The Dissidents: Fear of Gliding
by Christine Morgan

Author's Note: The characters of Gargoyles are the property of Disney and are used here without their creators' knowledge or permission. All others belong to the author. 20,000 words. September / October 2002.

"Natasha! Nataaaaasha! Wait for me!"
The hatchling spread her little wings as wide as they would go and kicked her feet too, as if that might help her go faster. But the pair of gliding gargoyles ahead of her extended their lead as they wove through the sheltering trees.
"Natasha!" she cried. She knew it was her sister, for they shared the same strawberry blond hair, the same pale ivory-green skin tone. That was Natasha's tunic, forest green trimmed with gold. And that was surely Natasha's boyfriend, Grigori.
It was just like them to go off and leave her. Go off to kiss, probably. All Natasha ever wanted to do now was kiss with Grigori. The rest of them were just as bad. All sneaking away when they were supposed to be hunting, or fishing, or helping out around the fort. Sneaking away into the woods or down on the rocky coast to kiss and giggle.
Well, not tonight. Natasha had promised.
The other hatchlings never seemed to care. They played their games and attended to their parents and didn't mind that their older brothers and sisters no longer played with them, or paid attention to them. But she had no one but her sister, and it wasn't fair that Natasha would ignore her like this.
The edge of the land was up ahead, the booming of the surf audible over the rushing in her ears. The dense forest gave way to barren rock where the wind howled like a living thing. She could see the old pilings where the bridge had once been, and the dark shadow of the island where the waves dashed themselves to foam.
She expected Natasha and Grigori to descend into whatever grove or cove they'd chosen for their evening of kissing. Instead, to her surprise, they showed every indication of heading out over the water, to the island. Vassily's island.
A delicious tremor of fear ran down her spine and made her tail curl.
Vassily! How many times had she and the other hatchlings been warned that if they didn't behave and mind their elders, that Vassily would rise from the island with his great black wings blotting out the sky, and turn them over his great horned knee, and spank goodness into them.
Some of the males her age boasted that they weren't afraid of Vassily. Some even said that he didn't exist, but was only a story that the elders made up to frighten them.
Still, no one ever went to Vassily's island. It was a rugged place, all crags and crevices and water-worn stones turned white with the droppings of gulls. The only trees that lived there were stunted and bent into strange clawing shapes by the ceaseless sea wind.
If she were ever going to go off kissing with someone – not that she ever would; she couldn't fathom why Natasha liked all that, even if everyone in the clan said Grigori was the handsomest of the young males – Vassily's island would be the last place she'd pick.
"Natasha!" She shrieked it for all she was worth, and was rewarded by seeing her sister whip around in mid-air, her long braid flying.
The loved and familiar face first gaped in surprise and then twisted in annoyance. Grigori likewise turned, his batlike wings catching an updraft. He scowled. The hatchling saw that he was carrying a basket.
Worse and worse! They'd gone off and left her to have a picnic!
Tired from chasing them, she settled onto an outcrop to catch her breath. Natasha said something to Grigori that the wind stole away, and headed back. She landed nearby and looked down at her with her fists planted on her hips.
"What are you doing here?"
"You said you'd play with me. You promised."
"I can't play with you tonight."
"But you promised."
"Go back to the fort. Go back to the clan. I'll play with you another night."
The hatchling's lower lip stuck out. "I want to come with you."
"No."
"Why not?"
"Because this is for adults, that's why. Not for whiny little ones."
"I won't whine," she said. "I swear."
"You still can't come. You're not old enough."
She could see others now, Natasha's rookery friends, soaring out toward the island. Two by two, and most of them holding hands and carrying baskets.
"You're having a party!" she accused.
Natasha rolled her eyes and blew out a breath. "We're going to see Vassily, and you can't go. You're just a baby. Now, go back to the fort and find something to do."
"Come back with me, then." She clutched at Natasha's hand.
"No, sister. This is important."
"So am I!"
"I've looked after you for most of your life," Natasha said. "Ever since Mama and Papa died, I've been the one to see that you're fed and taught and cared for. It's my turn to have something that I need and want."
"But I –"
"Just go." Natasha shook free of her with an anger that made the younger female tremble on the verge of tears. She spun away and strode to the edge, fanning her wings and flexing her legs as she prepared to leap into the sky.
"You're mean!" the hatchling cried.
"Go home," Natasha shot back, and leapt. Grigori circled about to meet her. As Natasha met up with the male, she said something and then they both laughed. Mockingly. It burned in the hatchling's mind like a flame.
The wind was gaining strength, and the clouds which had been scudding in from the Pacific were roiling, pierced with lightning. The gliding pairs of gargoyles cavorted in the storm. They rose, and dove, and soared, and twirled on their way to the island.
"I'll show them," she muttered.
She looked down at the crashing sea, up at the churning clouds. Strands of hair that had escaped her braid were whipped into her face. The first few raindrops, fat and heavy, pattered on the stone.
Steeling herself, she opened her wings and jumped. The wind caught her and tossed her upward, hard, nearly wrenching her wingjoints out of their sockets. She couldn't help screaming as she was flipped head over tail.
The next gust drove her down at an angle, toward the whitecaps. She fought to right herself. The others had vanished onto Vassily's island. There was no one to see her plight, no one to help her. She had to do it on her own.
She straightened out and tried to remember the lessons she and the other hatchlings had been given. This wild weather over the sea was so different from the haven of the forest, almost alive in its capricious ferocity. She understood now why the teachers wanted them to practice in the forest first, and in milder winds, as they improved their skill over time.
The island wasn't far. She strained toward it, thinking of the picnic they'd be having. Natasha might be cross with her at first but she'd realize what a brave and grown-up thing her baby sister had done, and then be proud of her. They'd all be proud of her, and let her stay to join in the festivities.
A scream. The wind … except it wasn't the wind. It was a voice raised in terror, or pain.
Her toes touched down on the rough rocks of Vassily's island. As she did, other screams burst into the night. As if the stones themselves were alive and crying out in agony from her weight. Her breath caught in her throat like a thorn. Her eyes felt so wide they ached, and she instinctively wrapped her wings tight around her small body.
"Na … Natasha?" It was barely more than a peep. All at once she was more frightened than she'd ever been. "Natasha? Grigori? Somebody?"
Her sister answered, but in a high spiraling shriek that slashed across her soul. The shriek ended in a brutal ripping sound.
The hatchling's legs felt like stilts. She tottered forward on them. In her mind, she was already turning to flee, making a streak across the stormy sky as she raced for home. But her legs, somehow independent of this, carried her onward through boulders and past the bent sticks of the trees.
She was walking on grit and pebbles. Her feet made grinding, sliding noises.
Something up ahead grunted. A low, deep, slobbery sound that was hideous in its greed and hunger.
The hatchling froze. Her heart seemed to have stopped.
Grigori burst out of nowhere. He was on all fours in a dead run, his hair streaking back from his brow ridge, his eyes and mouth round rings of horror. His hands and feet raked up sprays of tiny stones.
She thought for the barest of instants that he was trying to scare her, playing some prank. But his expression was too stark to be feigned. He sped toward her as if he didn't even see her there. As he reached a rise, he sprang. She dropped to a crouch, covered her head.
His leap was yanked short as something closed around his legs. It split the air with a whipcrack, coiled around him, bound him, snapped him back. Grigori jerked and thrashed like a fish on a line. He lost what little altitude he'd gained and slammed down onto the pebbly earth. He scrabbled at it.
She saw what she was crouching in and her blood turned to ice. Grit and pebbles, she'd thought. But no ordinary grit and pebbles.
Grigori finally saw her. He reached out, his eyes pleading, his hand grasping at the air. His lips silently formed her name.
He was being dragged back. Dragged back over the crumbled remains of gargoyles. The rough strew of gravel scraped the skin from his knees, his chest, his elbows. He went over the rise. The last to go was his desperate, supplicating hand.
"No!" Grigori wailed. "No, don't, please, no!" This was followed by a babbled slew of a rookery-rhyme in the Russian that the clan hardly ever used anymore, a prayer.
Slowly, not meaning to but helplessly drawn, the hatchling rose from her crouch. She inched ahead past overturned baskets that had dumped their freight of food.
She saw a hole like a crater. Saw the blood, and the bits of stone, spilled all about. She saw Grigori and what had him. What happened to him.
And then she was running for her life, knowing that it was already too late.

