The Griffin's Flight
Although he was once chosen as a griffin's companion, Arren Cardockson was reviled, betrayed, and ultimately killed. Brought back to life by a power beyond his understanding, Arren flees for the frozen sanctuary of the North. With the man-eating griffin Skandar by his side, and an entire country hunting him, Arren has little hope of reaching the place of his ancestry and of lifting his curse. But then he comes across a wild woman who may hold the key to making his lifeless heart beat once more.
He could see it again. It was rising out of the darkness, utterly silent, almost glowing. Blood was everywhere. He could feel it matting his hair, running down his face and into his beard, soaking into his robe. It was coming from his neck and from his eyes. And from his hands. They were bleeding. They would not stop bleeding.
He held them out, as his boots were slipping and sliding out from beneath him. The floor was slippery with blood. Help me. Please, help.
The shape was there in front of him now, its eyes turned accusingly toward him. He could see the blood coming from its throat, from the terrible wound. Flames were coming from it, too. He could smell the smoke.
Arren, what have you done?
There was pain in his neck. It was weighing him down, pulling him down, tearing his flesh, bringing the blood out of him like rain and tears.
Somewhere in the gloom he saw a griffin, her feathers white as snow. Arren, what have you done? she whispered.
I'm falling. Help me, I'm falling, I'm falling, help me…
And then he was falling.
Arren Cardockson woke up on his side, breathing heavily. Sweat had plastered his hair to his head. He could feel more of it trickling down his back, and he sat up, trying to wipe his face clean on his sleeve. The fabric was full of ingrained dirt, so it only served to spread a layer of sticky mud over his forehead, and he lay down on his back, trying to breathe deeply.
He could hear the faint rumble of Skandar's breathing, somewhere to his left, and realised that he must have rolled away from the griffin's flank in his sleep. But he couldn't summon up the energy to move back. Instead he lay and stared up at the sky. It was still night, and a crescent moon was shining. That comforted him slightly.
He shivered. The terror of the dream was fading now, and he tried not to think about it. After all the months that had passed he had hoped that the nightmares would have left him by now, but they hadn't. If anything, they were getting worse.
Murderer, the inner voice whispered.
Arren turned over on his side again, fighting down the impulse. But it wouldn't leave him alone. Unable to stop himself, he put his hand to the side of his neck and waited.
He had been expecting that, but it still sent a dull shock through his chest. It always did.
He closed his eyes and tried not to think. In spite of his exhaustion, though, he couldn't sleep. He never slept well any more. It was partly the dreams, but it was also the fear. It troubled him every time he lay down to rest: the fear that somehow, this time, he wouldn't wake up.
It was strange. He was so afraid of dying, and yet he wanted to die. The idea followed him day and night. If he died, there would be no more fear. No more pain. No more nightmares. No more running, no more hiding, no more hunger. And yet, when he touched the side of his neck and felt nothing, he was terrified. And when he looked up at the sky and thought he saw wings coming for him, he would panic and run for cover. There were so many ways to die out here: poison, cold, starvation, wild animals. More than once, when food had been scarce, he had been convinced that Skandar was going to eat him. But the griffin never did. He'd gone without food for several days at a stretch but had never once attempted to eat the human that he had adopted.
Arren had thought of leaving him, but he couldn't make himself do it. Skandar was his only company, and the closest thing he had to a friend. Most likely he was the only living creature in the world who did not want Arren dead.
Once again the memory of Lord Rannagon's dead body rose up in his mind. The boy has lost his mind. Murderer.
Arren curled up, wrapping his arms around his knees and hugging them to his chest. No, he thought. No. They wanted me dead even before I was a murderer.
'I couldn't help it,' Arren whispered. 'I couldn't help it.'
No man chooses his heritage. He can only try and make the best of it. But you…
Arren clasped his throat. The wounds had long since healed, but the scars were still there, large, deep, swollen and occasionally still painful. He knew he would have them forever.
Every Northerner has a madness inside him. One day it will come through in you.
'No,' Arren whispered again.
The boy has lost his mind.
He rolled over onto his other side, covering his ears with his hands, trying to blot it out. But the accusations were in his memory, not in the world around him, and they could not be escaped.
Arren's black eyes became hard and cold in the darkness. I don't care, he shouted back mentally. You hear me? I don't care that you're dead. I'd do it again if I got the chance.
