"All right, let's try it again. Here, come look at this. What is it?" as Gabriel crouched beside a mark in the dirt, pointed at it and looked expectantly at Angus.
Angus looked at it uncertainly. "Uhmmm… it's an animal footprint."
Gabriel briefly rolled his eyes. "Very good. Now, what kind of animal?"
"Uhmmm… an edible kind?" Angus grinned hopefully.
"For that, I should hunt down a skunk and force-feed it to you, stink-glands and all. Come on, think!"
"Well, it's not all there! Part of it's ruined by the leaf it stepped on!"
"When we've hunted it down, I'll be sure to make it apologize for not leaving a better trail before we roast it for dinner. In the meantime, sniff!" as he grabbed Angus' head by a horn and forced it down to only inches away from the mark. "What do you smell?"
"Leggo my horn or I'll tell Mum!" Angus threatened.
"And I'll tell her you're not taking your lessons seriously enough. If it hadn't been for them shooting game for you with lasers, you would have starved to death years ago! Now use your nose, or did you trade it in for a human's?"
Angus growled under his breath at him, but leaned a little closer and sniffed. "…Smells like… deer?"
"Gaagkkk," as Gabriel clutched at his amber mane, to keep himself from swatting Angus a good one right across the base of his tail. "Angus, look at what's right in front of you! Do deer have toe-claws?!" as he pointed at the telltale marks at the tip of the print.
"…No," Angus admitted, crestfallen.
"You've got venison on the brain tonight. Sniff again, look at the marks, and try to actually think this time!" as he sat back on his haunches and folded his arms, looking sternly at his younger brother and pupil. Angus obediently leaned down to sniff again, and Gabriel reminded himself to be more patient with him; it was hardly Angus' fault that he was a literal babe in the woods when it came to hunting.
Gabriel had been raised on an island with almost no sentient inhabitants except for his rookery and guardians, but plenty of wild game. He and his siblings had been raised knowing that their ancestors had regularly hunted their own meat in the forests of Scotland, and even trading wild game for fresh-baked bread with the humans of Castle Wyvern, and so were determined to be great hunters themselves as soon as they were old enough. Guardian Tom had finally judged they were old enough to come with him on hunts when they were fifteen or so, and by their twentieth year, though not even adolescents in human terms, they were regularly hunting down deer and other game for their dinners. Angus, though, had barely known what it meant to be a gargoyle until his twentieth year; he'd been raised by a human, Eibhlin Driscoll, from the night he'd hatched, and she hadn't even seriously believed in gargoyles until the egg she'd found on a boat by the beach had cracked open.
Mother Eibhlin had raised Angus with good values and manners and taught him "the three R's", but all their food had been delivered by grocer's boys, and he'd never seriously hunted for anything, though he claimed to have chased a rabbit or two for fun. The very night she'd died, he'd been taken in by Macbeth, and brought to America and the Manhattan Clan; while he'd been with them, Broadway had stuffed him with pizza and suchlike, and again, he'd not had to hunt for anything.
When Coldstone and Coldfire had come back to Manhattan for Goliath's wedding, they'd been introduced to Angus as their son, since the resemblance was obvious; he had Coldstone's skin, mane and horns, but Coldfire's face and wings. Coldstone had, by all reports, been decidedly nonplussed by the sight of a hatchling calling him father, but Coldfire had taken to him immediately, delighted to have a visible reminder that she had once been flesh and blood. After the wedding, she had wanted to bring Angus along with them on their travels, to get to know him better, and Angus had desired the same, so Coldstone had agreed to it and they all left together.
