Arren and the Master of Trade

Arren arrived at the home of the Master of Trade in a bouyant mood. His arm ached from the tattooing, but by now the pain had given him the rush of euphoria that pain sometimes does, and nothing could dull his excitement. He had his tattoo and a new outfit, Eluna was by his side, and his greatest desire was in his grasp.

He was on top of the world.

The Master of Trade’s new home was on the outskirts of the city, built on the wooden platform that jutted out from the edge of the mountaintop. Like all houses on the outskirts it was lightly built, to avoid putting too much strain on the platform. It was wooden and had a thatched roof, and was much smaller than he had expected.

He was surprised, and a little disappointed. True, Lord Cyric had been banished from the Eyrie in disgrace, but surely even a former griffiner would have a bigger house than this.

Arren shrugged the doubt off quickly. It didn’t matter how big the house was.

He looked to Eluna before they reached the door. ‘Are you ready?’

The white griffin lifted a wing. ‘If you are. Time to meet your new master.’

‘I suppose.’ Arren braced himself, and knocked on the door.

No answer.

He knocked again.

Finally the door creaked open. A face on the other side snarled at him. ‘Get lost.’

The door slammed shut.

Arren had been expecting something like this. He knocked on the door a third time, and when it didn’t open he called out. ‘I’m not going away, my Lord.’


‘Oh, burn it,’ Arren muttered, and opened the door.

The house had only one room – large enough for a griffin to move about, but only just. The roof had wooden beams under the thatch, and the room itself had very little furniture – a table, one chair, a few cupboards and a narrow bed. There wasn’t even a stove.

Lord Cyric was sitting at the table with some papers in front of him, but he didn’t look like he was working. He was looking straight at Arren, narrow-eyed.

Wanting to give a good impression, Arren bowed. ‘Good afternoon, my Lord. I’m Arren Cardockson and this is Eluna.’

Cyric grunted, by way of answer.

Arren moved aside to let Eluna in, and closed the door behind her. ‘We understand you need an apprentice,’ he continued.

‘I told you to go away, blackrobe,’ Cyric growled.

Arren ignored him, even though the word hurt as much as it always did. ‘You need an apprentice,’ he repeated. ‘I’m your man.’

Man,’ Cyric repeated. ‘You’re no man. You’re a boy. A blackrobe boy who thinks he’s a griffiner.’

Arren took a step closer. ‘You can insult me all you like, old man, but I’m on to you. You lost your old apprentice, and nobody else is going to step forward. Do whatever you want; it won’t change a thing. I’m your only option and you know it.’

Cyric tensed. ‘I’ll die before I train the likes of you.’

‘You’ll die after you’ve trained the likes of me,’ Arren corrected.

‘Go away, boy. I mean it.’

Arren glanced around the room, and sat on a crate. Eluna spotted an archway leading into a nesting chamber, and went through it. Both humans heard the rustling as she settled in.

Arren nodded in satisfaction. ‘We’re not leaving, my Lord. That is, we’re not leaving, Master.’

‘Listen to me, boy,’ said Cyric. ‘The only way you’re staying is to clean my clothes and make my food.’

‘I’ll do that for you, sure,’ said Arren. ‘I’ll write out documents and do the numbers as well. I’ll even read to you if your eyes aren’t so good. And I’m sure Eluna will carry you if you ask. She’s very generous.’

A gleam showed in Cyric’s eye. ‘Hmph. Been a long time since I had a blackrobe to do the laundry.’

‘I’m here as your apprentice,’ Arren said sharply. ‘Not your slave.’

‘Call it what you want. You do the work I give you, and you can stay.’


‘And I’m not paying you.’

Arren hesitated for the fraction of a second, before he nodded. ‘Pay us in food. That’s enough.’

Cyric stood up. Close to he looked even older than Arren had thought, and much more fragile. He was shrivelled, his skin browned with age, though his hair had turned pure white. Even his eyes looked pale. Next to the pale-skinned, black-haired Arren, he looked like a mirror opposite to the young man who faced him. ‘Do the work the way I want and you’ll be fed. And don’t you dare talk back to me. You’ll call me “master” or “sir”. I kept plenty of your sort back in the day. I didn’t take cheek back then and I won’t take it now. Any of your rudeness and you’ll be sorry.’

‘I’m sure I can manage that,’ Arren said in his most icily polite voice. ‘Sir.’

Cyric looked at him for a moment. Then he crossed to a cupboard and opened it. He brought out a metal collar, hinged and hanging open. The inside was lined with tiny spikes.

Clearly, it was meant to fit around a human neck.

‘Do you know what this is, boy?’

Arren looked at it cautiously. ‘I don’t think so.’

Cyric grinned, showing grey teeth. ‘Your parents wore one each once.’ He ran his thumb over the spikes. ‘Didn’t you ever wonder where they got the scars?’

‘Holy gods,’ Arren mumbled.

‘Never seen one before?’ Cyric flexed the collar, bending the hinge. ‘Think you’re so damned special, don’t you? Uncollared, with some damn-fool griffin following you about. The sun just shines out of your arse, doesn’t it, boy? Then let me tell you this. I don’t want you here and I never did. That smug bastard Rannagon might have dumped you on me, but I’m not going to lie down and accept it, and I swear if you give me an excuse, you’re going to wear this.’ His grin widened, madly. ‘Once the collar goes on, it never comes off. The locking mechanism is unbreakable. I still know people over Wylam way, and others in the city who’d be happy to help. No-one would miss you.’

‘That’s not funny,’ Arren said, very quietly.

Cyric sniffed. ‘I don’t joke. Do we have an understanding?’

‘You can’t do that. You’d be arrested. But only after Eluna killed you.’

‘Don’t be so sure about that, boy. I still have relatives in the Eyrie. Friends. What do you have?’ the old man snorted, and put the collar away. ‘You’ve had your warning. Keep me happy, you’ll be fed. Make me angry… and there’s not one single blacksmith in the city who could take that collar off your neck. Understand?’

He’s mad, Arren thought.

He bowed. ‘Understood, master.’

‘Good. Now make me something to eat. There’s food in the cupboards.’

Arren set to work without complaint. He didn’t know much about preparing food, but he did his best, and Cyric accepted the results grudgingly but without complaint. He glared when Arren made another helping for himself, but said nothing until after they’d eaten.

‘Sort through this lot.’ He indicated the stack of papers on the table. ‘Put it all in order, neaten it up, do the sums.’

‘Yes, master.’ Cyric was still occupying the only chair and didn’t look about to give it up, so Arren stood up to work. When that proved too uncomfortable, he knelt instead. Cyric cackled at that and pushed over a reed stylus and pot of ink.

It took Arren the rest of the afternoon to finish. Cyric did nothing in that time other than sit and watch, periodically getting up to wander around the room with no particular purpose. It was obvious that he wasn’t going to offer any help or even give any further instructions, and he only snickered when asked.

Refusing to be defeated, Arren studied the documents as he sorted through them and deduced what he could from them. They appeared to be records of payments received from various traders around the city. Taxes, maybe?

He added together the amounts listed, writing in the final numbers neatly at the bottom of each page. It was all basic enough; he’d handled official documents before, and his time working for the Eyrie treasurer had made him good with numbers.

‘You can sleep in there,’ Cyric said when night came, indicating the entrance to the nest.

Arren had been dreading the prospect of sleeping in the same room as the old man. He shuffled gratefully off to join Eluna.

