The nightmare was finally over.
Loran stood silently in the shadows of the Great Hall, watching as the Gargoyle clan celebrated the return of the long-lost hatchling, Echo. The hall was filled with laughter, music and happy voices. It wasn't only the Gargoyles who were celebrating either. Their human friends were also there and then there were the non-Gargoyle members of the clan, Loran's father, and Loran himself. The Faerie's eyes wandered over the crowd until they settled on the group clustered on the far side of the room.
Oberon, still in his Gargoyle form, was laughing at something Rory was saying. Loran remembered a time when such a sight had been rare, but that had changed long ago. There had been a lot of changes over the centuries, and all because Silvarus had dared to break the rules and follow his heart.
Loran's attention followed his chain of thought and moved to his youngest brother. A slight smile settled on his face. Silvarus, or Starwing as he preferred to be known, was standing with his arms locked around Stonesinger, his mate for over five hundred years. The two were, as usual, off in their own little dreamland as they traded whispers, loving looks and secret smiles. There was a time when he would have scoffed at them and made some sly comment, but that had been before he had understood them. Before he had found... her.
She stood slightly apart from the rest of the group, too shy to join in the conversation but her joy too great to keep her entirely from the gathering. As he looked at her, she stirred as though she sensed his eyes upon her. She looked up and their eyes met. She smiled and it was as though every sight, every sound, around him was suddenly gone. There was only the two of them. She looked away shyly and the connection was broken. He blinked and glanced at his brother again. Oh yes. He understood him now. But the price for that knowledge had been almost too high for him to bear.
Ireland - 1565
The two Gargoyles walked hand in hand through the forest, talking quietly. When they reached the small clearing, they turned and gazed into each other's eyes for a long moment before embracing. They sank to the ground, too caught up in their love to realise that they were being watched.
The small squirrel perched on a branch of one of the surrounding trees and watched them for a few moments more before he sniffed disdainfully and scampered off into the forest. He had seen more than enough. When he was far enough away, he dropped lightly to the ground and resumed his true form before leaning back against a tree to consider what he had seen.
Like all of the Faerie race, he was tall, slender, graceful and almost impossibly beautiful. His long reddish-brown hair fell in waves past his shoulders and his mist-grey eyes gleamed with intelligence and sly cunning. Unlike most of his race though, he wore no bright colours or pastel hues, only black. He also favoured a more practical, almost human, style of dress than the fussy tights-and-tunic look favoured by the others. His flowing silken shirt had billowing sleeves gathered at the cuff and his breeches were loose enough for him to move comfortably but tight enough to be flattering to his figure. They tucked neatly into knee-high boots. His clothes were all pure black and unadorned with any embroidery, frills or embellishments. The look suited him and he knew it.
He also knew that he had finally found the answer to the question that had been plaguing him for several months.
*No wonder my little brother has been acting so oddly of late. Dallying with a female, and a Gargoyle female at that! I would not have thought him capable of it!* He chuckled aloud at the thought but then his smile faded as he recalled the looks on the two Gargoyles' faces. *He is surprisingly good. If she were not a Gargoyle I would have thought that his feelings were... real.* He tried to make a joke of it, but the thought created a vague uneasiness in his mind that refused to be ignored. Unsettled by something he could not name, Loran shook his head and started back to the circle of stones. *I give it a year. He is certain to become bored with the creature by then.*
Ireland - 1615
He had put his brother's dalliance from his mind for years, but when he'd seen him slip out of the hall that night, he'd remembered. Idly curious about whether his brother was seeing another Gargoyle or if he'd chosen a human, he'd decided to satisfy that curiosity. He'd never dreamed that his brother would still be seeing the same Gargoyle he'd been seeing fifty years earlier. His kind was known for their short attention spans when it came to dalliances. Five years was considered to be an unusually long time, but fifty? It was unheard of! Yet he'd seen it with his own eyes.
Loran paced from one side of the clearing to the other, disturbed more than he cared to admit by what he had just seen. *It has been fifty years and they are closer now than they were then! He is not behaving as though this was a mere dalliance, but... she is a Gargoyle! What else could it possibly be? Surely he could not actually... care for the creature... Could he?* Agitated, he cast his mind back over the scene, trying to recall some detail that would make sense of the situation.
*Maybe it is not the same female. They all look alike to me...* He disregarded the thought even as it flitted through his mind though. He knew it was the same Gargoyle. Aside from her colouring, he had a perfect memory for voices and he'd heard her speaking both times. She had an oddly musical voice. Odd for a Gargoyle anyway. *Perhaps that is why...* "Confound it! What does my brother see in such creatures?" His outburst surprised him. He rarely lost his temper and for something as insignificant as this... Suddenly, Loran simply had to know why his brother was so interested in dallying with such an ungainly, brutish creature. He refused to believe that it could be anything more than a dalliance, but for it to have gone on for so long... There had to be a reason and he was determined to find it!
Loran stood in the shadows and surveyed the Gargoyle stronghold thoughtfully. They lived in an old human castle that had been deserted for a very long time. Casting his mind back, Loran was mildly surprised to realise that it had been over three hundred years since the humans had left. There were still humans in the area of course. The town connected to the castle was still inhabited. It was only the castle humans who had left. Loran frowned slightly as he eyed the imposing stone fortress. He couldn't recall why the humans had abandoned it. It probably didn't matter, but the longer he stood looking at the place, the uneasier he felt.
