Ireland - 1469
"I still do not see why I must be the one to remain here! For centuries, have I not been among your strongest warriors? Have I not been your most trusted advisor? Have I not been your devoted mate? Yet now you tell me I must remain hidden away in these dank caves with these… hatchlings!"
The tone of the female's voice left no doubt that she considered that final word to be the vilest curse she could think of. As the Chieftain's smooth voice began to placate the furious female, a shadow detached itself from the others near the cave entrance and headed down the tunnel towards the catacombs. The shadow moved silently until the twists and turns of the labyrinthine tunnels swallowed up the voices and ensured that no one would hear if noise were made. Only then did the shadow sink to the ground with a rustle of wings and a heartfelt sigh.
"This does not bode well, I fear." Her whispered words seemed to hang in the air, a delicate melody of notes more like a song than the near-prayer they really were. As the young female Gargoyle sat in the shadows, a single tear slipped free and slid unheeded down her pale cheek. She had hoped that the recent death of the Mistress would bring hope back to the Rookery, but it seemed that the new Mistress was taking up the position only because she was ordered to do so. Still, perhaps she would at least listen. Perhaps she would at least try to help. Perhaps. Such a small word, and yet it brought such hope.
Ireland - 1563
Almost a hundred years had passed since the new Mistress of the Rookery had been named. The young female glanced up and then quickly away again as the proud Mistress stalked through the egg cave on her daily inspection. Almost a hundred years and yet nothing had changed, except for the worse. She frowned anxiously down at the small egg in her lap and touched it lightly, her eyes half closing as she reached with her mind for the bright spark of life within. Yes. All was well. Relieved, she opened her eyes again and smiled lovingly at the egg. Her egg. She still found it hard to believe. As her hand gently stroked over the egg's surface, she pictured her beloved in her mind and sighed. How she wished that he could be with her! But that was impossible. At least she had the egg though.
Looking around, her frown deepened. The Mistress had already left the room. She had not touched a single egg. Just like the day before, and the day before that. So it had been for as long as she could remember, back to the days when she herself had been a part of the Rookery. The female looked around at the other eggs and sighed heavily before closing her eyes. She immediately opened them again, the one brush of her mind enough to tell her the truth. A tear slipped down her cheek. Another year where only a handful of eggs would hatch. Things were getting worse.
For almost three centuries, the Rookery had been in the hands of females who had no feeling for the eggs or hatchlings in their care. During that time, the number of hatchlings had fallen. There was something wrong with the Rookery, but no one in the clan even knew there was a problem! The Chieftain had lied to them all. He had told them the hatchlings were being sent to another, larger Rookery which had need of them. Only a few of the clan knew the truth, and they were either too afraid or too unfeeling to do anything about it. The young female sighed and gave her egg one last pat before placing it carefully on the ground. In her case, she had no choice. As long as she kept her silence, she was allowed to tend the eggs. It was a task she could not bear to give up, especially since her own egg was now a part of the Rookery! She sighed again and headed off to tend to the other eggs that still had a chance of hatching.
Ireland - 1649
"They say she has gone mad! Did you know, she spends all her nights wandering the hills!"
"I heard that she spends the full moon nights dancing within the Standing Stones! She was always a strange one. Quiet. Never liked joining in the hunt. But this!"
"She was abandoned by her mate." The cold voice cut through the gossip like a dagger, leaving gasps of outrage and shock in its wake.
"Who was he?"
"That is just it. No one knows!" The voice rose in malicious glee as her words caused a second round of shocked gasps. "When the Chieftain heard of her behaviour, he made her explain herself. She told him that she had 'lost' her 'own dear love' or some such nonsense! Finally, she admitted that an outsider had tricked her, claimed to love her no doubt, but she would not say who he was! Oh yes, he is gone, of that you can be sure!"
