Bran the Betrayer

The sun went dark in the sky. Griffins fought and died in the air.

Malvern fell, and Bran fled.

His partner Kraeya flew for her life, over a city in flames. Once or twice an enemy griffin made a rush at her, but the red griffin skillfully avoided them, and none of them persisted. She wasn’t attacking, after all, but fleeing, and in a griffin fight the loser had to flee, cower, or die. A griffin running or flying away wasn’t a threat.

Bran huddled down on her back, holding on with difficulty. Normally he would have wrapped his arms around her neck, but he couldn’t now. He held onto her harness as well as he could, all his focus on that, and on protecting the little bundle he clutched to his chest.

His mind had gone blank, unable to take in the horrors of that day. That awful day. The voice still lingered in his ears, as if it chased him out of the city.

Get out of my city, get out of my land, and never come back! Go!

But Bran had no wish at all to stay, not any more. Everything was destroyed. Everything he had ever cared about, gone.

Eagleholm had been torn apart, and now his new home was lost as well. And it was his best friend who had done it. Or the monster his best friend had become.

For a long time, Bran had deluded himself that it wouldn’t come to this – that Arren would never do such a thing. After all, on their last meeting the man who would be ruler of the North had remembered his old friend. More than that, he had saved his life and set him free. But Bran remembered the warning Arren had given him before they parted ways.

I’m losing my memory, Bran. One day I won’t remember who Arren Cardockson was at all. You’ve got to take Flell out of there. Take her away, far away. Never let me find her, or I’ll kill her!

And Bran had said that he would, but he hadn’t kept that promise. He hadn’t taken Flell away, hadn’t believed that Arren really would forget who he used to be. But Arren had forgotten, and the man who had once been Bran’s friend was gone forever. Consumed by the Dark Lord Arenadd. And it wasn’t Arren who had done this, it was Arenadd. Arenadd who led his followers to overrun Malvern.

Arenadd who had murdered Flell as she tried to protect her child from him – the child he could not know was his own daughter.

But Arenadd did not kill the child. She was alive and Bran had saved her. He didn’t know if he had truly gotten through to whatever remained of his old friend, or if Arenadd simply couldn’t bring himself to murder an infant. But whatever it was, it had saved the child. Arenadd had commanded Bran to take her away and never let him find her.

So all was not lost. Not quite. Bran fought through his despair to see that. He still had Kraeya, and he still had his adopted daughter, and he would dedicate the rest of his life to taking care of her. She would need it. She was an orphan now, and a half breed as well, and without Bran she wouldn’t stand a chance. Hopefully, having a griffiner as her father would be enough to keep her safe, but it wouldn’t be easy. Northerners were already disliked and distrusted in the South, and after the war it would become even worse. And if anyone ever knew that she was the daughter of the most feared and hated man in the South, her life would not be worth living. Most likely she would be murdered. Guilty by blood.

It was enough to keep Bran going over the next few weeks. He and Kraeya escaped from Malvern, and barely stopped until they were past the Northgate Mountains and safely back in the South. There they took shelter wherever they could, in villages and small griffiner outposts. Bran had no money, but commoners revered griffins, and they gave him and Kraeya food and shelter.

Fortunately the child was old enough not to need nursing any more, but Bran felt completely inadequate as he tried to care for her. How was he supposed to know what she needed? He had helped Flell look after her back in Malvern, but Flell seemed to have some kind of instinct to know what to do which Bran lacked. He’d never spent any time with children other than his foster daughter in his whole life. He felt like a big, lumbering idiot who was in completely over his head.

‘What’re we gonna do?’ he asked Kraeya one night, while they sheltered in a barn. Rain pounded on the roof, and the baby was crying again, and he couldn’t figure out why or what he should do about it.

The red griffin lay on her belly and looked out through the partly open door. She sighed like an old dog. ‘We cannot live in nests such as these forever. We must find a new Eyrie, and quickly.’

Bran had only ever gained a crude understanding of griffish, and he listened carefully while she spoke. He managed to pick up the gist of it, and frowned to himself.

‘Find an Eyrie, yeh say?’

‘Yes,’ Kraeya said patiently. She was fairly docile as griffins went, which was why she hadn’t bitten him for his terrible griffish. ‘This is no home for us.’

‘Right,’ said Bran. ‘An’ we should be quick because there’s gonna be other griffiners what got away looking for new homes.’

‘That is true,’ said Kraeya.

Bran did his best to comfort the wailing baby. ‘There, there, Laela. It’s all right. Which one’re we gonna go to, then?’

‘Canran is the closest,’ said Kraeya. ‘They have sent many partnered griffins away to fight for Eagleholm’s territory, so they will welcome newcomers.’

‘All right, then,’ said Bran. He was prepared to trust her judgement over his own, even though she was just as inexperienced as him. ‘Do yeh know the way there?’ he added.

‘I do not, but I shall find it,’ Kraeya said confidently. ‘It is Northward, near the mountains. It should not be far to go.’

‘Let’s do it, then,’ said Bran, feeling a little relieved that they at least had something approaching a plan. ‘I heard as the Eyrie Master there’s called Lord Holm. Dunno what his partner’s called.’

‘Dekrak,’ said Kraeya. She yawned. ‘Rest now, and we will fly to him in the morning.’

They might have rested after that, but neither of them got much sleep. Kraeya sleepily kept watch, while Bran tried hopelessly to comfort Laela. Even though she wasn’t quite a year old yet, it was as if she had some idea of what had happened to her mother, and of what she had barely escaped from. Bran wished that his own memory of it could be as vague as hers must be.

‘It’s all right,’ he kept telling her, wondering who he was really trying to convince. ‘It’s all right. Laela.’ He held her close. ‘Laela, yeh safe. I swear. I’ll keep yeh safe. He can’t find yeh here, never . . .’

But Laela didn’t seem to believe him, and she didn’t stop crying for a long time. When she did, she finally fell asleep. Exhausted, most likely.

After that Bran, already half asleep, finally drifted off as well, one arm wrapped protectively around his foster daughter and his free hand on the hilt of his sword.

 

*

 

The next day the three of them left for Canran. Bran had modified Kraeya’s harness, attaching a belt which he strapped around Laela’s waist just in case he lost hold of her. But he kept his arms around her as well, to keep her warm. She was used to flying on griffinback by now, and spent a good part of the journey sleeping or playing with Kraeya’s neck feathers. Bran was relieved.

Kraeya might have said she didn’t know the way to Canran, but she fumbled her way to it so well that she could have fooled Bran. Over the next day or so she flew back toward the Northgate Mountains, and then followed them westward. The mountains curved southward when they reached the coastline, and Canran had been built there, not far from the coast, just North of the Feather River at the very edge of the mountains.

Bran knew that Canran was sometimes called the Cliff City, but he didn’t understand why until he saw it with his own eyes – and when he did, he marvelled. Right at the edge of the mountains, a huge cliff of red stone sheltered a valley. Canran had been built in that valley; houses and buildings all made of blocks of red stone. There was no Eyrie in sight – at least, not at first glance. But a second glance showed the truth: the cliff that overlooked Canran was the Eyrie. Windows and entrances had been carved into it, straight into the cliff-face. Griffins flew in and out of those openings like wasps around a nest.

Bran could scarcely believe his eyes. When he was younger, he had thought that Eagleholm was the greatest city in Cymria, and had never believed that any of the others could compete with it. But now he saw Canran, he realised that Eagleholm had never been close to the greatest city in the South, or the most spectacular. He decided, right there and then, that if he had to choose a new home then he could do a lot worse than this place, and if he could stay here, he would.

‘Magnificent!’ Kraeya screeched over the wind in their ears.

Bran had to agree with that.

The flat clifftop that doubled as the Eyrie roof had been turned into a garden, festooned with a surprisingly lush array of plants. Kraeya flew up there and landed by the base of a huge old tree.

‘We must wait here,’ she said as Bran unstrapped Laela and climbed down off her back. ‘They will have seen us already.’

Sure enough, the Canran griffins had spotted them. Just as it had been in Malvern on their first arrival, a small group of local griffins quickly appeared to challenge the intruders. Kraeya immediately bowed her head to them.

‘I am Kraeya,’ she said. ‘And this is my human, Branton Redguard. We have come to swear ourselves to the master of this territory.’

The Canran griffins relaxed.

‘Many others have come here to say those words,’ one of them said. ‘Dekrak and his human will come here soon. Do not move until then.’

Obediently, Bran and Kraeya stayed where they were, closely guarded by the Canran griffins. Their captors still looked a little edgy – Bran could tell from the twitching of their tails. But that was normal. Griffins were very territorial creatures, and always reacted with hostility when a stranger arrived. He stayed close to Kraeya, and kept hold of Laela, who was peering curiously at the strange griffins. She had grown up around griffins, at least, and wasn’t afraid of them. If only she weren’t a half-breed, then Bran would have expected her to become a griffiner herself some day.

After a tense wait, Canran’s dominant griffin arrived – climbing up through a concealed entrance somewhere in the garden. His human walked beside him.

The two of them came to confront their visitors, and stopped for a moment to size them up. Bran did the same in return.

Dekrak was a large male griffin, with dark brown feathers. The fur on his hindquarters was a lighter, caramel brown, and he had an attractive light stripe over each eye.

