Morning in the city of Eagleholm. The sun had turned the houses gold, and though the sky was still pale with dawn it was already full of circling griffins. In the market district the stalls were opening. The smell of baking bread wafted through windows as the shutters were thrown open, and everywhere people were getting ready for another day of work. In the Eyrie, the great Lords and Ladies were feeding their griffin partners.
And in a little house just on the edge of the market district, a boy ate breakfast with his family.
Captain Haig Redguard, huge and hulking even without his leather armour, scooped some porrige into a bowl and sat down at the table. The wooden bench creaked under his weight. Opposite him his son and daughter were already eating.
The girl finished the last spoonful, and waited impatiently for her brother. âCome on, will yeh? I have to go help Mam at the stall.â
The boy hastily emptied his own bowl, and slid it over the table toward her. She took it, and carried it over to the water-tub to wash it with her own.
Haig got up and lifted down his armour from its peg. âNow, I gotta get goinâ. Donât forget tâlock the house. Anâ Bran â tell yer mother I said tâpick up a new porrige pot. This oneâs had it.â
âI got it, Dad.â
âThatâs my lad.â Haig put on his sword-belt, sword and all, and left the house.
âPut yer boots on,â Branâs sister told him as she scrubbed a spoon. âI wanna get there quick.â
Bran stifled a yawn, and went to get them. Thirteen years old and coppery-haired, he took after his father in looks, but his energy was all his own as he tied his laces and made straight for the door. âHurry up, Finna!â
She had already finished the washing, and took a few moments to close the windows and take the key down from its hook by the door. That done, she hustled Bran outside and locked the door behind them.
Bran was already scooting off down the busy street. Finna rolled her eyes and followed.
Down in the marketplace not too far away, their mother was in the midst of setting up her stall. Brella Redguard sold toys that she made herself â everything from wooden dolls to cuddly griffins made from real fur. By the time Bran and Finna arrived she had unfurled the shade-cloth over the long bench and tied it in place, and was busy unpacking boxes of toys and arranging them in front of her.
Bran ducked under the bench and popped up beside her with a grin. âMorninâ, Mam.â
âGlad yer finally got yer lazy arse out of bed,â she said by way of a greeting. âGet them balls laid out, wouldyer?â
Bran picked up a spare piece of rope and made a circle with it on the bench. He put the balls inside the circle, where the rope would stop them from rolling away. Nearby Finna helped line up the furry griffins that were her motherâs biggest seller.
Brella stuffed some cloth flowers into a jar, arranging them attractively. âCareful with them griffins, Finna. Keep the wings straight.â She pulled a petal into place. âOh, now, that reminds me. Did I tell yeh â yesterday I got a very special customer while you two were off somewhere.â
âWho was that, then?â Bran asked as he retreived a stray ball.
Brella paused, for effect. âThe great Lord Rannagon himself, thatâs who.â
Finna dropped the griffin she was holding. âYer jokinâ!â
âSure as Iâm standinâ here!â Brella beamed. âLord Rannagon himself! There he was just walkinâ past with that great yellow griffin climbinâ along on them rooftops over there. I thought Iâd swallowed me own heart.â
âSo he bought somethinâ?â Bran said.
âOne of my griffins, for his little girl,â Brella nodded. âHe said it was the best one heâd ever seen anâ he just knew sheâd love it. He paid me extra for it, too.â
Bran whistled. âWish I coulda been there tâsee that. Seeinâ a griffiner up close â thatâd be somethinâ.â
âYeah. Only time we see âemâs when theyâre flyinâ over our heads,â said Finna. âWhy walk when yeh got a griffin?â
âIâd give my head tâfly on one of them,â Bran sighed.
His mother shuddered. âNot me. Them things scare me half tâdeath. You got them balls lined up, Bran?â
âAlready on the wooden stuff, Mam.â
âGood. Now, are yeh gonna stick around anâ help with the sellinâ, or is there somethinâ else what needs doinâ?â
âOh-,â Bran swore under his breath. âDad said tâget a new porrige pot. I nearly went anâ forgot there.â
âGo see if the pot stallâs open, then,â said Brella. âYeh know the one I like. Here, this oughta be enough.â
Bran took the handful of oblong and stuffed it in his pocket. âSee yeh in a bit.â
âDonât be long,â his mother said.
Bran ducked back under the bench and strolled off into the marketplace.
He didnât hurry â the pot stall might not be selling yet and besides, he loved exploring the marketplace. New stalls came in all the time, and there was no telling what might be for sale on a particular day. Especially if you knew where to go. Failing that, there was always at least one shouted argument to watch. Sometimes even a good punch-up, if you were lucky.
Bran walked through the winding streets of the market district, watching all the bustle of the sellers putting up their stalls. This was a side of things other people didnât get to see, and for him it was a part of life. Several people waved or called out to him as he passed. The pot stall was near the other end of the market district, closer to the Eyrie. Once Bran had visited one or two of his favourite stalls, he made toward it. He could do more wandering on the way back.
The pot stall was open, and the old man who ran it sold him a good sturdy pot about the same size as the old one. Bran slung it on his back.
âThatâs good work there,â the old man told him. âA nice solid bottom.â
âJust like yer wife, eh?â Bran grinned.
The old man cackled. âSure enough, anâ thatâs just how I like it.â
Bran cringed. âOkay, that was more than what I needed tâhear this early in the day.â He turned to leave, and something heavy swooped into his stomach as a huge, white shape dropped out of the sky. Instinctively he ducked, and his heart skittered as the white thing pinwheeled off into the buildings behind the stall.
Bran stood up. âShit! A bloody griffin!â
A scream pierced the air. It came from somewhere near where the griffin had gone.
âWhat was that?â the old pot seller exclaimed. âThat sounded like a-,â
âThatâs a kid!â Bran dumped the pot on the bench, and ran in the direction of the sound.
The buildings close to the market district werenât ordinary houses, but official buldings that belonged to the griffiners. Bran only had the vaguest idea of what they were for. One of the ones nearer to the Eyrie was in the midst of being rebuilt, and was covered in wooden scaffolding.
Bran slowed down close by, unsure of where to go next. There was no sign of anyone â the builders hadnât arrived yet.
Another cry came, from somewhere close by. This one was weaker than the last, but the pain in it was clear. It was also, unmistakeably, a childâs.
Bran might have had a much more difficult time finding the source, but when he was close enough he saw the griffin at once. White-feathered and frightening, it crouched over something on the ground, poking at it with its horrible hooked beak.
Bran realised the thing on the ground was a person, when it stirred and moaned.
âHey!â he took a few steps forward. âHey, stop that!â
The griffin looked up sharply, and its big silver eyes widened. âKrrrrssshh!â it hissed, and prodded at the injured child below it.
Branâs heart pounded. âLeave him alone!â he shouted. He groped for a weapon â anything. There was nothing. He came onward anyway, raising a hand. âStop it! Donât yeh dare hurt him, yeh big monster! Stop it, or-,â he hesitated, before a memory of something his father had once said flashed into his mind. âStop it or Iâll tell the Eyrie. You ainât supposed tâhurt people. Theyâll put yeh in the Arena!â
The white griffin stared at him. Then it backed away.
