Bran and Arren

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. ‘Come on, will yeh? I have to go help Mam at the stall.’

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. ‘Now, I gotta get goin’. Don’t forget t’lock the house. An’ Bran – tell yer mother I said t’pick up a new porrige pot. This one’s had it.’

‘I got it, Dad.’

‘That’s my lad.’ Haig put on his sword-belt, sword and all, and left the house.

‘Put yer boots on,’ Bran’s sister told him as she scrubbed a spoon. ‘I wanna get there quick.’

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. ‘Hurry up, Finna!’

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 – 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. ‘Mornin’, Mam.’

‘Glad yer finally got yer lazy arse out of bed,’ she said by way of a greeting. ‘Get them balls laid out, wouldyer?’

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 mother’s biggest seller.

Brella stuffed some cloth flowers into a jar, arranging them attractively. ‘Careful with them griffins, Finna. Keep the wings straight.’ She pulled a petal into place. ‘Oh, now, that reminds me. Did I tell yeh – yesterday I got a very special customer while you two were off somewhere.’

‘Who was that, then?’ Bran asked as he retreived a stray ball.

Brella paused, for effect. ‘The great Lord Rannagon himself, that’s who.’

Finna dropped the griffin she was holding. ‘Yer jokin’!’

‘Sure as I’m standin’ here!’ Brella beamed. ‘Lord Rannagon himself! There he was just walkin’ past with that great yellow griffin climbin’ along on them rooftops over there. I thought I’d swallowed me own heart.’

‘So he bought somethin’?’ Bran said.

‘One of my griffins, for his little girl,’ Brella nodded. ‘He said it was the best one he’d ever seen an’ he just knew she’d love it. He paid me extra for it, too.’

Bran whistled. ‘Wish I coulda been there t’see that. Seein’ a griffiner up close – that’d be somethin’.’

‘Yeah. Only time we see ’em’s when they’re flyin’ over our heads,’ said Finna. ‘Why walk when yeh got a griffin?’

‘I’d give my head t’fly on one of them,’ Bran sighed.

His mother shuddered. ‘Not me. Them things scare me half t’death. You got them balls lined up, Bran?’

‘Already on the wooden stuff, Mam.’

‘Good. Now, are yeh gonna stick around an’ help with the sellin’, or is there somethin’ else what needs doin’?’

‘Oh-,’ Bran swore under his breath. ‘Dad said t’get a new porrige pot. I nearly went an’ forgot there.’

‘Go see if the pot stall’s open, then,’ said Brella. ‘Yeh know the one I like. Here, this oughta be enough.’

Bran took the handful of oblong and stuffed it in his pocket. ‘See yeh in a bit.’

‘Don’t be long,’ his mother said.

Bran ducked back under the bench and strolled off into the marketplace.

He didn’t hurry – 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 didn’t 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.

‘That’s good work there,’ the old man told him. ‘A nice solid bottom.’

‘Just like yer wife, eh?’ Bran grinned.

The old man cackled. ‘Sure enough, an’ that’s just how I like it.’

Bran cringed. ‘Okay, that was more than what I needed t’hear this early in the day.’ 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. ‘Shit! A bloody griffin!’

A scream pierced the air. It came from somewhere near where the griffin had gone.

‘What was that?’ the old pot seller exclaimed. ‘That sounded like a-,’

‘That’s a kid!’ Bran dumped the pot on the bench, and ran in the direction of the sound.

The buildings close to the market district weren’t 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 – the builders hadn’t 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 child’s.

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.

‘Hey!’ he took a few steps forward. ‘Hey, stop that!’

The griffin looked up sharply, and its big silver eyes widened. ‘Krrrrssshh!’ it hissed, and prodded at the injured child below it.

Bran’s heart pounded. ‘Leave him alone!’ he shouted. He groped for a weapon – anything. There was nothing. He came onward anyway, raising a hand. ‘Stop it! Don’t yeh dare hurt him, yeh big monster! Stop it, or-,’ he hesitated, before a memory of something his father had once said flashed into his mind. ‘Stop it or I’ll tell the Eyrie. You ain’t supposed t’hurt people. They’ll put yeh in the Arena!’

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 boy’s side. ‘Are yeh oka-,’

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 – probably no older than Bran himself, but…

The word drifted into Bran’s mind in a whisper. Blackrobe.

The boy’s 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 boy’s free hand twitched – the fingers were long and pale. ‘Help me,’ he rasped.

Bran shook himself. Moving very carefully, he tried to lift the boy into a sitting position. The boy screamed at that – an awful, wrenching scream that froze Bran’s blood.

Bran took his hands away quickly. ‘Oh Gryphus. Oh sweet Gryphus. I dunno what t’do. Gryphus help me, what do I do?’

The boy breathed rapidly, his thin chest heaving up and down. ‘Help… Eyrie,’ he said, his voice broken with pain. ‘Take me… Eyrie.’

‘All right.’ Bran thought quickly, trying to remember what his parents had said to do when someone was hurt. ‘Where does it hurt?’

The boy shuddered. ‘…arm.’

‘Yer arm, then. All right. Can yeh get up?’

