The Griffin's War
After promising his allegiance to the Night God, Arenadd Taranisaii escapes death for the second time and vows to free his people. With the dark griffin Skandar by his side, Arenadd begins to gather an army and prepare for war using the power gifted to him by the Night God to move through the shadows.
But even as Arenadd's strength grows his nemesis sets out for the Island of the Sun, seeking the one weapon that can truly kill Arenadd, the man without a heart.
Huddled alone in a cell deep below the city of Malvern, Arenadd Taranisäii sang.
He wasn't sure of the words or the tune. In fact, he couldn't quite remember what he was trying to sing. That didn't matter.
Keeping his bandaged hand tucked in against his chest, he opened his mouth wide and sang as loudly as he could. His voice came out cracked and raucous.
"…danced around the tree when you came to look for me, round and round the… tree we went… back again… take my hand and we'll… something something… dance around the—" He broke off in a fit of coughing.
He had lost track of how long he'd been here. Time had no meaning when there was no light, and even less when you couldn't sleep. And pain made every moment drag out and stretch. He hadn't eaten anything in a while, but that didn't seem to matter much. His mouth hurt where one of his teeth had been knocked out. The swelling on the side of his head had claimed one eye, so seeing wasn't easy, either. But none of it hurt as much as his hand.
He sang anyway. It was all he could think of to do, the only thing that seemed to block out the whisperings in his head.
He thought he must be going mad. His mind was a jumble. Sometimes he would think that someone else was there with him in the cell, until he blinked and they disappeared.
Arenadd, the voice whispered again.
He waved his good hand around wildly. "Go away!"
The voice kept on calling, and he sang again until it went away. After that he dozed for a short while.
When he woke up, there was someone else there. A blurry person, standing in a doorway made of light. He blinked and rubbed his good eye, but the intruder didn't leave. The figure came into focus.
Eventually, he realised the person was talking to him. He jerked his head toward him. "Eh? Eh? Who's that? Rannagon? Is that you? Have you come back for me?"
The reply came: "It's me. Remember me?"
Arenadd blinked some more, until he finally took in the person in front of him. A stocky, blond young man with a boyish freckled face and blue eyes. Familiar eyes. Eyes full of disgust and hatred—and fear.
Arenadd grinned horribly. "Erian Rannagonson. Malvern's favourite bastard. Why are you here? Want me to bite your ear off next?" he said, and cackled.
Erian retreated slightly. "I wanted to see you one last time. Ask you something."
Arenadd dragged himself forward, pulling on the chains that held his wrists to the wall. "The last time before what? Eh, Bastard? What's poor Arenadd got coming next?"
Erian's eyes spat hate at him. "They're going to hang you in the morning, murderer."
Arenadd rubbed his head with his good hand. "Finally. Lazy Southern bastards took forever."
Erian glanced over his shoulder. "Listen to me. Listen!"
Arenadd just stared at him, through a red-rimmed black eye.
"I want to know something," said Erian. "Why did you do it? Why did you kill my father?"
"It seemed like a good idea at the time."
Erian stared blankly at him for a moment, and then gave a strangled shout of frustration. "Answer me! Why did you do it? Why did you really do it?"
The voice had begun to whisper again. It was growing louder. Tired anger coursed through the muddle in Arenadd's mind. Pushing at the floor with his feet, he tried to get up—and fell back against the wall when his chains caught. "What do you want from me, you sun-worshipping nitwit?" he yelled.
"I killed him because he killed me. That's why." He slumped, chest heaving. "Now bugger off and leave me alone."
Erian tried to question him more, but Arenadd started to sing again and didn't stop until he went away.
Once he was alone, he stopped singing and tried to think. So, they were going to hang him. At last, he was going to leave this cell. Tomorrow he would be given death… or his chance to escape. Only time would tell which. And by now he would welcome either one.
Erian let himself be escorted out of the dungeon. His heart pounded sickeningly the entire time. In his head, the vision stayed with him. The bony, wild-eyed wreck of a man, crouched in the corner with one bandaged hand cradled against his body, long black hair matted into ropes around his swollen face. The pointed chin beard crusted with blood, the black robe and leggings all torn and filthy. And that voice, harsh and crazed… mad.
He wished he knew why he had gone to visit him at all. He had been there when Arenadd had been captured, the murdering blackrobe raving all the while. He had seen Malvern's council sentence him to death without a trial, after the Master of Law had claimed that Arenadd was insane and couldn't be tried. Even the guards Erian had bribed to let him in had warned him. Violent and deranged, they said. But Erian had gone anyway.
He was glad when he emerged from the narrow dungeon corridors and back into the more spacious lower level of the Eyrie tower.
Senneck was there, idly grooming a wing. She came to meet him. "Are you satisfied now, Erian?"
He shook his head vaguely. "I don't know."
"Did he tell you what you wanted him to?"
"No. He won't say anything except nonsense. He didn't even look afraid when I told him he was going to be hanged."
