The Dissidents: The Hidden Island

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 permission. All others belong to the author. Mature readers only due to sexual content. December 2001; 13,000 words.

#5 in a series.


When the mists lifted, we were treated to a scene of such unparalleled beauty that none of us could for some moments so much as speak.
We were aboard our craft, the Mists' Passage, a gift from Queen Titania. Upon this vessel, we had already made several journeys, hither and thither in the between-world that divides Avalon from Earth proper. Some of these journeys had been tragic, others glad, none without the flavor of danger and adventure. We had lost one of our number to death and another to true love. We had befriended some humans and made deadly enemies of others. We had seen rain and snow and the desert of Egypt.
Nothing had prepared us for this.
A full moon, lambent white, spread fans of light across the gently rippling surface of water so clear that it could have been hewn from purest glass. High above, thin clouds skated with amazing rapidity o'er the star-dusted heavens, testimony of a wind-stream of great strength. But the air down here was still so that our sail hardly belled from its spars. Below in the water, darting among the shoals and reefs, were multitudes of fish. Their silvery shadows chased about, schools of them moving in teeming concert.
Behind us, and indeed all around us as far as the eye could see, rising spires of stone encircled the island. These spires made a barrier that from here looked complete, a dark silhouette, a ridged wall that the lower edge of the moon just cleared.
The large island, toward which we were moving at the current's mild pace, was a lush paradise. Even from here, we could smell the fragrant perfume of fabulous tropical blooms. The beaches were bone-pale, a waterfall plunging from a high cliff a narrow ribbon of quicksilver.
The vision was pristine and unspoiled. No lights save that of the moon illuminated the scenery, no sound but for the hoot and cry of birds and small animals disturbed the night. It was a destination as exotic as any visited by Odysseus in his travels, untouched by human hand.
I estimated the island at its widest to be ten or twelve miles across, and that was all without knowing how far it might extend in length, approaching it head-on as we were. It was perhaps larger than Avalon, and dare I say, perhaps as beautiful. It lacked the central volcanic peak, the Heart of Avalon which I personally had experienced all too well, and it lacked the shimmer of faerie radiance that welled from Oberon's palace like the Borealis, but this natural wonder was breathtaking in and of its own right.
We stood at the prow of our craft in silence, ranged along the rail. We totaled five, four gargoyles and one human. Birdie had joined us in Egypt, where Cassius had left us to stay with his mate.
I did not envy Cassius. He faced a difficult path ahead, but he faced it gladly. His Khepri was a creature of loveliness, but she was a Daughter of Ra and more accustomed to waking by day and sleeping in stone by night. The rest of her clan had long-since died, out, leaving only herself and a brother who had been killed shortly before our arrival. With her medallion, an item of enchantment, she could choose to be flesh by day or by night, else she and Cassius would have never had more than an instant of contact at sunrise and sunset.
No, I did not envy Cassius … and at the same time, I did. We all did. For he had found love. Found a mate. Their inherent problems were nothing to him compared to the joy of attaining his destiny. He had left Avalon believing that his true love awaited him, and he had found her.
The rest of us had not come with goals so well-defined.
Tourmaline, our leader, had been craving and conscious of status since she was a youngling. Yet now that she led a clan, albeit a small one, of her own, she was finding it not quite what she'd desired. Too, she was beginning to show, and the swelling of her normally wasp-thin waistline made her cross each time she set to cinch her swordbelt around it and found the buckle could not reach to the same hole as hitherto it had. Or perhaps the egg within reminded her too painfully of her falling out with Jacob and her general difficulties in matters of matings and love.
Ezekiel wanted only to be with Tourmaline, doggedly wooing her despite one cold rejection after another. Just why he wanted her was something of a mystery to me. True, she was quite comely, and the glow of motherhood had lent her shifting emerald skin a luster, softened the imperious angles of her features … but her treatment of him was as unlovely as her appearance was fair. Yet Ezekiel was determined. He had, it seemed to me, viewed dark Cassius' decision to remain in Egypt with relief. For now only Icarus and I remained as dubious competition to our mottled-green brother's suit.
Icarus, too, was a puzzle. He rarely spoke, this taciturn brother of ours. At home among the clan he had kept largely to himself. This proved him more of a challenge when there were but half a dozen of us upon a relatively small vessel. If he desired healing, some place or being with the power to repair his shattered wings and smooth the scars that marred his hide of iron grey, he would have done better to plead his case to Oberon's Children. Instead, he had followed Tourmaline into this uncertain world where his hampered gliding ability ran the risk of doing us detriment.
And then there was myself, Corwin. I suppose it is fair to say that I joined this little band as much out of my own curiosity as a wish to keep an eye on them. I'd promised my sister Fia that I would, for Jacob's sake, watch over Tourmaline's hatchling. Further, I was rather glad to leave Avalon because ever since I'd thrown myself into its Heart, I was abashed by the attention that deed had earned. Not quite gratitude, mind … the Children couldn't bring themselves to offer thanks to a mere mortal, but it was disconcerting to know that everyone on Avalon knew of my sacrifice, which I had done when none of them would.
"Wow," Birdie said into the awed hush that had fallen over us. The fifth in our company, a recent addition, she was a buxom young woman with a tousle of black hair and a ready grin. She had been weary of archeological pursuits in Egypt and joined us, expecting to eventually wind up someplace closer to home.
I echoed her sentiment, and breathed deeply of the aromatic air. Floral scents and salt spray mingled pleasantly.
"Where are we?" wondered Tourmaline, consulting one of our many maps.
"It certainly seems, what's the word, equatorial," I said. "That wall-of-stones feature shouldn't make it hard to identify."
"Are we putting ashore?" asked Icarus.
"Isn't that why we're here?" Ezekiel countered with a shrug.
He raked his long, unkempt hair out of his eyes and peered keenly at the island, perhaps already anticipating a hunt. He was nowhere near the archer Hippolyta had been, but few of our clan had been so skilled at tracking. In that, Ezekiel's lack of wit and cunning served him well – he could wait long hours without becoming bored, lying in ambush for his prey.
"We put ashore," Tourmaline declared. "But cautiously."
I read a chary optimism in her tone. If this place was in truth as peaceful as it appeared, it could well be the homeland for which she'd been hoping. A home of our own. To every appearance, it was quite perfectly isolated, cut off from the world by that towering barrier.
The Mists' Passage was shallow-bottomed enough to anchor only a few yards from the beach, which was strewn with flawless shells in such delicate colors that one hardly dared to touch them lest they fracture like daydreams.
I felt, as my talons touched down in the sand that was still warm from the day's baking sun, like an explorer coming to some uncharted land. None of my senses foretold of peril. It did seem safe, as well as beautiful. A clan could prosper here. Yes, it is fair to say that I saw the appeal it might hold for Tourmaline. She would be having nesting urges soon, wishing to find a secure rookery and furnish it to her specifications with dried grasses.
The greenery came nearly to the water's edge. Many of the plants were richly laden with fruit instead of flowers, plump soft-skinned fruits that came loose at the merest nudge. They could have been poison, I suppose, but trusting to the natural hardiness of the gargoyle race, I bit deep. My teeth tore through the thin skin and into the pulpy flesh, loosing a flood of juice that sent me reeling with delight. It was at once so tart as to make the mouth pucker, and so sweet as to suffuse one's entire being. Sticky runnels of juice spilled down my chest.