Having dealt with Coldsteel once and for all (in some way that was apparently so awful that they still refused to talk about it), the robotic and cyborg gargoyle had taken upon themselves the quest to find other gargoyle clans still in hiding on the American continents. Now that they had Angus with them, the quest became even more serious, as Coldfire was determined to find a clan with hatchlings close to Angus' age, for playmates and eventually, hopefully, love-mates. Working from the reasonable assumption that any hidden clan would of necessity have to be far from heavily populated areas, they searched the wilds that still covered a large part of the continent. While searching, they didn't have to eat, since their plutonium power-packs and the solar cells built into their wing structures gave them all the energy they needed. But since Angus did, they hunted for him. The trouble was, both of them were, quite frankly, too noisy to sneak up on game anymore, and Coldstone's sense of smell had been dulled to almost worse than a human's in his new form, while Coldfire had no sense of smell at all. They'd had to rely on spotting and shooting game from a distance, like human hunters did, then coming in to collect the kill and skin it for Angus to eat. And since deer and other large game were the easiest to see from a distance, that was what their son usually had for dinner; what he didn't eat that night, they smoked and preserved for the next few nights' worth of meals.
A few months after Devil's Night, the trio had finally overheard enough of a follow-up news report to understand that something seriously wrong had happened in Manhattan. Concerned for Goliath and his clan, they came back to find the clan still slowly pulling itself together, trying to recover after losing both Maggie and Angela's male egg. They also came back to find Gabriel, locked in a depression so great that he was contemplating what it would feel like if he toppled off the battlements at sunrise.
* * * * *
The dawn after Devil's Night, when sunrise had finally come, Gabriel had sat there on the battlements, too weak from blood loss to even stand up and face the day properly, shaking as he unwrapped the bloody bandage from the stump of his left wrist, then picked up his severed hand and jammed it into place. Hudson and Lexington had said this had worked before, that a gargoyle in the past had had his tail severed in battle, but had it held in place by a human at sunrise and had awoken at sunset with it reattached, fully restored. It had to work, was his last thought before sunrise sent him to desperately-needed stone slumber. It had to work…
He'd woken at sunset, to find out that it had worked… almost. Almost, but not quite. There was his left hand, at the end of his arm, not falling off it or crumbling to dust. But when he tried to move it, to make a fist, there was no response; it was just a lump on the end of his arm… His howl of despair had brought half the clan running. They proved he still had some feeling in it, when Goliath had ordered him to close his eyes, then tell him when he could feel Goliath's claw jabbing him. He'd finally felt the claw digging into the ball of his thumb, but only after three previous jabbings hard enough to draw blood had resulted in no sensation at all.
Xanatos had hired the best physical therapist on the market, paying her five times her normal salary to work with Gabriel for night after night after night, restoring function to his left hand. With her help, he eventually had restored sensation to most of the hand, and he could make a clumsy fist if he tried hard enough, could pick up light objects, even catch a Nerf ball when it was tossed at him. But after six months of exercises and therapeutic treatments, even she had to admit that they'd hit a brick wall, and barring a miracle, his hand would never be restored to full function. He could use his thumb and first finger nearly as much as before, but the other two fingers were almost useless.
He was crippled for life. A crippled, mateless, useless waste of air, a failure at everything. He'd failed to save Jericho from treading that dark path to his own damnation, and he'd failed to save Angela's egg from theft and corruption, just as he'd failed to save the clan from Ventura, just as he'd failed to save Ventura from herself, just as he'd failed to save his three mates, his beloved trio Opal, Onyx and Citrine, from death at the hands of the Weird Sisters. With so much failure to look back on, and nothing left to look forward to, what was the point of living?
Goliath had decreed that he sleep in a place of 'honor' among the clan, a place that was, not by coincidence, a fair distance away from the edge of the roof. But each dawn Gabriel inched a little closer to the edge, just a little closer to oblivion. He'd been only four feet from the edge, almost close enough to just step off, the dawn before Coldstone and his little clan had arrived.
