Cold Hands, Warm Hearts
By Kimberly T. (email: kimbertow at yahoo dot com)
Author's note: Those characters that aren't owned by The Almighty Mouse belong to Christine Morgan, not me.
This vignette takes place in Christine's timeline, in the fall of 2002; it's the first of a triptych that deals with what the Cold Clan did between visiting Manhattan in 2001 (as related in "What Brothers Are For") and traveling to Nevada in 2006 (as described in "Coventry").
The moon rose full and golden in the cloudless night sky over northern Vermont, a shining harvest moon amid a brilliant scattering of stars. By that light, a young male gargoyle sat on a boulder and read quietly. Grey-blue talons absently brushed back an errant lock of the snow-white mane tumbling down between two slightly curved horns, then resumed turning the pages of an aged and battered children's book with the utmost care, while the coal-black eyes never looked up from the story he was engrossed in. So engrossed that he didn't even notice the huge shadow flitting across the meadow, heading towards him from the left, or the one who cast the shadow landing silently behind him on the boulder.
The shadow's owner was a fully grown gray-green male gargoyle with an amber-orange mane cascading down around his massive horns, a huge wingspan that suited his large and well-muscled frame, and seemingly mismatched hands; the right looked normal for a gargoyle, four strong talons that were currently clenching a trio of dead rabbits by their ears, but the empty left hand looked ever-so-slightly withered. The adult male looked silently over the shoulder of the adolescent male for well over a minute, waiting for the younger one to notice and acknowledge his presence; then he said with a hint of a chuckle to his voice, "Just like the Magus."
"GAAHHH!" If the adolescent male had been wearing shoes, he would probably have jumped clear out of them. As it was, he leaped to his feet and half-spread his wings for flight, losing his grip on his book in the process, then fumbled frantically for it before it could fall off the boulder and onto the damp meadow grass below. Once he'd recovered it, he turned around to glare accusingly at the adult male, saying, "Gabriel, you…! What did you have to do that for? You almost made me drop my book!"
"Angus, I've been standing right behind you for over a minute, waiting for you to pull your head out of that book!" Gabriel said incredulously. "What do you want me to do, carry a bronze bell around with me to announce my presence at all times? That might make it just a little difficult to sneak up on your dinner," as he waved the rabbits in his younger brother's face for emphasis.
"It's Sunday," Angus said with a stubborn set to his eyes, even though he swallowed hard, almost drooling at the sight of the rabbits. "You're not supposed to hunt on a Sunday."
Gabriel just shook his head in disbelief. Who ever heard of a gargoyle that was a practicing Presbyterian? Gabriel had been raised by humans, too, and he'd heard stories from their Bible, but even Guardian Tom had agreed that since the book never once mentioned gargoyles, they perhaps didn't need to follow its tenets quite as strictly as their human guardians did. Though a fair portion of what the book had talked about, loving and sharing with your brothers and sisters and standing up to bullies, just made good sense. "Do you really think that we should go hungry one night of every week, if the smoked meat runs out before Sunday?"
"Well…" Angus was clearly wavering, while his stomach rumbled audibly.
Gabriel shook his head with a wry smile. "Never mind; just be glad you've got a 'heathen' for a brother. Now come on, I left the other rabbits over that way, and our sire's already picked out a fire site for cooking tonight."
" 'Our sire'," Angus repeated with a faint grimace. "How come you still call him that or Coldstone instead of Da?" he asked as they launched from the boulder together, Gabriel with the rabbits and Angus with his book. "You've been with us for nearly a year now."
Gabriel sighed, a very longsuffering sigh that clearly said he'd been asked this question before. "Because to be a Da, or a Mum, the elders must be involved with the raising of their young. I'll grant you that it's through no fault of their own that neither Coldstone nor Coldfire were there when either of us were hatched, but the fact is they didn't raise me to adulthood; Princess Katherine, Guardian Tom and the Magus did. If I were going to call anyone 'Mother and Father', or 'Mum and Da', it would have been them. And if Coldstone has no problem with me referring to him by his name instead of Da, why should it bother you?"
"It bothers Mum sometimes," Angus stubbornly insisted. "She likes being Mum."
"And she is one, to you." Gabriel finally sighed and said, "Look, I'll tell you what; the night Coldfire herself asks me to call her Mum, I'll do so." He figured that, whether or not they had a mother-son bond, his clan elder had earned the privilege of being called as she pleased by the younger clan members. Besides, that would make Angus happy, and Gabriel had found he'd definitely formed a brotherly bond with him during the past year. If he hadn't, he wouldn't have spent so much time chasing down Angus' dinner for him on a Sunday night… especially considering that Angus himself had polished off the last of the dried venison last night, after completely fumbling a clean pounce on a young deer that he'd insisted he could bring down himself. They picked up the rest of the rabbits Gabriel had killed on the way back to where Coldstone and Coldfire were waiting, having already started a small fire for them.
