown-haired man also had a large battle-horn hanging from his baldric, with a very strong resemblance to the horn emblazoned upon his shield.
Malagigi halted, motioning for the two men to do the same. "We are here," he said. "Brooklyn, you may come out now, and meet your allies."
Brooklyn alit from the tree branch at once, landing in front of the three. Both riders stared at him in surprise for a moment, and the one with the horn almost drew his sword in alarm. But he steadied himself, and merely spoke to the gargoyle instead. "You - you are the gargoyle that Malagigi said would come to our aid?"
"Yes," said Brooklyn, nodding. "My name's Brooklyn. And you are?"
"I am Huon of Bordeaux, a liegeman to King Charles of the Franks, and one of his paladins," said the man with the horn.
"And I am Ogier of Denmark, also one of the King's paladins," said the first man, the fair-haired one. He looked thoughtfully at Brooklyn. "You are not perhaps the first ally that I would have chosen for this errand. But Malagigi says that you are not dangerous, and I will assume for now that he speaks the truth."
"Thanks," said Brooklyn in a doubtful tone of voice. "I guess."
"Well, I believe that that is enough conversation for now," said Malagigi. "The three of you must find the thieves who robbed Lord Humbert, and swiftly. And be careful. As I have already informed you, I believe that they were no mere bandits - and that they knew the true value of the Gate. You must act at once."
"So how do we go about finding them?" asked Brooklyn.
"Lord Humbert has already told us where the ambush took place," replied Ogier. "From there, all that we need to do is search for the brigands' trail, and follow them back to their lair. And there - well, we will cross that bridge when we come to it."
"I bid all three of you adieu, then," said Malagigi, turning to go. "And remember, I will be expecting a full report from you afterwards. I shall await you in the palace."
And with that, he left the clearing, leaving Brooklyn with the two paladins.
"Well," said Ogier, rather stiffly, "let us be off, shall we?"
Brooklyn nodded, and climbed back up the tree again. Taking off from the limb that he had been perched on, and catching the night currents, he followed the two knights as they set off.
* * *
"This is where the ambush took place," said Ogier, bending over the tracks. He had dismounted from his horse Papillon, and was looking over the ground where the fight with the mysterious robbers had taken place. "And here is the path left by the robbers. It goes this way into the forest."
"Then that is the way that we must go," said Huon. Brooklyn nodded in assent.
Ogier remounted his horse, and the two paladins and the gargoyle entered the woods, moving slowly so as to be able to follow the trail. The Danish knight continued to examine the signs of the robbers' passing, as did Brooklyn. The crimson gargoyle felt grateful now for the lessons in woodcraft that his elders had given him while he was still a hatchling in Scotland. Because of them, he was able to detect the traces that showed which way these men had gone.
"They do not seem to have taken as much care as they should have to hide their passing," commented Huon after a while. "I wonder why. It scarcely seems wise to me. Are they overconfident?"
"Maybe," said Ogier. "Like Malagigi, I am very doubtful that these are common bandits that we are dealing with here, though. It seems more likely that they are in the service of some false nobleman. And if that is the case, then they would not be so aware of the importance of stealth."
"Sounds fair enough to me," said Brooklyn, nodding.
Just then, there was a squealing sound from the bushes to the right. Both paladins drew their swords at once, tensing. Brooklyn also turned, and swooped down to investigate the noise. It might not actually be anything important, but he felt that it was best to be on the safe side. He landed on the bushes, and stared over them, at what lay on the other side.
What he saw surprised him. A fox was leaping up at a small brown shaggy creature struggling to climb up a tree trunk to escape its hungry jaws. Brooklyn at first thought that it was a rabbit or a squirrel, but a closer glance at it showed him that it was neither. Rather, it was something close to human-like in appearance, something which Brooklyn had never seen before.
Brooklyn might have spent some time speculating over just what this creature was, but he knew that now was not the time for it. Instead, he leaped forward, and snatched the creature up in his hands, holding it up to safety. At the same time, he lashed out with his tail at the fox, more to ward it off than to strike it down. "Scram!" he said to it sharply. "Go bother somebody else! Go on, beat it!"