Shortly after their arrival, Angela had come out of the rookery just long enough to voice her suspicions that Gabriel was another of Coldstone and Coldfire's offspring. It was true, Coldfire had laid three male eggs back when she and her mate had both been fully flesh and blood. It was also true, he looked a lot like his rookery brother Corwin, who was almost certainly one of their sons, looking like a male and white-maned version of Coldfire's old form. With those facts in front of him, he was willing to accept that, a millennium ago, Coldstone and Coldfire had been his sire and dam. But even though he tried for Coldfire's sake, he just couldn't muster up more than a general respect and affection for them; they hadn't been there for his raising, his journey from hatchlinghood to adulthood, or even for his mating, breeding and widowing. If he called anyone parents, it would have been the Princess, Tom and the dearly departed Magus.
He wasn't so far gone in despair as to choose to greet his last sunrise while the clan had guests present. And the night before they left again, Coldstone, Coldfire and Angus had sat down with him and asked him to come along. When the bond of blood ties hadn't proved strong enough, Coldstone had 'laid his cards on the table' by saying, "Frankly, we need you along. As I understand it, you were raised more-or-less properly by the humans on Avalon, trained to fight and, more importantly right now, to hunt. Angus never has been, and neither Coldfire nor I are equipped to teach him how to track and stalk prey, since we can't even do it ourselves properly anymore."
"We'd be remiss in our duties as leader and elder of our little clan, if we didn't find somebody who was capable of teaching him these vital skills, somebody who would be free to come with us on our quest," Coldfire chimed in.
"And if you're thinking of saying that your hand would make you an ineffective hunter, I say bollocks to that," Coldstone had said bluntly. "One of the clan members that taught me to hunt had lost all but the thumb on one hand in battle, but he taught me virtually everything I ever learned about tracking and hunting."
"I'd like to have an older brother teaching me how to hunt," Angus had said, looking at him with puppy-dog eyes. "Please, come with us?"
He couldn't refuse after that, and so the next night he had left Manhattan with them. He and Angus had lived off the food they brought with them in packs provided by Xanatos and Broadway, until they'd reached the wilds of upstate New York. Then the lessons had begun.
The first thing he’d had to teach Angus was that edible meat was not limited to deer, elk, moose and the occasional wandering cow. Angus had sneered at the first rabbit Gabriel had caught, though Gabriel had been rather proud to note to himself that the last two years of living "civilized" hadn't dulled his instincts, and both surprised and pleased to find that his hand hadn't slowed him down near as much as he'd feared it would in pouncing on the startled hare. Insulted, Gabriel had gone off armed with flint and steel, and came back two hours later with more meat than he could carry in both hands, having smoked out and slaughtered over half of the rabbits in a nearby warren. By the time the fourth rabbit carcass had been roasted on a spit over the fire, Angus had conceded, with drool almost dripping from his jaws, that rabbits would be acceptable game after all.
In the three weeks since then, Angus had learned a fair amount about moving silently through the forest at ground level (though, in Gabriel's private opinion, he was still way too noisy), and how to pounce on his prey when he was close enough. But he had a lot to learn about everything else, including tracking, the main subject of tonight's lesson. Gabriel sighed as he sat back on his haunches and wished again that Malachi was here. Everyone in his hatching clan had agreed that Malachi was their best hunter and tracker, and the patience and keen observation that made him so would also make him a better teacher for Angus. But Malachi was far from here, and not apt to leave his mate Ruth and the eggs she carried just to teach one hatchling how to hunt properly. Not that Gabriel could blame him a bit, either; if his mates had lived… If only…
"I said, WOODCHUCK!"
Only his habitual pose of keeping his thick tail coiled behind him kept Gabriel from falling flat on his arse, when he jerked backwards at Angus' shout. Curse it, he'd let his mind wander again, and now Angus was looking at him impatiently, not at all impressed with his sorry excuse for a teacher. "Ah, yes, very good! It's woodchuck, just as we had for dinner two nights before. But this time, you're going to be the one to track it."