The nesting room had no furniture aside from a wooden trough. Musty-smelling straw was piled on the floor, and Eluna had arranged it into a nest for herself.

‘I am hungry,’ she said the moment Arren appeared. ‘Where is my food?’

‘Oh, right. I’ll go and ask.’ Arren turned back to the exit. ‘Eluna needs food. Do you have any?’

Cyric raised an eyebrow. ‘You ate it all, boy.’

Arren bit back an angry response. ‘I’ll go and get some then, if I can have some money.’

‘I already said I’m not paying you,’ said Cyric.

‘But Eluna has to eat,’ Arren protested.

‘Not my problem. You’re the one who should pay for the fodder.’

‘How can I do that when you’re not giving me any money?’

Cyric shrugged. ‘Go and catch a dog, then.’

Arren’s fists clenched. ‘Fine… master.’

Fortunately – if you could call it that – this wasn’t the first time Arren had found himself unable to buy food for Eluna. Catching stray dogs was a last resort, but he’d been forced to do just that more than once and by now he knew the best places to look.

He sought out a rubbish heap near a butcher’s shop, and pocketed some meat scraps. One of those was enough to lure a half-bald mongrel within arm’s length, with some patience. The moment it was in reach Arren grabbed it by the ear and slit its throat.

He carried the twitching corpse back, careful not to get blood on his new tunic. Ignoring Cyric’s smirk, he took it in to Eluna.

‘This is all?’ She looked disappointed rather than angry.

‘I’m sorry,’ he told her. ‘Lord Cyric didn’t have anything and all the stalls were shut.’

‘Meat is meat,’ she said, and hooked the dog toward her. ‘I shall survive. Is your new master kind?’

‘No. It’s just like how Rannagon said.’ Arren spoke very quietly, leaning in toward her ear. ‘He’s an old bitter lunatic, Eluna, and that’s the truth. He’s going to do everything to make life hard for us. But he still has to keep us. All we have to do is outlast him.’

‘We have lasted this long,’ said Eluna. ‘And in far less comfort, many times. We shall survive.’

‘I hope so,’ said Arren. He sat down, leaning on her flank. ‘You didn’t hear some of the things he said. He’s a madman. And he hates me.’

Eluna nudged him with her beak. ‘Do not be afraid. I am here to protect you.’

‘I know,’ Arren stroked her head. ‘That’s the only reason why I didn’t walk straight out again.’

‘I am proud of what you have done,’ said Eluna. ‘Be strong, Arren, and soon we shall have all we deserve.’

‘Yes.’ He smiled, and felt stronger. ‘We’ll do it. Together. Just how we always have.’

‘Together,’ Eluna agreed.




Two years later, Bran sat in the Red Rat and waited for his friend.

The tavern had grown bigger since the two of them had begun visiting, and busier. Tonight a little group of musicians had come and were entertaining the drinkers in exchange for free drinks. Bran could just pick out the different instruments – a drum, a harp and two bone flutes of different sizes. He didn’t know what they were called. They were playing an up-tempo tune called The Farmer’s Wife. A few people were singing along.

Bran finished his beer, and looked up in time to see Arren come in. He waved to him and watched him approach, weaving easily through the crowd. He was alone.

Bran stood up when his friend was close. ‘There yeh are, yeh curly-haired loon. Thought I was gonna end up doin’ all the drinking without yeh!’

‘I see you’ve already started,’ Arren said with a smile.

‘Just a half. Sit tight an’ I’ll go get us some more. Where’s Eluna?’

‘She’s not feeling well at the moment. Doesn’t like it much here anyway. D’you need a hand?’

‘No, go on an’ sit down. I’ll be back in a tick.’ Bran headed off toward the bar.

When he returned with the drinks, he pushed one toward Arren. ‘Get that down yeh.’

Arren took it gratefully, and fished in his pocket. ‘How much was it?’

Bran waved it away. ‘Don’t even think about it, mate. You ain’t payin’ for a thing. Not on yer birthday.’

‘And there was me thinking you’d forgotten!’ Arren laughed. ‘Cheers.’

The mugs clinked together, and the two men drank.

‘So, how’ve yeh been?’ Bran asked.

‘Oh, you know. Same as usual.’ Arren took another mouthful of beer.

Bran watched him with a frown. Arren had grown tall, shooting upward until he was a head higher than Bran, who was already big as it was. But unlike his bulky friend Arren was lanky, long-limbed as Northerners generally were.

Tonight he looked tired, and the small beard he’d grown didn’t quite cover a dark bruise on his jaw.

‘What happened to you?’ Bran asked. ‘Get in a fight?’

‘Hm? What? Oh, this?’ Arren touched it. ‘No, nothing like that. Just walked into a door.’

‘That so?’ Bran drank some more. ‘Must’ve hurt somethin’ fierce.’

Arren rolled his eyes. ‘You have no idea. Anyway, what have you been up to?’

‘Oh, this an’ that. Busted a theif last night. Bastard was climbin’ through a window, an’ when I grabbed him-,’

‘Wait, wait – let me guess. He lost his key.’

Bran laughed loudly. ‘That’s the one! By Gryphus, if I had an oblong for every time…’

Arren grinned. ‘Is that all?’

‘Just about. On patrol every night an’ some mornings too. They had me on guard duty in the prison district last week, too.’

‘Really? I’ve always wondered what it’s like in there.’

‘I’ll tell yeh then,’ Bran said solemnly. ‘It’s so boring yeh couldn’t imagine.’ He took another drink, as if that settled it.

‘That’s all? Come on, spill it.’ Arren poked him. ‘How many dangerous criminals did you have to wrestle into submission? C’mon, you must’ve foiled at least one escape.’

‘No an’ no,’ said Bran. ‘Truth is, guardin’s mostly just standin’ there or walkin’ back an’ forth, an’ lookin’ mean.’

‘Hah, well, you’re a natural at that anyway. How many prisoners were there?’

‘Fair few. Most of ’em was just the normal scum, thieves an’ smugglers an’ the like.’

‘No darstardly traitors, eh?’

‘Nah. They keep that sort under the Eyrie,’ said Bran. ‘Wouldn’t want anything t’do with it anyway. Never seen an execution yet, an’ don’t plan to. I’ll tell yeh what the real cushy job is, though.’

‘Oh yes?’

‘Workin’ at the Arena,’ said Bran. ‘See, when there’s a show on they need some lads t’keep the crowd in order, make sure people don’t start throwin’ things down in the pit an’ so on. I’ve met a bunch of guards who’ve worked there, an’ they said it’s great. Free food from the vendors, an’ yeh get t’watch the show without payin’. Come to that, yeh get paid t’see it. Crowd doesn’t usually get outta hand either. Just bein’ there’s usually enough.’

‘The Arena, eh?’

‘Yeah, yeh been?’

‘No,’ said Arren. ‘Griffiners don’t usually visit.’

‘There yeh go, puttin’ on airs again.’ Bran finished his drink. ‘Anyone’d think yeh were some kinda noble or somethin’.’

‘Yeah, imagine that.’ Arren rolled his eyes.

‘Drink up,’ Bran advised. ‘I’m ready for the next round.’

‘Right, right.’ Arren gulped down the last of his beer.

Bran fetched the next round with incredible speed, and the two of them got down to the serious matter of drinking.

‘Oh yeah,’ Bran said, several pints later. ‘Nearly forgot!’

Arren squinted. ‘Forgot what?’

‘Finna’s gettin’ married.’

‘Really? To who?’