The fox scurried off quickly at his words, and quickly vanished into the shadows. Brooklyn rejoined the two paladins, putting the creature down beside their horses. It stared up at him, blinking in confusion, silent.
Brooklyn stared down at it, and now had a clearer view of it. Its features were indeed humanlike, but small and with a certain sharpness of feature that seemed almost chiseled from stone, alien. Its ears were large and pointy, like those of a gargoyle or a fay. It had unkempt shaggy brown hair, and was dressed in tattered green and brown clothing.
"It's all right," said Brooklyn, in a reassuring voice. "You're safe now. The big bad fox won't eat you."
Huon was staring at it in wonder, himself. "What is it, Ogier?" he asked. "I've never beheld anything like it before."
"I saw one or two such beings in Neustria once," said Ogier thoughtfully, gazing upon it. "It's a lutin."
"A lutin?" Brooklyn asked. "What's that?"
"A sort of forest-sprite, as far as I can tell," said the Danish knight. "I know all too little of them, I fear; Malagigi would be able to tell you more. They are quite rare, and shy as well. It is seldom that one comes upon a lutin. We should consider ourselves blessed."
"You're not going to eat me?" asked the lutin, looking up at Brooklyn and the paladins with large fearful brown eyes.
"No, we're not," said Brooklyn. "Don't worry. You're safe with us. We won't hurt you at all."
"Oh, thank you, thank you," said the lutin, squealing in relief. ""Thank you for not eating me - whatever you are." It looked at the gargoyle in a timid way as it spoke.
"I'm a gargoyle," said Brooklyn, in a gentle voice. "Well, I suppose that that doesn't mean anything to you; according to what I've been able to find out, there aren't any of my kind in these woods. But I'm one of the good guys, if it'll make you feel any better."
"Perhaps you can help us," broke in Huon at that point. "We're looking for some thieves who robbed the Pope's ambassador to King Charles. They seem to have passed this way. You wouldn't happen to have seen any suspicious-seeming humans earlier today, good lutin, have you?"
"I might have," said the lutin, in an uncertain tone of voice. "I'm not certain. I don't really pay that much attention to humans, really."
"Now, this is important," Huon continued. "We have reason to believe that these men have stolen the Phoenix Gate. We must recover it from them."
"The Phoenix Gate?" squealed the lutin in alarm. "They really do have it?"
"That seems to be the case," said Brooklyn. "So you've heard about it?"
The little shaggy creature nodded. "We've heard stories about it," it said. "Terrible stories. They say that Lord Oberon once placed something very horrible in the Gate, and that if it ever gets out - well, it's just too horrible to mention. I don't want to talk about it. If that something gets out, then there won't be anywhere in the world safe for us. For us, or for anybody else. It's just too dreadful."
"Let it be, Huon," said Ogier, in a gentle but firm tone of voice. "The poor thing is afraid enough as it is; do not fright it still further."
"But it may be able to help us," said Huon. He stared the creature straight in the face. "You can help us, can you not?"
"No, I can't," it replied, its voice trembling. "We're no use for this sort of thing, at all. We're just too weak, too puny. Nothing at all like you."
Ogier looked disapprovingly at Huon. Brooklyn decided to speak up now, in a gentle voice, to calm the distraught creature.
"It's all right," he said to it. "We understand. And we'll take care of it ourselves. You don't have to worry about it."
"You're going to do that?" asked the lutin. It looked up at him, amazement in its eyes. "But will that not be - very dangerous?"
"Maybe," said Brooklyn. "But it's our job. I mean, it's the sort of thing that Ogier and Huon are supposed to do, I understand. And as for me - well, I'm a gargoyle. And what we gargoyles do is protect."
"Gargoyles protect?" asked the lutin, sounding intrigued. "Is that the custom of your kind?"
"Well, yes, it is, for almost all of us," said Brooklyn. He knew about the few exceptions to the rule, such as Demona, Thailog, and ColdSteel, but decided not to bring them up for now. "It's what we do. As my clan's leader said, it's our nature, our purpose."