So, Angus tracked the woodchuck… for a whole thirty feet before losing the trail for good, just a few minutes after crossing a deer trail. Gabriel eyed him suspiciously, doubting the timing was coincidental, but he himself was quite frankly too hungry to argue the point; Angus had been tracking and losing trails of prey for over three hours already, and fairly soon they wouldn’t be able to sneak up on any game with loudly rumbling stomachs. So they tracked the deer to a rocky meadow, and when they glimpsed it on the far side, melted back into the trees a short distance so they could climb one and launch undetected.
"Remember, keep your shadow behind it till the last second," Gabriel hissed to Angus as they climbed high on a breeze, before heading towards the meadow where the six-point buck was feeding. And Angus did as advised, keeping the shadow caused by the bright harvest moon out of the deer’s immediate field of vision while carefully circling into position for a strike. Gabriel nodded approvingly, and Angus stooped to the kill. But something, maybe a growl of anticipation from the eager and hungry youth, alerted the buck to danger a bare second before Angus’ talons would have sunk into its spine at the base of the neck. It bolted, and he just barely made contact with its rump instead.
It made for quite a sight, the deer bucking and kicking and jumping around the meadow, trying to shake or kick off the young gargoyle hanging off its rump, and the young gargoyle hollering loudly enough to be heard in Manhattan as he desperately tried to hang onto his prey with one hand and keep those flashing hind hooves away from his face with the other. The tussle came to an abrupt end when Gabriel came down hard and feet-first on the buck’s neck, snapping it on the spot. The death-throes were mercifully short, and when they were over Gabriel helped Angus to his feet. "How are you feeling?"
"Miserable," Angus groaned, and he had good reason; at least one hoof had connected with his face, giving him a bad cut and bruising from chin to left cheek, and similar wounds dotted his arms and chest.
"I don’t doubt it. Let’s get those washed out before they get infected; we’ll come back for the deer afterwards."
* * * * *
While their sons hunted, Coldstone and Coldfire usually either scouted out possible gargoyle habitats nearby or waited for them in a prearranged spot, so the noise of their mechanical bodies wouldn’t frighten away whatever game they were tracking. Tonight they had been sitting under a tree playing a quiet game of trenchers with light- and dark-colored pebbles, and Coldfire was winning as usual, when they heard the ruckus of Angus and the buck from nearly a mile away. Coldfire’s metallic mask of a face could show no emotion, but her voice reflected plenty as she said, "That’s Angus! Our son is in trouble!" while scrambling to her feet and launching straight up into the night sky.
Coldstone rocketed up right behind her, closing his living eye to zoom in with his electronic eye in the direction the noise was coming from. "Over there; I just saw Gabriel stooping in!" They kicked in the afterburners, to arrive just as Gabriel was leading Angus away from the buck and towards the nearest clear-running stream to wash off.
"Angus! Sweetling, are you all right?" Coldfire said as she slammed down next to them hard enough to leave three-inch-deep prints in the soil, and had to kick herself free before she could rush to Angus’ side. "Oh, poor hatchling, you’re hurt!"
"Aw, Mum, I’ll be okay," Angus groaned as she checked him over, as embarrassed by the maternal attention as any adolescent boy would be.
"He hung onto a buck by the wrong end, that’s all; it happened to one of my rookery brothers once. We just need to wash the cuts and scrapes out and bandage them so they don’t get infected, and he’ll be fine by next sunset," Gabriel said, and Coldstone concurred after a quick look himself. But still, Coldfire insisted on giving Angus some gargoyle-safe painkillers from the small supply they’d brought with them from Manhattan, and pampering him for the rest of the night.
* * * * *
"Well, at least I was able to track the deer all the way," Angus said later, peeking under one of his bandages as their little clan sat around a friendly fire, roasting venison for the lads’ supper and hanging the rest of the meat to smoke under the heavy canvas tarpaulin they carried for just that purpose.
"That’s true, you did track it successfully. And if it hadn’t bolted at the last second, you likely would have made a clean kill too. You’re making progress," Gabriel said with a friendly thump on his shoulder.