On the ground, the wounded boy moved a hand, groping for the creature. The griffin, incredibly, lowered its head and pushed him gently toward Bran.
Taking that as a gesture of trust, Bran hurried to the boyâs side. âAre yeh oka-,â
He stopped, dumbfounded. The boy was lying crumpled, with one arm twisted beneath him. There were cuts and bruises on his face, and his legs were at an odd angle. He looked young â probably no older than Bran himself, butâŚ
The word drifted into Branâs mind in a whisper. Blackrobe.
The boyâs hair was curly and looked very well-kept. It was also as black as coal.
Bran looked up at the griffin, and then down at the boy.
The boyâs free hand twitched â the fingers were long and pale. âHelp me,â he rasped.
Bran shook himself. Moving very carefully, he tried to lift the boy into a sitting position. The boy screamed at that â an awful, wrenching scream that froze Branâs blood.
Bran took his hands away quickly. âOh Gryphus. Oh sweet Gryphus. I dunno what tâdo. Gryphus help me, what do I do?â
The boy breathed rapidly, his thin chest heaving up and down. âHelpâŚ Eyrie,â he said, his voice broken with pain. âTake meâŚ Eyrie.â
âAll right.â Bran thought quickly, trying to remember what his parents had said to do when someone was hurt. âWhere does it hurt?â
The boy shuddered. ââŚarm.â
âYer arm, then. All right. Can yeh get up?â
The boy made a convulsive movement, jerking his head and one shoulder. He groaned and lay still again. âNo. No, no. Canât. My legs.â
Bran winced. âIs it all right if I carry yeh, then?â
The boy said nothing. His eyes had closed.
Oh Gryphus, what if he dies? Panic-stricken, Bran slid his arms under the boy and lifted him as carefully as he could. He was very light. As the twisted arm came free from beneath him, he screamed again, his eyes opening wide.
Quickly Bran took the arm and tried to hold it still. It was limp in his grasp, almost floppy. Broken, he thought. Must be. He laid it over the boyâs chest, and stood up.
The boy hung passively, his legs dangling. His skin felt damp and hot.
âNow then,â said Bran, trying to keep calm. âDidyer say the Eyrie? Just nod.â
The boy nodded.
âCan they help yeh there?â
Thoroughly confused now, Bran set out toward the Eyrie. He hadnât gone very far when he heard movement behind him. When he turned, there was the white griffin. Nervously, he pretended nothing had happened and moved on. But whenever he looked back, there was the griffin, silently following.
He looked at the boy. âWho are yeh? Thereâs no wayâŚ yeh canât beâŚâ
The boy stirred and opened his eyes. They were black. âSomeone pushed me,â he whispered. âThey took my bag. Someone pushed me off.â
âPushed yeh off what-?â Bran recalled the scaffolding, and groaned to himself. âNot that. Not from up there. Last week someone died fallinâ off there.â
âThey pushed me,â the boy repeated, not seeming to hear him.
Bran wasted no more time, and carried him off toward the Eyrie as quickly as he dared. The boy was still and silent for a long time. Eventually Bran worried, and started talking to him to try and keep him awake.
âIâm Bran,â he told him. âWell, itâs Branton really. Branton Redguard. Branâs fine, though. My Dadâs a guard â a Captain. Heâs in charge of one of the guard towers âround the edge of the city. We Redguardsâve been guards for ten generations, yeh know. Thatâs how we got our name, my Granddad used tâsay. Red for the uniform, guard for the guard.â
The boy stirred a little at the sound of Branâs voice.
âWhatâs your name, then?â Bran asked.
The boyâs eyes stayed closed. âArren,â he rasped.
âArren, eh?â said Bran, doing his best to sound jovial. âNice tâmeet yeh, Arren.â
He had worried that he wouldnât be able to get into the Eyrie once he reached it, but he was immensely relieved when he saw the front entrance. There were a pair of guards posted on either side of it.
Bran nodded to one of them. âRast, can yeh help us out here?â
The man gaped at him. âWhat the-? Is that a blackrobe?â
âHeâs hurt,â Bran snapped, aware of the white griffin coming up behind him. âHe said tâbring him here. Can yeh go get someone, or somethinâ.â
The other guard tapped the ground with his spear-butt. âWe canât go lettinâ anyone in who asks. Not if we donât know who they are.â
At that, the white griffin stepped forward. She swung her head, and sent the man flying. Rast dived out of the way before the same thing happened to him, and the white griffin turned and fixed Bran with a commanding stare.
Arren seemed a little more alert now. âGo,â he said hoarsely. âFollow Eluna.â
There was no arguing with a griffin. Stomach churning, Bran followed her through the entrance. âSorry, Rast,â he called as he passed. âThis ainât my idea, I swear.â
Very sensibly, neither guard tried to go after him.
The Eyrie was all wood inside, and every bit as large and grand as Bran had imagined. Despite the circumstances, he looked around and took everything in as he went through, marvelling at how rich everything looked. There were beautiful patterned rugs on the floor, and painted shields on the walls. Decorations, made from griffin feathers, hung from the roof.
The white griffin didnât linger. She led Bran to a large ramp that went up the inside of the tower, and bounded up it. Bran followed more carefully. Heâd never had to use a ramp like this one, though heâd seen plenty of them around. They were put in especially in places griffins used. Apparently, paws and talons didnât go well with stairs.
The ramp led upward, passing many oversized archways. Bran glanced through the ones he went near, and gawped at the luxurious quarters beyond. Griffiner homes!
Eventually, Eluna stopped at one of the arches and darted through it.
Bran hesitated on the threshhold, but before he could make up his mind a woman ran up.
âArren!â she exclaimed. âMighty Gryphus, what happened?â
The boy opened his eyes. âI fell.â
âI found him in the street,â Bran said awkwardly. âUhâŚ milady, uhâŚ he said tâbring him hereâŚâ
The woman was already retreating into her home, waving at Bran to come in. âHurry, bring him in and lay him down here.â
Bran laid Arren on the wooden pallet she indicated, and stepped back, massaging his arms and taking in his surroundings. The room was as wonderfully decorated as the rest of the Eyrie he had seen, but it had some things he wouldnât have expected to see. There was a table neary, covered in bundles of herbs and bottles of what looked like earth or weird liquids. Bran saw a wooden case, open to show a selection of ugly-looking metal instruments. Healerâs tools, he thought, with a mixture of relief and fear.
The woman was already at work on Arren. Moving quickly and efficiently, she cut away his shirt and examined his arm. It was covered in hideous black-and-purple bruising, but she probed it with her fingers anyway, despite Arrenâs cries.
Grim-faced, the woman went to the table and began mixing up a medicine. âWhere did you find him?â she asked, without looking around.