**

"Well, guys, it's been great," Birdie Yale said.
The Mists' Passage had brought them to Hawaii, where Mr. and Mrs. Charles Yale were celebrating their thirtieth anniversary on the 24th of April. They'd been so overwhelmed and delighted by their daughter showing up to surprise them that they hadn't even questioned how she'd gotten there and why her luggage consisted of the same items she'd taken to Egypt.
When the fog had first parted and revealed the lush islands with their steaming jungles and the glowing streams of lava snaking down the sides of volcanoes, Icarus thought they'd come to yet another unnamed, unknown island. The sight of the high-rise hotels had quickly put an end to that.
They'd spent several nights in a secluded cove, Birdie smuggling them luau treats while Ezekiel in his plodding but patient way tried to teach his new charges to speak. He'd acquired by right of combat a mate with two hatchlings and brought them along over Tourmaline's objections. Corwin and Icarus, sympathetic to their dapple-green brother's cause, had joined in the effort. Tourmaline, of course, only insisted they were all wasting their time trying to educate such primitive creatures.
But it was beginning to look as though Tourmaline might be wrong. While not geniuses, the female and her offspring were quick studies once they'd overcome their initial timidity.
Ezekiel had named the female after Birdie had made some crack about Piltdown Man that none of them had understood. As far as Ezekiel was concerned, the blue-grey down that covered her body in camouflage spots and stripes was reason enough to call her by that. And so, Piltdown she became.
The hatchlings, a scrapper of a young male and a much more reticent female, became Fuzz and Fluff respectively. This all made Tourmaline scoff and roll her eyes and generally carry on in her usual fashion, but Ezekiel would not be deterred. Icarus thought that it was good to see him standing up for himself instead of bowing to her will, or following the lead of others.
He envied his slow-witted but loyal brother as well. Piltdown might be uneducated, and her ways might seem savage and foreign to them – Ezekiel had won her by defeating a monstrously huge gargoyle on an island where wingspan and flamboyance had caused the males to grow to enormous size and have their pick of the females by right of might – but she was appealing in her simple nature. Once she got over the fear that Ezekiel or one of the other males would kill her children, the better to encourage her to breed anew, she had quickly accepted them as her new clan.
The hatchlings themselves were similarly quick to adjust. They still stayed close to their mother, but they had begun to respond to play overtures from Ezekiel, Corwin, and Birdie. Icarus, they continued to shy away from, perhaps put off by his fearsomely scarred appearance, and Tourmaline's cold and disdainful nature had immediately quelled their initial curious investigations of the proud clan leader.
What was most difficult to overcome was the way Tourmaline and Piltdown reacted to one another. It was Piltdown's submissive attitude that seemed to gall Tourmaline the most, and she often spoke of how the blue-grey female needed to grow a backbone. Neither Icarus nor Corwin felt particularly disposed to remind her that when others of their sisters – strong-willed Hippolyta, for instance – had shown such backbone, Tourmaline had always been ready with her razor-edged tongue. And as for Piltdown, the more angrily Tourmaline treated her, the more submissive she became.
Too, Tourmaline was more irritable than usual because of the thickening bulge of her waist. The egg that she carried robbed her of her grace and reminded her at every turn of Jacob, and Avalon. She had carried it almost without showing for much of her pregnancy and then it was as if all at once her body puffed. Keeping track of the timing of it was nearly impossible. By the human calendar, it had been nearly a year since they left Avalon, but a good half of that had passed in a matter of days for them while they were in the between-world of the mists, so none of them really had any idea how far along Tourmaline was.
She was more apt than ever to lash out if she thought that any of them were making fun of her, or her abilities to lead their clan when she could barely rise from a sitting position without help. The swordbelt she'd worn so regally since their visit to the Sterling Academy had to be slung over her shoulder now, as it would no longer go around her girth.
"Are you sure you don't want to stay?" Birdie asked now, eyeing Tourmaline's expansive midsection. "This wouldn't be a bad place to lay an egg."
"And then what?" Tourmaline gave her a narrow look. "Leave it here? Bury it in the sand like a sea-turtle and forget it? Hardly. This egg, this hatchling, is mine."
"What she suggests is valid, sister," Corwin said. "It is high time we established a rookery for you."
"High time we found a home," Ezekiel added. He had one hand resting lightly on Piltdown's shoulder as she stood by his side. The hatchlings gamboled around their feet, engaged in an energetic game of catch-tail.
Icarus was torn by that. Part of him agreed with Ezekiel. Leaving Avalon had seemed the right and indeed only thing to do at the time, each of them for his or her own reasons. But their adventures hadn't always been pleasant.
Oh, they had made good human friends in the Jessecs, and good allies with the Illuminati, but was that worth the death of Hippolyta? Was that worth the killing they had done?
Cassius had found a home and a mate, opting to stay with Khepri in Egypt where they would guard the day and the night. Ezekiel had brought his new family with him, and like most males was ripe with urges to hunt, provide, protect, and teach. Corwin was as sanguine as ever.
And what had Icarus found? The peace he'd lacked all his life? Hardly. Wherever he went, he took his pain and his shame with him. The others might think he sought some place where he would fit in, but how could that ever be? In any place where there were gargoyles, they would look on him with the same revulsion and pity he'd grown so accustomed to seeing in the eyes of his rookery siblings.
A stranger might wonder, upon viewing the mangled ruins of his wings, the stumps of broken horns and spurs, or the scars that scrawled in knotted pale profusion over the slate-grey of his skin, whether Icarus had been injured in some cataclysmic battle. Injured so badly that not even stone sleep could entirely mend the damage.
But deception was not in him. He would know, and could not bear even to lie by omission. The marks of his folly were his own. He could not blame anyone else for them. Not even Hippolyta for daring him, and it would be a bitterness on his heart to the end of his life that he'd never made that plain to her. He did not blame her. It had all been his doing, his fault.
He had chosen to race the sunrise.
The others of his clan thought it unthinkingly cruel of the Magus to have given him the name he now bore. They could not even recall what his egg-name had been. Did he blame them for that? Not at all. Iphitus, Icarus, the two were so alike in sound that it was easy to forget.
And the Magus had begun to call him Icarus even before the accident. That had not been the first and only time he'd been careless with his gliding as Avalon's dawn hove nigh. The Magus had in fact taken him aside to tell him the legend and warn him of it. But Icarus, with all the vainglorious bravado of the young and foolhardy, had laughed him off.
So it was that he deserved the name. He had bought it with his own blood and suffering. Icarus, who had chased the sun and fallen to his doom.
He had lived, somehow. He remembered the edge of the sun rising, the rays so golden and beautiful caressing him like warm fingers. Then came the stiffness in his limbs, the crackle of his skin, and the relentless pull of the earth as he fell. He did not remember striking the ground, but when sunset came and his stone skin fell away in shards, the agony of his imperfectly healed flesh had brought him screaming to wakefulness.
The Magus and Princess Katherine had done what they could for him, tended him throughout that long and terrible day as they waited with dismal apprehension for him to break away into death-gravel. The fact that he had not done so reassured them, and they were there with draughts of medicines when he revived.
Pain had been his companion ever since, pain and self-loathing and a sour jealousy of his rookery siblings that he tried to keep concealed. They could move freely, they could glide skillfully, they were robust and sleek in face and body.
Jealousy, yes … but never hatred. He would not allow himself that.
When Tourmaline had advanced her plan to leave Avalon, he had readily agreed to join her. And why not? What was there for him on Avalon? The rest of the clan had paired or triaded off and would be happily occupied with their eggs, their hatchlings.
Oberon's Children had returned to the isle in all their splendor and beauty, and those who did not openly make fun of Icarus instead looked on him as if he were the most grotesque of all monsters. Some had even gone to Oberon and requested that Icarus be left out from the ranks of gargoyle warriors who served as the shining palace's honor guard. To have to see him, they claimed, spoiled their appetite and enjoyment of the festivities.
And so, yes, he had taken the chance to leave. To see more of this world that they heard of only second-hand, and find a place in it. Now, having seen some of the outside world, he despaired of ever belonging here, either, yet they could not return to Avalon and their drifting life at the whim of the mists was beginning to pall.
"I cannot possibly make a rookery here," Tourmaline said. "You say these islands are visited by millions of humans each year. Are we to hope to spend ten years undiscovered?"
While giving such a speech, Icarus would have expected a gravid female to place defensive hands over the roundness of her belly. Tourmaline only thrust hers aggressively forward as if daring Birdie to or Corwin to presume to advise her, using the egg itself as a shield.
"It was only an idea," Birdie said, shrugging.
"There are too many people here," Ezekiel said. "But we do need a place of our own. Wasn't that why we left? To find a place that could be ours?"
"It is and we shall," Tourmaline said.
Birdie looked as though she might have been considering making another suggestion – that they contact the clan in New York, for instance, great Goliath's clan – but she decided against it and moved to give fond farewell embraces to Ezekiel, Piltdown, and the hatchlings.
"You've got my phone number," she said. "I'm not the most reliable person in the world but I like to look out for my friends. So give me a call if you need anything, or if you do find a place to settle down. Maybe I'll come and visit some day."
"How nice that would be," said Tourmaline. She frowned at how Birdie had gone on to embrace Corwin … and embrace him … and show no signs of letting go. "Ahem."
At last and with visible reluctance, Birdie let go of their golden brother. She stepped back from him and shook her head. "As for you, I just hope you find that special someone, whoever he turns out to be. The thought of a hunk like you letting it go to waste makes me want to cry."
"I swear to you, m'lady," Corwin said with a grin, "that I shall surely do my utmost."
With a cheeky smile, Birdie stopped in front of Tourmaline and opened her arms expectantly.
Tourmaline's brow ridge raised on a sharp slant. "Fare thee well, Birdie Yale."
"What, no hug?"
"The night wanes and we must go."
"Okay, okay." Seemingly not put out in the slightest, Birdie came to Icarus.
He drew back a little.
"Easy does it, big guy, I don't bite. Often." She slid her arms around him. "Have a good trip."
Corwin urged Icarus with a look. Hesitantly, he brought his arms up and patted the woman on the back. She was all pressed against him, warm and curvaceous, and it was a frankly disturbing sensation.
When Birdie released him, Tourmaline made an imperious gesture toward the ship. The Mists' Passage bobbed serenely in the Hawaiian waters, over a dark bowl that would be a riot of colors by day but was mysterious in black and flitting darts of silver by moonlight. It had the look of a small vessel, hardly fit for sea-going, but it had been a gift to them from Queen Titania herself and was far larger within than it seemed.
They boarded, and Icarus took up his customary place at the stern of the craft. Corwin and Ezekiel raised the anchor. Birdie waved from the beach as Icarus guided the Mists' Passage with its long steering-pole. The calm waters of the cove gave way to rolling waves, and further down the shore they could see ranks of scooped combers sweeping along, sapphire-blue edged in white. The fleet dark shapes of night-surfers rode them, all uncanny grace unless sudden mishap turned them into spinning rag-dolls.
Pale eddies gathered around the bow, along the sides. Soon, out of nowhere, a fog bank formed in front of them. Icarus watched as the prow of the ship, then Corwin, and then the rest disappeared into it. He felt the first cool breath of the mist upon him. Tendrils wreathed his legs, his arms. Then all the world was ghostly white and silent as they once more began the journey to Avalon's mystic fringe.

**

"Mavra, Duscha, Irina, Olga, Stefanya," Verochka said, looking from one to the next as they stood before her.
The solemnity of the occasion could not quell their excited fidgeting, or their giggles. Only when her clouded, yellowing eyes fell upon each female's face did that female struggle to present some semblance of attentive self-control.
The elder sighed inwardly. She remembered what it was to have the hot blood of passion pulsing in her veins, remembered the glorious freedom of skimming the night sky with a fine and virile male in eager pursuit. When she had been young, she had not wanted to pay heed to instruction at a time like this.
She wondered if Boris was having similar difficulties with the males. She wondered if Boris was thinking back to their own first breeding season with as warm and fond a recollection. Those times were long behind them now, the province of their children's children.
"Do you understand –" Verochka began.
"Yes, yes," Duscha interrupted. "We do, we do, we understand, now let us be off. Igor will be waiting for me."
"And Pavel for me," Stefanya said with another giggle.
"And Yuri –"
Verochka cut off Irina with just as much sharpness and rudeness as Duscha had afforded her. "Igor, Pavel, Yuri, and their brothers will be listening to elder Boris, and if they show him their impertinence, he is not too old to lay about them with his tail."
Nor am I, she conveyed as best she could with a glare.
The females subsided. Duscha's lip stuck out sullenly but Stefanya and Olga had the decency to look properly abashed and humbled. Mavra and Irina put on patient expressions and Mavra, insolent creature that she was, even made a grandiloquent gesture as if granting the elder the permission to continue.
She cleared her throat with a rattling harumph. "You five bear a great responsibility. The fate and future of our clan rests on you and your chosen mates."
They puffed up a bit at that and Duscha's pout turned into a smug little smile that was no more becoming.
It might have been for the best of them all, Verochka reflected, if someone had given her a few swats between egg and adulthood. Leaders' children, what spoiled things they could be. But just try to say as much to Sergei. Just try. He'd take such news with as much welcome as he did any suggestion that he was past his prime and should have stepped down long ago.
Stepped down, da, but in favor of whom? Their ranks had grown so thin. All Verochka could hope was that when this business was over – and Dragon willing, that it go well; anything else hardly bore contemplating – one of the crop of youngsters would show some strength or wisdom.
And if …
No. Nyet. She would not think of that.
It was over. It was in the past.
She studied the females again. Thirty-two years since they'd hatched. Had they any idea of what they were about to do? Did they accept that there might be danger, or discount it as something that had no bearing on them, on their lives? They had the arrogance of youth, the certainty that all would go well for them.
Speak to them of it? Warn them? Remind them? Or would they think her an old fool? She was not fully blind yet and if she had to see that knowing smirk on Duscha's lips, why, she might take it into her head to slap it away.
Looking at them, she knew it was useless. Their thoughts were not on her, not on anything she might have to say. In their minds, they were already in flight, swooping and soaring and showing off for the males.
Verochka shook her head. "You know the ritual," she said. "Go, and be careful."
They likely heard nothing else but 'go,' and went with a burst of exuberant laughter. Verochka stood hunched over her cane, the end planted solidly between her talons, and shook her head again. She stayed like that until she heard something – her eyes might be going but her ears were still sharp enough to hear the heartbeat of a rabbit in its burrow – and turned.
Boris shuffled toward her. His smile was sad, knowing, and worried all in one.
"They were not in a listening mood for you, either," he said.
"No."
"We were that young once, you know."
"That young," she said, "but never that foolish."
"Or so we like to think now," he chuckled. His hand closed on her shoulder, still strong although the years had dulled his skin from the deep burnt orange of an autumn leaf to a weary dust-color. "Will they be all right, Verochka?"
"It is not for me to say."
"I fear for them."
"Yes. I fear for them as well."
He sighed heavily. "But it is in the Dragon's claws now. We have done what we could."
"What of Sergei?" Verochka asked. "What does he say?"
"That lightning does not strike the same tree twice."
They looked up at the clouds, which seethed with violent blue-white energy. The rain had not come yet, but the ceaseless growl of thunder that had been mingled with the surf was rising, like the voice of a beast wakened into rage.
"He said that, did he?" Verochka asked. "I hope for the sake of us all that he's right for once."