Lord Holm, meanwhile, was a small man – a head shorter than Bran himself, and a lot less muscular. That might have made him unimpressive to some, but for a griffiner, being small and light was a big advantage. Besides, while Bran wore his old leather guard armour over a grubby tunic, Lord Holm was dressed in rich blue velvet decorated with feathers and trimmed with expensive fur. His face was small and scholarly, but when he spoke his voice had all the refined command of a true Eyrie Master.

‘Good afternoon. My name is Eyrie Master Holm, and this is my partner Dekrak.’

As if on cue, Dekrak moved forward toward Kraeya. The other griffins there moved away, and Kraeya went forward, head still submissively low, and allowed the dominant griffin to inspect her. Dekrak shoved her roughly with his beak while he scented her feathers, and because she was female he pushed her lower with his forepaw and roughly groomed the back of her neck with his beak – a male’s way of showing dominance to a female.

‘What is your name and where have you flown from?’ he asked abruptly while he ran his sharp beak through her feathers.

‘I am Kraeya and I have flown from Malvern,’ she said. ‘But I was hatched at Eagleholm.’

‘And why have you come here?’ asked Dekrak.

‘Eagleholm is destroyed, and Malvern has been lost,’ said Kraeya. ‘My human and I have come to serve you.’

‘Many griffins have come here from Malvern,’ said Dekrak. His grooming became a little rougher. ‘Some were allowed to stay, but others we chased away. They flew on to Withypool, or to Wylam. Why should we welcome you here, Kraeya?’

If Kraeya disliked the treatment she was getting from him, she didn’t show it. ‘We held the place of Master of War at Malvern. We are fighters, and killed many enemies in the war.’

‘And yet you were defeated,’ Dekrak said harshly. ‘Yes?’

‘One griffin cannot fight an army,’ said Kraeya. ‘The unpartnered griffins of Malvern betrayed us.’

‘Only a weak griffin flees from a fight,’ said Dekrak.

‘Or one who has too much sense to die for a lost cause,’ said Kraeya. ‘We know that you and your human have sent your inferiors to fight for Eagleholm’s lands. There is a need for fighters now.’

‘But not for cowards,’ said Dekrak.

‘We are not cowards.’ Kraeya hissed and pulled back slightly. ‘If I must prove it, then I will fight you.’

Dekrak abruptly let her go. ‘We need griffins and humans who can fight,’ he said. ‘I will allow you to stay. But if this city is attacked and you flee from the fighting as you did in Malvern, then you may never return.’

‘I accept this,’ said Kraeya. ‘And so does my human.’

Bran nodded solemnly.

Dekrak had said his piece, and he moved back. Now that Kraeya had been accepted and stopped being a threat, the other griffins who had stood by ready for a fight lost interest and began to disperse.

Now Lord Holm spoke again. ‘Welcome, Lord Branton Redguard. And my partner is right; we do need fighters, and you certainly look like one! Where did you learn to fight?’

‘In Eagleholm,’ said Bran, hiding his relief. ‘I was in the city guard before Kraeya chose me.’

‘Ah,’ said Lord Holm. ‘I thought that your armour looked familiar. Perhaps you and Kraeya can serve the Master of Law, or the Master of War. I will consult both of them and find a position for you. In the meantime, you’ll be given food and quarters.’ He paused. ‘And who is the child?’

Bran had kept Laela’s head covered by a hood ever since leaving the North – not just to keep her warm, but to hide the telltale black curls. ‘My daughter,’ he said. ‘Laela Redguard. She lost her mother in the war.’

‘I see,’ Lord Holm said sadly. ‘Yes, war makes many orphans. Does she need a nurse?’

‘She’s weaned,’ said Bran. ‘But… honestly, I dunno much about babies. Maybe if someone could teach me about feedin’ her an’ whatnot, that’d be a help?’

‘Certainly,’ said Lord Holm. ‘Your daughter can grow up in Canran, and when she’s old enough, she can be presented to the griffins. When the fighting is over, new griffiners will be needed.’

Sadness made Bran shiver internally. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Thanks, milord.’

Fortunately, with so many griffiners already killed in the fighting, there were plenty of empty rooms left. Bran and Kraeya were quickly directed to one by a servant, who summoned some friends to clean it out and replace the bedding with astonishing speed.

Bran inspected his new home while they worked. It had been carved out of the stone of Canran’s cliff, of course, and just about everything in it was made of that red stone – even the bed was made out of a stone platform cut out of the floor, with an expensive feather mattress on top. There was a bath, too – not a portable tin one, but a stone pool that rose up out of the floor. Shelves had been cut into the walls as well, and a wardrobe complete with fitted wooden doors.

Kraeya’s place was next door, in a much larger adjoining chamber. It too had furniture carved into it – a water trough set into one wall, and a bloodstained plinth for food. A rounded hollow for sleeping had been filled with now-mouldy reeds and dry grass, which the servants were in the process of replacing.

‘Magnificent!’ Kraeya said again as she scented the air of her new home. ‘We have done well to come here.’

‘Yeah,’ said Bran. Laela started to fuss, so he put her down. She had taken her first steps shortly before her mother died, and now she slowly and laboriously pulled herself into a standing position and toddled off to investigate the water trough. One of the servants nearby stopped work for a moment and smiled fondly.

‘Aw, look at the little one,’ she said to her friend. ‘So clever!’

Bran smiled too. ‘She’ll be runnin’ about before long. I’m gonna need a cradle or somethin’ for her to sleep in if yeh’ve got anything.’

‘We do, milord,’ said the woman. ‘I’ll have one brought up straight away.’ She glanced cautiously at Bran. ‘What’s her name, milord?’

‘Laela Redguard,’ said Bran. ‘My daughter.’ He looked fondly at the tiny girl as she splashed her hands in the water trough. She was the only family he had left, he reflected, and he didn’t think he’d ever felt more protective of anyone in his life.

As if sensing his thoughts, Laela came waddling back and put her arms around his leg. ‘Dada,’ she gurgled.

Bran laughed and picked her up. ‘That’s my girl. C’mon, let’s go see what else we got here!’

By nightfall their new quarters had been cleaned and fixed up, and the servants had brought up a fine wooden cradle for Laela, and even some toys. Laela seemed to like the soft fluffy griffin toy in particular; she quickly grabbed hold of it and started chewing on its wing. Her first tooth had just started coming through while they were travelling, and she had developed a passion for chewing on things.

Lord Holm kept his word, and sent a pleasant-faced middle aged woman to visit.

‘Hello!’ she said when she saw Bran. ‘I hear you’ve a baby here who needs a little attention.’

Bran smiled. ‘More like you got a grown man what needs some teachin’.’ He showed her over to Laela’s cradle. ‘I reckon she’s healthy, but I figured there’d be some things I should know about lookin’ after her,’ he said. ‘I mean, I ain’t a woman, an’…’ he trailed off, a little desperately.

The woman had already started cooing over Laela. ‘Ooh, isn’t she a sweet one? What’s her name?’

‘Laela,’ said Bran. ‘She’s gettin’ on for a year old. Yeh got any advice for me?’

The woman picked Laela up and patted her on the back. ‘Well, she’ll need to be eating soft food until the rest of her teeth come through. Give her things to chew on though; her mouth will hurt while they grow and chewing helps.’

‘I got it,’ said Bran. ‘What sorta food should she have, then?’

‘Just any food you can make into mush,’ said the woman. ‘Bread soaked in milk is good, and fruit. Meat gives a baby strength as well – cook it until it’s crumbling and give it to her in little pieces. But you don’t have to do all that, milord. If she doesn’t have a mother, then you can find a nurse for her.’

Bran shook his head. ‘No, it’s gotta be me.’ He didn’t add that he had no money to pay a nurse anyway, and even if he had it wouldn’t have been the real reason. If anyone spent too much time with Laela they would probably take off her hood and realise she was a half-breed. And if anyone found out that he had supposedly fathered a half-breed, he would probably be hounded out of the city.

‘It’s your choice, of course,’ said the woman. ‘But feed her those things and she should do well enough. She’s too young to feed herself yet, but try and teach her how to use a spoon, and she’ll pick it up eventually.’

Bran nodded. ‘I got it. Anything else?’

‘Just keep her close,’ said the woman. ‘She needs plenty of attention, and she needs to be supervised as well. She might not look like she can do much now, but you’d be astonished by what they can get up to if you don’t keep an eye out. For example-,’ she pointed ‘-Keep her out of the griffin nest, and never let her near your partner unless you’re holding her. I know your partner wouldn’t hurt her on purpose, but griffins don’t know their own strength or understand how fragile human beings can be. And if she gets into the nest she might fall off the balcony. Keep sharp things away from her, and anything she shouldn’t put into her mouth.’

Ye gods, Bran thought. ‘I dunno how I’m gonna work an’ watch out for her at the same time.’

‘That’s why it would be a good idea to find a nurse,’ said the woman.

‘Yeah…’ Bran sighed. Clearly, this job was going to be hard. ‘Thanks for the help.’

‘It’s no trouble,’ said the woman. ‘Just do as I’ve said and it should be fine. My name’s Maura, by the way, and if you ever need any other help, just ask for me.’ She put Laela back into her foster father’s arms. ‘Keep her clean and well-fed, watch out for her, and most importantly, give her plenty of love. It’s the most important thing any parent can give a child.’

Bran smiled. ‘Thanks, Maura. I’ll do my best.’

 

*

 

And he did, but for those first few months in Canran it felt as if his best wouldn’t be even halfway useful. Bluntly, it was a nightmare.

