The Legend of Lizard Valley
by Christine Morgan
christine@sabledrake.com / http://www.christine-morgan.org

Author's Note: the characters of Gargoyles are the property of Disney and are used here without their creators' knowledge or
consent. Other characters property of the author. May, 2001. 14,000 words. Originally written for the Avalon Mists Challenge.

#70 in an ongoing saga.



The skiff seemed heavier than usual, but Tom paid it no mind as he poled away from the shores of Avalon and into the uncertain mists of time and possibilities. As always, his thoughts were occupied with what awaited him.
The hope was there, that fragile bud of hope that grew whenever the fourth year rolled around. But it was overshadowed by a pall of despair that got bigger with each journey, each unsuccessful journey.
That wasn't to say that his trips from Avalon had been entirely a waste. He had done much, seen more, and welcomed the respite from everyday life. It was fascinating to see the developing world in its many new guises, fascinating and frightening all at once.
But each time, he hoped. Hoped that this would be it. This would be the one in which he sailed from the mists to find that the conditions of the Magus' impulsively-cast spell would have somehow, by what miracle Tom knew not, been met. That the castle would have risen above the clouds. That Goliath, and the other gargoyles frozen in stone with him, would be awake.
In his grimmer moments, Tom had to face up to the very real prospect that it would never come to be. How could a castle rise above the clouds? And even if it did, there was no assurance it would happen in his lifetime.
The pace of years on Avalon differed from those in the outside world. Tom knew that had he remained in Scotland, not escaped with Katherine and the Magus, he would have been worm-eaten bones long since. Centuries since.
On Avalon, less than forty years had gone by. But still, forty years! He had come there a boy, and now grey touched his hair, lines advanced from the corners of his eyes and mouth.
He could still remember the suggestion of the Magus, that one of them should take a skiff out every so often and see if the others had awakened. So that the Eggs might be reunited with what remained of their clan, proving to Goliath that the princess' promise had been kept.
As a youth, Tom had seized eagerly upon the idea. It wasn't until much later that he saw another side to the Magus' plan. A rather devious side at that, so devious in fact that he was never quite sure if the Magus had done it deliberately or not. But the proposal had come somewhat close on the heels of the blossoming attraction between Katherine and Tom, and as an older and wiser man, Tom now suspected that part of the suggestion might have been a ploy to get him out of the way before the unthinkable – to the Magus – could occur.
It had anyway. Katherine had fallen in love with him, their disparity of ages notwithstanding. And he, oh, he had idolized her from the beginning and loved her with all of his soul. He knew how the Magus felt … they all knew how the Magus felt … but since he did not seem inclined to admit it or act upon it, Tom had not felt compelled to sit back and wait.
He regretted it on occasion, regretted hurting the man who had been such a faithful friend and almost a father to him. But he would have harbored worse regrets had he not let himself love her. He would have harbored the same regrets with which the Magus struggled every day, and what good would that have done any of them? At least he and Katherine had each other, a love to warm them.
If they could not have children of their own, for whatever mysterious reason that had left their union barren, they had the Eggs to fill that role, and they were more a challenge and a joy than any number of human babes could have been.
So he did not often let himself dwell upon the pain of the Magus. He consoled himself with the knowledge that he had never deliberately set out to hurt the man, never tried to steal Katherine from him. What had never been claimed could not be stolen.
Even if the proposal of journeying forth from Avalon had been in part an effort to absent Tom, it was still a good idea. There was always the chance, wasn't there? If he found Goliath and his other warriors, they might be able to bring all the Eggs from Avalon. They might be able to rejoin the real world, live once more among other humans.
Once, in an innocent question that haunted Tom, pale Elektra had asked what would happen if the conditions were met and the castle arose just after one of Tom's trips. He went every four years, which corresponded to a hundred years in the outside world. If Goliath wakened after such a searching journey, he would be dead of old age before Tom was scheduled to go again.
This was a consideration he could have done without, adding a new layer of tension to his emotions. But once Elektra had voiced it, he could not undo it from his mind. Now, not only did he wonder what he would do if the castle remained solidly rooted on the headlands of Wyvern, but he also had to wonder what he'd do if he found they had awakened, lived, and died in the interim.
The sky began to lighten toward gold and anticipation thrilled through Tom. He was coming out of the mist. Coming to wherever he needed to be – he had found that his trips were never without some purpose, some good deed that he could do as if in consolation of his continued failure to find Goliath. It had shocked him the first time the mists had parted and he'd found himself somewhere besides Scotland. He understood it now, or thought he did, but it was still unsettling to think that some other-force was directing him.
Something crackled, and Tom looked around. He saw nothing but the heap of supplies he always brought with him, as he never knew how long he'd be required to stay or in what sort of surroundings he'd end up. The oilcloth-covered pile shifted a little, but he decided it was the motion of the skiff as the strange between-sea around Avalon gave way to the normal waters of the real world.
And this water was not serene! He grabbed for the pole as the skiff sped up, and all of a sudden he was sluicing on a torrent of whitecaps down a fast-moving river. Boulders reared up directly ahead, and he was so busy trying to avoid them that he was only barely aware of the hot sun baking down on him and turning his armor into an oven.
At last, the river smoothed out and he was able to pole to a sandy bank. He made sure the skiff was well-anchored and yanked off his helmet, the one he'd made himself in Avalon's smithies and crafted to resemble the stern visage of a gargoyle.
The scenery hit him like a slap. He turned slowly, sandy soil gritting under his metal-plated boots.
Downstream, the river widened into a sluggish, muddy-brown ribbon that meandered off across plains rippling beneath the weight of grasses that would be waist-high on Tom. A few trees, wind-shaped into stunted, warped claws, rose above the grain-heavy heads of the stalks. It went on and on, until the land rose up in a series of dusty brown mountains.
Upstream, the land was rockier, with jagged irregular juts of stone poking slantwise from the earth. He could see lizards with red and brown hides basking in the fierce sunlight, and the coiled, deadly promise of a snake.
The sky was a seamless blue bowl upended over this brown, red, and yellow land. He could not see so much as a wisp of a cloud. Just that impossible, unspoiled blue that went on forever.
He tied a length of rope from a hoop at the front of the skiff to one of the gnarled trees to make doubly sure the skiff could not drift away and strand him here. His next action was to strip off his armor. He hated to do it, because rueful experience had taught him that the outside world was filled with hazards peaceful Avalon could tempt a man to forget. But if he insisted on encasing himself in full plate, he would soon find that external dangers were the least of his worries. He would cook like a suckling pig, basted in the sauce of his own running sweat.
There was not much wind to the air, the barest breath of a breeze, but it hit his skin like a blessing. In woolen trousers that were scratchy and almost unbearable in the heat, Tom knelt at the side of the river and liberally splashed himself.
He donned a loose linen shirt, and cinched his swordbelt around it. A knife went into the top of his boot, and a sturdy club balanced the sword at his other hip. He spied the strap of his pack sticking out from beneath the oilcloth and fished it out, deciding that it contained all he'd need for a quick look around.
Why had Avalon sent him here? There didn't even seem to be anyone around. What could his purpose here be?
With these thoughts in mind, he shouldered his pack and decided to head south, down the river. If there were settlements in this arid, harsh land, they would have to be near water.
For a man of his middle years, Tom was hale and very fit. He had to be, to keep up with the Eggs now that they were getting full-grown and needing to be trained at the arts of war. At that, Tom admitted he was no great expert, having largely taught himself, but he felt that he'd done the best that he could under the circumstances. Practicing with Gabriel, Malachi, Jericho, and the others had kept him strong, quick, healthy.
That served him well on his walk, and while he was hot and sunburning and sweating, he was not aching. The terrain eased as he left the higher ground behind him. Now he was crossing what looked like a shallow bowl of a field, so vast that all of Avalon could have been plunked down in its midst with ample room on all sides. He saw grazing herds of beasts, some recognizable as cattle, others hunched and dark and shaggy.
He had been aware of the swelling sound on an unconscious level, but abruptly it occurred to him that the thunder of hoofbeats was bearing down on him, getting louder, the ground beneath his feet taking on the vibration of the impacts.