Coldstone and Coldfire had gotten into the habit of staying out of the way while their sons hunted, knowing that their noisy artificial bodies were ill suited to hunting. Now, as Coldstone's cybernetic eye zoomed in on the approaching gargoyles and caught sight of what else Angus was carrying, he frowned. Not again… They had come across another abandoned cabin last week, with a few books lying moldering in a cupboard alongside some canned goods, and Angus had seized on those books even more eagerly than the chance of more variety in their diet. Since then, Coldstone even caught the lad trying to read while gliding, and nearly crashing into a tree for his efforts. He was still frowning as he reported to Coldfire, "Your son has had his nose in a book instead of hunting again."
"Our son is a very accomplished reader," Coldfire said with equanimity, as she broke a stout branch into firewood for the fire. "Considering the way you were still struggling to master the art at his age, and probably would have given up entirely if our rookery brother hadn't enticed you with tales of human warriors from the castle's books, I should think you'd be proud of how well he can read on his own."
"I am, but filling his eyes with printed words does nothing for filling his belly with meat," Coldstone growled. "Gabriel shouldn't have to do his hunting for him anymore; it only encourages laziness!"
"My love, according to my internal clock and calendar… It's Sunday."
"Oh, bollocks!" Coldstone kicked irritably at a small rock, sending it rocketing into the atmosphere. "Again!"
"Again," and there was definitely a slight teasing note to Coldfire's sympathy. "It comes once every seven nights."
"More foolishness," Coldstone growled. "It's beyond absurd, refusing to hunt just because the human calendars say it's a certain night of the week for them!"
If Coldfire could have rolled her electronic eyes, she would have; this subject had also come up in conversation many, many nights before. "We should be thankful that Mother Eibhlin instilled Angus with good morals as well as book-knowledge. So he has a few odd habits as well; where's the true harm in that? Better that someone else hunts for him one night a week, than he should be a troublemaker like some of our rookery siblings were..."
Coldstone knew whom she was referring to; Demona and Coldsteel. He shut up again, and they waited for their sons to come gliding in.
After dinner had been roasted and eaten and settled in the flesh-and-blood gargoyles' stomachs, they all played an aerial game of Frisbee. The plastic flying disk had been found stuck high in a tree about six months ago, doubtless left there by some unlucky camper, and Coldstone actually approved of the toy; repeatedly chasing after someone's toss to catch the Frisbee before it hit the ground or a tree made for excellent aerobatics practice.
Coldfire had just caught Gabriel's wicked toss in a swift dive to her left and finished with a hairpin turn, rockets firing on full to avoid hitting a tall fir tree. With the Frisbee in hand, she called out, "Ready, Angus?"
Gliding above and slightly to the north in a circle-eight holding pattern, Angus called back, sounding impatient, "Yes, Mum, I'm ready! And stop treating me like a baby; make this a real throw, not an easy one!"
After a very brief pause, Coldfire said with an odd lilt to her voice—one that her mate Coldstone knew well and had learned to dread in all the years that they'd been mated to each other—"If you insist…"
And the Frisbee spun out of her hand at roughly 100 miles an hour, screaming upwards at nearly a 60 degree angle.
"Whoah!" Angus at first instinctively dodged away from the speeding disk, even though it clearly missed him by over a wingspan. Then he recovered and went gliding after it as fast as he could… only to discover that Coldfire had put a wicked spin on that Frisbee, that had it almost reversing direction at its perihelion. He frantically changed direction along with it, and went into a dive to intercept… and snagged it with his outstretched talons! He shouted triumphantly, "I got it!"
"And the tree got you," Gabriel finished with a wince as he glided down. "You okay, little brother?"
Angus hadn't broken any bones, but he'd strained a wing joint and was covered in enough scrapes and bruises that the Frisbee game was declared over. So he sat with Coldfire, tending the smoking tent for the extra rabbit meat, while Gabriel had more sparring practice with Coldstone.
Gabriel's hatchlinghood and youth on Avalon had given him plenty of experience in gliding, and in hunting and killing prey, but very little experience in real combat; most of the Avalonian clan's fighting had consisted of squabbles with other clan members that had always been broken up by one of their guardians before someone got hurt. Upon leaving Avalon and eventually traveling to Manhattan, he'd received some combat lessons from Goliath and Hudson… but that training had stopped abruptly in the wake of Devil's Night. Not only because the events of that night had cost Gabriel most of the use of his left hand, but because the horrific loss of Angela's egg had cast the entire clan into a deep depression that had left them scarcely willing to leave their perches for months.