The Master of Law, Lady Idelle, soon gave Bran a job as one of her assistants, but since he couldn’t read he could only be a lowly one. Not that he minded; too much attention might lead someone to ask inconvenient questions about Laela’s origins. It didn’t help that her eyebrows started to darken and become more noticeable around this time, and they were most definitely black. Bran kept her hair cut short and hidden, but it kept trying to grow back at an alarming speed.

Meanwhile he had a job to do, which was more or less that of a glorified guardsman. Whenever Lady Idelle had to publicly judge someone, Bran would stand by in case of escape, and command the ordinary guardsmen who restrained the accused. He was also informed that he and Kraeya were mainly employed for special cases – namely, if a griffiner ever had to be arrested. Ordinary guards wouldn’t be able to handle something like that; the griffin would probably kill them. But he and Kraeya, with the help of a couple of other minor griffiners, would be able to subdue them.

Fortunately only one such special case came up, and the accused decided to give himself up and come quietly rather than try and get away, so Bran didn’t have to do anything or be away from his rooms for too long.

He had to leave Laela alone in her crib when this sort of thing happened, and he didn’t like doing it – even though she wasn’t old enough to get out of it, she might still need him. Eventually, as Laela grew older and strong enough to start needing real supervision, Bran gave in and paid Maura to watch her while he was away – but under strict instructions that she couldn’t take the hood off. He refused to explain why, but he guessed that Maura quicky started to suspect the truth.

Thankfully, she didn’t say anything.

Meanwhile Laela grew quickly, as Maura told him all babies did at that age. The rest of her teeth gradually came through, and her body changed shape; lengthening and shedding something of her babyhood chubbiness. Her hands changed too. Not that anyone would have noticed if they weren’t looking for it, but Bran was, and he was certain that her fingers were growing longer. Clearly, she had inherited her father’s slender Northern hands as well as his black hair. But her blue eyes had come straight from her mother. Bran thanked Gryphus for that, at least. He might be able to hide the hair, but if she had been given her father’s glittering black eyes, then how on earth would he hide that?

The thought made him shudder.

But she was lively as well, and seemed intelligent too, as far as he could tell. She wasn’t overly talkative, but she would sit and listen solemnly while he told her stories about his life. He liked to talk to her, because here she and Kraeya were the only ones he could talk to properly. The only ones he could confide in, anyway. He told Laela things he would never dare tell anyone else, knowing she was too young to understand. He told her about Eagleholm, and the war. He told her about her parents. In a low voice, he told her about her father.

‘He almost killed you,’ he said softly, his big rough hand resting on her narrow shoulders. ‘He was gonna do it, I swear. He’d slit yer mother’s throat, an’ he was gonna do the same to you. He would’ve, if I hadn’t been there. I begged him not to do it, I tried t’make him remember who he was. I dunno if he did, I really don’t. But I got through somehow. I don’t reckon he knew yeh were his. How could he? Flell never told him she was pregnant, an’ he didn’t remember anyway. He’d forgotten everything. See, when yer older everyone’s gonna tell you he’s evil. Not a drop of humanity left in him. They’ll say he’s just a murderer without a heart. But I know that ain’t true. I know there’s a bit of the old Arren still in there somewhere. Whatever it is, it made him let yeh go.’

Laela stared at him in silence, as if she knew how important the things he was telling her were.

‘Thing is,’ said Bran. ‘No matter what happens, no matter what he did or what he is, he’s yer father. Yer real father. Yeh gonna go through life sayin’ yer a Redguard, but underneath yer gonna be Laela Taranisäii. But yeh won’t know it. No-one will. I’m only tellin’ yeh this now ’cause you ain’t old enough to understand. I’m never gonna tell you the truth when yer older. The truth’d be too painful, an’ too dangerous. Bad enough that yer a half-breed, but if they knew you was his daughter, yeh’d be dead.’ He heaved a sigh. ‘They never got to punish him, see, for what he did. He got away with it, an’ now he’s outta their reach. They’re gonna want someone else to blame, someone they can get to. An’ I’m damned if I’m gonna let that be you.’

Laela just stared. Her blue eyes were big and round and full of innocence, but they made Bran feel weak somehow.

‘Yer safe here,’ he told her. ‘Safe with me. I’m gonna keep yeh safe, an’ never let yeh down, ever. When yer old enough, I’m gonna teach yeh how to fight. ’Cause life ain’t gonna be easy for yeh, an’ yer gonna need it.’ He gave her a hug, and added, ‘I’m glad I got yeh, Laela. If it weren’t for you, I’d be all alone. Poor ole useless Bran, with nobody left.’

Laela hugged him back, wrapping her little arms around one of his. ‘Dada,’ she said softly.

Moments like that helped to keep him going through those painful months, which he spent rushing about from work to more work, trying to do his job without leaving his foster daughter alone for any great length of time, trying to keep her, Kraeya and himself fed, in that order, with never a moment to himself, and all the while the fear hung over him that Laela’s secret might be discovered. It was enough to run him ragged and put the first hints of grey into his beard.

In the meantime, the war continued outside Canran’s borders. He heard about it from time to time, usually from other griffiners – or those who were willing to talk to him, anyway. He was one of what were called the common griffiners; with no money, no noble blood, and no education, he was the lowliest of griffiners, and the ones native to Canran, who had all come from old, wealthy families and been raised expecting to become griffiners, looked down on him and refused to spend much time with him.

Bran didn’t care. He’d never liked griffiners much anyway. Except for Arren, of course, but he’d always been different.

Back in Eagleholm Arren had been the only Northerner chosen as a griffiner, and thanks to the “proper” griffiners who ruled the city he’d spent his time among commoners and had only been allowed into the Eyrie under sufferance.

Bran found himself thinking of his old friend often in those days, forgetting what he had eventually become and remembering the man he had been back at Eagleholm.

He remembered how Arren had spent his youth being shunted about from apprenticeship to apprenticeship, constantly dismissed for trumped-up reasons by Masters who wouldn’t admit that they simply didn’t want to see a Northerner be fully trained and become a Master himself. Even when he had become Master of Trade he hadn’t been given the home in the Eyrie, or the place on the Council, that his new position should have meant. He’d lived out in the city instead, with his partner Eluna, and his friends had been commoners like Bran.

Bran remembered him as he’d been then very well, in his patched old clothes that he nevertheless kept obsessively clean, along with the curly black hair he insisted on keeping as well-groomed as possible. He’d never made much of himself, had Arren, but he’d kept his pride – at least until Eluna died, and after that…

Bran preferred not to remember him as he’d been after that. Ragged, filthy, and all but dead inside, he had begun the slow decline that had finally driven him to become the monster who had murdered Flell and so many others.

Sometimes, in his darker moments, Bran couldn’t help but picture what might happen – how it could be if what had happened to Arren happened to his daughter as well. If Laela were to be persecuted and tortured in the same way. If she, too, lost everything. If she…

Bran couldn’t bear to imagine that, and he refused to believe it either. He wouldn’t let it happen; he’d die before he did. He swore that to himself several times, and once before the altar in Canran’s Sun Temple, where oaths were always the most solemn and unbreakable.

‘I swear,’ he said. ‘I let it happen once; I won’t let it happen again, not for anything.’

He reminded himself of that oath every time things got too much for him, and he was tempted to just give up. And, for a while at least, it looked as if he and Laela were going to survive.

 

*

 

But events outside the city were moving faster than Bran could ever have guessed. More reports started to come back to Canran’s Eyrie – reports of battle out there in what had once been Eagleholm’s lands. Wylam, Withypool and Canran had all sent their forces out to seize what they could, and now they had begun to fight among themselves. For a while Canran had the upper hand; Bran heard stories of a battle near the old village of Idun, where Arren had been born. Canran’s forces had fought those of Wylam and defeated them – the village, though, had been torn to pieces.

In the weeks following, though, Bran saw some of Canran’s forces starting to return to the city. Griffiners at first. The original Master of War returned, along with many of his offsiders. They were quick to return to their old homes, but the Master of War himself was so badly wounded that he only lived a few days after his return. After his death, his replacement – originally his apprentice – quietly took his place.

Plenty of other griffins and griffiners came back injured, and many never came back at all. Eventually the ground troops returned as well, with a small group of griffiners who had stayed with them as protection. But even Bran could see how depleted they were. Clearly, the victory had been hard-won.

That evening there was a modest feast to welcome back the returning griffiners. Bran went along, bringing Laela. She sat on his lap at the table and he fed her while he ate.

Nearby Kraeya and the other griffins helped themselves to some carcasses that had been laid out for them.

Bran had sat himself next to one of the old Master of War’s assistants, and he took the opportunity to speak with him.

‘So,’ he said. ‘What happened out there? Why’d everyone come back?’

The young griffiner had clearly seen fighting; he had one arm in a sling, and sported a nasty cut on his chin. ‘It’s over,’ he said bitterly.

‘What, the war?’ said Bran.

‘Yes. For the time being, anyway.’

‘But didn’t yeh win over at Idun?’ asked Bran.

‘We did, but it wasn’t worth it,’ said the man. ‘Who are you, anyway? I don’t recognise you.’

‘Branton Redguard. I work with the Master of Law. An’ you?’

The other griffiner eyed Laela – clearly, he thought it was a little odd for a man who looked like Bran to bring a small child to a feast. ‘Lord Amon. Is that your child?’