"Indeed," Coldfire said as she strung another hunk of venison for smoking. "Soon enough, you’ll be tracking and making your kills entirely on your own, and be able to impress the females with your skills when we find you a clan with age-mates!"
"I still remember the look in your eyes when I brought you that first stag," Coldstone said with a reminiscent smile. "That night, looking in your eyes, I felt like the greatest male to ever spread his wings."
"You were, my love. And you still are, in my eyes," Coldfire said with a smile in her voice, while Angus rolled his eyes; his parents were getting all lovey-dovey again.
For his part, Gabriel went silent, staring into the flames and into memory. He was seeing again the stag he’d brought Angela not long before the Archmage came; he’d meant for it to be a courting-gift, but two of his brothers had ruined the big presentation scene he’d wanted to make when they chased a wild boar right through the clearing she’d been sitting in. And then a week later she was gone, with Goliath and Elisa on their quest, and he knew in his heart that he’d lost his chance with her forever, so he’d had to look elsewhere for a mate. Tourmaline had instantly made herself available, but he’d frankly never liked her much, being needlessly cruel to many of her brothers and sisters and even sneering at their human guardians when she could get away with it. So he easily spurned her, and speculated that Opal, Onyx and Citrine together would keep him busy enough to not even think about Angela again.
Others among his rookery brothers had tried to court Opal, or Onyx, or Citrine, but Gabriel had a hunch that the three would not be separated even in mating, as they stayed together in virtually everything else. So one night, before the entire clan, he’d brought in the king stag of the local herd, and laid it at the trio’s feet along with a brace of rabbits he’d set snares for. Then he’d brought out the three baskets of berries he’d picked the night before, laying one in each female’s lap to show as plain as moonlight that he was courting all three of them equally. All his brothers and a few of this sisters had rolled their eyes and snorted at his audacity; yes, he was the clan leader, but did he also think he was a king stag himself?! The very nerve! But Opal, Onyx and Citrine had just looked at the bounty before them, then shared a wordless glance between them. And the very next night, they made it plain that they’d chosen him together; he’d been on patrol with Zachariah and Jacob when they came up from behind and ambushed him, one grabbing his feet while the others grabbed his wingtips. They told the other startled males to finish the patrol without him, as they’d borne him to the forest floor; then they had their way with him repeatedly, both together and separately. (Daybreak had found him still lying there amidst the leaves, flat on his back with a goofy grin on his face.) Oh, yes, they’d kept him busy all through the breeding season, and even in the weeks afterwards! Right up until that twice-cursed Archmage and those twice-and-thrice-cursed Weird Sisters had killed them, right in front of his eyes… He’d been helpless to save them, the first failure of so many…
When he’d been silent too long, Coldstone reached over and thumped him one on the nearest horn. "No brooding tonight," his sire ordered, with a stern look from his living eye. "Angus’ progress means you’re having success as the teacher of our clan; focus on that!"
Coldstone was right, brooding did no good. He tried to think positive thoughts for the rest of the night. But it was never that easy, to banish the memories of failure and worthlessness; they kept creeping in, even as he slapped a happy face on and joked with Angus about his own first exploits as a hunter. It’s impossible to run from yourself…
* * * * *
A few nights later, the meat from the buck had run out and it was time to hunt again. The territory they were in now, heavily wooded with many streams running through it, looked like it would support sizeable game, but Angus confessed that he was actually tired of red meat; he wanted something different. "P’rhaps some fish?" he said wistfully. "Mother Eibhlin used to make a wonderful supper with fish…"
"Hrrmmm. We’ve no nets for fishing handy, like we used to use at Wyvern; we’ll have to make some sort of pole and line with a hook on it, like the sporting humans do, and dig for suitable bait for the hook," Coldstone mused. He started carving a suitable hook out of a piece of antler from the last buck killed; he’d packed it with the venison because he’d had a hunch that antler would come in handy soon.