Tom turned, seeking the source of the sound, and saw a plume of dust to the west. It was coming closer, and at the base of it he saw several ghostly shapes. A moment later, he identified them as horses, a herd of horses.
They swept toward him, sleek and beautiful. At their lead, he could make out a large white form, a stallion, the most magnificent creature he'd ever beheld. He galloped unfettered, no bit in his mouth, no trailing reins, no saddle. His mane flowed, his tail was a banner.
As he stood, spellbound and boyishly delighted by the amazing sight of the horses, his heart brimming with wonder at their sense of utter freedom, he realized that another group of horses were approaching the white stallion's herd at an angle. These had riders, figures of men half-glimpsed through the dust.
Frowning, troubled without being sure why, Tom stopped where he was. If he anticipated properly, the two groups would meet not very far from where he stood.
He could see the riders more clearly now. They wore rugged-looking clothes and oddly-shaped hats, and had cloths bound over the lower halves of their faces. Some held the reins with one hand while waving small objects in the other. He heard a sudden loud popping noise, as of the snapping of dry branches.
The bursts of noise startled the herd. They raced on, their course bringing them directly toward Tom. The riders swung about to intercept, and he could hear them cheering and whooping. More of the loud noises came, along with smoke and licks of flame from some of the objects they waved … were those the cause of the din?
One rider had split off from the others, the rider tall and straight in a long dark brown coat and bright blue cloth. Instead of one of the small bent-curved metal things, this one held a rope and began to twirl it in an ever-expanding loop. The rope glittered like pure gold, seeming to leave a streaky trail in the dust-filled air.
The herd was bearing down on Tom, too fast for him to get out of the way. He could see the stallion, proud head rising and plunging with the rhythm set by its powerful legs. Its eyes were large and dark. The others all seemed to be mares, and to Tom's inexperienced eye they all looked like superb examples of horseflesh.
Superb or not, he had no desire to be trampled underneath their charge. He had lost sight of all of the riders except for the brown-coated one, easily visible by the golden whirl of the rope. That rider was very close now, body tense with excitement.
The rope whirled, whirled. The stallion's hooves shook the earth.
They were going to go over him and crush him, bleeding, into the dirt if he continued doing nothing.
"Hyah!" Tom yelled as the herd was almost upon him. He waved his arms wildly over his head.
In his drab linen and wool, standing motionless as the events played out, he must have been nearly invisible. All at once the white stallion was aware of him, tossing its head and rearing up, whinneying shrilly. It veered, passing so close to him that he could have reached out and touched the chalky blur of its flank. The mares followed suit. For a moment, Tom could see and hear nothing but the jolting confusion of their passage, and then something gold looped down.
He grabbed at it, caught it, cried out as it felt like a line of live fire in his fist. A surge of pain slammed through him, riveting him, every muscle clenched, jaw locked so tightly that he feared his teeth might crack from the pressure.
His legs had turned to water and gave way bonelessly. Tom spilled to the sundered earth, choking on dust and chaff and horsehair. He felt the shaking now not just in his feet but all through his body, and still his hand was closed around the rope. One side of his face was flat in the dirt.
Shadows ringed him, blotting out the hazy but merciless glare of the sun. He tried to move, but could only peer up at them with one eye.
A pair of boots stomped into the view of that eye. They were the strangest boots Tom had ever seen, of a scaled pattern that looked like snakeskin, with pointed toes and raised heels and adornments of gold. Above the boots were legs clad in tight, faded blue fabric, and the hem of a dark brown coat flapped about them.
With great effort, Tom flopped onto his back. His hand convulsively opened, letting go of the rope. Several clicking noises came from the circle around him and he observed that examples of the odd fire-spitting, noise-making things were thrust down at him from all sides. Bored holes in their metal were like cyclops eyes.
Weapons. They were some sort of weapons.
The tall figure in the brown coat tugged down the blue cloth that concealed nose and chin. The face beneath, although grimy and scowling, was that of a woman. She slapped the upcurled brim of her hat back from her head so that it dangled on a cord down her back. A braid of soft brown hair fell over her shoulder as she bent forward to look at him.
Her voice was loud as the end of the world, and her words made no sense to him.
"Whut tha gawddam blew hell is this?"
He had already been unable to move from the jarring touch of the rope, and now he could not have moved anyway, paralyzed by surprise. That face, that sweet, angelic, familiar face … he had seen it before countless times, looked lovingly down into it in the cool shadows of a bedroom. She was as he chose to remember her rather than how she truly was – eternally young, skin smooth and rosy-creamy.
"Katherine …" he forced through numbed lips.
Anger suffused her blue-grey eyes. "That's Kate to you, stranger … ain't nobody calls me Katherine 'ceptin' my momma! And how the blazes do you know my name anyhow?"
Tom could not answer. Tom could not do anything except groan, as the aftereffects of the touch of the rope caught up with him, and he lost consciousness.

**

He was sailing the sea of mists again, seeing nothing, hearing dim voices that waxed and waned like the moon. The words were in some language that he could not understand, although he was left with the odd and pervasive feeling that he should.
"Ah allus new you'd ketch a mayan," chortled one. "Nevuh thawt you'd hafter rope him dayawn."
"If'n I wanted un," replied a second, "I wooda chose a yunger, hassomer one."
Tom peeled his sticky eyelids open. He was still flat on his back, but on a considerably softer surface, and instead of the vast blue sky, a ceiling was over him and yellow curtains fluttered at the periphery of his vision.
"Cody's rid fer Doc Rafferty," the first voice said again, and now Tom was able to puzzle through and make some sense of what was being said.
"Durn fool," muttered the second. He recognized it as the voice of the young woman who had looked so astoundingly, incredibly like Katherine.
He turned his head, taking in the stark furnishings of the room around him. Two of the walls were peeled logs, two were covered in what looked like sheets of thin, patterned cloth. He glimpsed a bench, a chest, and a set of shelves before his gaze found the two women.
One was indeed the one who so resembled Katherine. She had removed her coat and hat, and was immodestly clad in those tight-fitting blue trousers and a shirt of checked fabric. Her fists were braced on her hips, and there was a hardened, scornful expression in her eyes that he had never seen, and would never want to see, on his beloved.
The other – Tom was struck dumb all over again. She was plump and cheery, rosy-cheeked, in a brown dress and white apron with a kerchief on her head, and was in every detail the mother he'd last seen waving to him from a departing skiff.
"Howdy, stranger," she said to him, smiling. Katherine -- Kate, he recalled suddenly, she'd insisted her name was Kate – glowered suspiciously.
"Mother?"
"Tsk." The woman shot Kate a reproving glance. "You done scrambled his brains with that thang, girl. I told you about messin' with Injun magic."
"It woulda worked if'n he hadn't been in my way." Kate stalked to the side of the bed. "Who are you, and what'n'a hell were you doin' out there? You cost me a shot at the white horse."
He was dismayed to find himself actually flinching from her. Oh, she might be the very image of his Katherine as she'd been thirty years ago, but her manner was as hostile and unforgiving as that of the scarlet-tufted she-garg that had been Goliath's second-in-command. Her eyes were ice, slate, giving the impression she'd just as soon murder him as look upon him.
"I'm sorry, lass," he stammered. "I didna mean t' --"
"He's an Irisher!" the plump woman said.
"Scots," Tom corrected, aggrieved into the protest.
"Either way, you're far from home," Kate said. "And carryin' a sword, accordin' to Mr. Magus."
He jumped. She said it to rhyme with haggis, not May-gus, but …
"Magus?"
"Mr. Magus, the perfesser," said the plump woman helpfully.
Kate had glare enough to go around, and served some to her. "I'll do the talkin', Mary, if'n you don't mind."
Mary? Tom gaped anew at the woman, and his head began to pound with the pain born of intense confusion.
"You don't have a gun, your clothes are passin' strange, and no one's seen you around these parts. So who are you, and where'd you come from?"
"I'm but a traveler," Tom said. As in his previous trips, he was aware that he was speaking and understanding the local language, albeit not perfectly, but also aware that it was nowhere close to the Gaelic he was supposed to speak. "I didna mean t' cause ye any trouble. In fact, I'm na e'en sure where in the world I am."
