She found him sitting in the park.
Penelope sat down in the grass next to the ranger. Together the two stared out over the blue lake shining in the morning sun.
"How did you find me?" asked Gryffon.
"I had some help," said Penelope replied. She nodded at a skunk that was sniffing the grass nearby. When the skunk noticed he was the object of their attention, he waddled over.
"Do I know you?" Gryffon asked the skunk.
"Sacre bleu," the skunk replied, "forgive my manners, oui? Peppi LePhew, at your service, monsieur."
Gryffon looked at Penelope.
"My fault," she said with a sheepish grin. "I let him watch cartoons with me on Saturday mornings."
Just then a black cat ran across the clearing.
"Ha ha," exclaimed the skunk, "what a feast for the eyes. Wait for me, mon cheri. I wish to tell you how the sunbeams reflect the pools of shimmering gold in your eyes."
The cat took one look at the skunk and started running faster.
"Cheri, wait." The skunk bounded after the cat. "Cheri!"
Penelope placed the book of tales in her lap.
"The next story is about humility. I thought we should read it together."
"Really? So you think I lack in that virtue? Perhaps you've not paid much attention so far."
"Oh, you play the lowly knight role well. But any man who thinks he's above human emotions is one arrogant son of a bitch."
Gryffon did not look at her. "I am not so arrogant."
"Take another look, pal. You lose your family and friends, some assassins from gods knows where are hounding you for god knows how long, you're alone in a world not your own and all you can admit to caring about is whether I become a Sunset Knight. Bullcrap."
"And you know that I must be feeling more, is that right?"
"How? How do you know?"
"Because I...Let's just read the story, alright?"
He nodded and she opened the book.
Gryffon knelt on the rocky ground and spit blood into the stream.
He had little time to rest. The ogres would have his scent again before long. Gryffon used a tree trunk to lever himself back to his feet.
There was movement in the brush behind him. Gryffon turned, not believing an ogre could have gotten behind him so quickly.
Selma of the Yew militia slipped between two trees. She acknowledged him with a nod and pointed with two fingers to the south. The ogres were nearby.
"Hail ranger," Selma whispered into his ear. She handed him a small flask filled with a milky yellow liquid. "Healing potion," she said. "Sold at most mage shops, you know."
"No, I wouldn't know," Gryffon answered, swallowing the potion. Already, the pain is his side was dwindling. "My thanks."
"I'd suggest a plan of attack," said Selma as she checked his wound, "but ogres are so stupid, it would take them days to fall into the trap."
Gryffon laughed, causing his ribs to flare with pain. "Agreed. And I don't have that long to wait."
"As you wish." Selma put two fingers to her lips and let out a shrill whistle. Almost instantly, they could hear the heavy-footed ogres turn and rumble in their direction.
Gryffon pulled his sword free. "You remind me too much of a brother Knight."
"Really? How so?"
The first beast barreled out from the trees. Gryffon met its charge. Deflecting the club with his sword, the ranger spun out of the way, allowing the ogre's own momentum to send it head first into a tree. As the monster climbed to its feet, Selma put an arrow in its rear.
"Both of you have a healthy disdain for subtlety," said Gryffon.
The other ogre joined the fight just as the first turned and lumbered after the ranger. Gryffon and Selma stood back-to-back in the center of the clearing.
"Is that a trait you admire?" Selma asked as she slammed the hilt of her sword into her ogre's throat. The beast stumbled backwards.
"A certain lack of finesse," Gryffon replied as he chopped down on his ogre's wrist, "is appealing in special circumstances." As the ogre gaped at its severed hand lying on the ground, Gryffon ran his blade across the creature's neck. He followed behind the ogre as it tried to crawl back into the woods and sliced its head clean off its shoulders.
Selma dropped her ogre to its knees with a swift kick to the groin. A two-handed blow split the monster's head down the middle.
"So if a woman were bold enough to ask you to dinner," Selma said as she wiped her blade clean on the ogre's hairy back, "you would find that fancy?"
"It would depend on the woman," said Gryffon, "but I imagine I would."
"Fair enough. So would you like to have dinner?"
"Did you take a blow to the head? With me."
Gryffon was sliding his sword back into the sheath. He looked up at Selma and slammed the hilt onto his thumb. "Oh, well, of course." He sucked at the cut on his thumb. "It would be an honor to have you for dinner."
Selma burst out laughing. "Really!" she said. "I thought it was your friend that had the problem with subtlety."
"What? No milady, I..." His face felt like it was on fire. He tried to get his tongue under control. "Milady, I...No, I didn't mean-"
Selma laced her arm with his and started him moving forward. "I know what you meant, knight. We can discuss it while we walk. Where were you going anyway?"
Gryffon almost asked what they were going to discuss before he decided it was safer to let the matter drop. Still, his cheeks showed no sign of cooling off.
"To the Sunset Knight's castle," he said. "The Lady has called a meeting."