The boy made a convulsive movement, jerking his head and one shoulder. He groaned and lay still again. ‘No. No, no. Can’t. My legs.’

Bran winced. ‘Is it all right if I carry yeh, then?’

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 boy’s chest, and stood up.

The boy hung passively, his legs dangling. His skin felt damp and hot.

‘Now then,’ said Bran, trying to keep calm. ‘Didyer say the Eyrie? Just nod.’

The boy nodded.

‘Can they help yeh there?’

Another nod.

Thoroughly confused now, Bran set out toward the Eyrie. He hadn’t 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. ‘Who are yeh? There’s no way… yeh can’t be…’

The boy stirred and opened his eyes. They were black. ‘Someone pushed me,’ he whispered. ‘They took my bag. Someone pushed me off.’

‘Pushed yeh off what-?’ Bran recalled the scaffolding, and groaned to himself. ‘Not that. Not from up there. Last week someone died fallin’ off there.’

‘They pushed me,’ 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.

‘I’m Bran,’ he told him. ‘Well, it’s Branton really. Branton Redguard. Bran’s fine, though. My Dad’s a guard – a Captain. He’s in charge of one of the guard towers ’round the edge of the city. We Redguards’ve been guards for ten generations, yeh know. That’s how we got our name, my Granddad used t’say. Red for the uniform, guard for the guard.’

The boy stirred a little at the sound of Bran’s voice.

‘What’s your name, then?’ Bran asked.

The boy’s eyes stayed closed. ‘Arren,’ he rasped.

‘Arren, eh?’ said Bran, doing his best to sound jovial. ‘Nice t’meet yeh, Arren.’

He had worried that he wouldn’t 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. ‘Rast, can yeh help us out here?’

The man gaped at him. ‘What the-? Is that a blackrobe?

‘He’s hurt,’ Bran snapped, aware of the white griffin coming up behind him. ‘He said t’bring him here. Can yeh go get someone, or somethin’.’

The other guard tapped the ground with his spear-butt. ‘We can’t go lettin’ anyone in who asks. Not if we don’t know who they are.’

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. ‘Go,’ he said hoarsely. ‘Follow Eluna.’

There was no arguing with a griffin. Stomach churning, Bran followed her through the entrance. ‘Sorry, Rast,’ he called as he passed. ‘This ain’t my idea, I swear.’

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 didn’t linger. She led Bran to a large ramp that went up the inside of the tower, and bounded up it. Bran followed more carefully. He’d never had to use a ramp like this one, though he’d seen plenty of them around. They were put in especially in places griffins used. Apparently, paws and talons didn’t 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.

‘Arren!’ she exclaimed. ‘Mighty Gryphus, what happened?’

The boy opened his eyes. ‘I fell.’

‘I found him in the street,’ Bran said awkwardly. ‘Uh… milady, uh… he said t’bring him here…’

The woman was already retreating into her home, waving at Bran to come in. ‘Hurry, bring him in and lay him down here.’

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 wouldn’t 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. Healer’s 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 Arren’s cries.

Grim-faced, the woman went to the table and began mixing up a medicine. ‘Where did you find him?’ she asked, without looking around.

‘Not far from the markets, milady,’ Bran said, bowing instinctively. ‘There was one of them buildings what hasn’t been finished yet. I saw that white griffin fly down there, an’ there was this scream…’

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 – something close to speech, but nothing like anything Bran had ever heard.

To Bran’s 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 Bran’s presence completely. Bran started to wonder if he should leave, but then she turned to look at him.

‘Eluna says he was pushed from a rooftop by a pair of boys about your age. Do you know anything about that?’

Bran took a step back. ‘No, milady. I was at the pot stall buyin’ a new pot for my Mam, milady. I never saw this boy before in my life.’

Eluna rasped something, and the woman’s expression became friendlier.

‘She said you were a great help. She couldn’t have carried Arren back here on her own.’

Bran shuffled his feet. ‘I would’ve done the same for anyone, milady.’ He looked past her, at the comatose Arren. ‘Is he gonna be okay, milady?’

Her mouth tightened. ‘His arm is broken in two places, and he’s taken a blow to the head as well.’

‘He said he couldn’t move his legs, milady,’ Bran added.

She winced. ‘That’s… not good.’

‘Is he crippled, then, milady?’

The woman was busy examining Arren’s legs. ‘It could be the blow to his head, or maybe his spine is damaged. Right now it’s too early to be certain. But I think he’ll live.’

‘That’s good. Well.’ Bran smiled. ‘When he wakes up, tell him I said good luck.’

‘I will. You can go now, and thankyou.’

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 couldn’t 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 Bran’s 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, an’ 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 Arren’s bag.

Bran didn’t 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.

‘There you are. What took yer so long? Didya find out what that noise was?’

‘Some poor sod fell over an’ broke his arm,’ Bran said. ‘I took him to a healer.’

‘Poor bugger. That was good of yer. Well, see yer later.’

Bran took the pot, and went back to his mother’s stall.

 

*

 

Several days passed. Bran kept Arren’s 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 – how could anyone be heartless enough to steal from him?