**

The sea, placid one moment as they sailed smoothly through the mist, switched to a thrashing indigo fury with such suddenness that Icarus lost his hold on the pole. Where calm fog had been, rain beat down in stinging pellets, and the sky exploded with thunderclaps.
Icarus grabbed for the pole. It evaded him with capricious ease and knocked him in the temple hard enough to bring starbursts before his eyes. He seized it and felt the waves yanking it around with such force that his shoulders creaked in their sockets.
Timbers groaned as wind and waves battered the ship. Through the dazzling white flashes of lightning, Icarus saw a rocky coastline ahead. They were being swept toward it at frightening speed. He realized it was an island and the mainland, its coast no less rocky but crowned also with a tall and thick stand of forest, was likewise looming near.
If they had come out of the mist only a bit to the right, they would have already been dashed to splinters and gravel on the seaward cliff of the island. Icarus tried to count that as a blessing as he fought to steer. It was futile, for the pole continued to snap back and forth and it was all he could do to hang on.
He could see Corwin and Tourmaline engaged in similar struggles, and looked around just in time to witness Ezekiel's heroic dive to snare little Fluff by the foot as she slid, squalling in terror, over the side. Ezekiel dragged the hatchling to safety and bounded with her, Fluff clinging to his neck with all limbs and her tail so that it was a wonder she didn't throttle him, to the doorway leading below.
Tourmaline's strident voice cut through the tumult. "There!"
She was pointing, one arm wrapped snug around the mast and her wings folded tight. Her hair blew around her in a black tornado. She was pointing to the shore, to a breakwater. Above it, eerily lit in the sputters of lightning, was the crumbled ruin of a keep, a fortress.
Icarus wanted to shout back something to the effect of there, indeed, good luck, for he had no more hope of controlling the ship than he did of flying to the moon, but he just held onto the tiller-pole.
The sea picked up the Mists' Passage and rushed her forward. They sped past the island. The hull bumped and scraped over something that, if not for the boost of the wave, would have surely gutted them. The water between was calmer, if only by a little, and Icarus found that his body-straining efforts did bring a nominal response from the tiller.
They cleared the end of the breakwater with another of those terrible scraping bumps. The shore was still coming at them – and that was how it seemed, not that they were moving but that the land was charging at them like an oncoming wall of enemies – and Corwin pulled himself hand-over-hand along the rail until he could drop the anchor.
The ship shuddered to a halt, though still rocking and bobbing at the mercy of the elements. Drenched from the punishing rain, Icarus, Corwin, and Tourmaline met by the foredeck as Ezekiel poked a cautious head up from below.
"A fortress," Corwin said. "No lights on. If they have modern power, the storm would have seen to ripping down the lines, but they would have candles, lanterns, I'd think."
"It must be abandoned," Tourmaline said. She grimaced and rubbed the hard round ball of her belly with one hand, while working at the muscles of her lower back with the other. "Those pilings might have meant a bridge to the island and that's not newly fallen-in. I see no other signs of human habitations."
"Has anyone an idea where we are?" Ezekiel called.
"It's not unlike the landscape where we first came away from Avalon," Corwin said after surveying their surroundings. "When we made the acquaintance of Ron and Toby Jessec. A northern sea, that would be my guess. Bit of a letdown after Hawaii, wouldn't you say?"
"But we were apparently sent here for a reason," Tourmaline said.
The bitterness of her tone reminded any of them who might have forgotten that she had grown to resent, deeply and intensely, the fact that they were not captains of their own destiny but rather borne along in servitude to the will of some other power. Avalon, or perhaps Queen Titania herself, but where they went was somehow predetermined and for a purpose that was not always immediately clear. It only further rankled her when Ezekiel would, with a sort of implacable stubbornness, insist that they must have been meant to save Piltdown and her hatchlings.
"Do we go ashore?" Ezekiel asked.
Tourmaline's answer was nothing any of them had expected. She bent double and cried out, and would have fallen to her knees had Icarus not been near enough to catch her. As she sagged strengthlessly against him, he felt a tremor shake her body.
He and Corwin looked at each other in a shared moment of utter numb helplessness.
"The egg," Icarus said.
"Doubtless," Corwin replied.
Tourmaline cried out again.
"What do we do?" Icarus asked.
They had known, curse it all, that this night was coming. And yet somehow, he had always believed on some unarticulated level that they would be in a safe, known place with someone who would know how to handle such matters. There had never been an egg-laying on Avalon, and it wasn't as if Princess Katherine or the Magus had been able to impart much lore of use.
The shocked look in Corwin's eyes said that he was thinking much the same things. Perhaps females might know by instinct what to do, and perhaps males who had mates of their own might somehow glean it by magic. But neither of them had, to Icarus' knowledge, even fully coupled with a female let alone sired eggs on a mate.
Another contraction wrenched Tourmaline. Icarus, still holding her, felt a peculiar pop transmitted from her hipbone to his. She was panting, gouging his arm hard enough to draw blood.
They might have stood there all night, pair of useless dithering males that they were, if not for Piltdown. She elbowed past Corwin and slid her palms over Tourmaline's extended stomach, nodding to herself. Tourmaline mustered a glower but did not try to push the other female away.
"Should we take her below?" Corwin asked.
Ezekiel joined them with a hatchling in the crook of each arm. Fluff and Fuzz were shivering and their downy covering was flattened and bedraggled, the effect making their eyes look all the more enormous. Icarus thought they looked a bit like dunked kittens.
"I want … a … rookery," gasped Tourmaline. She gritted her teeth as the clench passed. "A proper stone-walled rookery with straw on the floor. Not the hold of a ship and canvas sacking!"
"We're not in a position to be choosy," Corwin pointed out.
But Piltdown was already on the move. She had lost her hard-earned language and was clucking and cooing at Icarus while she tugged him toward the rail and gesticulated up at the fortress, and the forbidding stands of trees.
"We'd best hope it's abandoned," Icarus said.
"How about a nice nest in the treetops?" Corwin asked, and Tourmaline slapped him soundly enough to rock him back.
"Can you carry her?" Ezekiel made a motion as if to set the hatchlings down and they scrabbled at him, squawking and scolding furiously.
Icarus raised his eyes to the fortress. So high, and with the wind like this? With the rain coming down in sheets and lightning splitting the heavens? He couldn't get himself up there unencumbered, let alone with the egg-heavy Tourmaline in his arms.
Corwin moved up beside her, never minding the shocking crimson blotch on the side of his face or the way she bared her teeth at him. He slung her arm over his shoulders.
"You get that side, brother, and together we should make it."
His mouth had gone dry. Icarus slid his cupped palm up his own chest, collecting rainwater, and lapped it from his hand. It did nothing to help, while only worsening the lump that had taken up residence in his throat.
"If I fall …"
"You shan't," said Corwin, so briskly and confidently that he sounded as though he believed his own words.
Piltdown hopped around them, fussing and pinching to get them headed in the right direction. Once roused, she was all brusqueness and businesslike demeanor. Funny to observe had the situation not been so serious. Where were they to find a 'proper' rookery for Tourmaline in a place like this with the storm of the century howling all around them?
Icarus and Corwin, with Tourmaline between them, climbed unsteadily to the top of the rail. Their combined weight caused the ship to dip severely to that side, and they leaped while they still had room to gain some air. Icarus bit back a groan of pain as his half-wing stretched into extension. He faltered almost at once and Corwin was dragged down.
"Steady on, we can make it," Corwin exhorted.
"Fly, you useless male," snapped Tourmaline.
Piltdown fluttered around them like a furry moth, her darting grace making even more of a mockery of their clumsy ascent. Ezekiel paused long enough to utter the spell-command that Titania had given them, the one that caused the Mists' Passage to sink into undetectable concealment beneath the surface, then spiraled higher to join them with the hatchlings still firmly affixed to his arms.
The bluff was much higher than it had appeared. Icarus made the mistake of looking down, down at the sea that rose and fell and pounded against the rocks. His body ached with the effort. A ground-glass agony was in his wingjoints and his back.
"I cannot," he said, breathing harshly.
"Almost there," Corwin encouraged. He spread his own wings a little wider for more lift. "Almost –"
A crossdraft seized Corwin in a brutally buffeting torrent of air. He lost his hold on Tourmaline as he was tossed into a cartwheel. Icarus tightened his grip on his rookery sister and instinctively jabbed out with the other hand. His claws punched into a loose covering of soil over bedrock. Tourmaline coiled around a fresh contraction and nearly slipped from his grasp.
He pulled her against his side and dug his hind talons into the bluff as well. There they were, close to the top, but he could not make it. The distance was too far, and she was too heavy. He cursed his broken, useless wings, knowing that in a matter of seconds he would lost his hold and they would plummet into the ocean, or be crushed against the stones.
Corwin had righted himself but was too far away to help. Ezekiel sped toward them, eyes wide. Piltdown came up beneath them and tried by means of a good shove on their bottoms to boost them up, but as small as she was, she couldn't hope to budge them.
"Here, up here, let me help you," said a stranger's voice.
Icarus craned his neck and looked directly into the fearful, worried face of a female gargoyle. She was prone on the edge of the bluff and leaning down, her arm extended.
With a burst of strength, he heaved Tourmaline up toward the waiting stranger. Tourmaline's hand flailed and missed, but the stranger grabbed it on the third pass. With Icarus and Piltdown pushing, and the stranger pulling, she was able to scramble up the rest of the way.
Relief made Icarus' sag against the rough soil. He might fall himself, but at least he would not take her with him, kill her and the unlaid egg.
Then Corwin was there. "Come along, brother. We've made it."
He let himself be helped even as shame boiled in his veins. When he reached the top, he slumped there and waited with eyes tightly shut for the throbbing, icy ache across his back and shoulderblades to subside. He dimly heard a conversation going on above him, Corwin and the stranger, something about her clan, their home, a rookery. Not far. They'd be welcome guests.
Fingertips lightly touched the bald dome of his head. He lifted it laboriously to see the stranger crouched in front of him. She wore an expression of deep concern.
"Are you all right, friend?" she asked.
Icarus nodded. A lie. He felt as if he'd been buckled into some medieval torture device, a clamp that was simultaneously dislocating his wings even as it compressed his spine.
An even more colossal explosion of thunder briefly deafened them all. The stranger flinched and looked at the angry sky.
"It isn't far. Can you walk?" she asked.
He saw that the others had already gone on ahead, presumably in the direction the stranger had pointed them. Corwin and Piltdown flanked Tourmaline, while Ezekiel brought up the rear.
"Walk?" he asked sourly. "Yes, that I can do."
Straightening up, he got his first real look at her. She was quite tall, nearly his height, with a full figure and light skin that made him think of silvery willow leaves. A plait of reddish hair hung over her shoulder and followed the ample curves of her body to nearly her knees, with curly bangs hanging wet and limp through the ornate curlicues of her brow ridge.
"We must get out of the storm," she said. "My clan will be so pleased to meet you."
She led him after the others. The force of the wind and rain was lessened as they entered the cover of the forest. The trees were a mixture of towering evergreens and deciduous varieties, and the carpet of pine needles was thick and springy on the damp earthen floor. Here and there, rearing boulders of stark grey stone poked up like giant's teeth.
Icarus and the stranger caught up with his clan at the wall of the fortress. Here, out of sight from the sea, a torch burned in a deep recess with its flame lashed about by the wind. The great door stood partly open on rusted hinges. Another gargoyle met the newcomers there. He was an aged male the color of a dry November leaf, with an unkempt mane of grey hair and a lined face that broke into an incredulous smile of joy and welcome.
The fortress up close was in every bit as much disrepair as it had seemed from a distance. The walls were on the verge of collapse, the roof of the inner building was gone but for a framework of timbers. The elder and the young female hurried them across the open courtyard's puddles of mud and rainwater to a stairway. More torches burned from sconces in the walls as they went down into a spacious cellar chamber.
Two other gargoyles came to meet them. Both were of an age with the elder, one a broad-shouldered male whose warrior's build had gone to corpulence, the other a female with wild harridan's hair around film-covered eyes. She hobbled toward them on a walking stick, head tilted so that her best eye was able to take them in.
With the cellar door closed, the sounds of the storm were muffled to a muted whisper and patter. Now the crackle of flames dominated, emanating from the torches on the walls as well as a bonfire ablaze in a hearth at the far end of the chamber. Icarus had not realized how very cold the night had been until the warmth struck him. Piltdown and the hatchlings in particular seemed glad of it.
The young female who'd found them was hastily explaining to the elders. Icarus joined Corwin by Tourmaline, and they examined the room with interest.
Ranks of short stone pedestals lined the two long walls. Perches, with the floor around them swept clean of skin shards. A great heap of chopped wood filled a bin on one side of the hearth, and on the other was a long table stacked with cookpots, utensils, jugs, and baskets. Two bins and three barrels fit under the table. Chunks of smoked meat, net bags of onions and potatoes, and a clump of dead game birds hung over it. Beside the table was a rack where a hide was stretched to dry, near cord-tied bundles of other cured hides and pelts.
"It's a lair, a clan's lair," Corwin said in a low voice. "And by the look of it, a sizeable clan dwells here."
"Then where are they?" Icarus asked.
The corpulent male waddled toward them. He had made the error of emphasizing the rolls of fat at his waist by cinching a wide leather belt that drooped over his hips. A short-handled, double-bitted axe bumped against his flabby thigh. He wore a sleeveless tunic of dark brown fur and a round hat to match.
"This is Sergei, our leader," the female who'd brought them here said.
The newcomers grouped together. Tourmaline tried to stand forth and speak but she hunkered down instead, palms on the floor and wings half-raised, puffing and blowing.
Corwin stepped up and introduced himself, then the rest, and finished with, "And this is Tourmaline, our leader. Do forgive her; she's a bit preoccupied. We thank you for the assistance, and the shelter."
"We have not seen other gargoyles in a very long time," Sergei said. "You are welcome here if you come as friends."
"Oh, we do," said Ezekiel, nodding vigorously.
"Is it her time?" The elderly female shuffled to Tourmaline. "Is it now?"
"Soon," Piltdown said. "She egg coming soon."
The female squinted out of her better eye at Fuzz and Fluff. "And little ones! Eggs and little ones. Oh, it has been ages."
"You may take her to the rookery," Sergei said. "Nadia, show them the way."
"We are greatly in your debt," Corwin said with a bow.
The pale green female, Nadia, ushered Tourmaline to a door set at a slant in the wall like that of a root cellar. A short flight of steps went down into a circular space with serried ranks of wide stone benches. The floor was heaped with straw, a trifle musty but dry.
Tourmaline actually smiled as she beheld this, a rookery like that the Magus had described from their clan's former home. She made her careful way down the steps and began arranging the straw to her liking. Piltdown and the old female followed, while the younger one, Nadia, stayed at the top of the steps and watched wistfully.
Fuzz and Fluff, set down by their mother, were busily getting into everything. Ezekiel muttered apologies at Sergei and tried to corral them, but whenever he got hold of one, the other would squirm away to continue exploring and poking about.
"Let them have their fun," the other elderly male said, laughing. "It has been too long. I am Boris, by the way, and she, Verochka, is my mate."
"How is it you've come here?" Sergei asked. He went to a monstrous throne of a chair and lowered himself into it with a weary sigh. "We did not know there were other clans nearby."
"It's a bit of a long story," Corwin said. He glanced at the door. "Should we …?"
"Well," said Boris, "our custom has it that only the adult females belong at an egg-laying. But whatever the ways of your clan are, feel free."
"That's just it," Ezekiel said. "We're not entirely sure what the ways of our clan are. We grew up without parents or elders to guide us, only humans."
"Your clan was destroyed?" Sergei sat forward keenly, a movement that caused his gut to overflow and cover his belt.
"As I said, a long story," Corwin said. "We don't mind the telling if you don't mind the listening."
"Hungry," Fuzz said, yanking on Ezekiel's tail.
"Hungry, hungry!" Fluff echoed.
Boris laughed again. "Then let us have a meal and a drink, and you can tell your long story. And when it's done, perhaps Verochka will bring us news of an egg or three."
"Nadia!" barked Sergei. "Bring food and drink."
The female jumped, turned a guilty shade, and closed the rookery door. She hurried to the long table. Fuzz and Fluff bounded after her, attempting to scale her legs. She stopped and turned to study them with amazement, as if she'd never seen a hatchling before. A slow smile of wonder dawned on her face. She patted each of them on their downy little heads and tore off chunks of bread to give them. They scampered about, stuffing bread into their mouths so that their cheeks bulged.
Nadia laid out a platter with more bread, slabs of meat, and a creamy stew of potatoes, onions, ham, and herbs. She brought this to each of the males in turn, starting with Sergei and then the guests. When they had taken food, she brought around a jug of a clear, strong-smelling alcohol. Only when everyone else had been served did she get a plate for herself, and sit on a bench near the fire.
Icarus found it puzzling. At home on Avalon, it was usually pretty pink Miriam who did most of the preparation of food and liked to proudly present each new dish. Yet Nadia … the way Sergei all but ignored her except to order her about, and the way she sat at the edge of the group … it was more as if she was a servant than a full-fledged member of the clan.
She listened avidly, though, as Corwin began spinning the tale of their travels. The wistfulness he'd noticed while she was watching Tourmaline descend into the rookery was back. It was for Corwin, of course. All females were smitten by Corwin, for all the good it did them.
Ezekiel had his hands full keeping the ravenous hatchlings fed. But at last, their tummies stuffed full, Fuzz and Fluff settled down to playing quietly at his feet and gave Ezekiel a chance to eat his own supper.
Icarus ate with a less than hearty appetite. He could not forget how close it had been, there on the bluff. If Nadia had not found them, he and Tourmaline may well have died out there. It was hard to believe that they had been one moment at the mercy of the terrible storm, and the next were sitting by a warm roaring fire, eating and drinking in the company of a new clan.
"But enough about us," Corwin said when he had finished telling of how they'd gotten to this place. "Your clan has a lovely and comfortable home here. How many are you? Where are the others?"
Sergei's face went stony. "We are all."
"Oh … I am sorry if I offended."
Nadia's head bowed. Icarus saw her twist her hands together in a fitful gesture. Her hair had dried and in the firelight it was a lovely soft hue of pinkish-gold. The curlicues of her brow ridge were mimicked in her knee and elbow spurs, and in the whimsical swoops of her wing talons and the end of her tail.
"You couldn't have known," Boris said when Sergei only grunted in acknowledgement of Corwin's apology. "We were once a large and prosperous clan. The few of us who are left rattle around in here like the last beans in a can."
Icarus, Corwin, and Ezekiel swapped a glance. Ask what happened? Boris' remark had seemed to invite the question, but Sergei's manner encouraged just the opposite. And Nadia? Nadia's expressive face was hidden by shadow as she concentrated on her twining, wringing hands. It was a pity to see her like that. She should be smiling. A mouth so lovely and generous was made for smiling. And ki –
His thoughts came to a tangled, abrupt halt. What, by the Dragon, was he thinking?
"Where are we, anyway?" Ezekiel asked to end the awkward silence that had fallen over them. "Is this … what's the place, Corwin?"
"Russia?" Corwin suggested.
Sergei snorted. "Once, our ancestors came from there, yes. This fortress was built by a Russian captain who made his fortune in Alaska. He brought furs, amber, and other wealth down the coast."
"The land where our ancestors lived was a hostile one," Boris said. "The weather was terrible –"
Ezekiel chuffed, and Boris tipped him a wink.
"—yes, worse even than this. The hunting was poor, while the clan's enemies were many. So when the captain invited them to join him in his travels, and promised them a fortress to be their home if they would guard his wealth, they agreed. That was many generations ago and we have lived here ever since."
"And soon we will be gone," Sergei said.
It was as if a leaden bell had tolled to conclude the conversation. None of the guests knew what to say, as Icarus saw when he met the eyes of first Corwin, and then Ezekiel.
Thankfully, the hatchlings broke the mood. They had found a scuffed old leather ball, its stitches coming unraveled and trailing stuffing, and managed to knock it rolling far under a table. When Fuzz crawled in after it, he gave a sudden cry and scooted backward fast.
A sleepy, inquisitive noise – "wruf?" – came from beneath the table. It was followed by the appearance of a gargoyle beast, black-skinned though salted with grey around the muzzle, swaybacked, favoring one hind leg.
"Ahh!" Fluff squealed delightedly. She threw herself at the beast, hugging its neck. Fuzz, getting over his initial fright, followed suit.
The beast thoroughly sniffed them both, making them giggle. Its stub of a tail wagged. With patient good humor, it allowed them to climb onto its back, pull at its drooping ears, and poke curious fingers into its eyes and up its nose.
"Tosya, our watchdog," Boris said. "Like the rest of us, he is well past retirement age."
Nadia rose from her seat and filled a shallow bowl with fine-chopped meat mixed with a ladleful of the potato soup. She set it on the floor and Tosya limped to it, lowering his head to slurp up the mixture.
Ezekiel stood up. "Should I take some food down there?" he asked, nodding toward the rookery door. "Piltdown and Tourmaline haven't eaten yet."
"I doubt Tourmaline will want to until she's done," Corwin said. "And, well … do you truly wish to witness what's going on?"
"Uh …" Ezekiel sat down again. "No, now that you mention it."
"I could take them something," Nadia offered.
Sergei shot her a glare. "You?"
The scornful way he said it puzzled Icarus all over again. "Why not her?" he asked.
"The rookery is a place for adult females only," Sergei said.
Corwin eyed Nadia in what was not quite an ogle. "Fair Nadia certainly looks adult from here."
Icarus could have kicked him. Corwin might mean nothing by such charm and flirtatious remarks, but the females couldn't know that and thus they took him seriously, thought his expressed interest was the genuine article. Nadia, even in the midst of her downcast defeat, stirred a bit as if pleased by his comment. Then she shook her head.
"In the eyes of our clan, I am not," she said. "I have the years, but I … I am not adult."
"It is custom," Boris said. "Upon reaching maturity, the members of our clan follow the borders of our protectorate, to learn the limits of our territory and make their pledge to defend it. Nadia has not done this."
"Nadia will not do this," Sergei corrected, and withered her with his tone.
"I … "
"With no good reason," he added, an ominous rumble underlying his voice. "Only her own cowardice!"
The last word seemed to hit her like a blow. She recoiled, bumping into the table and making the jars and pots clatter together. With a sob that encompassed all the wretchedness that any soul could feel, she spun from them and fled the room. The door banged open briefly, letting in a cold wet gust that set the torches to sputtering, and then slammed with a resounding boom. She was gone.

