By Kimberly T. (e-mail: kimbertow AT yahoo etc.)

On the estate that was home to the New Orleans Clan, all the farewells had been said between the people bound for Avalon, the people staying behind and those who would be leaving for Manhattan soon. The New Orleans Clan's two largest pirogues were waiting at the dock tied together and loaded with a few items of baggage. After the seven gargoyles leaving for Avalon--Goliath, Hudson, Ursula, Angela, Marie, Yvette and Bronx—boarded the pirogues as well, the lines were untied and Goliath, standing in the forward pirogue, dug the pole in to get them moving.

A rousing cheer sprang up from the people gathered on shore, and as soon as they had cleared the dock, Goliath chanted the spell that triggered the magical mists of Avalon, that would transport their craft to its shores. Immediately the mists of passage rose up all around the pirogue, obscuring the sights and sounds of the swamp and muffling to silence the farewell calls of the New Orleans clan.

In the rear pirogue, Hudson solemnly called forward to Yvette and Marie to be sure to keep all their limbs inside the boat, lest something be left behind. Goliath chuckled and the young females accused Hudson of teasing them, but still prudently kept their wings and tails tucked close. Ursula petted Bronx and crooned that she was sure the watchbeast Boudicca would be happy to see him.

Of all their party, Angela alone was silent, as she stared unseeing into the mists of passage; seeing instead into her memories. Memories of her childhood home, of her human guardians and her rookery siblings… and of Gabriel.

She'd been told that Gabriel had been the first to hatch, kicking his shell apart, followed soon afterwards by the simultaneous hatchings of Angela and Raphael. Michael had been the fourth to hatch, then the first beaked hatchling Uriel. After naming the first five hatchlings, their human guardians had run out of known angelic names, so they began choosing other names from the Bible, names of great warriors and strong women; thus they named Samson, Deborah, Ruth, Naomi, Nimrod, Gideon, Zipporah, Jephthah, Esther and David. After the Bible ran out of heroic women, they had switched to Greek and Roman history and mythology to name Artemis, Athena, Orion, Hippolyta, Menalippe, Antiope, Theseus, Perseus, Jason, Hercules, Ajax, Achilles, Pericles, Atalanta, Penthesilea, Ophelia and Odysseus. Tom had insisted on naming the lone gargoyle beast to hatch Boudicca, after a brave and loyal dog he'd had who had died in the same bandit raid that had burned down their home, and sent him and his mother fleeing to Castle Wyvern. After naming Boudicca, they'd picked names of other Scottish and Pictish legendary figures for the last three eggs to hatch; Aethelfleda, Angus and Morag.

Angela had been told that before she and her rookery siblings hatched, nearly four years after they had been brought to the shores of Avalon, life for Princess Katherine, Guardian Tom and the Magus had been easy and sweet. Every day on Avalon was an early summer day, even though at night the moon went through its cycle of waxing and waning, their only indication of change throughout the year. The trees in the orchards seemed to take it in turns to bear their fruits; a third of them would be in blossom and another third growing hard green fruit-buds, while the rest were bearing fruit ripe and ready to pluck. The forests and fields teemed with deer and small game, so much so that Tom swore that sometimes it seemed the rabbits would line up to be caught in the snares he set. But that sweet and easy life had changed rapidly once all thirty-six eggs had hatched.

The humans had some warning of the imminent hatching, from putting ears to shells and hearing the rustlings and bumpings of the infant gargoyles inside, gathering strength for their hatching. They'd laid in a huge supply of smoked meat, fruits and vegetables to shred and grind into a watery paste for feeding them, and created a huge stack of diapers from the softest sheets they took from the empty bedchambers, with holes cut for where they thought the tails would go. But even so, they still weren't really prepared for the reality of caring for thirty-five hatchling gargoyles and a watchbeast puppy, all squalling for food and attention from sunset to sunrise.