In the guise of a large moth, Loran continued his journey to the castle. The nearer he flew to it though, the more certain he became that there was something very wrong about the place. By the time he reached the outer wall, he could sense something dark, something evil, at work there. He hesitated, no longer sure that he wanted to enter. If he wished to find out about the female Gargoyle's strange hold over his brother though, he had no choice. The only times the Gargoyles left the castle were to hunt and he knew that he would learn nothing from watching them then. No, for his purposes, he would have to observe the females in a more... social setting. He started to fly up towards the top of the wall.
He had just reached the top when a small form swooped up directly in front of him, startling him so much that he jerked to a halt. The Gargoyle flew over him and headed off towards the forest. Loran hesitated and then changed direction, heading after the rapidly disappearing figure. Perhaps it would not be necessary for him to visit the castle after all. The Gargoyle was female. If she were going out to meet with someone, perhaps he might get the answers he sought. As he flew after her, he refused to acknowledge the relief he felt at not having to enter the castle.
"It is just not fair! Why does he insist that I remain in the Hunt? It is not as though I were a skilled huntress, my skills are barely passable! He allowed our best huntress to become Mistress of the Rookery, so why does he refuse to even consider allowing me to leave the hunt? Most of the others cannot stand me and I know they have asked him to assign me somewhere else. Why does he refuse? He does not need me there!"
The female Gargoyle sighed and stopped her frustrated pacing to kneel down beside the stream. She washed her face in the cool water but did not return to her feet. Instead, she curled her legs beneath her and sat staring contemplatively into the stream. She sighed again. "Perhaps the others are right in what they whisper. Perhaps he refuses because he is angry with me for refusing him and wishes to punish me. If that is so, then perhaps he would reconsider if I... No!" She leaped to her feet and resumed her pacing. "I will not become his mate! Not for any reason!" She shuddered with revulsion at the thought, then whirled around as a voice came from behind her.
"Who... who are you?" she demanded, then blinked in surprise as a stranger stepped out of the shadows. He was not of her clan, she was sure of that. She would have noticed him. He was the most handsome Gargoyle she had ever seen. He was much taller than she was, easily eight feet, with thick waves of reddish-brown hair cascading down past his shoulders. He was dressed in a simple black tunic and his eyes... When she looked into his eyes she thought for a moment that she must be dreaming. They were an entrancing mist-grey and sparkled with laughter and something else... something that sent a shiver of danger down her spine.
As she looked into those eyes, she suddenly knew that this stranger was not what he appeared to be. She also knew what it was that he was after. For a moment she hesitated, her common sense warring with the part of her that demanded for her to follow her instincts. He smiled, a smile that did not quite reach his eyes, and she made her decision. If he wanted to play such a game, then she would play too, but by her own rules. She smiled back at him.
"I am... Nightwing." His strange eyes glittered slightly, as though he was laughing at a private joke.
Ireland - 1649
Loran stood in the clearing, his pulse thundering in his ears and his mind struggling to grasp the meaning of the words that had just been spoken. Shocked, he stared at the female Gargoyle standing before him as calmly as if the world had not just begun to spiral out of control.
"What... did you just say?" Perhaps he had misheard...
"I said, I know what you are. I have always known it. I had no objections to your game so I played along with it, but all that has changed now. I have more important matters to concern myself with. The game is over."
Without another word, she turned and began to walk away. Part of him wanted to call her back, another part of him wanted to run after her, catch her up, hold her and never let her go, but the rest of him... He drew himself up to his full height, his wounded pride growling out his response. "So be it! I was growing bored with you anyway!"
He remained, still and silent, in the dark clearing for a very long time.
Loran spent the following day brooding in his quarters, refusing to speak to anyone, until dusk when he roused himself from his unusual lethargy and decided to go for a walk. When he found himself standing in the circle of stones about to change into his Gargoyle form though, his pride stopped him. "No! I will not go after her! She will come to me or I will forget all about her!" Despite his vow, he remained where he was for several hours, his eyes peering continually through the darkness as his heart leaped uncontrollably at every sound. Finally though, as midnight neared without any sign of her, he forced himself to admit the truth. She had meant what she had said. It was over. He would never see her again.
"She means nothing to me. It was a dalliance, nothing more. It is better this way. At least I did not have to endure a tearful scene!" His words did little to ease him, and even less to convince him.
He slowly started back towards the entrance to the Faerie Hall, but paused when he heard someone coming. Loran ducked into the shadows of the stones a mere moment before his youngest brother, Silvarus, stepped outside. Silvarus immediately shapeshifted into his Gargoyle form.
Loran watched as his brother stood within the circle, his happiness apparent in the smile on his face and the twinkle in his bright green eyes. The moon came out from behind a cloud and Silvarus tilted back his head and closed his eyes, his smile lighting up his face as the moonlight washed over him. In that moment, for the first time in his life, Loran was filled with hatred for his brother.