‘’Course,’ said Bran. ‘Say hello, Laela.’

Laela eyed Lord Amon. ‘Hullo,’ she said. It was one of the new words she had learned in Canran.

Amon smiled indulgently. ‘Isn’t she cute? Yes, well, the battle was a disaster, to put it mildly. We got them on the retreat, but the cost-,’ he shook his head. ‘We had so many dead or wounded that the old Master of War knew we couldn’t hold onto the land. Withypool’s forces were on their way, and we knew we’d be slaughtered, so we left. It seems Lord Holm decided we’re going to let Wylam and Withypool sort it out between themselves. Hopefully they’ll be too worn down by the time they’re finished that we’ll be able to take advantage. If only we hadn’t lost old Lord Argyl. He was the finest general Canran ever had.’

‘So we’re gonna send more troops out later?’ Bran suggested.

‘Yes. We should have everything ready and more recruits trained up when the time comes. And Lady Idelle tells me that plenty of new griffiners came here while we were away. I assume you’re one of them?’

‘That’s right,’ said Bran. ‘Me an’ Kraeya came here from Malvern.’

‘Oh.’ Amon looked grim. ‘Yes, you and plenty of others. The ones who survived, anyhow. But Malvern’s tragedy could be our advantage; I think most of the refugees came here, since we’re the closest. Griffiners like you could be the saving of us.’

‘Hopefully!’ Bran said politely, but inside he was glad he had Laela as an excuse for not joining the ranks of the fighting griffiners. He had already seen too many people die at the hands of Northerners, and the last thing he wanted was to be forced to fight other Southerners as well.

Greed had done this, he thought. Pure greed. If the other Eyries hadn’t been so busy squabbling over Eagleholm they might have been able to save Malvern. But they hadn’t, and now Malvern was lost all people like Amon cared about was getting more griffiners from it to help them kill their own people. It was revolting.

But, he thought, at least the worst of it was over. Canran had withdrawn, and hopefully the war would end soon.

It didn’t.

 

*

 

A month or so after this, Bran was in his room trying to coax Laela into eating some bread he’d cut up for her when every single griffin in the Eyrie burst into an earsplitting din.

‘Augh!’ Bran dropped the plate and covered his ears. Beside him, Laela burst into tears of fight. He picked her up and hugged her reassurringly while he went to see what was going on.

As he was entering Kraeya’s nest, he heard a thump as the red griffin landed on the perching ledge outside. An instant later she came bounding in in a rush of feathers and flailing tail.

‘Bran!’ she called. ‘Quickly, you must prepare to fight.’

‘What’s goin’ on?’ Bran asked sharply.

‘Enemies have come,’ said Kraeya. ‘Many of them. We are under attack.’

Bran’s stomach lurched. ‘The Northerners?’

‘No,’ said Kraeya. ‘Wylam and Withypool.’

Swearing, Bran ran back into his own room and put Laela in her cradle while he rushed to strap on his armour. His old short guard sword hung on the wall; he lifted it down and buckled it on, then grabbed the spear he had been given for his official duties.

Then he went to see what was happening for himself, darting out onto the balcony with Kraeya close beside him.

His heart leapt into his mouth when he saw it.

Griffins. Hundreds of them, swarming into the city. They moved together, as a flock, but with a purpose and organisation no other flying creature would ever show. As Bran watched, a group of them broke away and swooped low over the city. They were too far away for him to see what they were doing, but he found out moments later. Flames blossomed into the air, and a moment later a dull thud shook the ground.

‘Son of a bitch!’ Bran swore. ‘They’re usin’ shooting stars! Bloody shooting stars on their own people!’

Sure enough, a second contingent swooped down as he watched, and this time he could just barely see the huge clay jars full of burning liquid as their bearers dropped them onto the city. When they landed they exploded, destroying houses and setting large areas of the city on fire.

Nor was that all. While Canran’s griffins flew to the attack and archers took up position at windows and doorways, other, larger Withypool griffins flew up and onto the clifftop. Bran could see the human figures dangling from their talons.

‘What’re they doin’?’ he asked.

‘Bringing their human fighters into the Eyrie,’ said Kraeya. ‘They will fight their way through to here and take the Eyrie.’

‘Right.’ Bran pulled himself together. ‘What’re we gonna do? Fly away?’

‘No,’ said Kraeya. ‘Out there we will be an easy target. Here we cannot be attacked from above. We must stay here and defend this place. We should find others and fight beside them.’

‘But what about Laela?’ asked Bran. ‘I can’t take her into a fight, an’ I can’t leave her here. What’re we gonna do?’

Kraeya scratched her flank irritably. ‘You are right. I do not think that they are here to kill us all; this is a conquest, not a slaughter. And I am unwilling to die for this city.’

Laela was still crying.

‘I’m gonna stay here,’ Bran decided. ‘I’m gonna defend this room, an’ her, as long as I can. If we try goin’ anywhere, we’ll get caught in the open.’

‘Then we will stay here,’ said Kraeya. ‘I will defend you.’

So Bran stayed in his new room, and got ready for a fight as well as he could. He moved Laela’s cradle into a corner where it would be protected by the stone wardrobe, and blocked the door with any other furniture he could move. While he did that, Kraeya took up position in the outer entrance to her nest, ready to fight off any other griffins who tried to get in.

Bran readied himself, with his spear in his hands. If anyone broke down the door, he would stab them over the furniture barricade. It should hold out. He just had to hope that Kraeya would be able to protect his back.

He gave Laela a quick cuddle to try and quiet her, and gave her her favourite fluffy griffin toy. ‘It’s all right,’ he told her. ‘We’re gonna keep yeh safe. Promise.’

Laela huddled down in her crib, and chewed on the toy’s already well-chewed wing. The sight of her helped to bolster Bran’s determination. He picked up his spear again, and rolled his shoulders to loosen them.

‘All right, yeh bastards,’ he muttered. ‘Come an’ get some.’

But after that, nothing happened for a long time. Bran stood by the furniture barricade for a while, and then gave up and sat on the bed. The wait dragged on, and he fed Laela the last of her food and ate a quick snack to give himself some energy.

‘Come on,’ he muttered.

After a while, he started to hear it. Faint thumpings and the low murmur of voices shouting in the corridors above him. They were coming.

He stood up again, and readied his spear. In her nest, Kraeya looked up from her grooming. Laela had fallen asleep.

And then the silence shattered.

Without warning, Kraeya leapt to her paws and rushed into the entrance that led to the open air outside her nest. And not a moment too soon. As Bran turned, he saw the other griffin drop onto the balcony outside and launch itself at his partner.

Kraeya was ready for him, and as the enemy landed she powered forward and struck him directly in the belly. Knocked off-balance, the other griffin stumbled backward and fell off the balcony. It was over before Bran could get there to help, and half a heartbeat later his own time came.

The door to his room rattled as someone tried to open it from the outside. Bran hurried back to the barricade and silently braced himself, hoping the soldiers outside would give in before they realised there was someone inside.

The door stopped rattling, and silence came. For a short time Bran hoped they might have gone. But they hadn’t.

A thud shook the door, and then another. They were trying to break it down.

Behind him, Bran heard a screech from Kraeya. He looked back over his shoulder, and simultaneously, a crash came from the door as it broke down.

As Bran raised his spear ready to defend himself, he saw something that made his stomach twist horribly inside him.

A griffin stood there on the other side of his makeshift barricade. Only half Kraeya’s size, but a griffin all the same, its beak open to scream a threat at him.

Bran didn’t hesitate any longer. As the griffin started to clamber over the barricade to get at him, he lunged forward and thrust his spear directly into its throat.

The beast screamed again and stumbled backward, blood soaking into its feathers from where the spear had impaled it. Bran braced himself against the barricade and pulled back, hard. The spear point came free, and a gush of blood followed it.

The griffin thrashed in agony, breaking the legs of the table Bran had used to block the doorway, but its struggle didn’t last long. The gush of blood slowed along with its movements, and then the griffin slumped down and slid back onto the floor, its eyes dimming as it died.

But Bran had no time to celebrate this small victory. A gang of soldiers came quickly on the griffin’s heels, and they had too much sense to try and climb over the barricade. They too had spears, and another had an axe, and while he hacked away at the barricade his friends thrust at Bran. Bran drew his sword and knocked the spears away.

‘Sod off outta here!’ he roared over Laela’s cries. ‘Can’t yeh see there’s a baby in here?’

To their credit, they hesitated.

‘We won’t hurt the baby,’ the man with the axe called back. ‘Or you if you surrender.’

Bran hesitated as well. ‘What d’yeh want?’

‘We’re here to conquer the city,’ said the axe-wielder. ‘Not tear it t’bits. Once the Eyrie Master surrenders we’ll stop.’

‘What’ll yeh do with us?’ Bran asked.

‘You’ll be taken prisoner an’ set free if you swear loyalty to Eyrie Master Ruel or Eyrie Master Kyran.’

Bran shot the man a suspicious look. ‘You’re attackin’ yer own people here. Why’d I believe anythin’ yeh say?’

‘Look,’ said one of the spear-wielders. ‘We don’t like fightin’ other Southerners any more’n you do. We’re just followin’ orders. But we’ve been told not t’kill griffiners unless we have to.’

Bran glanced uncertainly at Kraeya. She had fought off the other griffin, and now came to join him. Laela was still crying. Maybe if he surrendered, it would be better. He didn’t want to kill other Southerners, and the attacking Eyries would have no reason to kill him. Maybe he could find a place with one or other of them, and was this really his fight anyway?