Two weeks after the hatching, the adolescent Tom having judged himself strong and knowledgeable enough to survive on his own for a little while, he had the Magus teach him the traveling spell. Then he had set out on a skiff, leaving Avalon to see if anyone had found a way to break the spell on the adult gargoyles yet. Both the Magus and Katherine had begged him to reconsider, to stay with them where it was safe, but he'd insisted that someone had to go, and he was the only one who could be spared for it. For if the gargoyles lived again, the three owed it to them to bring them to Avalon as well, to reunite them with their newly-hatched children.

Besides, the guardians had been painfully aware that they could use the adult gargoyles' help in raising thirty-six gargoyle hatchlings. They scarcely had time to breathe in the ten hours between every sunset and sunrise, caring for so many crawling and mewling infants all at once, and gathering food for them took so much of the daylight hours as well that they were all on the edge of exhaustion.

Tom had promised that if, once he reached the shores of Wyvern, he found the gargoyles still in stone by night, he'd return to Avalon immediately. If the skiff and Avalon's magic took him straight to their old home as he'd hoped it would, he should be gone for less than the span of a day and night, which would be only an hour to the others if what the Magus believed about Avalon's time was true. So, he'd set out that afternoon, with Katherine and the Magus bravely smiling and waving for him until the mists of passage had concealed his craft, then falling weeping into each other's arms. He'd been barely twelve years old, by their reckoning; still so young, and the outer world could be so harsh to the innocent…

But they'd scarcely had time to dry their tears and start preparing for sunset and the awakening hatchlings when the skiff had returned, with Tom on board alone and shaking his head. He'd arrived at an inlet on the rocky coast within sight of the castle, had made it to the ruins just after nightfall and had seen with his own eyes that Goliath and the others were still stone at night. He thought he'd heard human voices, likely bandits, in the forests nearby, but no other signs of habitation; evidently Constantine and his descendants had decided to leave Wyvern abandoned and in ruins, rather than rebuild it.

Still, they refused to give up hope that someday, somebody would break the spell. The Magus had written down in his journal pages, which he'd inserted into the Grimorum Arcanorum before their flight to Avalon and his forced relinquishment of his most prized possession, of his folly in transforming the gargoyles and his search for a counterspell. Tom knew his mother and Lady Finella would have been keeping their eyes open for a man who knew both magic and kindness, like their own Magus, and if they'd found one they would have passed the Grimorum on to him and begged for his help. Perhaps that magus or his descendents were experimenting with a counterspell even then! Tom had vowed that he would wait a few more years, then go out again. In the meantime, he'd brought back meat to dice for the hatchlings…

Some of her rookery brothers and sisters had occasionally grumbled that Gabriel was their leader only because he had been hatched first. But the truth was that Gabriel had been the first to do nearly everything, with Angela scrambling right behind him. He'd been the first to totter on two legs over to a proudly beaming Katherine, first to climb up into one of the apple trees, and the first to actually glide down instead of just falling out, landing proudly on Tom's shoulders instead of dropping into the Magus' waiting arms. Tom hadn't been expecting the glide or the impact and the two had tumbled to the ground in a squawking tangle of limbs, but afterwards he'd swung the grinning gray-green hatchling up to his shoulders and sung his praises all over the meadow.

After that, Gabriel was the leader of all his rookery siblings, and Angela, ever close by, came to be known as his second-in-command. There had been a little confusion over the title once the Magus had bestowed it on her, and for a short while she had been known as "Second-Angela." But Angela had vehemently let everyone know she'd rather be called Angela than 'second'-anything, and they'd soon straightened it all out.

The hatchlings had all grown up listening to tales of Goliath and the Wyvern Clan, and Gabriel had been nearly hysterical with delight once he'd figured out that he was to be a leader like Goliath had been. He'd been very bossy for a while, giving his siblings silly orders just for the fun of ordering them about, until Angela, Atalanta and seven or eight of his rookery brothers had ganged up on him and nearly buried him in mud from the riverbanks. Once Magus and Princess had dug the crying hatchling out, they had set him down and solemnly explained to him the differences between a beloved leader and a tyrant.

Gabriel had taken the lessons to heart, and had done his best to be a good leader after that. It had taken nearly a year for him to win his respect and his position back from his rookery siblings, but far less time than that for him and Angela to become best friends again.