"Our nature is to run and hide," said the lutin. "That's how it's always been for us; that's what our elders say. The world is such a dangerous place for us. You're bigger and stronger than us, so it doesn't seem so frightening to you. But as for us - ". It seemed thoughtful, though, as it spoke those words.
There was a moment's silence. Then the lutin spoke again. "Well, good-bye!" it squeaked, and scurried off into the undergrowth. The three of them watched it go.
"Well, it is gone now," said Ogier. "And we must continue on our own errand. Let us be off, shall we?"
Brooklyn and Huon nodded, and followed him. None of the three saw the lutin watch them from the shadows, silent but with a contemplative look now forming in its eyes.
* * *
"So what exactly are lutins, anyway?" Brooklyn asked, as they journeyed on. "Are they supposed to be Children of Oberon?"
"That I very much doubt," said Ogier. "They don't possess magical strength enough for that. They may be akin to the Fair Folk, but they do not appear to be of them."
He looked thoughtfully at Brooklyn. "That creature did have a certain something about it, though, that made me think for a moment of you. True, it was different in some ways, much smaller and far more timorous. But about its appearance, there was almost something that reminded me of a gargoyle. I am not certain as to why that is."
Brooklyn nodded. "If I ever see another lutin," he said, "I'd like to ask it a few more questions."
Ogier halted just then. "Listen!" he said to Huon and Brooklyn in a low voice. "Can you hear it?"
Brooklyn pricked up his ears, and quickly picked up the noise that Ogier had heard. From the path up ahead, there came the sound of chanting. The voices were not clear enough for him to be able to distinguish the words, but there was a certain rhythm to it, almost as if it was part of a ritual.
"What means this, Ogier?" asked Huon.
"I do not know," the Danish paladin replied. "But I do not like it. It has an unholy sound to it. I feel certain all the more now that we are not dealing with mere robbers. Come! Let us move forward at once!"
The three of them advanced down the path. Already the trees were thinning on both sides, an indication that they were approaching a clearing. And then, they emerged into the open, and halted at the sight before them.
The clearing was dominated by a ring of stones. It was a rough affair, nothing at all on the level of Stonehenge, for none of the stones were capped with lintels; they all stood alone, crudely-shaped menhirs in a circle. Within this circle stood a group of armed men, forming a half-circle before a sort of altar-stone in the middle. And by the altar stood a cloaked and hooded man, with a silver chain about his neck, from which dangled a representation of a seven-pointed star, clutching a carved wooden staff in one hand. Upon the altar-stone lay the stolen Phoenix Gate. As his followers were chanting, the leader now began to speak, in a proud and commanding voice, raising his staff at the same time.
"Hammer of Donar, strike!" he cried. "Shatter the Gate, that its prisoner may be freed! Restore the mighty Lords of the Darkness to this world!"
The sky was beginning to cloud over, and thunder rumbled. Brooklyn stared up in alarm. "Howís he doing that?" he asked the two paladins in a whisper. "Is he a sorcerer?" But he received no reply from either man. Both Ogier and Huon were already preparing themselves for the charge, loosening their swords in their scabbards. Brooklyn quickly fell silent, and prepared himself for the charge alongside his friends.
"Destroy the Phoenix Gate and free the captive unjustly placed there!" shouted the hooded man, brandishing his staff. "So shall the Great Ones return! Let them ride out over the world once more, and purge this land of that fool King Charles!"
"Hold!" Ogier rode forward, his sword Curtana now drawn. Huon was beside him. "What means this gathering? As paladins in the service of King Charles of the Franks, we place you under arrest!"
The leader of the thieves turned towards them at once; while his face was still hidden beneath his hood, Brooklyn felt that he seemed astonished, somehow. But then he regained his control, and spoke.
