“Stop that right now,” Mary Darin’s high-pitched voice echoed throughout the caverns. In every crevice, the children of the Servants paused in mid-action, all fearing that Ms. Darin’s wrath was directed at them. “Willem! Gerick and Jocelyn! Put those babies down!” She glared at the older children with vehemence. “Come!” she ordered.
The twins, Gerick and Jocelyn Motown, were the eldest of the children rescued by Sirios when the town of Avalona had been destroyed two weeks earlier. Though Willem Slaughter was only a year younger than them, his well-trimmed beard and thick build made him appear much older. Being eldest and close in age, the trio had developed into the group’s de facto leaders taking discipline unto themselves—a situation that Ms. Darin simultaneously encouraged and carefully monitored—though, occasionally they overstepped their bounds. Par for the course, considering the group was overwhelmed by their immense losses. The youngest unintentionally added further stress to the situation, since they did not yet comprehend their new lot as the first orphans of the bitterest travesty in recent collective memory.
Willem sat the toddler down, shook a finger at her, and then directed her towards the mini-corral where the other babies had been herded. Simultaneously, Gerick and Jocelyn returned to the ground the two toddlers that they’d captured. They repeated Willem’s finger wagging and traffic directing before turning their attention to Ms. Darin, who stood tapping her foot under one of the silver archways. The trio called, “coming,” as they headed out of the caverns to Ms. Darin. When they reached her, she spun around, purposefully striding down the torch lit, grey marble walled tunnel. Silently, they followed her through two silver archways into a nearly freezing antechamber where four Catahoula curs lounged on folded up, oversized comforters. Upon entering the room, the dogs leapt off their fluffy nests, flying at the three teenagers, who completely abandoned the minor bit of decorum they’d retained in the hallway.
“Enough,” Ms. Darin commanded the rolling pack of dogs and kids.
The beasts froze, chanced a glance at one another, and then one-by-one carried themselves back to their now chilled blankets. The teens also froze, each suppressing wildly rebellious grins that threatened to corrupt their faces. “Yes, Ms. Darin,” Willem said and was instantly parroted by the twins.
It was Ms. Darin’s turn to suppress a smile, she said, “time for lessons.” The teenagers all slumped when Ms. Darin indicated what had become their regular seats in her impromptu underground schoolhouse. “Yesterday, we discussed the Tragedy of Rex Gryphus. Who can explain the dilemma?”
“Dilemma? Don’t you mean dilemmas?” Jocelyn asked.
“Good. Now, explain them,” Ms. Darin replied.
“Well,” Gerick began, “first off: don’t trust your wife!”
“Gerick!” Ms. Darin hissed. “Jocelyn, your answer.”
“There’s the obvious one: if the Last Gryphon King commits suicide, then his kingdom ends.” Ms. Darin nodded approvingly as Jocelyn continued, “but…” she glanced up uncertainly, “it never ended. Did it?”
“Willem, did it?” Ms. Darin asked.
“Um. Well,” he hesitated, “no.”
“Exactly,” Ms. Darin clapped Willem on the shoulder. “Gerick, explain how that’s possible.”
“I don’t know. You never told us,” he shot back.
“Think about it. We’ll wait,” she sat down in her reclining chair which days earlier she’d forced the teens to drag from the fireplace to the dining table.
“Ma’am,” Bonnie ‘Shadow Blade’ Taylor raised his hand as he called out to Daphne Darin’s daughter, who turned slowly toward the old mountain man.
“Mr. Blade,” she said with fire in her tone, “I’ve consistently asked you to call me ‘Siriah.’”
“And, I’ve repeatedly asked you to call me ‘Shadow.’”
The two simultaneously huffed at each other, before smiling briefly.
With a flourish and a feeble attempt to hide a great deal of pain, Bonnie Taylor bowed deeply while waving a hand, “your mother requests your presence.”
All business, Siriah Darin straightened up, “she’s awake?”
Grinning at her, he nodded and barely moved out of her way before she plowed passed him.
“Mom?” Siriah called out, entering the well-hidden hovel which had acted as their sanctuary for the last two weeks.
“Martin,” Daphne Darin croaked from the bed she’d remained in since the sailors from Captain Decker’s barge, D’ble V’sion, had carried her to it.
“Easy, Momma,” Siriah muttered as she slipped into the bedside chair, “I’m here.”
“Martin?” Daphne asked without turning her head.
For a moment, Siriah said nothing. She didn’t know what those kidnapping bastards had done with her father, nor what to tell her mother. Fearing that any reminder of their recent ordeal would be the proverbial straw, she decided to delay the inevitable, “he’s at the market, Momma.”
Patting the bed, Daphne said, “I hope he’s picking up garlic and onions. I’ll make a stew for dinner.” She struggled to sit up.