Those weren’t 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 enemies’ crops fail and their animals die.

The idea that one of them could be a griffiner was… well, it was insane, that was what it was.

What only increased Bran’s 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 couldn’t hate him or be afraid of him, not after seeing him that way, all hurt and frightened.

And then there was the bag. Bran hadn’t 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 Bran’s mind up. He didn’t want to keep it, and he didn’t 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 didn’t know.

Rast greeted him with a scowl. ‘Got any griffins followin’ along this time?’

‘Nope, it’s just me this time. How are yeh?’

Rast ignored the question. ‘What d’you want this time, boy?’

‘Yeh know that poor kid I brought in last week?’ said Bran. ‘I wanted t’see how he was doin’.’

‘I’ll ask an’ let yer know.’

Bran had been expecting this. He held up the bag. ‘This belongs t’him. I was gonna give it back.’

‘I’ll take it in later.’ Rast made a grab for it.

Bran held it out of reach. ‘C’mon, lemme in. I just wanted t’go say hello. I ain’t gonna steal nothin’.’

‘Go away,’ Rast growled. ‘We don’t just let people walk into the Eyrie.’

His fellow guard yawned. ‘Oh, let him in. He’s doing no harm. The poor little blackrobe probably wants company, anyway.’

Arren was alive, then. Bran saluted the guard and went inside before Rast could object.

He couldn’t 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.

‘Excuse me? Anyone in there?’

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.

Kraaaa! Sheeekyaak reeee aooo!’ the griffin rasped out the sounds, bearing down hugely on the hapless Bran.

Bran cowered, holding up his hands to protect his face. ‘Please don’t hurt me!’ his voice came out as a strangled wimper. ‘I just – just came to bring the – thing… bag! I brought the bag back, honest, that’s all, oh Gryphus help me-,’

Without any warning the griffin backed off, making more sounds, but not in Bran’s direction. Then, thank Gryphus, the healer woman appeared.

‘You!’ her eyes narrowed. ‘What are you doing here?’

Bran held out the bag like a shield. ‘I just wanted t’see how Arren was doin’, honest. I brought this. It’s his bag. I ain’t done nothin’ wrong, I swear, please…’

The woman relaxed. ‘Raee thought you were a tresspasser. Which you are, but thankyou for bringing this back. Poor Arren’s been heartbroken over losing it.’

Bran made himself breathe deeply. ‘So he’s all right then, milady?’

‘He’s doing fairly well. You can come in and see him, if you like. I think he’d enjoy some company.’

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. ‘Hello. Aren’t you the boy who found me?’

The voice, clear now, had the smooth accents of a griffiner.

Without even thinking about it, Bran bowed. ‘Just came t’see how yeh were doin’, Arren.’

‘Badly,’ the boy said curtly. ‘Is that all you came to ask?’

‘Well, no.’ Bran fumbled for the bag. ‘I found this; thought it was yours.’

Arren’s closed expression disappeared, and his face lit up. ‘That’s my bag!’

‘That’s right.’ Bran grinned. ‘I recognised the feathers on it.’

‘Give it here,’ Arren said, eagerly. His broken arm was in a sling, but he took the bag with his good hand and fumbled with the straps.

‘I can help-,’ Bran began.

‘I can do it.’ Arren undid the first of the buckles, then began on the other. ‘I thought I’d lost it forever. Thank gods! Is everything still inside?’

‘I never opened it,’ said Bran. ‘Didn’t want t’go fiddlin’ with yer stuff.’

‘Thankyou. I spent all my money on what’s in this bag.’

‘Really?’ said Bran.

‘Yes.’ Arren gave him a very serious look. ‘It’s precious. I only went out that day so I could get it.’

‘Yeh’d been to the markets then, had yeh?’ said Bran.

‘Yes. To buy this.’ Arren finally got the bag open, and looked inside. He smiled in a satisfied kind of way. ‘They didn’t take it!’

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. ‘That’s it?’

‘Of course,’ 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. ‘Thankyou so much… what’s your name, anyway?’

‘I’m Bran. Branton Redguard.’

‘Oh, that’s 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.’ He stroked the white griffin’s head tenderly, and smiled when she huffed at him through her nostrils.

‘I’d’ve helped anyone who needed it,’ Bran said. ‘I’m glad t’see yeh all right. How’s the arm?’

‘It hurts like anything when I move it, but it’ll get better. I don’t care about that.’

‘What about the – yer legs? Did they get better?’

‘I can’t move them,’ Arren told him matter-of-factly. ‘I haven’t been out of bed since I fell.’

‘That’s awful,’ said Bran. ‘What’re yeh gonna do?’

‘Wait,’ Arren said. ‘That’s all. Just wait.’

‘Will it get better, then?’

‘Maybe. Lady Bidelea says my spine is damaged. If we wait long enough, it might heal up.’ Arren pulled the comb through his curls again, rearranging them until they were neat enough to satisfy him. ‘There, that’s better.’

Bran chuckled. ‘Yeh just about got that hair under control now. Lucky I brought that comb back.’

‘Yes, it was. I can pay you for that.’