"You dare disturb the ceremony?" he cried. "But you would, would you not. Foolish liegemen to a false king, attempting to stem my vengeance! You shall not succeed! My hour has come, and that of my masters! By year's end, your ruler shall be hurled from his throne! And as for you both-" He motioned to his men. "Slay them, now!" he ordered.
The warriors turned and charged at Ogier and Huon, swords at the ready. The two horsemen readied themselves to meet the attack, while at the same time, motioning to Brooklyn. The gargoyle promptly broke ambush to swoop down upon the bandits, eyes glowing white.
From the panicked cries that the footmen gave at seeing him, it was clear enough that his presence had come as a complete and utter shock to them. "Okay, you guys," he called out, as he swooped down upon their leader. "If you wanted demons, then youíre gonna get one all right! But maybe not the sort that you were expecting!"
Some of the men fled in terror, but others stood their ground against the three warriors. Their leader was directing them, giving commands. And there seemed to be enough of his followers left to provide Brooklyn and the others with a difficult time. The gargoyle was hardly in a position to do any counting at present, but judged that he and his companions were outnumbered perhaps five to one. And the men who were still fighting did not seem particularly intimidated by his appearance, either. They fought back as though he was just another human opponent.
"There are too many of them," said Huon, parrying two sword-thrusts at once, and not easily. "We should have brought a few more men with us. The odds seem to be worse for us than they were for Count Roland at Roncesvalles, and we know what the outcome of that encounter was."
"But we must hold on, all the same," said Ogier grimly, striking at one of his assailants with his sword Curtana. "We must make do with what we have."
Brooklyn knocked one man down with a tail lash, but three more leaped at him from behind, and pinned him down. He struggled to throw them off himself, but at that moment, the hooded man holding the staff cried aloud something in Latin. Brooklyn could not quite catch the words, but he guessed their import quickly enough. Dizziness swept over him, and the world span before his eyes. He blacked out, and knew nothing more.
* * *
He came to, to find himself trussed tightly against the standing stones, bound hand and foot and wing. He turned his head, first to one side and then the other, to see that Huon and Ogier had suffered the same treatment, and were now only barely conscious. Their swords lay before the sorcerer, who now stood before the altar once again, upon which the Phoenix Gate still lay.
"What happened?" Brooklyn asked. "Why hasn't this guy killed us?"
"We are not certain," said Ogier, in a groggy tone of voice, as if still recovering from some sort of attack. "I heard him say something to the others about presenting us to the Lord of Darkness, when he returns. And you, in particular. This 'Lord of Darkness' apparently has some great dislike for your kind, and our captor considers you a suitable form of tribute to him."
"We have to get free," said Brooklyn, struggling. "I don't know what he's trying to do, but I don't like it at all. We've got to stop him before he does whatever he's about to do to the Gate. And actually, I think now that I do know what he's trying to do." He thought uncomfortably of Marie Laveau's warning to him. It seems that he was about to find out just what had been sealed away in the Gate, and in a very unpleasant fashion.
The storm clouds overhead were churning, and an eerie wailing sound issued from them. Periodically, a face would form among them, a face with an expression of inhuman cruelty upon its features, and then fade out again. The wind was picking up, and growing colder. Thunder rumbled as the hooded man began to chant in Latin, gesturing first to the sky, then to the Phoenix Gate.
"Any moment now," said Brooklyn glumly to himself. And then, it happened.
Just what happened was not what he had expected. A pinecone came flying out of the woods, and struck the hooded man on the back of the neck. He broke off his incantation, and looked about sharply.
"Who threw that?" he cried angrily. He looked over his men, one by one. "Who was responsible for that foolish jest? Answer me!"
"None of us, my lord," said one of the men, in a trembling voice. "We are guiltless."
"Then who was it struck me with this?" asked their leader, picking up the pinecone and displaying it before them. "Such things do not throw themselves."
Before anybody could reply to that, more pinecones came flying into the crowd of men, striking them here and there, and mixed in with them were acorns and fruit. The ammunition came from the shadows of the woods about, and was striking its targets with remarkably deft aim. Brooklyn watched the display, wondering what was causing it.