"You're on my Pa's ranch," Kate said. "The Flyin' W, in Lizard Valley, Arizona. That close enough for you? I had the boys truss you up and bring you here after you went and keeled over in the dust."
"Thank ye fer yer kindness --"
She leaned over and spat ringingly into a brass pot, shocking him into silence. "Warn't kindness. I woulda had that there white stallion if'n you hadn't interfered. You owe me, stranger."
"Ye were trying t' catch the horse," he said.
"Damn tootin'."
"I didna mean t' get in yer way."
As contritely as he said it, it did not dim the fire in her eyes. He braced himself for another onslaught, but before she could begin, someone began calling her name from outside, over the din caused by an upset horse.
Kate went to the window and pushed the curtains aside. Sitting up, feeling a little weak but overall not too bad, Tom saw that he was on the second floor of a building, and his view was of some trees, a swatch of sky, and not much else. By the angle of the sunlight, he thought it was nearing evening.
"Tarnation," Kate said. "I told those rawhides to stay clear of Constantine!"
"Constantine! Be he here too?" Alarm drove the rest of his weakness from him and Tom was on his feet before he could help himself. He joined Kate at the window.
The building was a long construction of logs and pitch, with a sloped eave of an overhanging roof just below the windowsill – covering a terrace of some sort, he suspected. It was shaded by trees that were listless in the heat. A fenced yard stretched between this building and a stable, where several grown men and one boy were trying to bring a stallion under control. The great roan steed tossed his head and pranced and reared, evading with contemptuous ease the efforts of the men to seize his reins.
Kate stormed out while Tom continued watching. Now Mary pushed up beside him.
"Tom!" she bellowed. "Tom, get away from there!"
He nearly leapt from his skin, and twitched again as he understood she was not addressing him at all. The boy below jumped and spun and looked guiltily upward. He had unkempt blond hair and features that Tom had not seen in decades.
"Aw, but momma --"
"Get away from there, I said!"
The boy obligingly scrambled out of the way, and not a moment too soon. Kate stalked into view, vaulting the fence with an easy grace that left Tom spellbound. She brushed the men aside and sprang into the saddle so easily that it seemed magic. At once, the big horse settled, snorting explosively through its nostrils.
"That boy," Mary huffed. "That horse'll be the death of him, just you wait and see. Ever since his father died …" She trailed off and shook her head.
"Constantine be the horse?" Tom asked shakily.
"Yessir, that's right. But Kate's got him gentled now. She's always had a way with horses, that girl. And don't you mind her none, hear? She's a might peeved that you let White Lightning slip through her fingers, but she'll catch up with him sooner or later, mark me."
"I didna mean t' cause trouble."
"So you keep sayin'. Don't let it worry your head."
"Then why are ye keeping me here?"
"Keepin' you … hey now, you're not thinkin' that you're a prisoner, are you?"
Tom nodded.
"Lordy be!" Mary laughed. "They brung you here because you were hurt and half knocked senseless, Mister … I don't believe I ever caught the name."
"Guardia …" He interrupted himself with a resounding clearing of the throat, not at all sure how to identify himself. What would she do if he looked her right in the eye and told her his name was Tom Bywell, son of Mary?
He was spared that difficulty because she misheard. "Well, Mr. Gardener, I'm here to assure you that you're not in any danger. Kate's got a temper, that one, but she's more rattle than bite, if'n you take my meanin'."
Tom didn't, but wasn't about to say as much. "Then what's t' become o' me?"
"I reckon that's for Mr. Prince to decide. He's Kate's pa, and this is his ranch. He owns most the land hereabouts. Been a fine place to live until lately, since Black Devil come around."
"Black Devil?"
"Since then, though, with the fires and all, we've been losin' hands right and left." She shook her head sadly while Tom looked at her hands, all the more mystified. He had yet to see anyone with an amputation. "Likely, if you're willin', Mr. Prince will hire you on. Pardon my sayin', but you seem like you're needin' a place. How'd you come to be out there alone, anyhow, with no guns and no money? Were you robbed?"
"It's hard t' say," he hedged.
"I done told her that thang scrambled your brains. Well, it'll come back. Until you're all straight in head and body, I'm sure Mr. Prince won't put you on the road. He's a fine man, a mighty fine man. Here, let's get you fixed up afore'n you meet him."
At a loss, Tom did not argue. He doubted he could have anyway. She was so like his mother that he couldn't bring himself to object, reduced to boyhood despite the fact that he was a grown man now, ten years older than this woman.
She saw to it that he washed up, shaved, and restored some order to his grey-streaked brown hair. She then provided him with clothes like those he'd seen on the other men – blue trousers of that durable fabric, a light-brown shirt, a leather vest. All the while, she chattered amiably about the ranch, and it gradually came together in Tom's mind in a way he could understand it. He found it comfortingly familiar and eerily wrong all in one.
The ruler of this part of the land was Malcolm Prince, though Mary referred to him as a 'cattle baron' or 'rancher.' They were some distance from the town, this being Prince's estate and holding, but were close enough to town that a man had been sent for a doctor. Kate was Prince's only child.
"What of this Magus?"
"Mr. Magus," she said, correcting his pronunciation as well. "What about him? Nice fellow, for a Britisher. That's him, over there."
They had come downstairs once Tom was sufficiently presentable, into a part of the house where the rooms were all long, low-ceilinged, and cooler as a breeze began to stir through the many open windows. Mary pointed to a man seated at a table, and Tom suffered a nasty pang of recognition.
It was the Magus … and it wasn't. This man had hair so light a blond that it was not quite white, but it was trimmed short and very neat. He had the same angular, ascetic features, but circles of glass held in a frame of silvery wire were perched in front of his eyes. He did not wear robes, but had on a dove-grey suit. His posture was what struck Tom the most familiar – the table in front of him was piled with books, and he was bent studiously over one of them in exactly the manner Tom had seen countless times before.
"Mr. Prince hired him on as a tutor for Kate," Mary said. Her voice dropped conspiratorially. "I think he's sweet on her, not that she knows it."
Tom discovered he was having trouble breathing. His throat felt narrowed to a pinhole, and his brow was stippled with sweat.
"Mr. Magus!" Mary called in a louder voice.
He looked up, and the eyes were so much the same that Tom expected them to flash knowingly. "Yes, Mrs. Wells? Might I be of assistance?" He spoke in a clipped, stilted fashion very far from the way everyone else was talking.
"This is Mr. Gardener. You had some questions about his sword, I think."
"Ah. Yes, very good." He closed his book with a decisive snap and rose to approach Tom, hand extended.
Tom hesitantly shook it. There was nothing untoward in the man's manner. Curiosity, yes, but not the knowing gleam. "A pleasure t' meet ye."
"Why, you're from Scotland, are you not?"
"Aye, that be true."
"How fascinating! I hail from fair Brittania myself, London, naturally."
"Naturally," Tom echoed, nonplussed.
"Now!" The Magus – Mr. Magus – clapped his hands briskly. "The sword. I have been trying to identify the era, but thus far my investigational forays have proved fruitless. Perhaps you would be so kind as to enlighten me? It is in remarkable condition for something that by its style would seem to be an antique. I'm guessing late tenth, early eleventh century, am I correct?"
He was saved from having to venture down this dangerous line of interrogation by the dramatic return of Kate. She slammed in through the front door like a hot wind, yelling over her shoulder.
"-- blame-headed witless excuses for men!" she finished, and banged the door shut behind her hard enough to send a resounding boom through the house. "I swan, Mary … oh, I see our maverick is up and about. Hello, Mr. Magus."
"Hello, Miss Prince."
Aye, there was no mistaking that tone, that expression. Tom resisted the sudden urge to drive his fist into this Magus' nose, and wondered at himself. He'd never felt jealousy before, mostly because his Magus had largely given up hope of wooing Katherine long before Tom himself was old enough to take an interest, but that was clearly not the case here.
Kate returned the Magus' gaze with a sardonic tilt of an eyebrow that let Tom know that she knew what the fair-haired man's tone meant, and yet beneath it was a warmer, almost encouraging glow that hinted she wasn't adverse to his attention.
