The fire had taken it all. Every stitch of clothing, every family portrait, every piece of fine furniture; nothing had been spared. The fire had taken every last memory in every last corner of the estate. It had swept through the library, through the music room, through his lordship's chamber and even into parts of the garden.
I saved the lady's birds from a fiery doom trapped in their cages. I saved the child once I learned she was still inside fast asleep.
In the attached stables, two horses and three newborn pups perished. The parents escaped along with the cat, which usually sported for rodents in the stable at night. The livestock went unscathed, except for a few flustered chickens that would be pulling their feathers out for a week.
As the flames burned brightly into the night, the servants gave me grievous news. To my great distress, her ladyship had not been found even all these hours after the alarm had sounded.
"I will find her." I prepared to re-enter the smoldering building where I had played my role as protector for so long.
Before I could take a step, a hand set on my own. "You can't go back in," she said.
I looked to the child with confusion in my heart.
"Don't go." Her voice was teary where her face was not.
I bent to the girl and whispered carefully, "Your mother may be trapped inside. Why do you stop me?"
She gripped my hand tightly. "Mother set the fire."
I stood up immediately. "Lady Lanien would do no such thing."
"My mother set the fire," the child insisted. "She kissed me goodnight and told me goodbye. I know it was she."
From behind us, a man wailed. I looked to his lordship. Three servants were holding him back as he thrashed in their strong grips.
"Gargoyle!" he bellowed as he finally tore from the men. "Find her, Gargoyle. Find my Lanien or so help me I'll slit your throat where you stand."
I took in a deep breath and readied myself for his lordship's reaction. "Lanien is gone, sire. Your daughter says it was she who set the blaze."
The lord scoffed. "Ridiculous."
"Father!" The child embraced her father and pleaded. "Listen to me. I know it was mother. She's been distant. She's been talking of far off places she could never have been. I dare say she hasn't been herself."
His lordship tore away from his daughter's arms. "Lies," he spat. "All lies. Don't talk of your mother that way when she could be in ashes!"
"Sire," I said and put myself between my two remaining charges. "We must find you shelter for the night."
I took hold of his upper arm and he cringed away from me.
"Vile, disgusting beast," he growled. "How could I have trusted you? Isn't it your kind's duty to protect the humans? Isn't it in your nature to foresee and prevent such a tragedy as this?"
The night howled around us and I could not find the words to answer my lord. It surely was my obligation to protect him and his family, but I was not the gargoyle he thought me to be. Protector, most certainly. What powers he ascribed to me, however, were more in keeping with the ruby or sapphire gargoyles. That he had the unfortunate luck of being protected by an opal like myself had never bothered him before.
I could not see the future or protect him from all misfortunes in the home; such would be mine to regret for eternity, but I would lay my life down for him or his daughter, as I had sworn to do when she was born.
Now, as the man I had known for two decades stared into my eyes- eyes which would always reveal the stone behind the illusion that made me appear human- I knew what it felt like to die.
"Leave this land," he exclaimed. "You have failed to protect my family. You are a disgrace."
The child cried out, "Father! You can't send her away."
"Silence." His voice, as cold as the December river flowing nearby, brought daggers into my soul. "Never speak of this unworthy beast again. She had killed your mother."
"Mother left us," she argued, but the man could not hear beyond his pride.
With a heavy heart, I turned to leave. For one more moment, I memorized in the sight of the burning manor. All gone now. The fire had taken it all. My life and my duty were turned to ash.
"One more thing, Gargoyle," his lordship called. "I order you to leave your illusion here."
"As you wish, my lord," I said, bowing my head in respect. With his final command, I shivered out of the magic that protected the estate from seeing my true visage.
There was no fanfare to the fading illusion; no shimmering delight or sparkling magic. One moment I appeared as a tall woman built more for war than for sewing and parties, and the next they saw me in all the glory of my kind.
I stood a clear head above the tallest of them. The leathery wings on my back stretched out to encase the night. As I tried to keep my anger hidden, my tail whipped back and forth. Claws on both feet and hands clenched and unclenched.
Even in faint moonlight, my body shimmered. On that night, with the fire growling behind me, several servants blocked their eyes as the veins of fierce color in my opal skin reflected back at them.
"It has been my greatest honor," I declare, "to serve this family, despite that I could not, in your hour of need, protect it."
The child began to weep. She again insisted that her mother lived and that the Lady Lanien had set the fire herself.
I drank in a final glimpse of the child and realized that, though I could call her nothing else, she hadn't been a child in many years.
On glittering wings, I took to the night sky with a deep, roaring sadness in my heart.