But still the voice would not leave him alone.
He woke up again at dawn, to the sound of Skandar's screeches. He got up, rubbing his back, and squinted muzzily at the sky. The black griffin was flying overhead, calling his name.
Darkheart. That was the name they had given him when he was a captive in the Arena at Eagleholm. As punishment for his crimes, he was used as entertainment there. Skandar was a man-eater. He had been born wild and had turned to preying on livestock and then on human beings as well. Arren, as a junior griffiner, had been sent by Lord Rannagon to capture him and sell him to the Arena. He had succeeded, in spite of the fact that he had been sent on his own and had no prior experiencebut his griffin, Eluna, had met her end at Skandar's talons. Arren had returned home grieving for her, only to find that his mission had not been authorised as he had thought it was. Rannagon then claimed that Arren had gone without permission and in defiance of the rules binding griffiners to stay at their posts unless given leave by the Mistress of the Eyrie. No-one believed Arren's story, and he had been disgraced and cast out of the order of griffiners.
Alone, bereft, without a griffin to protect him, he had lost first the respect of those around him and then all his respect for himself, and from then on his life had begun to spiral out of control.
It was strange, he thought, that it had ended like this, with his having become a partner to the griffin that had killed Eluna and destroyed his life. But then again, it hadn't, he remembered with a little chill. It had ended months before, when he had fallen from the edge of the great mountain-top city and into space, his bid for freedom over and his last hope gone. That was when his life had ended. This, whatever it was, was something else.
Skandar screeched again, and Arren sighed. He still had not been able to persuade the griffin to stop making his territorial calls at dawn and dusk; one reason why he had thought of leaving him. But even if he did leave, he doubted he would get far. To his knowledge no-one else had ever refused a griffin's companionship. Though Arren had tried to, Skandar could not be dissuaded. And in spite of everything the black griffin had done to hurt him, Arren couldn't help but feel a certain bond with him. Every time he tried to make himself hate the black griffinfor his savagery, his bloodlust, for the killings he had committedhe would be forced to confront the cold truth: that he himself was no different, and that whether he liked it or not he had thrown his lot in with Skandar and was now his partner and companion until one of them died.
His calling done, Skandar beat his wings hard and flew away. He was going to hunt. With any luck he would bring back something for Arren to share, but there was no certainty of that.
Arren got up and walked slowly around their temporary camp, stretching his legs. The fire had burned down, and he wondered if he should bother relighting it. No. Not much point. They would be leaving it again soon enough. Instead he rummaged in the pocket of his robe, hoping to find food. There were some dried berries and a couple of squashed mushrooms, and he ate them while he set out to forage for something more substantial.
The campsite was in the middle of thick bushland and quite a long way from the nearest human settlement. Tall spice-trees covered the landscape in every direction, with thick brush growing between them. The spice-trees hereabouts had smooth trunks and no low-growing branches, making them more or less unclimbable, but there were some scrubby wattle trees as well, and Arren wandered around among a nearby stand of them. Clinging to their trunks were thick lumps of sap that could be eaten; he picked off a bit and chewed it unenthusiastically. It didn't have much flavour.
As he was poking around its roots, a chirping from above made him look up.
There was a bird's nest built between two small branches high up in the tree. A bird was sitting in it; he could just make out its tail.
Arren grinned. He unlaced his boots and put them aside, and then pulled himself into the branches. His toes were long and flexible, and he nimbly scaled the tree until he was as high as he could reach, just high enough to be within grabbing distance of the nest.
The mother bird flew off when she saw his hand coming, and he groped his way over the side of the nest and into the bottom, straining to stretch his arm as far as it would go. Sure enough, his fingers brushed against the warm shells of three eggs. He picked them out one by one and ate them raw, perched there in the branches like a possum. They tasted delicious.
Some of his hunger satisfied, he began to climb back down. When he was at the halfway point, he heard the sound of rustling grass and froze instantly. The rustling came again. It was coming from the base of the tree. Something was moving down there. Arren looked down, searching for movement, and eventually spotted something in the undergrowth beneath the tree. It was far too small to be a human, and he relaxed and continued to climb down, watching closely. Maybe it was something he could catch.