‘No need,’ said Bran. ‘I’m just glad t’see yeh better.’

Arren cocked his head. ‘You were worried about me?’

‘Well, yeah,’ said Bran. ‘Why not after what happened to yeh?’

‘Hm.’ Arren was looking at him with a new interest. ‘Sit down, if you want. Tell me about yourself.’

Bran found a stool, and dragged it to the side of the bed that wasn’t occupied by Eluna. Once he was seated, Arren lay and listened in silence while he talked about his life – describing his home and his family, and what he did all day.

‘Soon I’ll be ready t’join the guards, just like my dad. I’m gonna learn all about how t’fight an’ how t’do all the other stuff a guard has t’do.’

‘Like what?’ said Arren. He sounded genuinely interested.

‘All kinds of stuff,’ said Bran. ‘Holdin’ people right so they don’t get away, checkin’ cells t’make sure there’s nothin’ hidden in there, dealin’ with big crowds – even how t’hold off a griffin.’

Arren smiled. ‘That’s something everyone should know how to do, even if they’re not a griffiner.’

You are,’ said Bran, looking at Eluna.

‘I am.’

‘But how?’ Bran couldn’t stop himself now. ‘How can you be a griffiner? Yer a-,’

‘A what?’ Arren’s voice had gone low and dangerous.

‘Well, yeh just a… well, a kid,’ said Bran. ‘They don’t let people our age even go in the Hatchery. I should know, ’cause I tried once. That crazy ole Roland told me t’clear off.’

Arren’s anger twisted into bewilderment. Then he burst out laughing. ‘That’s what you’re wondering? My gods.’

‘I’m curious,’ Bran said defensively. ‘I want t’know. Go on, I toldyer my story. Now tell me about you.’

‘Oh, all right.’ Arren fiddled with the comb. ‘There’s not much to tell, really.’

‘Go on, I’m listenin’.’

So Arren told his story, briefly and simply but with considerable pride in his voice. ‘Eluna chose me when I was small. I got into the Hatchery by accident. She wouldn’t 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 – she’s the Master of Healing. That was two years ago.’

‘I heard of yeh before,’ said Bran. ‘There’re stories, anyway. But nobody I’ve met knows yer up here. How come nobody’s seen yeh?’

‘We don’t go out in the city,’ said Arren. ‘Not in the daytime. Lady Riona said it was too dangerous; people might try and hurt us.’ He turned his head away. ‘She was right.’

‘So that day when… that accident happened, that was-?’

‘We snuck out,’ said Arren. ‘I wanted to see the marketplace. I could have asked my master to buy a comb for me, but I wanted to choose my own.’

‘That’s fair enough,’ said Bran. ‘A man’s gotta make his own choices.’

Arren looked at him now. ‘I was wrong,’ he said harshly. ‘I shouldn’t 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 couldn’t find them, and when I was near the edge one of them…’ he trailed off.

‘Those bastards.’ Bran’s fists clenched. ‘If I’d been there, I’d’ve smashed their teeth in.’

Eluna hissed some words in griffish. Arren spoke back to her, and she laid her head down again.

Bran smiled slightly. ‘Y’know, I never heard griffish in my life before I met yeh, Arren. Never even saw a griffin up close.’

‘It’s just a language,’ said Arren. ‘Anyone can learn it. I did.’

Bran shook his head. ‘It ain’t the sorta thing for the likes of me.’

‘Really?’ Arren looked slyly at him. ‘I can teach you, you know. If you want me to.’

‘Me, learn griffish?’

Arren picked up his book again. ‘You saved my life. I owe you something. I need to sleep now, but come back tomorrow and I’ll teach you some griffish words. How does that sound?’

‘I dunno,’ said Bran.

‘Go on. It’s a useful thing to know. Besides, I need something to do.’

‘All right, but how am I gonna get in? The guards barely let me in this time; there’s no way they’d go it again.’

‘Easy. Just show them this.’ 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 griffin’s head design, and it glittered yellow in the candlelight.

‘My gods, is this gold?’

‘Yes, it is,’ Arren said carelessly. ‘Don’t lose it. And don’t tell anyone you have it.’

Bran stuffed it into his pocket. ‘That’s a promise, Arren.’

 

*

 

True to his word, Bran returned the following day. When he arrived at her quarters, Lady Bidelea greeted him pleasantly.

‘He’s been waiting for you,’ she said. ‘Go right in.’

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.

‘Good morning, Bran. Did you sleep well?’

‘Fine. How are yeh feelin’ today?’

‘Better. Now then, sit down and let’s get started.’

Bran had never heard someone his own age – let alone someone younger than him – 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.

‘Now, I thought I’d start with something useful,’ Arren was saying. ‘For if you’re ever threatened by a griffin. They always respect somebody who knows griffish. Now, listen carefully and repeat after me.’

Bran did, sounding out the odd griffin-sounds. It was hard; the pronounciation was unlike anything he had ever encountered. This wasn’t just another language – 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 – 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 hadn’t left Arren’s beside, watched for a while. Eventually she got up and walked off with a contemptuous huffing sound.

Bran felt his face turn hot. ‘I ain’t never gonna get this right.’