"Well, it has been some time since I've seen that side of the mountains. Mind if I walk with you awhile?"
Gryffon said he would not and the pair headed for the closest road out of the forest.
"Are you walking all the way there?"
"Gryffon," Selma said as they turned south, "did you ever hear of Recall?"
They reached the castle just after nightfall.
"Are you sure the Knights won't mind you inviting me in?" Selma asked.
"The Yew militia are honored guests," Gryffon replied. "As long as you don't mind waiting in the library for the meeting to end."
She smiled at him. "Only if you promise a moonlight walk along the outer wall afterwards."
"If you wish." Gryffon's cheeks started to heat up again.
They walked into the courtyard and waited for the guards to open the inner gates. "One of the stewards will show you to the library," Gryffon said, leading Selma into the entry hall. "I'll send along some food and drink. Just make yourself comfortable and I'll join you as soon-"
The door to the meeting chamber flew open and Undomiel stormed out. She strode right past Gryffon and Selma with not even a word or glance in their direction.
"Hail Undomiel," said Gryffon. "I'm sure you remember-"
Undomiel slammed doors behind her as she left the castle.
"-Selma, captain of the Yew militia."
Gryffon and Selma stared after Undomiel. "I apologize for that," Gryffon said. "I don't know-"
Wildboy raced out of the meeting chamber.
"Wild, what's going on?" asked Gryffon as the Knight rushed past without slowing.
"Not now, Gry," Wildboy said. He followed Undomiel out of the castle.
"I think you better get into that meeting," said Selma.
Gryffon hurried towards the meeting hall then remembered his guest. He turned back to her. "Can you-?"
"Yes," said Selma. "I'll find a steward and tell him what I need."
"Thank you," said Gryffon. He entered the hall.
Wildboy chased after Undomiel, heading deeper into the woods surrounding the castle. "Dammit woman, will you wait."
Undomiel slowed to a walk, then stopped beneath a large tree. The thick leafy branches over her head blocked out all but a few slivers of moonlight.
"I'm sorry," Wildboy said when he reached her. He could barely make out her shape in the darkness. Her breathing was even but angry.
"For what?" was her reply. "You did nothing wrong. I'm the murderer, remember."
"That's not what..." He left the rest unsaid. That's exactly what they meant. No matter what words they used, the guild had named her a murderer.
"They are wrong," he said.
"Are they? So then tell me what I am."
"A friend," he answered.
Her voice softened a bit. "That's too easy."
"To be your friend? Right now, easy isn't the word that comes to mind."
He felt her smile. "Why did you follow me?" she asked.
"To bring you these," he said. He held her colors out for her to take. The gold of her sash caught what little light escaped the forest net above them. "You dropped them in your hurry out."
Undomiel said nothing for a long time. Wildboy was about to reach for her, just to make sure she did not sneak away in the darkness when she finally spoke.
"I've no more use for that," she said.
He did reach for her then. But when she felt his touch, she stepped away.
"Undo, please come back with me. We can work this out."
"Then let me come with you. We can go somewhere and think this through."
"To what end? I'm a murderer. Don't bother to deny that. Under your law, there's no other name for what I did, no matter what my reason. And you are a Knight. We are fire and ice. We cannot be together."
"I'm also a man," said Wildboy, "and you're a woman. Doesn't that count as well?"
"True, you are a man. And like all men, sometimes your sense hides behind your heart."
He started to protest but she stopped him.
"You do not believe me?" she said. "Then drop your colors. Leave them on the ground where you stand and run off with me."
"Lady, what do you ask of me? I'm sworn to the Knights. I can not break my oath."
"Peace, Wild. I asked nothing more than what you suggested. And I expected nothing short of your answer. That's why you must stay when I go."
He knew she was right. When she revoked her oath in front of the guild, she became lost to him. She traveled a different path now. What scared him the most was the thought their paths could cross someday. He would rather die before that happened.
"Where will you go?" he asked.
"I don't know," she said. "Somewhere I can decide on my own answers."
She touched his cheek. "Farewell, Wildboy. I'll not forget you."
He listened to her footsteps retreating into the forest. When she was gone, he sat on the ground, his back against the rough tree trunk. He stayed there awhile, just listening to the sounds of the night.
As he had promised, Gryffon escorted Selma on a moonlit stroll atop the outer wall. They walked in silence for a time. The fury of the meeting hung over the castle, dimming any mood for casual conversation.
When he had joined the meeting and learned of Undomiel's part in Cragen's death, Gryffon had been worried that bringing Selma to the castle had been a terrific mistake. After all, she was a captain of the Yew militia. Perhaps she would feel duty bound to arrest Undomiel.
But when he met her in the library, still undecided how to handle any intention by Selma to pursue Undomiel, she immediately put his fears to rest. Yes, she knew of the prisoner's death. But no formal charges had yet been filed in the case. In fact, while the guard's report mentioned Undomiel's presence in the jail, more attention was paid to Cragen's reputation as a felonious scoundrel with any number of enemies who might want him dead. Officially, the murder remained under investigation.