Around me, the others were similarly experimenting. Tourmaline found a plant with long stalks that, when bent or broken, released a thick sap that numbed upon contact. She was not the healer Ruth was, but given our recent experiences, could well see the benefit in such an analgesic.
Ezekiel wanted to set off hunting straightaway, but when Tourmaline refused, contented himself by cracking open hard-hulled gourds with blows from his ironwood staff and collecting fallen wood for a fire. It seemed unspokenly decided that we would make a pleasant camp here upon the beach and enjoy this small paradise.
Icarus trudged down the beach, head low in an attitude of severe glumness, but as he stopped and bent periodically to collect items from the beach we surmised that he was gathering shells. When he wearied of that, he ventured out into the mild surf. He lacked any weapon save his own claws, yet those soon showed their worth as he stabbed again and again into the water and emerged with wriggling, glistening fish. We would feast, and well, tonight!
Birdie joined me in picking fruit, unashamedly gorging herself and then splashing her face and hands clean in the sparkling sea. I then helped Ezekiel pile wood, and strike it alight. Soon we had a festive blaze, and the crisp aroma of frying fish made our stomachs growl.
We ate until we were fit to bursting. Our diet these past many nights had consisted of foods brought with us, preserved by magic, but fresh fare was always most welcome. The fish was white and flaky once the crackling scales were peeled away, and in truth all we lacked was wine. No one, though, showed any initiative to go back to the Mists' Passage and fetch some. We made do instead with the juice of the fruits, the syrupy liquid Ezekiel discovered inside the gourds (which themselves, the meat forming the walls of their hollow spheres, were nutty and chewy when roasted in the embers), and water from a spring that flowed nearby.
"Perhaps," I said when some hours had gone by with no signs of trouble, "Avalon decided we needed a vacation."
Only Birdie was near enough to reply. Ezekiel had asked again to be allowed to go hunting, and Tourmaline, lulled by the pleasant evening, acquiesced with a nod. She herself had admired Icarus' shells and set off to collect some of her own, perhaps with an eye toward crafting some jewelry. Icarus did not go with her but proceeded to explore the beach in the other direction, which was rockier so that he carried a stout length of driftwood as a walking-stick.
"The only thing missing," said Birdie, stretching out on the sand that was now warmed by the fire rather than the residual heat of the day and gazing up at the moon, "is … well, sunlight, for one … and a sexy cabana boy."
I sat down beside her, digging troughs with my hind talons. "Cabana boy?"
"To bring towels, rum drinks, or oil to rub all over me."
"Wherever can we get one of those?" I inquired with a grin.
She rolled onto one elbow and regarded me. "That's right, you'd like that. Better make it two cabana boys."
"Sadly, there seem to be none here save us."
"Might as well enjoy it while we can." Birdie sketched idly, using her forefinger as a stylus. "Hey, Corwin?"
"Hmm?"
"Can I ask you a question?"
"Isn't that one?"
"Smart guy, you know what I mean."
I reclined, spreading my wings and crossing my arms behind my head. Some ways off, I could hear Tourmaline exclaiming over her discoveries. "Ask away, then."
"How'd you find out you were gay?"
A chuckle escaped me. "Until Aiden told me the term, I did not know that I was. I only knew that I found males far more appealing than females."
"So you've never been with a female?" A hint of challenge was in her tone.
"That depends on your definition of being with."
"Don't go all Clinton on me. You've never been to bed with a female?"
"We don't use beds."
She flicked a spray of fine granules at me. "Har har."
I laughed. "Oh, very well. I have done much with females, this I grant you, but never fully paired with one. As it happens, I was not unpopular among my sisters when we were younger. I was well able to please them, and they liked the fact that I did not expect anything in return. It was not all that different from braiding their hair, or kneading their muscles when they ached. A friendly service, a favor."
Birdie had propped herself on both elbows now and was staring at me. "So you'd … service them."
"Oh, yes," I said. "With hands or mouth or tail, as they pleased."
"Yeah, I've heard about that tail thing," she muttered distractedly. "But they didn't reciprocate?"
"There was no need. I enjoyed performing those tasks, but it was hardly sexual."
"Excuse me?"
"On my part, I should clarify. They were sensual experiences, of course, very much so. However, there is quite a difference between sensual and sexual."
"Fair enough," Birdie allowed after a pause to consider this. "Didn't you ever want more from them? Didn't you ever get turned on?"
"Not by my sisters, no." I eyed her whimsically. "Is this some precursor on your part to an attempt to seduce me?"
"Even if it was, I can tell it'd be doomed to failure," she said with a laugh and a toss of her dark curls. "Besides, I'm kind of seeing someone. Okay, so he's probably thousands of miles away and would never know …" she trailed off, sweeping me with a gaze as I rested there on the beach with the moonlight painting my gold skin with a veneer of silver-white.
"I'm sure that were I attracted to females I'd find you most tempting," I told her, and winked.
"That's the politest let-down I've ever gotten." Her lips pursed pensively. "So, got a boyfriend?"
"No, I am mateless," I said. "Alas, it has been a sadly celibate life for me since the breeding season began. Many of my brothers had sported in our youth, but the older we got the more their attentions turned solely toward females. Save for Liam and Pericles, who seem to enjoy each other as much as they enjoy their mate, Garnet."
"Two guys, one girl, all mates? Now that's the way a threesome ought to be. Makes more sense."
"There are a few such triads on Avalon, although the Magus did tell us that our rookery parents bonded as pairs." I rolled to my side, my chin in one hand, and sighed. "Had things gone differently, I suppose it is not impossible to think that Hippolyta, Jericho and I might have made such an arrangement."
Birdie choked and spat out a bite of fruit. "Jericho?"
"You need not tell me his sorrowful fate," I said. "Aiden and Lexington already gave us that sad news."
That did not seem to be on her mind as she looked me up and down. "You and Jericho?"
"This startles you?"
"Well, yeah, a little."
"He was not always as you knew of him. From what I have heard, he was corrupted greatly, and turned to evil deeds. Long ago, on Avalon, he was not like that."
"You and Jericho," she said again in a somewhat marveling way.
"What is it?"
"That just would have been … I'm speechless. And believe me, that doesn't happen often."
"Speechless," I said with a tilt of my head and a hoist of my brow ridge.
"I hardly ever saw him close up," she said. "There was this one time, in my apartment, and he was fighting MacBeth … and they were both just so damn sexy … and you, Corwin, are a total hunk yourself. The two of you together … okay, now I can kind of see why guys are so obsessed with girl-on-girl pornos. Because you two … that would be totally amazingly hot. I'm getting all flushed just talking about it."
I looked, and she was. Her face had gone dusky, and her warm hazel eyes were limpid.
"He and I were very close," I said. "Even after he chose to no longer indulge in loveplay with me. That would have been about the same time Tourmaline set her cap for him, and if I were the kind to keep a grudge I might hold that against her for distracting him from me. But even so, we remained friends, he and I. If only I'd been able to speak with him, I might have gotten through to him --"
"Hey, Elektra tried, Angela tried, everybody tried. No one can stand up to Demona when she's determined. Don't beat yourself up over it."
"You forget … in our time reckoning, it has only been a few months since he was with us on Avalon and all this evil was ahead of him. For you, he's years gone already."
She passed that off with a nod and a shrug, returning to what was to her the more important topic. "You and Jericho. Wow."
"And Hippolyta," I said, remembering fondly. "Almost. Oh, but she was cross."
"Whyfor?"