‘One of our lads from the next guard tower over. Got her head full of ideas about bein’ in love an’ whatnot. Still, she’s gonna get a good life. Husband with a steady job an’ all that.’

‘Good for her. When’s the wedding?’

‘Midsummer day,’ said Bran. ‘Lucky day for it. Everyone’s comin’ – aunts, uncles, cousins, ole Granny Redguard, she never misses a wedding. You’re invited too, if yeh want t’come along. There’ll be free food an’ that.’

‘I’d love to,’ said Arren. ‘Sounds like it’ll be a big event. Where’s it going to be?’

‘In the Temple,’ said Bran. ‘Can yeh believe that? They paid out for a Temple wedding! I got no idea where they found the money for that.’

‘The Temple?’ Arren repeated.

‘Yeah, the Temple. Big building. Got a dome. Right near the Eyrie. The Temple. Yeh can’t miss it.’

Arren sighed. ‘I can’t come, then. Sorry.’

‘What? Why not?’

‘I’m not allowed in the Temple. Didn’t I tell you?’

‘No.’ Bran looked puzzled. ‘Why? What’d yeh do?’

‘Nothing.’ Arren finished his drink.

‘I don’t get it,’ said Bran. ‘Why’d they go an’ do that?’

‘I’m a bloody Northerner, Bran, that’s why,’ Arren snapped. ‘Use your head.’

Bran actually started at the anger in his voice. ‘Damn. I’m sorry, mate. I shoulda realised. Don’t worry about it, anyway,’ he added. ‘It’s just a borin’ ceremony. The real fun’s afterwards, an’ that ain’t in the Temple, it’s at Granny Redguard’s house. Plenty of room.’

Arren calmed down. ‘All right, then. Sorry. I shouldn’t have shouted.’

‘Never mind. I’ll get us another drink.’

‘Maybe just one more,’ said Arren. ‘And then I should get back to Eluna.’




Four drinks later, Bran slumped in his seat. ‘How’s it goin’ with that master’ve yours? Yeh ain’t said… said much about him really.’

‘Oh. Him.’ Arren peered stupidly at him.

‘Yeah. S’he teachin’ yeh stuff?’

‘I’m learning stuff,’ Arren nodded. ‘And stuff.’ He’d drunk enough at this point that his refined speech patterns had more or less slipped away. He hiccuped. ‘And stuff. Mostly I just learn by doing it. You know?’

‘Like what?’

‘I do the papers. Paperwork.’ Arren wiped his nose on his hand. ‘Numbers and things. Cyric’s eyes are bad. Getting worse.’

‘That all, then?’ said Bran. ‘Just papers?’

‘We go around. Look at… shops. Stalls and things. Make sure everyone’s followin’ the rules. People come see us, complain about things. Prices, quality. I do it all right. Cyric doesn’t care much. Lost his griffin, see? Can’t live in the Eyrie. Doesn’t like being stuck out here, with me.’ Arren sniggered. ‘He was in the Council when I was a boy, he said I couldn’t be a griffiner. Said they should throw me out. Look at me now. Look at him. Stuck with a bloody blackrobe. And he knows, knows one day I’ll be Master of Trade. He can’t stand it. Stupid old bastard. He’s lost, see? Lost, lost, lost. Doesn’t matter what he does. I just wish he’d die.’

Bran had a better head for beer, and he managed to shake the effects off slightly. ‘Yeh gotta hope he trains yeh first. Doesn’t he have t’make yeh Master before he dies or somethin’?’

‘Happens like that sometimes,’ Arren slurred. ‘Master trains someone. Retires when he’s ready, apprentice takes over. But there’s this other thing, see? Other law. Rannagon told me. Cyric’s old. Lost his apprentice. If he dies, I’m Master. Apprentice takes over straight away.’

‘Oh.’ Bran had already lost interest.

‘I just wish he’d die,’ Arren blurted. ‘Wish, wish, wish it every day. Every night. All the time.’

‘Don’t like him, huh?’ Bran managed.

‘No.’ Arren thumped his head onto the table. ‘I hate him. Hate him ’cause he hates me. He won’t feed Eluna. Makes me catch dogs. Doesn’t give me any money.’ He fumbled in his pocket, and spilled a few silver oblong on the table. ‘Only got that by stealing.’

‘Gryphus, I didn’t know he was that bad to yeh,’ said Bran.

‘He wants me gone,’ said Arren. ‘I won’t go. Sometimes I think he’d kill me if Eluna didn’t scare him.’

Not even the six pints swirling around through Bran’s system could dull the shock. ‘Yeh don’t really think he’d do that, do yeh?’

Arren looked up, red-eyed from drinking. ‘He hits me sometimes. When Eluna’s not looking. Gave me this bruise here.’

Bran swore. ‘That son of a bitch! Why didn’t yeh tell someone?’

‘Doesn’t matter,’ Arren said briskly. ‘He’s not strong enough. Can’t really hurt me. And I don’t ever give up, ’cause I know it’s the only way.’

‘Leave,’ said Bran. ‘Don’t put up with it. Yeh gonna get yerself killed.’


‘Arren! C’mon, listen! What are yeh, mad? No-one deserves that. You got a choice. Don’t let him keep doin’ that to yeh.’

‘I have to!’ Arren actually yelled the words. ‘I have to, Bran. There is no choice. Don’t you understand? This is my last chance. If I leave, then I’ll never be a master. I’ll never be anything. Eluna will leave me. And – I – would – be – nothing.’

There was something in the way he said this, something hard and angry – and worse, despairing – that frightened Bran.

‘All right, then,’ he said, in a rather weak voice. ‘But be careful.’

Arren smiled crookedly at him. ‘I’m a survivor, Bran. Always have been. That old bastard won’t get the better of me.’




It was late by the time Arren got home, but Cyric still managed to intercept him before he could sneak into Eluna’s nest.

‘You’re drunk, boy,’ he said almost instantly.

‘That’s right,’ Arren said, with a kind of reckless good cheer. ‘Didn’t mean to wake you up, sir.’

‘What’s the occasion?’ Cyric sniffed.

‘I just turned sixteen.’ Arren pushed past him into the house. ‘Goodnight.’

He went into the nesting room, or the stable as he thought of it, where he and Eluna lived. She was asleep in a heap of straw. His hammock was strung up in a corner where he kept his few possessions. He stumbled toward it, trying his hardest not to wake Eluna.

Straw rustled as the white griffin raised her head. ‘I waited for you.’

Arren knelt by her. ‘You didn’t have to. Are you feeling better?’

‘I am not eating properly,’ she said bluntly. ‘I feel weakened.’

Arren’s heart ached. ‘You’ll be all right. I’ll do whatever I have to – get you better food. Do you need medicine?’

‘Only food,’ she said. ‘And rest. Do not let me become ill, Arren. I have protected you. Use your magic to do the same for me.’

‘Magic?’ he was puzzled. ‘Humans don’t have magic, Eluna.’

She chirped softly. ‘All humans have magic. Powerful magic. That is why my kind has chosen to live beside you.’

‘What magic?’ said Arren. ‘I don’t understand.’

‘Your cunning is your magic,’ said Eluna. ‘And yours is strong, Arren.’

‘I’ll never be as strong as you.’

‘You do not need to be,’ said Eluna. ‘You have me. Sleep now.’

Arren climbed into his hammock – not an easy task – and snuggled down. His head was spinning. He wished he hadn’t drunk so much. He would need to be alert the next day. A hangover wouldn’t help him feed Eluna, or protect him from Cyric’s petty revenge. And there would be one, whatever it was. There always was.