Once the Manhattan Clan had slowly resumed their patrols and tried to return their lives to a semblance of normality, the lessons had resumed… but Gabriel hadn't paid much attention to them. Why bother? He'd felt back then that his near-useless left hand made him a failure as a warrior already, and it was just visible evidence of all the other failures he'd made in his life. Being such a useless failure as a gargoyle, the best he could hope for was to get put out of everyone's misery as soon as possible, by either a bullet from a criminal's gun or by stepping out from under Goliath's watchful eye to 'greet his last sunrise' in the traditional manner. And he'd almost succeeded, before Coldstone and his clan had come to visit and dragged him off to the woods with them.
The past year of living with the trio and teaching Angus how to hunt had taught Gabriel that his life did indeed have worth, and he wasn't a failure at everything, even with impaired motor skills in his left hand. Now that he'd decided to truly live again, he agreed with Coldstone and Coldfire that it was time to learn how to fight properly, too. And since Angus was of an age to learn as well, the combat lessons for both of them had begun a few months ago.
The gargoyles of medieval Scotland had evolved their own system of combat, long before the humans had arrived and built Castle Wyvern, and Coldstone and Coldfire had both been apt pupils back in their youth. They'd found, however, that teaching the moves, the strikes and counterstrikes and defenses, to Gabriel and Angus was more difficult than they'd thought. Not only could their robotic and cyborg bodies simply not recreate some of the more agile moves, but neither of them had a true talent for teaching.
They managed for the most part, however, and both their sons learned the basics of gargoyle combat, Clan Wyvern style. And despite his limited left hand—or perhaps because of it, seeking to compensate for it—Gabriel was the more apt pupil in the combat lessons. In just a few months, he'd learned everything that Coldfire could teach him and was almost on a par with Coldstone's abilities.
No longer capable of becoming winded while fighting, Coldstone had developed the habit of keeping up a running commentary on Gabriel's performance while they sparred. "Feh, too slow, I saw that coming a good two seconds ago… good, well blocked… no, that move leaves you wide open for—Roaagh!" as Coldstone, to his great surprise, found himself flipped upside down and heading fast for the meadow grass.
"Wow!" Angus leaped to his feet in excitement as Coldstone plowed face-first into the ground. "That was cool! Gabriel, how did you do that?"
Gabriel grinned as he stepped back and wiped the sweat from his brow ridges. "It's called judo, I think; I saw Fox and David Xanatos making moves like that in the gym back in Manhattan, and I've been trying to recreate it whenever I've had privacy for the last couple of weeks. Glad to see it worked! If we ever visit Manhattan again, I'll have to ask them to teach me more of their style of fighting."
Coldstone growled as he got back to his feet, and shook and brushed the dirt off his cyborg head. "Hrrummph. Sneaking human ways…"
"Our old mentor's first rule of combat, my love," Coldfire reminded her mate. "Whatever gets you off the battlefield alive is a good move."
Angus took Gabriel's comment as reason enough to begin another campaign to visit Manhattan again, alternating subtle (and not-so-subtle) hints over the next few nights with outright whines about wanting to see the other clan. No one was really fooled, though; they all knew Angus's greatest desire was for hot dogs, pizza and other food that didn't have to be personally hunted down, skinned and cooked before being eaten. That, and ready access to television, books and radio; human entertainment. As if their small clan's habit of having a Story Time every night before dawn, telling tales of the old clan or of what life was like on Avalon, wasn't good enough entertainment!
Coldstone privately admitted to himself that some of the stories Angus told during Story Time, recounting of episodes of an old British comedy show called Fawlty Towers, were actually pretty funny when he could understand them at all. But every time Angus became too blatant to ignore, he only growled "Some other time" in response and ushered his little clan further north.
Coldstone had no desire to see Xanatos or his Fey crony again; despite the fact that they had saved his beloved from being trapped within that internal cyber-world forever, he still had yet to forgive them for trapping him within this dreadful cyborg frame in the first place. He knew well how it made others uncomfortable to look upon him, even more than when looking at Coldfire. Even Angus and Gabriel had taken a few nights before they could speak to him without staring or flinching, and they had not known him when he was fully flesh; whenever Goliath and the others of the old clan looked at him, he could see in their eyes how they remembered who and what he had been, and how they flinched inside to think of what had been done to him. Coldstone found he hated to see that look in their eyes; he needed no more reminders of what he'd lost, and what he'd become.