As the females continued their conversation, a small figure emerged from the shadows just outside their cave and hurried off down the tunnel towards the egg cave. When he got there, the young male fell to his knees beside the two small eggs he had hidden away at the back of the cave. Placing his arms around them, he tried to keep himself from crying. *She is lying! Mother is coming back! I just know she is!* As his tormented thoughts whirled through his mind, he was suddenly brought back to reality by a slight cough behind him. Instinctively, he turned to check on the two female hatchlings behind him. They were safe, but they were still very pale.
The young male sighed. There was nothing more he could do for them. If they were caught outside again… He shivered at the thought and turned back to the eggs. Here, at least, he could do something. Closing his eyes, he placed a hand on each egg and concentrated as hard as he could on the little sparks of life within the eggs. *Live.* As always, he felt the sparks glow just a little brighter as they were fanned by his gift. He opened his eyes again, exhausted at even that small attempt. It was not much, but it was all he could do.
As he had every day since the two eggs had come into the Rookery, the young male calmed his worry with thoughts of what would happen when the two eggs finally hatched. *We will leave here, just the five of us, and go and find Mother. Then we will all go far away and find a Rookery that will welcome us. One where we will be looked after and loved!* With that thought in his mind, he curled up around the eggs and fell asleep.
When he awoke, the first thing he noticed sent a wave of fear through his little body. One of the eggs, the smaller of the two, was gone! Jumping to his feet, he looked all around and immediately noticed that quite a few other eggs were also missing. Then he heard voices and instinctively shrank back against the cave wall.
"I do not know how much longer I can keep this up! The clan are beginning to ask where the hatchlings are! Ever since our numbers started dropping, they have been questioning me!"
"Patience, my love! Just a little longer, I promise! We have three hatchlings now and there are ten more on their way. I traded the eggs for them only this morning!" Her voice was smug.
The Chieftain laughed. "You are a smart one! Giving that human mage worthless rocks for precious eggs is brilliant!" His voice lowered, but it echoed through the cavern loud enough for the young male to hear every word. "Are you sure none of them were…"
The female smiled, her sharp beak parting slightly as she laughed. "I am sure my Chieftain. They were only rocks, nothing more."
"Good." The Chieftain paused. "This has solved the problem for the moment, but we still need to find out why the eggs are not hatching." There was a hard note in his voice that did not seem to please the female.
"I have told you, my Chieftain, I can find no reason why the eggs should not hatch. They are eggs one day, nothing but rocks the next. I suspect a curse, but it is not human magic," she snapped, her voice barely concealing her impatience.
"I know, but that would mean…"
"There are three other clans in this area. Two have Rookeries and, although I have heard of nothing from either of them, I suspect that they are also having problems. Sightings of Gargoyles from those clans have been growing fewer over the past few centuries."
The Chieftain frowned. "Three clans… you believe her then?"
The Mistress hesitated, then nodded. "She has no reason to lie. Besides, your warriors have already been to the other clans and they knew nothing of this 'Starwing'. Yes, I believe there is another clan in the area, one whose existence has gone unknown to us. 'Starwing' is a part of it and his actions alone..."
"I know. You believe they are behind this then?" At her nod, the Chieftain growled. "In that case, I will send for her again. This time, she will tell me where they are hiding!"
As the Chieftain turned and stormed out, the Mistress watched him leave with a slight smile on her birdlike face. "Fool," she hissed softly once he was out of sight. Turning, she also left the cave.
The young male slid slowly down the cave wall until he landed with a jolt on the rocky floor. He was too stunned to cry, too horrified to rage. Although only young, he had heard enough over the years to know what had happened to the egg he had been guarding since its arrival in the cave.
A Gargoyle's egg is a wondrous thing, with special magical properties. If an egg does not hatch though, then it becomes a very rare type of rock. The rock also has certain properties and mages have always sought such stones for use in their spells. He had heard, from listening to the Mistress and the other females, that such a mage was in the area. It seemed that a deal had been struck. The female would be given ten eggs, which she could claim as the clan's, and the mage had received some of the special rocks in payment. In this case though, the young male knew that one of the rocks had really been one of 'his' two eggs!