Two days passed, and all was calm. Cyric kept Arren hard at work as always, doing paperwork and running errands. The days were longer and the food worse, and the sarcasm nastier, but the vindictive little pranks Arren was used to by now didn’t come. No rotten food he was forced to eat. No “accidental” blow to the face.

After a while Arren began to relax. He worked diligently and avoided saying anything rude. Best not to push it.

Cyric said nothing about his apprentice’s bout of drunkeness, which was unusual. He seemed to be actively ignoring the fact that it had happened. Normally he would have been giving dark hints about how all blackrobes turned into alchoholics at the slightest opportunity, or suggesting that Arren was consorting with drunks and criminals. Again.

But there was nothing.

Arren transferred his worries to Eluna instead. The white griffin seemed listless, and slept more than usual. Some of her feathers had fallen out. He had resorted to visiting the Hatchery and begging some goat meat from Roland, but she hadn’t shown much enthusiasm over it. She drank a lot of water, but her appetite was fading.

Arren didn’t like it at all.

Emboldened by his master’s apparent generosity, he turned to him for advice.

‘I think Eluna’s not well, sir. She’s not eating. She sleeps all the time.’

‘Go and see the healer, then,’ said Cyric.

‘That’s what Eluna wants. But she’ll want paying, won’t she?’

‘That’s not my concern,’ said Cyric. ‘Eluna’s your griffin. Pay for medicine for her, or don’t; it’s up to you.’

‘Well,’ Arren mumbled. ‘I’m sure she’ll get better on her own. Roland says she just needs food and rest.’

‘Take the old fool’s advice, then. And get back to work.’

But Eluna did not improve. She grew more and more listless, eventually refusing to leave her nest at all. A sickly sweet smell began to hang around her coat, and Arren didn’t like it at all.

‘I’ll go and see Roland,’ he told her. ‘He can help us.’

‘Go,’ Eluna commanded. ‘Tell him he must come at once.’

Arren nodded briefly and left the room.

Cyric was waiting for him. ‘Get over here, boy.’

‘Sir. I need permission to-,’

‘Never mind that. There’s an errand for you.’

Arren made a noise that was half sigh, half exasperated growl. ‘What is it, sir?’

Cyric waved a note at him. ‘There’s a blacksmith on Tongue Street who’s behind on his license payments. He’s just sent a message saying he’s got the money, and the fastest way to get it is for you to go fetch it. Get going.’

Arren shrugged it off. This was the perfect excuse to leave, and he could visit Roland on the way back. ‘Yes, sir. Which blacksmith is it?’

‘Tongue Street,’ Cyric repeated. ‘There’s a big sign shaped like an anvil.’

‘Got it. How much money should he give me?’

Arren was used to asking this by now. It was Cyric’s favourite trick to send him to collect money, then pretend he had stolen some of it on the way back. Making him give the exact amount put a stop to that easily enough.

The old man consulted the note. ‘Thirty oblong. And I’ll be counting it twice when you get back.’

‘I’d be happy to help, sir.’ Arren bowed and made for the door.

‘If you’re back late, you can forget eating anything until tomorrow!’ Cyric yelled after him.

Arren ignored the threat. He’d gotten very good at stealing food from stalls in the market district by now. Keeping a secret stash was the best way to avoid Cyric’s attempts at starving him.

He knew where Tongue Street was – right near the market district, where the craftspeople lived. There were at least three blacksmiths on it, though, so having some idea of what the one he was after looked like was helpful. He found it without much trouble, and the owner was quick to spot him.

‘There y’are. Master of Trade sent ya, right?’ the man was already reaching into his pocket.

‘That’s right. I’m here to collect the amount you promised.’

The blacksmith handed it over. ‘Tell him I’m sorry for bein’ late. Got robbed last week. It won’t happen again.’

‘Not a problem.’ Arren took the small leather bag, and quickly checked the contents. It looked about right, so he nodded politely, and fished in his pocket for a piece of paper. It was a document acknowledging that the blacksmith had paid the fees, and Arren signed it and handed it over. ‘Keep this handy. Just in case.’

The man almost certainly couldn’t read, but he accepted the scrap with a smile. ‘Thanks, boy.’

Arren nodded politely and headed off for the Hatchery.

As he left Tongue Street, he began to feel vaguely uneasy. Something wasn’t quite right, though he couldn’t put his finger on it. He glanced over his shoulder. Everthing looked fine.

Arren touched the dagger he carried everywhere, and pushed the uncertainty away. He had to get to the Hatchery and back before dark. The nighttime streets of Eagleholm weren’t a good place to be, especially alone and in this part of the city.

He took a shortcut off Tongue Street, through a network of alleyways around some warehouses. It was a quiet route; the only people who often came here were workers coming to carry goods in and out. Arren hoped he wouldn’t run into any of them.

There was no-one about. But once again he had an uncomfortable feeling of being watched.

He sped up, and that was when he heard the footsteps. He drew his dagger and kept going, all senses alert.

The footsteps kept coming. They were getting closer. Arren turned sharply, and saw someone coming straight toward him. Their face was covered.

Fear prickled at him. He opened his mouth to warn the stranger away, and then someone grabbed him from behind.


A quick blow to his wrist knocked the dagger away, and the next moment a bag had been pulled over his head and shoulders. He lurched away from his attackers, but it was already too late; two pairs of hands took hold of him, twisting his arms behind his back. They dragged him away, and when he fought back one thumped him in the stomach, winding him.

They half-pushed, half-carried him, taking him who-knew-where – more than once he was bashed against a wall, and what felt like a doorway. The bag was suffocating; he was light-headed from both panic and lack of air, and by the time the journey ended he was close to fainting.

A kick to the back of his knees knocked him down, and the kidnappers dragged him against a post and tied him to it by the wrists and waist.

Then, just like that, they were gone. Somewhere a door slammed shut.

Arren gagged under the bag. It kept working its way into his mouth when he tried to breathe. He bit it; it tasted of hemp and stale wheat.

Something was moving just behind him. Something alive!

His first thought was that it must be some kind of animal. Had they tied him up here to be torn to pieces? Was that it, some kind of evil game?

Panic-stricken, he wriggled his shoulders and wrenched this way and that, turning his body in any direction possible. The ropes didn’t have any give in them, but the sack moved. Desperate to see, gasping for breath, Arren gradually worked it up over his shoulders. He jerked his head, nodding fiercely until the sack finally came off and landed in his lap.

Gah!’ Arren sucked in air and spat frantically, trying to get the taste out of his mouth. He blinked, forcing his eyes to refocus, expecting to see his captors, or something worse.

All he saw was the side of a crate. It was wooden, and featured nothing more menacing than a painted label that said WITHYPOOL.

I’m in a warehouse, he realised.

‘What the blazes?’ he said aloud. The something behind him moved again, and his heart jerked again. ‘Argh! For gods’ sakes, where am I?’

‘Hello?’ said a small voice from behind. It was high and shaky.

Arren tried to turn his head. ‘Who’s that?’

‘Gern,’ said the voice. ‘I’m Gern.’

‘I see. Why are you behind me?’

‘We’re tied together,’ said the voice.

Arren took a moment to process this. ‘Oh dear,’ he said eventually.

Gern let out a sob. ‘I want to go home!’

‘Trust me; I do too. Calm down, Gern, it’s all right. I’ll see what I can do.’

‘All right.’ The voice obviously belonged to a boy much younger than Arren. ‘Who are you?’