There was also the truth that Coldstone himself was frankly uncomfortable, even a bit scandalized, over how much Goliath and others of his old clan had shed the ways of the old clan, and willingly adapted to human ways. Angus could scarcely help his own unnatural desires, having been raised by a human with no gargoyle companions or teachers for the first twenty years of his life. But the adults that had survived the massacre at Wyvern, Goliath and the others, were just as fond of junk food and television and the human lifestyle as Angus was. And since Coldstone doubted he could hold his tongue and avoid expressing his opinion of exactly how… domesticated they'd become, for more than a few days of close contact… the less frequent and shorter the visits, the better for inter-clan relations.
In truth, though, even Coldstone was becoming tired of continually traveling, gliding to new territory every few nights. Gargoyles normally found a territory that was bountiful enough to support them and claimed it, and spent the rest of their lives hunting in it and patrolling to keep threats to the clan away. This constant traveling was wearing on them all psychologically, especially on the flesh-and-blood gargoyles whose biological urges were still alive and strong, not mere echoes in their minds.
But Coldfire insisted that they keep moving; it was her heart's desire to find a new clan of gargoyles that they could join or at least make alliance with, one that would provide mates for her sons and eventual…what was the human term again?—grandchildren. New hatchlings that would have in their flesh and blood some small part of the gargoyles that Coldstone and Coldfire had once been, over a thousand years ago. It had become an obsession with her, one that Coldstone had indulged up to this point, but even he could tell that Angus and Gabriel were growing weary of constantly leaving perches to find new ones, and knew that sooner or later they would need to stop traveling and settle down.
Another night, another meadow, and the remains of another full meal lay between Gabriel and Angus as they lay flat on their backs and just looked up into the night, idly watching the eternal slow dance of moon and stars across the sky. After a short while of companionable silence, Angus said abruptly, "Gabriel?"
"You met a lot of Fey on Avalon, right?"
"Do you think you met all of them there?"
"Mmm… not all, but most. Certainly all the more powerful ones, and the lesser ones that were in Oberon's favor as his favorite bootlickers. That came with being captain of his honor guard."
"So… you met Odin, and Coyote, and Zeus, and.. Questa-cotti--"
"Quetzalcoatl. And several dozen more; it'd take at least a full night to list and describe them all. And your point is…?"
"So… you met lots of the Fey that humans used to call gods."
"Yes, I did. And…"
"Did you…" Angus swallowed. "Did you ever meet one who called himself Jesus?"
Unseen by Angus, a corner of Gabriel's mouth tugged in a smile. Frankly, he'd been expecting this question for several months now, ever since he'd told this little clan about Oberon's Children and their return to Avalon only six weeks before he'd left. "No, I didn't."
"Or, um, Emmanuel, or Christ? …Or Jehovah?"
Angus relaxed again. "So Jesus wasn't just a Fey having fun with humans."
"Mm, let's just say that Jesus of the Bible is not under Oberon's rule, or he would have been there in his court. Beyond that, I make no assumptions."
Angus frowned a little, but nodded. "Okay."
A few nights later, the night after Gabriel had consulted their map of the region and said he was fairly certain now that they'd crossed well over into the Canadian province of Quebec, Gabriel and Angus awoke at sunset, roaring and shaking off their stone skins, while their parents stirred and reactivated the systems they let go dormant during the day.
"I'm hungry," Angus announced, as usual. "Do we have any smoked meat left?"
Gabriel checked the sack and announced, "Not enough for a full meal. Time to hunt again. How about fish? The salmon should be running by now, and if I'm right about where we are on the map, there should be a river right over that ridge," as he pointed to the north and east.
"Salmon would be good," Angus said, already licking his lips in anticipation.
Gabriel looked at his brother sideways. "And this time, Angus…"
Angus looked both sheepish and irritated. "I know, I know; I promise not to try to pet any bear cubs. Sheesh!"
The river was right where Gabriel had predicted it would be, and already well-stocked with both Atlantic salmon swimming for their ancestral breeding grounds, and bears catching the ones who couldn't dodge their swiping paws fast enough. Gliding further downstream, they found a spot the bears hadn't gotten to yet, because of the sheer cliffs that bears couldn't climb but gargoyles could fly over. Just past the cliffs was an isolated meadow that was perfect for setting up the smoking tent in, and perfect for wading into the river from.
Angus and Gabriel waded waist-deep into the chilly waters and began snagging passing fish out of the river and tossing them onto the riverbank. Coldstone and Coldfire had no liking for water in their present forms—being underwater for too long triggered the failsafes in their systems and shut them down until they received an external reboot signal—but Coldstone improvised a pair of spears from tree branches, and the robot and cyborg perched on the bank and speared a few fish that were swimming close by.