‘It took me my whole life to learn,’ Arren told him. ‘You can’t expect to do it in one day! Even griffins have to learn. Just keep practising and you’ll get it in the end. Do it while you’re doing something else, that works well. Just don’t give up.’

‘I’ll try.’

Arren gave a one-armed shrug. ‘If you want to learn, then do it. If not… don’t. We can stop now.’

‘Should I go, then?’ Bran asked.

‘If you want to.’

Bran could tell Arren wanted him to stay. ‘We can talk about somethin’ if yeh like.’

‘Tell me a story,’ said Arren. ‘And then I’ll tell you one.’

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.

‘What sort of story do you want to hear next?’ Arren asked when it was his turn.

Bran knew, but he hesitated. ‘I was wonderin’…’

‘Yes?’

Bran screwed up his courage, and ploughed ahead. ‘I want t’hear somethin’ about… well, your people.’

Something withdrew in Arren’s expression. ‘My people?’ he said, as if he had no idea what the words meant.

It was too late to turn back now. ‘Tell me a Northern story,’ Bran said. ‘I don’t know any at all, an’ I thought you might.’

‘Why?’ Arren began to look sulky. ‘Why should I know? Why would you want to hear it?’

‘Well, ’cause I suddenly thought I don’t know nothin’ about the Northerners. I never met one before yeh. It’s all right if yeh don’t know any good Northern stories; I was just askin’.’

‘I don’t know why you would,’ Arren muttered. ‘It’s all nonsense anyway. My stupid father won’t shut up about it. He doesn’t know anything.’

This was the first time Bran had heard him mention his parents. ‘Where is yeh dad, anyway?’

‘Oh, he lives down in Idun and makes boots with my mum. I don’t visit them much.’

‘Didn’t they come see yeh after yeh got hurt?’

‘No. They don’t know what happened.’

Bran stared at him. ‘What, nobody told ’em? Why not? Yeh might have died!

‘Lady Bidelea asked if I wanted her to send a message, but I said no,’ Arren said carelessly. ‘What good would it have done?’

‘They’re yer parents!’ said Bran. ‘Gryphus’ talons, if I was hurt my dad would-,’

‘Well my dad wouldn’t,’ Arren snapped. ‘He doesn’t care about me.’

‘Why, is he angry with yeh?’

‘He doesn’t think I should be a griffiner. He doesn’t understand anything; he just wants me to stay with him and make boots. But I’m a griffiner now, and he can’t stop me. And I’m not going to go back there and be a stupid blackrobe. Not for all the money in the world.’ 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 didn’t know what to do. ‘Did he try an’ stop yeh?’

‘Yes, he did, and then he hit me. I don’t care if he doesn’t know anything that happens to me any more.’

‘What about yer mother?’

‘Well… she’s all right.’ Arren calmed down slightly. ‘But she’s 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 won’t. Griffish is my language.’

An awkward silence followed. Arren glared at Bran, daring him to disagree.

Bran tried to grin. ‘Maybe yeh could tell me a story about griffiners, instead.’

‘No,’ said Arren. ‘You wanted to hear about Northerners, didn’t you? Then I’ll tell you a story about one. I heard it from Lord Rannagon himself.’

Lord Rannagon told yeh stories?’

‘That’s right. He’s a great man, Lord Rannagon. One day he’ll be Eyrie Master. Nobody doubts that.’

‘The whole city’d like that,’ said Bran. ‘So, what’s this story he told yeh?’

Arren cleared his throat, and began.

‘In the North, there’s a great city called Malvern. It’s 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 didn’t 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 wasn’t 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.

‘The woman’s 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.

‘Lord 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 Arddryn’s 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.’

Bran whistled. ‘So that’s how he got so famous. I mean, I knew about the war an’ whatnot, but I never knew much about everything Lord Rannagon did, an’ who started it.’

‘That’s why people were scared of me,’ Arren added. ‘They thought I might be like her. That’s why I don’t go out.’ He chuckled. ‘It’s silly. I’m just a boy, what could I do? Besides, I would never betray Lady Riona. Or Lord Rannagon either.’

Of course yeh wouldn’t, Bran thought. From the sound of it, yeh love them more than yer own parents.

‘Anyway, that’s my story,’ said Arren. ‘Now it’s your turn.’

 

*

 

And that was how Bran and Arren’s 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 didn’t take long before he stopped thinking of him as a Northerner at all – the label was just too simplistic to be hung on an entire human being, especially one as complicated as Arren proved to be. Arren wasn’t 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 Bran’s presence. She wouldn’t let him touch her, though. Only a griffin’s own human could do that.

‘She won’t leave me any more,’ Arren explained one day, in a low voice. ‘She blames herself for what happened to me, and she says she’ll never let me go anywhere alone ever again. I don’t mind.’

Bran tried to imagine what it would be like to be shadowed by such a massive creature every moment of his life. He couldn’t, and he didn’t want to either. Still, he came to like Eluna as well. She was so graceful, and her attention to Arren was almost motherly.

Bran’s family, however, didn’t like what he was doing.