‘Do not surrender,’ Kraeya said harshly. ‘I will not lose another fight.’

A screech came, from somewhere outside the Eyrie. Everyone there stopped to listen.

Kraeya tensed. ‘That was Dekrak.’

Bran was about to ask how she could tell, but then the screeching grew louder, and he could make it out. It wasn’t just a call, but a word.

‘Surrender!’

Kraeya groaned. ‘Dekrak is defeated and he is ordering us to surrender. But-,’

But Bran had already thrown his spear and sword down. ‘Fine,’ he said. ‘I ain’t gonna fight other Southerners an’ I ain’t gonna let Laela get hurt. Help me take this barrier down, lads, an’ I’ll come with yeh.’

They looked relieved. ‘Thanks, mate,’ one said.

‘It’s all right, Kraeya,’ Bran said as he lifted the damaged furniture away. ‘This ain’t our fight. Let the Eyrie Masters decide what t’do next. I’m a follower, not a leader.’

Kraeya looked irritated, but she didn’t argue. ‘Perhaps we will find favour because we are not councillers and have not been here long.’

So, resignedly, the two of them went with their captors. Bran wasn’t allowed to bring any possessions, but he carried Laela with him, and one of the soldiers he’d surrendered to brought his sword along.

The three of them were taken down into Canran’s Council Chamber. Bran had only been there once before. It was easily the largest space in Canran’s Eyrie; a massive rounded room, designed much the same way as the Council Chambers in Malvern and Eagleholm, with a stepped gallery overhead where minor griffiners and others could watch Council proceedings. Below, on the floor, a carved stone platform in the shape of a sunwheel provided a place for the Eyrie Master to stand. A ring of smaller platforms around it were reserved for Council members. A magnificently painted domed ceiling covered everything.

Now, the chamber was crowded. Captured griffiners stood just outside the ring of Councillor’s seats, while ordinary citizens sat up in the gallery. Everyone was surrounded by enemy soldiers and griffiners, and aside from the occasional angry outburst nobody tried to fight back. Canran had surrendered.

Its conquerers stood up on the platform – two men clad in fine armour, whose partners wore decorative gold and silver rings on their forelegs. Eyrie Masters, both of them.

Lord Holm himself stood below the platform, with Dekrak beside him. Both of them were visibly angry and humiliated.

Bran and Kraeya were sent to stand with the other minor griffiners, and they waited there in silence to see what would happen next. Finally, one of the two conquering griffins – Bran didn’t know who was who – started to speak. Fortunately she spoke loudly and clearly so that everyone there could hear, so Bran found it easier to work out what she was saying. But he could have guessed anyway.

‘Dekrak!’ she crowed, tail held arrogantly high. ‘We have conquered your territory here today, and you have surrendered to us. Now our humans will talk, and you and your own human will obey them.’

Dekrak snarled, but said nothing. Beside him, Lord Holm’s face was full of barely concealed rage. But he too stayed silent, while one of the two victorious Eyrie Masters spoke.

‘I am Lord Kyron, Eyrie Master of Wylam,’ he said. ‘And this is Lord Ruel, Eyrie Master of Withypool.’ He raised his voice to address everyone there. ‘Today we have conquered Canran, but as you can see, we were merciful. Together our forces could have destroyed this city completely. But we spared your lives, because we did not come here to slaughter. Lord Holm – you and your council will agree to our demands, or our mercy will be withdrawn. Is that understood?’

‘Perfectly,’ Lord Holm growled.

‘Good. From this day on, Canran will answer to us. Your lands to the South as far as Potter’s Bay will now belong to Wylam, and all its taxes will be paid to my Eyrie. Meanwhile Canran will also pay tribute to Wylam.’

Cries of outrage came from the gallery where the Canran civillians and minor griffiners listened. Lord Holm and the Council, though, stayed sour-faced and silent.

Now Lord Ruel of Withypool stepped in. ‘Simultaneously,’ he said, ‘Canran’s lands to the East as far as the village of Herbstitt will now belong to Withypool, and all its taxes will be paid to my Eyrie. Canran will also pay tribute to Withypool.’

‘But we have come to offer mercy as well as demand payment,’ Lord Kyron resumed. ‘As a show of our goodwill, any Canran griffiner who wishes to do so may swear himself to Wylam or Withypool. We will accept you as long as you are loyal.’

Several griffiners there immediately stood up and called out that they would accept the offer.

Kyron waved them into silence. ‘Our officials will speak to each of you personally once this meeting is over. First – Lord Holm, you and your councillors will stay here in the Council Chamber. You will be told when you can leave.’

‘This is an outrage!’ Lord Holm finally shouted. ‘How dare you come here and speak to me this way, in my own city!’

Several of the soldiers and griffiners the conquerers had brought jeered and laughed at his humiliation. Most of the councillors, though, started to shout in agreement with their leader. Bran pulled back cautiously, holding onto Laela, sensing a fight.

The Lords Kyron and Ruel were quick to take control of the situation. Both of them snapped some quick orders, and in a moment the griffiners standing guard over the council stepped in and subdued them again, with threats or even a quick blow or two.

Bran was not one of those who flared up. He listened in disgust as other griffiners continued to shout out to their conquerers, promising to transfer their loyalty.

Loyalty! As if griffiners had ever understood the meaning of that word!

Griffins certainly didn’t know the meaning of it; at that moment, Kraeya lowered her head to his ear and said; ‘We must choose a new Eyrie, and quickly.’

‘No we don’t!’ Bran hissed back. ‘We ain’t leavin’.’

‘We cannot stay,’ said Kraeya. ‘This Eyrie has just lost almost all its territory. Soon it will fall into ruin just as Eagleholm did.’

‘No, it’s better,’ said Bran. ‘No-one’ll think to look for us here. Lots of people from Eagleholm went to Withypool; you wanna get recognised? Someone’ll figure out who Laela’s real dad is, an’ then we’re all dead.’

‘Then we will go to Wylam,’ said Kraeya. ‘There is no future for us here.’

‘No, there’s no future for Laela if she goes where anyone pays attention to her,’ Bran argued.

‘We were safe here before,’ said Kraeya. ‘And I can protect you and the child.’

Bran knew that this was a bad place to argue, so he nodded vaguely and let the matter drop for the time being. They could decide later.

But later never came.

The minor griffiners were allowed to leave the Council Chamber then, shuffling out past their conquerers with either deference or open dislike. Bran went with them, intending to return to his room and wait until the situation changed. But as he passed a junior griffiner near one of the entrances, she called out to him.

‘You! Yes, you with the beard – stop there!’

Bran stopped and looked up. ‘Yeah, what is it?’

The woman peered at his face. ‘You look familiar. What’s your name?’

‘Lord Branton Redguard,’ said Bran. ‘An’ this here’s Kraeya.’

The woman tensed. ‘From Eagleholm?’

‘Yeah, that’s us,’ said Bran. ‘Why, are you from there too?’

‘Wait here a moment,’ said the woman. She hurried off.

Bran waited. ‘What’s this all about?’ he wondered aloud.

‘I do not know,’ said Kraeya. ‘But I do not like it.’

They waited anyway, watched by the woman’s partner. Bran tried to watch out for the woman, but she quickly disappeared into the crowd, which thinned out as people left.

Finally, just as he was starting to wonder if it would be a better idea to be on his way, the woman returned. There were two other griffiners with her now.

‘Branton Redguard?’ one said brusquely. ‘Former guard Captain of Eagleholm?’

‘That’s me,’ said Bran. ‘What’s this all about?’

The woman and one of the other griffiners she had brought advanced on him, while the third answered.

‘You’re under arrest,’ he said. ‘For high treason.’

 

*

 

They refused to explain any more than that.

Despite his protests and furious demands for an explanation, they forced Bran to go with them. His captors hobbled Kraeya’s front legs by force, so that she wouldn’t be able to land easily or run far, and instructed her that she would carry Bran and Laela and fly with them.

‘Where’re we goin’?’ Bran demanded.

‘To Withypool,’ one of the three griffiners who would guard him along the way finally answered. ‘Where you will stand trial.’

‘For what? What’d I do?’

‘You’ll be told when we arrive,’ was the terse answer.

‘But I ain’t even ever been to Withypool,’ Bran persisted as they gestured at him to climb onto Kraeya’s back.

‘Your accusers are from Eagleholm,’ came the reply.

That was the best explanation he got, before or during the journey to Withypool. Kraeya flew patiently in formation, constantly tailed by the three guard griffiners and several unpartnered griffins as well, who could manoeuvre more easily in the sky than her since they were riderless.

When they landed to rest, the hobbles stayed on Kraeya’s legs and they would add more to her wings during the night. Bran was allowed a tent to sleep in, so he could keep taking care of Laela, but with Kraeya restrained and under guard he had no opportunity to escape. Not that he wanted to; if he ran away now he would become a fugitive. At least if he went to Withypool as they wanted he could clear his name. He was certain he could do that; the charge of high treason was preposterous. He’d never broken the law in his life. His whole adult life had been spent enforcing it, for gods’ sakes. They had to have him confused with someone else, surely.

But assurances like that couldn’t stop his apprehension from growing as Withypool got closer.

Laela seemed to sense his fears, or maybe she just disliked travelling, because she was just as restless as him. Fortunately, though, his captors didn’t pay much attention to her and allowed him to take care of her. But he had no idea what they might do with her when they arrived at Withypool.