His mind raced as he tried to work out what to do. Finally, he knew there was only one hope. He had to go to the Chieftain and tell him what had happened! Surely, the Chieftain would not be willing to allow one of their eggs to be lost! With that thought in mind, the young male slipped out of the cave and down one of the tunnels, heading for the narrow opening in the rock through which he sometimes led his sisters so they might breathe fresh air.
"Where is his clan hiding! Tell me!" The Chieftain roared and the small female huddled on the ground before him shivered. She shivered, but she did not speak. Reaching out, he grabbed one of her wings, pulling it sharply up behind her until she cried out! "Tell me!"
"The… the Standing Stones!" she gasped in pain. When he released her in shock, she glared up at him. "That is where we used to meet! But you will not find him! Not there! Not anywhere! He is gone! Gone beyond your reach! Gone beyond my love!" Her tears began to fall and the Chieftain snarled at her. But she was not quite finished. In a strange sing-song voice, she added, "It matters not because he is not the one you seek! Look to your own clan to find the source of the Rookery's trouble!" The Chieftain let out a roar of anger and ordered her from his sight. As she was dragged away, he stalked from the room, vowing to find the hidden Gargoyle clan and destroy them, if he had to destroy all the Gargoyles in the area!
Trembling like a leaf in a gale, the young male crept cautiously down the ancient stone hall, away from the gathering. No one had seen him, and he was glad of that. He hurried back to the cavern. Although he still wanted desperately to save the lost egg, he knew that the Chieftain would give him no help. He had to think of another way!
When he got back though, he found something that drove all thoughts of the lost egg out of his mind. His little sister, the younger of the twins born half a century earlier, was ill again. She had been ill for some time but he had thought she was finally getting better. Now though, she was worse than she had ever been. When he touched her hand, he got a nasty shock. The spark within her was almost out! With a low groan, he prepared himself for a battle. As he reached out his mind to her though, he caught a faint glimpse of something within her. Something that should not have been there! A shadow was… wrapped around her lifespark somehow, threatening to overwhelm it. The more he focused on it, the clearer he could see it and the more familiar it seemed to him. Suddenly, he recognised it. In a heartbeat, he understood and a shiver of fear ran down his spine.
Standing, he turned to his other sister. "Get our things. We have to leave." His voice sounded calm and he was momentarily surprised by that fact because all he felt was shock and horror. Somehow though, he knew he could not give in to the fear. He had to protect his sisters!
As his sister gathered their meager possessions together, he gazed anxiously down at his other sister. He knew he had to get her out, but he was not sure he had the strength! Still, he had to try! Bending down, he took a deep breath and lifted her up in his arms. He stumbled slightly, then steadied himself. She was not very heavy. He could do it.
He was almost out of the cave when the Mistress suddenly strode in through one of the other tunnels. In an instant, she had grabbed hold of his wing. "What do you think you are doing?"
"Saving them!" The words were out of his mouth before he could think. Her response was just as fast.
Grabbing hold of his ill sister, the Mistress tried to pull her from his grasp, but he refused to let go! As she screamed at him, he kept hold of his sister. He knew that if he let go, he might never see her again! The Mistress tried a different attack and clawed at his hands and face, but he still refused to let go! Determined to get his sisters away to safety, he concentrated on one thing. Escape! As the Mistress screamed and clawed at him, the edges of his vision began to blur. His last conscious thought was that he had to save the others! Then his world went dark.
Moonlight washed over his exhausted body, reviving him as nothing else could. Slowly, his eyes opened and he blinked up at the cloudless sky in confusion. Where was he? Remembering what had happened, he quickly sat up, groaning as his head spun with the sudden movement. Looking around, he breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that his sisters were lying on the grass beside him. Then he noticed the small egg lying on the other side of his sisters.
As he lifted it up, a thin thread of memory flickered in his tired mind. His mother had used to tell him of a legend. As he held the egg, something deep within his mind unlocked and he knew. Turning, he woke his sisters. He was not surprised to find that his youngest sister was no longer ill.