"Ideally, from her perspective, being with two males should have meant that both would be concentrating their efforts on her. As you indicated."
"No kidding, that's how it should … oh. Didn't work out that way, I take it."
"I think she always felt a bit resentful that I captured Jericho's attention that night …"

**

A fever had swept the clan ever since Angela, Gabriel, Malachi, and Ruth brought back their astonishing discoveries. They had spied on Princess Katherine and Guardian Tom making love in a meadow, and been inspired to copy the acts that they had witnessed. Now it was the talk of the clan, everyone eager to try these new deeds.
In truth, the notion was hardly new to us males. We had for some time been aware of the peculiarities of our genitals, if not precisely the purpose. Each of us had experienced at one time or another, and usually an inopportune one, a sudden and inexplicable stiffness there, turning loincloths into tents (or, in the cases of some, pavilions).
We had further, upon innocent enough experimentation, learned of the sensations that could be had by rubbing and stroking these members of ours. It was something that by tacit unspoken agreement we did not tell our sisters. They might not have understood, as they had no such members of their own. They might think it strange, or revolting. Or they'd laugh in that mocking way exclusive to females alone.
Whatever our reasons – and I do not think it ever occurred to one of us that our sisters might have ways of experiencing similar sensations on their own, not until that night of clandestine spying – we males kept the knowledge to ourselves. We joked about it, of course, teased each other, made sly references and looked all innocence when our sisters wanted to know what was so funny.
Eventually, in some strange transmutation perhaps brought on by the prideful and competitive male nature, we took to gathering in small groups and showing off our prowess. Who could rise first. Whose was largest. Who could bring himself to climax first. Other such foolishness.
In these competitions, I found that I had quite the advantage. For the mere thought, let alone the sight, of my brothers with their loincloths cast aside was enough to raise me to immediate stiffness. I had noticed this quirk of mine before, for when they would be sneaking looks at the budding breasts of Angela, Ruth, or Ophelia, I would be gazing on sculpted chests, taut abdomens, thickly-muscled thighs.
Our secret gatherings only inflamed me all the more. To watch my brothers caressing themselves, their eyes half-lidded and their breath hastening … the sight of them … Malachi, the largest of us, with truly epic proportions … Uriel proving that his beak was not his only prominent feature … I would be all the more aroused by them and their actions. I could have finished first every time, so impassioned was I, but I found even greater pleasure in slowing, prolonging, enjoying that spectacle which was going on all around me.
One night, Deucalion took me aside and remarked upon it. He, I'd noticed, often had the most difficulty getting into the spirit of things. He was quite striking, the aquamarine of his skin contrasting with hair as blue-black as ink, and his wings were handsome with a small extra strut at the top. He asked me why I was so adept at this newfound hobby of ours, seeking my advice.
Now, Deucalion was known best for his woodworking ability, so I knew he was clever with his hands. I could not fathom how he would need my help. Nonetheless, I was glad to give it.
We went off together, and I demonstrated for him. Somehow, having him watch me was a thrill of its own, and made me bold. When he set out to follow my example, I acted. I covered his hand with mine and guided it. He fell into the rhythm I had set and together we brought him to a shuddering conclusion.
This had had a pronounced effect on me, despite my having spent only a short while before. Noting this, Deucalion laughed and suggested that I show him once more. And I, still feeling bold, said that he should test his ability on me. He acquiesced.
I shall never forget that. It was one thing to be gripped by my own hand, something altogether different and amazing to have Deucalion touching me. He was hesitant at first, and I think my sudden groan startled him, but when I did not push him away, when I urged him on, he grew more confident. Up and down in sure, firm strokes … and soon he was rigid again and there was no question that I should reach out and encircle his length, and match his movements. We finished together, and both of us were left shaken and dumbstruck by the intensity of it.
Had we been instructed more about the business of the flesh, I doubt that these things would have ever happened. But our education was left mostly to the Magus, and he never broached such subjects. Sex was a non-issue, so to speak. We were told nothing of it, neither good nor bad. We were left to our own devices and observations.
Thus, there was no reason why Deucalion and I should not tell the others about our encounter. It intrigued them. Most were quite eager to try for themselves. My second such time was with Malachi, and as his hands were likewise bigger than mine, it took both of mine to get the job done that he could for himself do with one.
Throughout all of this, none of us ever thought to touch one another anyplace else. We remained ignorant of our wing joints, that sensitive spot at the base of the tail, even the tail itself. No, only that one part, that jutting promontory of our malehood, commanded our entire attention. We never embraced in any other way, nor kissed. Not until that night when Gabriel and Malachi revealed all they had seen and done, just as Angela and Ruth were confessing the same to our sisters.
It was quite astounding news. Most of fascination to me was the description of how Princess Katherine had taken Guardian Tom's member in her mouth. This was something I yearned to try, and although I have always been agile, I wasn't able to perform such an act upon myself. And I was divided in my desire – to have it done to me, and to do it to another.
I did not have the opportunity to even broach the subject to any of my brothers. They, like starving beasts, threw themselves onto the hitherto untouched feast of our sweet and welcoming sisters. They became to a male obsessed with breasts and lips and other parts of the female body.
It was a wild time for our clan. Only demure Elektra remained wholly apart from it. Even shy Thisbe warmed to this newfound fancy of sex after some coaxing. The females had voracious appetites for love, insatiable, wanting more when every male in view was drained and exhausted.
This led to some of them cornering me one night. It is a daunting thing indeed to be out minding one's own business and turn to see that four females, their eyes aglow with passion, have blocked one's retreat. I was face to face with Garnet, Ruth, Angela, and Coira. Lovelies, all, yet they terrified me.
Angela especially was insistent. She caught hold of me and pulled me into their midst, a place that I warrant many a male would have given a limb to be yet nonetheless alarmed me. Slim feminine hands were thrust down my loincloth. Garnet was nibbling and licking my wing joints as if they'd been coated in honey. I was all but smothered in Angela's ample bosom … and I felt nothing.
Ruth noticed it first – as well she should; the hands down my loincloth were hers, so clever at healing and now put to this other pursuit. They could not comprehend my reaction, or lack thereof. I pleaded headache and escaped them to a safe distance. There, counting myself lucky to have gotten away with my hide intact, I turned back in midair to see that three of them had surrendered to each other's caresses. Of Coira, there was no sign.
I presumed that she had gone back in search of a more accommodating male. Perhaps my former lovemate Deucalion, who had been muchly with her of late. But I'd only gotten a few winglengths away when she swooped down and bore me to the ground.
Coira was of a similar skin color to Angela, a light lavender that was most becoming. Her hair was a rich dark blond, her tail ended with four spikes, and rows of blunted diamond-shapes made up her brow ridge, knee, and elbow spurs. She was the best aerobat in the clan and showed it with how deftly she caught me. A worthy female … most of my brothers would have envied me my plight.
I hit the earth with such a thud that it drove the breath from my lungs. Before I could move, Coira was straddling me and had my wrists pinned above my head. Her hair was hanging in my face and she was beaming, as happy as she might have been had she felled a stag.
She told me they should not have mobbed me like that, nor been so overbearing. She told me she understood that I must be shy, that I would do better with only one female and not a crowd. And all the while as she was apologizing for their forwardness, she was stripping me of my loincloth and busying herself with her hands, and kissing me wet and openmouthed.