He had realised in the past years that Silvarus was not merely dallying with the female Gargoyle. Silvarus really loved her. It was that love that made him so happy. Loran's eyes blazed as he looked upon his brother. Suddenly, he could bear it no longer.
"So this is where you have been betraying your people."
As he spoke with his brother, he allowed his pain and his rage to control him. His fury swept over him, driving aside all rational thought. When he noticed the female Gargoyle approaching, he deliberately spoke of their connection, knowing that she would realise the truth. The words had barely been spoken though when he realised the enormity of what he had done. Sickened by his jealous actions, and unable to bear watching what was sure to follow, he fled into the hall as though the hounds of the Horned Hunt were barking at his heels.
For four months, Loran could barely stand living in the hall, knowing what he had done. He had never felt so guilty before and he covered his confusion with a mocking smile and sarcastic comments. He avoided his brother as much as possible. He tried to convince himself that it was for the best, for both he and his brother, but somehow he never quite succeeded. Then, one night, everything changed. The Gargoyles came to the standing stones.
At first, Loran was just as confused as everyone else. He intended to keep silent, until he sensed a strong, and oddly familiar, wave of power echoing from somewhere beyond the stones. The power called to something within him and an image rose unbidden in his mind in response to it. As clear as day, he saw his brother's mate standing in the circle of standing stones. Suddenly, as though the image had spoken to him, he knew what to do. He smirked.
"It sounds as though the Gargoyles have just learned of my little brother's dalliance with one of their... females."
He sensed his brother's fist flying towards him, but made no effort to duck. It was the least he deserved and it was more than worth it to direct the conversation onto the path it needed to take. He intervened only twice more, once to force his brother to admit that his female was in some kind of trouble and once to trick their father into following Silvarus to the circle. Once he was gone, Loran did not wait to see what happened. His emotions had taken a heavy toll on him. Exhausted, he returned to his quarters.
When Loran finally woke, he was surprised to find that an entire day had passed. It was already twilight when he emerged from his quarters. He was also surprised to find his eldest brother, Borovan, leaning against the wall opposite his door.
"About time. I was considering going in and getting you. Come. Father has called a council. He expects you to be there."
Surprised, Loran fell into step with his brother. "Have I missed something?" He was startled when his question was met with a deep chuckle. His solemn brother rarely smiled, let alone laughed. "What is so funny?" He was in no mood to be laughed at.
"You are." Borovan gave Loran one of his usual indecipherable looks. "Last night, you chose a bad time to leave. The night became even more interesting not long after."
Loran did his best to look bored. "Oh really? What happened? Did Father turn Silvarus into a human or something?"
Borovan continued talking as though Loran had not spoken. "It turns out that our youngest brother fell in love many years ago, but never revealed his real identity to her. When she learned the truth about him, she fled. Last night though, their children came searching for their father." Borovan ignored Loran's startled gasp. "The standing stones protected the children from those who would have harmed them. Our brother spoke with his children and learned that his beloved was in danger. He rescued her and brought her to the circle." He shot another unfathomable glance at Loran. "Our brother's family will be staying with us from now on."
Loran fought to control his expression well enough to hide the shock and guilt that his brother's information had caused. He had not known about the children. He recalled every word that he had spoken to his brother on that fateful night and the shame of his actions weighed heavily on his conscience. His throat was almost too tight to speak, but he had to know... "Father is allowing it?" He silently cursed the hesitation and weakness in his voice.
Borovan seemed not to notice that anything was amiss. "Father insists on it. Mostly because they are family, but there is also the matter of their power and then there is this whole Rookery business. It is dangerous for any child to be in that place, but especially so for them."
Loran felt as though the world was spinning around him. The news about the children's existence was bad enough, but this hinted at something more. "They have... power?"
Borovan nodded slightly. "That surge we felt last night was the eldest child. He is not the only one with magic either. They all have it. The girls... we are not certain but Father thinks they might have an ability similar to Caravel's truth-sight. The youngest can summon the Roar of the Earth." He glanced at Loran, who was unable to hide his astonishment. "Yes, that is how the rest of us felt about it too. Except for Caravel, of course." His lips lifted into a wry smile. "My younger twin is delighted at the thought of having two children that he can teach all of his little tricks to."
Loran managed a nod. "So the children have power. Is... is that what this council is about?"
For the first time in the conversation, Borovan's calm expression changed. His eyes flashed with a rage that he very rarely allowed himself to feel, and even more rarely showed, and he suddenly looked as though he would like to challenge the entire Gargoyle clan to battle. "No. The council concerns another matter. Father will explain it. I know only a little of the story."
Borovan paused as they approached the entrance to the hall and put a hand on Loran's shoulder to stop him as well. "Before you go in, there is something more that you need to know. Silvarus made a choice last night. He has come to realise that how he has appeared for most of his life is not truly who he is in his heart. Do not be surprised when you see him. He has decided to remain in his Gargoyle form, to see if he is happier that way. He has also requested that we call him 'Starwing' from now on." A warning note crept into Borovan's voice. "Father supports him in this, as do Caravel, Tamelin and myself. Our other brothers remain uncertain, but they will not speak against him." His stone-grey eyes seemed to pierce Loran's soul as he waited for a response.