"Come. We have a long way to go."
"Where are we going?" the girls asked.
"To the Standing Stones to find our father."
The pale full moon was rising as the three tired hatchlings climbed the hill towards the circle of large stones. As they neared the top though, the young male heard voices just in time to pull his sisters down out of sight. Peering cautiously across to the stones, he frowned. The clan had already arrived but… His frown deepened as his youngest sister whispered in his ear, voicing his thoughts.
"Why are they not going inside the circle?"
As they watched, one of the younger warriors tried to do just that and the question was answered. When the warrior approached, there was a burst of golden light and the warrior was sent hurtling away from the stones! Immediately, the other Gargoyles fell back, hesitating as they faced a magic they did not understand.
Before the young male could make sense of what he had seen, a loud voice roared from nearby. "What are you doing here?" They had been seen! Instinctively, the young male grabbed the egg and his youngest sister's hand and started to run towards the stone circle! As the clan watched, too startled to even think about stopping them, the three hatchlings neared the circle of stones. Then, with a slight flash of gold around them, they passed into the circle!
Skidding to a halt, the two females immediately sank to the ground, huddled together in fear. Their brother kneeled on the ground too, but he had something else on his mind just then. As they had entered the circle, he had heard something crack. When he looked at the egg, a large crack had appeared in the shell. For a moment, his heart seemed to freeze, but then there was another crack and a little piece of shell broke away and fell to the ground. Suddenly, he knew everything was all right. The egg was not broken, it was hatching!
As the three hatchlings watched in awe, more cracks appeared on the egg's shell. Piece by piece, the thick shell began to break away, revealing the tiny form of a new hatchling. Like his brother and mother, his skin was dark tan. Like his sisters, his mane of hair was reddish-brown. Like all of them, his eyes were the green of the grassy hills of their homeland. He looked around and made a soft, almost curious, noise. Then he opened his mouth completely.
The earth began to tremble and a low rumbling sound, like the pounding of waves, horses hooves and a million heartbeats all in one, begin to grow within the confines of the circle. The sound seemed to fill the circle completely and the young male had the sudden feeling that it was going to break through the barrier just as they had. He was right. With a loud whoosh, a blast of air and sound burst free from the gaps in the stones, sending all the clan-members outside hurtling through the air!
When they got to their feet, they charged the stone circle. The young male instinctively turned, gathering his sisters and brother in his arms and then enfolding his long, feathered wings around all of them. Then he waited.
"Why have you come here?"
The soft voice was not what he had been expecting. Looking up, the young male blinked. The slender being standing impatiently before them was not what he had been expecting either! As the stranger repeated his question, the young male gathered his courage.
"We came to find our father."
The stranger's dark brows rose in surprise. "What makes you think he is here?"
"This is where he and our mother used to meet."
Something flickered in the stranger's eyes. It looked a lot like sorrow, or maybe pain. "Why are you not with your mother? Why are you not in your… Rookery?" The stranger's dark eyes were suddenly intense.
"Our mother… something happened to her." Was it his imagination or had the stranger started at the news? "The Rookery is not safe. There is dark magic there and it is hurting us all." The young male looked directly into the stranger's eyes until the stranger had to look away.
"How do you know this?" The question was so quiet, the young male almost missed hearing it.
"I… I think it is because I am a… Guardian." As the stranger's eyes shot to his, the young male suddenly felt less nervous. Although he had barely allowed himself to think of it since the possibility had occurred to him, it somehow made complete sense once he spoke it.
"A Guardian? No. You cannot be. Only females of your kind are ever Guardians."
The young male suddenly sat a little straighter and his voice was as clear as a bell. "I can sense the lifespark in hatchlings, even when they are only eggs, and I can make it glow brighter if it is only faint. I know when a hatchling is hurt or scared and I always know where they are so I can find them quickly." He hesitated, looking directly into the stranger's eyes. The mix of emotions was hard to decipher, but there was something within him telling him to finish. "When the Mistress of the Rookery tried to take my sister from me, something happened. I woke up and we were outside, with my brother's egg."