But he had little time to wonder, for something was chewing at his bonds suddenly. He turned his head to see what it was, and then his eyes widened. It was the lutin that he had rescued earlier, gnawing away at the ropes with very sharp teeth. Two more lutins were doing the same for Ogier and Huon.
"What are you doing here?" he asked the little creatures, in an amazed voice.
"No time for that," said the lutin who was freeing him. "Just get the Gate away from him. My clanmates are keeping him busy."
Brooklyn hardly needed to guess whom the lutin was talking about. He quickly dove at the altar-stone the moment that he was free to move, with all of the men fending off the rain of forest objects and thus too occupied to thwart him. He landed neatly upon the stone, and snatched up the Gate.
"No!" cried the hooded man, seeing the event only too late. "Give me the Gate, monster! Give it to me!"
Brooklyn didn't say a word, but responded by tackling him full in the stomach. With a started shout, the man was knocked backwards, landing upon his back.
"Do you surrender?" asked Brooklyn, standing over him. "Well, do you?"
"Vile beast!" shouted the man angrily. "The Great Lord of the Darkness shall consume you in the hour of his ascendancy! He shall return, and smite you and your kind! Not one shall be spared! Not one!"
"What are you talking about?" asked Brooklyn, containing the urge to roll his eyes as he had so many times in response to the doomsday preachers he recalled from back in New York. "Who is this ĎGreat Lord of the Darknessí?" he asked mockingly.
"I do not have to answer your prying questions," said the man sullenly. "I will say no more."
"You neednít question him, Brooklyn," said a voice behind him.
Brooklyn turned around to see who the speaker was. Huon was standing there with Ogier, the two paladins free now. The followers of the hooded man had all disappeared, driven off, presumably, by the lutins' barrage. Both men now had their swords back, as well, and stood over the gargoyle's prisoner.
"I can answer that for you," Huon continued. "I know something of the old tales myself."
"You do?" asked Brooklyn. "And what are they?"
"There are legends about a lord of the Fair Folk who sought to overthrow Oberon, and led a rebellion against him," said Huon. "He was defeated, and he and his dreadful followers scattered, driven out into the human world. It is also whispered this: That the Phoenix Gate contains the secret to the restoration of these beings. Should it be destroyed, then their might would be regained, and they would be able to threaten the world once again. This is what this man was attempting."
"And you wanted a lot of trouble-making fay let loose upon the world?" asked Brooklyn in astonishment to his prisoner. "Youíve got to be crazier than I thought!"
"They would have helped me against King Charles!" cried the man angrily. "And only they could have done it! Nobody else has been able to best him! The Saxons, the Lombards, the Moors, all have tried to overwhelm him, and all have failed! No earthly force can destroy him! Only the Dark Ones can gain a victory over him! They were my only hope!"
"And just why do you hate the king so much?" asked Brooklyn.
"That may not be so difficult a question to answer, in truth," said Ogier. He had been silent up till now, listening thoughtfully to the prisonerís voice. Now he bent down and forced the hood back, revealing the face of a brown-haired man, his features seething with fury. "Count Pinabel of Sorence," he said sternly. "I thought that I recognized you by your speech, but only now do I know you for certain."
"You know this guy?" Brooklyn asked the Danish paladin.
"Unfortunately, yes," said Ogier. "He is a traitor to the King, and a kinsman to an even greater traitor. His cousin Ganelon betrayed our rearguard to the Moors at Roncesvalles two years ago, and the Kingís own nephew, Count Roland of Brittany, was slain there. It was the sorest blow that our sovereign has yet received." His eyes were hard as he stared down at Count Pinabel.
"Your king had my cousin torn apart by wild horses!" shouted Pinabel. "Ganelonís spirit cries out still for vengeance! And vengeance I would have given him!"
"He deserved it not," said Ogier coldly. "He was almost as great a traitor as Judas Iscariot and Sinon. And it seems that all too much of his blood flows in your veins, by this enterprise of yours. We should give thanks that it was foiled. And you will return with us to the Kingís court, where he may pronounce judgement upon you."