"That gown suits you well," Gryffon said, hoping to brighten the mood. Selma had accepted his offer to spend a few days in the castle and had borrowed some of the Lady's clothes for her stay.
"Thank you for noticing, milord," Selma replied. "And to think that Rythorn thought dressing up would be wasted on the likes of you. He said my beauty would be more appreciated in his company."
"Did he now? And what was your answer to that."
"That he would have been my first choice if I had not heard of the unfortunate hunting accident that left him with more bark than bite."
"What hunting accident? Who told you that?"
"Amazingly, Rythorn asked that very same question, although his tone was a good deal more, um, agitated." She stopped beside the tower overlooking the main gates. "I hope poor Ar-Kane does well in defending himself."
Gryffon laughed. "Lady, I should hold you to task for spreading false tales against my brother Knights."
"Ah, milord, but I've a good answer to the charges before me."
"This should be interesting," said Gryffon, crossing his arms over his chest and waiting.
She stepped so close she pressed against him. "Well, are we not alone?"
He swallowed hard. The heat of her body set his blood to boiling.
"Good point," he said.
Selma wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled his mouth down onto hers.
They kissed for an instant or a day; he could not tell which. But when their lips finally parted, there was no breath left in him.
Selma nestled her head on his chest. "All your talents are not left to the forest," she breathed.
So much fire burned within him that he could hardly keep a rein on his voice. Before thinking, he said, "Wait until the morning sun before you wonder at my full measure."
"Milord Gryffon!" She looked up at him, playful shock on her face. "You should not speak to me so." She pulled at the chest hair peeking through his tunic. "After all, I am a lady. Now, come along." She pulled him towards the stairs.
"Where are we going?"
"Your quarters. To wait out that morning sun."
They reached the courtyard just as Rythorn hurried through to the main gate.
"Hail brother," Gryffon called out. "Going hunting at such a late hour."
Rythorn waited for them to catch up. "Very funny," he said.
"Rythorn, please accept my apologies," offered Selma. "I hope I didn't offend."
Rythorn bowed to the captain. "No need for that, lady," he said smiling. "As long as we don't talk of such things again. Because it's just not true."
Selma nodded, giggling behind her hand. "Even if it were," she said, "I wouldn't think less of you."
"But it's not true. Gryffon, tell her it's not true."
Gryffon shrugged. "Well, I've never really seen-"
"It's not true," agreed Gryffon. "The townswomen sing his praise like bards. Not a day goes by that a woman doesn't tell me how Ry took her in-"
"That's enough," said Rythorn. "She gets the idea."
"Where were you headed, Knight?" Selma asked.
"Headed? Oh, to find Wildboy. He hasn't come back so Samantha sent me to seek him out."
"Alone?" Gryffon said.
"I'm the only one left. Sam and Ar-Kane are busy with Azreal in the library tower. Something about a strange artifact Ar-Kane found in Shame. The other Knights are helping with the patrols in Trinsic."
"What about me?" Gryffon asked.
"Gry, there's no need to bother. Really. I'm sure Wild just went to blow off some steam. What harm could come from that?"
"I'm coming," said Gryffon.
Rythorn let out a sigh of relief. "Good," he said. "That jackass has probably scorched half the countryside by now."
"Milady," Gryffon said to Selma, "I'm sorry to leave you but-"
Selma kissed him lightly on the lips. "Bring your friend home safe. Then we can have a nice long walk back to Yew together."
The two Knights bowed to the lady and headed to the stables.
They found him sitting in a tavern, talking to two young women.
"Nothing to worry about after all," said Rythorn.
The two Knights drew close enough to hear the conversation between their brother and his guests.
"-and your word is your oath, right?" said one woman.
Wildboy seemed insulted by the question. And by the way his words slurred a bit, he was more than a little drunk. "I've told you already," he replied. "Once given, I'll not fail my word, even if British himself stands in my path. Now tell me what task requires my aid?"
"Mayhap I spoke too soon," Rythorn said. He and Gryffon hurried to Wildboy's side.
Wildboy jumped to his feet when he saw them, jarring the table in the process. The women held their mugs steady until the table quieted.
"Rythorn! And Gryffon!" Wildboy gave each Knight a smothering hug in greeting. "You're just in time. Ladies, here are two of my brethren. Knights, I present two damsels in distress."
Wildboy leaned his head close to the other Knights and whispered, "The best kind of damsel, no?"
"Wild," said Gryffon, his eyes watering from the fumes riding his friend's breath, "the Lady has asked that you return to the castle immediately. Guild business."
"Hold a moment," said one woman. She was standing right behind Wildboy. She poked a finger at Gryffon. "This knight promised to grant a boon. You two may leave but we hold him to his word." The other woman stood beside her friend, shaking her head vigorously.
"What? Of course they will stay," said Wildboy. "We are Sunset Knights. Just tell us what you want slain."