‘My name’s Arren Cardockson. I live near the markets. How about you?’

‘I’m Gern Tailor. They call me that ’cause my dad’s a tailor. I live near the markets too, with my mum an’ my sisters.’ He sounded a bit calmer now.

‘How did you get here, Gern?’

The boy sniffed. ‘I was walking home, an’ some man just grabbed me an’ put a bag on my head. I thought they were gonna kill me.’

‘That’s what happened to me too,’ said Arren. ‘When did they get you?’

‘Yesterday, I think,’ said Gern.

Arren stared at the crate in front of him. ‘What is this? What do they want us for anyway?’

‘There’s others,’ Gern said unexpectedly.


‘Others,’ Gern repeated. ‘Tied up in here. I can’t see ’em ’cause there’s crates in the way, but I hear ’em sometimes. They’re all men. I hear them yelling about how they want to get out.’

Arren thought fast, but the conclusion was all too easy to reach. ‘Oh holy gods. I know what this is. Bran told me about it.’

‘Who’s Bran?’ Gern asked timidly.

‘A friend of mine. He works in the city guard.’ Arren closed his eyes. ‘At least it means they won’t kill us…’

‘Why are we here?’ said Gern. ‘D’you know, Arren? What’s going on? Are they gonna let us go?’

‘It’s smugglers,’ Arren said quickly. ‘They’re smugglers.’

‘But you can’t smuggle people!’ Gern wailed.

‘I’m afraid you can, Gern. You see, stealing goods and selling them cheap can make you a good profit, but selling people is even better. Or worse.’

‘But who’d buy us?’ said Gern.

Arren pictured himself on a shelf with a price tag, and almost wanted to laugh. ‘Amorani slave traders,’ he said. ‘Southerners can’t be enslaved here in Cymria, but in Amoran they can. They’ll put us on a ship and we’ll end up in a human market over in Instabahn or somewhere like that.’

‘And then what?’ Gern asked, in a very small voice.

‘I don’t really know. Mining, maybe, or building, or just serving the nobles.’ Arren gave a short, bitter laugh. ‘Not me, though. I can read and write. I must be worth a fortune.’

‘You can read?’  Gern seemed to forget his terror for a moment.

‘Yes. And unless we find a way out of here, I’ll be doing it in some palace in Nahkt before I’m much older. Tell me more about this place, Gern. Have they fed you?’

‘Just once. They didn’t untie me; someone just came in and poured some water down my mouth an’ then gave me some bread. I had to eat it hands free. I dropped most of it.’

‘Damn.’ Arren imagined himself getting a hand free and punching one of the kidnappers in the jaw. ‘How well are you tied? Is it loose anywhere?’

‘No. I keep on trying, but they check every time they check on us an’ tighten it up.’

‘So they come in here sometimes? How often?’

‘Dunno,’ said Gern, with a kind of hopelessness in his voice. ‘They’ve been in about five times since I got here. Never showed their faces or said anything once.’

‘Good strategy there,’ Arren muttered. ‘I’m impressed. Ugh, I can’t believe I just said that about someone who shoved my head in a potato sack.’

Gern giggled. ‘What’re we gonna do?’

‘Keep thinking,’ said Arren. ‘And work at these blasted ropes. Feel the ground and this post between us – see if you can find anything sharp. Even a splinter. What can you see from where you are, anyway?’

‘Crates,’ said Gern. ‘An’ a window, high up.’

‘Have you tried calling for help?’ Arren asked.

‘Plenty,’ said Gern. ‘They came in an’ hit me.’

‘Hrm,’ Arren grunted. ‘Probably not much point. These warehouses have thick walls. Not many people come here anyway.’

Gern whimpered. ‘I wish my dad was here.’

‘I wish Eluna was here,’ Arren muttered.


‘Never mind. Tell me more about yourself.’ Arren worked his hands back and forth, trying to slide the ropes off his wrists, and listened to Gern. The boy talked freely, obviously glad to have some company and grasping at any opportunity to think about something other than the hopeless situation they were in. He was thirteen, and wanted to be a guard when he got older. He loved going to the Arena, especially when the crowd rioted. It was so much fun, especially when the guards interfered. Gern admired the way they got everyone back under control, and how people did what they said. It was much better than being at home, with his five sisters bickering.

Arren suspected that living with such a big family was probably what had given Gern his love of authority. Being a guard would mean being listened to.

‘Well now,’ he said. ‘When we get out of here I’ll be sure to introduce you to Bran. He might just be able to help you join up.’

‘Really?’ Gern sounded very excited at the idea.

‘I think so. He’s already doing very well; he’s hoping to be a Captain one day.’

‘Wow! Bet if he was a Captain he’d be allowed to make me a guard too.’

‘Definitely,’ said Arren. ‘Bran’s been a guard all his life, you know. Or training to be one. His whole family have been guards for generations. His dad, his granddad, and his granddad – all the way back. They’ve been wearing the uniform so long they got the name Redguard.’

‘He’s a Redguard?’ Gern exclaimed. ‘I know about them! Everyone knows the Redguards are the best. I met old Captain Redguard once, and I told him how I wanted to be a guard, and he said-,’

Arren let the boy’s chatter wash over him. It was funny, really, to meet someone as driven in his own way as he himself was. Had he ever gone up to griffiners and filled their ears with blather about how he wanted to be just like them when he grew up?

Probably. In his own way.

A memory came back unexpectedly. I wish you were my father, Lord Rannagon.

He winced. ‘I can’t believe I said that.’

‘What?’ said Gern.

‘Nothing. So what else did the Captain tell you?’

‘He said how when I was older I could apply,’ said Gern. ‘There’s training and stuff first, though. He told me about his son, too, about how he joined up when he was old enough an’ how he’s going really well. That must be Bran!’

‘That’d be him all right,’ said Arren. He winced as his thumbnail bent on the post behind him. ‘Ow. He’s only got one son.’

‘The captain said his son’s really lucky. He said he knows the Blackrobe Griffiner. Really!’ Gern stopped for a moment. ‘Hey, does that mean you know him too Arren?’

Arren tried not to laugh. ‘Who, the Blackrobe Griffiner?’

‘Yeah! You know about him, right? Everyone knows. He’s a blackrobe who-,’

‘Yes, yes, I know,’ Arren cut him off.

‘Have you met him, then? If you know Bran…’

‘You could say that. Yes, I know him.’

‘Wow! What’s he like, Arren?’

‘Oh. Uh.’ Arren coughed, and did his best to sound serious. ‘He’s a nice man. Very clever. Good-looking, too. He works very hard and doesn’t mind if no-one says thankyou. He wants to be a master one day; that’s all he really cares about. That and his griffin, of course.’

‘Is he friendly, then?’

‘Mostly. He tries to be. He’s a bit shy, really. Oh, and vain. Very finicky about his clothes and his hair.’ Arren wrenched at the ropes. ‘Damn! I swear, if I get just one hand free I’m going to grab one of those bastards by the balls and pull them off.’

‘I hope you do,’ Gern said bitterly.

‘Wish me luck, then. Thank gods my hands are so narrow… I might just be in with a chance here.’ Arren twisted his right hand, ignoring the rope rubbing away at the skin.

‘Arren?’ said Gern.

‘Ouch. What?’

‘When we get out of here, could you… er… I mean, I just wanted to ask-,’

‘Go ahead,’ said Arren.

‘Can you introduce me to him?’ said Gern. ‘The Blackrobe Griffiner, I mean. I always wanted to meet a griffiner.’