Gabriel, however, looked at him in surprise. "Why bother with all that for just a few fish? We never did on Avalon; nets are good if you’re gathering enough to feed a clan of thirty or more, but otherwise, if you want a fish, you just go out and grab one!"
"But this isn’t Avalon," Coldfire said patiently. "Perhaps the fish there were affected by the magic that invades everything there, but here, they will not jump out of the water and into your hands."
Gabriel snorted, offended by the assumption. "I assure you, they didn’t do it there either! But there’s a stream back there that’s running thick with fish right now; just watch, and I’ll show you how we did it back home." They followed him to the stream in question as he continued talking. "Now if anyone here had a tail like my rookery sister Fia’s, with a three-clawed grasper at the end, we could make a gliding pass and catch them. But we don’t, so we’ll have to get wet for it. Here’s how Malachi and I used to catch them," as he waded right out into the middle of the stream. Then he stood there, facing downstream, and waving his hand for silence from his curious onlookers.
It was spawning season for the Atlantic salmon, time for them to leave the ocean and travel up rivers and tributaries to their ancestral spawning grounds, in streams and riverheads sometimes over a hundred miles inland. The stream Gabriel had spotted earlier was one of their spawning routes, and they were indeed running thick. After standing thigh-deep in the water for only five minutes, letting the near-freezing cold water run over his legs (and being thankful that his thick hide was well-suited to cold temperatures), Gabriel spotted a fish swimming upstream to within a foot of his right knee-spur. Perfect. His good hand plunged down into the water and snagged the fish, and he jerked it out and flung it without looking at the bank of the stream where the others were standing.
Coldstone wasn’t expecting the motion, and didn’t dodge quite fast enough. He rocked back as he was smacked right in the face with a ten-pound salmon, and missed catching it entirely as he struggled with his balance to keep from falling on his tail. The fish flopped off and onto the ground, wounded but still alive, and nearly flopped back into the water. Angus shouted, "I got it!" as he dove for it, and frantically scrabbled after it as it tried to slip away. He finally speared it with all the talons on one hand at once, and held it up in triumph, shouting again, "I got it!"
Gabriel looked at him sourly as he moved further downstream. "You also made enough noise that you spooked the next fish I was about to get. Hunters are quiet, remember?" Angus subsided again, as Gabriel pointed a little further downstream. "There’s a stout overhanging tree branch right there; climb up to where you can see how I’m doing this. I’ll get enough for your dinner, and then it’ll be your turn to get enough for mine."
Still standing on the bank where they’d been originally, Coldfire wiped the last of the fish scales and slime off Coldstone’s face with her hand, her voice teasing. "I think Gabriel just got you back, for that last thump on the horns you gave him for brooding."
"Probably," Coldstone grumbled. "The whelp has no respect for his elders!"
* * * * *
They had a fine fish fry later that night, the odor making even Coldstone’s mouth water, though he knew all too well that he wouldn’t be able to eat a bite, not with a plutonium power-cell where his innards used to be. Still, he couldn’t resist chewing a few bites of salmon, savoring the flavor before spitting them out, as he sometimes did with venison when it was cooked to perfection. Coldfire, being unable to even smell the fish cooking, sat silently throughout most of the meal, but when Angus asked her about it she said nothing was wrong; she was merely speculating on where to look next for a hidden clan of gargoyles. Coldstone's living eye looked on her with sympathy, remembering how his beloved had enjoying eating fish when she'd been fully flesh and blood, but he too said nothing. Expressing how much they missed their original bodies would do them no good, and only make Angus and Gabriel feel guilty again for not enjoying every single moment they breathed.
* * * * *
Last night they had eaten every fish they'd caught instead of smoking any for later, so tonight it was time to hunt for their dinner again. But Gabriel decided, "Let's go fishing again, instead, since the fish are so plentiful right now. Besides, a little extra practice won't hurt you."