Rythorn looked at Gryffon. "I'm getting a little worried," he said.
"Nothing slain," answered the woman. "We just need you to escort something to Skara Brae."
"An escort?" Wildboy frowned. "Are you sure? Isn't there a dragon you want beheaded or a liche exorcised?"
Both women shook their heads.
"Fine," said Wildboy. "An escort it is." He plopped down into his chair and took a deep swallow of ale, spilling most of it. "Mayhap we'll get lucky and run into some marauding orcs or something."
"Well, at least we can get this over quickly," Gryffon said to Rythorn.
But Rythorn was not listening. "What's to be escorted?" he asked the women.
In answer, one woman ran into a back room. A minute later, she returned carrying a bundle of rags.
Wildboy was on his feet, his face red. "That's what you want escorted?" he shouted. "A pile of cloth! I tell you, ladies, you'll pay for this trickery. We will grant this boon but know that I shall return and teach you the danger in making a fool-"
The bundle started to cry.
"What was that?" asked the three Knights together.
The woman gently rocked the bundle, cooing into the cloth. Her efforts were not working; the bundle cried louder. A corner of the rags fell away, revealing a baby's bald head.
"I'm going to be sick," said Rythorn.
The baby started to wail.
"Can't you keep him quiet?" moaned Wildboy. He lay sprawled on the bed, a raw slab of meat covering his eyes. "That screeching's making my head pound."
Rythorn dangled his necklace into the basket, trying to keep the baby's attention. "Anytime you want to switch, just speak up," he said. "It's your fault we're here in the first place."
"Don't start that again," answered Wildboy. "I told you I'd help as soon as I stop seeing double."
"That's another thing. What in the Lady's name did you drink? You should not look that green until the morning after and we've hours to go before then."
Wildboy rolled onto his side and pulled his cloak over his head. "Those witches must have slipped me poison." He belched loudly and groaned in pain. "I wish the bane would just kill me already."
Gryffon burst into the room. He ran over to Rythorn and held out the pig bladder full of milk.
"What am I to do with this?" Rythorn asked.
"There are no women with baby in the village. The old mid-wife gave me this instead." He pinched the end of the bladder and poked a tiny hole with his dagger. The baby took the end in his mouth and began to suck eagerly.
"At least he's quiet," said Wildboy from beneath his cloak.
"What's with him?" asked Gryffon.
"He thinks those women poisoned him. Did you find them?"
Gryffon shook his head. "No one in the village remembers seeing them. Even the tavernkeeper doesn't recall serving them. It's almost like they were never here."
"Witches I tell you," cried Wildboy.
"Let's just get the child to Skara Brae," said Gryffon. "We'll find his mother and be done with the whole affair."
"And how do we get there?" asked Rythorn. "Have you learned to fly?"
"Wild can gate us," said the ranger. "Certainly he's able-"
Wildboy picked that moment to lean over the edge of the bed and vomit into the iron basin.
"Alright," said Gryffon, "we'll wait until morning. It's only a few hours."
"What was it that the women said?" Rythorn said. "'Seek his family at the mourning tree'?"
"Aye. I've been in Skara Brae many times and I've never heard of such a tree. But there are several mages in the city. They would know of it for sure."
"Let's pray so," siad Rythorn. He bent over the basket. "He's a cute thing, though. If he weren't so loud, I think he'd make good company."
Gryffon agreed. "He's already finished with the milk. You have to admire such a wonderful appetite."
"You would," laughed Rythorn. "He might even grow to match yours some...Do you smell that?"
Gryffon sniffed at the air. "Gods, yes. It's coming from..."
They both looked at the baby. The foul odor was coming from the cloth wrapped around his bottom.
"You do it," said Rythorn.
"No, I went for the milk. You do it."
Rythorn cursed. "Alright, we'll both do it. You undo that end."
The Knights unknotted the baby's cloth and slowly pulled it back.
The stench knocked them backwards.
"By the heavens," cried Gryffon, "I've been blinded." The smell made his eyes water so badly, he had to squint to keep them open.
Rythorn's legs had turned to jelly. He supported himself on the edge of the table. He tried to talk but the odor made the air too heavy. "Green!" he finally managed to gasp. "His mess is green. Gry, what kind of milk did you feed this child?"
Gryffon stumbled around the room until he found the wash basin. He spilled half the water bringing it back to the table.
"Here, use this," he said.
"My thanks." Rythorn splashed his face with the cool water.
Gryffon slapped his brother on the head. "Not for you. The baby."
"Oh, of course." Rythorn lifted the baby into the basin and swirled his bottom around in the water. Holding his breath, Gryffon knotted the soiled cloth and quickly dropped it outside in the hallway. He slammed the door shut and took a deep breath.
"We need another cloth," said Rythorn as he put the baby back into the basket.
Gryffon grabbed a cloth from the supplies he borrowed from the midwife and handed it to Rythorn.