âNot far from the markets, milady,â Bran said, bowing instinctively. âThere was one of them buildings what hasnât been finished yet. I saw that white griffin fly down there, anâ there was this screamâŚâ
The griffin had come to stand over Arren, one wing held protectively over him. The woman brought over the cup of medicine and coaxed Arren into drinking it. While he gulped it down, she began to make strange and harsh sounds â something close to speech, but nothing like anything Bran had ever heard.
To Branâs amazement, the white griffin made sounds in return.
Speaking griffish! he thought. He had never heard the language before, not up close like this.
The woman continued speaking to the griffin while she splinted the broken arm, ignoring Branâs presence completely. Bran started to wonder if he should leave, but then she turned to look at him.
âEluna says he was pushed from a rooftop by a pair of boys about your age. Do you know anything about that?â
Bran took a step back. âNo, milady. I was at the pot stall buyinâ a new pot for my Mam, milady. I never saw this boy before in my life.â
Eluna rasped something, and the womanâs expression became friendlier.
âShe said you were a great help. She couldnât have carried Arren back here on her own.â
Bran shuffled his feet. âI wouldâve done the same for anyone, milady.â He looked past her, at the comatose Arren. âIs he gonna be okay, milady?â
Her mouth tightened. âHis arm is broken in two places, and heâs taken a blow to the head as well.â
âHe said he couldnât move his legs, milady,â Bran added.
She winced. âThatâsâŚ not good.â
âIs he crippled, then, milady?â
The woman was busy examining Arrenâs legs. âIt could be the blow to his head, or maybe his spine is damaged. Right now itâs too early to be certain. But I think heâll live.â
âThatâs good. Well.â Bran smiled. âWhen he wakes up, tell him I said good luck.â
âI will. You can go now, and thankyou.â
Bran nodded, and made a hasty exit.
On his way back to the market district, Bran went back past the spot where he had found Arren. The builders had arrived by now and were hard at work, but he couldnât find any clue to who had pushed Arren to his near-death. The idea that anyone would even try made his mouth twist in disgust. Why would they want to hurt him like that?
Because he was a blackrobe, maybe. Or perhaps because he was a griffiner.
Accepting that thought made Branâs head spin. But he knew it was the truth. What else could Arren be but a griffiner? Nobody else would have a griffin that followed him, and watched over him so faithfully.
A blackrobe griffiner.
Of course Bran had heard rumours that there had been a blackrobe griffiner somewhere in Eagleholm. Or, at least, people talked about seeing one in the village called Idun. But nobody seemed to know what had happened to him after that, or to have much idea of where he had come from.
It was true, Bran thought. There really is a blackrobe griffiner, anâ I saw him. Even talked to him.
As he walked along, deep in thought, he spotted something hanging on a piece of scaffolding just up ahead. It was a small leather shoulder-bag. Bran picked it up and examined it. There was a little bundle of white feathers on a thread hanging from the strap. Griffin feathers! It had to be Arrenâs bag.
Bran didnât open it, but slung it over his shoulder and took it with him back to the pot stall. When he got there he found that the stallholder had been kind enough to keep the new pot for him.
âThere you are. What took yer so long? Didya find out what that noise was?â
âSome poor sod fell over anâ broke his arm,â Bran said. âI took him to a healer.â
âPoor bugger. That was good of yer. Well, see yer later.â
Bran took the pot, and went back to his motherâs stall.
Several days passed. Bran kept Arrenâs bag under his bed, but left it closed. Whenever he thought about opening it, an immense wave of guilt would put the idea out of his mind. The poor little blackrobe had already had his arm broken and maybe been crippled for life â how could anyone be heartless enough to steal from him?
Those werenât the only times that Bran thought of Arren. During idle moments he would often think of the boy, and wonder what had happened to him. Had he recovered? Could he move his legs now? Had he even survived?
And more than that, Bran was simply curious. He wanted to know more about this blackrobe boy who was so close to his own age, but somehow living in the Eyrie with a griffin beside him. Where had he come from, and why had the griffiners accepted him as one of their own?
Bran knew about blackrobes, of course. They were the people who had come from the cold North. They had been conquered ages ago and most of them lived like ordinary people in the North. A lot of them were slaves, too. But everyone knew there were some of them who lived in the wild, like their ancestors had done, stealing Southern babies for their blood rituals and casting dark spells to make their enemiesâ crops fail and their animals die.
The idea that one of them could be a griffiner wasâŚ well, it was insane, that was what it was.
What only increased Branâs curiosity was that Arren had been so, well, ordinary. He had just been like any other boy, except with black hair and funny long fingers. Bran couldnât hate him or be afraid of him, not after seeing him that way, all hurt and frightened.
And then there was the bag. Bran hadnât shown it to anyone, nor had he told anyone about what had happened, beyond saying that he had helped someone who had broken their arm.
In the end, it was the bag that made Branâs mind up. He didnât want to keep it, and he didnât want to spend the rest of his life wondering what had happened to its owner.
With that resolution, he took the bag with him to the stall one day, made an excuse, and headed for the Eyrie.
At the entrance, he found Rast and another guard he didnât know.
Rast greeted him with a scowl. âGot any griffins followinâ along this time?â
âNope, itâs just me this time. How are yeh?â
Rast ignored the question. âWhat dâyou want this time, boy?â
âYeh know that poor kid I brought in last week?â said Bran. âI wanted tâsee how he was doinâ.â
âIâll ask anâ let yer know.â
Bran had been expecting this. He held up the bag. âThis belongs tâhim. I was gonna give it back.â
âIâll take it in later.â Rast made a grab for it.
Bran held it out of reach. âCâmon, lemme in. I just wanted tâgo say hello. I ainât gonna steal nothinâ.â
âGo away,â Rast growled. âWe donât just let people walk into the Eyrie.â
His fellow guard yawned. âOh, let him in. Heâs doing no harm. The poor little blackrobe probably wants company, anyway.â
Arren was alive, then. Bran saluted the guard and went inside before Rast could object.
He couldnât remember exactly which archway he was after, so he checked each one until the smell of herbs, wafting into the sloping corridor, led him to the right place.
Nervously, Bran took a step forward and knocked on the wooden frame of the arch.
âExcuse me? Anyone in there?â
There was a rustling and a thump, and a moment later a pair of enormous yellow eyes had loomed into his vison. What looked like a wall of brown feathers thrust into his face, pushing him backward.
âKraaaa! Sheeekyaak reeee aooo!â the griffin rasped out the sounds, bearing down hugely on the hapless Bran.
Bran cowered, holding up his hands to protect his face. âPlease donât hurt me!â his voice came out as a strangled wimper. âI just â just came to bring the â thingâŚ bag! I brought the bag back, honest, thatâs all, oh Gryphus help me-,â
Without any warning the griffin backed off, making more sounds, but not in Branâs direction. Then, thank Gryphus, the healer woman appeared.