With that, he bent down and began to bind Pinabelís hands. Brooklyn handed the Phoenix Gate to Huon. "You can give this back to King Charles at court," he said. Then he turned and began to walk away.
"Wait!" said Huon in astonishment. "Will you not return with us to the King? Even if you do not choose to have words with him, I am certain that Master Malagigi will be wanting to speak with you."
"In a moment," said Brooklyn. "There's somebody that I want to thank."
The rest of the lutins had all scurried off out of sight, but the one that Brooklyn had met was lingering at the edge of the clearing, looking on at the proceedings with a thoughtful expression on its face. Brooklyn bent down to meet it. "Thank you," he said. "Although I'm a little surprised that you came to our rescue. Why?"
"I was thinking things over," said the lutin. "For one thing, if that human had broken the Gate and set free the one imprisoned within it, then, as I said, it would be all over for everyone, including us. We had to stop it from happening. And there was something else."
"Yes?" said Brooklyn. "Go on."
"I'd also been thinking over what you said," said the lutin. "You told us about how your people protect, that it's part of your very nature. You lived by that to such an extent that you were ready to risk your life to protect the rest of the world from the being inside the Gate. And that - well, it impressed me. Until now, we've lived only to ensure our own safety, our own survival. We spend all of our time hiding, running, looking over our shoulders. But after what I saw of you, it got me wondering as to whether there was more to life than that. It's a dreary existence, when your only objective is to prolong it for as long as possible, and perhaps it would be different if we strived for something more than that. And our elders do say that there was a time when we were different, not so puny, when we were more like - well, whatever you are."
"I see," said Brooklyn, nodding. The creature's words, and Ogier's observations earlier, were starting to make him wonder about the exact nature of the little creature. "And?"
"So I talked to the rest of my clan about it, and we decided to do something, to see if there was anything that we could do to help. And it turns out that there was."
"So what are you going to do now?" asked Brooklyn.
"We're not certain," said the lutin. "We certainly won't go back to what we were before. Not when what we've done has shown us that we can be much more than what we were. But - well, we can't protect others in the way that you can. We're much smaller than you are, and much weaker. We're not a warrior people. So we have to find a way to help others different from yours."
"And what'll that be?" the gargoyle asked, curiously.
"I'm not certain as yet," it replied. "However, I do have one or two ideas. There are humans who live on farms near here, with more work to perform than they can easily do. Maybe if we came to those farms by night - we sleep during the day like you do, you see - we could assist them with their tasks a little. Clean the house a little, things like that. We'll just have to see. But we owe you much, at any rate. You've given us a new direction. Thank you."
"And thank you," said Brooklyn, reaching out to shake hands with it. He briefly noticed, as he did so, that the lutin's hand had only four fingers upon it. Then, the little creature turned and scurried off into the woods. It was quickly gone.
"Four fingers," said Brooklyn. "And that on top of everything else. But they couldn't be, could they?"
He frowned, thinking about the lutins. It seemed difficult for him to believe, but not impossible. The big question was what had happened to them, to make them that way. It must have been something big, to diminish them from their forebears as it had done. But nevertheless, it had left the lutins recognizable, if barely, as kinsfolk. Whatever they were now, they had descended from gargoyles. The only question remaining was "How?"
He turned around, preparing to walk back to where Charlemagne's two paladins were waiting for him with their prisoner Count Pinabel. But even as he did so, his own Phoenix Gate suddenly flared up, engulfing him in its fiery blaze, and he was gone.
* * *
Ogier and Huon saw Brooklyn vanish in a sphere of flames, and blinked amazedly. "What happened to our friend?" asked Huon at last.
"I do not know," Ogier replied. "But at least he was able to help us. And we will remember him for that. Now come, Huon. Our quest is over, and we must return home."
The two paladins mounted up, and rode out of the clearing, Pinabel walking slouchedly before them. And the circle of stones was left deserted. Deserted, except for some stealthy movements in the undergrowth at the edge of the clearing, and a few bright eyes that shone for a moment, and then were gone.