‘If he’s still a griffiner by then,’ said Arren. ‘I’m sure he’d love to say hello. He doesn’t have as many friends as he’d like.’ He slumped back, panting. ‘It’s hopeless. Whoever tied these knots knew what they were doing.’

‘What’re we gonna do, then?’ Gern asked.

‘Wait,’ said Arren. ‘And see.’




Time dragged by and nothing changed. Arren kept up his attempts to free his hands, but without result. Behind him Gern talked on and off, telling stories about his life.

Arren was glad to have him there. If he’d been alone, he could well have given up much sooner than he did.

Eventually what little light was in the warehouse faded out as night came outside. Arren slept and woke again to see faint light coming through. Dawn. It brightened toward daylight, then dimmed again. No-one had come, and night was on its way once again.

Arren leaned against the post and put his head back, trying to make himself comfortable. Gern had gone quiet.

The silence gave Arren time to think.

What puzzled him was how he had been captured in the first place. Had the kidnappers been lying in wait, ready to pick off whoever came that way? Or had they been following him, keeping their distance until he was away from other people?

Had they been after anyone who crossed their path – or had they been after him?

Smuggling him out of the city and selling him off to Amoran would be an excellent way to get rid of him, cleaner and cheaper than assassination.

But who would want to get rid of him?

The answer was so obvious that the question scarcely needed to be asked in the first place.

Who else but Lord Cyric would want Arren gone? He’d been saying just that for the last two years. That and more than that.

Do what I say or you’ll go where blackrobes should go. Talk back to me one more time and you’re collared and gone. I know people. I’ll see you mining salt in Withypool for this, boy. I know people.

‘Holy gods,’ Arren muttered under his breath.

Could Cyric really have gone this far? But if so, then why now? Why not back then, when Arren first arrived on his doorstep? Why put up with it for two years?

Arren tried not to think of what Cyric might be doing to Eluna while he was gone.

Oh gods, what if he kills her?

He took a deep breath to calm himself down. Panicking now wouldn’t help her, or himself.

Or would it?

Arren began to think about Eluna, picturing her sick in her nest. He imagined Cyric, standing over her with a horrible intent look on his face. Maybe he would poison her. Yes, poison would be the easiest way. Some crushed snakeberry in her water, some wolf lichen in her meat.

Arren thought of her, gasping as the wolf lichen made her throat close and suffocated her, while he was here, tied up and unable to help her. He thought of a life spent in chains, being beaten and abused and forced to work until he dropped dead. He imagined his entire life, and Eluna’s, snatched away.

Fear bubbled up inside his chest. His throat tightened. His skin prickled.

He started to sweat.

Arren started to fight against the ropes with all his might, throwing himself forward until the ropes on his chest pulled hard and made his vision flash red. He threw himself from side to side, thrashing like a landed fish. Rage added itself to fear, and he started to shout at the top of his lungs.

Get – me – out – of – here! Come back here you sons of bitches, I’ll rip your faces off and wipe my arse with them! I’ll turn your skulls into drinking bowls and drink your blood out of them! I’ll cut your hearts out and use them to play pucky! I’ll – I’ll- argh!’

‘Arren!’ Gern was yelling at him. ‘Arren, what are you doing?’

‘Shout,’ Arren commanded. ‘Shout anything! It’s our only hope.’

‘Oh!’ Gern cleared his throat and joined in, and the two of them screamed insults and threats as loudly as possible. Elsewhere the other, unseen captives started to shout as well.

Meanwhile Arren fought on while he yelled. Sure enough, all the effort made him sweat more and more. His hands became slick and wet. It was all the help he needed. He folded his thumbs in, angled his body forward, and pulled hard.

His hands slid free.

Arren got them out from behind his back and rubbed his wrists, laughing out loud. ‘Ahahah! Yes! Now we’re getting somewhere! Gern, keep going!’

The shouting finally had the effect Arren had been hoping for. He quickly hid his hands behind his back as one of the kidnappers came running in.

‘Get over here, ditchweed, I’m gonna bite your throat out!’ Arren screamed at him.

The man came over and reached down to hit him. Instantly Arren grabbed him by the arm, pulled him downward and headbutted him square in the face.

The kidnapper went down. As he was struggling to get up, Arren pulled his legs back and slammed both boots into his head.

The kidnapper fell over and didn’t get up again.

‘Hah!’ Arren crowed. ‘Take that, you whore’s bastard! Nobody ties me up and gets away with it.’

‘Did you get him?’ Gern was saying. ‘Arren, did you get him? Is it over?’

‘I got him all right,’ said Arren. ‘Get ready, Gern, we’re getting out of here.’ He stood up by pushing his back against the post, and pushed the final rope down off his chest and over his legs. He stepped out of it, and took the opportunity to stamp on the unconscious kidnapper’s head.

Finally he turned and saw Gern for the first time. The boy was tied to another pillar just behind his, straining to look around.

‘Relax.’ Arren knelt and began to untie the knots around Gern’s wrists. They’d been pulled tight after all this time, but Arren’s slender fingers were just right for the job. He pulled the ropes away and helped Gern to his feet.

Gern turned out to be almost exactly what his voice had made Arren see in his head. He was short and skinny, and gawky, and his ears stuck out. But the enthusiasm in the way he spoke was written all over his face.

Gern looked Arren up and down. His eyes widened. ‘Holy Gryphus, you’re-,’

‘Handsome and heroic, I know.’ Arren grinned and held out a hand. ‘Arren Cardockson, the Blackrobe Griffiner. Pleased to meet you face-to-face at last.’

Gern didn’t take the hand. ‘You’re a griffiner! Why’d they grab you? Sir? Oh no, I should’ve – I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t mean-,’

‘Calm down, Gern. We can talk about this later. For now we’d better go and find a way out.’

‘What about those other poor people?’ said Gern. ‘We’ve got to let them go too!’

‘Of course we will. But first we should have some idea of where we are and where the door is. C’mon, help me with this scumbag.’

Together they dragged the kidnapper over to the nearest post and tied him up.

‘Let’s see how he likes it,’ Gern said fiercely.

‘He’ll like it even less when he’s in the Arena being eaten by wild griffins,’ said Arren. ‘Let’s go.’

They quickly set out to explore the warehouse. It was full of crates, and finding a way out wasn’t easy. They saw plenty of other prisoners, too, tied up in ones and twos around the place. Apparently the kidnappers didn’t want too many of them in one place.

Gern eventually found a wall, and they followed it until they found a door. It was locked and bolted from the outside.

‘No surprise,’ Arren sighed. ‘Let’s see what else we can find here…’

He went to the nearest crate and opened it. Inside were tightly packed bales of some dried plant.

‘What’s that?’ said Gern. ‘Hay?’

Arren motioned to him to step back. ‘Don’t get too close. You don’t want to breathe any of this in. My gods, there must be enough for a hundred people in there!’ he checked the next crate. It had even more bales inside. ‘How much of this stuff do they have? This place has a fortune stashed away!’

‘What is it, sir?’ said Gern.

‘It’s whiteleaf,’ Arren said briefly as they moved on to the next row of crates. ‘Illegal. Some people burn it and breathe the smoke. It used to be used in the Temples; people thought it gave you visions of Gryphus. Now they just use it to hurt themselves. It turns you violent if you use it too many times, you see. The Eyrie decided it was too dangerous and banned it. The only people you’ll get it from are smugglers. I should know; I confiscated a sackful last week. What we’ve seen in here would be worth thousands.’