âYou!â her eyes narrowed. âWhat are you doing here?â
Bran held out the bag like a shield. âI just wanted tâsee how Arren was doinâ, honest. I brought this. Itâs his bag. I ainât done nothinâ wrong, I swear, pleaseâŚâ
The woman relaxed. âRaee thought you were a tresspasser. Which you are, but thankyou for bringing this back. Poor Arrenâs been heartbroken over losing it.â
Bran made himself breathe deeply. âSo heâs all right then, milady?â
âHeâs doing fairly well. You can come in and see him, if you like. I think heâd enjoy some company.â
Bran went inside, giving the glaring griffin a wide berth. The woman took him through her own quarters and into an adjoining room. There was Arren, lying propped up on pillows in a bed. Eluna lay close by with her head resting by his hand. Arren was reading a book, one-handed. He looked up when Bran came in.
He frowned. âHello. Arenât you the boy who found me?â
The voice, clear now, had the smooth accents of a griffiner.
Without even thinking about it, Bran bowed. âJust came tâsee how yeh were doinâ, Arren.â
âBadly,â the boy said curtly. âIs that all you came to ask?â
âWell, no.â Bran fumbled for the bag. âI found this; thought it was yours.â
Arrenâs closed expression disappeared, and his face lit up. âThatâs my bag!â
âThatâs right.â Bran grinned. âI recognised the feathers on it.â
âGive it here,â Arren said, eagerly. His broken arm was in a sling, but he took the bag with his good hand and fumbled with the straps.
âI can help-,â Bran began.
âI can do it.â Arren undid the first of the buckles, then began on the other. âI thought Iâd lost it forever. Thank gods! Is everything still inside?â
âI never opened it,â said Bran. âDidnât want tâgo fiddlinâ with yer stuff.â
âThankyou. I spent all my money on whatâs in this bag.â
âReally?â said Bran.
âYes.â Arren gave him a very serious look. âItâs precious. I only went out that day so I could get it.â
âYehâd been to the markets then, had yeh?â said Bran.
âYes. To buy this.â Arren finally got the bag open, and looked inside. He smiled in a satisfied kind of way. âThey didnât take it!â
The object came free. It was a wooden comb, decorated with carved vines. You could find a dozen like it on half the stalls in the marketplace.
Arren held it as if it were made from pure gold.
Bran stared. âThatâs it?â
âOf course,â Arren said happily. He thrust the bag aside without looking at the rest of its contents, and began to comb his hair, carefully teasing out the knots. âThankyou so muchâŚ whatâs your name, anyway?â
âIâm Bran. Branton Redguard.â
âOh, thatâs right. I remember now. You were very good, getting me all the way up here. Eluna helped you, though. But she always knows what to do.â He stroked the white griffinâs head tenderly, and smiled when she huffed at him through her nostrils.
âIâdâve helped anyone who needed it,â Bran said. âIâm glad tâsee yeh all right. Howâs the arm?â
âIt hurts like anything when I move it, but itâll get better. I donât care about that.â
âWhat about the â yer legs? Did they get better?â
âI canât move them,â Arren told him matter-of-factly. âI havenât been out of bed since I fell.â
âThatâs awful,â said Bran. âWhatâre yeh gonna do?â
âWait,â Arren said. âThatâs all. Just wait.â
âWill it get better, then?â
âMaybe. Lady Bidelea says my spine is damaged. If we wait long enough, it might heal up.â Arren pulled the comb through his curls again, rearranging them until they were neat enough to satisfy him. âThere, thatâs better.â
Bran chuckled. âYeh just about got that hair under control now. Lucky I brought that comb back.â
âYes, it was. I can pay you for that.â
âNo need,â said Bran. âIâm just glad tâsee yeh better.â
Arren cocked his head. âYou were worried about me?â
âWell, yeah,â said Bran. âWhy not after what happened to yeh?â
âHm.â Arren was looking at him with a new interest. âSit down, if you want. Tell me about yourself.â
Bran found a stool, and dragged it to the side of the bed that wasnât occupied by Eluna. Once he was seated, Arren lay and listened in silence while he talked about his life â describing his home and his family, and what he did all day.
âSoon Iâll be ready tâjoin the guards, just like my dad. Iâm gonna learn all about how tâfight anâ how tâdo all the other stuff a guard has tâdo.â
âLike what?â said Arren. He sounded genuinely interested.
âAll kinds of stuff,â said Bran. âHoldinâ people right so they donât get away, checkinâ cells tâmake sure thereâs nothinâ hidden in there, dealinâ with big crowds â even how tâhold off a griffin.â
Arren smiled. âThatâs something everyone should know how to do, even if theyâre not a griffiner.â
âYou are,â said Bran, looking at Eluna.
âBut how?â Bran couldnât stop himself now. âHow can you be a griffiner? Yer a-,â
âA what?â Arrenâs voice had gone low and dangerous.
âWell, yeh just aâŚ well, a kid,â said Bran. âThey donât let people our age even go in the Hatchery. I should know, âcause I tried once. That crazy ole Roland told me tâclear off.â
Arrenâs anger twisted into bewilderment. Then he burst out laughing. âThatâs what youâre wondering? My gods.â
âIâm curious,â Bran said defensively. âI want tâknow. Go on, I toldyer my story. Now tell me about you.â
âOh, all right.â Arren fiddled with the comb. âThereâs not much to tell, really.â
âGo on, Iâm listeninâ.â
So Arren told his story, briefly and simply but with considerable pride in his voice. âEluna chose me when I was small. I got into the Hatchery by accident. She wouldnât leave me, so Roland trained us in secret. When I was ten Lord Rannagon found out about us, and later on he persuaded Lady Riona to let us become part of the Eyrie. Lady Bidelea took me as her apprentice â sheâs the Master of Healing. That was two years ago.â
âI heard of yeh before,â said Bran. âThereâre stories, anyway. But nobody Iâve met knows yer up here. How come nobodyâs seen yeh?â
âWe donât go out in the city,â said Arren. âNot in the daytime. Lady Riona said it was too dangerous; people might try and hurt us.â He turned his head away. âShe was right.â
âSo that day whenâŚ that accident happened, that was-?â
âWe snuck out,â said Arren. âI wanted to see the marketplace. I could have asked my master to buy a comb for me, but I wanted to choose my own.â
âThatâs fair enough,â said Bran. âA manâs gotta make his own choices.â
Arren looked at him now. âI was wrong,â he said harshly. âI shouldnât have gone out. People saw me. Two boys stole my bag, and I chased them. They went up into that building with the scaffolds around it. I couldnât find them, and when I was near the edge one of themâŚâ he trailed off.
âThose bastards.â Branâs fists clenched. âIf Iâd been there, Iâdâve smashed their teeth in.â
Eluna hissed some words in griffish. Arren spoke back to her, and she laid her head down again.
Bran smiled slightly. âYâknow, I never heard griffish in my life before I met yeh, Arren. Never even saw a griffin up close.â
âItâs just a language,â said Arren. âAnyone can learn it. I did.â
Bran shook his head. âIt ainât the sorta thing for the likes of me.â
âReally?â Arren looked slyly at him. âI can teach you, you know. If you want me to.â
âMe, learn griffish?â
Arren picked up his book again. âYou saved my life. I owe you something. I need to sleep now, but come back tomorrow and Iâll teach you some griffish words. How does that sound?â
âI dunno,â said Bran.