He and Kraeya got almost no chance to speak during the journey; in the air it was far too noisy for talk, and on the ground they were seperated. He could tell, though, how angry she was.

‘It is a lie,’ she was finally able to say to him when they landed atop Withypool’s Eyrie. ‘We have not committed any crimes, and we will prove it and be freed.’

‘Let’s hope,’ Bran said grimly as he dismounted. ‘Hey-!’

Two of his guards had just grabbed him by the shoulders. A third took Laela away, and before he could reach out to take her back they had twisted his arms behind him and shackled his wrists together.

Bran struggled. ‘Lemme go!’ he roared. ‘Don’t you dare take her off me, you bastards!’

‘You’re going to be locked up,’ said the griffiner holding Laela. ‘The child will be given to somebody to look after until the trial is over.’

‘Oh no she won’t,’ Bran snapped back. ‘Nobody looks after her but me.’

The woman looked slightly taken aback. ‘You’re going to be in a cell, Lord Redguard.’

‘Then put her in with me if yeh have to,’ said Bran. ‘She stays with me.’

‘All right then,’ the woman shrugged.

Kraeya had already tried to come to Bran’s aid, but the other griffins there surrounded her and herded her away from him.

‘What’re you doin’ with her?’ Bran asked, trying to go to her and failing as his guards held him back.

‘Your partner will be locked up in the fighting pits,’ said the woman, ignoring Laela’s whimpers as she reached out for Bran. ‘Normally she would stand trial with you, but she is not accused of anything.’

‘Dammit, let her go!’ Bran yelled.

‘We will, after the trial,’ the woman said blandly. ‘We can’t risk her interfering. But rest assurred; she won’t be harmed.’

Kraeya snarled. ‘You will not hurt my human!’

The woman ignored that completely, and despite her protests and threats Kraeya was forced away by the other griffins.

‘Bran!’ she called back. ‘Do not falter, do not surrender! I will see you again soon.’

‘Don’t worry!’ Bran called back. ‘I’ll be fine! You take care of yerself, right?’

‘I shall!’ Kraeya took off and flew away down over the city, following her captors. Bran watched her go, and hoped she would be all right. But at least she wasn’t accused of anything. She would be fine.

Now it was just a question of whether he would be fine as well.

The woman who was in charge of his own guard gestured impatiently at her underlings. ‘Take him below. I’ll follow.’

Bran went down into the Eyrie, flanked by two men and followed by the woman. ‘Can yeh tell me what I’ve done?’ he asked.

‘My master will come and see you some time today,’ said the woman. ‘She will give you the list of charges.’

‘Who’s yer master, then?’ Bran persisted.

‘Lady Della, Master of Law,’ said the woman.

Bran already had her own name, at least. ‘You’re Isleen, right?’

‘I am,’ the woman said briefly. She was young; younger than himself, and had a round, bland face.

You don’t reckon I did anything, do yeh, Isleen?’ Bran asked, hoping to find at least a little support.

But Isleen’s reply was flat and compassionless. ‘My family burned at Eagleholm,’ was all she said.

‘I didn’t do that!’ Bran protested.

Isleen ignored him.

But she did, at least, keep her word. Once Bran had been taken to a small cell under the Eyrie and his arms had been unshackled, she gave Laela back.

‘Food will be sent down soon for both of you,’ she told him briefly, and left as the cell door slammed behind him.

Bran sat down on the bench provided, and groaned to himself. Laela clung to his arm, confused but clearly happy to be back with her adopted father.

Bran gave her a hug. ‘It’s all right, Laela; I got yeh now. But I’m damned if I know what’s gonna happen to us next.’

Laela gurgled.

‘High treason?’ Bran repeated to himself. ‘What the blazes is goin’ on here? What do they think I did?’

Laela, naturally, didn’t have anything to add to this, so Bran answered himself. ‘Whatever they think I did, I know it’s gotta be a lie, or some kinda mistake. It’s gonna be all right, Laela. We’ll sort it out.’

The cell, at least, wasn’t too bad. Bran had seen plenty of cells during his time as a guard, and this one was more comfortable than most. It had a bench, and a small bed, and even a chair. He guessed that this must be a high class cell, meant for griffiners. He’d never seen one himself, but he knew griffiners got better treatment even when they were in prison.

The food when it came was good too; a bowl of hot stew for him, with bread on the side, and boiled carrots and milk for Laela.

Bran fed her before he ate his own meal, and cleaned her up as well as he could with the jug of water provided. He did his best to neaten himself up as well, hoping to make a slightly better impression on the Master of Law when she arrived. After that there was nothing he could do but wait, and hope.

 

*

 

The Master of Law came to see him that afternoon. She came alone, since the corridors outside Bran’s cell were too small for a griffin to fit, but her fine clothes immediately told him who she was. She was middle-aged, and had a tough, no-nonsense look about her.

Laela was sleeping by now, and Bran stood up and went to the bars. ‘You’re the Master of Law, right?’

‘I am,’ said the lady. ‘You’re Branton Redguard?’

‘Yeah, I am.’ Bran gripped the bars. ‘Now are yeh gonna tell me why I’m in here? What’s all this nonsense about treason?’

‘I’ve brought the list of charges with me,’ said Lady Della. ‘I’ll read them to you now.’

‘All right.’ Bran sat back and listened tensely.

‘You, Branton Redguard, are accused of high treason in that you did betray your home territory of Eagleholm,’ Della said, reading out the formal words from a piece of paper. ‘It has been alleged that while serving as a prison guard on the Seconday of the first week of Midsummer Month, you knowingly and illegally released a dangerous prisoner. It is also alleged that you aided this prisoner’s escape from the city, and that you later aided him in breaking into the Eagleholm Eyrie, where he murdered Lord Rannagon, Master of Law, and set the Eyrie building on fire, causing the deaths of at least one hundred people and forty-three griffins, and the serious wounding of many more. This makes you complicit in one murder, and implicated in the other hundred and forty-three, and also implicated in the destruction of the Eagleholm Eyrie.’

Bran gaped. ‘What? You think I did that?’

‘Those are the accusations that have been made against you by the survivors from Eagleholm,’ Della said calmly.

‘I never did that!’ said Bran. ‘I never did any of it!’

Della must have heard claims like that plenty of times before, because she didn’t react to this one except to say, ‘Those are the accusations, and you’ll have to stand trial. I can promise you that you’ll be fairly treated, and if I can dismiss the charges, I will.’

Bran knew enough about law to have at least some idea of how the trial would be structured. ‘You got any witnesses for all this?’

‘Yes,’ said Della. ‘Plenty of the Eagleholm survivors came here to live after the fire, and they were the ones who came to me with these accusations. There’s been an order out for your arrest for some time.’

Bran grimaced. He wondered if he would recognise any of his accusers. ‘Fine. When do we start?’

‘Tomorrow.’ Della looked past him. ‘Is that a baby?’

‘My daughter,’ said Bran. ‘She’s stayin’ with me.’

Della shrugged. ‘All right. Sleep well, and I’ll see you tomorrow.’

She left, and Bran sat down beside Laela, his mind in a whirl.

None of it was true, not one word of it, and they had no proof. Surely…

But, he knew… if they did somehow find him guilty, then the penalty would be the one meted out to all traitors. Death by hanging and disembowelling.

And if he died, then Laela would die as well.

But it couldn’t possibly come to that. It just couldn’t.

‘It can’t come to that,’ Bran repeated to himself. ‘It just can’t. No way. It can’t…’

 

*

 

Bran’s trial began the next day, at noon. The trial of a griffiner, and especially one accused of such a serious crime as treason, would always take place in the Eyrie’s Council Chamber. His own was no exception. He left Laela asleep in his cell and went with his guards without argument, and they took him to Withypool’s Council Chamber.

It looked quite similar to the one at Eagleholm; similar, in fact, to every Council Chamber he had ever seen. Round, of course, with the gallery above for spectators and the pit below, where the seats for the Council stood in a ring around the Master’s platform. The ceiling had been painted with an elaborate mural of a summer sky, with clouds and a golden sun, and griffins in flight. Above, the gallery was packed. Hundreds of people had come to see what would happen – griffiners and commoners both. He could see a line of guards up there, at the front, ready in case the spectators got rowdy. Below, on the floor, other guards were stationed at the entrances. Clearly, they were taking no chances with him.

The Master of Law was already there, standing up on the Eyrie Master’s platform with her partner beside her. Her two assistants, Isleen and another young griffiner, stood on either side with their own partners standing protectively behind them.

When Bran entered, the crowd hissed. When he came into clearer view, shouts rose. He forced himself not to look up at them, but trudged along between his two guards, hands shackled behind his back.

Ahead, some of the Councillors’ seats had been moved aside to make room for a wooden platform with railings around it. It was just large enough for one man to stand on it, and he already knew that it was for him. Sure enough, his guards led him around to the back of it, where there was a gap in the railings and a step. Bran went up it and onto the platform, and his guards took the shackles off his wrists before moving to take up station on either side of him.

Bran rested his hands on the high railings in front of him, and looked up at the people who had come to see him go on trial for his life. The shouts rose higher in response.

Traitor!’

Blackrobe lover!’

Bran shuddered and looked away.

In front of him, the Master of Law gave him a solemn look and glanced at her partner. Her partner, a male with white feathers, raised his head and screeched. The sound echoed through the great space, and up in the gallery the spectators went quiet.