‘Where are yeh goin’ every mornin’, son?’ Haig demanded. ‘Yer mother’s been complainin’ about it. Yeh know she needs yer help on the stall. I thought better of yeh than that, Bran.’

This was just what Bran had been dreading. ‘I come back an’ help again after I get back…’

‘That ain’t good enough. Yer up to somethin’, Bran, an’ don’t try an’ hide it. I ain’t so stupid as yeh take me for, boy.’ Haig looked sternly at him. ‘Now out with it.’

Bran fidgeted. ‘I made a new friend.’

‘Hm. This new friend wouldn’t happen t’be a girl, now would she?’ Haig gave off the hint of a knowing smile.

‘No.’

‘No?’ Haig’s brow furrowed. ‘Who’s so important that yeh have t’run off every damn mornin’ t’see him, but yeh haven’t said a word about him or brought him over t’meet us?’

Bran took a deep breath, and launched into his story. ‘Yeh know how I helped that boy who’d hurt himself?’

‘Yeah. It’s him, then, is it?’

Bran nodded. ‘He’s hurt his back an’ he can’t get out of bed. I been visitin’ him. Seein’ how he’s gettin’ on, like.’

‘So that’s it? That’s nice of yeh, but why keep quiet about it like that?’

‘He’s kinda… different,’ said Bran. ‘I didn’t know what yeh’d say.’

‘Different?’ Bran’s mother had been listening closely, and now came over. ‘Different how?’

Bran twisted his fingers. ‘He’s… he’s a griffiner.’

Both of his parents’ suspicious expressions melted into total shock.

‘A griffiner?’ Haig took Bran by the shoulder. ‘I swear, if yer makin’ this up-,’

‘I ain’t!’ Bran fumbled in his pocket, and brought out the ring. ‘See? He gave me this, so’s they’d let me into the Eyrie t’see him.’

Brella took it, and breathed in sharply. ‘Is this gold?’

‘Yeah. Give it back, it’s his.’

Haig took it from his wife, and examined the seal. ‘Holy Gryphus! That’s a griffiner ring – I seen one before!’

‘See?’ Bran took it back. ‘I ain’t lyin’.’

‘Bran, that’s amazing!’ Brella beamed. ‘My son, friends with a griffiner! Savin’ his life!’

‘Hang on,’ said Haig. ‘I thought yeh said he was just a boy.’

‘He is,’ said Bran. ‘He ain’t no older’n I am.’

‘So did he give yeh money for helpin’ him?’

‘He said he could, but I said no,’ said Bran.

‘What?’ Brella looked aghast. ‘We coulda been rich, Bran! What were yeh thinkin’?’

‘I don’t think he’s got that much money,’ said Bran. ‘Anyway, I don’t need payin’ t’help someone what needs it.’

‘Why wouldn’t he have money?’ said Haig. ‘He’s a bloody griffiner!’

‘He’s only apprenticed,’ said Bran. ‘He ain’t got a position yet. An’ he ain’t got rich parents. But he’s teachin’ me griffish t’say thanks.’

‘Griffish! Is he allowed t’do that?’

‘I s’pose. No-one’s stoppin’ him.’

‘That’s just great,’ Haig said. ‘My son, speakin’ griffish! So are yeh gonna go see him again tomorrow?’

‘If yeh don’t mind,’ said Bran. ‘He’s gettin’ some strength back in his legs, so I’m gonna help him start walkin’ again.’

‘Of course yeh can go!’ said Haig. ‘Nobody with any sense stays away from bein’ friends with a griffiner. Imagine everythin’ yeh could get out of it! Maybe they’d even let yeh go in the Hatchery one day!’

Bran, seeing the joyful faces of his parents, suddenly felt dirty. ‘Yeah,’ he muttered. ‘I guess so.’

 

*

 

He did indeed go back to see Arren the next day, but the dirty feeling stayed.

What if I’m only stayin’ around ’cause he’s a griffiner?

But the uncertainty went away when Bran went into Arren’s 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.

‘Bran! Hello! Look what I can do!’ 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. ‘See? I knew yeh’d walk again! Ain’t nothin’ keeps Arren the griffiner down for long, eh?’

Arren was panting, but excited. ‘Nothing! I’ve been practising – it’s not easy, but I’m getting there. My legs are getting stronger. My master gave me some exercises to do.’

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. ‘Now, get some sleep. More practise tomorrow, an’ then you an’ me are goin’ somewhere together.’

Arren yawned. ‘Oh really? Where?’

‘We’re goin’ on a walk through the markets, an’ I’m gonna let yeh meet my Mam an’ my sister.’

‘Oh. Oh, no, I can’t do that. No. I’m sorry.’

‘Yeh can do it, an’ yeh will,’ Bran said firmly.

‘I don’t want to.’

‘What are yeh scared of? Eluna’s gonna be there, an’ me too.’

‘I don’t want anyone to see me,’ Arren whined.

‘Yeh can’t stay hidden away in here forever, Arren. The longer yeh leave it, the worse it’s gonna get.’

‘But what if someone tries to hurt me again?’ there was real fear in Arren’s voice.

Bran smacked his fist into his palm. ‘Anyone even looks funny at yeh, I’ll knock his block off.’