After a couple hours had passed and a few dozen fish had been snagged, Angus was too chilled to stay in the water any longer, and Coldfire directed him to come out and start the fire for smoking the fish that wouldn't be eaten tonight. Angus busied himself with setting up the tent and gathering wood and tinder to start the fire, and had just about gathered enough dry tinder when he heard a rustling coming from one of the trees at the edge of the meadow.
Angus peered at the source of the rustling; whatever it was, it was in a tree that looked too small and scraggly to support a bear, or even a bear cub. He glanced behind him and saw Gabriel clambering out of the water with his last fish, probably coming to help him with the fire, and gave him the silent hand signal they'd devised to mean hearing prey—going to investigate. Angus had no intention of eating this prey, whatever it was; they had fish aplenty tonight. But his curiosity was urging him to investigate anyway.
He got close enough to see the rustling creature, and grinned. It was a bat! A glider in the night, just like he was. Their little clan had seen dozens of bat flocks in their travels, swarming out of caves to go catch insects on the wing or find fruit to eat, but he'd never seen a bat all by itself before. He was sure it was lonely all by itself, like he had been before he'd come to America. Maybe he could tame it with some food and make it a pet? That would be pretty neat, and he was almost sure that his Mum would agree to it. Da might not approve, but a bat could keep up with them in flight or just hang onto his shirt while he glided, so it wouldn't be a burden on the clan. A bat would make a great pet for a gargoyle!
He got a little closer, close enough to clearly hear the chirping and squeaking sounds the bat was making, and tried to imitate the sounds. He imagined he was saying in bat-talk, "Hi, I'm here too! Want to be friends?"
The bat left the tree branch it had been hanging from, and started to flutter around him! Angus was delighted. He slowly held up one arm and kept chirping, hoping to entice the bat into using his arm as a perch. The bat fluttered closer, closer…
Gabriel's voice snapped like a whip, and Angus instinctively obeyed, dropping flat onto the ground and covering his head with his hands. A moment later he heard something whistling through the air over him, a hard smack of flesh on flesh and an abrupt end to the bat's squeaking.
Angus rolled over and stared in shocked accusation at Gabriel, who was alternately looking at the bloody mess on the ground and examining his hand. "Y-you… you killed it! I was trying to make friends with it!" Coldfire came whooshing up, and he turned to her to complain, "Mum, he killed a bat that I was trying to—what are you doing?" as Coldfire bent and turned her hand palm-out to the bat's corpse, and a whoosh of flame came out to cremate it on the spot.
Coldstone landed beside Gabriel, grimacing horribly. "Bats never fly alone, unless they're either juveniles who've lost their way… or very sick, and cast out by their flock. That bat was too big to be a juvenile, so it had to be sick. Gabriel, were you bitten?"
"Just a scratch, I think," Gabriel muttered, looking closely at his hand.
"Wash it out in the river, now." Gabriel hurried back to the river, and Coldstone turned to Angus, his scowl even more fearsome "I know for a fact that we told you about avoiding lone bats years ago, before Gabriel even joined us! Do we have to start beating important information into your head, to make you remember it when it matters most?"
" 'm sorry," Angus mumbled, looking down at the ground and feeling horrible. He remembered their warning, now… now that Gabriel had gotten hurt saving Angus from his own stupidity again.
"Beloved, it has been a long while since we reminded him of that," Coldfire said in a placating tone. "Angus, dear, why don't you go start the fire? I'm sure Gabriel will be just fine once the wound is rinsed out."
Gabriel rinsed his hand in water for a few minutes, squeezing the wound site to keep forcing possibly infected blood out, and afterwards declared with confidence that he was just fine. And he was, for the rest of the night, though he graciously accepted the extra fish that Angus insisted on plying him with in apology.
But two nights later, soon after sundown, Gabriel started feeling dizzy and nauseous, enough that gliding was unsafe. He insisted it was just a temporary thing, that he'd be fine after a few hours' rest, but Coldfire insisted even harder that they make a temporary camp, and Gabriel wrap himself in the canvas for the smoking tent. He protested but obeyed, and soon enough it became obvious that the coddling was necessary; sitting there wrapped in the canvas, he shivered uncontrollably as his body was wracked with chills.
Coldstone and Coldfire exchanged very worried glances. Stone sleep was wonderful for healing wounds and restoring a body's energy, but not for curing infections; gargoyles in their old clan had been known to sicken and even die from various diseases.