Loran nodded slightly. He looked away from his brother as he replied, unable to look him in the eyes. "Neither will I."
Oberon looked around at his seven sons gathered at one end of the long table. "I have called you together because we have a very serious task ahead of us. Last night, it came to my attention that something is not right in the Gargoyle Rookery at the castle. I have been uneasy for quite some time, without being able to determine the cause for my unrest. Now I know."
Standing, he began to pace back and forth behind his chair. "I visited the castle today. What I found there has disturbed me greatly." He paused in his pacing to look around at the faces of his sons.
"Not only was I able to gain entry to the castle, but I also entered the Rookery unchallenged, there was not even a simple ward in place to protect it. I have seen other rookeries, but none of them have been like that one. I could sense nothing unusual about the place, but once I entered it was clear that there was something very wrong."
Oberon began to pace restlessly again as his voice grew soft with his concern. "Starwing's son is correct. Not a single egg in that rookery is anything more than stone now. But I can find no reason for it!" His voice rose on the last word and he whirled, his hand gripping the back of his chair until his knuckles were white. "There is magic at work, but I am unable to even sense it!" His voice was now a low growl. He looked around at his sons again. "Some of you have also visited the castle. Your gifts make you stronger than I am in some ways. Did any of you sense anything?"
Borovan was the first to speak. His voice held an oddly tense note. "Nothing in the Rookery, but there was a hint of magic around several of the Gargoyle statues. Most of it was dark, but..." He paused as though uncertain whether or not to continue and glanced at his younger twin.
"There was a darkness around the whole place. I could see it, but I could not tell its nature or its cause. Whatever it is, it affects not only the Rookery, but the rest of the castle as well. It has spread to all of the Gargoyles, I could see a dark shadow surrounding them... all save three."
Caravel looked around at his father and brothers, his usual cheerfulness replaced by the seriousness that was usually his older brother's trademark as he took up the story. "Three of the females have power enough for it to have protected them from the evil. They radiate magic and the shadows barely touch them. But it is starting to have an effect, even on them. I think whatever has caused this evil, has been there for a very long time. Starwing says that he first learned of it a little over two hundred and fifty years ago." Starwing nodded, silently confirming the fact.
"I thought that I caught the scent of evil while I was in the Rookery, but I am not certain. It was overwhelmed by the scent of loss." Tamelin sighed heavily and closed his eyes as he remembered what he had felt in that dark place.
"All of the lives that might have been... but there was more. Much more." He opened his eyes again and the dark green orbs seemed to shine faintly as he spoke. "A life was taken there. Blood was spilled and death was called. It happened some time ago, but the evil of the deed remains. The other loss was far more recent. Last night, an egg was stolen from the Rookery. That egg... there is a mystery there. What I sensed...." Tamelin frowned and shook his head. "No. It is impossible. I must have been sensing the bond that Starwing's son had with it, that is all..." He did not seem convinced.
Loran had been listening in growing astonishment, but Tamelin's words produced a nameless dread within him. Suddenly, he had to speak. "Could none of you feel it?"
His outburst stunned everyone, all the more because it was unlike him to sound so... no, surely that was not panic in his voice? Oberon looked at him closely and frowned. He was not pleased about his sixth son's behaviour. He had heard what had happened four months earlier and it did Loran no credit. Nor did his behaviour of the previous night. But Oberon had a suspicion that his son was not as unfeeling as he pretended to be. Borovan and Caravel had both spoken up for him too. Loran was a mystery to them all, but the eldest brothers seemed to know something about him that Oberon did not. He trusted their judgment enough to have included Loran in the meeting. Now, he suspected that he was about to be glad of it.
"Feel what, my son?"
All eyes were on him. Loran swallowed his sudden inexplicable fear. "The whole castle is filled with maliciousness. It all but pulses with it. I could hardly bear to go near it and I made every excuse imaginable to avoid going there. It is like a sickness and the Gargoyles have been infected by it."
A vision of his female appeared in his mind as he recalled things she had told him over the years. Although he had initially considered her concerns to be nothing more than flights of fancy, he had slowly become convinced that she was speaking the truth. Over the years, as he had grown familiar with her, he had also become mildly concerned by what she was saying. He had decided more than once to look into it, but something had always stopped him. Usually, it had been the realisation that such an action would be an admission that the female meant more to him than the curiosity that had caused him to approach her. That was an admission that he had not been ready to make, not even to himself. But despite his growing confusion and doubt as to why he was seeing her, he had continued to study her. He had absorbed her every action, her every word, and he remembered it all.
"The first to show it were the elders. They began to argue constantly and their words and actions became spiteful and cruel. The Chieftain was next. For the past fifty years his actions have become increasingly unpredictable and irrational. There is talk in the Clan of madness, although they take care not to say it in his hearing. He takes pleasure in torture and pain and none are willing to risk his displeasure. The others in the Clan... they are argumentative, quick to take offense and quicker still to take revenge for the pettiest of things. The hunters take out their anger on their prey and the hunts have become... brutal. The few that do not appear to be infected are confused and afraid because they do not know what is happening."