**

The old crone was humming in a cracked and brittle tune that was probably meant to be soothing but that grated on Tourmaline like the scrape of claws on slate. To make matters worse, Ezekiel's little barbarian love slave was leaning against her, pressing into her as if to help hold her up.
She did need help staying in a squatting position, and that was perhaps worst of all. Her legs were shaky, the muscles in her thighs and calves jumping and twitching from exertion. Her hips, the way they felt all unlocked and loose, as if she might split apart from the groin up to the breastbone, that was a horrible and unpleasant sensation.
"Jacob, you damnable flying-squirrel-hedgehog," she gasped, bearing down hard. "This is all your fault."
A good thing for him he wasn't here. She would have seized him by the male parts that had gotten her into this, and squeezed until he sang like Deborah. And then she would flay him open.
Unbearable constriction. The soft tickle of Piltdown against her skin. Tourmaline groaned, and strained. In that instant she hated all males and would have cheerfully gutted the lot of them.
Piltdown leaned harder into her back. The savage's fists pushed rhythmically into the small of Tourmaline's back, massaging, not precisely feeling good but somewhat easing the girdle of torturous pain locked around her torso.
The old female, Verochka, was in front of her. Babbling encouraging nonsense when she wasn't humming.
Ohh. Stretching. Agony. Quivering all over, taking breaths in rapid little sips. Ruby light flared from her eyes, bathing the rookery in redness.
"Here it is, yes, here it comes," said Verochka. "Again like that."
Again? Tourmaline felt as if she'd turned herself inside out. Every nerve seemed to be fluttering beneath her skin, which was shiny with sweat.
She wobbled. Piltdown supported her, now digging her thumbs into the sensitive nerve clusters on either side of the base of Tourmaline's tail.
"Nnnnggggh!" she growled through gritted teeth.
Stretching. Tearing. Burning.
And then a sliding rush of exit, a leathery shell emerging from between her widespread thighs. Verochka took hold of it and gently drew it out. She set it in the straw as Tourmaline, exhausted, flopped onto her side. She instinctively curled her body around the egg. It was warm and damp, the surface pliable and mottled with spots.
Piltdown voiced a celebratory trill. Verochka, leaning close to peer with her good eye, beamed broadly.
"A girl, unless I've forgotten all I've ever known," she crowed.
"A girl," Tourmaline repeated. She couldn't help smiling. "Good. A girl."