Trying to free myself without harming her, trying to explain what I lacked the words to explain, I only succeeded in flipping us over so that I was atop her. Coira, limber as a minx, had her legs locked 'round my waist and her arms 'round my neck. She rolled her hips, and we were in all ways giving the appearance of coupling, save that of course I was flaccid as a wilted petal.
Yet she would not let me go. She was determined, and I perceived that my only chance of getting out of this alive was to satisfy her some other way. Else she might, in some fury of frustrated passion, rip out my throat or deprive me of the organ that failed to meet her demands.
I ceased my struggles and began kissing her. It did nothing for me, but cost me nothing but my time, and her response was gratifying. Drawing upon what I'd learned in weeks of observation, I fondled her breasts and petted the small of her back until she was writhing. At her urging, I ducked my head to the cleft between her legs and, having not witnessed any of that activity quite so closely, did the best that I could.
Evidently, my performance was passable … though not enough because Coira was begging for more. At a loss, looking down at my member that stood so readily at the merest glimpse of Jericho or Cassius bathing, I wondered if closing my eyes and imagining one of them might do. It did not seem so. But I had to do something else Coira would never relent. In desperation, I brought my tail to that needful center of her.
To this day I am not sure what possessed me to do what I did next. It must have been some instinctive behavior held deep in my mind, for I never would have consciously thought of such a maneuver. I flexed my tail in a curling, undulating motion, and the next thing I knew Coira was shrieking to the stars, her eyes fiery rubies. Then she swooned.
I rose from her, astonished and not a little afraid. My first horrified thought was that I'd killed her, but she was breathing steadily and wore a small, blissful smile. My second was the realization that Angela, Ruth, and Garnet had been close enough to hear, and were even now charging through the underbrush to see what had made their sister shriek so. If they found me … if they knew … they'd be after me again before I could blink.
My fears in that proved unfounded. The trio of them did come to find Coira, and revived her. She seemed dazed, luckily for me too dazed to answer their queries, and needed their support to totter back to the castle on unsteady legs. I was absurdly flattered, though in no hurry to repeat.
That was the beginning of my admittedly odd reputation among my sisters. Coira eventually confided in a few of the others, though for reasons of her own (she would later tell me that she didn't want to share) she withheld the truth of the tail.
I began to be sought out, though never again ambushed and so suffocatingly ravished. Once I was comforted in the knowledge that they would leave my loincloth alone, I found I quite enjoyed making my sisters so happy. They, in turn, seemed to relish having all of the endeavor be focussed on their pleasure, selfless as I was.
Except, of course, that I wasn't nearly so selfless as they made me out to be. Not that I resented the time I devoted to my sisters, but I remained ever aware that my own desires were going unmet. My thoughts kept returning to the oral delights that I had by now seen many of my brothers enjoying, but that I had yet to either perform or receive.
Of all my sisters, it was quiet Thisbe who noticed this. She caught me one day watching Angela and Laertes. I was so rapt, so fixed on his face as he stood with eyes closed and expression one of sheerest bliss as he combed restless fingers through the loose fall of Angela's sable mane, that I did not hear her approach or know she was there until her dark brown hand fell upon my shoulder.
I nearly leapt out of my skin, and that made her giggle. Then, serious again, she dipped her gaze with maidenly coyness to the swelling beneath my loincloth and most politely asked if I wished the same treatment as Laertes.
I did consider it, credit me for that. But in the end I declined, for by the time I had done considering it I had dwindled visibly. If there is one great truth about loveplay, I've determined it is this: if you must stop to think it over, you may as well cease then and there.
Thisbe was not offended, giving me a simple sweet kiss instead. By then Angela and Laertes had finished and gone back, disheveled and smiling those smugly satisfied smiles that I had grown so used to seeing on my siblings of late. I was not yet ready to rejoin the clan and as I climbed to a high spot from whence to launch myself, I spied movement and understood that I was not the only one to have been surreptitiously observing the couple in the glade.
I knew them at once by their hues. That shade of azure and that blaze of brilliant red hair could only belong to Jericho, Gabriel's second-in-command. And the white-gold hair marked the copper-skinned beauty beside him as Hippolyta. They were stealing away so stealthily that I had to follow.
They came to a place even more secluded, a grotto where the rocks were so coated with moss that they were soft as cushions, and a trickle of water from a spring in the cliffside made delicate music as it rained into a pool below. Here, both of them bright-eyed and urgent, they began unfastening one another's belts even before they'd come to a halt.
I never tired of watching Jericho. He was magnificently formed, exquisitely endowed, and he pursued his pleasure and that of his partner with a particularly lascivious fire. Now, impatient but matching Hippolyta's fervor, he had her bare to the night sky and was embracing her from behind, cupping her breasts and nuzzling the side of her neck. Their tails formed a braid of copper and blue.
After some while of this, he wheeled her about and ungently pushed her down and beseeched her to do to him as Angela had done to Laertes. At this, I looked on in speculation for I had yet to see proud Hippolyta undertake this act … she seemed in some disdainful way to regard it as inappropriate. But her blood was high with need, and she dropped to oblige him.
Her inexpertise did them a mischief and Jericho drew away with a hiss, cradling himself. Her teeth had not broken the skin but the very idea was enough to make me wince. By way of amends, she threw herself against him and stroked and massaged until he was inspired to resume their activity. Yet he had not entirely forgiven; he turned her again and bent her to knees and elbows that he might enter her in that position with her tail curved around his hip.
I was fortunate to have a splendid view of his backside, of the muscles in his back and legs flexing and working. I was filled with the craving to touch him, to run my hand from the nape of his neck to the base of his tail, and before good sense could intervene, I leaped from my perch to do just that.
My landing on the soft moss was not silent, but went undetected by the pair all the same. Hippolyta's head was down, her hair swinging, uttering low, breathy growls in time with each thrust. Jericho made no sound but held her tightly by the hips to pull her back to meet him.
Surprising him in the heat of passion could spring back violently upon me … he might well spin and strike before he knew who it was. Yet I could no more resist than I could resist the compulsion of stone sleep when the sun peered over the horizon.
I did as I had so longed to, a single firm stroke from nape to tail, along the sensitive span that lay between his widespread wings. Jericho let out a shout and did not attack me, but spent with a sudden, startled convulsion.
He withdrew from Hippolyta and spun to face me, chest heaving. I could not help but laugh, although laughing at temperamental Jericho was never wise. To my relief, a moment later he burst out with mirth of his own and settled for punching me in the shoulder hard enough to rock me back a pace.
Hippolyta, interrupted just on the verge, was less in a good humor. She regarded me with flashing eyes and told me in a tone that brooked no nonsense that I had best finish what Jericho had begun.
Well, that I could not quite do, but I did settle down beside her and caressed her in the manner that I knew she found delicious. Jericho was about to leave but her tail snaked out and snared his ankle, and before long she had one of us on either side of her and two sets of hands busy with her many charms.
We fell somehow into a three-way embrace, and I was very conscious of the brushed-leather feel of Jericho's skin against mine. Hippolyta was transported, crying out soft exhortations to us both. How many times she gained release, I lost count. I became so caught up in our actions that I could not tell if it was her or him touching me, but the mere prospect that it might be him was enough to have the natural effect.
Aware of this, pressing insistently as it was against her leg, Hippolyta wanted me to couple with her. My objections were weak, my attempts to pull away forestalled as Jericho crushed the both of us against him. He was laughing, urging us on, and to emphasize it reached between my legs to give me an encouraging squeeze.