"So be it, then," said Senneck. "Let us go and meet with the Mighty Kraal now. He will be waiting."
Erian walked obediently beside her, up the ramps toward the upper levels of the tower. She moved unhurriedly, with the graceful loping gait of all griffins, her tail waving gently behind her. Erian kept pace easily, though his mind was elsewhere.
"I just don't understand it!" he burst out at last.
Senneck didn't look back at him. "Understand what?"
"Any of it! He did all those terrible things, killed all those people—murdered my father—and he didn't even have a reason! That's why I went down there," he added, realising it just at that moment. "I wanted him to give me a reason. But he didn't. I just don't understand why something like that could just… happen."
Senneck's back paws padded on the carpeted floor. "There does not have to be a reason, Erian."
"Yes there does! The gods wouldn't—"
She stopped and turned her head sharply toward him. "There are no gods. Do not delude yourself. Nothing happens but what is made to happen by us and by nature."
Erian gaped at her, before hastily backing down. "I suppose you're right," he mumbled, as she turned away and walked on. "It'd just be easier that way."
"Nothing is easy."
"I know." Erian adjusted the sling holding his right arm. The shoulder still ached.
"Besides," Senneck added more kindly, "the murderer is done with now. We have played our part, and all that is left for us is to claim our reward!"
Erian cheered up a little at that. But a moment later his heart quailed when he remembered that seeing the Mighty Kraal would also mean seeing his human partner. Beautiful Lady Elkin. The woman he now knew he loved but who did not love him in return. But, he told himself quickly, now maybe it would be different. He had caught Arenadd Taranisäii, the notorious destroyer of Eagleholm, the man who had stolen a gang of slaves and led them to overrun the mountain fort called Guard's Post and kill everyone inside it. Arenadd had been one of the most wanted men in Cymria, and Erian had been the one to finally capture him. Now he and Senneck were due to be rewarded, but that didn't matter so much to Erian as the idea that maybe Elkin would be grateful to him. Maybe she would even respect him now for what he had done.
He held on to that hope all the way up to the very top of the tower, where Lady Elkin's audience chamber was. But the moment he stepped into the big marble-lined room, that hope died.
The middle of the audience chamber featured a stepped platform made from slabs of white marble. It may have been large, but it was dwarfed by the massive griffin that crouched at its top. The Mighty Kraal, his white feathers glossy in the lamplight, golden eyes half-closed. There was nobody else with him.
Erian, feeling as if a lead weight had replaced his stomach, knelt in front of the platform. Beside him Senneck bowed her head to the superior griffin, saying nothing.
The Mighty Kraal regarded them both. Finally, he lifted his head and spoke. "You have come to ask me for your reward, Senneck?"
"I have," she said.
"And that is all?"
Senneck's tail flicked uncertainly. "All, Mighty Kraal?"
He looked at her, then at Erian. "You have nothing to tell me?"
"I have not," said Senneck.
Erian felt the giant griffin's gaze burning through him. Feeling he should say something, he finally came up with: "I heard they're going to execute the murderer tomorrow."
"That is true," said Kraal. "But you and I were both there to hear it. Do you have any other thing to tell me about this man you call your enemy?"
Erian squirmed under that golden stare. "He's mad."
Kraal kept his gaze on him a moment longer, before finally looking away with a dismissive huff. "I will give you your reward now."
He used his beak to hook something from under his wing and dropped it in front of Senneck. It was a leather bag, heavy with gold oblong. Erian picked it up happily; he could buy new clothes with this, and a new bow, and better food and nesting material for Senneck.
"You may go now," Kraal told them both, and without waiting for a response he settled down and closed his eyes.
Erian left the audience chamber very gladly, clutching the bag of oblong. "He's a very odd griffin, isn't he?"
"He is old," said Senneck. "And I think he has been idle here too long. A griffin that grows bored can become lazy and foolish—inclined to mystical thoughts."
"He doesn't look that old to me," said Erian.
"I do not know his true age," Senneck admitted. "But he is at least as old as your father was, and probably older. Stories of him go back many, many years. My mother told me about him when I was a hatchling, and said her own mother had once told her."
Erian rubbed his head. "Good gods. Do griffins live that long?"
"Some of them do, it would seem," said Senneck. "Now, let us go back to our nest. I am ready to eat."
On his platform in the audience chamber, the Mighty Kraal shifted and scratched his flank. Yet another meeting with Senneck and her human, and something still nagged at him. Senneck was simple enough. Young and ambitious, as arrogant as every young griffin who had only just chosen a human. But her human was another question. He looked very much like his father, but there was something else about him. Whatever it was, it wasn't anything particularly special. He wasn't important as humans went, just a lowly newcomer to the Eyrie. He wasn't a great fighter or particularly intelligent for a human. But despite all that, Kraal couldn't shake off that feeling. That feeling that was almost… familiarity.
The sound of a door opening behind him brought him back to the present. He didn't need to look to know who the intruder was.