The gray-green boy-hatchling and the lavender girl-hatchling had done nearly everything together as they'd been growing up; from playing games in the meadows and orchards to exploring the rest of their island home, learning to read and write English and Latin with the Magus and Katherine, and learning to hunt, fight and use weapons with Tom (who did the best he could, using his memories of observing warriors, both human and gargoyle, before coming to Avalon.) Those had been happy, wonderful years. Laughter had come easily to everyone's lips, except the Magus, and even he could be persuaded to smile and even laugh sometimes, if the hatchlings tickled him enough.

Tom had continued to go out once every few years to see if the gargoyles had been freed from their spell, but each time he'd returned in disappointment. Most times, he'd returned within an hour of Avalon's time, but once he had not returned for over six hours; time enough for the hatchlings to awake and wonder what had happened to him, and for Princess and Magus to bite their lips and cast fearful glances at each other even as they'd tried to reassure the hatchlings that he would return soon.

When Tom had finally returned, it had been with battered armor, a bloody gash in one arm and an assortment of bruises, but he'd smiled brightly enough when he saw them all. He'd related to the hatchlings about the adventure he'd had in the outer world, while Katherine and the Magus tended his wounds. Instead of bringing him directly back from the shores of Wyvern, which had always happened before, this time the skiff had set him on the banks of a river in England, where he'd helped a village called Stratford-Upon-Avon fight off a vicious group of bandits that had been terrorizing the town.

One of the village's leaders had offered the kind stranger, who wore a fine sword and armor like a knight but had no horse to ride, both his proud bay horse and his pretty eldest daughter if he would stay with them and guard against future attacks. Tom had thanked him but courteously refused; as he'd explained to the hatchlings, "I had to return here, dear eggs, where my home and family are. To where my heart is," and he'd looked directly into Princess Katherine's eyes and held his hand out to her as he said it. Katherine had blushed and ducked her head shyly, but then had smiled at him and put her hand in his.

The Magus had stared at them both with something like pain and anger in his eyes, but had said nothing, only turned away to tend to the hatchlings. Little Angela and Gabriel had seen it all, though, and had noticed that after that, Guardian Tom and Princess Katherine had been as apt to hug and kiss each other as the hatchlings, while the Magus grew more quiet and sad-looking.

Even young as they were, the gargoyles had figured out that the Magus was sad all the time because he didn't have a special friend like Tom had Katherine, Gabriel had Angela, Angus had Orion and so many others of them had special friends, to hug and tickle and kiss and play with. So, (as Gabriel and Angela had solemnly explained to their bemused guardian,) since they'd been taught to share and take turns at everything, they decided that they would all take turns being his special friend. It always brought a smile to his lips, even if it was an odd smile sometimes, when that moon's special friend would hug and kiss him; even Uriel, Atalanta and the other hatchlings with beaks for mouths, who had to be careful not to peck when they kissed.

Using the moon's cycles for their calendar, the guardians watched years turn into decades as their charges grew. And sometime between their twenty-sixth and thirtieth years of age, all the gargoyles' bodies began to change. They'd been growing taller and bigger all along, until most of them were at least the same height as their human guardians and several towered over them, but now they began to change in other ways.

Horns, brow ridges and joint spurs grew harder and more pronounced, and those tails with spikes or club-ends began to grow, harden and/or sharpen into truly dangerous weapons. These were all good things for growing warriors, they all decided, but what about these other changes? Angela and the other females were poking puzzledly at the lumps of flesh growing on their chests, while the males were peeking in astonishment down their own loincloths, which suddenly began bulging at odd times for seemingly no reason at all.

Finally, Princess Katherine had gathered all the females together and, very red in the face, had explained the facts of life as best as she could to the young gargoyles. Facts of life that they had been aware of as they applied to the wildlife they'd hunted, but had never thought to apply to themselves. Well aware of how different they were from every other creature on the island, turning to stone every dawn and back to flesh every sunset, it had come as something of a surprise to find out that in other ways, they weren't that different after all.