There was more rustling, and then he saw it properly. It was a huge lizard, nearly as long as he was tall, its throat pulsating gently. It was examining his boots, its great thick tongue flicking in and out.
Arren descended to another branch, moving as slowly and quietly as he could. The lizard still hadn't spotted him. He shuffled out onto the branch until he was just above it, tensed and dropped.
He landed inches away from the lizard, which turned and dashed off at high speed. Arren went in pursuit, his robe snagging on the bushes. The lizard's legs were short; he caught up with it in a few strides and then pounced. He landed squarely on top of it, knocking it flat on its stomach. The lizard struggled, its entire body thrashing with astonishing strength. Its tail whipped at him, and as Arren tried to pin it down it turned itself onto its back and tore at him with its claws. One caught him on the back of the hand, cutting him, but the others snagged in the thick fabric of his robe, unable to penetrate it. Arren could feel the lizard wriggling its way out from beneath him, and knew that if it reached the nearest spice-tree he would never be able to get it down again. He snatched up a rock from the ground and bashed it over the head. The blow didn't kill it but did manage to stun it. Quick as thought, he grabbed it by the head and twisted its neck hard. There was a dull snap and the lizard began to twitch and convulse violently, its mouth opening wide to hiss. Arren flicked it over onto its stomach and bashed its head in with the rock, and it finally became still. Flushed with triumph, he carried the dead lizard to the fireplace and began to gather more wood. He'd eaten lizards like this one before, and they had rich, fatty flesh. He could live off one this big for days.
It took a while to build up the fire again; fortunately there were still some coals that had a bit of heat left in them, and he added some dry grass and blew gently on it until it caught. Once it was ablaze he added twigs and leaves and then a couple of larger branches, working patiently until the fire was going again. This done, he took his knife from his belt and turned his attention to the dead lizard. His stomach was already rumbling in anticipation as he skinned and gutted it. The flesh was thick and oily; evidently this lizard had been eating well recently. It would taste delicious.
As he was sharpening a stick to serve as a crude spit, he heard the sound of wings from overhead and looked up sharply.
But it was only Skandar. The black griffin had spotted him and was coming down to land. Arren shuffled back a little way to give him room, and he landed in the middle of the clearing, his four huge paws hitting the ground with scarcely a sound. He paused to preen his wings and then came toward the fire, his tail swinging gently behind him.
'Good morning,' said Arren. 'How was the hunt?' Skandar paused and looked at him. 'No food,' he said briefly. His speech was slow and clumsy, though Arren had been helping him to improve.
'That's not good,' said Arren. 'You could try hunting on the ground. There's a few ground-bears around and some rabbits, I think.'
Skandar came closer, ignoring him.
'Well, maybe the next place we go to will be better,' Arren went on. 'There could be some sheep there for you.'
Skandar wasn't looking at him. Arren realised with a horrible start that the griffin was intent on the dead lizard.
He got up sharply. 'No, don't even think about it, that's moof!'
Skandar knocked him aside almost casually and snapped up the lizard. He swallowed it whole with scarcely a pause.
Arren got up.'Skandar! That was mine, damn it!'
Skandar looked at him and then started to groom.
Arren rubbed his forehead, trying to restrain his temper. 'Listen, you greedy idiot, you can't take other people's food like that. I'll starve if you keep doing it.'
Skandar glanced up. 'Not understand,' he said, clicking his beak.
'Yes you do,' Arren snapped. 'You understand perfectly well. Don't try and get around me with that excuse. I caught that lizard. If you wanted one, you should have caught your own.'
Skandar yawned.'We go now?' he said.
Arren could see he wasn't going to get anywhere. 'Fine. We might as well.'
Skandar watched while he kicked dirt over the fire to put it out and then scattered the ashes as far as he could. He had left his sword leaning against a tree, and now he picked it up and strapped it to his back, making sure it was secure. Once he'd checked the campsite for anything that might have been left behind, he approached the griffin as slowly and respectfully as he could.
'Can I get on?' he asked.