At least Gabriel's symptoms didn't match the symptoms for rabies; that disease was universally dreaded, and back in the old clan, a gargoyle who had been bitten by a rabid animal was usually given a sorrowful farewell ceremony and urged to greet his last sunrise, before he went mad from the disease eating his brain, and in his madness started fighting with and infecting others.
Whatever that bat had been sick with, it had made Gabriel sick fast enough that they were very worried about him. Back in medieval Scotland, he would have been tended by the clan's healer, who knew of herblore and what plants could aid in curing sickness. But their little clan had no healer, and neither Coldfire nor Coldstone knew any herblore. What could they do?
Coldfire set her flamethrower nozzles to the small cooking fire until it was blazing high, high enough to be seen for miles; normally they preferred to keep a low profile, but right now it was more important to keep Gabriel warm. She set Gabriel in front of the fire, wrapped in the canvas, and directed Angus to hug his brother tightly, adding his own body heat to keep him warm. Angus did so promptly, fiercely wrapping his brother with both arms and wings, his own face contorted with worry and guilt.
Leaving Coldstone to tend the fire and their sons, Coldfire rocketed to the north and west under full power, heading for a town that the map said was nearby.
The next morning in the small town of Maydup, Albert Wilmoth opened the door to his little combination drug store/post office, and gaped in shock. He'd been robbed! The shelves of the pharmacy area had been ransacked, and at first glance it appeared the thief had taken one or two of everything he had in stock. Some of the food was gone, too; all his cans of soup and two loaves of bread were missing. In the camping section he kept for the tourists who were always forgetting to bring something, a fleece blanket and a cooking pot were missing too. But the thief had apparently tried to pay for at least some of what had been taken; there were two dead rabbits tied by their feet hanging off the edge of the counter, and half a dozen smoked salmon piled next to the cash register!
Several miles away, Coldfire and Coldstone were looking over the stone forms of their sons. Angus had taken his usual attempting-to-be-fierce stance to greet the morning, but Gabriel was still lying down, having been too weak to even stand at sunrise. All night Coldfire and the others had tended to him, doing their best to help. Once Coldfire had returned, she had directed Angus to unwrap his wings from around Gabriel so she could wrap him in the flannel blanket instead, adding the canvas tarpaulin around that to an added layer of warmth. Meanwhile Angus, who was the best in their little clan at reading, peered at the fine print on the labels of the drug bottles to determine what might work to help Gabriel and what would be apt to harm instead.
After Gabriel had been wrapped up as warmly as possible, Coldfire had ripped open the cans of soup and warmed them over the fire in the cooking pot, while Coldstone hurriedly carved a spoon and small bowl out of wood for feeding Gabriel with. When the soup was ready to eat, they'd dunked slices of bread in the soup as well, to feed him the softened sops. When he'd been fully conscious, Gabriel had grumbled about being treated like a hatchling that hadn't grown his fangs yet, but had sipped the soup and eaten the sops of bread when his stomach could stand any food at all.
"What if tonight finds him sicker instead of better?" Coldfire worried aloud as she looked over her son's statue. "I knew I should have tried to use the telephone in that store, to call the Manhattan Clan somehow!"
"With no idea of their, ah, 'phone number'? It would have taken too much time, that you much more wisely spent on caring for Gabriel instead. Tonight will find him better, I'm sure of it; his color was closer to normal just before dawn," Coldstone tried to reassure his mate. When that proved fruitless, he tried to distract her instead, musing as he hefted the cooking pot, "We should have gotten one of these ages ago. In the old clan, we always had a pot of stew cooking in the rookery, making meals out of scraps and tubers."
"A good stew or soup takes time and patience to make, and no traveling while it's cooking," Coldfire said almost absently. "But I'm sure that when we find a clan with mates for our sons, they'll have their own cooking pot and plenty of stew or soup to share with us."
Coldstone frowned, though she was facing away from him and didn't see it. Then he said aloud, "We'll keep the pot anyway. It's only a few more pounds, and we can carry things inside it as well. Now come, it's time to let our own systems recharge," as he took her hand, then assumed a stable stance and let several of his systems go dormant while activating the solar collectors in his wings.
Gabriel was still sick and weak when he awoke at sunset, but his condition had improved at least slightly, and he let Angus and Coldfire pamper him and ply him with soup, sops and antibiotics all night long. By dawn, he was feeling well enough to at least get on his feet to greet the sunrise properly, though Coldfire insisted he lean on her as he did so. After she helped him to his feet, he gave her a wan smile as he said, "Thank you…" after a brief pause, he finished, "Thank you, mother."