Loran fell silent and suddenly became aware of his surroundings once again, and the fact that his father and brothers were staring at him in stunned amazement. He had been so caught up in his memory that he had forgotten where he was. He dropped his eyes and stared at the table, but there was still one thing on his mind that he needed to say. A thought that had bothered him since his first visit to the castle more than thirty years earlier. "Does anyone know why the humans left the castle? I... have a feeling that it is important."
Oberon blinked at the abrupt change of topic. He'd been surprised by the scope of his son's knowledge, and was still wondering exactly how Loran had acquired it, however something in his son's voice made him put that thought aside and concentrate on the question. "The townspeople made them leave. The human Chieftain demanded a great deal from them but did little in return. The people were not happy. One night, they revolted and attacked the castle. The human Chieftain expected the Gargoyles to help in the battle, but the Gargoyle Chieftain refused to get involved. From what I have heard, he apparently took great delight in doing so. The human had been insulting the Gargoyles for years, not realising that the Gargoyles had learned of many of the comments made. The Gargoyle Chieftain threw those insults back into the human's face. The chieftain and his family were forced to flee the castle. They never returned."
Fierfel looked thoughtful. "I seem to remember... the village had some trouble not long after that, did it not?"
Borovan slowly nodded, a frown creasing his brow. "Yes. The children fell ill and the animals stopped eating. The village elders consulted the wisewoman and she in turn..." He turned to Tamelin. "It was you who took care of the problem, was it not?" He blinked at the look of shock on his brother's face. "Tamelin? What is it?"
Tamelin looked up, his eyes looking impossibly wide in his pale face. "A curse! There was a curse on the village! I could not sense it, but the wisewoman swore that the human Chieftain had cursed the village before he left. I intended only to humour her, but when I used my power..." His eyes locked with his father's. "There really was a curse. It was a powerful one too. No mere human Chieftain cast it, it was far too strong for that, but it was human magic. I removed the curse, and the village had no further trouble, but I... I never even thought of the castle! What if there has been a curse on it too for all this time?"
Oberon cursed silently. Such an obvious answer and he hadn't even seen it! Of course there was a curse! One of the reasons why the townspeople had hated the human Chieftain had been because of his dealings with a Mage known for his use of dark magic. That had probably been his first stop after leaving the castle, to seek revenge on the townsfolk. But why place only one curse when two would gain vengeance on both the townsfolk and the Gargoyles who had mocked him? Looking around, Oberon could see that all of his sons had reached the same conclusion.
"So, we are dealing with a powerful curse that has been gathering potency for the past three hundred years. This should be interesting."
After the previous night's events, Oberon and his sons agreed that to approach the Gargoyle clan openly would be folly. The Standing Stones had rejected the Gargoyle warriors, but protected the hatchlings, so the Gargoyles would certainly regard the Faer Folk with great suspicion, if not outright hostility. With that in mind, Oberon and his sons prepared for their task with great deliberation and little more than an hour of the night remained by the time they arrived at the castle and took position on top of one of the towers.
They were cloaked in magic that allowed them to move unseen by Gargoyle eyes, and they were immediately glad of it. Fierfel and Nerel, the only two who had not previously visited the castle, took one look at the hoard of enraged Gargoyles arguing and fighting in the courtyard below and shrank back in distaste. Oberon, seeing their reaction, spoke to them sternly.
"Do not regard them based on what you see here. Remember, all that you see is nothing more than the effect wrought by a powerful and evil curse that has been working upon them for a time long enough to have meaning even to our kind. Their race is an ancient one, and rivals even our own in some respects. Do not misjudge them and do not underestimate them. Those you see here are worthy of our pity, and there are others who are worthy of our respect. Come now, we have work to do." Oberon glanced down at the Gargoyles and sighed. "Although we may already be far too late..."
Oberon and his sons formed a circle and began to work the magic that would break the curse influencing the Gargoyles. The moment they began, the full power of the curse became known to them and only Oberon, Starwing and Borovan were able to keep from gasping in shock and horror at the strength and evil at the curse's core. With grim determination, the eight gathered their own strength and hurled their collective power at the curse, refusing to give in until it finally shattered beneath their barrage. A wave of power shimmered over the castle and everything within it. Exhausted, Oberon and his sons breathed sighs of relief. The curse was lifted.
In the courtyard, most of the Gargoyles didn't notice that anything had changed. There were a few though who paused and looked around, confused by what was happening. They began to slowly back away from the fighting, drawing together out of instinct as they struggled to remember what was going on, and why.
From the tower roof, Oberon and his sons watched as the division between the curse-affected Gargoyles became more distinct. Those who had been affected the most were now engaged in all-out battle with each other, but those who had been barely affected were already coming to their senses. As Oberon had suspected however, the curse had done its work well. Barely twenty Gargoyles moved away from the fighting.
"They are not there." Borovan was peering intently at the crowd below. At his words, Caravel and Tamelin glanced at each other and moved to his side.
"Are you sure? It looks as though all of the clan is here..." Caravel frowned down at the fighting Gargoyles.
"No, he is right." Tamelin closed his eyes and frowned in concentration. "I can sense them, though. They are near." His eyes flew open and he turned to his father. "They know the curse has been broken! I can feel their relief."