**

He found her at land's end. Beyond it, in fact. She had stepped out across a cleft and onto an outcrop of rock that was divided from the bluff by a deep crevasse filled with darkness. Lightning shattered the sky into mirror-shards above her. The rain had stopped but the wind was more violent than ever.
Now that he'd found her, he did not know what to do. What to say. If he spoke and startled her, in such a precarious perch as that, she might well fall. If he said nothing and she turned to see him here, she might be all the more startled.
She stood defiant against the storm, back arched, head held high, full breasts outthrust, fists clenched at her sides. Her wings lifted from her back, unfolding. Their membranes were a shimmering, pearly grey.
Beautiful. She was beautiful, and he knew then that he would slink away unnoticed. What business had he to follow after, or speak to, a creature such as she?
Her legs flexed as she rose up and down on her toes, bouncing in place, preparing to launch. He heard her count to herself. "One … two … three!"
And on three, she jumped, but the graceful takeoff he'd anticipated turned into a grotesque charade. Her body twisted about even as her feet left the earth and she was clawing madly for a handhold. Her knees struck the stone with bruising force and slid over. She was on her belly, legs dangling over the edge, hands skidding in the mud. A miserable, terrified wail burst from her lips.
Icarus dove forward and reached for her wrists. The unknown depth of the crevasse was under his chest, the edges of rough rock scraping him. He pulled Nadia onto the outcrop, over the crevasse, back onto the solid mainland.
She was crying. Tears lit silver by the lightning coursed down her face, and her shoulders shook with sobs. She sat flat on her bottom with her knees up, arms wrapped around her lower legs. She rocked in place, weeping a terrible flood of tears.
"Nadia." He knelt near her. "Are you hurt?"
He could see that she was, bloodied abrasions on her knees, but that seemed to be all. And this did not seem a crying born of physical pain.
"Leave me," she moaned. "I don't deserve your kindness."
Sitting back on his heels, he could only look at her. "What is the matter?"
"You wouldn't understand. No one could." She covered her face and turned her head away.
"Perhaps you're wrong. I know suffering. I know it well."
"Do you know … fear?" A weight of bilious self-loathing in her voice made him blink in astonishment.
"I have made its acquaintance," he said.
"And shame?"
"Far better than I wish to."
She wiped at her eyes. The naked misery of her expression pierced his soul.
"You should have let me fall."
"No!" Icarus said.
"Why not? I'm useless, an embarrassment to my clan, a failure as a gargoyle!" She hid her face again.
Her words touched a chord in him. How often had he thought, if not spoken aloud, those very same things? How often had he contemplated putting an end to it all? He had never imagined that any other gargoyle, least of all one so fair and well-made, should feel the same.
"I saw you tonight, how you cared for your clan's elders."
"And you heard how Sergei spoke of me. He would be glad to be rid of me."
"That cannot be true."
"It is, it's true, he hates me. I lived and the others did not. I should be with them."
He did not know what to tell her. Who was he to argue that she was alive and that life was a precious gift, too precious to be squandered? It might be for the best if the both of them together were to go back to the outcrop and plunge from its height into the cold, dark sea. Yet the thought of Nadia doing that was intolerable.
Icarus set his hands on her shoulders. Startled, she looked up at him.
"Why?" he asked.
"I … I cannot glide."
His brow ridge knotted. Her wings were at rest but they were whole. Had he not been admiring them with his usual bittersweet envy not moments before?
She saw his bewilderment and dropped her gaze from his. "I'm afraid to."
"Afraid?"
"To glide. I can't do it. I try, and my heart hammers, my throat locks, my bowels turn to water. The thought of it leaves me sick with dread. I haven't glided in thirty years."
"And your clan --?"
"That's why I'm still a child. To become an adult, one must glide the borders. And to take a mate …" She glanced out to sea, toward the dark mass of the island, and shuddered.
"Our clan has no such rituals," he said. He spread his wings and showed her. "Or else I, too, would be as you are."
Sympathy welled in her eyes. "I didn't realize they were so sorely damaged. It was all so quick, in the dark and the rain."
"When I was a hatchling, I raced the sun. I should have died. I cheated death that morning and have spent all my life waiting for the score to be settled. Wishing for it, even. An end to the constant pain. An end to feeling ashamed, and useless." He had never been much of a talker, always taciturn even among his closest rookery siblings, yet now it came pouring from him to this veritable stranger. "I could not keep up with my brothers, I could not hunt well, I was a poor excuse for a warrior, and none of my sisters would ever consider me for a mate. Those who made loveplay advances, I spurned because I knew – or believed – that they only did so out of pity. So, yes, Nadia, I know something of what you feel."
"You must think me small and petty," she said. "Compared to what you've undergone, who am I to complain? Yours has tangible cause. I … I only have my fear."
"I do not think that, I do not say that your pain is any more or less than my own. What does it matter, if the result is the same? What matters is what we mean to do."
"I'd thought that if I came out here, I might finally overcome it. I might finally glide."
She began to cry again, but these were somehow cleaner tears, cleansing tears. To his great surprise, she threw herself against him, her face buried in the hollow of his collarbone, her tears hot on his skin. Uncertainly, he let his arms encircle her. It seemed that he had too many hands and did not know where to put them, sure that any wrong move would offend her. He sat still as a statue.
Nadia must have sensed his unease. She regained control of herself and drew away. "I'm sorry, Icarus. We are strangers."
"Friends," he corrected. "Your clan took us in, gave us food and shelter, and Tourmaline a rookery. Let us be friends."
"Friends, then," she said, and smiled faintly, sadly. "I have not had friends in a very long time."
"May I ask …"
"What happened to the rest of our clan?"
"If it is not too difficult for you."
"They are gone. Dead, most likely. The first ones thirty years ago, the rest ten years ago. Killed. Slaughtered. Out there." She pointed. "Vassily's island. They went there, and they died."
Icarus studied the island. It was the same one their boat had nearly collided with, the same one to which the weathered bridge-pilings led. He could make out little in the way of features. Some rock formations, some stunted trees, and that was all.
"How did they die?" he asked.
"No one knows. It was custom, you see. Custom that when the mated pairs wanted to begin a breeding season, they would present themselves to Vassily for his permission."
"He was an elder?"
"More than that. They say he was immortal, one of the first of our clan who crossed over from Russia with Captain Tolenka. The legend has it that his father was one of the Third Race."
Thinking back to Oberon's palace on Avalon, Icarus asked warily, "Which one?"
Nadia shrugged and went on. "The mated pairs who wanted to breed would go to Vassily, bringing him gifts in exchange for his blessing. So it was, and so had it been. Until thirty years ago. That was when … that was when my sister disappeared."
"She went to the island?"
"Our parents died years before," Nadia said. "I barely remember them. Our father was shot by a human hunter, and our mother was struck by a falling tree which snapped her back. Natasha looked after me, was like a second mother to me. But she still wished for a mate and hatchlings of her own. When the time came, she went. All her rookery siblings did, and so did many of the other adults." Her voice dropped to a whisper that Icarus had to lean close to hear.
"They never returned," he said.
"Never." She had gone a pallid shade of pale, and the greenish undertone was no longer becoming but sickly.
"Did no one go search for them?"
"Ilya, Sergei's son, had recently taken over as leader. He led most of the remaining warriors to the island a few nights later. They didn't come back either. Others wanted to go, but Sergei refused. He told them to think of the hatchlings, for there were a dozen or so of my age."
Why was it he had such a strong impression that she was omitting a vital portion of her story? Her eyes had clouded as if lost in the past, but they were also evasive.
"It was terrible," she said. "No sign of them, no idea what might have happened, three-quarters of the clan gone just like that. Those who stayed took care of the hatchlings, taught us, kept us fed, and after a while life was close to normal again. It stayed that way until ten years ago. That was when my rookery siblings came of age."
Nadia broke off and raised her eyes to him. He saw the request in them and although he never would have expected her to ask or himself to comply, he sat beside her and put an arm around her. She leaned against him with her head on his shoulder, her hands in her lap moving restlessly. Wringing. Twining. Plucking at the fur-trimmed hem of her forest-green tunic.
"They were all adults by then," she said. "Duscha and Igor. Mavra and Fedor. Irina and Yuri. Olga and Nicolai. Stefanya and Pavel. Alexei might have been my mate if I had been allowed one. He and Maruska, who was Mavra's mother, became a pair instead. Maruska was older but still a fine figure of a female."
"Do you mean to tell me they went again? They went back to the island?" Icarus could hardly believe his ears. "And met the same fate?"
"Yes.
"Madness!" he shouted. "When they did not know the fate of the ones who'd gone before them? Not knowing if it was safe or not?"
"It was custom," she said. "Yes, it was stupid of them, stupid, and I tried to convince them not to go. But who'd listen to me? Maybe they were my friends once, when we were small, but the older we got and the better they learned to glide while I stayed chained to the earth, the less they wanted to do with me. They made fun of me and treated me like a baby. So of course they weren't going to take seriously anything I had to say."
"They should have listened."
"All they could think about was breeding. They were so excited, just like Natasha and Grigori had been. Nothing else mattered. So they went, and they didn't come back, and soon the only ones left besides me were Boris and Verochka, Tosya, and Sergei."
"And he, the leader, did not go?"
"He took back the leadership of the clan after Ilya disappeared," Nadia said. "His mate had been one of the warriors to go with Ilya and losing both of them was too much for Sergei. He only had his daughter Duscha left, and the rest of the time he consoled himself with as much food and vodka as he could stuff in."
"Then he should have been ousted in favor of a new leader," Icarus said, thinking of how Corwin had threatened Tourmaline with just that when it seemed inevitable that her cold anger would fragment their tiny offshoot of a clan.
"In favor of who?" Nadia spread her hands. "Boris was already too old, Verochka half blind, and Maruska was a crafter, not a warrior. The rest of us were not ready for such a responsibility. He might have stepped down after the breeding season, might even have promised Duscha that she could be leader after him, but there was never a chance to find out."
"What is out there on that island?" Icarus asked.
Nadia trembled. "I don't know."
"Someone must have an idea. What of this Vassily?"
Her trembling increased. "They say he was a great black gargoyle, with a long white beard and a crown of horns. The rookery mothers used to mention him to scare us into behaving by saying that Vassily would come and get us and the sound of his spanking us would be like thunderclaps."
"Nadia, what is it? Why are you shaking so?"
"I'm not. I'm upset. Talking about all of this has upset me. That's all. Why?"
"You know something more, don't you?"
"I don't know anything!"
"You saw something."
"No." She swallowed. "No, that's silly. What could I have seen? I've never been to the island. Look how far it is, and the bridge is out. The bridge has been out for fifty years or more. How would I have gotten there?"
"Thirty years ago, your sister vanished. And earlier you told me it had been thirty years since you'd glided. What happened, Nadia? Did you follow her?"
"It wasn't for hatchlings." She jerked away from him and shot to her feet as if stung. "I wouldn't have had any business being there. Only the adults, the mates."
"You went to the island."
"I did not!" She shrieked the words, and her eyes glinted like rubies.
But Icarus was not to be dissuaded from the surety that had come into his mind. "You followed your sister to the island and you saw something there. You saw them die. And it frightened you so badly that you swore you'd never glide again. To keep yourself safe. If you never glided, you'd never have to go to the island. That's what's kept you landbound for three decades, Nadia. What you saw out there."
"How dare you!"
"Why did you never tell? Was it because you worried you might get in trouble for having gone after your sister? Or did you feel to blame for not being able to save them?"
"Save them? What could I have done? I was only twelve! If I could have gotten Natasha to come back with me, maybe she might have survived, but she wouldn't."
"So you were there."
"No. I stopped at the shore. I stopped right there at the shore. And then I went back to the fortress." Her tone was plaintive, wanting him to believe. Wanting her to believe.
"That is not true, is it, Nadia?"
"Leave me alone, why are you doing this?"
Icarus stroked her cheek with his fingertips, wetting them with her tears. Her skin was so soft, so smooth. "I want to help."
"You don't owe me anything."
"Yes, I do. My clan does. You helped us. And we are friends, are we not?"
She touched the back of his hand where it was near to her face. "You … you like me?"
"Yes."
"I mean … as a male to a female."
His throat felt thick. It had begun to rain again and they should have gone in, but all at once it was vitally important that he not end this yet. "Yes. But I … I intend no imposition by it. You are beautiful. I cannot help noticing that. Any male would."
"None ever did before."
"They were fools."
"You could be interested in a female like me? Even though I'm … the way I am?"
"Of course I could." He withdrew his hand. "I am the one with little to offer. You could do much better than a crippled, ugly male like me."
"I don't think you're ugly, Icarus. And I don't think you're crippled."
"You have seen my wings."
"So? You don't glide. Neither do I. What of it?"
A giant sadness crushed him. "But you can glide. You could, if you let yourself remember what happened that night on Vassily's island. If you faced, and conquered, your fear. Then, oh, how you'd glide. You'd be free."
"I don't want to glide! Not now, not ever. I'll die if I do. It's death to go out there, don't you see? Death."
A low and sneaking part of him was so very tempted to leave it at that, to not press her. If she thought herself so wretched and unfit as to be worthy of only a male like him, why not welcome that? What other opportunity would he ever have? But to do so would be to take advantage of her poor, confused spirit. He could not live with himself if he did such a dishonorable thing.
"Tell me what you saw, Nadia. Tell me what happened to them. Perhaps something can be done, and then you'll need be afraid no more."
"Like what? All the warriors of our clan went out there and all of them died. Torn to pieces. Their death-gravel was all over the place, sticking in the ground that was soggy with their blood. He butchered them, Icarus, butchered them like pigs. I saw him take Grigori and eat him alive, crunching his bones to powder even as his flesh was turning to stone."
"It was Vassily?"
"And then … and then he saw me. He looked up. Blood all over. His beard was red from it. His eyes were like lightning and when he saw me, he dropped the rest of Grigori. Grigori smashed apart on the stones. Vassily opened his mouth to roar at me and … and his teeth were red too. Red and strung with hair. Long hair the same color as mine. Natasha's hair."
Icarus gathered her into his arms. She held to him as if trying to melt into him, the first time he'd ever been embraced so fully, so intimately, and yet his mind was more consumed by horror at her description than by any thoughts of lust. The rain pattered down on them, ran in rivulets over their bodies.
"I ran," Nadia said. She sounded like the hatchling she must have been, regressed thirty years into the past. "I ran and he chased me, and it was like an earthquake. His whip snapped over my head and I was sure he'd tangle me with it. But I got to the cliff, and I jumped. I glided. I was sure I'd made it, I'd be safe, and then the whip did hit me. It coiled around my foot. He was going to reel me in like a fish and eat me head first, and the last thing I'd smell would be the blood of my clan on his breath!"
"You escaped him," Icarus said in a calming voice. "That was long ago, Nadia. You escaped him and you're safe now. Nothing will harm you. I promise."
She steadied. "It was around my ankle. I fought free of it but couldn't stop myself from falling. I fell into the sea and nearly drowned before I could get to land. I never glided again after that night. Because I knew that if I never glided, I'd never have to go back there and he couldn't get me. He couldn't glide either. He had no wings."
"No wings?" he echoed.
"We always thought he did. Huge black wings that could blot out the sky. But we were wrong."
"He was a gargoyle-beast?"
She shook her head. "Not like Tosya. He stood upright. I don't know what he was."
"Why did you keep silent?"
"I thought they'd be mad at me. I wasn't supposed to go out there. It wasn't allowed, not for hatchlings. And I was … I was so scared. I hardly knew what I was thinking. I didn't want to tell because I didn't want to have to remember. It almost worked. Until the others went. I tried to make them stay but no one would listen. If I'd told them … but I couldn't. I killed them. I let them die by letting them go out there."