Coldfire went still, her isinglass eyes glowing brightly. It took Coldstone and Angus a second or two more to register what Gabriel had said, and Angus started to turn to them but froze in mid-turn as stone sleep caught up to him. No longer hampered by that biological function, Coldstone turned to look at first Gabriel, then at Coldfire's shining eyes as he said slowly, "He called you 'mother'."
Coldfire just nodded, her eyes still shining, then said softly, "If I could, I would cry tears of happiness now."
Coldstone nodded in understanding, and took her hand. But before they went dormant, he glanced at Gabriel and frowned slightly, wondering if Gabriel would now insist on calling him "Father" or "Da" like Angus did. Frankly, he preferred being simply addressed as Coldstone, when names were needed at all.
It took four more nights before Gabriel was well enough to attempt gliding again, during which time Angus hunted for them both; he brought back rabbits and other small game, and under Coldfire's direction he shredded and mashed up all the meat and the bone marrow so they could be added to the soup. After two nights of soup, Gabriel thought he was ready for solid food again. It was a Sunday, but for once Angus ignored his own strictures; he went out hunting and brought back a deer. He'd managed to hunt down and kill the young buck all on his own this time, but instead of claiming traditional "hunter's portion" for himself, he insisted that Gabriel eat the liver as well as all the other vitamin-rich internal organs, to further regain his strength.
Six nights after falling sick, Gabriel was ready to glide again, but Coldstone concurred that they would stay put until he was fully recovered. Thankfully, that took only another two nights, with stone sleep and the exercise of gliding fully restoring lost energy and muscle tone. (And during the recuperation, Coldstone was privately relieved to note that while Gabriel now referred to Coldfire as "mother", he himself was still called Coldstone.)
Two nights after they'd begun traveling again, Gabriel came back from a hunt without any game but with excitement gleaming in his eyes. "Talon marks! I found some old talon marks scratched into a rock on a ridge; they're gargoyle talons, I'm sure of it!"
Everyone rushed to where he'd found the marks to see for themselves, and Coldstone nodded decisively. "Talon marks, indeed. From a gargoyle about Goliath's size, I'd say."
"A clan! There's another clan nearby!" Angus was so excited that he glided up well above tree height and began shouting in all directions, "Hello; anyone out there?"
"Fool hatchling! What does he think he's doing, just shouting like—beloved!" Coldstone said incredulously, because with a whoosh of rockets Coldfire had gone up after her son, but instead of shushing him to avoid attracting attention from humans, she was hallooing in all directions too! And amplifying her voice so she was even louder than Angus, as she cried greetings to the still unseen clan.
Coldstone and Gabriel shrugged at each other, then went aloft and organized a search pattern; then they split up and began exploring the surrounding area, calling out all the way.
"Over here!" Coldstone shouted over his shoulder at his scattered clanmates, as he pointed to a cliff face not far off with a cave near the top. He could see with his telescoping cybernetic eye that the cliff face was riddled with old talon marks, and if that cave's isolation from most large predators didn't made it a good rookery site, then he was a winged boar. But he waited until Gabriel and the others had caught up with him before coming any closer; he knew that his own appearance was not something that a wilderness clan would welcome. Better to let Gabriel and Angus make the introductions, and explain that the other two with them were not really mechanical monsters, but true gargoyles at heart.
The four of them landed atop the cliff, then descended together to the mouth of the cave, with Angus chattering excitedly all the way. "Do you think they speak English? Or French, since we're in Quebec? Or what if they speak some other language? Maybe we can draw some pictures…"
"Angus, not now," Gabriel said abruptly, stopping a good ten feet shy of the cave mouth. "I'm getting a bad feeling about this."
"What? Why; what sort of bad feeling?" Coldfire asked, pausing as well.
Gabriel pointed at the cliff face they were descending. "All these talon-marks are years old, weathered and eroded. I haven't seen any fresh marks at all…"
"He's right," Coldstone said after peering closer at the marks nearest him, then all around him. "No gargoyle has climbed this way for at least a decade. They must have abandoned this rookery for some reason… but perhaps we can find some clue inside as to where the clan moved to," as he began descending again.
They all reached the mouth of the cave at the same time, swung in and dropped lightly—or as lightly as they could, in Coldstone and Coldfire's case—onto the floor of the cave. And immediately, they all saw the figure of a gargoyle standing to one side of the cavern, not a dozen feet away.
"Look! There's someone here after all!" Angus said excitedly as he pointed, before saying a little louder, "Hello! Do you speak English?"
But the figure didn't reply, didn't respond to any of their words, didn't even move. And when they stepped a little closer, they understood why… that figure of an aged male gargoyle was solid stone.