"Who knows?" Fierfel looked from his father to Tamelin and back again, confused.
"The three Gargoyles with power enough to protect them against the curse." Loran's voice was soft, but there was an odd tenseness in it that caused all eyes to swing to him in surprise. He didn't seem to notice their attention, since his own attention was focused on the Gargoyles.
She wasn't there. Loran wasn't surprised by that. When his brothers had mentioned that three of the Gargoyles had magic, somehow he had known that his female was one of them. There had been times when he had sensed it in her, but he had never been certain. She had hidden it well. He had only ever sensed it on a few occasions when she had been completely relaxed, and once... Loran forced his mind away from that particular memory. He was determined to forget about her. But then Nerel's soft voice broke into his thoughts and he whirled around to face his brother.
"They are prisoners."
"What?" Loran fought to keep his emotions to himself, but he failed miserably. His surprise, shock and fear were obvious in his voice and eyes. Fortunately, his other brothers were too preoccupied with what Nerel had just said to notice.
"Nerel, are you sure?" There was an odd urgency in Borovan's voice as he locked eyes with his younger brother.
Nerel nodded. "Yes. I am sure. They are somewhere cold, dark and damp. They are all relieved that the curse has been lifted, but two are also fearful of what will happen to them. One is not. She is angry and worried, but there is no fear in her heart. They are prisoners though, for I can sense the iron that binds them."
"The lock is iron too, my power will not work on it." Caravel glared at the unhelpful lock in annoyance. They'd slipped past the fighting Gargoyles easily enough, but the door to the dungeons was proving difficult. Not only was the lock made of iron, but the door was also held together with iron bands, as was the heavy bar lying across it. Whoever had locked the prisoners up, they had wanted them to stay there.
Borovan scowled at the door. He took a step back and his eyes narrowed. "Stand back!" It was all the warning he gave before he suddenly charged towards the wall, altering his form as he moved. He rammed into the old stone wall beside the door, and kept going! His father and brothers gasped as he smashed through the wall with apparent ease! They peered through the hole he'd made, too stunned to do anything except stare at Borovan.
He stood in the middle of the room, his heavy breathing the only sign of the incredible effort he'd put into gaining entrance. The three female Gargoyles chained to the wall on the far side of the cell blinked at him in astonishment. Two of them shivered slightly in fear, but the third... As the shock of his sudden entrance faded, she leaned forward and her eyes gleamed as she studied him intently. She smiled.
"Not bad... for a Shining One."
Borovan blinked at her. Behind him, Caravel suddenly burst out laughing. "Oh! I like you!" He slipped through the hole in the wall and crossed to stand beside his brother. He nudged him. Hard. "What are you just standing there for? I thought we were going to free them?"
The female grinned. "That might be difficult, even for you." She held out one arm, revealing the heavy iron manacle and the chain that connected it to the wall behind her.
Caravel frowned. "Iron. Why did it have to be iron?" He glared at the manacle.
The female was silent as Oberon and his other sons joined Borovan and Caravel. She eyed them all curiously, but the sight of Starwing seemed to amuse her. "You are Starwing, are you not?" At his surprised nod, she grinned. "I thought so. My sister described you well." Her grin faded and she peered anxiously into his eyes. "She is... safe? I know you came for her last night..."
Starwing nodded. "She is safe."
His words seemed to reassure all three females. The eldest of the three, the one who had done all of the talking so far, sighed in relief. "Good. That is all I needed to hear. I did not want to leave until I knew that she was all right."
Taking her manacle in hand, she suddenly tensed. There was a sharp snapping sound. When she opened her hand again, the manacle fell to the ground, shattered. Turning, she did the same for the other females. They were freed before any of the Faeries could do more than blink in surprise. She grinned. "Those chains were made for puny humans, not Gargoyles." Her smile faded. "The fact that our Chieftain ordered us chained in here... that alone was proof of his madness."
"Why were you chained up anyway?" Caravel looked at the three curiously.
"One of our sisters argued with the Mistress of the Rookery, then left the castle, vowing never to return. The Chieftain ordered the three of us after her, but we refused. We knew why she had left and we wanted her to succeed more than we cared about our fate for refusing the order. This imprisonment was our fate. We could have escaped at any time, but to do so would have meant exile for us. That means nothing to us, though. There was only two things keeping us here and now they are both gone, never to return. There is nothing for us here now." The other two Gargoyles nodded in silent agreement.
Loran had been standing by the improvised doorway, leaning against it for support. He had been so sure that his female was one of the three prisoners that he had been stunned to learn otherwise. His thoughts were revolving in his mind so fast that he was almost dizzy. She was not outside, and she was not here... so where was she? At the mention of a female Gargoyle who had left, Loran's attention snapped to the conversation. He started to speak, but the words froze in his throat. Fortunately, Caravel didn't have the same problem.
"So, if you are leaving, I suppose you will be heading after your sister?"
The female slowly shook her head. "No. Our sister must fly her own path now. Although it is our greatest wish to be with her, we would be more hindrance than help to her in her quest. Her skills are such that, alone, she has a chance to succeed where, together, we would fail." She sighed heavily. "I know we will be together again some day. For now, that must be enough."