**

Tourmaline emerged from the rookery, insisting that she could climb the stairs without Piltdown or old Verochka helping her along. She was ravenous, and every inch of her ached. Her body felt as if it had been systematically taken apart, pounded with a mallet, and reassembled. She was sweaty and covered with flecks of straw, itching all over, and wanted a meal and a bath and a long dreamless stone sleep.
As she stepped from the dim shadows of the stairwell into the rich orange firelight, Corwin hopped up from his chair. His gaze dipped to her belly.
Such an indignity that was; she had fully expected that once she'd squeezed out that egg, she'd immediately regain her former shape. Instead, the flesh was loose and puffy.
But it had lost the drum-taut firmness of pregnancy. And upon seeing this, Corwin grinned as broadly as if he'd been the proud sire, and broke into applause. Ezekiel did likewise a moment later, and the hatchlings cheerily aped the adults. Of the two elderly males, the leader Sergei frowned in disapproval of the antics, while Boris smiled on Tourmaline with a grandfatherly fondness.
"A girl," Verochka announced to them. "Or so I suspect from the markings of the shell."
"Splendid, sister!" Corwin embraced Tourmaline, who endured it. "You have a daughter, or will in ten years' time."
"If I do not eat, I won't last long enough to see her crack shell," Tourmaline said.
"There's food," Ezekiel said. "Meat, and bread, and soup."
She paused on her way to the table he indicated. "Where is Icarus?"
At that, a weighty and uncomfortable hesitancy descended on the four males. It was then that Tourmaline observed that the girl was missing too. Her brow ridge twitched up. Would wonders never cease. This night was one surprise after another.
"He and Nadia went out for a stroll," Corwin said when no one else volunteered to leap into the conversational chasm.
Tourmaline noted that Verochka looked as bemused as she felt. The old female went to her mate and bumped her knuckles affectionately against the branching horns that poked through his grey hair. She sat beside him and picked up his plate, discarded with still half a bowl of soup as well as a chunk of bread. Dunking the latter into the former, she chewed with her few teeth.
The food smelled good, though in her state she would have eaten nearly anything. In the last few weeks her capacity had dwindled thanks to the way her stomach and other organs were squashed by the bulge of the egg. Now she could eat her fill, and she heaped her plate high.
Piltdown had collected her offspring and was crouched by Icarus' feet – they still hadn't trained her to use a chair, or at the very least quit abasing herself before the males. She was busy explaining in her halting vocabulary about the laying. Tourmaline turned to Corwin.
"Is he breaching good manners?" she asked, low, so that their hosts wouldn't overhear.
He smoothed his white hair back from his golden brow in a gesture she recognized from their youth. Corwin trying to find the best way to explain something delicate. She rolled her eyes.
"He is, isn't he?"
"Well, it's a peculiar situation," he said. "In the eyes of her clan, pretty Nadia is not yet deemed an adult. Nor will she be, until she glides the borders of their territory."
"What's keeping her?"
"It seems that she, well, doesn't glide. Not since she was only a bit older than Fluff and Fuzz yonder."
"So Icarus is dallying with an underage female?"
"Dallying, sister, now that's a leap in assumption. You know how reticent he's ever been in the company of the fair sex."
"Is he like you?"
Corwin laughed. "Not that I know of."
"Is he even capable? For all we know, the accident might have –"
"Cease, I beg you!" Corwin cried, raising a hand. "Some things, no male wishes to contemplate. And having seen him unclad, I assure you he is as adequately structured as any of our brothers. Rather, I would think it has been lack of confidence. He views himself as unworthy."
"Oh, shards of our ancestors," she swore. "What was that tale you read to the Jessec boy? It's like that, isn't it?"
"The book of the young wizard, Harry Potter? Sister, I fail to see –"
"Not that one. The soldier's tale, in which he, the cripple, spied a one-legged dancer and thought that as they were both maimed, they were well-matched."
"The Steadfast Tin Soldier," Corwin said, eyes lighting in recollection.
"That was the one. And now it seems our brother is doing the very same thing."
"A harsh interpretation indeed. Perhaps he simply likes the look of her. Ever since Cassius found his glorious Khepri, and Ezekiel his Piltdown, it must be stated that the prospect of finding mates has been much on our minds."
"Not mine."
"No?" He eyed her whimsically.
"No," Tourmaline said. "Has it dwelt on yours?"
"After my fashion, yes, it has," he said. "Admittedly, it does sound as though my choices may be more limited, given that my tastes are not so common, but I have entertained the idea."
"If I'd known when I led you from Avalon that I'd be …" she groped for a term, came up with one from a magazine. "Running a dating service … pff. That was never my intention."
"We may have Avalon to thank for it." His eyes twinkled.
"Then we also have Avalon to thank for Hippolyta," she threw back.
Corwin flinched from the barb. "So we may," he said, and got up to go stand before the fire.
She regretted it, wanted to call him back and apologize, but what kind of leadership would that show? He had taunted her with the reminder than she had no more say in where they went than she did in which way the wind might blow, when he knew how it irked her.
By the time she'd finished her meal, it was too close to dawn for a swim or a bath. She settled for going up to the courtyard instead, and standing under the sheeting downpour. The rain felt chilly and invigorating on her skin. She took off her tunic – a shapeless sack of a thing that she hated, couldn't wait to be able to don something snug and flattering – and used it to sponge herself off. Her hair was a sodden black rope hanging down her back.
The storm-laden sky was nonetheless losing some of its darkness in the east. Morning was coming. And there, walking hand in hand through the half-open gate, were Icarus and the girl. Both were drenched and neither seemed aware of it.
Tourmaline looked Nadia over with a critical attention. What was this rubbish about her being unable to glide? Not a scar marked her body, and her wings seemed to be of a normal and healthy span. Nadia was no lean and muscular warrior – oh, how Tourmaline yearned to have her shape back, and would begin the very next evening to exercise and train until she was once more in fighting trim – but she had a good sturdy build. Not skinny, like Elektra, or overly plump, like Miriam.
More than good enough as a mate for Icarus. Too good, even. A female such as Nadia could do better. It would be a shame if she rushed to commit herself to the first eligible male who happened along. For that, Tourmaline knew, was just what was happening. Their clan was small, and it did not seem like they had much contact with others. Then the lot of them turned up, Ezekiel clearly spoken for, and maybe she had erroneously assumed Corwin was Tourmaline's.
The very notion!
But she could see how an outsider might think so, before getting to know Corwin with all his foibles. That left Icarus. And beggars, as they said, could not afford to be choosy.
They saw her, and Icarus with a flush of embarrassment dropped Nadia's hand.
"Hail, brother," Tourmaline said, draping her sack of a garment over her torso. "Dawn draws nigh."
"We were just going in," he said. "The rookery --?"
"One egg. A girl, the elder says."
There was a pause, which stretched out until Ezekiel appeared.
"They've invited us to use their perches," he said.
"We'd be delighted," Tourmaline said, and moved past Icarus.
She had time to wring out her hair and comb it half-dry in front of the fire before the tingle deep in her joints heralded the arrival of sunrise. The others left off their various tasks and took their places on the rows of squat stone pedestals that lined the long walls of the room. No one missed the fact that Icarus and Nadia were next to each other. Sergei did not look on this with great favor, but Tourmaline was aware that both Boris and Verochka did.
They'd need to talk about this. They'd need to have quite the discussion.
Her skin stiffened, her limbs froze in place, and moments later she was locked in the peaceful and dreamless stone sleep she'd craved.