"You've told them time and time again to leave Constantine to you," Mary said, clucking her tongue. "I don't s'pose as they'll ever learn."
"Dogs can learn," she stated flatly.
"Dogs can be trained," Magus amended, "because they do not presume to intelligence, as men do."
"Is that what it is? A presumption? Even in you, Mr. Magus?" She gave him a challenging, twinkling smile that turned Tom's stomach into a knotted, damp rag hanging just below his heart.
"I am merely better trained, Miss Prince."
She laughed, and it was a forceful, lusty, hearty laugh worlds away from Katherine's soft mirth. Then she turned to Tom and looked him up and down. "I see Mary's got you tidied. Now maybe you're more of a mind to tell me where you're from, and what possessed you to get in my way."
"I was crossing the valley, princess --" he coughed. "Miss Prince, I mean, forgive me. I'd been robbed and left t' roam, and before I knew what was happening, I was amidst yer herd and nigh got myself trampled. I didna mean t' grab yer rope."
"Well, you certainly paid for that, didn't you?"
"'Twas a fair jolt, like lightning. Sorcery?"
Magus' white brows arched. "Sorcery? Oh, I say …"
"What?" Kate looked at Tom as if he'd gone mad, and then understanding came. "Magic, you mean? Well, I'm not one for knowin' much about that, but it's a spirit-rope."
"I'm na sure I ken what ye mean, lass."
"A spirit rope," enunciated Magus clearly. "It was given her by a spirit-woman. Hopi, if I recall correctly. It is said to have certain properties that make it useful in the catching and taming of ghost horses, such as the one you encountered earlier today."
"That were no ghost," Tom said. "That horse were real as ye or I."
"If I shot you," Kate said, "the bullets would draw blood."
"That ghost horse," the Magus said as Tom puzzled over what Kate had said, "is something of a legend of this region. He is sometimes seen alone, sometimes in the company of a herd of mares, and is known by a variety of names, including White Lightning, the Prairie King, and the Phantom White Stallion. He is impervious to guns, arrows, pitfalls, and normal ropes."
"But the Indian woman's spirit-rope can lasso him," Kate said with a glint of eagerness in her eyes. "And once he's lassoed, I can tame him."
"Or so you hope," added Magus gently.
"There's not a horse alive I can't tame."
"If the legends are true, this one is not precisely alive."
"We'll see about that when I've snared him."
"At any rate," Magus continued, after sharing an intimate smile with Kate that made Tom's stomach knot even tighter, "the white stallion does seem to be an enduring fixture hereabouts. If he can be caught, he'll be more than a match for Black Devil, and put an end to the problems plaguing the ranch."
"What problems be these?" Tom asked, more to take his mind off of this disturbing and unwarranted jealousy than out of any real interest. He told himself that these people were not who they seemed, that it was some uncanny coincidence that lent their visages and names to these strangers living many hundreds of years later, but it was not an explanation his emotions seemed willing to accept.
"Black Devil," Kate said in the way of one drumming a lesson into the head of a pitifully slow pupil. "The demon-horse. Not even I'm crazy enough to try and rope that beast."
Mary shuddered. "He first turned up a few nights ago. I saw him myself. Black as tar, strikin' sparks from his hooves and snortin' fire and brimstone. If'n it hadn't gone and rained, we'd have lost half the fields and maybe the house as well."
"The white stallion is the only creature that can safely confront the black one," Magus said. "Again, according to legend. But because Black Devil is only active by night and the White Phantom only by day, never the twain shall meet, as it were. Unless someone, such as our dear Kate Prince here, can capture the ghost horse and keep him penned until after nightfall."
"Which I can, and I will." She shot a venomous look at Tom. "Would've had him today if you hadn't gone and messed it up."
"He'll come back tonight!" Mary gasped. "And this hot spell these last few days … the house could go up like tinder!"
"That's why Pa's organizin' all the hands," Kate said reassuringly. "We've got buckets of water standin' by all over the ranch."
"I pray ye," Tom said, "let me help ye defend yer home. It's the least I can do."
Kate pondered this for a moment.
"Mr. Gardener seems a right decent sort," Mary said helpfully. "And he does need to wait for Doc Rafferty. Might as well make himself useful while he does."
"I s'pose that'll do," Kate grudgingly said.
So it was that, when the cook clanged the dinner bell shortly thereafter, Tom found himself in the long dining hall with the rest of the 'hands,' which seemed to be the term used to describe the cattle baron's men. They were all of a sort, with leathery, sun-browned skin and work-hardened bodies. Because they were plain-spoken, common-born folk, Tom felt much more at ease with them than he might have expected.
He had glimpsed something Mary referred to as a 'newspaper' while waiting for the dinner hour to arrive. Thanks to off-and-on tutelage by the Magus he knew, he had learned enough of reading to get by, although slowly and painstakingly. And he could read this, even in the language that was not his own.
What he was able to decipher told him that he'd come more or less on schedule – the year was 1896. He tended to come close to an even hundred, give or take a couple of years. All of the news seemed to involve a place called Klondike, where gold had been found, and men by the thousands were hurrying to make their fortunes with picks and pans.
They all sat around one enormous table. Mr. Prince was at one end, a striking older man with dark brown hair and a neatly-kept beard. His wife presided over the other end, queenly of demeanor but with a ready smile, though she did hide more than one scowl at her daughter's improperly mannish ways.
Mr. Prince held himself like a nobleman but did not treat anyone as if they were beneath him, and it was readily apparent that his men were loyal … at least, these remaining ones were. From snatches of conversation, Tom gathered that others had fled the ranch after the first few incidents involving the Black Devil.
The food was plentiful and very much to Tom's tastes. Some of his previous journeys had taken him places where the meals were dubious at best and he was glad he'd thought to bring provisions from Avalon. That was not an issue here. Platters of ham, steaming bowls of beans and corn, dishes of fried apples and fried potatoes, and loaf after loaf of bread were passed around. Ewers of milk and crocks of butter were set on the table.
After some initial reticence, Tom let himself be drawn into the conversations. Most of what was said still made little sense to him, but he laughed when the others did and tried not to make himself seem too much of an outlander. It was hard enough even without the dizzying disorientation whenever he looked at Magus, Mary, young Tom, or especially Kate.
And those weren't the only ones … midway through the meal, after musing over it for some time, Tom suddenly realized that the stocky fellow sitting near Mr. Prince, the ranch foreman, was the mirror image of Castle Wyvern's old Captain of the Guard, the one whose betrayal had cost them all so much.
He was torn between wanting to accept what this appeared to be – that these were, somehow, himself and the former inhabitants of Wyvern reborn into a later era – and rejecting it as some trick, some illusion. His head reeled from it all. Most of all, he had to be eternally on his guard, so as not to let slip some remark that might make them question him further.
Of one thing, he had no doubt. It was clear in hi mind that Avalon had sent him here to meet these folk and help them. So, help them he would. If that meant attempting to snare a ghost horse with nothing more than a loop of magic rope, so be it.

**

At the site of the abandoned skiff, the dusky blue of evening was alive with movement as creatures, drawn from their burrows by the departure of the day's heat, ventured forth in search of sustenance. Snakes appeared, and their more amply-legged cousins the lizards, to curl on rocks that still held the warmth of the sun. The fleeting shape of a dun-brown owl traced a path across the sky, lambent yellow eyes scanning the ground for the darting shadows of prey.
All of these denizens of the desert froze at a new sound, one that their keen senses could not readily identify. It was the sound like that of stone cracking, such as sometimes happened during rumblings of the restless earth, but there were no such rumblings to be felt.
And then, motion. The oilcloth that had covered the cache of provisions heaved as if it were breathing. Animals scattered as a form rose up, draped and hidden. A dark, clawed hand emerged from beneath it, seized the edge, and drew it off.
Thisbe shook her head, ringlets of dark hair flopping over her brow ridges and into her face. She blinked and worked her shoulders, shedding the last of her hardened sleep-skin. She was confused and groggy … sleep had come on her with unexpected suddenness and she could not understand what had happened to her.