Princess had told them that all the changes in their bodies meant that they were maturing, starting to become adults, and eventually, many years in the future (she'd stressed that point a lot), they would have a breeding season like their biological parents had. Yes, they would lay eggs like the owls and ravens, instead of bearing live young like the deer and foxes. No, the princess didn't know why they had teats when owls and ravens and other egg-layers didn't have them, but she was sure they'd find uses for them. And yes, the males were being given the same sort of talk about their changing bodies by the Magus and Guardian Tom.

Except, when the hatchlings got together again after dinner to compare notes, they had found that the talks hadn't been the same at all. It was astonishing to find out how little the humans had told their charges about the changes in the opposite gender.

Since every hatchling had been taught reading, writing, basic math, hunting, fighting and as much of the history of their clan as the humans had known, Gabriel decided that everyone should learn all they could about this breeding season stuff as well. So he'd called another gathering the next night, deep in the forest, and class was in session again.

Gabriel and Nimrod had stripped out of their clothes showed the females their male parts and explained what they were supposed to do with them during the future breeding season, while Angela and Ophelia had done the same for the males. It had been embarrassing and awkward, taking their clothes off when their guardians had always been so strict about keeping them on when males were around (swimming together had been the only exception they had allowed, because drippy tunics and loincloths were so annoying) but everyone had agreed that education was important.

After show and tell was over, somebody suggested that maybe they ought to practice their parts for the breeding season. Gabriel and several other males had thought that was a good idea, even a great idea, and so had a few females, but Angela and Ophelia had shaken their heads. Princess Katherine had been very emphatic about the breeding season being several years away, and they'd gotten the definite impression that it would be an extremely bad idea to practice breeding until then.

So, they'd all agreed to refrain from practicing for a few years or so; after all, there wasn't any rush about it. Besides, it seemed to them that the most important thing about breeding was the raising of the hatchlings, and so far their experiences in raising young had been decidedly different than their guardians' had been…

Even after he and Princess Katherine had become mates, Tom still went out alone on the skiff every few years. But as the years went by, he did not always return empty-handed. When the gargoyles were about twenty years old, he had come back with a skiff full of eggs, a dozen odd-looking birds and a puzzled expression on his sunburned face. This time he hadn't gone to Wyvern at all, but to a strange island under a blazing hot sun. A little brown man scarcely three feet high, whom he'd suspected to be a Fey, had taken one look at Tom as he'd pulled the skiff onto the beach and started jumping excitedly up and down, jabbering something about a gathering and somebody called Oberon.

Once Tom had made it clear that he had no idea who this Oberon person was, let alone what he was gathering, the little man had been very disappointed for a few seconds; then he had brightened again, and had hauled on Tom's arm to get him to come with him. He'd followed the Fey to another beach close by, where he'd seen these odd clumsy birds, looking like giant chickens with oversized hooked beaks, and their nests full of eggs just lying in the sands.

The little man had made it clear that he expected Tom to take as many eggs and birds as he could away with him, back to Avalon. Evidently, these birds were as helpless before the new men coming to the island as a gargoyle in daylight, and they were rapidly being killed off. It was the words 'helpless' and 'last of their kind' that had made Tom agree to the plan, more than the green light flashing in the little man's eyes, and together they'd collected every egg on the beach and every bird they could, and put them in the skiff.

When Tom had said that he still needed to know before returning to Avalon whether or not the gargoyles at Wyvern had awakened, the little man had scurried up to the top of a tall, strange-looking tree that was crowned with leaves over five feet long, and had scurried back down again ten minutes later saying that the winds had told him the gargoyles at Wyvern were still stone by night. Tom had seen enough magic at work by then that he believed the Fey, and so the skiff had returned him to Avalon with the eggs and the strange flightless birds.

The gargoyles had been delighted with these new pets, and promised faithfully that they would not kill any of the adult birds, and would indeed help to hatch and raise their eggs. It had been such fun to help turn the eggs and keep them warm, and so exciting when they had hatched! And the clumsy little chicks had been so cute, bobbling about the castle… and pooping everywhere they went. That had not been cute, and it soon became obvious that these birds simply didn't have enough brains in their heads to be castle-trained.