Angus agreed, and they set off for another stream. They decided on a wider one than the one they'd fished at last night, a river actually, where the salmon were running so thick that some bears that were standing on rock outcroppings and swatting them out of the water. "If we go further downstream, we'll get the fattest ones before they do, right?" Angus said brightly as they glided high over the fishing bears.
"Right," Gabriel said approvingly. A few minutes later, they landed in a wide rocky meadow that was currently clear of bears. The fish were running thick indeed; they waded in and in less than fifteen minutes had grabbed over a dozen fish between them. "These fish really are almost jumping into our hands, they're so eager to get upstream! Let's pull out triple our last catch tonight, and smoke the rest; Coldstone wants to take the search farther north," as Gabriel snatched another one out of the water and tossed it onto the stream bank with the rest.
Angus agreed, and seconds later plunged his hand in to grab another one and hurl it out, but caught a little fingerling in his eagerness to keep up with Gabriel. He flung it onto the bank with the others anyway, since he'd wounded it with his three-clawed grab. Gabriel teased him that he must not be hungry after all, as he pulled out a huge twenty-pounder and tossed it high onto the bank.
A little while later, Angus was bored again; the excitement of catching the fish had faded to a monotony of waiting, grabbing and tossing. Gabriel had said before that his lack of patience would be his greatest drawback to becoming as fine a hunter as Malachi, but tonight he let Angus stop fishing and wade out of the river. "There's only a dozen or so more fish to catch, anyway," Gabriel said as he scouted for another one to swim up to him. And, if truth be told, he didn't really want Angus around to see how well, or how poorly, his older brother did in fishing for the remainder when he switched to catching with his left hand.
So Angus got out and shook himself off, and wrung the water out of his sopping-wet loincloth with a grimace. Then he wandered off to see if there was anything interesting around to be found, like maybe the remains of a human campsite with some leftover marshmallows for toasting. (He'd found some on his first year of traveling with Coldstone and Coldfire, and so hopefully scouted every deserted campsite thereafter, even though Coldstone warned him they'd rot out his fangs one night.) He'd wandered about thirty yards or so when he heard a snuffling sound coming from his right. Ooh, he hoped it wasn't another wolf; they still scared him a little, even though he knew now that they weren't really the vicious, evil animals of the stories Mother Eibhlin used to read to him, and he was big enough now to probably handle a lone wolf without needing help. Trying to keep his tail from twitching nervously, he slowly turned around.
Awww, it was a little bear cub! It was kind of cute, in a way, especially the way it whuffed curiously at him like it was trying to figure out what he is. "I'm a gargoyle," he told it with a smile. "Bet you've never seen one of us before, huh? Well, that's okay, because I've never seen a bear up close before either, only from way up high." He stepped a little closer, smiling wider as he said, "Did you want a fish? We caught a little bitty one that's too small for me, but I could--"
Angus froze for an instant at the roar, which didn't sound quite like a gargoyle's but did sound like one heaping amount of trouble. That instant was too long, because by the time he unfroze and turned around to see who had roared, a full-grown grizzly bear was charging at him full speed. Mama Bear was taking serious exception to a strange animal showing fangs to her cub…
He was too far from the trees to climb up one and get airborne, so Angus did the only other thing he could think of; he dropped to all fours and galloped as fast as he could back to the river, bawling out, "HEELLLLPP!"
Gabriel had already looked up at the sound of the roar, and now he saw Angus running for his life and the grizzly bear hot on his heels as he splashed his way out of mid-river, cursing a blue streak all the way. By the time he'd reached shore, he too had no time to climb a tree, get airborne and swoop down to grab Angus and glide with him to safety, so he did the only other thing he could think of: he charged.
On all fours as well, in full roar and white-eyed rage, he charged past Angus and headed straight for the grizzly. The sight of a horned and fanged creature close to her scale in size charging straight at her would, under normal circumstances, give any bear pause to reconsider, and most of them would probably turn and run to avoid confrontation. But there is no more dangerous creature in any mammalian species than an angry mother defending her cub, and this one snarled even louder as she came straight for him. The two bodies collided nearly head-on at a speed close to forty miles an hour; the echoes of impact resounded across the moonlit meadow like thunder.