"You know, that wasn't too bad," Rythorn said, chuckling a bit. "For our first time, we handled it well." He bent over the basket and slid the cloth under the child. "Someday, we might even make good fath-"
The baby started to pee, his urine sprouting up like a fountain right into Rythorn's face.
Gryffon howled with laughter. "Well met, papa!"
Rythorn tilted the basket until the stream hit Gryffon in the forehead.
"That wasn't necessary," said Gryffon, pee streaking down his face.
They finally knotted a dry cloth onto the baby, standing at arm's length the entire time. As the child closed his eyes and fell into sleep, the Knights stepped back from the basket, covered with pee and exhausted.
Wildboy started to snore.
"Oh no," said Rythorn. "No, he doesn't." He grabbed the dirty cloth from the hallway and waved it a few times over the sleeping Knight's face.
Wildboy's nose crinkled up once, then again. Suddenly his eyes shot wide open and he bolted upright into a sitting position. Which, unfortunately for the warrior-mage, planted his face smack into the soggy cloth.
Screaming, the Knight ran right through the open door and out into the hallway. In his hurry, Wildboy failed to negotiate the turn onto the stairs and crashed through the feeble banister. He landed with a loud thud onto the tavern floor.
The baby started to cry again.
Wildboy could hear his fellows laughing upstairs. He pushed himself into a sitting position and was about to get to his feet when a dagger was pressed against his throat.
"Just when I was lost for ideas how to get you alone," a voice whispered into his ear, "here you appear."
"I would have preferred you knock a few minutes earlier," Wildboy replied. "That would have been easier on my head."
The dagger at his throat urged him to get to his feet. "Slowly," said the voice. "An inn full of knights makes my hands a bit twitchy."
"My friend," Wildboy said as he followed the dagger into the shadows underneath the stairs, "that is the least of your worries."
"Don't you ever get tired of all that bravado?" asked the voice.
"Do I know you?"
Just then Gryffon called after him from upstairs.
"Make them believe you're well," commanded the voice, pressing the knife a bit harder against his neck for emphasis.
"Since you asked so politely," said Wildboy. He yelled out to Gryffon, "I'm fine. Quiet that baby before we're all out on the street."
"Baby?" the voice hissed. "What are you three doing with a baby?"
The knife let up the tiniest of pressure against his neck but it was enough to satisfy Wildboy. Grabbing his attacker's wrist, the Knight spun and launched an openhanded chop at the voice's face.
But his assailant was fast, stepping inside his blow and countering with a fist to his nose. Tilting his head so that the strike glanced off his cheek, Wildboy grabbed his foe around the neck and pinned the person to the wall.
"So, let's see what I have here," he said and pulled down the thick veil covering his attacker's face.
Undomiel glared at Wildboy. "What are you doing with that baby?"
"Baby? We...Sorry." He took his hand from her neck. "It's a long story. But what are you doing here?"
"To warn you. After the castle, I wanted to get lost for awhile. But then I caught sight of the Black Rose lurking about. I followed them here. My guess is that three Knights getting drunk in a tavern was too inviting a target for them to pass up."
"The Black Rose is here?"
Undomiel nodded. "Outside the village. There's not much time before they're in position to attack."
"How many?" Wildboy asked.
"I don't know for sure. Five, six, maybe a few more. Enough to make it a close fight for the three of you, now that they lack surprise."
"Three? Undo, stand with us. We'll repay these bastards for all the trouble they've caused."
"You forget too quick," said the ex-Knight, brushing the dust raised by their brief scuffle from her dark cloak. "My business with the Rose is settled. As is my business with the Knights now that you're warned. My last advice would be to get that baby back to its mother before the battle begins."
"That's not possible. The baby is in our charge until we can get it to Skara Brae."
"What?!? What made you three fools think you could care for a baby?"
Wildboy was getting angry. They were in a difficult situation. Under the best circumstances, fighting past the assassins would be a touchy prospect for the three of them. With a baby in tow, it was not an option. Raising a gate would take time and would have to be done in the open. They might as well bare their throats to the Rose instead.
Yet, all Undomiel could do was remind him how stupid he was to get involved with those blasted witches.
He brushed past her. Let her go on her way alone. That's what she wanted anyway.
"My thanks for the warning," he said, climbing the stairs. "All concerns between us are done."
Undomiel followed him up the stairs, cursing beneath her breath. When he turned to ask what she was doing, she ignored him and strode into the room.
"Gather yourselves, Knights," she said. "We're leaving within the minute."
Gryffon and Rythorn stared at the woman.
"The Black Rose have surrounded the village," explained Wildboy, prodding his brothers into action. "We must get out before the noose tightens and we are caught."
"By the gods!" cried Undomiel. She had the baby in her arms. "This child's no more than a few days old. What have you three gotten yourselves into?"
The infant started to cry again.
Wildboy took the baby from her. "You'll lead us to a safe spot in the woods where I can gate. Gryffon will carry the baby."
"I will?" said Gryffon.