âGo on. Itâs a useful thing to know. Besides, I need something to do.â
âAll right, but how am I gonna get in? The guards barely let me in this time; thereâs no way theyâd go it again.â
âEasy. Just show them this.â Arren pulled a ring off his finger, and tossed it to Bran.
Bran turned it over in his own clumsy hands. It was a seal ring, bearing a griffinâs head design, and it glittered yellow in the candlelight.
âMy gods, is this gold?â
âYes, it is,â Arren said carelessly. âDonât lose it. And donât tell anyone you have it.â
Bran stuffed it into his pocket. âThatâs a promise, Arren.â
True to his word, Bran returned the following day. When he arrived at her quarters, Lady Bidelea greeted him pleasantly.
âHeâs been waiting for you,â she said. âGo right in.â
This time Arren was sitting up, with the help of some cushions. The comb was still in his hand, and his hair looked as if it had been groomed to within an inch of its life.
âGood morning, Bran. Did you sleep well?â
âFine. How are yeh feelinâ today?â
âBetter. Now then, sit down and letâs get started.â
Bran had never heard someone his own age â let alone someone younger than him â talk like this. It was almost bizarre. He was hearing the voice of a griffiner lord, coming from a twelve-year-old Northerner.
It was the kind of voice Bran was used to obeying, so he sat down without another thought.
âNow, I thought Iâd start with something useful,â Arren was saying. âFor if youâre ever threatened by a griffin. They always respect somebody who knows griffish. Now, listen carefully and repeat after me.â
Bran did, sounding out the odd griffin-sounds. It was hard; the pronounciation was unlike anything he had ever encountered. This wasnât just another language â it was a whole new set of sounds that no human normally had to make. He had to use the back of his throat for many of them, and the words had to be punctuated by clicks of the teeth. Everything also had to be done at the right speed â whole meanings could change if a click came too early or too late. Bran felt like an idiot, but Arren was patient with him and he kept trying.
Eluna, who hadnât left Arrenâs beside, watched for a while. Eventually she got up and walked off with a contemptuous huffing sound.
Bran felt his face turn hot. âI ainât never gonna get this right.â
âIt took me my whole life to learn,â Arren told him. âYou canât expect to do it in one day! Even griffins have to learn. Just keep practising and youâll get it in the end. Do it while youâre doing something else, that works well. Just donât give up.â
Arren gave a one-armed shrug. âIf you want to learn, then do it. If notâŚ donât. We can stop now.â
âShould I go, then?â Bran asked.
âIf you want to.â
Bran could tell Arren wanted him to stay. âWe can talk about somethinâ if yeh like.â
âTell me a story,â said Arren. âAnd then Iâll tell you one.â
Bran did, and they took turns at it all morning. Some stories both of them knew, some were new. They told stories about themselves and the people they knew, and old legends and myths as well.
âWhat sort of story do you want to hear next?â Arren asked when it was his turn.
Bran knew, but he hesitated. âI was wonderinââŚâ
Bran screwed up his courage, and ploughed ahead. âI want tâhear somethinâ aboutâŚ well, your people.â
Something withdrew in Arrenâs expression. âMy people?â he said, as if he had no idea what the words meant.
It was too late to turn back now. âTell me a Northern story,â Bran said. âI donât know any at all, anâ I thought you might.â
âWhy?â Arren began to look sulky. âWhy should I know? Why would you want to hear it?â
âWell, âcause I suddenly thought I donât know nothinâ about the Northerners. I never met one before yeh. Itâs all right if yeh donât know any good Northern stories; I was just askinâ.â
âI donât know why you would,â Arren muttered. âItâs all nonsense anyway. My stupid father wonât shut up about it. He doesnât know anything.â
This was the first time Bran had heard him mention his parents. âWhere is yeh dad, anyway?â
âOh, he lives down in Idun and makes boots with my mum. I donât visit them much.â
âDidnât they come see yeh after yeh got hurt?â
âNo. They donât know what happened.â
Bran stared at him. âWhat, nobody told âem? Why not? Yeh might have died!â
âLady Bidelea asked if I wanted her to send a message, but I said no,â Arren said carelessly. âWhat good would it have done?â
âTheyâre yer parents!â said Bran. âGryphusâ talons, if I was hurt my dad would-,â
âWell my dad wouldnât,â Arren snapped. âHe doesnât care about me.â
âWhy, is he angry with yeh?â
âHe doesnât think I should be a griffiner. He doesnât understand anything; he just wants me to stay with him and make boots. But Iâm a griffiner now, and he canât stop me. And Iâm not going to go back there and be a stupid blackrobe. Not for all the money in the world.â Arren said all this in a high and impassioned voice, finally shedding the lordly tones of a griffiner. The hint of a whine began to show through.
Bran didnât know what to do. âDid he try anâ stop yeh?â
âYes, he did, and then he hit me. I donât care if he doesnât know anything that happens to me any more.â
âWhat about yer mother?â
âWellâŚ sheâs all right.â Arren calmed down slightly. âBut sheâs with him. He thinks I should be proud of having stupid black hair. He even tried to make me use that idiot barbarian language of his. But I wonât. Griffish is my language.â
An awkward silence followed. Arren glared at Bran, daring him to disagree.
Bran tried to grin. âMaybe yeh could tell me a story about griffiners, instead.â
âNo,â said Arren. âYou wanted to hear about Northerners, didnât you? Then Iâll tell you a story about one. I heard it from Lord Rannagon himself.â
âLord Rannagon told yeh stories?â
âThatâs right. Heâs a great man, Lord Rannagon. One day heâll be Eyrie Master. Nobody doubts that.â
âThe whole cityâd like that,â said Bran. âSo, whatâs this story he told yeh?â
Arren cleared his throat, and began.
âIn the North, thereâs a great city called Malvern. Itâs the capital city of the griffiners who rule the North. Blackrobes live there; free ones, but they have to obey the griffiners just like everybody else. One day, many years ago, a griffin chick wandered out of the Hatchery in Malvern. A blackrobe woman caught it in the street and took it home, where she raised it in secret. She forced it to obey her when it grew up. Some say she used secret Northern magic that controls animals, and hers was strong enough to make a griffin into her servant. One day when the griffin was grown up, the griffiners found out about her. They thought it was amazing, that a blackrobe woman had been chosen. They didnât know what she had done. Two old griffiners stupidly decided to train her, even though everyone else said it was blasphemy. Other blackrobes thought the woman was special, a leader even. They started giving her food and money, and doing what she told them. By the time her training was done, half the city was under her control. One day she decided even that wasnât enough, and she tried to take over the Eyrie for herself. But a mighty white griffin appeared to stop her. Her griffin servant was very powerful, and killed many other griffins that day, but the white griffin was stronger. He fought the rogue griffin and nearly killed her, but she took her human and escaped.