I stammered out a protest, not at his touching but at its cessation. Hippolyta heeded none of this and turned to Jericho, thinking that if I would not oblige, he might. He told her that he would but that a bit more encouragement was needed, and if she would just … carefully, mind … try again to take him in her mouth …
She groused at this and claimed that she did not know how. And I, as though I had planned for this very moment, volunteered to show her.
Now, I had never done it either, but I had thought of it for seemingly ages. Jericho looked startled and slightly askance, but when Hippolyta immediately agreed to watch and learn, he lay back on the mossy rocks and allowed me to proceed.
With Hippolyta's head bent so close to watch that her strands of white-gold hair mingled with my pure white, I slowly traced the terrain of Jericho's abdomen and pelvis with both hands. The contrast of our coloration, gold against blue, was striking and alluring. I kissed all around his groin, smooth skin against my lips, him shivering as my breath offset the cool of the night. I could smell Hippolyta's musk mixed with his own, could taste it when I flicked and slid my tongue along the thick shaft of his member.
He groaned in a sound that seemed mostly helpless surrender and rose up hard and erect at my ministrations. Mindful of Hippolyta's error, I was cautious of my teeth, and aside from that I simply did to him what I imagined would feel best to me. His response was gratifying beyond belief. Twisting himself about, he contrived to place himself so that he could return the favor, all without dislodging from my attentions.
It was unquestioningly the greatest ecstasy I had ever known. At some point, lost in my delirious fog, I dimly realized that we were neglecting Hippolyta entirely, so fascinated by our activity together. Good manners should have prompted one or the other of us to reach out with a tail and draw her near, but we were far beyond manners by then.
All in the wide world that mattered to me was the feel of him in my mouth, and the warm lapping and suction provided by him on me. I was rushing, plummeting, soaring, my senses gone mad. My climax was imminent, unstoppable.
I yielded to it with a cry, giving just enough warning for Jericho to move his head. With short, hard rubs of his hand, he coaxed every last milky jet from me, which spilled to the moss glittering like pearls in the white light of my glowing eyes.
Overcome, I had allowed him to slip from my mouth but before the quakings had subsided from my body I took hold of him and again engulfed him. He thrust eagerly, so that I could barely breathe. What did I care for breathing? I wanted him, all of him, and when his hands closed quite roughly on the sides of my head, his claws digging into my scalp, I relished the intensity of it.
He called out, very nearly roaring, and his body went rigid from head to tail. Muscles and tendons stood out in sharp relief. He expected me to draw away as he had done, letting go my head that I might, but I only pressed to him all the firmer, drew him deeper. He loosed in a flood, hot liquid heavy with the taste of minerals. Roaring in earnest now, back arched, and then collapsing to a breathless heap.
I sat up and the world swam and reeled around me. With a moan that was more of an amazed mewl, I fell back again and found my head pillowed on Hippolyta's thigh. She had remained and watched all, and once I had recovered my wits enough to make coherent sense of the world, she scolded me sternly for what I'd done. I had, she claimed indignantly, only been supposed to show her, and then presumably she would have taken over. Jericho, his head resting on her other thigh so that we were eye to eye across its taut coppery expanse, scoffed weakly and said he had no complaints, none in the slightest.
That night was one of priceless treasure to me, always remembered and never matched, never surpassed despite the many other evenings I spent pursuing those delights with others of my brothers. There is something to be said for first times.
But alas for me, it could not last. Eventually, and especially after the events that so forever changed our benign and undisturbed life on Avalon, I saw my brothers devoting themselves less to casual loveplay – what Angela referred to as frolicsome matings – and fixing their adoration on particular females.
So too did our sisters opt to forego their playful antics. I think we all grieved some at that, for they made a symphony of beauty that even I could appreciate. To see them swimming and splashing one another and embracing in the pool of seven falls was to believe in an orderly and designed universe, for such a wonder could not have happened by mere chance.
I was soon left with no company save that of myself, though when Oberon's Children returned to their court for their Gathering, I found myself the object of no small interest from fair folk male and female alike. It is both flattering and frightening to be desired by gods and goddesses. I well knew the peril that might come my way by spurning their advances. Fortunately for me, their reunion was rife with affairs among the immortals themselves and they perhaps regarded we lowly mortals as not deserving.
Even so, these past months have been lonely. Once pledged to their mates, thoughts of infidelity would not so much as cross any of my brothers' minds. And of the mateless males that remained, none were disposed as to establish any frolics with me … nor particularly was I with them.
Had Jericho remained, it might have been different. How so, I cannot say – following his break with Tourmaline, he was bitter toward all females, and whether Hippolyta or even fair Elektra could have swayed him, I know not. I like to console myself by thinking that had they not, he and I might have formed some lasting arrangement, but I must admit the unlikelihood of it. He was a creature of complexity even then, passionate and intense but with a darkness within him.
As for myself, my future … it is as unclear as the mist that closes around us.

**

I had not intended to tell out my entire life's story there on that moonswept beach, yet my audience did not seem in the least bit bored by it. Birdie was agog, open-mouthed and blinking long slow blinks of her long dark lashes. The flush that had arisen in her rounded cheeks was still there, pinker, though clearly not with embarrassment.
"Well," she finally said, "that beats my sordid past all to hell and gone. I may be sleeping with a thousand-year-old man, but I think you win."
"Was it a contest?" I asked with a grin.
"No contest, that's my point."
The moon was now directly above us, so large and luminous that it seemed one could reach up and pluck it from the heavens as easily as we plucked fruit from the trees. Birdie and I still had this stretch of beach to ourselves, Icarus having wandered so far along it that he was a dark dot against the pale sand and moonlit ripples that passed for waves here in this sheltered paradise.
I glanced around for Tourmaline, saw her seated on a rock that rose above the low waves. Her skirt was hiked nearly to her waist and she presented a lovely sight with her knees drawn up and her wings trailing behind her. She was pinching holes through the thin shells one by one and stringing them onto a cord, oblivious to all else.
There was no sign of Ezekiel. I confess, I'd half-hoped that he and she had gone off together and that my haughty sister would finally succumb to his wooing. It would be good for her, better for her hatchling.
Birdie was contemplative, and I had talked myself out with nothing more to say. I added a few branches to the dwindling fire and reclined again, and tried to pick out enough stars and constellations to hazard a guess as to our location. It was a hopeless task, as the moon outshone all but the brightest of them. Further, the fast-moving clouds, testifying to the brutal speed of the wind, interfered with my view.
As I was thus engrossed, a distant sound caught my ear. I bolted up, scattering sand and showering Birdie with it as my wings swept out. For I had heard a roar, a gargoyle roar, as unmistakable as would have been the swift shadow of a winged shape across the face of the moon.
More, although the sound had been fleeting, I knew it was not Ezekiel, and the rest were accounted for.
I called out to Tourmaline, who was rising with a curious tip to her head as if wondering what she might have heard. She loped to join us with a half-finished chain of dainty coral-hued spiral shells dangling from one hand. Icarus, too, turned back.
"Are you certain?" my doubting sister asked when we had regrouped and I told her what I surmised.
"As sure as I can be," I replied.
Rather than be overjoyed by this news, Tourmaline frowned. "I had begun to hope this island could be ours."
"But if there are other gargoyles here --" began Birdie.
"We have no way of knowing if they are friend or foe," Tourmaline finished for her, icily.
Birdie was undaunted. "That attitude's not going to help."