The force of collision knocked both of them off their feet and stunned them senseless for a few moments. Then they more-or-less recovered, to find each other still there, and the battle was joined in earnest. They both got on their hind legs and traded blows, the bear taking swings with both massive and deadly paws, and Gabriel hitting back with his right hand fisted to punch and left hand open to slash with those near-useless-otherwise talons. After several seconds of snarling, swinging, feinting and blocking, the bear got past his guard with a solid blow that had him staggering back a few feet… only to spin around and slash at her with his tail-spikes.
One spike slashed across her muzzle, laying open her cheek and half of her nose. The bear roared in pain and fury as Gabriel finished his spin and faced her again, now just out of reach of her deadly paws. He roared right back at her, even as he crouched down and backed away a few feet more. Infuriated, the bear briefly dropped to all fours to lunge for him.
Gargoyle legs are incredibly strong, designed for leaping off perches and into favorable wind currents. As the bear lunged, Gabriel leaped high into the air, and came down on the bear's back and shoulders. He roared again as he sunk every useable talon deep into the thick furry hide, and began ripping out chunks of it with hands and feet.
To defend her cub, the mother grizzly was prepared to fight any other bear, or a human, or a mountain lion. But she just couldn't handle a creature that fought like all three combined, and with a tail as punishing as a porcupine's to boot! And her cub was safely on the other side of the meadow now, so she bawled for mercy as she wheeled and ran for the trees. Gabriel let go and tumbled off the bear's back, to sprawl on the meadow grass and pant heavily for a few moments, slightly amazed that he'd actually won. He'd never fought a bear before, none of his rookery siblings had; he thought dazedly that he had to remember to tell them to watch out for that right hook.
"Gabriel! You did it, you beat it off!" Angus said excitedly as he came running up.
"So I did," he said wearily as the adrenaline wore off and his body started realizing just what had been done to it. He gingerly felt the left side of his head, and encountered the expected stickiness that meant he was bleeding. "So, now that you know how it's done, next time it's all yours…" as he slumped back in the grass.
* * * * *
Stone sleep healed his concussion and closed the gash in his scalp, as well as took care of the other cuts, bruises and scrapes he'd accumulated in his fight, but it did nothing at all to diminish the naked hero-worship in Angus' eyes. Not that Gabriel really minded it; he had to admit it was nice to have somebody looking up to him again.
Angus wasn't the only one admiring him, either. "Winning a fight with a full-grown grizzly bear!" Coldstone said with an actual trace of awe in his voice. "By the Dragon, I wish I'd been there to see it!"
"I think this rather proves you're still an effective warrior as well as hunter," Coldfire said with satisfaction, as she carved off a good thick steak of venison for him. After hearing of the battle, they had decided to celebrate by treating their sons to a feast. The lads had shed their stone skins at sunset to find not just their smoked salmon waiting for them, but a deer already roasting on a spit, and a nearby flat rock piled high with chocolate-chip cookies. Coldfire had refused to tell them where she'd gotten the cookies from, saying only that she 'had her ways'.
"You bet it does!" Angus said with shining eyes. "I'll bet you could even take on Goliath and win!"
"Goliath would probably have had that bear roasting on a spit by now," Gabriel said with a smile and a shake of his head. "I've a long way to go until I'm nearly half as good as he is." But for the first time in a very long time, he began to think that maybe, just maybe, he could possibly be at least half that good eventually. Even with a crippled hand, he'd still been able to protect his little brother; perhaps he was still worth something after all.
Coldfire noticed the smile even as Gabriel decried his accomplishment, and though her metallic mask of a face could show no emotion, inside she was smiling in satisfaction. All was working out well after all; Gabriel was teaching Angus how to survive in the wilds, and Angus was giving Gabriel a reason to live again. After all, what were brothers for?