"Where did she go?" Faeries and Gargoyles all started at the sudden interruption. They turned to Loran in surprise at the impassioned outburst.
"Loran..." Oberon frowned in displeasure at his son's rudeness, but he paused as Borovan's hand rested lightly on his arm. Following the direction of his eldest son's gaze, Oberon remained silent, waiting.
The female had drawn herself up to her full height, an impressive nine feet for she was one of the largest Gargoyles in the clan. She was glaring at Loran with a fury that made her eyes blaze. She held it ruthlessly in check, making her voice icy steel instead of bellowing. "You. You are the one who calls himself 'Nightwing'." It was not a question.
Loran tensed. A riot of emotions raced through his heart as the thoughts tumbled within his mind. A sliver of fear ran through him at the tone of her voice. He, for whom 'fear' had no meaning. He was confused as to the cause of her apparent hatred of him. He was also ridiculously pleased at the fact that his name was known to her, for it meant that his female had spoken of him at some point. Loran was also disgusted at himself for being pleased about it. But one emotion was stronger than all the rest and as it surged through him, he found himself responding.
"Yes. I am. Now where is she? Tell me. Now!"
The female sneered at him. "Where do you think she is? She has gone after the Mage of course."
Oberon and his sons traded startled glances at the introduction of a new element. "Mage? What Mage?" Caravel blurted out. Loran had never been so glad of his older brother's tendency to speak before he thought. The next moment though, all stray thoughts were wiped from his mind as the female Gargoyle answered Caravel's question.
"The Mage who came here last night and stole her egg from the Rookery."
"No!" Loran sat bolt upright, a cold sweat covering his body and making him shiver in the chilly pre-dawn air. He ran his hand over his face, trying to dispel the memory of the words that still rang in his sleep-deprived mind. For six months they had haunted him, and they still had the power to pull him from his slumber. He had lost track of the number of times the nightmare had struck.
It was always the same. He would be running - chasing his female as she flew far ahead of him. He was always barely able to keep sight of her, but he never stopped running. Always, she began to slow. Always, just when he thought that he would surely catch her this time, a giant human hand would snatch her up and she would be gone. The only thing remaining was her voice, saying the same words, over and over again.
"He stole my egg. Now he has stolen me!"
Knowing further attempts at sleep would be useless, Loran stood and began to dress. His mind instantly began to replay memories of the times they had shared, as it tried to do every moment of every day. For the past six months Loran had fought a constant battle to keep the memories buried, for he could not bear the pain they caused him. But this time, Loran didn't try to stop them. He was weary. Too weary to fight the pain any longer. He almost welcomed the heavy weight of guilt and shame that settled on his heart as he gave in to the memories.
He understood her now, as he had not back then. Now he knew of her strength and her courage, but he also knew her heart. He had come to realise that she had kept it hidden from him for all the years that they were together. Except for that one time... Looking back, he was disgusted with himself for the way he had treated her. She had been far more precious than he had allowed himself to realise, and now she was gone. He couldn't believe that he had listened to his pride instead of his heart. Now it was too late...
Six months ago, she had gone in pursuit of the Mage who had stolen her egg. She had not been seen since. He had tried to find her, but something blocked every one of his spells. It was as though she had vanished into thin air. He wished for nothing more than to see her again...
Loran sighed and turned to his silver mirror, more from habit than out of any wish to see how he looked. Her sweet face looked back at him. In his despair, he had unintentionally scried for her!
The three Magi were powerful, but they were no match for a furiously determined Faerie Prince. The first one went down before he could loose even a single spell. The second managed to release a fireball, but it faded to wisps of smoke when it met the force of Loran's own attack. The same attack knocked the second Mage across the room. He hit the wall with a dull thud and slid down to the floor, unconscious. The third Mage tried a binding spell, and it worked enough to slow Loran down. As Loran began to raise his hand towards the spellcaster, the man did the only thing he could think of. He tried to bargain for his life.
"Why have you come here? We do not interfere with your kind, so why have you attacked us?"
He was thrown across the room by the force of Loran's blast, the Faerie's furious words still ringing in his ears.
"Because you dared capture, imprison and torture my beloved!"
Loran had not killed them, but when he found her locked in a small stone room, bound by spells and magicked chains, it took all of his control not to go back and destroy them completely. When he saw the marks of their cruelty and mistreatment covering her pale skin, he almost lost that control, but she needed his presence far more than he needed vengeance.
As he looked down at her, she raised her head and her wide, frightened eyes pierced his heart. He was suddenly struck by how small and fragile she was. Even in his Faerie form, he was still over a foot taller than her petite five-foot frame. She made a soft whimpering sound and he knelt down beside her, his hand lifting instinctively to cup her cheek in reassurance. It was a familiar gesture to both of them, although he hadn't realised it until that moment. He smiled, but his expression froze as she started trembling, her eyes filled with shock.
"What..." Then he realised. She had never before seen him as he truly was. He started to speak, to explain, but she suddenly threw herself at him, holding him as tightly as her bonds would allow. She sobbed into his shoulder. He held her tightly. It was some time before he understood what she was saying. Then he held her even tighter.
"Nightwing! You came for me! I am so glad you came!"