Skandar regarded him for a moment, then crouched low to the ground and waited. Arren climbed onto his back, being careful not to pull out any of his feathers, and settled down in the space between his neck and wings. It had taken a lot of persuasion to get the griffin to agree to this; to begin with Arren had had to put up with being carried in Skandar's claws like prey. In the end, though, he'd explained to Skandar that carrying him on his back would both let him fly faster and leave his talons free. Riding a griffin was harder without tack; Arren leant back as Skandar straightened up, and then put his arms around the griffin's neck and held on as tightly as he dared. Skandar made a short, rough dash across the clearing and then leapt, his wings opening wide. They beat hard at the air, lifting the pair of them in a brief and unstable prelude to true flight before he found his balance and settled into a glide.
Arren relaxed his grip and sat back a little. Riding a griffin wasn't as easy as it looked; human beings were heavy, and griffins weren't built to carry large burdens over long distances. Making a sudden move or leaning too far in any direction could unbalance a griffin in flight, and that could have all kinds of unpleasant consequences, from making the griffin lose control and fall or collide with something, to simply causing it to become angry and refuse to carry such an inept rider any further. Fortunately, Arren had been trained and was fairly competent in the air. And over the last few months he had had a great deal of practice.
The sun was well up by now, and as Skandar flew high over the treetops, its light reflected off the silver feathers that covered his front half. He was not all black; no griffin was entirely one colour. But his furred hindquarters were: Arren had noticed that even the pads on his back paws were black. The rudder of feathers on the end of his tail was white, and his wings were mottled with black, silver and white. His scaly front legs and his beak were black, and so were the two pointed tufts of feather that grew over his ears, but the feathers on his neck and chest were silver. Arren had never seen or heard of a griffin with this sort of colouration; silver was uncommon though not unheard of, but as far as he knew there had never been a black griffin anywhere.
When they had first met, Skandar's feathers had been thick and strong and his fur glossy with health. But the time he had spent caged behind the Arena had changed that. Now there were two rings of pale, weak scales on his forelegsscars left by the manacles he had wornand there was a patch on his neck where the feathers had not yet finished regrowing after the collar had rubbed them away. And there were scars and bald patches on his hindquarters and chips in his beak, relics of his many fights against both humans and griffins.
One of them had been against Arren himself.
Skandar's condition made Arren feel slightly ashamed, but he knew that he, too, was far from a picture of health and perfection.
At twenty years oldhe had celebrated his last birthday in prisonhe was tall and lean, almost gaunt. He'd always been thin, but months of poor and sporadic food supply had made him even thinner. His face was pale and angular, with a raised, twisted scar on one cheek that looked almost like a tear track. He had curly black hair that had grown long and wild and permanently tangledmuch to his dismayand he had a pointed beard, which had also become unkempt and needed trimming. His eyes, too, were blackcold and glittering and waryand the ragged robe that was his only garment had once been black as well, though now it was stained and grubby. It had no collar, and thus there was nothing to hide the deep, ugly scars on his neck. There were dozens of them, making a ring clear around it, like a necklace. It looked as if he had been stabbed repeatedly with a dozen small daggers.
Arren rubbed the scars without thinking. He hadn't seen another human in a very long time; neither of them dared go too close to inhabited areas. The trouble was that he was too recognisable, even on his own. Northerners were fairly common in Cymria, but not Northerners like him. No-one would look twice at a Northerner under normal circumstances; after all, slaves were hardly worth looking at. But a free Northernerone without a collar or a brandwould attract attention straight away. Even if he managed to go on his way without being harassed, people would remember him. And then they would tell other people, and sooner or later a griffiner would hear about the wild-looking Northerner with the scar on his face.
By now they all must know that he was a wanted man. The different griffiner-owned city states were not unified by a single ruler, but they were allies. Capturing and handing over a fugitive would be an excellent way to foster good relations with a neighbour, and no Master or Mistress of an Eyrie anywhere in the country would want to be discovered harbouring someone who had committed his crimes. Stealing a griffin chick was enough to warrant an immediate death sentence, but murdering a griffiner was a hundred times worse.
Arren knew perfectly well that if he was ever caught he would be hideously punished, most likely tortured to death. Unspeakable things had happened to the few people found guilty of killing a griffiner. They had been burned at the stake, buried alive, starved to death, cut up and fed a piece at a time to vengeful griffinspunishments that would never be meted out to any criminal but the very worst and most hated of all.
Why am I afraid? he thought, and not for the first time. Why should any of that scare me? I'm already dead.
But he knew why. He could still be hurt. He could still feel pain. And if those things happened to him…
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