âThe womanâs name was Arddryn, and she called her griffin Hyrenna. They went to hide in the mountains, and many blackrobes joined them. Arddryn taught them how to fight the way the griffiners had taught her, and when her followers were strong enough she and Hyrenna returned. There was a terrible war. Whole villages were destroyed. Many noble griffins and griffiners died. In the end, the Eyrie Master at Malvern sent word southward for help, and young griffiners from everywhere went to join him.
âLord Rannagon went too. He was only young, but he and Shoa fought bravely. They were heroes, and they saved hundreds of lives. Rannagon led an army against Arddrynâs followers on the Tor Plain, and he fought Arddryn and killed her. The blackrobes who survived were hanged, or collared. After that Rannagon could have become Eyrie Master in Malvern, but he wanted to come home. They gave him a beautiful new sword, and he came back to Eagleholm and became Master of Law.â
Bran whistled. âSo thatâs how he got so famous. I mean, I knew about the war anâ whatnot, but I never knew much about everything Lord Rannagon did, anâ who started it.â
âThatâs why people were scared of me,â Arren added. âThey thought I might be like her. Thatâs why I donât go out.â He chuckled. âItâs silly. Iâm just a boy, what could I do? Besides, I would never betray Lady Riona. Or Lord Rannagon either.â
Of course yeh wouldnât, Bran thought. From the sound of it, yeh love them more than yer own parents.
âAnyway, thatâs my story,â said Arren. âNow itâs your turn.â
And that was how Bran and Arrenâs friendship began. From that day on Bran visited him every morning, over the complaints of his mother and sister. Arren taught him several griffish phrases, which he managed to master after a fashion with a lot of practise. At other times they swapped stories, or just chatted about this and that.
The more Bran saw of Arren, the more he found he liked this odd, intense boy who spoke as if he were so much older. It didnât take long before he stopped thinking of him as a Northerner at all â the label was just too simplistic to be hung on an entire human being, especially one as complicated as Arren proved to be. Arren wasnât a Northerner, or even a griffiner. He was Arren, and that was all that mattered.
As for Eluna, she was a constant presence. Bran never saw Arren without her somewhere nearby. The white griffin was far more protective of her human than Raee was of Lady Bidelea, who often appeared alone. Eluna, though, insisted on keeping watch on Arren at all times, though she soon came to accept Branâs presence. She wouldnât let him touch her, though. Only a griffinâs own human could do that.
âShe wonât leave me any more,â Arren explained one day, in a low voice. âShe blames herself for what happened to me, and she says sheâll never let me go anywhere alone ever again. I donât mind.â
Bran tried to imagine what it would be like to be shadowed by such a massive creature every moment of his life. He couldnât, and he didnât want to either. Still, he came to like Eluna as well. She was so graceful, and her attention to Arren was almost motherly.
Branâs family, however, didnât like what he was doing.
âWhere are yeh goinâ every morninâ, son?â Haig demanded. âYer motherâs been complaininâ about it. Yeh know she needs yer help on the stall. I thought better of yeh than that, Bran.â
This was just what Bran had been dreading. âI come back anâ help again after I get backâŚâ
âThat ainât good enough. Yer up to somethinâ, Bran, anâ donât try anâ hide it. I ainât so stupid as yeh take me for, boy.â Haig looked sternly at him. âNow out with it.â
Bran fidgeted. âI made a new friend.â
âHm. This new friend wouldnât happen tâbe a girl, now would she?â Haig gave off the hint of a knowing smile.
âNo?â Haigâs brow furrowed. âWhoâs so important that yeh have târun off every damn morninâ tâsee him, but yeh havenât said a word about him or brought him over tâmeet us?â
Bran took a deep breath, and launched into his story. âYeh know how I helped that boy whoâd hurt himself?â
âYeah. Itâs him, then, is it?â
Bran nodded. âHeâs hurt his back anâ he canât get out of bed. I been visitinâ him. Seeinâ how heâs gettinâ on, like.â
âSo thatâs it? Thatâs nice of yeh, but why keep quiet about it like that?â
âHeâs kindaâŚ different,â said Bran. âI didnât know what yehâd say.â
âDifferent?â Branâs mother had been listening closely, and now came over. âDifferent how?â
Bran twisted his fingers. âHeâsâŚ heâs a griffiner.â
Both of his parentsâ suspicious expressions melted into total shock.
âA griffiner?â Haig took Bran by the shoulder. âI swear, if yer makinâ this up-,â
âI ainât!â Bran fumbled in his pocket, and brought out the ring. âSee? He gave me this, soâs theyâd let me into the Eyrie tâsee him.â
Brella took it, and breathed in sharply. âIs this gold?â
âYeah. Give it back, itâs his.â
Haig took it from his wife, and examined the seal. âHoly Gryphus! Thatâs a griffiner ring â I seen one before!â
âSee?â Bran took it back. âI ainât lyinâ.â
âBran, thatâs amazing!â Brella beamed. âMy son, friends with a griffiner! Savinâ his life!â
âHang on,â said Haig. âI thought yeh said he was just a boy.â
âHe is,â said Bran. âHe ainât no olderân I am.â
âSo did he give yeh money for helpinâ him?â
âHe said he could, but I said no,â said Bran.
âWhat?â Brella looked aghast. âWe coulda been rich, Bran! What were yeh thinkinâ?â
âI donât think heâs got that much money,â said Bran. âAnyway, I donât need payinâ tâhelp someone what needs it.â
âWhy wouldnât he have money?â said Haig. âHeâs a bloody griffiner!â
âHeâs only apprenticed,â said Bran. âHe ainât got a position yet. Anâ he ainât got rich parents. But heâs teachinâ me griffish tâsay thanks.â
âGriffish! Is he allowed tâdo that?â
âI sâpose. No-oneâs stoppinâ him.â
âThatâs just great,â Haig said. âMy son, speakinâ griffish! So are yeh gonna go see him again tomorrow?â
âIf yeh donât mind,â said Bran. âHeâs gettinâ some strength back in his legs, so Iâm gonna help him start walkinâ again.â
âOf course yeh can go!â said Haig. âNobody with any sense stays away from beinâ friends with a griffiner. Imagine everythinâ yeh could get out of it! Maybe theyâd even let yeh go in the Hatchery one day!â
Bran, seeing the joyful faces of his parents, suddenly felt dirty. âYeah,â he muttered. âI guess so.â
He did indeed go back to see Arren the next day, but the dirty feeling stayed.
What if Iâm only stayinâ around âcause heâs a griffiner?
But the uncertainty went away when Bran went into Arrenâs room and found him standing up by the bed. Arren was leaning on a pair of crutches, which were obviously hurting his splinted arm, but his voice was full of good cheer.
âBran! Hello! Look what I can do!â with that, he took several wobbling steps toward his friend, with Eluna following close behind.
Bran waited until Arren got to him, and clapped him on the shoulder as gently as he could. âSee? I knew yehâd walk again! Ainât nothinâ keeps Arren the griffiner down for long, eh?â
Arren was panting, but excited. âNothing! Iâve been practising â itâs not easy, but Iâm getting there. My legs are getting stronger. My master gave me some exercises to do.â
Bran sat down on the bed and watched his friend hobble around the room, feeling the same sense of achievement that Arren must be feeling. Walking on the crutches, especially with a broken arm, was obviously very tiring for Arren, but he kept on without complaint, obviously determined to walk again as soon as possible.