As she saw the skiff, and the shard-speckled bundles around her feet, it began coming back to her. The dare. The taunting of her rookery siblings – Zachariah and Tourmaline most prominently among them. A challenge, they said. A way to prove that she was not as faint of heart as she seemed.
For it was her nature, or her curse, to be one quietest, softest-spoken, and most emotional of their clan. She had been barely more than a hatchling when she'd discovered a dead bird and brought it to the Magus, weeping for the poor fragile thing whose life had been so cruelly snuffed short. She wept for the deer that the clan hunted for food. She wept also whenever her siblings used words as weapons to harm one another.
Soft-hearted, that might make her … but faint-hearted? She was as able a warrior as any of them, and while her slender frame could not match the brute strength of males such as Malachi, she was quick and decisive in their trainings for battle, with an uncanny ability to spot and exploit any lapse in a foe's defense. She was not demure and retiring, like Elektra, and she was not squeamish like Miriam.
But she was not as fiery as Tourmaline, Hippolyta, Angela, Ruth … indeed, the majority of her sisters. And thus, teasing her into proving herself, Zachariah had suggested that she hide away on the skiff as Guardian Tom was preparing for another of his journeys. It would be a rite of passage, Tourmaline said, a way to show that she was not afraid of her own moon-cast shadow.
Nettled, she had taken them up on it. With the clan milling about to bid their Guardian farewell, she had easily been able to slip unnoticed into the skiff and conceal herself beneath the bundles. Her smaller size was of an advantage here, and her patience let her hold her place in silence as the craft poled away from the island of her birth.
She had been curious, of course, all but burning with curiosity to see the mists close around them and then see them part to reveal some new and hitherto unexpected world. But it was possible that the Guardian would be furious when he learned of her presence, so she didn't emerge. And then, something had happened …
It had only been a little while after nightfall when the Guardian had left. She should have had hours of waking time. But all at once, without even the warning tickle that heralded the dawn, she felt her limbs solidify and sleep overtake her.
Now she'd awakened, and cast off the oilcloth ready to face the scolding that was sure to be hers. Part of her quailed at this, not because she was fearful but because she had never disappointed or disobeyed her rookery parents before.
Guardian Tom was not there.
No one was there.
Night had lent a carpet of blue-black shadows to the land. The stars, coming out in the purple sky above, were a fierce spangling of jewels. By their light, Thisbe could make out details that would have been invisible to a human eye.
It was nothing like Avalon.
It was enormous. And seemingly, but for the few small beasts that had resumed their activities, empty.
Thisbe stepped from the skiff, brushing flecks of stone from her yellow halter and long, split-paneled skirt. She fanned her wings, which were like fans, dark tan membranes stretched between many thin struts of a deep, warm brown that matched the rest of her skin. The design of her wings was mirrored in her ears.
The rough sand of the riverbank was warm beneath her bare talons, not cool and damp like the beaches she was accustomed to. The landscape looked terribly barren at first, her eyes used to Avalon's lush forests. Where would one find food in such a place?
Food would have to come later, as hungry as she was. First, she had to find the Guardian. She contemplated just waiting here, for he was bound to return to the skiff sooner or later. What if she went off, and he came back while she was gone, and not knowing that she'd ever been there, left without her? She'd be stranded here, forever, unless Tourmaline and Zach confessed and he made another trip to find her.
But that was not as comforting as she might have thought; he'd told them that each time, Avalon sent him someplace different. Someplace where he was needed to perform some task or learn something that might be of use to them in the future. Suppose that Avalon didn't send him to find her?
That thought made a pang go through her. That she could be trapped, never to see her brothers and sisters again … she missed them already! Especially Ronan, always so quick to make her laugh with his juggling and his banter.
Yet she also had to wonder if her presence on the skiff had therefore included her in the mysterious pattern that Avalon wove. What if this was where she needed to be? What if Guardian Tom needed her help? She could not wait here like the timid thing her rookery siblings believed her to be, not when he might need her.
So deciding, Thisbe scaled a rocky slope and took in the harsh but oddly beautiful view around her. She saw no signs of the Guardian as she stood on high with the wind in her hair, but she heard something that she realized was the distant beat of a drum.
The updrafts as air rose from the cooling ground were more than sufficient, and Thisbe took to the sky with ease and with the familiar, loved joy that all gargoyles felt when doing what they were meant to do. Only Icarus was denied this pleasure, Icarus and Boudicca, but the watchdog she-beast did not seem to know what she was missing. Poor Icarus knew all too well, having lost his wings to an attempt to outrace the dawn.
She shut her mind to such gloomy thoughts and soared, cool silken wind rippling like water over her body. An owl, intent on the hunt, did not see her until she was almost upon it, and she laughed as the bird wheeled in a startled flurry of feathers. The mouse that had been so close to becoming a meal darted to safety in a burrow, and Thisbe laughed again.
Soon, from her higher vantage, she glimpsed the spark of a fire, a campfire. It was tucked down in a nest formed by slanted, leaning rocks, and would not be visible from anywhere but above, not by night when the spiraling thread of smoke would be invisible against the darkness.
The sound of the drum was coming from the same place. Although she had never known him to express an interest in music, it had to be the Guardian. He'd be surprised, and likely angry, but she hoped to convince him that she was sincerely sorry for her prank.
She landed on an upthrust rock, washed with leaping red and orange firelight.
The man opposite her shot to his feet with even more surprise than she'd anticipated. Shock, even. But no anger.
The shock was on her side as well, for he was not Guardian Tom.
His skin was a lighter, more reddish-copper shade than her own, the color that might have resulted if tan Jacob and Garnet, named for the gem she represented, mated and had a hatchling. His hair was blacker than Thisbe's own, and longer, hanging in plaits to the waistband of the doeskin trousers that were his only garment. His chest was hairless, more like a gargoyle's than that of a human – judging of course solely by comparison to Guardian Tom.
The drum he'd had between his knees as he squatted now rolled away, showing colorful designs in ochre and blue on the hide stretched over the wooden frame. The stick with which he'd been beating it was tufted with feathers, and he held it now like a weapon as he stared at Thisbe.
She judged him to be young, though older than the human equivalent of her own age would be. And not unhandsome by gargoyle standards, with proudly sculpted features and a prominent eagle's beak of a nose.
"What spirit are you?" he asked.
Thisbe could barely believe her ears. His speech, his language, was strange to her, and yet she understood him and was able to answer in kind.
"I am no spirit."
"What have I summoned?" He looked from the stick to the drum and then back to her, this time more searchingly.
His eyes traveled up her long, strong legs in a way that made her think of how some of her rookery brothers were beginning to look, and continued even more slowly past her bared, narrow waist and the rising contours barely confined by her halter.
"I am no spirit," she said again, a bit uneasy under his gaze. "I was not summoned here, stranger, but came in hopes of finding my Guardian. I mean you no harm. Who are you?"
"My name is Istaqa. I am a spirit-caller, a medicine man. My spell brought you, winged spirit, when it was meant to call another."
Thisbe bowed her head apologetically. "I shall away, then, and leave you to your sorcery."
"No!" He caught himself. "You need not go, winged spirit. Please. Stay. We can help each other."
She regarded him narrowly. "How so?"
"This Guardian of yours. Is he a man?
"Yes, a human." She described him, omitting the armor because she had found it left with the skiff. It bothered her to think that he might be in danger without that protective casing of metal, alone in this unfamiliar place.
"As I thought. I have seen him."
"Guardian Tom! Is he well?"
His eyes, like twin points of obsidian, met hers gravely. "He has been taken captive."
"Oh, no!"
"Please come and sit." Istaqa gestured to a convenient boulder. "I will tell you what I saw."
"Very well." Not without some hesitation, Thisbe leaped gracefully down and sat, the fire between them so that she viewed his face between the dancing tongues of flame. "Who has captured him? I pray you, tell me."
"This land is the home of my people," he said. "It has been for many generations. But now other have come and seek to claim it for themselves. To own the land. To tame it, and humble it."
"What has this to do with Guardian Tom?" she interrupted.
"You must understand. It is these others, these white-faced men, that have taken him."