Lady Elkin, Eyrie Mistress, white blonde and fragile. She appeared at Kraal's left side as if by magic. But next to his enormous bulk her tiny frame was easy to miss.
Kraal wordlessly shifted back to make room for her. She sat down between his forepaws, almost lost among his thick chest feathers. "Did you talk to Erian?" she asked.
"He is gone now," Kraal said by way of an answer. "With his reward."
Elkin tucked her hands into the wide sleeves of her gown. "That's good."
"He looked for you," Kraal added. "I think he was unhappy that you were not here."
Elkin said nothing.
"You do not want to see him," said Kraal. "Why have you been hiding? Are you afraid of him?" He sounded genuinely curious.
"I don't have time to deal with him," Elkin said, more sharply than she needed to. "I have other things to worry about. An Eyrie to run."
"He did you a great service by capturing the rogue darkman," said Kraal. "You should have thanked him yourself."
"We gave him his reward," said Elkin, deliberately ignoring her partner's real meaning. "I don't want to talk about him any more. I have work to do."
Kraal took the hint and dropped the subject, simply getting up to follow her when she left. She had been throwing herself into her work lately, as if nothing else mattered. Maybe, for her, nothing did. But Kraal didn't believe that.
Kraal was not the only griffin worried about his human.
Out beyond the city, near the glorified village called Wolf's Town, Skandar huddled down in a thicket of wattle bushes and rested. He had been flying for days, often unable to find food, and by now his wings and his stomach ached.
Nervous and angry with fear, the big griffin pecked at a tick hiding among his wing feathers. He wanted food. He wanted to go back to his new home. But most of all, he wanted his human.
When Arenadd had disappeared, it had taken Skandar some time to start looking for him. He had been too caught up in his new territory and even more caught up with his mate, Hyrenna.
After far too long forced to live a life without the things he expected and loved, finding the mountains at last had been a blessing. No more hiding like a rabbit down a hole. No more doing whatever the human said so that the human would show him to a new and better home for them both. Instead he had had freedom in the mountains and a mate to bear his eggs—and to teach him all the things he should have known all this while. And Arenadd had been there, too, living the way he was supposed to live—with other humans of his own race.
So when Arenadd had gone, Skandar had assumed that all was well and that the human would come back when he was ready. The other humans seemed to think so, too, for a little while. But when they began to worry and to look for the human, Skandar's confusion had grown. Where was Arenadd? Why was he not in the mountains any more? The other humans were leaving, and Hyrenna with them, and Skandar couldn't follow without his human.
So he didn't. He ignored Hyrenna's warnings and flew away to find Arenadd.
It went beyond mere friendship. Arenadd was his.
But no matter where Skandar went, he found nothing. He stayed away from human nests; Arenadd had warned him not to let other humans see him. Skandar didn't want to be seen anyway. He knew what humans that weren't Arenadd could do to him.
He searched the other places instead, where there were trees and hills and rocks. Places he had been before with Arenadd. He found nothing. No sign. No scent.
The great dark griffin rested his head on his talons and sighed. He was lost and starving, and no closer to finding his human. But how could he go back to the mountains alone? He needed Arenadd, needed him to help make sense of the world.
A rustling from nearby made him raise his head sharply. Keeping still, he listened. Something was coming.
Skandar sniffed, and the tip of his tail began to twitch. Human.
He peered through the branches and eventually spotted them, two humans walking together and making noises—that ugly soft-sounding language they used, which made no sense to him. They were coming straight toward him.
Watching them cautiously, Skandar noticed the brown fur on their heads. Not dark humans, like Arenadd. Those humans were good humans that would help him and Arenadd. But these were the other humans, the pale-furred ones, the same ones who had hurt him and tried to take his human away.
Arenadd had explained why Skandar should leave dark humans alone, and he had decided that his human knew best.
But there was no reason to stop these humans from being food.
His mind made up, Skandar slowly rose to his paws. Huge black talons extended. His wings rose.
The humans wandered closer, oblivious.
Skandar leapt. Crashing through the bushes as if they were nothing, he pounced on both humans. One went flying; the other caught the full force of his front paws and was crushed into the ground, its body tearing open. Leaving it dying, Skandar went after the other. The surviving human managed to get up and run, but even with his massive bulk Skandar was faster. He chased it down and killed it with a blow of his beak, before dragging its limp corpse back to where the other one lay.
Humans were far too easy to hunt.
They were delicious, too. Skandar ripped the bodies apart and swallowed them, clothes and all. Nothing was left but a few blood stains.
Once he had eaten, he lay on his belly for a short time and rested. He gulped a little. The food felt good in his stomach.
Having his hunger satisfied made him feel much better, and more optimistic. Newly determined, he got up and walked away south. It was better not to stay near a kill outside of your own territory; the smell attracted danger.
He was near the edge of the trees and preparing to take off when the wind, blowing toward him, brought him a scent.
Skandar drew back under the trees and lifted his head, sniffing. Humans, further away this time. But these weren't food. These were familiar. The unaccustomed word rose up in his head: friends.
But not his friends.
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