Katie took his hand, noting how smooth and cool the firm skin felt against her palm. Like a fleshy rock of sorts. Would the rest of him feel the same, she wondered as he led her out of the dining room? Her cheeks heated as it occurred to her that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.
Too much mead. Undoubtedly. Scary how quickly she was taking to the odd drink.
They went down the hall and through a narrow stone arch that led to an even narrower flight of stairs. The steps were slippery, worn smooth over the centuries and the lack of any handrail made it imperative to pay attention as she placed her feet.
Which was why she plowed into her personal gargoyle’s firm behind with her head when he stopped, presumably at the top.
“Sorry about that,” she mumbled, backing down a couple steps and thanking her lucky stars for the dim light coming in narrow windows so he couldn’t see her flaming face.
His deep chuckle echoed through the small space. “I’d wager ‘tis better for you to watch your own feet than my backside.” He stepped over a threshold and turned, holding a wooden door open for her as she stopped just short of following him outside.
“Is it safe? I mean, is Peter...”
He shook his head. “We’re on the roof of the mansion. I assure you, your nemesis can’t reach you here.”
Nerves made her shake slightly as she stepped out onto the graveled surface. She trusted Thomas, but her body hadn’t quite caught up with her brain and still remembered the tug-of-war all too clearly. Crossing her arms over her chest, she tried to will herself to calm the heck down with lackluster results.
“This way,” Thomas said, turning to the left. “Alfred and Dornin are at the front of the building.”
The center of the roof was taken up by large raised garden beds, where all manner of herbs and vegetables appeared to be growing. There was even a patch of corn on the end, and one that looked like it held root vegetables. Katie didn’t know much about gardening, but she couldn’t help but wonder at the variety.
“How do all these grow at the same time?” she asked, earning a shrug from her tour guide.
“You’ll have to as Zariah. It’s her garden, and she’s rather protective of it.”
Katie nodded, her gaze shifting outward to the rows of gargoyles that sat looking out atop stone pedestals all around the edge of the roof. She counted five on each side plus the two larger statues sitting in a bump-out that would be just above the main doors to the building. One pedestal to the right of those two was empty, and she could only assume that was Thomas’s place.
“Do all of these...I mean, are they all like you? They all can change into humans, or live gargoyles?”
Thomas nodded as they stopped between the two in front. “All except these two have been cursed for a crime of some sort. We are imprisoned here until we earn our freedom.”
Katie frowned. “It must be hard to do - earn your freedom, that is. There are so many...”
He glanced at the statues, his expression wistful. “It’s not so difficult, really - we must help someone such as yourself, who needs protection from something similar to what we ourselves did to others. But freedom comes at a price as well - one that some of us aren’t willing to pay.”
She wanted to ask what the price was, but he continued immediately, gesturing to the statue on his right.
“This is Lord Alfred Dunning, owner of the mansion and the man who started the curse. And this,” he pointed to the other gargoyle, “is his brother, Dornin. After the druids cursed the castle as Dunning required, they cursed these two with an impossible task. They are only allowed to regain human form once a year for seven days, and to break their own curse they must each convince a woman to fall in love with the other man. When they break their own curse, the curse on the mansion will be broken as well.”
Katie shook her head. “No wonder they’re still here. That’s an impossible task.”
Thomas smiled. “I have watched them bicker and complain more times than I care to count over the years, but they’ve had chances. It’s difficult to hand the thing you want most over to your brother - when that thing is a woman’s affection, nearly impossible, as you say.”
Katie thought about that for a moment, and then met his cool gaze. “What about you, Thomas? What do you have to do to break your personal curse?”
He sighed, looking away as the wind riffled through his hair. The sunset behind him cast him in shadow, and she couldn’t help but think what a striking, manly figure he made standing there. Like an ancient warrior.
“My task is twofold, as are all of ours. First, I have to save someone from a person who would do what I once did.”
When she realized just what he was saying, she fought the urge to take a step back. “You tried to burn someone alive?”
“Who?” She didn’t want to know, and yet, she had to.
He was silent for a long moment, so long she thought he might not answer until he finally did.
“My wife and her lover.”
Katie felt the tension lesson as her muscles relaxed.
“A little dramatic, but understandable I guess, especially back then. What’s the second part?”
“Nothing you need to worry about,” he said, his voice sharp. “I have no desire to leave this place, so the second part doesn’t matter.” He brushed past her, walking back toward the door. “We should go back inside. It’s getting late.”
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