Eluna pushed forward suddenly, her tail lashing. ‘Shaeee,’ she hissed. ‘Rrrraaark kaaa-yee. Kroooo ae keerk.’

‘She wants you to go now,’ Arren said, from behind her.

Bran backed off smartly. ‘All right, just tell her not t’hurt me.’

‘It’s all right. She’s not angry, she just wants you to go home now. I’ll see you tomorrow.’

 

*

 

Once Bran had gone, Eluna turned back to her human with a satisfied look.

Arren sat back and leaned his crutches against the wall. ‘What was that for? I could have argued him out of it.’

Eluna sat on her haunches. ‘Bran was right, Arren.’

‘I don’t have to do what he says.’

‘Perhaps not, but you must do as I say.’

‘I do not.’

Eluna came closer, huge and smelling of musty fur. ‘I 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.’ She said it firmly, but without aggression.

‘Why should I go out?’ Arren demanded. ‘There’s nothing out there for me. You know what happened last time.’

Eluna turned her head away. ‘I am ashamed.’

‘It’s all right,’ said Arren. ‘It wasn’t your fault-,’

‘I 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.’

Despite himself, Arren giggled. ‘I don’t have a tail.’

Eluna turned on him with a hiss. ‘Do 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.’

‘What service?’

‘That 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.’

Arren said nothing.

‘I thought that was what you had always wanted,’ Eluna said gently. ‘To 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.’

Arren’s eyes were bright. ‘I will,’ 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. ‘Ain’t you lookin’ fancy today.’

Arren lifted his chin. ‘This is my best tunic. My master gave it to me for my birthday – it was her son’s.’

‘Everyone’s gonna be impressed,’ said Bran.

Eluna made a croaking sound and turned slightly, lifting one wing. Her furry hindquarters had been groomed until they shone.

‘Well of course yeh look nice, Eluna,’ Bran said smoothly. ‘Yeh always look nice, so I’d never’ve expected nothin’ else.’

Arren pulled a bemused face. ‘“Never have expected nothing”… ? My gods, what did plain Cymrian ever do to you?’

‘I ain’t learned no fancy talk,’ Bran shrugged. ‘I’m just a boy from the marketplace, what’d I know? C’mon, let’s go show that city we’re ready for anythin’!’

‘I’ll be right behind you, Bran. Show me the way.’

And so Bran led Arren – and Eluna too – 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 Arren’s 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. ‘They’re all looking at me.’

‘Let ’em look,’ said Bran. ‘Everyone stares when a griffiner goes by.’

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?

That’s a Northerner!

Why?

I thought they were all gone.

Blackrobe!

Bran pretended not to notice. Beside him, Arren kept his face blank and didn’t look toward any of the accusing whispers. He looked as if he were completely oblivious. Bran knew that he wasn’t.

Near the inn called the Red Rat, a man accidently stumbled into Bran’s path. He pulled up short when he saw Eluna, then backed away as quickly as the press of bodies would allow.

‘Sorry,’ he stammered, looking quickly from Arren to Bran. ‘Uh… my… Lord?’

Bran gestured at Arren. ‘He’s the griffiner, thickhead.’

The man stared. ‘But he’s a blackrobe.’

Eluna’s 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. ‘Oh holy Gryphus! Help!’

Arren touched Eluna’s 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. ‘Call me that again and Eluna will tear your head off and play with it. Now go away.’

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.

‘See?’ Bran said when he and Arren were in step with each other again. ‘I toldya no-one’d dare bother yeh.’

Arren’s cheeks were flushed, and he was grinning. ‘That was fantastic. Did you see the look on his face?’

‘Sure did,’ said Bran. ‘I wouldn’t go makin’ no threats like that again if I were in yer place.’

‘I wasn’t planning to.’ Arren looked slightly annoyed. ‘How much further is it?’

‘Just up here. C’mon!’

They reached Brella’s 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. ‘Milord.’

Arren didn’t move. He looked frankly shocked. ‘Uh…’ he coughed. ‘You can stand up.’

Brella did. ‘Yeh’d be our Bran’s new friend then, milord?’

‘Yes, I am.’ Arren smiled at her. ‘And you’d be his mother. He’s told us all about you. Is this your stall?’

‘That’s right, milord. I make the finest toys in Eagleholm. Just the other day, Lord Rannagon himself came by an’ bought from me.’

‘Lord Rannagon? Oh, so that’s where he got that little furry griffin from. I saw it on his desk. You made that, did you?’

‘Yes, milord.’ Brella pointed to a row of the fluffy toys on her stall. ‘My speciality.’

‘They’re very cute. Bran, is that your sister?’

Finna had been trying to hide from Eluna, but now she saw Arren looking at her she straightened up and smoothed down her skirt. ‘Finna, milord.’

‘Pleased to meet you. I’m Arren Cardockson, and this is Eluna. Don’t worry, she won’t hurt you.’

‘Bran says as y’were hurt, milord,’ Brella said politely. ‘How are yeh recovering?’