"White-faced?"
"Pale, except where they are darkened by the sun. As he is. Perhaps they mistook him for one of their own."
She nodded, but still puzzled over the term – not even fair Elektra, with her ivory wings, could be said to be truly white-faced.
Istaqa went on. "These men want to ruin the land. They have brought disease and poisoned firewater to my people, driven them from their homes, belittled them, treated them as savages. We have been here for far longer. We respect and love this land. They care only that they can use it for their own purposes, and leave it when they are done. They even seek to capture a spirit-horse, the White Stallion. If this happens, there will be no stopping their spread of selfish evil."
"But how –"
"Today, they almost succeeded. They have a rope …" He seemed nearly unable to go on, rage clenching his jaw and flashing in his eyes. "That they took from my sister, Powaqa. She has strong magic, like I do. With this rope, they planned to catch the White Stallion. Your Guardian tried to stop them."
"What has become of him?"
"When the White Stallion escaped, they used the rope to trap him instead. I saw it all. They bound him and carried him off, and hold him prisoner. I do not know what they will do with him."
"I must help Guardian Tom!" Thisbe sprang up, and then sank down again. She looked at Istaqa hopefully. "Will you tell me how to find them?"
"I will do better than that, winged spirit. I will go with you. Together, we will free your Guardian and make sure that they can never do anything like this again. But first, I must complete my spell."
"What spell?"
"I will summon a spirit-horse of my own."
He did not elaborate, but picked up his drum again and set it between his knees. He began to pound out the same beat that she had heard from above. Soon, his eyes closed and his head rolled back, but his arm kept up the unfaltering rhythm. He began to shake, his braids jittering, the muscles beneath his smooth copper-red skin twitching. But still, his arm and hand were steady.
A low, guttural croon issued from his lips, turning into a muttering chant. Thisbe held her breath, not daring to break his spell by speaking.
Whuff!
The hot gust of an exhalation on the back of her neck made her think again of Boudicca. But when she turned, she fell off of her seat and scrabbled backward through the dirt on claws and talons.
She had never seen a horse before, except in drawings. Even so, she never thought one would be so huge, so gleamingly black. She certainly never thought one would have baleful red eyes and smoke rising in plumes from its nostrils.
"Black Devil," said Istaqa in satisfaction. He had stopped chanting, stopped drumming, and Thisbe wasn't sure when. He stood, holding out his hand, and fearlessly went to the horse.
It sniffed at Istaqa's proffered hand and snorted. The black horse's hooves were a dull orange-black, like iron taken from the forge and allowed to cool but still too hot to touch.
Thisbe, struck speechless, got up and absently brushed dust from her tail. She circled around a bit, still keeping a most wary distance, admiring the sheer power of the creature.
"I will ride there," Istaqa said. "You follow. When we are close, Black Devil and I will distract them with fire. You, with your glorious wings, can get there unseen and find your Guardian. But you must also get the rope. As long as they have it, its magic will hold his spirit even if his body is free. Bring me the rope and I will break the spell it has on him."
"I thank you for your aid."
He smiled, and his teeth were very white. "We are meant to help each other."

**

Full night had fallen but brought no relaxation to the Flying W Ranch. Quite the contrary. The darker it got, the more tense the ranch-hands grew, even to the point of snapping at each other. Nerves were frayed to the breaking strain. Mr. Prince had to break up more than one toe-to-toe that was building toward fisticuffs.
Tom understood their actions. They were afraid, sore afraid. But, being men, their pride would not allow them to admit it, and so they took it out on each other. He'd seen the same thing all those years ago as the defenders of Castle Wyvern were awaiting the inevitable Viking attack. The men couldn't show fear, not in front of each other and certainly not in front of the ladies.
Through talking to some and listening to the conversations of others, he now knew exactly what they were afraid of. This horse, this devil-horse, was enormous and unstoppable. It couldn't be shot – that was what these things called 'guns' were for, like tiny handheld catapults that could spit small balls of metal with amazing speed and force. It couldn't be roped, or scared off.
He joined them in their watch, thinking to himself that this ranch of theirs would be much better fortified with nice high stone walls and battlements rather than those post-and-rail fences. He also wondered at the wisdom of arming them with guns when said guns would be useless against their foe and only more likely to let them shoot each other. But he realized that having the weapons, even if they were no good, made the men feel better.
Something appeared out of the night, but it was hardly the fire-spitting monster of their whispered stories. It was a woman, a solitary woman.
As tightly wound as the men were, they came very close to attacking anyway. Kate's imperious shout stopped them, and the scathing glare with which she raked the most edgy of them would have made a full-grown male gargoyle halt in his tracks.
Kate went out to meet the woman and escort her in. As she came into the light, Tom was braced to recognize her – Lady Finella, perhaps, or one of the Weird Sisters. But he was proved wrong. She was very strikingly different in appearance from anyone he had ever seen before.
Through snatches and snippets of what was being said around him, he gathered that she was called Powaqa, that she was something called Indian, and that she was a witch, wise-woman, spirit-woman … all terms for sorceress. Her clothing was strange, too, elaborately decorated with beads and fringe.
Powaqa drew Kate aside to speak urgently to her. While most of the others gave the newcomer a wide berth, Tom arranged to be close enough to overhear.
"You are running out of time," Powaqa said. "He comes. He comes very soon."
"I couldn't catch the white horse," Kate said bitterly. "We'll hafta hold him off one more night."
"He is not alone." Her eyes, so large and deep and expressive that a man could have lost himself in them, were sad. "He means to burn you out."
"How do you know all this anyhow?" Kate demanded. "You haven't hardly told me a durn thing, 'ceptin' that the rope will tame the ghost horse. Why can't I use the rope on Black Devil?"
"No, you must not! The black stallion will kill any who try to hold him."
"There's more to this than you're tellin' me."
She sighed. "I have told you what you need to know."
"That ain't the same as what I want to know!"
"Here. I have brought you this charm for luck." Powaqa held out something that dangled on the end of a thong, but before Kate could reach for it, Tom seized it away.
"Hey!" Kate rounded on him.
He closed his fist around it and glowered darkly at the Indian woman. "This be magic! What are ye trying t' do here?"
"It is good magic!" she protested.
"Gimme that, Gardener!"
He had all but forgotten that clumsy mispronunciation of his title, but still held it away from Kate. "Are ye sure ye can trust this woman?"
"More than I'm sure I can trust you!"
"It is good magic," Powaqa said again. "It will protect you from the Black Devil's fire."
Tom looked at the thing. It consisted of a tooth, some sort of sharp animal fang, threaded on a leather cord with a few black and yellow beads clustered to each side. His understanding of magic remained a chancy thing at best, but he had lived on Avalon long enough to detect that faint, indecipherable glimmer of enchantment.
"How's it work?" Kate asked. "Will it save the ranch?"
Powaqa shook her head somberly. "I only had time to make one. The coyote-tooth amulet will guard one person for a short while and then it will lose its power."
"Give it here," Kate said.
"Princess –"
She struck him. Not a feeble womanish slap but a roundhouse punch that very nearly knocked him on his backside. Tom, staggering and pressing his fingertips to the tender knot on his jaw, barely noticed that Kate had taken the amulet away and put it over her head.
"Ye hit me!"
"I'll do more'n that if'n you don't stay the hell outta my way!"
"I'm looking out fer ye, Katherine."
"I told you not to call me that, and who says I need lookin' after? I still don't know who you are, Gardener, or whatcher doin' here, but I've got me more reason to trust Powaqa than you."
"Ye said yerself ye dinna know much about her."
"I know enough. I know that she --"
Katherine flung out her arm to point at the other woman and her words stumbled to silence. The spot that Powaqa had occupied was empty except for a whirl of dust. Somewhere off in the distance, the eerie howl of a wild dog ululated toward the rising moon.
"How the blazes …?" Kate whispered.
"'Tis magic, as I said," Tom said.
She looked up at him uncertainly, and in that moment while her mask of toughness was laid aside, he saw the Katherine he'd fallen in love with. So lovely, so innocent. Before thinking of what he was doing, Tom leaned toward her to kiss her.