"Of course I came. You are my heart. I could not bear life without you."
Loran could not help but smile as he gazed across the room at the female who had become the heart of his world without him even realising it. Centuries had passed since their first meeting by the stream in the forest, but he could still remember the first thought that had crept into his mind at the sight of her sitting on the grass, her face streaked with tears.
"I thought you were the most beautiful female I had ever seen."
Heart gasped softly as Loran's voice whispered unexpectedly in her ear. Even after all the years they had been together, he could still catch her unawares. She liked that. "You thought that? When?" She leaned back slightly against him. Much to her delight, he brushed a kiss along the base of her neck. She loved it when he was in a playful mood.
"The first time I saw you."
He kissed her again, but this time she was too distracted to notice. "The first time... But you were just bored and curious. All you wanted was a..." She paused, searching for the right word.
Loran slipped an arm around her waist and held her close. "A dalliance. Yes, that is true. Except for one thing." He nuzzled his cheek against hers and whispered his secret in her delicately pointed ear.
"That night, I went to the castle because I wanted to find out what made Gargoyle females so special that one could hold my little brother's attention for over fifty years. I was just going to observe a few females for a week or two. I had no intention of choosing one in particular to study, let alone dallying with one. But then I saw you, sitting by the stream. Later, I told myself that our dalliance was merely... research. But the truth is... You were the most beautiful female I had ever seen and from the moment I saw you, I had to make you mine. Instead though... you made me yours. Forever."
He tried to kiss her neck again, but she pulled away. Disappointed, and suddenly apprehensive that he'd said too much, Loran waited for her reaction. When she merely turned around and slipped back into his embrace, he was more than a little relieved.
Heart smiled up into her beloved's eyes. "We belong to each other. We have from the moment you named me."
Laughter sparkled in Loran's eyes. "You know, when I said that you were my heart, I did not mean for you to take it quite so literally."
"Now he tells me!" Heart smiled up at him, her eyes dancing with mischief. "In that case, perhaps I should change it..." She gasped as he swooped in, then murmured softly as he kissed her soundly. She murmured again in complaint when he pulled back.
"Do you mean that?" Heart blinked at the sad note in Loran's voice. He could keep his emotions off his face, but he had never been able to hide them in his voice. At least, not from her.
"No. I am your Heart. Forever." She cupped his cheek gently and smiled at his sigh of relief.
"I don't believe it! Honestly, they're almost as bad as Starwing and Stonesinger!" Loran and Heart froze in surprise at the laughing voice. It was all too familiar.
"No one is as bad as Starwing and Stonesinger." The dry response earned quite a few chuckles. All of the chuckles were as familiar as the two voices.
Loran sighed and shook his head. "I should have known it was too peaceful to last." He turned and frowned at his brothers. "What are you doing here?"
Borovan smiled. Since he was in his muscular ten-foot Gargoyle form, it was a rather menacing sight. "Not much of a greeting, Brother. Surely you did not think that we would stay away on such an occasion as this?" His stone-grey eyes gleamed with amusement.
"No, I knew it was too much to hope for." Loran smiled back at his brother.
"Ouch!" Caravel laughed and bounced forward to hug his brother with a little more enthusiasm than was needed. "Love you too, little brother! And you, Heart!" He gave Heart a loud smacking kiss and laughed at Loran's glare. "Nice to see that you're still predictable!" He winked, making Loran groan.
"So..." Nerel shifted slightly, still not as used to his Gargoyle form as his brothers were. "When do we get to meet..." He trailed off, his observant gaze noting the swift look that passed between Loran and Heart.
Borovan noticed it too, but he also recognised it. "You have not told him yet, have you?"
Loran sighed softly. "Everything has happened so quickly... We did not want to rush him..."
He held Heart close as he glanced over at the young Gargoyle who had been returned to the clan earlier in the night. Echo was surrounded by the clan's other hatchlings, all wanting to know about his life and telling him all about life with the clan. Echo was starting to look a little anxious.
"It is a lot for him to take in," Borovan agreed quietly, noticing the hatchling's unease.
"Exactly. We did not want to add anything more." Loran sighed again.
"We're definitely a lot to get used to." For once, Caravel was being perfectly serious.
As if sensing their attention, Echo suddenly looked over at the group. A slight frown crossed his face as he gazed at them. His attention went from Fierfel to Nerel, then to Borovan, Caravel and Tamelin. Finally, Echo's eyes locked with Loran's. Both went perfectly still as the air around both of them seemed to hum faintly. Echo's eyes widened, but not in fear. He took one hesitant step in Loran's direction, his expression filled with wonder. At Loran's side, Heart stirred slightly and Echo's eyes moved to hers. Loran could feel Heart trembling. Echo turned to speak to Shamrock.
"Shamrock... I feel as if... Are they... my parents?"
"Yes. They've been looking for you for a very long time. Why don't you go say hello?"
The once-lost hatchling needed no further encouragement. Shamrock smiled as Echo broke away from the other hatchlings and launched himself across the room. His smile widened as Loran and Heart broke apart just enough to catch Echo as he rushed into their welcoming arms.
Centuries had passed, but now the family was finally reunited.
"And they lived happily ever after."