But neither did the birds have brains enough to avoid being eaten by the island's other wildlife, so they couldn't simply be turned loose outside either. After an experiment or two in diapering the birds (that hadn't worked out at all well), it was just decided to keep them penned up in an inner courtyard, bring feed in to them and periodically shovel out their leavings. They produced so much of this doo-doo, as Princess had called it when the hatchlings were in diapers, that the birds became known as the doo-doo birds.

After roughly six months of cleaning up after the doo-doo birds (much, much worse than sweeping their own gravel off the battlements), Gabriel declared they needed a better solution; he picked out a beach on the island's southern shore with a large grove of fruit-bearing trees nearby, and said that would be the birds' new home. The clan spent several weeks building a ten-foot-high wall of stones around the beach and the grove of trees, taking the wall clear to the waterline to keep out predators. Then they'd transported all of the flightless birds to the safe place made for them beyond the wall, wished them well and went back to life as usual. They'd flown over the wall from time to time on patrols, and at last report all the doo-doo birds had been doing well.

That had been the gargoyles' first experience with raising hatchlings and young of other species, and it had not been the last. It seemed that after that, nearly every trip Tom had made to the outer world had ended with him bringing some other strange species back with him. The Magus concluded that the magic of Avalon was not sending Tom where he wanted to go, but rather where he needed to be, and on those occasions he'd been needed to help these other creatures in danger of dying out.

Thankfully, no other species were quite as helpless as the doo-doo birds, and all had been set free to roam the island after the first generation had become old enough to fend for themselves. (The gargoyles had wanted to keep some of the prettier and nicer animals as pets, but their guardians persuaded them to stick with the more common forest creatures, and leave these new species alone to breed in peace.) It had become a sort of joking saying among the gargoyles, whenever Tom had gone out; "What kind of animal is he going to bring back with him this time?" But Angela had what she thought was an equally important question: was he going to take anyone with him this time?

Many of the gargoyles were curious about the outer world, but Angela above all the others burned to know more about it. She'd read the six books that their guardians had brought with them to Avalon, and the three books of stories and knowledge that the Magus had painstakingly recorded since their arrival, several times over. She had always been right there at Tom's feet whenever he'd come back from a trip, eager for every scrap of detail about everything he'd seen and done.

The last few times Tom had gone out, Angela had begged him to take her along, but he'd refused. He reminded her that he'd sworn to protect all the eggs to his last breath, and he might well be breaking his word if he took her with him when he didn't know for certain where Avalon was going to send him that time. The last time he'd gone out, four years before the attack of the Archmage, she'd thought she'd force him to take her along by gliding out and landing on the skiff just before the mists of passage enclosed it, but he must have anticipated that, because that time he'd gone out by day instead.

Angela had fumed in frustration upon waking up that evening and swore that next time he was due to go out, she'd sink every skiff but one, and sit on that one day and night until he took her along! She'd seen everything the island had to offer, and just had to know more about that great wide world out there waiting for her…

Tom had returned from that last trip in a few hours, disappointed to report that the elder gargoyles were still sleeping in stone. He'd also brought back with him as passengers in the skiff not only a new breed of pigeon, but a half-dozen young creatures that were like baby horses, except they had stripes painted on their heads and the front halves of their bodies. There had been several adult not-horses as well, tethered to the skiff and swimming alongside it. He said the one person he'd talked to on the second little side trip Avalon had sent him on, a man with skin nearly as dark as coal, had called the beasties 'quaggas'.

It was four nights after that last trip out that Menalippe and Michael had come back from the forest with disheveled clothing, and excitement radiating from them like moonlight. They had been gathering nuts and berries, and had been playfully hugging and tickling, as per usual, when Menalippe had done something to Michael's back between his wings that had made his male part nearly burst out of his loincloth, so he'd done it back to her, and next thing either of them knew they'd been practicing breeding! And it had been such fun!! So much fun for both of them that they'd done it again, and again, and they were sorry they didn't have any berries with them because they'd accidentally crushed the baskets but wasn't this wonderful news?