Lady Della nodded to herself, and began.

‘Lord Branton Redguard of Eagleholm,’ she said. ‘You stand accused of high treason, dereliction of duty, and of implication in the crimes of murder in one hundred and forty three counts, attempted murder in thirty eight counts, and arson in one count. Before we begin, you may speak. Did you commit these crimes?’

‘No,’ Bran said immediately. ‘I ain’t guilty. I didn’t do any of it.’

‘Then you’ll be given the chance here, among your fellow griffiners, to prove your innocence,’ said Della. ‘First, your accusers will be brought in to give their evidence.’ She nodded to Isleen, who hurried out of the chamber. A moment later she returned, leading an old man. He walked slowly and painfully, leaning on a stick, and as he entered a sympathetic groan came from the audience.

Bran leaned forward to see him better, and his stomach twisted when he saw the man’s face. It was scarred and warped down one side, from his cheek to his neck. The ear on that side was entirely gone, along with most of his hair where the scalp was scarred.

Isleen brought the old man forward to stand between her master and Bran.

Della spoke. ‘Tell us your name.’

The old man raised his head. ‘My name is Anyon. I was apprenticed to Lord Rannagon, Master of Law in Eagleholm.’

Bran started, and stared in horror. He had known this man once, but… but Anyon was only thirty five, and this man here…

The remains of Anyon’s hair had turned white and brittle, and his whole body was bent and frail. Bran could tell just from looking that he barely had the strength to stand any more.

‘And is this the man you saw helping Arren Cardockson enter the Eyrie that night?’ Della asked.

Anyon nodded slowly. ‘That’s him.’ His voice had gone dry and rasping. ‘That’s Branton Redguard. I worked alongside him once. I knew him very well. He was the blackrobe’s best friend. He helped him.’

‘I never!’ Bran protested.

Anyon glared at him. ‘He murdered my master, and you helped him. I saw it.’

‘No I didn’t!’ said Bran.

‘Be silent!’ Della told him sharply.

‘That’s the man,’ Anyon said again.

Bran could see the man’s head shaking slightly as he stood there, and as he looked into those dulled eyes he realised that Anyon was mad. The agony he had been through had simply been too much for him.

Della let him leave after that, and Isleen brought in the next witness. Bran didn’t even recognise this one, but she was introduced as a servant who’d worked in the Eyrie. She, too, claimed to have seen him helping Arren break in that night. So did a second servant, and another griffiner who’d survived.

Bran couldn’t believe his ears. It wasn’t true, none of it was true, but all these people swore it was, and how could he prove they were lying? In a Cymrian court, testimony alone was enough to convict a man. Bran knew that.

But the worst of that day was still to come.

After six different survivors of the Eyrie fire had come forward to tell their lies, Isleen brought in one last witness. This one strode in ahead of her guide, stolid and determined. Her face was hard and angry, and instead of going to stand where the others had she came straight at Bran.

He stared at her in astonishment. ‘Finna!’ he shouted.

She ignored him. Pushing past the guards who tried to stop her, she went up to the dock, leaned upward, and slapped Bran hard across the face.

‘You bastard!’ she shouted as the guards pulled her away. ‘Yeh great gormless idiot!’

Bran put a hand to his stinging cheek. ‘Finna-!’

‘You ain’t no Redguard!’ Finna shouted. ‘Yer a disgrace to our whole family!’

Della stepped in. ‘Finna Redguard!’ she said sharply. ‘Control yourself or I’ll have you removed.’

‘I ain’t a Redguard no more, an’ I’m glad,’ Finna snapped back.

‘That’s enough,’ said Della. ‘Now tell us. Is this man your brother, Branton Redguard?’

‘He ain’t my brother,’ Finna spat. ‘Not no more.’

‘Just answer the question,’ said Della.

‘Yeah, he’s Bran,’ said Finna. ‘But he ain’t Branton Redguard no more. He’s Bran the Betrayer.’ She spat.

‘You claim that you heard your brother say that he planned to release his friend Arren Cardockson from prison,’ said Della. ‘Could you repeat that for these witnesses to hear?’

‘Yeah,’ said Finna. ‘On the night before the blackrobe got away, he-,’ she pointed at Bran. ‘-Said how he wished he hadn’t arrested the bastard and he was gonna put it right by lettin’ him go. I heard it.’

‘I did not!’ Bran shouted back. ‘I never said that!’

‘Yeah you did!’ said Finna. ‘An’ it was your fault he was in our city in the first place! If you hadn’t’ve saved him that time when we were kids, he never woulda done any of it! I always told yeh he was trouble. Our dad said you didn’t oughta be hangin’ about with him like that, said how he was a criminal, but you didn’t listen. You let him out. You destroyed Eagleholm.’

‘No I didn’t!’ said Bran.

‘You did!’ Finna pointed at him again and kept on, spitting out every word. ‘It was your fault! Yer a traitor, an’ a shame on our family. Our Dad died cursin’ the day you was born!’

Bran started. ‘He’s dead?’

‘Yeah,’ Finna growled. ‘I brought him here with me an’ he died here. Died of grief, over you.’Cause he couldn’t bear the thought that you was his son. Twenty generations we lived in Eagleholm an’ served its Masters, an’ you’re the first Redguard what turned his back on his duty. Yeh ruined Eagleholm an’ our family’s honour, an’ for what? Some bloody blackrobe!’

Della had had enough. She signalled to the guards to remove Finna and they did. She shrugged them off and strode out furiously, with one last hate-filled glance at her brother.

Bran stood there in stunned silence well after she’d gone. He could feel himself shaking.

‘So,’ Della resumed. ‘We have heard the accusations and the witness statements against you. Can you offer any proof otherwise?’

‘Ain’t anyone gonna speak out on my side?’ Bran asked weakly. ‘Didn’t anyone come out an’ say I’m innocent?’

Della glanced at her assistants, and finally nodded. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘One witness did come forward on your behalf. Would you like to call him in now?’

‘Yeah,’ said Bran. ‘Bring him in.’

‘Very well.’ Della gestured to her other assistant, the man whose name Bran didn’t know. He left through a different door than the one Isleen had used, and eventually returned leading not one person but two – a man and a griffin.

The man walked slowly, frowning and solemn. He was big and burly, not unlike Bran himself, and had thick flame-red hair.

Bran gasped, and then smiled widely. ‘Dan!’ he yelled.

The red-haired man smiled back. ‘Hullo, Captain.’

He took up position in front of Della, who asked him to introduce himself as she had with the others.

‘Name’s Danthirk son of Danthirk,’ said the red-haired man. ‘Lord Danthirk nowadays. This is my partner, Kakree.’

‘In Eagleholm you were in the city guard, yes?’ said Della.

‘Yeah, I was,’ said Danthirk. ‘I was a Sergeant under Captain Redguard here.’

‘So you agree that this is Captain Branton Redguard?’ asked Della – a formality she’d asked every witness so far.

‘Yeah, I do,’ said Dan. ‘An’ I say he’s innocent.’

‘And what evidence do you have?’ asked Della. ‘What did you see?’

Dan took a deep breath while his young, grey-feathered partner settled down to groom herself. ‘I saw everything,’ he said. ‘I was there when the Captain here arrested Arren Cardockson. I helped him take him to prison; me an’ some of the others. An’ I was put on duty in the prison district as well while he was locked up there.’

‘And did you see Captain Redguard show any sign that he was planning to release the prisoner?’ asked Della.

‘Well…’ Dan hesitated. ‘I ain’t gonna lie about one thing. It’s true they were friends. They’d been best mates since they were just boys. I knew him a bit too; he always got on well with us guards, helped us sometimes when we had to arrest smugglers an’ whatnot. It broke Bran’s heart to see his friend turn criminal. He tried t’help him out, but he didn’t want to be helped. He was losin’ his mind; the whole city knew it. I saw it too. He’d gone all raggety an’ wild, ramblin’ on about imaginary enemies. Anyway, Bran an’ me both knew what was goin’ on with him, an’ when he stole that griffin chick we went after him. Bran put the shackles on him himself; I saw it. Afterwards when we were guardin’ him in prison, Bran talked to him. Brought him his food, tried t’look out for him. I heard Arren plead with him to help, asked him to get him outta there.’

‘Is this true?’ Della looked at Bran.

Bran nodded reluctantly. ‘Yeah, it’s true. I knew he’d been sentenced to death, see. I wanted to try an’ help him one last time before he was gone forever. I felt like it was my fault he’d done what he did; I thought if I’d done more to help him before he might not’ve done it.’

‘Now, what about the night that the prisoner escaped?’ said Della, turning to Dan again. ‘Can you account for your friend’s whereabouts on the night of the Seconday of the first week of Midsummer Month?’

‘Yeah, I can,’ said Dan. ‘We’d been on duty that day too, an’ my shift ended at the same time as Bran’s. I saw Arren still in his cell when we left. Bran an’ I went to the Red Rat to have a beer or two. Some of the lads met us there. We’d been there a while when the word came in that Arren’d escaped an’ been seen in the city, an’ we were called on for emergency duty to go looking for him. So all of us got together, an’ Bran led us in the search.’

‘And did you find him?’ asked Della.

Above in the gallery the witnesses were silent, listening intently.