‘I’ll be fine.’ Arren looked awkward. ‘So… uh… while I’m here, I may as well choose something to take home with me. I’ve brought some money.’

‘Of course!’ Brella beamed. ‘Choose anythin’ yeh like, milord. It’s all the best.’

Arren took in the contents of the stall. ‘One of those balls would be good. How much?’

‘Thirty oblong, milord.’

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. ‘Nine oblong. It’s nine oblong.’ He glared at his mother. She glared back.

Arren acted as if he hadn’t heard. He scooped a handful of gold out of his bag, and handed it over. ‘I’m afraid this is all I have.’

Brella counted it out. ‘Ten oblong?’

Arren offered up a thin smile. ‘They don’t pay apprentices, Brella. My master lent that to me.’

Brella reddened. ‘There’s no problem, milord, I was just surprised. Here.’ She stuffed the money into her apron pocket, and handed over the stuffed leather ball.

Arren took it one-handed. ‘Not bad. Thankyou. Now, I should be getting home. Bran, will you come with me?’

Bran caught the hint of pleading, and he nodded at once. ‘I’ll see yeh later, mam.’

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. ‘You oughta be ashamed,’ he said.

‘He’s a griffiner, Bran,’ Brella said. ‘I thought-,’

‘Well yeh thought wrong.’

Finna finally found her voice. ‘He’s a blackrobe. A bloody blackrobe! Yeh didn’t tell us he was a-,’

Bran jabbed a finger in her face. ‘He’s my friend, understand?’ he snarled. ‘Leave him be.’

He realised that everybody was staring at him. For a moment he faltered, ashamed, but his anger flared up again, and he shouted. ‘Nobody calls Lord Arren a blackrobe, understand? Not while I’m around. Anyone do that, an’ they’ll have me t’deal with.’

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. ‘Gah! When is it going to heal? Bloody thing feels like it’s about to drop off!’

Eluna, curled up nearby, chirped. ‘You speak like Bran.’

Arren looked surprised, but then he shrugged. ‘Bloody’s a good word.’ He scooped up his new ball, testing the weight with his good hand. ‘It’s almost funny how that woman tried to make me pay thirty oblong for this. As if I had that much!’ 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.

‘Damn,’ Arren sighed.

‘Here, lemme get it for yeh.’ Bran came in and went to pull it out. ‘Good, ain’t it? I help make ’em.’

‘My dad works with leather too,’ said Arren. ‘He knows all about it. He taught me some things, before I came to live here.’

‘So he knows some stuff, then,’ said Bran.

‘Everybody’s got to know something, I suppose.’

‘So.’ Bran sat down. ‘How’d yeh like the markets?’

‘They’re nice. Crowded. Rude.’

‘Just like life.’ Bran laughed at his own cleverness.

‘Bran?’

‘Yeah?’

Arren looked solemn. ‘Thankyou for making me go. I never would have done it if you and Eluna hadn’t made me. Sometimes, we have to do things we don’t want to. And sometimes it’s very important that we do them.’

‘Ain’t that the truth. But I knew yeh could do it, mate. Otherwise I wouldn’t’ve argued yeh into it. I’m glad I did.’

‘Eluna helped.’ Arren smiled and sat back with his good arm behind his head. ‘I think I’ll do it again soon. It’d be better than lying around here. Even with you and Eluna to talk to.’

‘Sure thing!’ said Bran. ‘The markets weren’t nothin’! There’s a heap of other stuff t’see an’ do around the place. Maybe we could even go t’the Hatchery.’ He remembered what his mother had said, and laughed dryly.

Arren, though, sounded interested. ‘The Hatchery would be good. We could visit Roland. You’d like him. He’s funny.’

‘Yeh know me, Arren. I like meetin’ new people.’

‘Yeah, you do,’ said Arren. ‘Even ones like me.’

‘Arren, I’m glad I met yeh,’ said Bran.

Arren looked up. ‘Really?’

‘Yeah. You ain’t like nobody I ever met before. Life ain’t never gonna be so borin’ again now I know yeh.’

‘I thought you were going to leave once I got better.’

‘No way I’m doin’ that.’ Bran grinned. ‘Face it, Arren, yer stuck with me. Stick around an’ I’ll teach yeh all kinds of stuff yeh ain’t gonna learn from other griffiners.’

‘Like what?’

‘All the stuff us common types know about.’ Bran waved a hand. ‘Drinkin’, swearin’, fightin’ dirty. All stuff yeh gotta know t’get by in the world.’

‘I think,’ Arren said carefully, ‘I wouldn’t mind learning some of that.’

‘Well then, I think yeh got yerself a deal!’ Bran held out the hand. ‘Friends?’

Arren linked fingers with Bran, and gave a quick tug – just like a griffiner. ‘Friends.’

‘You an’ me, mate,’ Bran said. ‘We’re gonna show ’em.’

Arren grinned. ‘I can’t wait.’

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 – complicated, lonely, insecure Arren – 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 couldn’t help, Eluna would. After all, what was there to be afraid of when you had a griffin for a friend?

What’s to be afraid of when yeh got friends at all? Bran told himself. Not much, I’d say.

 

*

 

 

 

Neato text ornament here