**

The storm had blown itself out by sunset. Boris told them that such wild weather was common this time of year, and that the clan made use of clear night such as this, nights when the stars pierced the sky like cold diamonds, to roam their territory and collect food, wood, and other supplies.
Ezekiel spared no time in offering to help. Piltdown wanted to go along, so Verochka gladly volunteered to tend the hatchlings. Tourmaline devoted the first few hours upon awakening to a strenuous regimen of exercise, as if she hoped to win back her slim waist in a single night.
Thus, half the night passed in a sort of companionable series of chores. Icarus hauled wood while Nadia scoured the ground for nuts, pinecones, and acorns that had been shaken loose by the high winds. Corwin went with Sergei to the nearest road, which led from a tiny town called Toleah Point to the local dump. The clan was by no means too proud to scavenge among the cast-off items of the humans.
When they regrouped for a midnight meal, Corwin was ashen. He had a rolled-up magazine, tattered and swollen with moisture, tucked into the back of his belt. Ezekiel asked him about it but Corwin would only shake his head. "Later," he said.
The meal was one of the best they'd had in some time. Boris had tracked a deer, which Ezekiel brought down. The hearty venison, rolled in crushed spices and then roasted over the fire until the grease dripped and sizzled, was rich and flavorful.
"It's been a while," Boris said, wiping his mouth. "I'm not the hunter I used to be, haven't the stamina to chase a stag all through the forest. What do we have to do to persuade you to stay on?"
His question hung in the air. Icarus saw by the expressions all around him that it had been on nearly all of their minds. Surely it was on his.
"Stay on?" Tourmaline asked carefully. "Just what do you mean by that?"
"Live with us," Verochka said. She had Fluff on her lap and Fuzz at her side, both of them snarling cutely over deer bones. When they had gotten all the meat they could, they threw the bones to Tosya, who contentedly gnawed them. "Join our clan."
"Let us not be hasty," said Sergei. "They only met us last night. How do you know they'd even want to stay? Our clan's history is not encouraging."
Boris had, earlier in the evening, taken the males aside and in a hushed voice told them something of the disappearances that had taken place twice before. Verochka had done the same with Tourmaline and Piltdown. None of them knew what Icarus did, for Nadia had never spoken of it to another living soul, but he kept her confidence and said nothing. Not then, not at that moment.
"Our journey is not yet complete," Tourmaline said.
"But we left to find a home of our own," Ezekiel said. "A place where we could live as our own clan. Why not here? I'm not worried about those stories. I like it here."
"I like it too," Piltdown said.
"You weren't asked," Tourmaline distractedly informed her. "I'll agree, this is a fine place, a comfortable lair with good hunting –"
"She has a say in this too," Ezekiel cut in. "We want a home, a place to raise the little ones."
"And it's such a joy to have hatchlings around again," Verochka said. "What of your egg? Did you mean to take it along?"
Tourmaline bit her lip pensively. "I …"
"Our clan is dying," Boris said. He waved down Sergei's protest. "It is. We need new blood. Young blood. You bring strength and skills that we could use. Speaking quite frankly, for Verochka and myself, we want you to stay."
"Please," Verochka said.
Icarus glanced at Nadia. She was looking at him, with a sort of hopeful yearning that he had never seen directed his way before. Yet it was wrong. He knew that. He knew she deserved a better male, a better mate. They were not the only other gargoyles in the world. They'd left mateless brothers back on Avalon who would be more suitable.
Wrong … and tempting.
He thought of Cassius. How Cassius had seemed to know, from the moment he set eyes on Khepri, that she was the one. Of course, Cassius had always been a romantic, so certain that his destined true love was out there that it was no real surprise he'd fallen at once for the first eligible female he'd seen. Even if she had been a statue at the time, waking by day while the rest of them slept. None of that had mattered to Cassius. He had known, and followed his heart, sure that love could overcome any other problems that might stand in the way.
"There's a slight … complication," Corwin said. He had been uncharacteristically quiet throughout the meal and added nothing to the current debate 'ere now. Reaching behind himself, he brought forth the magazine and unrolled it to show them the photograph he'd found.
Tourmaline's indrawn hiss of breath spoke for them all.
The magazine was a bedraggled copy of VIP, which they'd become familiar with during their stay with the Jessecs. This one was dated January of 2004, three months ago. It had been knew while they'd been drifting in the mists between their meeting with the Illuminati Grandmaster and their arrival in Egypt.
Corwin held it open to a feature on a gala event full of politicians and celebrities. The central figure in the photograph was a handsome human male … dancing with a gargoyle.
Her white-gold hair was swept up in a styled coiffure pinned with golden stars, and a midnight-blue gown shot with sparkles molded to her athletic, high-breasted, long-legged figure. A gold chain at her throat held a pendant in the shape of a castle, and the camera had caught her sharing an intimate smile with the man.
Icarus took the magazine and read the caption. "In the moments before disaster, Daniel Harmond shares a dance with his mysterious guardian."
"She's alive. How can she be alive?" Ezekiel snatched the magazine and shook it, as if it might speak and give him answers.
The article went on to describe how a Christmas party at a senatorial mansion had turned deadly, when assassins struck at Harmond, described as America's Prince. He'd been shot three times despite Hippolyta's best efforts to protect him, and his life had only been saved by long hours of intense surgery. The other photographs showed a majestic decorated tree in ruins, and panicked people in evening-wear milling around the bloodstained aftermath. Of Hippolyta, there was no further mention except to say that she had disappeared in the midst of the confusion, and the tone was vaguely insinuative that she might have either been involved with the attack, gone off on a revenge-maddened crusade, or run away out of guilt.
The Hippolyta that Icarus knew would have done the second of those choices.
"All this time, and she let us think she was dead," Tourmaline said, it now being her turn to rip the magazine from Corwin's clutches. A page ripped. She scrutinized the image of Hippolyta, so elegant and beautiful in her fine gown, and growled in her throat. "We grieved for her!"
"She would have found us if she'd been able," Corwin said. "I believe that with all my heart. The means of our travels, the way time slips by us so strangely when we're in the mists, our having no control over our destination, these things would have made it impossible for her to find us. She might even have believed us to be dead, or that we … that we left her."
He choked and fell silent, gazing at the photo.
Icarus felt a wrenching pang in his own gut. He and Hippolyta had been great friends as hatchlings, and in his weaker moments as an adult he had harbored hidden fancies involving her. Had his life gone differently, had he remained Iphitus, he might even have won her as a mate.
Corwin, too, had been quite fond of her in his way, and used to romp often with Hippolyta and Jericho. They were more brothers than ever in that moment, looking on the face of the female they'd each loved, and lost.
"She, I take it, was of your clan," Boris said. He and the others had been respectfully still throughout Corwin's revelation, but when no one else spoke up, the elder did.
"Our sister," Corwin said.
Nadia's hand covered that of Icarus and gave a gentle, consoling squeeze. He turned to her, saw the compassion in her eyes, and all at once it was as if something within him that had stayed asleep in stone now finally cracked and shed and woke. Something … perhaps his heart. A warmth suffused him. He put his other hand on top of hers.
"I would like to stay here," he said, looking only at Nadia. "I am weary of wandering, and could not imagine any other place I would rather be."
"But what of Hippolyta?" Corwin asked. "This was months ago. We must learn more. If she is out there, if she needs aid, who better to help her than her own clan?"
"She found her own life," Ezekiel said. "Where she needed to be. Maybe that's what Avalon meant for her."
They went on in that vein for some time, unable to reach a consensus. Finally, Tourmaline barked for order. She stood and faced Sergei.
"We are being unmannerly to argue in front of you like this," she said. "I apologize. You are your clan's leader. The hospitality of this lair is yours to give or withhold. Our decision must be seconded to yours."
Sergei scratched his chin and watched her shrewdly. Icarus could all but see the thoughts passing through his mind.
He was leader, yes, but for how long if he let them stay? Tourmaline was not going to bend her neck to another gargoyle, least of all a fat and aged one who had done nothing while his clan members vanished en masse. What would she say if she knew they'd been slaughtered to a one? It wouldn't be long before she challenged him for the leadership, and Sergei had to be canny enough to know it. Was he of the stripe who would sooner see his clan die than change?
Pride could be a dangerous, dangerous thing. So was ignorance. Icarus knew then that he had to speak up before any sort of decision was made. His brothers and sisters had to know the entire truth of this clan, Vassily's island, and the massacres before any decision could be reached.
"We need not set it in stone tonight," Icarus said. "Give everyone a night or two in which to make up their minds." He squeezed Nadia's hand again to let her know that his, at least, was made up. If she wanted him, he'd be a fool to turn her away. And if, in the end, his clan would not stay here? Well, perhaps she would come with them as Piltdown had done.

**

It was their third night and already Icarus could tell that Ezekiel and his little family were thinking of this place as home. Piltdown and Verochka had bonded like mother and daughter, and the old female could not lavish enough attention on the persons of the hatchlings. Under her tutelage, Fluff and Fuzz had already improved their language skills – albeit with a hint of an accent akin to that of Verochka.
Icarus himself was hard-pressed to resist that warm feeling of drawing-together, of clan. He knew that there was a spot for him here should he wish it. Nadia made that quite clear even if Sergei remained gruff and less than welcoming.
Corwin, though, had fallen into a state of melancholy that was utterly foreign to him. Usually the most good-natured of their brothers, he spent long hours mulling over that magazine until he had the words of it by rote and no doubt the images of the photographs embedded in his mind. Other hours would be spent staring into the fire, lost in a thoughtfulness so deep that it often required a repetition twice or thrice of his name, or even a hard bump, to gain his attention.
Tourmaline, for her part, was remarkably reserved. She took to heart what Icarus had said, apparently, and did not query the others, or nag them, or seek to impress upon them her indomitable will. She was content for these few nights to devote her time to exercise and regular visits to the rookery at awakening and just before sleep.
But by that third night, they knew that they must needs either declare that they meant to stay, or say their farewells and go.
Their hosts were most understanding, and made plans to go on another of their forays to lend them the privacy of the lair. Verochka requested and received permission from Ezekiel and Piltdown to take the hatchlings to the creek, and instruct them in the catching of salmon. Thus, it was quite but for the snap of pinecones in the fire – their savory nuts having already been prised from within and roasted, a crunchy and tasty treat that was new to the Avalonians – as they drew into a circle.
"If we are to go to this island and investigate, we must do so tonight," Tourmaline said.
"The island? Why?" Ezekiel asked.
She favored him with a look that bordered on scornful. "Even if these elders are willing to forego their custom, how can you think of establishing your home so near to something with a hunger for the deaths of our kind?"
"It is safe here," Icarus said.
"And how could you know that, brother?" Tourmaline saved enough of that look to dole it to him as well. "Dozens of gargoyles vanished? Hardly what I'd call safe."
"No, he's right," Ezekiel said. "If there's something on that island and it killed them, it must be confined there because why else hasn't it come to finish the job?"
"With the bridge down, it cannot cross," Icarus said. He hesitated. He knew the time had come to relate Nadia's secret to them, and was unsure how it would go over. Yet he had to tell them all, and let them know what they might be up against.
Slowly, not accustomed to speaking so much or having all of them attentively listening, he told her story. The island. The monstrous wingless thing that their legends named Vassily, immortal half-gargoyle son of some denizen of Avalon. The butchery. What she had seen, and how it frightened her to the point that it left her unable to even contemplate gliding.
This roused Corwin somewhat from his disinterest. "Another beast of legend," he said. "As with the serpent that Khepri's clan guarded against."
"And look how that ended up," Tourmaline said. "Their feared monster was dust and bones ages ago and the humans left them on to guard an empty tomb. So typical of their race."
"How are we to know that is not the case here?" Corwin asked. "This captain who brought them may have left them as guardians of a threat that is long gone."
"Ten years ago," Icarus said. "Ten years is not 'long gone' by my reckoning. Whatever is out there, gargoyle or fae or demon of the ancient world, it lives. Or did, a decade ago. But it cannot cross. If it could have, it would have. So long as none go to that island, all is well."
"I should expect that of you," Tourmaline said. "Of course you'd not want us to go there."
Icarus was taken aback. "I did not say that."
"But it is what you meant, is it not? So you speak of safety, of not bearding the beast in its lair, and all will be well, all manner of things will be well and be well. Rubbish! I know what makes you want us to leave that island alone."
"Pray, then, tell me," Icarus said, struggling with a sudden rising flame of anger. "Because your logic seems to have overleapt mine."
"Is it not obvious?" She fixed him with a pitying look. "Suppose that there is such a creature as Vassily. Further suppose that we go thither, and face it, and vanquish it. We will have lifted a curse from this clan."
"And that's good," Ezekiel said. "What is wrong with that?"
"If we do this, we will have removed Nadia's need to fear," Tourmaline said. "Which stems solely from this … this iron shackle of what she witnessed. She'll be freed from her landbound terror."
"You believe that I wish for her to stay hampered that she'll find me suitable," Icarus said, and that flame of anger raged, roared. "You believe that I would sooner see her spend her life as a cripple, of the mind and heart if not the body, that she'll accept me as being the only mate she deserves."
"Even so." Tourmaline clapped her hands together once, as if she was pleased how he had seen her point, as if the matter was settled.
He bounded from his seat and cuffed her backhand across the face. Her head snapped back, hair flying, and in the moment before she overbalanced and fell to the floor, he saw an incredulous amazement replace her haughty smile.
"I am glad that you have already laid your egg," he said, as evenly as he could, "for I would not have wished to harm Jacob's child."
She was on her feet in a flash, snarling, rubies gleaming in her eyes. Icarus might have expected Corwin to intercede, but he had once more taken out the tattered magazine with its photo of Hippolyta in shimmering midnight blue. Piltdown shrank back and became very still. Ezekiel looked from one of them to the other with his jaw sprung agape.
"And I see your meaning, sister," Icarus continued. "You are no leader if you must resort to such trickery."
Tourmaline's lip lifted from her fangs and he was sure she would leap at him. But with a visible effort, she straightened up and tossed back her hair, and took a deep breath. He had wounded her to the quick, he saw that, and was surprised at himself both for the sudden insight and the fact that he'd done it.
"I will go to the island," Icarus said. "Not for you, not even for Nadia. I go for our kind. For the gargoyles who died there, and to put paid to the monster that preys upon them. Whatever might come after, I know not and care not."
"I am with you, brother," Ezekiel said. "We forget how easy our lives were on Avalon. While we passed the years in comfort and peace, other clans were all but exterminated."
Piltdown, holding to his arm, nodded to show that she was with them as well.
"I fail to see how it might help those already dead if we get ourselves killed in the bargain," Corwin said absently, closing his magazine. "But it is the right thing to do. This Vassily might not always be confined to his island. Count me in."
"You are all idealistic dreamers," Tourmaline sniffed. "Yet at least we are going! And I suggest we do so promptly. It may be that these others will object."
The rest of them looked at her in varying degrees of hostility. For Icarus, although he had been the one to strike her, his anger was tinged most heavily with sadness. They had followed her from Avalon and although she was strong in her way, fierce, and capable, she was lacking even in the capacity to understand that a true leader must also be wise and heed the feelings of the members of a clan.
Whatever else might transpire, here in this fortress or on Vassily's island, he knew with a deep certainty that their small clan of outcasts had finally and ultimately fragmented.