When he was exhausted, Bran helped him back into bed. âNow, get some sleep. More practise tomorrow, anâ then you anâ me are goinâ somewhere together.â
Arren yawned. âOh really? Where?â
âWeâre goinâ on a walk through the markets, anâ Iâm gonna let yeh meet my Mam anâ my sister.â
âOh. Oh, no, I canât do that. No. Iâm sorry.â
âYeh can do it, anâ yeh will,â Bran said firmly.
âI donât want to.â
âWhat are yeh scared of? Elunaâs gonna be there, anâ me too.â
âI donât want anyone to see me,â Arren whined.
âYeh canât stay hidden away in here forever, Arren. The longer yeh leave it, the worse itâs gonna get.â
âBut what if someone tries to hurt me again?â there was real fear in Arrenâs voice.
Bran smacked his fist into his palm. âAnyone even looks funny at yeh, Iâll knock his block off.â
Eluna pushed forward suddenly, her tail lashing. âShaeee,â she hissed. âRrrraaark kaaa-yee. Kroooo ae keerk.â
âShe wants you to go now,â Arren said, from behind her.
Bran backed off smartly. âAll right, just tell her not tâhurt me.â
âItâs all right. Sheâs not angry, she just wants you to go home now. Iâll see you tomorrow.â
Once Bran had gone, Eluna turned back to her human with a satisfied look.
Arren sat back and leaned his crutches against the wall. âWhat was that for? I could have argued him out of it.â
Eluna sat on her haunches. âBran was right, Arren.â
âI donât have to do what he says.â
âPerhaps not, but you must do as I say.â
âI do not.â
Eluna came closer, huge and smelling of musty fur. âI am the strongest of us, little human. I care for you, but in return I expect you to obey me when I choose. Remember that, and listen.â She said it firmly, but without aggression.
âWhy should I go out?â Arren demanded. âThereâs nothing out there for me. You know what happened last time.â
Eluna turned her head away. âI am ashamed.â
âItâs all right,â said Arren. âIt wasnât your fault-,â
âI am ashamed of you. You are my human, Arren. You fought to become a griffiner, and risked far more than I did. But now you are so afraid of mere humans that you prefer to hide away like a rat in a hole! Your new friend is right. If you do not face this fear now, you shall always be trapped by it and neither you nor I shall ever be able to hold up our tails in pride.â
Despite himself, Arren giggled. âI donât have a tail.â
Eluna turned on him with a hiss. âDo not mock me! I have waited here patiently for you, when another griffin would have abandoned you as a cripple. Now you have begun to walk again, and I demand a service from you in return.â
âThat you shall come into the city with me, and we shall walk side by side as a griffin and her human should. This time, I shall not fly above, and when the common humans see you they shall know that you are under my protection. When they have seen you this way, you shall not have to hide again.â
Arren said nothing.
âI thought that was what you had always wanted,â Eluna said gently. âTo be more than a peasant boy, to be more than a lowly blackrobe. More than what you were meant to be. Walk beside me, Arren, and be the griffiner you long to be.â
Arrenâs eyes were bright. âI will,â he whispered.
A few days later Arren had recovered enough to walk a fair distance with the aid of his crutches, and he finally consented to visit the markets. When Bran came to get him that morning, he found him waiting by the door. The little leather satchel was slung on his shoulder, and he had put on a tunic made from rich black velvet decorated with griffin feathers. It was a little too big for him, but he wore it proudly.
Bran grinned. âAinât you lookinâ fancy today.â
Arren lifted his chin. âThis is my best tunic. My master gave it to me for my birthday â it was her sonâs.â
âEveryoneâs gonna be impressed,â said Bran.
Eluna made a croaking sound and turned slightly, lifting one wing. Her furry hindquarters had been groomed until they shone.
âWell of course yeh look nice, Eluna,â Bran said smoothly. âYeh always look nice, so Iâd neverâve expected nothinâ else.â
Arren pulled a bemused face. ââNever have expected nothingââŚ ? My gods, what did plain Cymrian ever do to you?â
âI ainât learned no fancy talk,â Bran shrugged. âIâm just a boy from the marketplace, whatâd I know? Câmon, letâs go show that city weâre ready for anythinâ!â
âIâll be right behind you, Bran. Show me the way.â
And so Bran led Arren â and Eluna too â down the ramp and out of the Eyrie and into the street. Arren moved slowly and carefully, wincing occasionally but keeping up the pace. Once Bran offered to help, but Arren shook his head. This was something he wanted to do on his own.
And then, the markets. Bran walked through the familiar streets with his head held high, keeping to Arrenâs side. Eluna walked just behind them, a looming protective presence that made the crowds move aside. Everywhere people turned to stare, wide-eyed.
Arren had gone slightly paler. âTheyâre all looking at me.â
âLet âem look,â said Bran. âEveryone stares when a griffiner goes by.â
After that Arren looked much happier.
But not all the attention toward them was good. Bran could hear the word being muttered, here and there, passing through the crowd like a virus.
Is that a blackrobe?
Thatâs a Northerner!
I thought they were all gone.
Bran pretended not to notice. Beside him, Arren kept his face blank and didnât look toward any of the accusing whispers. He looked as if he were completely oblivious. Bran knew that he wasnât.
Near the inn called the Red Rat, a man accidently stumbled into Branâs path. He pulled up short when he saw Eluna, then backed away as quickly as the press of bodies would allow.
âSorry,â he stammered, looking quickly from Arren to Bran. âUhâŚ myâŚ Lord?â
Bran gestured at Arren. âHeâs the griffiner, thickhead.â
The man stared. âBut heâs a blackrobe.â
Elunaâs head shot forward, snake-fast, and the man found himself staring at an enormous grey curving beak. The white griffin made a horrible grating noise.
The man nearly fell over backward. âOh holy Gryphus! Help!â
Arren touched Elunaâs head, and spoke to her. She pulled back, clicking her beak irritably, and the man managed to get up. Instead of running, he stared wide-eyed at Arren.
Arren looked back with a superior expression. âCall me that again and Eluna will tear your head off and play with it. Now go away.â
The man beat a hasty retreat.
Bran, laughing heartily to hide his fright, pushed through the shouting onlookers and gestured at Arren to follow him. He did, and Eluna cleared the way.
âSee?â Bran said when he and Arren were in step with each other again. âI toldya no-oneâd dare bother yeh.â
Arrenâs cheeks were flushed, and he was grinning. âThat was fantastic. Did you see the look on his face?â
âSure did,â said Bran. âI wouldnât go makinâ no threats like that again if I were in yer place.â
âI wasnât planning to.â Arren looked slightly annoyed. âHow much further is it?â
âJust up here. Câmon!â
They reached Brellaâs stall with a small crowd trailing along behind them. Finna saw them coming from behind the stall, and actually screamed at the sight of Eluna.