"You have the best footing in the forest," said Wildboy. "Besides he likes you the most."
Undomiel said some words Gryffon could not understand over the baby. Suddenly the crying was silenced, though Gryffon could see the child was still screaming.
"The spell should last long enough to get us into the woods," said Undomiel.
The Knights grabbed their packs and hurried after Undomiel down the stairs. She led them to a door behind the tavern's kitchen. They emptied out into a narrow alley enclosed by a tall wall.
Undomiel pulled the Knights close.
"This lets you out beside the stables. Cross the road and get behind the mill. The bridge will be south of you. Beyond that you'll be in the forest."
"The bridge will be watched," said Rythorn.
Undomiel agreed. "But they'll not be looking in your direction, I'll make sure of that. Hit the bridge hard when you get my signal."
"What's the signal?" Wildboy asked.
"You'll not miss it," Undomiel replied. She slipped over the wall and was gone.
The Knights stayed huddled for a moment longer.
"Do you trust her?" Rythorn asked Wildboy.
Wildboy replied that he did. "With my life." But he looked neither of his brethren in the eye when he said it.
"We have little choice," said Gryffon, trying to soothe the child with some gentle rocking, "so let's move on. All this commotion is upsetting the baby."
Wildboy snorted a laugh and started down the alley, hunched down to keep his head below the wall.
Rythorn was looking at Gryffon with a smile on his face.
"What?" said Gryffon.
"Nothing," said Rythorn as he started after Wildboy, "mother."
"Don't listen to them," Gryffon cooed to the baby even though he knew the child could not hear him. "Yes, they're just dumb doofie-woofies." He followed after Rythorn.
As Undomiel said, the alley led them to the road by the stables. After deciding that the way was clear of assassins, the three Knights ran across the road into the alley behind the grain mill. They quickly made their way south, stopping just as the bridge came into sight.
As they suspected, the bridge was guarded. Barely visible within the shadows, four figures waited at the town side of the narrow river.
"I hope Undo has something big in mind," said Rythorn.
The barn they squatted beside threw a large shadow across the road leading to the bridge.
"At least we'll be more than halfway there before they can get a good look at us," said Gryffon.
"You worry too much, Gry," Wildboy said. "With Undo's diversion, we'll be on them before they-"
The baby let loose with a loud screech. The spell had worn off.
"That child's born of witches," Wildboy growled as he leapt out of the alley. Small balls of fire flew from his fingers and exploded against the ramparts of the bridge, sending the assassins ducking for cover.
"It's time to go, Knights," he yelled over his shoulder. Long sword in his hand, he charged at the bridge.
"Gry, get across the bridge and keep going," Rythorn said as they ran after Wildboy. "We'll catch up when we can."
Gryffon hated to leave his fellows outnumbered with more enemies sure to follow but he knew the baby must be his first thought. He never slowed as he passed Wildboy parrying two assassins to an even match.
He bound across the bridge, the baby screaming in his arms. The road beyond was laced with wagon tracks, forcing him to slow his pace to avoid a misstep in the deep ruts. That was the only reason he was able to stop before running headlong into the assassin coming up the road from the opposite direction.
A long dagger appeared from somewhere within the dark robes that covered all but the assassin's eyes. The bastard advanced toward Gryffon with measured steps.
With the baby in his arms, the woods were Gryffon's only chance. As he turned to the trees, the wind rustled the leaves above his head, allowing a thin sliver of the moon to illuminate his face.
The assassin froze, an arm half-cocked to bury the dagger in his back. The assassin's eyes went wide with recognition.
The two stared at each other for a long moment. Even the baby stopped its crying.
Then, without a word, the assassin circled around him and ran towards the village.
Gryffon watched the dark figure reach the bridge, too stunned to move.
He had about gathered enough sense to at least call a warning to his brothers when the earth leapt out from beneath his feet.
He landed hard on his back, the baby cradled on his chest. Beneath him, the ground rippled like waves on the ocean, bouncing him about. Leaves and thin branches rained down from above as the trees bent and swayed to the earth's crazy dance.
Finally, the tremors quieted enough to allow him to get to his knees. The baby seemed uninjured though in shock from being tossed about. The child let loose with a healthy scream.
Three figures stumbled atop the bridge, fighting for balance against the undulating ground. Gryffon struggled to his feet, clutching the baby to his side with one arm as he pulled free his sword.
But as the figures came closer, he saw that Rythorn was pulling Undomiel and Wildboy across the shaking span. At the forest side, Undomiel stopped and weaved her magic into a wall of fire that ran along the width of the bridge, blocking any pursuit.
They reached Gryffon just as the last tremors played themselves out.
"Two dead and one lies too wounded to fight," said Wildboy, "but more follow. How's the child?"
"Well enough," answered the ranger, "but I rather we avoid any more excitement for the day."
Wildboy nodded and moved away from the group. "This is room enough," he said as he began to weave a gate to Skara Brae.