Coldfire, Coldstone and Gabriel all gasped, nearly in unison. But Angus didn't understand the significance of what he was seeing. "Huh? Why's he still sleeping, at night?" as he stepped closer. "Can we wake him up? Hey, mister… um, monsieur," as he reached out and lightly tapped the stone gargoyle on his left wing.
And a fine spiderweb of cracks swiftly spread out from where Angus had tapped…
"Is he waking? Is that what we—hey!" Angus protested, as Gabriel snatched him back, turned him around and swiftly wrapped his wings around him, his older brother trying to shield him from seeing what was happening. But Coldstone and Coldfire could only stand stock-still and stare in horror as the wing cracked apart and crumbled, and the rest of the statue quickly followed suit. In just over a minute, all that was left was a pile of dust and gravel.
Only after the horrible sound of stone crumbling to gravel had completely stopped, did Gabriel finally let go of Angus and let him turn around. Angus' eyes were wide with horror as he whispered, "D-did… did I kill him?"
"No; he died years ago, perhaps even decades ago," Coldstone said slowly. "There were stories about this happening sometimes, back in the old clan; a gargoyle would die in his stone sleep, and his statue would crumble at the first touch the next night. You were merely the first one to touch him since he died."
"Died of what? And where did everyone go?" Gabriel asked as he looked around. "Why didn't they at least… I don't know, at least post a 'Do not touch' sign next to him?"
"The floor is completely covered in gravel, inches deep in parts… more than any self-respecting clan would tolerate for long," Coldfire said slowly as she too looked around. "That old male must have lived alone for a very long time before he died… perhaps of sheer grief, and loneliness."
"Perhaps because he had been exiled from his clan," Gabriel mused aloud, verbally grasping at straws.
Coldstone regretfully shook his head. "No; an entire clan lived here once, not just one lone gargoyle. The talon-marks outside, and what we see here inside," as he picked up a pair of small clay bowls that had been stacked on a ledge to one side of the cavern, "were made and used by many different gargoyles. And it makes no sense for a clan to leave a suitable home and a clan member behind... That old male wasn't an exile; he was the last of his clan."
"But what did the others die of?" Angus asked, looking around fearfully as if he expected either their ghosts or the cause of their deaths to jump out of the nearest shadow.
"Disease, a war with a nearby human tribe… who knows? I doubt we ever will," Coldstone said bluntly. "But at least we can do what's proper for their last member…"
Using the baskets they found in the cavern, Coldstone's little clan gathered up the remains of the male gargoyle and brought them to the mouth of the cavern. It took Coldstone some time to remember the exact words that members of his clan had spoken to honor the deceased, and once Coldfire had to softly correct him on phrasing. But he spoke the words of the Wind Ceremony, as the basketfuls of gravel and dust were cast far out into the night wind. The heavier bits of gravel fell down to the trees and shrubbery at the base of the cliff, but the dust was carried out on the wind to the forest beyond.
After the ceremony was ended, the four of them stood silent at the entrance to the cave for a long while. Finally, Coldstone spoke again. "No matter what happened to them in the end, this was a good territory for a clan… and it will be again. This will be our home now, and our territory to protect."
The rest of his clan turned to him and began speaking all at once, in varying degrees of interest and protest. Coldfire's voice was softest, but most insistent: "But we need to find another clan, for our sons!"
"And someday we will," Coldstone replied. "Or I should say, the humans and the Manhattan Clan will find them. Once we're settled here, we'll make a foray to the nearest town and find a way to secretly reach the clan by telephone. Once contact is established, we'll check in with them once every few months. Humans have set their footprints all over this planet now; how many towns and villages did we pass by before reaching this point? Sooner or later the humans will uncover another clan on this continent, and once they have, the Manhattan clan will learn of it via their news media. And when they tell us, we'll leave here and go to the new clan… but until then, we need a territory, and this is better than many we've seen. Good forests, plenty of game, and no humans for miles in any direction."
"It would be good to stay someplace long enough to really get to know it," Gabriel agreed. "To learn the best hunting grounds and fishing spots, the best perches, where the best thermals are apt to be found…"
"We stay here," Coldstone declared, and turned to go inside the cavern. "And we'll make this cavern a proper home for a clan again. The second step for making this cave into our home will be to roast some meat in that fire-pit I saw in the back. Gabriel, go out and bring back some supper for yourself and Angus; I think venison would make a fine first meal here."
"What's the first step?" Angus asked curiously, as Gabriel nodded and turned to leap out into the night and begin hunting.
"Clearing out all this old gravel. And we'll use what they used," as Coldstone plucked a makeshift broom made of twigs from where it had been resting against a wall, and tossed it over to Angus. "Start sweeping, Angus."