"Khepri was friend," I said. It was perhaps the wrong thing, for Tourmaline's lips tightened and I suddenly understood that she viewed Cassius' decision as a defection, and a judgement on her leadership.
Icarus reached us, a pouch at his belt filled with the shells that he'd gathered. "Where is Ezekiel?"
"He went hunting," Tourmaline said.
And then, what should have been apparent from the beginning touched me like a breath of frost. I saw that awareness pass from one to another of us in a flash. The roar had been one of combat.
Tourmaline spat an oath and whirled, searching the surroundings.
"He went that way, last I saw," said Icarus.
It was good enough for a start and we set off toward the fringe of green to find trees sturdy and high enough to let us aloft. Birdie came gamely along. She was an armload but negligible weight to a strength such as any gargoyle possessed. I clasped her to my chest and sprung.
We had no trouble pinpointing the sounds of a conflict. Grunts and roars. The unmistakable thwack! of ironwood on flesh and bone. This last was followed by a familiar battle cry, which was cut off in a cough and the crunch of a hard blow.
Tourmaline, in the lead, backwinged in astonishment. I was behind her and very nearly collided with her. Icarus, struggling along – he required strong updrafts to support his damaged wings, and the breeze here was so mild as to be all but nonexistent – strained to catch up.
There, below us, was a sight that made me falter in surprise as well.
A natural clearing, a plain of stone that resembled a grey lake frozen into hillocks and swells, stretched out before us. It was ringed with the dense vegetation, bordered on one side by a turbulent river that showed more whitecaps than the ocean itself. The shape of this clearing was more lozenge than circle and the moon illuminated it as clearly as had it been a stage.
Center stage, therefore, stood Ezekiel. He held himself as if it would have pained him to be fully upright, listing to one side and favoring that leg. His ironwood staff was held crossways before him in a guarding pose.
Ezekiel was neither the largest nor the smallest of our clan, brawny but of no greater than average height. He was utterly dwarfed by his opponent.
"By the Dragon …" breathed Tourmaline.
"His wings!" I exclaimed.
"His horns!" she added.
The stranger bristled with them. Horns and spurs, sprouting from every joint and sweeping back from his head in a branching antler set more impressive than that of any stag. He was a riot of colors, too – his torso bright yellow and banded in scarlet that continued up his neck and fanned out to his wing struts, his limbs and tail red-orange, the membranes a vivid, iridescent blue.
With all of that, it was still his wings that were his most astounding feature. They were enormous. Their span might have been thirty feet or more when fully extended, though at the moment they were half-caped and trailed behind him on the ground like the at-rest tail of a peacock.
He was half again as tall as Ezekiel, too, and comparably broad. He advanced on our rookery brother with fists clenched to the size and probably solidity of boulders.
"Who the hell is that?" Birdie cried.
We none of us bothered to answer, only diving as fast as our wings would carry us. As we closed in, I cried a warning to Tourmaline. For there were others, a half-dozen of them or more. Males. Huge. They were as brightly colored, as incredibly winged and horned as the first, though I saw great variety in the design and hue of them. These others hung back at the north edge of the clearing. Many of the males looked battered, some having little interest in the battle as they nursed their hurts.
Tourmaline stiffened. Her gasp was as jagged as a bag of broken glass. She pointed, and when she turned her head to look at me, black strands of hair floated around a face that had gone pastel in shock.
The stony earth was littered with small, twisted heaps that I wish I could have mistaken for rock formations, driftwood, even the corpses of animals. But there was no denying that the pitiful, scattered things were piles of gravel too regular to be anything other than dead gargoyles. Small ones. Hatchlings.
Things moved in the shadows at the south edge, opposite the gathering of males. Small shapes, not so small as the hatchlings but surely no larger than Fia, or little Aiden. I could barely see them, so well did they blend with the colors of the night.
And then we were spotted. A crescendo of howls erupted from the males. Ezekiel threw a frantic glance, brief but long enough to let us read the relief there.
Brief as it was, that glance almost cost him dearly. The biggest male propelled himself in a massive leap. Ezekiel saw it coming at the last possible instant, or felt the rushing air of his motion, and threw himself aside.
I hated bearing a human smack into the midst of such a scene, but what choice did I have? I dropped, landed, and noted with dismay that both of my feet could not have filled the canyons of that male's tracks.
Alighting beside me, Tourmaline stifled an oath. Her gaze was fixed not on the massive male but on something behind Ezekiel. I hazarded a look and bit back an oath of my own.
A female gargoyle, small and blue-grey with darker markings like the shadow-stripes of palm fronds, was huddled on her knees. She clutched two hatchlings to her bosom, and none of the three made a sound although the hatchlings' faces were contorted in deadly terror.
Our abrupt arrival had thrown this clan of savages into perplexity. Even the big male hesitated. A gabble of grunts, accompanied by broad gestures, passed among the rest of them. I took the momentary reprieve to get a closer look at them and noted additional curiosities.
None of them wore a stitch, for starters. They were all as bare as the night they'd been hatched, having neither jewelry, nor weapons aside from those nature provided. Even the most modestly-endowed of these males would have displaced Malachi's status in our youthful competitions. They were so laden with horns that I wondered how they could move without discomfort. Upon closer inspection, they seemed to be dusted with a fine coat of oily hair, or feathers … or the feathery hair one might see upon an emu.
The big male apparently dispensed with the intellectual concerns and concentrated on the important matter. His roar blew my hair back. I was deafened but for a buzzing ring in both ears. His arms swung out and knocked Ezekiel and I apart.
I spun crazily and only barely managed not to snap my wing struts as I rolled to a halt. Oh, for the relative softness of the sand! The rocky scree tore at my skin. I finally came to rest feeling as though I'd been tumbled in a cyclone.
The male thrust his arms at the sky and flung out his wings. It was a move accomplished with great effort on his part, so it seemed, but the display, the effect, was one that took the breath away. I saw that I'd underestimated their span by a significant fraction. He screamed triumphantly, even as his wings trembled at full extension.
Tourmaline and Icarus had gotten to us now, while Birdie had prudently backed up. They helped Ezekiel up – he was bleeding in many places and favoring a twisted knee. My vibrant, arrogant sister then whirled on this incredible male.
"What is the meaning of this?" she demanded in her most queenly tone.
The male's response was a guttural but colossally loud grunt. Steam – I swear I did not hallucinate this – puffed from his nostrils as he snorted. His talons pawed at the stony soil, raking it into furrows.
The rest of his clan spread out to better stare at us, and now that I could see them more clearly I began to distinguish, though not to understand … the large, bright, many-horned ones with the mighty wings were all males. The females were smaller, lacked much in the way of horns or spurs at all, and their hues were uniformly drab. Grey, green, dun-brown, or muted blue, they seemed made for concealment with patterns of spots or stripes. Ezekiel, with his mottled green hide, could have blended into the jungle as well as any of them or better.
The females clustered together, hissing and glaring at Tourmaline with vivid red eyes. Not a word of speech came from any of them. These grunts and hisses, and gestures, seemed to be their only way of communication. Even so, it was plain that our presence discomfited them tremendously. Violence was in the air, ready to ignite into bloodshed at the first spark, and there was Tourmaline ready to strike the flint.
"Sister," I whispered urgently.
She heeded me not, standing as defiant as ever. And for all that the females were looking on her hatefully, the males seemed extraordinarily fascinated. No wonder – in this light she looked blue-violet sheened in emerald, and the gems of her sheath and swordbelt sparkled at her waist. She was a figure to reckon with by any means, moreso compared to the plainness of the others.