As the gate went up, Undomiel's wall of flame came down. The mage sent streaks of lightning at the assassins hurrying over the bridge. Gryffon handed the child to Rythorn and added some arrows to Undomiel's barrage.
"Next step is Skara Brae," Wildboy said, standing beside the blue portal.
Rythorn stepped through, followed by Gryffon.
"Milady, if it be your pleasure," said Wildboy, nodding at the gate.
"Pleasure or not, I'm heading another way," replied Undomiel. "Good luck with your charge."
Wildboy did not do or say anything. Things he wanted to promise, offers he wanted to make, flashed through his mind but he gave them no voice. In the end, nothing could change the truth between them. The only matter left was for him to accept that fact.
So he did.
"Farewell, Undomiel," he said. He bowed and stepped through the gate.
"The assassin knew you?" said Rythorn as he and Gryffon sat on a stone wall beneath a large oak tree. Rythorn held the milk bladder as the baby sat in his lap, sucking feverishly. "That's why it didn't attack?"
"It seemed that way," answered the ranger. "But it was dark and...You're letting him eat too fast. He'll get a sick tummy."
"Hey", complained Rythorn, "did I pester you when you gave him a bath this morning?"
"In fact, you did. Here, he dribbling."
Rythorn swatted at Gryffon's hand as the ranger tried to wipe the milk for the child's cheek.
"Baby's always dribble," said Rythorn. "Don't you have a change rag to wash?"
Wildboy walked up to the two Knights, a sour look on his face.
"No luck?" asked Rythorn, elbowing Gryffon away from the baby.
"No. I...Would you two stop that. I've talked with every mage in the city. None have ever heard of this 'mourning tree'. I even gated to Moonglow to check with the scholars there and they couldn't find the slightest reference to it in any text."
"Now what?" asked Rythorn.
Wildboy shrugged. "Gry, check your map of the city's forest. Maybe we can find some hermit to talk to. Sometimes they know more of the local lore than the libraries."
Gryffon pulled a map from his pack and unrolled it on his knees.
Rythorn stood up. "Wild, hold the baby. I need to get something to wipe the dribble off his face."
Rythorn ignored the look Gryffon shot him.
Before Wildboy could object, the child was in his arms.
"I tell you, this child was born of witches," Wildboy said. "I can't wait until we get rid-"
The baby reached a tiny hand to the Knight's mouth. He rubbed his soft fingers against Wildboy's lower lip, obviously entranced by the way it moved when the Knight talked.
"Er, what I mean to say is," continued Wildboy, "the sooner we can drop-"
The baby's face broke into a smile as his hand found the Knight's nose and squeezed the round tip. Wildboy swallowed hard to keep from giggling.
"Uh, now Gry, you can't deny the child has been nothing but trouble ever-"
The baby let out a loud squeak as he pinched at Wildboy's cheeks.
"Gods," exclaimed Wildboy, "did you hear that? He's trying to say my name."
"That was a burp," said Gryffon from his maps.
Wildboy snuggled the baby close to his face and kissed his forehead.
"Don't mind uncle Gry," Wildboy whispered to the baby. "He's just jealous you're not saying his name."
Rythorn returned and tried to wipe the baby's face clean.
"For the Lady's sake," Wildboy cursed, "you're not scouring a rusty helm." He grabbed the cloth from the startled Rythorn and dabbed lightly at the drying milk. "Like this, gently."
"Found one," said Gryffon.
His brothers looked at the spot on the map beneath his finger.
"Just east of the Ranger's Guild. A hermit by the name of Gezzel."
The three Knights gathered their packs and headed towards the ferry to take them across the river.
On the forest side of the river, the Knights took the road east into the forest. Wildboy still held the baby, now asleep in his arms. A few minutes later they were passing a small corpse of trees surrounded by an open field when Gryffon signaled his fellows to halt.
"Did you hear that?" he asked. He was looking around, trying to locate the direction of the sound he heard.
"Hear what?" replied Rythorn.
Then they all heard the muffled sobbing, just louder than the normal sounds of the forest.
"From there," said Rythorn, pointing to the corpse of trees.
They walked towards the trees, the sobbing growing as they approached.
"From that tree," said Gryffon.
A large oak, wider than the three of them standing shoulder to shoulder, stood just off the center of the corpse.
"The mourning tree," the Knights said together.
Gryffon walked around to the other side of the tree, the other Knights following close behind. They found an old woman sitting with her back to the tree. So lost in her sobbing, the woman did not even notice their intrusion.
At first Gryffon thought the woman was injured, for her arms from fingers to elbows, as well as the front of her clothes, were covered in blood.
But she had no wounds that he could see and her cries were not of hurt. At least not hurt of the body.
Gryffon knelt beside the woman. "What pains you, milady?"
The woman jumped, noticing the three Knights looming over her for the first time. She climbed to her feet, trying to wipe her arms clean on a blood-soaked apron.
"Forgive me, milords. I do not mean to bother you." She started to turn away but Gryffon gently stopped her.