"I say, am I intruding?" came a cold query.
Kate visibly realized what Tom was about to do and drew back sharply. The mask was in place again, sparks of anger struck from the flint of her eyes. "Not at all, Mr. Magus, not at all."
Tom was chilled to the marrow as the Magus' gaze found him. He had never seen such a look there before, because in his world, in his time, the Magus had resigned himself to his melancholy fate long before Tom was old enough to take an interest in the woman they both loved. This man was not that one, and regarded Tom with an evaluating iciness as he perceived this possible rivalry.
But it was no rivalry! She was not his Katherine, and even if all else had been set aside, he was twice her age. His home, with his beloved, was elsewhere. Very far from here.
He tried to express that without speaking, since he did not trust himself to string words together in any sort of coherent order. Seeing no quarter in the Magus' face, he turned to Kate. What he saw there, the sneering contempt that an old man like him, a stranger to boot, would dare to try and take such a liberty, went into his heart like a blade.
What might have come next in that awkward triangle would not have been pleasant, but they were spared from finding out because just then, a hue and cry went up from the men on sentry duty. Their problems forgotten, Tom and Kate and Mr. Magus rushed to the fence and peered out over the fields.
A fireball like an earthbound comet was coming toward them, leaving a burning trail in its wake. As it came closer, Tom could see a shape within the flames, that of a large horse belching fire like any self-respecting dragon and kicking up more of it with each impact of hoof against earth.
The men, for all they'd been expecting this, reacted in terror and panicked chaos of action. Some ran this way, some ran that way, and more than a few began shooting their guns at the onrushing apparition. Tom saw Mary struggling with her son – that other, younger Tom – and trying to get him into the house over his objections of wanting to stay and help.
Cattle began lowing in alarm as the fireball exploded through their pasture fence. A bull of colossal size bellowed a blatting challenge and pawed the ground, snorting. In the stable, the ranch horses began whinnying and kicking at the interior walls of their stalls.
The bull – according to the hands, the bull was called Goliath, another coincidence that Tom wasn't sure if he found amusing or could have done without – charged at the Black Devil, the stallion's form now easily discerned. The collision would have been devastating if it had happened, but the bull's tonnage passed through the horse's as if Black Devil were no more substantial than the mists through which Tom had sailed.
The fire, however, was of substance. It could burn the grass, it could burn the fence, and it could burn cowhide. Goliath the bull, his bellow changed to a bleat of pain, thundered on after the fleeing herd, shaking embers from his hide just as the gargoyle by the same name had shaken away the stony crust of daytime.
In watching this, Tom had lost track of Kate. To his dismay, he saw her astride Constantine. Mr. Magus was holding onto the bridle, apparently begging her to reconsider, and she gave the impression of being but an eyeblink away from clouting him just as firm a blow as she'd given Tom.
Tom began running that way. A whooshing sound, unmistakable, made him look up in time to see a winged figure streaking toward him.
The gargoyle backwinged and landed, perched atop two posts of the fence with her yellow skirt blowing around her legs. "Guardian Tom!"
"Thisbe?" Of all the beings he might have guessed, sure as she would have been far down on the list. And yet he knew just by the sight of her that this was not another of those uncanny resemblances, these twins across time, but his Thisbe, one of his Eggs, somehow, incredibly, here and real.
Her sudden arrival had captured the attention of everyone, stunning the ranch hands into immobility. Whether it was because she was a gargoyle or because she was beautiful – for Tom, it was like he had never really seen her before, given her unassuming way of always letting the others be foremost, but now he saw her on her own merits and knew the truth – she had all eyes fixed on her.
"I've come to rescue you, Guardian," she said. "Come, quickly! Let us away!"
"I canna leave these people," Tom cried. "They're under attack, lass!"
"I know, so that I might rescue you!" She held out her hands, meaning for him to clamber the fence and then she would attempt to take wing.
Tom wasn't at all confident that Thisbe could bear his weight, but more, he wasn't about to abandon the ranch, abandon the battle. He tried to explain as much, but Thisbe's brow ridge rose in comprehension.
"The rope, 'tis the rope that holds you here, as he said!" With that, before Tom could ask any of the dozen questions that had just flashed into his mind, she leaped from her perch and glided on the current of heated air from the spreading fire.
"Thisbe!" he yelled.
He had no idea how she would know about the rope, or think that it had him under some thrall, but at least it wasn't as if she would be able to find the thing. It was …
It was in Kate's hand, a twirling loop of it as she galloped on Constantine straight at the Black Devil. Even through the smoke and firelight, that golden glow was clear and distinct. Thisbe went high, a sleek silhouette outlined by stars. Tom had seen her best her rookery siblings in battle-games with just such a maneuver, and called out a warning to Kate that went unheard over the rest of the din.
Black Devil was not headed right for the ranch-house anymore but had swung wide around it, and Tom soon saw the deadly intention of that plan. The wall of fire raced inward, a shrinking circle that would soon enclose them fully, and from which there would be no escape.
Kate jumped from the saddle and slapped Constantine on the rump. The roan stallion, which had obeyed her even though stricken wild-eyed with terror, wasted no time in bolting for an opening in the fire-wall. Kate herself, her hat pushed back and the ivory curve of the coyote-tooth visible against the muted pattern of her shirt, put herself where she'd be able to intercept Black Devil, and spun the rope in ever-greater loops.
Just as she was about to let it fly, Thisbe arrowed down in a steep dive and tore the rope from Kate's hands. The gargoyle did not grab it by the loop, as Tom had done, but lower, and was not galvanized by the magical energy. It lost its flickering light the moment it left contact with Kate.
The ghost-horse, the fire-horse, coughed a great roiling cloud of flame directly at Kate. Tom and Mr. Magus cried out together, both transported beyond horror in that instant in which she was swallowed up in that blazing hell.
The fireball rolled on, closing the circle, and left Kate untouched. She stood as if rooted to the spot, eyes and mouth agape, looking down at herself as if she could not believe her survival.
Tom was in much the same state. He ran to her, but Mr. Magus reached her first and pulled her away from the inward-creeping wall of fire.
"Kate, Kate, thank God," Magus said, and then he did what Tom had started to do, and took her in his arms to kiss her.
Tom jerked to a halt as if punched in the stomach. Every part of him screamed that he could not be witnessing what he was witnessing, surely this wasn't Katherine in a willing, increasingly impassioned embrace with the Magus!
It wasn't! He knew it wasn't, not his Katherine but Kate, that none of this was what his mind tried to see, but that did not change the terrible wrenching rage and jealousy. The Magus had had his chance and turned it down! She was his, Tom's, his loving and beloved wife by the law of their hearts if not ever necessarily by that of any church. She was his, and it was all he could do to refrain from stalking up to the pair, ripping them apart, and hammering his fists into the aquiline face of his rival.
Thisbe's return came just in time to prevent him from doing that very thing. The young dark-brown female landed directly in front of him, Kate's rope coiled over her arm.
"Guardian, I have the rope and now you shall be free of its binding magic! We must leave this place 'ere they try to find some other way to imprison you."
"Thisbe, what have ye done?" He grasped her by the shoulders and shook her. "Are ye addled, lass? I'm no prisoner!"
Delight suffused her face. "Then it is done! The spell is broken!"
"I was ne'er a prisoner, d'ye na understand?"
Then, leaping through the barrier of flame like an invading nightmare, Black Devil was upon them. For the first time, Tom realized there was a rider on the stallion's back, a barechested man so alike in features as Powaqa to be her brother. He was smiling madly and triumphantly.
"Come, winged spirit!" he said to Thisbe. "Our work here is done."
"I must bring the Guardian --"
"Istaqa!" As if he'd summoned her by thinking her name, Powaqa was there beside Tom, glaring up at the rider. "You have cheated!"
"I have not!" he said with such petulance that Tom's earlier thought was confirmed – brother and sister, without a doubt.
"You have used her to interfere."
"I am allowed to use whatever spirits I summon with the magic drum, just as you are allowed to do as you wish with the items you were given!"
"She is no spirit!"
"I know a spirit when I see one!"