The gargoyles had indeed thought this was wonderful news; after what had happened between Ajax and Esther, nobody had wanted to bring up the subjects of mating and breeding for over half a decade, but Michael and Menalippe were too excited and happy to have made it all up. Such great news, that breeding would be fun for everybody, was passed quickly throughout the clan, so that their guardians had word of it that very night. And the very next sunset, Princess Katherine and Guardian Tom had called a gathering and had Menalippe and Michael come forward, and told them that they were mates now, and they would have an egg together when the breeding season came.

They'd cautioned all the other gargoyles that they should only practice breeding with the gargoyle that they were choosing as a lifelong mate. What Menalippe and Michael had done, by practicing breeding before formally declaring their choice before the others, was wrong… But not too terribly wrong, because everyone had already known they were destined to be mates. For years Gabriel had been sending them on patrol together, because it was easier than trying to pry them apart for separate patrols.

Over the next few years, many other gargoyles had chosen their mates. Nimrod and Ophelia chose each other, as did Gideon and Hippolyta, Uriel and Atalanta, Jephthah and Deborah, and Raphael and Esther. And so many others… Angela had known that Gabriel had been approached by a couple other females at different times, and asked about choosing him for a mate. She had been approached by other males, too, and asked the same thing. Both Gabriel and Angela had refused their other suitors, however. Gabriel had done so, while looking in Angela's direction… And Angela had done so, looking out to sea and to the mists that always ringed Avalon, hiding it from the outer world.

She and Gabriel were best friends as well as rookery siblings, always had been and always would be, but she didn't want to be anyone's mate and start breeding eggs like a fat old hen when she hadn't seen the outer world yet! Gabriel might be satisfied with their home, but she just knew deep in her bones that she needed more, needed to see what was out there waiting to be seen and heard and touched and tasted.

She'd explained all that to Gabriel, the night he'd confronted her on the beach of the southernmost shore; the night he'd bared both body and soul to her and asked her to be his mate. She'd told him what she'd already told their guardians; that if Tom didn't take her with him on the next trip, so she could see at least once in her life what the rest of the world was like, she'd just board a skiff and go out anyway, without the spell for returning to Avalon.

Gabriel had gone a paler shade of green-gray at her words, before his face had darkened and he'd turned away from her. He'd told her before leaving that he'd talk to their guardians for her, and he'd get her that one trip to the outer world one way or another. But only a few nights later, the Archmage had attacked with his minions and allies.

Tom had gone out alone on the skiff after all, hoping against hope that Avalon would send him to a place with allies that could save his 'eggs'. Angela had stayed with Gabriel, the Magus and Princess Katherine, in a desperate search to find some way to fight the Archmage and his powerful allies. And Tom had returned only a few minutes after his departure, with the mighty Goliath, Elisa and Bronx in the skiff with him…

After the battle was over, when Goliath had spoken of returning to the outer world, Angela had seen her chance and had sunk her talons into it, nearly begging Goliath to let her come with him and his human friend. When he'd smiled widely and said she could come, Angela had wanted to dance and shriek for joy on the spot. But she'd refrained for Gabriel's sake, knowing he was so miserable standing there… watching her leave him and the clan, possibly forever. She'd tried to make him understand; it wasn't that she didn't love him, but that she loved the idea of exploring the world even more.

Gabriel had smiled at her in the end, and had told her he'd understood. He'd even waved to her and the others departing as he stood by Boudicca, Princess Katherine and Guardian Tom on the beach. After Tom had shouted his last words to Elisa, about Avalon sending them where they needed to be, the mists of passage had risen up around the skiff and obscured all sight, muffled all sound. But very faintly, they'd heard a howl coming from behind them, one that made Bronx lower his fan-shaped ears and whine softly. It might have been Boudicca, howling for Bronx, the only other gargoyle beast she'd ever seen. Or it might have been Gabriel, howling for her. Angela could never tell...

After several adventures in the outer world, they had returned to Avalon's shores. Angela knew that when he'd greeted them, Gabriel's widest smile had been for her return. She could almost read his thoughts in that smile; he'd been thinking that she'd had her chance to see the world, and now that she'd returned safely to him, they could become mates at last.