"He was going to kill her hatchlings," Ezekiel said hoarsely, indicating the cowering blue-grey female with a jerk of his head. "I think he killed all the others."
This news was sufficiently horrific to leave me gaping at him. I had been, in what little part of my brain that was left over for trying to make reason out of this chaos, been trying out scenarios that involved some mortal accident or plague. But murder? The willful and deliberate murder of … a quick look showed me it had to be at least eight, maybe as many as ten … and hatchlings all, no older than two or three years.
"We better get out of here," Birdie said. Thus far, the savage clan was all too busy with their reactions to Tourmaline to pay much mind to the rest of us, even owing that one of us was a human.
The males continued their guttural debate. It occurred to me that a function of Avalon's magic was supposed to enable travelers like us to communicate sensibly with any and all we might encounter; yet that spell had either failed, or this language was so rudimentary as to be no more than the noises made by dumb beasts.
A picture, a sensible explanation, was beginning to form. I had no time to explore it, however, because the large male had tired of the opinions of his clan and took a single mighty stride that brought him towering over Tourmaline. His interest in her was readily apparent, and I confess that I was dumbstruck at the sight. In its length, girth, and enormity, it was no tool of love but a weapon every bit as formidable as the horns and claws that stuck out from him at all angles.
Tourmaline could not help but be aware of this, but my brave sister stood her ground and drew Sir Bodwyn's sword with a silvery chime of metal. It flashed in the moonlight.
I would have given much in that moment for Hippolyta's bow and unerring aim. We had nary a missile weapon among us, and only Tourmaline's sword and Ezekiel's staff, and were otherwise left to our own fists and talons. I saw this grim awareness on Icarus as well. And Birdie lacked even those things.
The male spread his wings again and uttered a roar that would have bent saplings flat. He inflated his chest and beat upon it, and his tail slammed the ground hard enough to make pebbles dance. I needed no translation spells to understand he was declaring a claim on Tourmaline, and more understanding came within my grasp.
She was having none of it. The blade scythed. It missed emasculating him by a matter of inches and carved a long bloody line in the flat musculature of his lower abdomen.
His cry was more of an interrogative than anything else. One hand brushed, came away wet with the blood that was darkening his … plumage, really, is the only proper word. Those hairs like feathers, I could think of no other way to describe it.
A stir disturbed the watching clan. I nodded to my brothers and we chose that moment to make a threat display of our own. Leaping forward as one – a harmony hampered by Icarus' habitual restriction of motion and Ezekiel's wounds – we threw wide our wings and roared, light spilling hotter and brighter than moonlight from our eyes.
Their response left much to be desired. I was quite conscious of many a disdainful snort as they surveyed us. Our lack of horns and spiny excrescences failed to impress, and as for our wingspans …
"It's enough to make one feel most inadequate," I murmured.
The big male, bewildered and in pain, batted at Tourmaline as if to knock her aside. She met his hand with her blade and sheared deep, nearly severing his forefinger. The blow still sent her stumbling back a few paces and the male, enraged now and with a bellow that shook the island, charged at us on thundering feet.
He reached Ezekiel first, mayhap because Icarus and I had altogether unconsciously retreated a step while our green brother held his ground. He swung from the heels, putting his back and every ounce of force into it. Ironwood smashed across a kneecap, shattering the bony spur there and driving the male's leg brutally sideways.
The giant went down with an earthshaking impact. And here was yet another difficulty inherent in those incredible wings – the weight of them dragged him down, as if he were swathed in heavy sheets of canvas. His grace deserted him. He wallowed and howled.
Tourmaline sprang forth, lips drawn back from her fangs and the sword raised high as if she meant to plunge it through him and nail him to the ground. But Ezekiel stayed her with a shove and a snarl, and such ferocity, such defiance from him of all gargoyles, stunned her into immobility.
Ezekiel, eyes burning-white, spun and rained down a vicious punishment on his faltering foe. The male quit trying to rise and tried instead to cover his head and genitals. Now he was bleating like a wild sheep caught in a mire.
Icarus and I exchanged a look as if each to ask had the other ever seen, or even imagined, such an attack from Ezekiel. True, he had laid into the necrivore in Michelle Jessec's backyard, but this was more brutal by far.
The male collapsed, the light in his eyes whiffing out like a blown candle. A silence fell. None of us, our clan or the savages, seemed to take a breath as we all waited to see if the male would crumble away. But he did not; Ezekiel had stopped short of slaying and settled for beating him into unconsciousness.
I waited tensely for the rest of the males to leap into the fray, but they did not. They averted their faces, and their postures became defensive, submissive, slinking. One by one, they sidled away into the underbrush, not so stealthily as they might have wished with those vast wings dragging along in their wake and their colors standing out in bright brilliance.
The females lingered, some still hissing at Tourmaline with the bitter envy unique to the fairer sex. Some slunk forth, bodies projecting nothing but grief, and scooped up handsful of what must have been their slaughtered children. Then they, too, crept away without another sound.
Ezekiel was breathing in a pained wheeze. He had forgotten his hurts in the heat of battle but they were coming home to roost now. I could see the sharp aches reassert themselves one by one. He listed alarmingly and Icarus and I rushed to prop him up. Needing no urging from Tourmaline, we started back toward the beach and the waiting vessel.
My heart was sore. Our paradise had turned out to be a place of savagery and violence. I was braced for the return of the primitive gargoyles, bent on annihilating us, at any moment. We'd landed here well enough but none of us were in much of a shape to climb trees, or glide. Our only hope was the swiftest possible retreat through the jungle.
"Guys?" Birdie's voice was wary.
We turned, supporting Ezekiel between us. Tourmaline had been in the lead, slashing a path through leaves and vines. She stopped.
The blue-grey female, she with two hatchlings cradled to her breast, was behind us. As we looked at her, she hunkered low and made a peculiar, ingratiating, whining noise.
"Go on," Tourmaline said stridently. "Go! Back to your clan."
"Leave her alone," said Ezekiel.
He pulled from us – it was easy, as we were so incredulous that we failed to even try to hold him – and went to the strange female. She inched closer to him, and raised large pleading eyes. From the shelter of her hair, the hatchlings regarded him around mouths stuffed full of their little curled fists.
"Oh, boy," whispered Birdie. "I think I'm figuring this out."
Upon close inspection, the female was not so drab as I had initially thought. True, her coloring was muted and her markings were meant more to conceal than to stand out, but she was nicely shaped and pretty enough once one got used to the fact that she, like the males, was covered in soft, downy feather-hair. It was longer on her head and in a mane down her back, thick on her wings so that they gave the impression of grey pampas grass.
"Ezekiel, what are you doing?" Tourmaline demanded as she got over the shock of having him dare to contradict her.
"I believe," I said, "that he's won her."
"Don't be absurd, Corwin!"
"No, golden boy's onto something," Birdie said. "It explains the whole enchilada. Why the males were so much bigger, with those colors and wings and all. Sexual selection. Males competing to show they've got the stuff, winner gets the best mates … or, hell, all the mates. Like lions. I'll bet you anything that the old clan leader kicked off not too long ago, and that big stud back there was killing off the hatchlings to make the females ready to breed again."
I failed to see what enchiladas had to do with it, but otherwise Birdie's supposition aligned neatly with what I'd been thinking myself.