"What happened?" he asked.
"My charge's baby is dead," she cried. "The healers had told her of the risk she faced birthing the child. They warned her to be rid of the baby, even as it grew within her. But she had tried and failed so many times, she would not hear of caution. And I thought I was mid-wife enough to see her through. What a fool I am. It was all I could do to keep the mother alive."
"Why are you here? At this tree?" asked Wildboy.
"The elders say the gods themselves planted this tree on the day the world was born. My husband is the undertaker and has taken the child's body for burial. I came to pray for the little one's soul before I bring the foul news to the father."
"Then he knows nothing of his child's death. What of the mother?"
The old woman shook her head. "She's too weak yet to understand what's happened. That much is spared her for a few days."
The Knights looked at each other.
"It is right that we are here," said Rythorn.
Gryffon nodded in agreement.
Wildboy said nothing. He just watched the child sleeping in his arms, listening to the soft rhythm of the baby's breathing.
"Wild, this is the meaning of our quest," Rythorn said.
"Peace Knight, I hear you," Wildboy answered. "I was just marveling how my hands have finally held true magic."
He turned to the old woman.
"The gods have heard your prayers," he said. "Forget your sad news and take this treasure to his father instead." He held the baby out to the woman.
The woman looked as if she did not understand what he said. Wildboy had to place the child in her arms before she caught his meaning.
"Milords, I...The elders are right. This tree has magic beyond dreams." She cradled the baby against her chest.
Each Knight softly kissed the baby's forehead.
"Fare thee well, little one," whispered Gryffon, "but not goodbye. We will look in on you from time to time."
As the old woman hurried to present a father with his new son, the three Knights stood silent around the massive oak, each lost in his own thoughts.
Finally, Rythorn said, "There's no reason for sadness. We've created a family where there was none. Never was I prouder to be a Sunset Knight."
"Of course you're right," said Gryffon. "We should celebrate. How about a meal? I'm a bit hungry."
"Now there's news," Wildboy laughed. He threw an arm around his brothers' shoulders and steered them back towards the road. "Come, my treat at the nearest tavern."
As the three walked to the city, Gryffon asked, "How do you think those women knew of this family's need?"
"Witches, I tell you," Wildboy replied.
When she finished reading, Penelope closed the book. Gryffon was sitting with his eyes shut. She started to say something to him until she noticed the tear in the corner of his eye.
"I had forgotten that story," he said, still with his eyes closed. "You're right. I've much to remember about humility."
He looked at her, a deep sadness in his eyes.
"I must confess," Gryffon said, "that I've not been honest with you. Even that virtue is beyond me."
She started to speak but he stopped her.
"There are answers I could give you, answers you should have. So that the paths you choose would be your own. But in my vanity," he laughed when he said the word, "I decided it better to direct your course by withholding knowledge. Because I valued my judgment over yours. But you have showed me the error in my thinking. No man is one unto himself. If we are to succeed, then we must have faith in each other."
Penelope waited for him to go on.
"When this task was set before me, I almost refused it. I did not believe myself worthy, even though there was no other hope. Through the years, I managed to swallow my doubts, to at least think I would be enough.
"I doubt again, Lady."
He turned his face up to hers. So much passion burned in his eyes she had to look away.
"I am ready to share everything with you now. The purpose behind the Black Rose, what caused the guild's fall, everything. You would no longer need the book.
"Would you have my secrets?" he asked.
For a moment Penelope could not think of anything to say. There were so many answers she needed, things the book kept just out of her reach. Somehow she knew that the time to uncover the mysteries of the book was running out.
Questions ran through her head like wildfire. Who wrote the book? Which Knight shared her blood? Why did the Black Rose want her dead? Why did the Sunset Knights need to live again? She couldn't think of which to ask first.
Gryffon was watching her, just waiting. Penelope thought of all the years he searched for her. Alone and with a role he obviously did not want, he held onto nothing more than the belief in himself. That in the end, he would be enough. But now he doubted. The most capable man she had ever met, the man she was falling in love with, sat before her doubting himself.
And why? Because he was afraid for her. He would never admit that but she knew. He was afraid he would fail her, that some inadequacy in him would bring danger to her. She just did not understand the reason behind his doubt.
She certainly could not have more faith in him. To this man, someone she had met only months earlier, she would trust her life and her heart and be glad for it.
And in his own way, he was asking her to trust him a little longer.
She knelt down before him and took his hands in hers. "Azreal would say that the power in knowledge comes from the search itself," Penelope said. "I beg you to hold those secrets close until I can unravel them myself."
"Lady, be sure of this. You don't know what you do."
"Shh, my love," she breathed, putting a finger to his lips "I know exactly what I'm doing."
"My love? Pen, no. You can't-"
She kissed him, her lips pressing hard against his. At first he resisted and tried to push her away. Slowly, he gave in to her desire and returned her embrace twofold.
Together they fell back onto the grass.