‘I wonder what else they’ve got here?’ said Gern.

‘Let’s find out.’ Arren prised the lid off another crate. This one was quite small, and contained dozens of tiny stone bottles. ‘Hmm. Wonder what’s in these? Not very important, I suppose.’ He closed the crate and moved on.

They found all sorts of things in the warehouse – weapons, liquor, even griffin feathers and bones.

‘This,’ said Arren. ‘This is the find of the century. I don’t know who’s behind this, but I don’t even want to think about what the Eyrie’s going to do to them. Hanging won’t be the half of it. Ahah!’ he bent and picked up a piece of wire from the floor. ‘Just what I needed. Let’s go.’

They found the door again, watched by the silent, hopeful eyes of the prisoners. Arren fitted the wire into the keyhole and worked it around, frowning in concentration.

‘Are you picking the lock, sir?’ said Gern.

‘Trying. Keep a lookout for anyone coming, would you?’

‘Yes, sir.’

Arren was in the midst of picking the lock when something hit the door from the other side. The wire jolted out of the lock and landed on the floor. Arren scrabbled to pick it up again, swearing under his breath. The door rattled again, and again, harder.

Arren straightened up. ‘Is someone out there?’ he called. ‘For gods’ sakes, get this door open! People are being held prisoner in here!’

A pause, and then the thumping began again, harder and harder until the hinges broke. Arren skipped aside as the door toppled inward, and there was Bran, with two other guards, gasping for breath.

‘Bran! Thank gods you got here!’

‘Arren!’ Bran ran in. ‘There yeh are! What happened to yeh? What is this place?’

Arren dusted himself down. ‘As far as I can tell, it’s a smuggler’s storeplace. Whiteleaf, swords – all kinds of things. And people.’

Bran gaped at him. ‘People?

‘That’s right, sir!’ Gern piped up. ‘Me and Ar- Lord Arren were taken in here an’ tied up. There’s all these other people too. They were gonna sell us to Amoranis!’

Bran took all this in quickly. ‘Right.’ He turned to his fellow guards. ‘Go get the Captain, fast.’

‘We’ll show you where the others are,’ Arren said as the man sprinted off.

Bran clapped him on the back as they turned back inside. ‘It’s good t’see yeh again, mate. Yeh had us real worried there for a bit!’

‘I wasn’t feeling too happy myself,’ said Arren. ‘Oh, this is Gern. Gern, meet Branton Redguard. See? Just like I promised.’

‘Glad t’meet yeh, sonny,’ Bran said. ‘I see yeh’ve already met ole Arren here. Sorry he’s a nutter, but what can yeh do?’

Gern looked half-paralyzed with sheer excitement. ‘Lord Arren got me free. He was so clever! What he did was-,’

‘I sweated my way out,’ said Arren. ‘It’s a long story. Bran, how did you find us?’

They had reached the first of the prisoners. Bran drew a dagger and held it up. ‘Found this,’ he said. ‘Lyin’ in the street not far away.’ He knelt and used it to cut the ropes away. ‘There yeh go. Don’t worry, you two, the city guard’s gonna be here soon. More of us, I mean. Just go walk outside an’ my mate’ll help yeh out.’

‘So you found my dagger,’ said Arren. ‘Thanks for picking it up. I lost it when they got me. How far away was it?’

‘Not far,’ said Bran. ‘I knew about these bastards already. They’ve been grabbin’ people all over the place. Then when you went missin’, I had a hunch it was somethin’ t’do with them. That old bugger Cyric said he’d sent yeh over Tongue Street way, so I started there an’ scouted around ’till I found yer dagger. After that me an’ my mates went searchin’ through these warehouses an’ heard people shoutin’.’

‘Good work,’ said Arren. ‘You’ll be a hero for this. Even if it was just the whiteleaf they’d be giving you a medal. But with everything else… it’s unbelieveable. Oh, and thanks for helping me out of here.’

Bran grinned. ‘Any time, mate.’

They found the rest of the prisoners and set them free, and at least a dozen other guards arrived to help. Arren watched them searching through the crates while two of their colleagues hauled the still-unconscious kidnapper off to the prison district. If he was lucky, the man wouldn’t wake up again.

Someone else took Gern home, along with the other prisoners, once they’d been questioned. Gern waved to Arren as he left, and Arren smiled and nodded back.

Bran was in his element, ordering other guards around and reporting to his superiors at the same time. Arren wanted to stay and see what happened, but the urgent need to see Eluna intruded.

‘I’d better go home,’ he told Bran. ‘See you later, all right?’

‘Sure thing,’ Bran said distractedly.

‘You’ll make Captain for this,’ Arren said in an undertone. ‘I guarantee it.’

Bran grinned at him and gave him a thumbs-up as he left.




Arren almost ran home. His insides fluttered as he reached Cyric’s door and opened it without knocking.

The old man greeted him with a stare and a scowl. ‘Where in the world have you been?’

Arren ignored him and went straight on into the nest.

The smell hit him at once. ‘Oh gods…’

Eluna lay in her straw, unmoving. Her feathers were dirty and bedraggled and her head was turned on its side at an unnatural angle. Arren could see that she had dropped her dung where she lay. The room stank.

‘Eluna?’ Arren came closer. ‘Eluna? Please say something… please… oh gods, please don’t be dead…’

Eluna didn’t stir. But Arren realised he could hear her breathing. Slow, rasping breaths that gurgled in her chest.

He crouched by her head, touching the damp white feathers. ‘What did he do to you?’

Her eye opened slowly. ‘Arren.’

‘Did he hurt you?’ Arren asked.

She coughed. ‘No. He brought food. Talked kindly. He wanted… wanted…’

‘Wanted what?’

‘Wanted to be chosen.’ Her eye closed. ‘Too sick…’

Arren straightened up without another word, and walked into the next room.

‘Where have you been?’ Cyric demanded again. ‘How dare you run off while your griffin fills this place with her stinking mess?’

Arren didn’t hear any of it. He strode right up to the old man and punched him square in the jaw. Cyric fell into the table and only just managed to catch himself. He stared at Arren in utter bewilderment.

‘I owed you that one,’ Arren growled. ‘Several times over. Now you listen to me, you son of a bitch. Eluna needs a healer, now.

Cyric began to smile. ‘No.’

‘I’m not joking,’ said Arren. ‘Give me the money for a healer.’


Arren hit him again. ‘Give – me – the money!

Cyric spluttered. ‘Never.’

Arren grabbed him by the front of his tunic and lifted him to his feet. ‘Don’t you understand? She’s going to die! If you don’t get a healer here now, she will die!’

‘What do I care?’ said Cyric.

‘Do it or I’ll kill you,’ said Arren. ‘I swear I will.’

‘Do whatever you want, boy, but I won’t change my mind,’ said Cyric.

‘I mean it!’ Arren raised his fist. ‘I’ll kill you!’

The old man started to laugh a low, wheezing laugh. ‘You can’t do anything to me. I know I’m going to die. But I’ll die knowing you’ll never take my place. I’ll die knowing I took the Blackrobe Griffiner down with me.’

Arren let go of him. ‘I’ll go and tell the Eyrie what you’re doing.’

‘Do it, then,’ said Cyric. ‘They can’t stop me. I can do whatever I want with my money.’

‘But Lord Rannagon can stop you,’ said Arren. ‘And now, I’m going to go and tell him everything.’

‘If you leave, she dies,’ Cyric said.

Arren stopped. ‘What?’