"Well, tell her to get past it." Icarus was eyeing the surrounding wall of deep green nervously, no doubt expecting the fronds to part under the onslaught of the primitive clan, all of them screeching for blood.
I shared his concern, but was more taken by the development of this new female, and what it could mean to our merry wanderers of the night. "Ezekiel, I'd wager that in her view, you challenged that male for her, and bested him. Thus, she is now yours."
"That is the most appalling thing I've ever heard," Tourmaline declared.
"From the female who bred on the outcome of a race?" I countered, and earned such a hateful look that Medusa herself would have blinked.
Meanwhile, the blue-grey female was still looking appealingly up at Ezekiel and hugging her hatchlings to her, and it became suddenly clear that she was waiting, in terrible dread, to see if he was going to wrest them from her and dash their small skulls to the ground. Ezekiel, realizing this, went ashen in horror.
"I won't hurt them," he said in the same soothing tone I'd heard him use on an injured doe. Just, however, before he snapped the doe's neck to end her suffering. I blanched. But Ezekiel extended a hand to the female.
She sniffed it gingerly. From beneath the curtain of her hair, the hatchlings craned forth to attempt to do the same and she snatched them back, whimpering.
Ezekiel crouched, lowering himself to her eye level. Tourmaline made an outraged sniff but I took her firmly by the wrist and held her back when she would have intervened. Icarus was grumbling and nervously clenching and unclenching his fists, his attention on the jungle and not on this peculiar little drama. Birdie edged near to me, torn between Icarus' opinion and my own.
The bolder of the hatchlings – neither were anything to write home about, being patched with scraggly grey and black striped down, but by the red and yellow undertones I guessed that this bold one was a male – poked its head forth and snuffled at Ezekiel's fingers. He petted the fuzz behind its brow ridge, and the female crooned inquisitively.
"You cannot be in earnest," Tourmaline said, ignoring my pinch on her arm. "You're not thinking of bringing that … that …" She floundered visibly. "That … Neadergoyle and her whelps with us!"
"Why not?" Ezekiel's normally befuddled, genial face turned to her with an expression of resolution I'd only seen there once before, when he would have fought me over an incident having to do with Beth Maza. "Why shouldn't I? She's mine now. I won her. You heard Corwin."
I wanted to ask him to leave me out of this but it was far too late. For good or ill, I was in it and I barely even knew my own stance.
"Uh," said Birdie, "it's kind of … oinky, don't you think? Your prize, your chattel, your barbarian love slave?"
"Cassius found his mate," Ezekiel said belligerently, and now he was all venom directed at Tourmaline.
I was taken aback, though not a fraction so much as she was. And although it is mean-spirited to say, I must admit that I took a certain snide pleasure in seeing her like that. She had spurned him, and yet now it seemed she'd been quite happy to have him following her around like a hopeful pup, worshipping her. To have her place so rudely supplanted was not at all welcome.
She blustered a bit, and then said, "Mate? Ezekiel, think what you're saying! I will not have it. You cannot bring this stray into our clan. She … she's barely even gargoyle! She cannot speak … she's hardly even sentient! You'd do better to have mated with Boudicca!"
"Well," said Ezekiel ponderously, watching the hatchlings. Both had emerged partially from hiding and were sniffing at him, while the female crouched tensely but with a cautious hope dawning in her eyes. "So she's not very bright. Neither am I. You've said so yourself. And who's to say she can't learn? We could teach her."
Tourmaline was rendered mute by the offensiveness of the entire affair. Her mouth worked.
"Settle it one way or the other," urged Icarus. "Every moment we wait is a moment closer to ambush and death. Settle it, or stay … I'm for the boat."
It was more than he usually said at a stretch and it did make sense. Birdie indicated with a nod that she was with Icarus, and I was quite leaning that way myself. But what to do?
"Tourmaline," I said in what would have been a mollifying tone to anyone not as predisposed to be cross with me as she was, "what's the harm in it? Let him bring her along. This may be why Avalon sent us here."
She scoffed and tossed her hair back. "For this? So that Ezekiel might have his subnormal plaything? A love slave, as Birdie says?"
"I wouldn't force myself on her," Ezekiel said. He clasped the female's shoulders and drew her gently to her feet.
She was a tiny thing, reaching barely to his collarbones, and I wondered with a wince of discomfort just how under the stars the disparity in sizes among the genders had resolved itself in the actual act of breeding. I studied her closely, particularly her face.
"Methinks that there is a spark of wit there," I said. "Ezekiel may be right. She can learn our language and our ways." Then, because my patience had failed me when it came to Tourmaline, I added with a measure of spite, "And come now, sister, it isn't as if you'd been actively welcoming his suit. Why should he not look elsewhere?"
I was in more danger then from her than from the entire clan of savage gargoyles. My gut was taut and braced for the steely invasion of Sir Bodwyn's sword as it pierced my golden hide. Her hand went so far as to rest on the hilt, and her eyes flickered like hot coals. I had hit a nerve indeed, but it was a valid one, and she knew it.
With what was probably considerable effort, she composed herself and even made as to seem dismissive and disinterested. "I care not. But Icarus speaks true and we should be off, and with haste. Do as you will, Ezekiel. Stay, or bring her. I care not. It isn't as if it matters to me. Why should it?"
Continuing in that vein, Tourmaline whirled and struck off in the direction of the beach and the boat. She punctuated her continuing monologue with swipes and slices at the undergrowth.
"For someone who says she doesn't care," Birdie said in a very low voice to me as we followed, "she sure is going on about it."
We were not attacked, though more than once the skin on the back of my neck and between my wings prickled, and not in the pleasant way. They were aware of our progress, these strangers, these savages, and we could only hope that they were satisfied to see us leaving and would not hinder us.
The sight of the Mists' Passage, bobbing on the all-but-nonexistent surf, had rarely been more welcome. Our bonfire had gone to a bed of embers with the occasional lick of flame. We should have seen to it, extinguished it, but a growing sense of trepidation had seized us all and we were eager to be aboard and away.
Furthermore, the speeding wind above had begun to blow in a thicker, fluffier, rain-heavy form of cloud. I realized that the wind itself might be a good explanation as for the long isolation of this clan, for surrounded as their island was by what seemed to be an impassable wall of stone. To attempt to glide high – assuming one had wings that functioned – would be to risk being tossed and buffeted beyond all endurance.
It was with sorrow that I left this island that had for so brief a time been as good as home. No more fish and fruit, no more reminiscing on the warm beach, and as Ezekiel had been distracted we'd never even known what kind of game might prosper in those jungle groves.
But we climbed aboard, Ezekiel coaxing his new companion onto the deck with a care and a tenderness that we'd never seen in him before. Tourmaline observed this with seething, but now silent, envy and took her place at the helm with a stubborn cast to her jaw.
I'd not envied Cassius the challenges he would surely face in his relationship with Khepri. But now, oh, it was plain that Cassius had the better of it … at least he and Khepri could speak. Whereas with this stranger, we did not even know if she had a name, and she came burdened with two tiny hatchlings that could only complicate things all the more.
Even so, the hopeful smile on Ezekiel's face as Icarus and I poled away from the shore and into the deeper, but still glass-clear, waters was a sight to behold. For him, and at least for now, it was all worth it.
Thus we continued, our clan now increased by three and with more wedges driven between us. Into the mists, into Avalon's whim, toward whatever hidden destinies might await us in this wide, wondrous world.

**

The End



copyright 2001 by Christine Morgan