Born of Stone
Copyright © 2019 by Missy Jane
Astrid trembled in fear as she approached the large stone table. Around its massive frame sat nine of the twelve gargoyle brothers, so deep in conversation they took no notice of her. She silently stepped up to the head of the table and filled Master Kephas’ flask with red wine. He continued speaking as if she didn’t exist, waving his arms in emphasis. One meaty paw neared, and she ducked, crouching low while continuing around the table. They spoke mostly in their odd language with a Lenoran word thrown in here and there. Astrid didn’t try to decipher any of it. She simply wanted to fill their flasks and escape again, unnoticed and unharmed.
So far, she’d remained remarkably untouched since being led into the Masters’ castle. Whispered tales of other peasants being taken in for service only to never emerge again filled her nightmares. But she’d been ignored by the Masters overall. The other humans working in the kitchens kept to themselves, and Astrid had long ago learned not to ask questions. She simply did what Simon bade quickly and quietly.
As if conjured from her thoughts, Simon appeared in the doorway and motioned to her. He wasn’t a big man, but tall and wiry. He reminded Astrid of a snake with the face of a rat. He’d been cruel since her first day and hadn’t improved one bit since. She rushed over, careful not to spill a single drop of wine.
“What’s taking so long? Stupid girl. Hurry up and put down the wine. It’s time to serve the soup.”
She hurried into the kitchen and set the flask of wine on a counter before turning to grab a tray laden with large porcelain bowls.
He watched her every move. “Spill a single one and I’ll have you whipped.”
Astrid nodded quickly and heaved the tray onto her shoulder. Though being whipped by a human hand was painful, she was much more concerned with the wrath of the Masters should she spill their first course. She’d dealt with whippings her whole life and had a mess of scars on her back to prove it. What she’d never felt the brunt of—and wouldn’t if she could help it—was a Master’s anger. She’d seen Master Petros angry one time and still had nightmares over it. He’d tossed the stone dining table into a wall and it had shattered on impact. His roars had echoed throughout the castle while the humans ran, screaming in fear. She’d huddled beneath the countertop where she slept—where she spent most of her time. Rumor was, it had taken ten of his brothers to calm Master Petros down.
She shook away the fear that memory brought and stepped back into the dining room. The men were laughing now at some tale or joke from Master Dunstan. Most of them leaned back in their wooden chairs, relaxed and far enough from the table for her to set out their bowls. As before, not a single one spared her a glance, but they each dipped into the soup soon after she placed it. The moment the last bowl was settled, Astrid all but ran back into the kitchen. The other workers weren’t friendly to her—or even nice—but they were human. Being in their company was better than quaking in fear of anything the Masters might say or do.
The first time she’d spied one of the protectors of the realm, Astrid had thought him the most glorious man she’d ever seen. She still acknowledged the brothers were handsome and well built. But now she knew they weren’t human and could easily crush her like a bug. It was a sobering thought—knowing she was little more than a gnat in their eyes. They might spend their days keeping the evil at bay, well away from the living stone wall that surrounded the Kingdom of Halstrid. However, fighting such vile creatures took the strength and speed of non-human creatures. The brothers were gargoyles, flesh and blood when they wished, or stone from head to toe when in battle. They commanded inhuman strength with the senses of the best hunters. Mere humans were powerless against them.
Astrid startled at the call from the deep voice she now recognized as belonging to Haldor. He certainly liked his drink and hated waiting for it. She grabbed the wine and rushed to refill his flask. Luckily the wine and soup were her only responsibilities. Others would be taking in the rest of the meal once it was finished being prepared.
Orestes noticed the human woman rush back into the room with the cask of wine held before her like a shield. He’d seen her a lot over the past two days since his return from patrol, serving at their table in silence. However, he was certain she hadn’t been here before his month away to protect the king. She hurried to Haldor, who had most likely already forgotten his summons during his ripping into Kephas over their latest bet.
“Just because you are the oldest doesn’t make you the smartest, Kephas.”
All but the brother in question laughed at that observation. Kephas sat back with his arms crossed over his massive chest and raised a bushy black brow at Haldor. It was a joke amongst them to refer to him as the oldest since he was the first created.
“And I suppose you think you are smartest?”
The laughter died and all eyes turned to Haldor for his answer.
“Perhaps. I did win the bet. One you set the terms for, if I remember correctly.”
Orestes wasn’t the only one to roll his eyes. All of them clearly remembered Kephas painstakingly deciding on the terms of the bet. Orestes turned to catch his oldest brother’s response and once again took note of the woman. She had already filled Haldor’s flask and was trying to peek into the others without getting within arm’s reach of the table. It was actually rather amusing to see the small woman going up onto the tips of her toes to accomplish her task. She wore the tattered dress of a peasant, dirt staining the hem over her bare feet. Orestes frowned at the sight and let his gaze roam over the rest of her.
Thick black curls framed her thin face, falling in tangled waves to her waist. It looked as if she’d tried to tie them back, but the bit of string she’d used only held about half of the mass. Her large brown eyes were underlined by dark rings of fatigue and her pink lips were chapped. Her dress hung on her thin frame as if she hadn’t eaten well her entire life. Orestes’ frown deepened, and he glanced down at his half-eaten soup. He was almost tempted to offer it to her but didn’t want to embarrass her in front of his brothers. He knew too well the idiotic pride of some humans.
It bothered him that a member of their staff would be in such condition. Were the other humans in the same state? Shame burned in his gut when he realized he’d never taken enough time to notice. There was no reason for her suffering. The guardians were well compensated by the monarchy for their protection of the realm. He knew for a fact funds were set aside for running the household staff. Surely, they were paid as well. He glanced at his brother, Wynnston, who oversaw dealing with the servants around the castle. He would have to question him on it after Kephas and Haldor settled their debate.
The woman moved around the table and out of his line of sight. His large brothers now sat in the way, but soon she would be at his elbow. A new and strange urge overtook Orestes and he wasn’t certain what to do. For the first time ever, he desired to speak to a human. It certainly wasn’t unheard of. A few of his brothers even bedded them on occasion. However, Orestes didn’t usually deal with humans directly other than a monthly foray into the village. There was also the occasional ceremony he was forced to attend when they dedicated some statue or structure in his name. As a guardian, he was revered as a great protector and nearly worshipped in some villages. He didn’t like the worship, but he appreciated the awe-inspired wariness. The less he had to deal with humans the better. Usually. For some o...