**

The clouds had returned and hung dark and brooding in the sky, but neither rain nor lightning had yet put in an appearance. The sea seethed and foamed beneath them as they glided – Icarus gritting his teeth as his muscles pulled and the membranes of his wings felt ready to split along the old, scarred seams where they had rejoined – and the bulk of the island looked like the back of some colossal leviathan.
Tourmaline led, with her shining sword already in hand. Corwin was next, his golden skin like a beacon in the dull darkness. Ezekiel brought up the rear, and as always if Icarus had gotten for a single moment the impression that it was in case he should falter and need help, he would have never stood for it.
But Ezekiel was best as rear guard, with his ready ironwood staff and his lack of initiative in battle. It was for the best that they had decided Piltdown would remain behind. She was no warrior, and had hatchlings to think of.
The distance was short but grueling. Icarus could not stop thinking of Nadia, the way she'd regressed as she spoke, the way she'd trembled. What must it have been like to glide from this island in a furious storm, pursued, expecting a hideous death at any instant? His breast swelled with pity for her. A child should never have to endure extremes of pain, or terror.
It was not for her. That was what he had told Tourmaline and it was indeed mostly true. Yet he did look forward hopefully to being able to stand before her and tell her that the demon which had destroyed her clan and haunted her life was no more. He looked forward to that even if she did then, healed and well, tale literal wing into a bright new future that did not concern one Icarus of Avalon.
They touched down on the top of the cliff, all in a row. The landscape before them was stark and barren, a place of rough rock and dismal scrub brush. The air felt colder here, and the very earth beneath their feet seemed to tremor as if with the stirring of some gigantic form.
"This is a bad place," Ezekiel said, speaking the truth that dwelt in each of them, the truth that all five of their senses plus the indefinable sixth had gleaned on the very moment of their arrival. "Death is here."
The ceaseless wind drowned out most other sounds and yet there seemed to be something else. Some rhythmic stentorian breathing, the snore of a titan.
"And this Vassily," Corwin whispered. "Nadia saw it bite a full-grown gargoyle in half?"
"Stop," Tourmaline said. "Do not build this into a castle of fear when we've seen nothing but stones, heard nothing but wind."
"Can you not feel it, sister?" Ezekiel turned about slowly, his staff held in a fighting stance.
"Come on." She raised the shining sword and struck off for the island's sunken, hollow heart.
They followed, staying close to one another out of a chilling sense of dread. Soon Corwin, with a soft cry of dismay, bent and scooped up a loose handful of powder and grit. As the wind snatched it from his palm, a glimmer of silver was revealed. An earring, silver set with some purple, banded gem.
"How are we to succeed when so many others have perished?" he hissed. "How are we to slay an immortal? I'm not suggesting we back down, mind, but I am curious."
"We shall succeed because we are prepared," Tourmaline said. "We came expecting battle, while these others went blindly. I can excuse the first group, who were taken unawares, but the second should have come with caution, knowing what had befallen those before. We are not here dizzied and drunk on the scent of breeding."
The ground rose to a peak of jagged standing stones, teeth jutting from the rocky soil. Beyond, it sloped down. Here and there were the marks of claws, desperate scrapes where some unfortunate might have fought vainly for life.
Breathing. Deep and bellowing. A hollow, whistling indrawn note, and then a gusty puff of exhalation. And Icarus fancied that he could even feel the dank moisture, could smell the vile stink of breath that issued from a mouth that feasted on gargoyle flesh.
"There should be a cavern, or something," Tourmaline said after many long moments of tense searching.
"Why?" asked Ezekiel.
"Because there is always a cavern," she replied in irritation. Her pride was up, moreso after being first struck by Icarus and then infuriated by the rest of them, and Icarus knew with a sinking feeling that she was not going to be happy until she, she Tourmaline, had personally driven her sword hilt-deep in the eye of the beast.
Death-gravel littered the earth. Heaps of it. They had died here, oh, they had died in shock and pain and horror, dozens of them. Young and in love, or at least impassioned, their dreams and hopes for the future torn away in agony.
They found baskets, too, or the weathered wreckage of what might have once been baskets. Icarus pointed to these, which tallied with Nadia's accounting. They had brought food, perhaps as a symbol of how well the clan could amply provide for a new generation. It had gone uneaten, except by the shrieking scavenger gulls, because Vassily had taken a liking to richer fare.
"I hear it breathing," Tourmaline said, and shifted her grip on the jeweled hilt. "Just ahead, just there, sleeping by the sound."
"I don't know …" Ezekiel said.
But she sprang around a vast boulder, sword high. Corwin reached to hold her back and missed, and then she was gone, charging with a high screeching battle cry toward the loud whistling inhalation.
They plunged after, any hint of a plan gone from their minds by the creeping menace of this accursed place. They would die, die as the others had, and none of them would even have the chance to chide Tourmaline for her impulsiveness. "We are prepared," hadn't she said?
A bellowing gust, the exhale.
Tourmaline screamed. Icarus and Corwin, with Ezekiel nearly crushing their tails beneath his racing feet, shouted for her as one.
And there she was, Tourmaline, drenched and dripping and shuddering all over. The indrawn whistle came again … not from the mouth or nostrils of a behemoth but from a hole in the stone at her feet. What covered her was not the gruesome saliva of the beast but cold sea water.
Gust, bellow. A plume of water and spray surged up from the hole, spouting up and raining down on the four of them.
"A blowhole," Corwin said. "That is what we heard?"
Icarus glanced swiftly around, lest in their moment of relief the true threat might spring. But there was nothing. No signs of life but the four of them and a few huddled gulls.
"We are alone here," he said slowly. "This island … it is empty. It is desolate."
"Where is the bloody monster?" Tourmaline demanded. "What are you saying, that it's gone? First we were so ready to fight the great serpent at Akhetsu, and that turned out to be a pile of old bones, and now there's nothing here?"
"I believe Icarus is correct," Corwin said.
"No. I refuse to accept that. We walked over the remains of gargoyles to get here, and I will know what slew them! Where is Vassily?"
"Oh," Icarus said, feeling in that moment sublimely witless.
"What?" She turned to him, lips pursed. "What? Are you going to tell me there never was a Vassily, that your high-strung ninny of a girlfriend imagined it all? Or perhaps she's the killer?"
Corwin banged his curled fist against his brow. "Oh."
"The last time anyone came here was ten years ago by their calendar," Icarus said.
"That would have been nineteen-hundred and ninety-four," Corwin added. "And the legend of the clan said what about Vassily?"
"That he was an im … mor …" She trailed off, and shook her head. "No."
"I think so," Icarus said.
"No!"
"It's the only explanation that makes sense," Corwin said.
"What?" Ezekiel looked among them with the fretful frown he wore when he knew he should be able to follow.
"The Gathering began in nineteen and ninety-six," Tourmaline said in a clipped voice.
"If Vassily was indeed an immortal, he would have been called home," Icarus said.
Tourmaline cursed ferociously and then, as if possessed by a host of devils, went berserk and laid about her with the sword. Standing stones, the twisted bole of a sorry tree, a slow-moving gull, and the edges of the blowhole fell victim to her wrath. The males drew back in alarm, startled by the virulence and inventiveness of her profanity.
"You mean … he's gone," Ezekiel said. "He's been gone for … eight years?" This figure he arrived at after a moment of counting on his fingers.
"I will have a monster to slay!" Tourmaline howled to the sky, waving her sword. Thanks to its strong and sharp blade, it was undamaged while the terrain around her could not say so with any confidence.
"Not here, it seems," said Corwin. "Not here, and not tonight."

**

The sky in the west was still smudged with russet and violet, and the stars were only beginning to appear in the black dome of the sky, as the Mists' Passage sailed away from the cliff. It moved past Vassily's empty island, and those on deck turned to raise their hands in farewell to those watching from the worn parapets of the fortress.
The night was crystalline clear, but as if from nowhere the wisps of fog rose from the surface of the sea to embrace the ship. It was poled steadily onward, until the mist entirely enveloped it in cloudy whiteness.
Icarus watched it go. A sense of homesickness brushed him, a feeling of sorrow and loss as he saw Corwin at the tiller-pole swallowed up by the mist, vanishing from sight.
"Second thoughts?" Nadia asked him.
He looked down at her, smiled, shook his head.
"It's where we're meant to be," Ezekiel said. He and Piltdown waved one final time although the mist was already lifting to reveal only open sea where the ship had been. Fuzz, perched on Boris' shoulders, and Fluff, staring around owlishly from Verochka's arms, waved in imitation.
"They'll come back," Verochka said. "Tourmaline will, at least. It may be ten years, but there's a one I don't think would miss her egg hatching for all the world. Until then, we'll keep it well and look after it."
"Nadia," Sergei said. "It is time."
She took a deep breath. "Yes, Sergei."
"You are ready?"
Her wings flexed. She turned her head to one, then the other. "I … I think so."
"Wait," Icarus said as she stepped onto the wall.
Ezekiel grinned encouragingly at him. Icarus took a deep breath of his own, unbound the leather wrappings that held his wings, and stretched them.
"You … you're going to glide the boundaries?" Nadia asked.
"We both will," Icarus said. "Together."

**

The End



Oct. 2002, page copyright by Christine Morgan