Her mother was a little more well-prepared. She stared, frozen for a moment, then quickly ducked around to the front of the stall.
She looked carefully at Arren, and then bowed low. âMilord.â
Arren didnât move. He looked frankly shocked. âUhâŚâ he coughed. âYou can stand up.â
Brella did. âYehâd be our Branâs new friend then, milord?â
âYes, I am.â Arren smiled at her. âAnd youâd be his mother. Heâs told us all about you. Is this your stall?â
âThatâs right, milord. I make the finest toys in Eagleholm. Just the other day, Lord Rannagon himself came by anâ bought from me.â
âLord Rannagon? Oh, so thatâs where he got that little furry griffin from. I saw it on his desk. You made that, did you?â
âYes, milord.â Brella pointed to a row of the fluffy toys on her stall. âMy speciality.â
âTheyâre very cute. Bran, is that your sister?â
Finna had been trying to hide from Eluna, but now she saw Arren looking at her she straightened up and smoothed down her skirt. âFinna, milord.â
âPleased to meet you. Iâm Arren Cardockson, and this is Eluna. Donât worry, she wonât hurt you.â
âBran says as yâwere hurt, milord,â Brella said politely. âHow are yeh recovering?â
âIâll be fine.â Arren looked awkward. âSoâŚ uhâŚ while Iâm here, I may as well choose something to take home with me. Iâve brought some money.â
âOf course!â Brella beamed. âChoose anythinâ yeh like, milord. Itâs all the best.â
Arren took in the contents of the stall. âOne of those balls would be good. How much?â
âThirty oblong, milord.â
That was more than twice the normal price. Arren looked a little blank for a moment, and then started to rummage through his bag.
Bran stepped in. âNine oblong. Itâs nine oblong.â He glared at his mother. She glared back.
Arren acted as if he hadnât heard. He scooped a handful of gold out of his bag, and handed it over. âIâm afraid this is all I have.â
Brella counted it out. âTen oblong?â
Arren offered up a thin smile. âThey donât pay apprentices, Brella. My master lent that to me.â
Brella reddened. âThereâs no problem, milord, I was just surprised. Here.â She stuffed the money into her apron pocket, and handed over the stuffed leather ball.
Arren took it one-handed. âNot bad. Thankyou. Now, I should be getting home. Bran, will you come with me?â
Bran caught the hint of pleading, and he nodded at once. âIâll see yeh later, mam.â
Arren nodded to Brella and Finna, turned laboriously on his crutches, and began to leave. Eluna glared at the pair of them, and went with him.
Bran lingered a moment longer. âYou oughta be ashamed,â he said.
âHeâs a griffiner, Bran,â Brella said. âI thought-,â
âWell yeh thought wrong.â
Finna finally found her voice. âHeâs a blackrobe. A bloody blackrobe! Yeh didnât tell us he was a-,â
Bran jabbed a finger in her face. âHeâs my friend, understand?â he snarled. âLeave him be.â
He realised that everybody was staring at him. For a moment he faltered, ashamed, but his anger flared up again, and he shouted. âNobody calls Lord Arren a blackrobe, understand? Not while Iâm around. Anyone do that, anâ theyâll have me tâdeal with.â
Even though Bran was only thirteen, he was already big and powerful. Even some of the adults who heard him shrank back. Perhaps they could already see that one day this boy would be even bigger. When that day came, very few people would want to argue with him.
Satisfied, Bran growled at them all and followed his friend out of the market district.
Up in his own room, Arren sat up in bed and rubbed his arm. âGah! When is it going to heal? Bloody thing feels like itâs about to drop off!â
Eluna, curled up nearby, chirped. âYou speak like Bran.â
Arren looked surprised, but then he shrugged. âBloodyâs a good word.â He scooped up his new ball, testing the weight with his good hand. âItâs almost funny how that woman tried to make me pay thirty oblong for this. As if I had that much!â he hurled it.
Without even getting up, Eluna caught it in her beak. She flicked her head, hurling it back. It hit the wall and rolled under the bed.
âDamn,â Arren sighed.
âHere, lemme get it for yeh.â Bran came in and went to pull it out. âGood, ainât it? I help make âem.â
âMy dad works with leather too,â said Arren. âHe knows all about it. He taught me some things, before I came to live here.â
âSo he knows some stuff, then,â said Bran.
âEverybodyâs got to know something, I suppose.â
âSo.â Bran sat down. âHowâd yeh like the markets?â
âTheyâre nice. Crowded. Rude.â
âJust like life.â Bran laughed at his own cleverness.
Arren looked solemn. âThankyou for making me go. I never would have done it if you and Eluna hadnât made me. Sometimes, we have to do things we donât want to. And sometimes itâs very important that we do them.â
âAinât that the truth. But I knew yeh could do it, mate. Otherwise I wouldnâtâve argued yeh into it. Iâm glad I did.â
âEluna helped.â Arren smiled and sat back with his good arm behind his head. âI think Iâll do it again soon. Itâd be better than lying around here. Even with you and Eluna to talk to.â
âSure thing!â said Bran. âThe markets werenât nothinâ! Thereâs a heap of other stuff tâsee anâ do around the place. Maybe we could even go tâthe Hatchery.â He remembered what his mother had said, and laughed dryly.
Arren, though, sounded interested. âThe Hatchery would be good. We could visit Roland. Youâd like him. Heâs funny.â
âYeh know me, Arren. I like meetinâ new people.â
âYeah, you do,â said Arren. âEven ones like me.â
âArren, Iâm glad I met yeh,â said Bran.
Arren looked up. âReally?â
âYeah. You ainât like nobody I ever met before. Life ainât never gonna be so borinâ again now I know yeh.â
âI thought you were going to leave once I got better.â
âNo way Iâm doinâ that.â Bran grinned. âFace it, Arren, yer stuck with me. Stick around anâ Iâll teach yeh all kinds of stuff yeh ainât gonna learn from other griffiners.â
âAll the stuff us common types know about.â Bran waved a hand. âDrinkinâ, swearinâ, fightinâ dirty. All stuff yeh gotta know tâget by in the world.â
âI think,â Arren said carefully, âI wouldnât mind learning some of that.â
âWell then, I think yeh got yerself a deal!â Bran held out the hand. âFriends?â
Arren linked fingers with Bran, and gave a quick tug â just like a griffiner. âFriends.â
âYou anâ me, mate,â Bran said. âWeâre gonna show âem.â
Arren grinned. âI canât wait.â
Eluna looked on, and though she said nothing even Bran could sense her approval. For the first time he felt a kind of kinship with the griffin, if only because they had both seen the same thing: that it was time for Arren â complicated, lonely, insecure Arren â to face the world at last.
Bran hoped that he, at least, would know what to do when things got rough. And they would. They always did. But even if he couldnât help, Eluna would. After all, what was there to be afraid of when you had a griffin for a friend?
Whatâs to be afraid of when yeh got friends at all? Bran told himself. Not much, Iâd say.