He hadn't said anything directly to her then, not when they were surrounded by all the others; instead he'd just joked about how quiet and peaceful Avalon had been while they'd been gone. And he either hadn't understood or chosen to ignore her blatant hint about finding adventures aplenty if he'd come with them on the skiff.

She was sure he had been about to suggest they go off together to talk in privacy, when Oberon, Titania and the Weird Sisters had all suddenly appeared in the air above them. She'd been almost grateful for the distraction, until she realized that the Fey meant to evict the entire clan on the spot, and to destroy them if they resisted.

Later, during their wild flight across Avalon, fleeing Oberon as he'd hunted them to prove his superiority over such lowly mortals, Gabriel had angled close to her and grabbed her hand as they'd flown for their lives and their home. He hadn't dared spare breath to shout to her over the sounds of their flight and pursuit, but his one look had said it all: At least if we die tonight, we die together!

But they hadn't died that night, and the iron bell the others had crafted had forced Oberon to accede to their wishes for continuing to live on Avalon, under his protection. He'd even gone so far as to say the gargoyles would become his Fey Court's honor guard. And afterwards, Goliath had come up to where she and Elisa were standing and talked about resuming their quest, casually assuming that she would be going with them again.

Gabriel had been standing nearby while Goliath had been talking. From his expectant/hopeful look, she'd known that he'd been waiting for her to politely tell Goliath that her traveling nights were over, and she'd be staying home with her clan now. But she hadn't because she couldn't; couldn't just stay on Avalon anymore. Not after learning that Goliath was her father and after learning so much about the world out there, learning that there was so much more to learn… It would have been like asking a hatchling to crawl back into its shell!

So instead, she'd turned to go with Goliath, Bronx and Elisa out to where their skiff was waiting. And seen, out of the corner of her eye, how Gabriel had started to reach for her, then stopped and dropped his head like a cut flower starting to die… then clenched his fists and bolted for the stairs to the roof, ignoring his rookery siblings' concerned queries.

As they'd left the castle, she'd heard a great crashing sound coming from the woods nearby and the scream of a dying stag, and had known that Gabriel was out there, taking his pain and rage out on the clan's next dinner. It had only spurred her onwards, till she was flat-out running for the skiff, leaving behind the pleadings of her other rookery siblings as well. And that was the last she'd seen of Gabriel, of any of her old clan, for fully half a year now…

She wondered if he could forgive her for leaving him yet again.

She wondered if one of the other unmated females had gotten him to agree to choose another for a mate, in the last few nights of Avalon time; "catching him on the rebound," as the humans said.

She wondered why she was punishing herself by speculating like this when she'd know soon enough. And as if on mental cue, the mists of passage parted and Avalon lay before them.

"Avalon!" Yvette and Marie both gasped with awe and delight and excitedly shifted their wings, Bronx barked excitedly, and even Hudson and Ursula smiled and sat up straighter. Goliath, however, frowned as he peered at the shoreline directly ahead of them. Hudson noticed this, and his grin faded as he asked, "That is Avalon, isn't it, lad?"

"I'm not sure," Goliath said honestly. "This isn't the shore I saw, the two times I visited before. Angela, do you recognize it?"

"I think so," Angela said as she looked for identifying features. "This is a shoreline on the southern side of Avalon, about two leagues from the beach where we left the doo-doo birds. It's just over half an hour's straight flight from the castle. I wonder why the mists brought us here, instead of to the harbor below the castle like before?"

But even as she said it, her heart thudded in her chest. The beach directly ahead of them was the same one that Gabriel had confronted her on, not long before the Archmage had attacked; the place where he'd all but begged her to be his mate, and she'd refused him. There was no doubt at all in her heart that it was an omen for their reconciliation… but an omen for good, or for ill?

"I suspect we'll find out eventually. For now, though, half an hour of flight is far faster and easier than hours of poling these pirogues around to the harbor, so let's put in to shore." Goliath and Hudson matched words with deeds, and shortly thereafter they were grounding their craft against the sand.

They were about to jump out and drag the pirogues up further, beyond the tide's pull, when Goliath suddenly lifted his head and frowned. "Listen!"

The others obediently fell silent and strained their ears. And faintly, they heard the doleful tolling of a bell.