The stranger was trembling slightly and his voice was barely working. "You call them your sisters and brother… You have mentioned your mother and father… I thought your kind did not keep track of such things."
The young male frowned slightly, seeking for the words to explain something he had always known by instinct. "I can feel the connection."
The stranger sighed heavily. "Begin at the beginning…"
"That's when you told him all about the nasty Mistress and your mama and the mean old curse!" Phoenix bounced up and down in her bed, her golden-red feathers flashing in the candlelight.
"Then he took you home with him and then he went and rescued your Mama!" Flashfire said quickly, all in one breath. She grinned and wriggled happily in her bed, scrunching up her covers until they looked less like a nest and more like a pile of washing.
Flight threw himself down onto his bed and stretched his wings out. "Then you came here and you've been here ever since!" he proclaimed. He stretched again and then frowned. Sitting up, he looked over at the adult Gargoyle. "What happened to the rest of the clan, Shamrock? You've never said."
"They scattered not long after that. Most of them went to other clans. Some became loners."
Amy, who had never heard the story before, looked confused. "You and your brother and sisters are here, but where are your Mommy and Daddy?"
"They're with my father's clan." At Amy's sad look, Shamrock smiled gently. "It's best this way. My brother, sisters and I were needed here and my parents were needed where they are. This way, we can all do what we need to do." Amy thought for a moment and then nodded, happy with the answer.
With the story over for the night, the hatchlings and human child snuggled into their beds. When he thought they were asleep, Shamrock stood. He'd just reached the door when Shard's soft voice stopped him in his tracks.
"Did you ever find the lost egg?"
It was surprising how such an innocent question could cause such pain. Surprising how the pain had never dulled, despite the fact that over three centuries had passed since that eventful night. Taking a deep breath, Shamrock hesitated before replying, giving himself enough time to get his voice back under his control.
"No, Shard, I never have." He would have left it there, but something in the silence made him continue. "I've found traces over the years though. I've found bits and pieces of spells that had once had the egg's magic used in them, and I've sensed little things, emotions and thoughts sometimes. The night his egg hatched, I felt it happen and for a moment there was a tug, as though I was pulling him to me. Then it was as though the connection was snapped. I've never felt it since. I've also dreamed of him sometimes, during the day. A couple of times I tracked him down with the dreams, but I was always too late. It's as though something delays the dreams just long enough for them to be inaccurate." He shook his head and smiled slightly as he turned to look at Shard. "Some day though, I will find him again."
He had just turned away when Shard spoke again, a shimmer of power rising in the air as his voice took on a strangely echoing quality. "It shall be soon." Shamrock gasped and leaned against the doorway for support. Finally, he turned and smiled.
Shard smiled sleepily as he nestled into his bed. "I wish I could help you more."
"It isn't the nature of your gift young one." But Shard was already asleep.
Shamrock sat, deep in thought, behind his desk in the cave that he'd converted into his office. His last words to Shard still echoed in his mind, even though it had been over an hour since he had spoken them. That wasn't all that was on his mind though. As it always did whenever he told the story, the events of that long-distant night played out in his memory, over and over again. He had told it to the hatchlings so many times over the centuries. Always the same version and they never let him finish it, preferring to put the ending into their own words instead of his hesitant ones. For the first time though, Shamrock found himself considering telling them the complete tale. They always thought his story ended with him speaking to the stranger in the circle of the Standing Stones. In fact, that had merely been the beginning.
He smiled slightly as he rose from his chair, his wings catching his eye as they sparkled slightly in the light. He picked up the message lying on the desk and read it again, hearing his mother's voice in his mind as he read her words.
'My son, we will be there on midnight of the next full moon.'
His parents had not visited in the year since the hatchlings had come into his care. This would be their first meeting. His smile widened. Yes, perhaps it was time for him to tell the young ones the rest of the story.
On to the next chapter