‘Leave this house and she’ll be dead when you get back,’ the old man promised. ‘I’ll see to it.’

‘You’re lying.’ Arren turned toward the door.

‘Are you really willing to test me and find out?’ Cyric said, behind him. ‘Are you going to bet her life on it?’

Arren said nothing.

‘Turn around, boy,’ said Cyric. ‘Let go of that handle. You know you can’t do anything. But do what I say and she lives.’

Arren closed his eyes and tightened his grip on the doorhandle.

‘You leave, and she dies,’ Cyric repeated.

Very slowly, Arren let go of the handle and turned around.

‘That’s it,’ said Cyric. ‘Go and clean up that mess your pet left. I won’t put up with the stench any longer.’

Arren moved toward the nest entrance, but stopped. ‘What are you going to do?’ he whispered. ‘Are you going to make me sit here and watch her die?’

‘If you can’t heal her, then you’ll have to,’ said Cyric.

‘You can’d do this!’

‘Can’t I?’ Cyric sniffed. ‘Looks to me like I can. Get in there.’

Arren retreated into the nest, and let the foul smell envelop him. Inside Eluna was asleep again, or unconscious. Quietly Arren fetched a bucket and gathered up the dirtied straw, carrying it out onto the balcony to dump it over the edge. There was a heap of clean straw out there, and he hauled it inside and did his best to replace the litter. After some coaxing Eluna worked up the strength to move onto the new bedding, and Arren asked her to roll over so he could clean her talons. Her underside and the base of her tail were covered in weeping sores, and he took a jar of salve from his belongings to treat them. He had an infusion of plants that would dull the pain, so he mixed some of it with water and poured it down her throat.

After that he groomed her as well as he could, murmuring promises. ‘I won’t let you die. I won’t let anyone hurt you. You protected me once. Now I’ll protect you. I’ll do everything for you. Anything you want me to.’

Eluna stirred. ‘I thought you were gone.’

‘I was. But I came back, and I’ll never leave you again. Please, Eluna, don’t die.’

She kept her eyes closed. ‘Death… is near. Live on, Arren.’

‘No.’ He hugged her fiercely around the neck. ‘If you die, then so do I.’

‘Do not… be a fool.’

‘If you die, I’ll kill myself,’ said Arren. ‘I won’t live without you, Eluna. Live for me. Please.’

‘I do not want to die,’ she gasped. ‘Help me.’

‘I will. I swear.’ Arren hugged her tighter. ‘I don’t know what to do!’

‘Do… what you must,’ she said. ‘Make me well again, no matter how you do it.’

‘I’ll think of something,’ said Arren. ‘Rest now. I’ll find some food.’




Whatever Arren thought of, Cyric had thought of first. The money Arren needed so desperately was locked in a cupboard, and before he went to bed Cyric would lock the front door to the house. Both keys would be tucked securely under the old man’s body while he slept.

Days dragged by, and Arren wasn’t allowed to leave for any reason, not even to buy food. Cyric had arranged for someone to deliver it to the door, and he brought it inside himself.

There was nothing for Eluna.

Arren fed her his own food, every meal, but it wasn’t enough. Starvation and sickness stripped the flesh off the white griffin’s flanks with terrifying speed, until she was a shadow of what she had been. Listening to her breathing was agonising.

Before long, Arren had despaired. He had escaped one prison only to be shut up in another, starving himself in vain as he watched his partner die before his eyes.

If Bran had noticed his absence this time, then nothing came of it. No-one knew what was happening.

As for Cyric, he stayed the way he had always been, demanding his meals and making Arren clean up and fill out the paperwork that arrived every day. He didn’t act as if he were even aware of what was happening in the next room. But the more Arren watched him, the more he heard that thick old voice, the more he felt the hatred inside him grow.

He didn’t sleep at night. His hammock hadn’t been used since he had come home. He sat up by Eluna until the last candle had gone out, and let the hatred run through his mind like a song he couldn’t forget. I can’t let him win. I can’t let Eluna die. I can’t let him win.




When the answer finally came to him, it came quietly and without ceremony. He woke up one morning and there it was, waiting in his mind.

It followed him around as he made breakfast and scrubbed the table, loitering unobtrusively amongst his other thoughts. It was still there at lunchtime, and in the evening, and all through that night as he sat and listened to Eluna’s breathing grow weaker.

It was still there the next morning.

Quietly, Arren got up. He splashed his face with water from the rain barrel, and combed his hair very calmly and thoroughly. Then he picked out his favourite tunic to wear, and dressed Eluna’s sores again before putting it on.

After that he went into Cyric’s room and opened the windows to let in a fresh breeze. He took bread from the cupboard, and Cyric’s favourite cheese, and some dried apple which he arranged on a clay plate. Behind him the old man was just waking up – he could hear him mumbling to himself.

Arren felt completely relaxed. Even peaceful. Keeping his back to Cyric, he took a tiny stone bottle from his sleeve. He had taken it from the smugglers’ warehouse and hidden it in his pocket, thinking it could come in handy.

He flicked the cork out, and sprinkled the contents over the food.

‘Where’s my breakfast, boy?’ Cyric’s voice interrupted.

Arren turned, the bottle slipping back up his sleeve. ‘Here, sir.’ He put the plate down on the table, and retired to the crate in the corner.

Cyric took his time, putting on his day clothes and washing his face. He coughed unpleasantly, and finally sat down, giving Arren a suspicious look. ‘You’re up early.’

Arren shrugged and said nothing. He watched blankly as Cyric started to eat. Then he stood up and walked off into the nest without a word.

Eluna was sleeping. Arren sat down by her head, and waited.

He heard Cyric starting to cough again, and his heart froze.

‘Boy! Boy!’

Arren got up and walked unhurriedly into the next room. ‘Yes, sir?’

Cyric was still at the table. His face had begun to turn red. ‘Boy… go and get a healer.’

Arren watched him struggling to breathe. ‘Sorry, sir, but I don’t think I can afford it.’

‘Boy…’ Cyric opened his mouth wide, and fell backward onto the floor.

Arren lifted him onto the bed and laid him out neatly. Cyric moved feebly, and Arren could feel his heart pattering frantically.

He stood over him, unsmiling. ‘I told you I’d outlast you, my lord. I also told you I’d take your position one day. Thanks for leaving it to me. I’ll take good care of it. And your house. And your money. Goodbye.’

Cyric didn’t reply. His eyes were wide open, staring at the ceiling, but there was nothing behind them now.

Arren went back to Eluna. ‘Viper’s Tears,’ he said aloud. ‘I knew the symbol on that bottle. Fast. Deadly. Undetectable. I did what I had to, Eluna. You’re going to live. And so am I. And no-one will know,’ he added more softly.

The empty bottle felt very heavy in his sleeve. He went out onto the balcony, and hurled it away. Then he went back inside, and took the keys from Cyric’s body. He opened the cupboard and took the money he needed, then unlocked the door and stepped out into the city. Free, at last.

The morning sun felt good on his face.

First he would go and get the healer for Eluna. They’d be with him when he found his master dead. He’d go to the Eyrie after that, and give Lady Riona the news. Nobody would care that Cyric was dead. Who would bother to investigate the death of a disgraced old man?

Arren would play his part, and then he and Eluna would take what was rightfully theirs. A position, a home in the Eyrie and a place on the council. All theirs, for the price of a bottle of poison.

Arren Cardockson, Master of Trade, walked out into the marketplace that was now his by rights, and thought of how pleased Eluna would be. And smiled.





Neato text ornament here