“Easy, Momma,” Siriah said as she attempted to help her mother into the sitting position.
Blowing out her cheeks, Daphne forced herself to accept Siriah’s assistance. “I must be coming down with something,” the elder woman grumbled.
Biting her lower lip, Siriah put a hand to her mom’s forehead, “you are a bit warm.” With Daphne situated, Siriah sat back down in the chair. She closed her eyes and exhaled through her nose. “I can get you a cool cloth, if you’d like.”
“Do you mind?”
“Not at all, Mom,” Siriah said as she used the chair arms to push herself up. “Just a minute, okay?”
“Martin?” Daphne croaked again.
“He’s at the market,” Siriah reassured her. “I’ll be right back, okay?”
As Siriah vacated the bedroom, she heard her mom say, “I hope he’s picking up garlic and onions. I’ll make a stew for dinner.” Siriah froze just outside of the bedroom, grabbed the wall for support and struggled to keep her breathing even and steady. It might have been better if they’d killed…SHUT UP! Don’t you think it! Don’t! Mercury, please. Give me the strength to find that crazy sonofabitch! He should have killed me. I swear to all things holy, I ever get my hands on him… Wringing her hands, she inhaled deeply, wiped the tears from her eyes, and then quickly walked out of the house. She found Bonnie Taylor sitting on a stump cleaning his fingernails with a splinter. “How’re the other girls?”
“Best as they can be,” he shrugged, “all things considered. Like you, they’ve had their worlds turned upside down.” It was all he could do. He still wasn’t certain how he’d been dragged into this mess, let alone shot for the trouble. The bullet wound below his left shoulder blade was healing nicely, but certain movements—like breathing—caused intense pain. He ground his teeth as he turned his torso to face her, “Captain’ll be back tomorrow. Do you think your mom’ll be ready to travel?”
Siriah took her turn to shrug, “ready or not, we do what has to be done.”
“I hear that,” he snorted. Unconsciously, he caressed his crystal pendant.
Balin held his breath as he struggled to maintain a grip on the convulsing and squawking Bard. The Mercury’s Elite Guardsman with the misfortunate watch, held on as tightly as he could to keep himself as a buffer between the flailing Bard and the Phoenix Rose. The two men avoided eye contact with each other while they fought with Kent whose hand had gripped the golden fence as if fused to it. The Phoenix Rose emitted a jubilant symphony which the two Merc’s barely heard over their own heavy breathing and panicked thoughts.
“Who are you?” Kent asked the fiery Phoenix who flew circles round his head.
“Iphigenia,” she answered.
“Where are we?”
“In your mind,” she cooed.
“He’s right,” she replied cryptically.
“Fuck that bird,” Kent growled
“He said you’d say that.”
“What is it with you birds?”
“What is it with you bards?”
Kent stared at her without responding. A full minute later he realized he was seeing her with both his eyes, and that her brilliance had forced them to well up. Looking around, he saw they had somehow been transported to the creek where his dad—foster dad—Rick had taught him to fish. “Why are we here?” he asked her as he motioned with one hand palm up.
“This is where you hide,” she replied.
“Oh,” he said, his head drooping.
“You can’t hide forever,” the Phoenix whispered as she landed on his shoulder. She nuzzled his head behind his left ear, and then said, “the time has come for you to learn what Fintan was unable to teach you.”
“I don’t want to be a bard,” he mumbled.
“Sucks to be you, doesn’t it?” she mocked.
He dropped his shoulder, pushed at her with one hand, and groaned, “get off me.”
For his trouble, she bit his hand in the tender flesh between the thumb and forefinger, holding on as he hopped around hopelessly attempting to dislodge her. At last, she released him, and then flew just out of his reach, “you can’t fight destiny, child.”
“I’m not a child,” he insisted, while shaking his injured hand at her.
“Well, you’re not a man, are you? Whining like an infant in need of the teat.”
He said nothing, but glared at her with a hatred born from infinite bad luck.
“Good. You’ll need to embrace your anger, if you want to succeed.”
“What does that mean?” he asked.
“It means sit down. Shut up. And, for once in your life, listen.”
A few retorts came to mind, but for some odd reason, he held them back, sat down, and waited.
When the Phoenix was convinced that she had his full attention, she said, “you are the Bard of Poterit Don, Mercury’s Bard, Keeper of the Gryphon King’s songs. As such, it is your responsibility to memorize the Historiae, to sing the Songs of Now, and to prophesize about the days to come.”
“Prophesize?” He stood up, and then spun away only to find himself facing everything he’d just spun away from. “Do I look like a prophet?” he yelled.
“You look like a fool. Which is close enough for our purposes,” Iphigenia, the Phoenix laughed as she flew figure eights around his head.