A wind whipped up as they argued, and abruptly spun into a cyclone that drew all the flames into a churning funnel, which then took on the image of a wolflike head with glowing eyes. The fire was then sprayed into the sky, where it dissipated harmlessly in a flock of winking embers.
When the dust cleared, another stranger was standing between the Powaqa and Istaqa, one hand resting on the nose of the now-docile, non-fiery black stallion. Like them, he wore deerskin and had a coppery complexion and black hair. Unlike them, there was an almost tangible aura of magic around him.
With the fires extinguished and this spectacle taking place, the ranch-hands drifted nearer but still kept a prudent distance. Kate and Mr. Magus, looking flushed and flustered, joined the crowd.
"Now, now," chided the newest unexpected guest. "Let's see what can be done to settle this peaceably, shall we?"
"Who are ye?" Tom asked.
"I do believe," Magus said, straightening the spectacles that had gotten askew in his clinch with Kate, "that we are in the presence of Coyote, the Trickster."
"Trickster!" Kate flared. "So this is your doin'?"
"Great Coyote," said Istaqa, "I have won the contest. You must grant me my boon."
"He has not won," Powaqa objected. "He cheated --"
"The spirit drum --"
"Not a --"
Coyote threw back his head and howled, sending shivers up and down Tom's spine and indeed the spines of all within earshot. It quelled the pair again.
"Istaqa, how do you explain this?" Coyote indicated Thisbe.
"You said that I was permitted to call upon the spirits to help me." He crossed his arms on his chest. "She got the rope for me, which means there is no way Kate Prince can tame the White Stallion, and therefore no way that they can defeat Black Devil. I win."
"This is a bet?" Kate cried, incredulous. "This is all some kinda crazy bet?"
"She is no spirit," insisted Powaqa, and Thisbe and Tom both nodded agreement.
"I'm afraid your sister has the truth of it, my boy," Coyote chuckled. "This winsome creature is a gargoyle if ever I saw one. A gargoyle touched by the power of Avalon, unless I miss my guess. And that goes for this man, as well. But that's neither here nor there. She is not a spirit. The terms of the wager were that you would rely only on spirit-powers, while Powaqa here relied upon mortals."
"I thought she was. Great Coyote, I thought she was a spirit."
"So I have won?" asked Powaqa, ignoring the venomous looks she was receiving from Kate.
Coyote pursed his lips and rubbed his chin. "I'm afraid this irrevocably ruins the entire contest, children. Neither of you win."
Kate pushed into the midst of the ring. "I think you'd better explain yourself, Mr. Coyote."
"Kate," murmured Magus. "I'd not recommend …"
"Oh, very well." Coyote grinned lopsidedly. "Their great-great-grandmother tricked me once. That doesn't often happen. She stole some of my power to save the life of her son. Ever since, that touch of my power's been in their line, and every so often one of them turns up as a powerful shaman, wise woman, or medicine man. When these two were born – twins – the power was split between them. They sought me out because each wanted all of it instead of only half."
"So ye gave them this challenge," Tom said, frowning. "Ye put innocent lives at risk t' settle a wager."
"Yes," Coyote said, unbothered. "Istaqa was to summon Black Devil and other spirits to try and force the people of the Flying W to abandon this valley; Powaqa was to help them fight. But you two, turning up when you did … I believe I see Avalon's subtle hand in this, though I can't tell you what the reason would be for spoiling my fun."
"I trusted you!" Kate said, yanking the coyote-tooth amulet from around her neck and flinging it at Powaqa. "I thought you were tryin' to help us!"
"I was, Kate Prince. Those were the terms." She lowered her eyes, having the good grace to look abashed.
"And you lied to me," Thisbe said to Istaqa. "He was never a prisoner here. You but wanted me to get the rope from this woman." She glanced at Kate, and suddenly saw something that had heretofore eluded her, and choked a little.
"So I declare the contest null," Coyote said. "We'll find some other way to settle your dispute."
"I'd suggest you do it off'n my land," Malcolm Prince said, having made his way to the front of the crowd. "I don't much cotton to these hijinks."
"Your land?" Coyote asked pointedly, but did not pursue the issue. Instead, he raised his arms overhead, and a whirlwind swelled around him, throwing dust and soot and flecks of grass in a stinging hail. A howl floated from somewhere in the roaring wind.
Then they were gone – Coyote, Powaqa, Istaqa, Black Devil, the rope, the amulet, all gone.

**

The uproar had finally died down, and even Kate was no longer livid. She had been, oh, quite! Enraged that these spirits, or gods, or whatever they were, had come and gone with no more answers, and that neither Tom nor Thisbe could shed any further light on the situation.
But then, in the midst of all else that was transpiring, including the barrage of questions aimed at poor Thisbe herself, the man known as Mr. Magus declared in front of everyone that he loved Kate, and wanted her to be his wife.
Thisbe was hopelessly bewildered, looking pleadingly to the Guardian for an explanation. But none was forthcoming; it seemed to be all he could do to keep his temper.
She hadn't missed the similarities of names, and could see in these people a youthful mirror of the ones she knew, but they had no more answer for that than for anything else. What she could see, though, was the hurt it caused the Guardian to see Kate and Mr. Magus gazing raptly into one another's eyes, while Kate's father, beaming with joy, announced his approval of the match.
"I think it's time we were going, lass," Tom said in a controlled manner. "There's na more for us t'do here."
"Yes, Guardian."
With all else going on, it was easy even for two such noticeable folk as them to slip away. They left the ranch, where an impromptu revel had sprung up to celebrate the lovers' decision. Someone produced a wooden instrument that he sawed at vigorously with a thin stick, creating a weird screeching banshee noise that grated on Thisbe's ears.
Soon, the two of them were alone in the vast, silent, spreading night. The moon, a fat and lazy crescent of white, gave the sky a complacent smile. They had left the voices and music – if music was what it was – far behind them, and the lights of the ranch had dwindled until they were nothing more than orange, earth-bound stars.
"I forgot t' ask," Tom said, "how ye got here."
Thisbe hung her head and, in a hushed tone, told him of the dare, and hiding away, and of meeting Istaqa amid the tall rocks. "I should not have done it, Guardian, and I am sorry."
He sighed heavily. "Nay, lass, ye needn't be. 'Tis mayhap for the best, after all. I'll na be able t' do this forever, an' when I be too old, ye Eggs will have t' carry on in my stead."
"I do not understand."
"I'm na so young as I used t' be, an' these journeys are wearing on me. I'd say one or two more at the most, an' then I'll have t' be done with it. So ye an' yer brothers an' sisters will be the ones t' go out from Avalon. It's just as well ye get a wee taste o' it now. I'll be counting on ye t' finish my work. Ye deserve t' know the rest o' yer clan, Goliath deserves t' know that we kept our vow an' cared for ye, and the Magus deserves t' know that he didna doom them t' an eternity o' sleep."
She fell silent, thinking about that and deeply troubled by the idea that the Guardian, the Magus, and the Princess would not be there forever. They aged while they slept, which gargoyles did not, and it had never seemed more brutally unfair to her than it did in this moment. In a matter of years, her clan might be orphaned. He was right. They would need to make contact with their own kind, have elders to guide them, have someone to teach them the things that their human parents hadn't been able to.
But rather than dwell on that, she ventured to ask the other question that had been perturbing her mind. "Guardian …"
He anticipated her. "Aye, Thisbe, they did. The very image o' the way we used t' be. And I dinna have any idea how or why."
It would have to be enough, and yet it bothered her. Stepping into a moment in time, and then leaving with so much still to know … it all made her feel very incomplete, very much not a true part of the world at all but merely a transitory visitor. She might never learn how it all turned out, how the dispute between Powaqa and Istaqa was settled, what became of those people who bore such familiar faces … and it occurred to her that the Guardian must have been through the same thing many times before. Touching other lives so briefly, and then having to leave … it was inexpressibly sad.
They returned to the skiff, and beneath that star-spun dome of western sky, the river bore them into the sea of mists that would bring them home to Avalon.

**

The End.

Bibliography:
GURPS Old West – Steve Jackson Games
The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in the Wild West – Candy Moulton.