‘Yeah, we did.’ Dan shifted uncomfortably. ‘We found him near the market district an’ we chased him. He was armed – had a sword he’d found somewhere. We cornered him at the edge of the city an’ Bran ordered him to surrender. He threw the sword away, an’ then he kind’ve came at us… I was a bit back from Bran an’ I couldn’t hear what he was sayin’. It was windy.’

Bran’s shoulders hunched as his old guilt came back. ‘He asked me to help him,’ he said softly. ‘He didn’t like heights; I could see how terrified he was. He was beggin’ me not to let him fall.’

‘I didn’t know,’ Dan said a little defensively. ‘I thought he was gonna attack us. So I shot him. Got him with an arrow straight in the chest. One of the other lads got him in the leg, but I-,’ he hesitated. ‘-I killed him. Even if he hadn’t’ve fallen off the edge, my arrow still would’ve finished him off. The Captain tried to catch him, an’ nearly went straight down with him, but I pulled him back. But either way, Bran never let him outta prison. I was with him the whole time.’

Everyone there looked nervous.

‘We’ve heard this story before,’ Della said evenly. ‘And it has been considered to be highly suspect, and very likely untrue. So far you and Captain Redguard have been the only witnesses; none of the other guards who were there have been found. If, as you say, Arren Cardockson died, then how could he have committed those murders and burned the Eyrie?’

‘He came back,’ Dan said immediately. ‘Back from the dead.’

There were titters from the gallery.

‘Look, he can’t have survived,’ Dan persisted. ‘An arrow in the heart an’ a fall off of a mountaintop – it ain’t possible.’

‘It’s true!’ Bran cut in. ‘I saw him again later. There was somethin’ wrong with him. He’d gone pale an’ cold, an’ he still had the arrowhead stuck in him but he didn’t seem t’feel it.’

‘I agree that it is true,’ said Dan’s partner Kakree, suddenly speaking up. ‘The black griffin, Darkheart, was there. We griffins from Eagleholm believe that it was he who brought the human back with his magic. The human is Kraeai kran ae, the cursed one. The walking dead.’

‘They hanged him in Malvern,’ Bran said loudly, cutting across the derisive laughter of the listeners. ‘Hundreds of people saw it. They hanged him, but he wouldn’t die. He got stabbed through with a sword an’ that didn’t kill him either. He ain’t human any more.’

Della waved him into silence. ‘Whatever the explanation, you still have no proof that you didn’t help your friend again later, when he came back to Eagleholm. Can you prove your whereabouts then?’

Bran hesitated.

‘He went home after we’d reported Arren’s death,’ said Dan. ‘An’ the next day he didn’t come to work. I didn’t see him again until the morning after the burning, when we both got chosen as griffiners. Where’s Kraeya, anyway?’

‘Locked up in the Arena,’ Bran muttered.

‘So you can’t prove that you had nothing to do with the murders and the burning?’ said Della. ‘And you can’t prove that those witnesses who saw you near the Eyrie that night are lying?’

‘No,’ said Bran. ‘But I wasn’t there.’

‘He wouldn’t do that,’ Dan added. ‘I don’t believe it.’

‘That’s enough,’ said Della. ‘We’re finished for today. Lord Redguard, you may return to your cell. Tomorrow we will meet here again, and unless you can provide evidence to disprove these witness testimonies you cannot be released.’

Bran couldn’t find anything else to say. He bowed his head as the crowd began to jeer again, and allowed himself to be led away by his guards.

‘Don’t worry, mate!’ Dan called after him. ‘I’ll find a way to help! Yer gonna be all right!’

Bran smiled weakly back at him, but said nothing. He didn’t know what to say, or what to do. For now all he could do was go back to his cell and look after Laela, and try and think of something. There had to be a way to save himself, there had to be. But what?

 

*

 

Bran returned to his cell and found Laela hiding under the bed. She looked frightened, and came out eagerly when she saw him. She clutched at his leg until he picked her up.

‘She’s a quiet one,’ a guard outside remarked. ‘Just as well. Why’s she in here with yer?’

‘She’s my daughter,’ Bran said stoically. ‘I’m the only family she’s got. No-one’s takin’ her off me.’

‘Well I hope you got someone else she can go to when yer dead, mate,’ said the guard, not without sympathy.

Bran silently shook his head, and sat down on with Laela in his lap. A short while later food arrived for them both. Bran fed Laela before he ate, as he generally did.

‘Gods, Laela, I dunno how I’m gonna get us out of this,’ he muttered to her. ‘But I gotta do somethin’.’ Yet again, he remembered what would happen if he didn’t manage to clear his name. If he died, she would die as well. Or, if she lived, she would have no-one to protect her. In the end the outcome would probably be the same.

Either way, it meant that it was more than his own life in danger here: Laela’s was as well. But without proof, how could he save them?

He thought it over while he ate his own meal, desperately seeking for something, anything, that could clear his name. But what? How could he prove those witnesses were lying? And why were they even lying in the first place? There must be someone behind it, he thought – someone who’d persuaded or bribed them into lying. Someone who wanted Bran dead. But he couldn’t tell who that person might be, or why they would hate him so much. He had no enemies that he knew of – the only person who had ever seemed to really dislike him was Erian, but he was long dead and he’d had no powerful allies, or none who were still alive.

Bran finished eating and put his plate aside, still deep in thought. Maybe he should just give up on trying to defend himself and find some opportunity to escape? But that didn’t look very likely to work, and he didn’t like it much either. He already knew all too well what happened to escaping prisoners.

He found himself thinking of the only other time he’d been locked up like this. He remembered the cell under Warwick, in the North. He’d left Malvern with Kraeya, and gone in search of his old friend. Once called Arren Cardockson, but now known as the Dark Lord Arenadd Taranisäii. Bran had hoped to warn him about what his enemies were doing, and maybe get through somehow to the man who had once been his oldest friend.

He had come too late. By the time Kraeya landed at Warwick it had already been overrun by Arenadd’s rebels. Bran had been captured by them, and locked up. Arren… Arenadd had questioned him personally, and had threatened to torture what he knew out of him. Seeing the cold-eyed, vicious thing his old friend had become, Bran had thought he was doomed.

But everything had not been what it seemed. That night, while Bran waited for death, Arenadd had come to him and secretly helped him to escape from the city.

You saved my life once, he’d said. Now I’m saving yours. For the memory of Arren Cardockson.  

Arren no longer believed he was Arren. He had lost his memory of the man he’d been before Dan’s arrow sent him off the edge of Eagleholm. But some little piece of Bran’s old friend had still survived, and it had saved his life.

Now, though, he wouldn’t be so lucky. There was no-one here who could save him, as far as he knew.

‘Oi!’ a voice interrupted his thoughts.

Bran looked up gloomily. ‘Yeah, what?’

‘You got a visitor,’ said the guard.

Bran sat up and looked out through the bars. He had already guessed who the visitor must be.

Sure enough, it was Dan. He was alone, without his partner, but nowadays he dressed more finely than he had back at Eagleholm, and when he waved the guard away he went without complaint.

Bran stood up and went to the other side of the bars, smiling broadly. ‘Dan! It’s good to see yeh, mate.’

Dan reached through the bars and thumped him good-naturedly on the shoulder. ‘Hey, Bran. How’s life on the inside?’

Bran shrugged. ‘Could be worse. Us griffiners get better cells.’

‘Yeah, I can see that,’ said Dan. He lost his smile. ‘Bran, I’m so sorry about all this. If I could get you outta here, I would, but there ain’t much I can do, even if I’m a griffiner now. I ain’t so high up here, see. Only a junior griffiner, bein’ new an’ not that great at griffish, an’ with Kakree being just a youngster. There’s too many griffiners about nowadays, what with Eagleholm an’ all.’

‘It’s all right,’ said Bran. ‘It ain’t yer fault I’m in here.’

‘I know, but if there was just somethin’ I could do…’ Dan shook his head. ‘I’m sorry about Finna. I could hear what she said. She’s been sayin’ that sort of thing ever since yer dad died.’

‘How’d he die?’ Bran asked quietly.

‘It was a fever what got him,’ said Dan. ‘I was there with Finna; we looked after him. He died ravin’ with the sickness. We did what we could for him, but…’

Bran felt himself shiver internally. ‘He didn’t… he didn’t really…?’

‘No,’ said Dan. ‘He never died cursin’ yer name. I don’t reckon he believed yer did any of it. He was always proud…’

But Bran had already spotted his hesitation. ‘Don’t lie, Dan. Not about this.’

Dan bit his lip. ‘He… he did say you never shoulda been friends with… with Arren. He said it was beneath a Redguard to go about with the likes of him, an’ you never shoulda closed yer eyes to the stuff he got up to.’

Bran shook his head. ‘He wouldn’t talk to me after the fire. I thought it was ’cause he didn’t think it was right for a Redguard t’be a griffiner. But he didn’t really…?’

‘It was the fever,’ Dan insisted. ‘The fever made him say it, but Finna wanted t’think he meant it, so…’

Bran felt sick, and cold. ‘He did say it, then. He said I wasn’t a Redguard no more.’

‘Yeah,’ Dan said, with obvious reluctance. ‘He said you was a disgrace to his name an’ you weren’t his son no more. He said it right at the end before he died, he said you should’ve been there for yer family instead of chasin’ after that bloody blackrobe. But he was feverish,’ Dan added hastily. ‘He said all sorts of things he didn’t mean.’

Bran said nothing. He felt glad, at least, that Dan was there and that he cared enough to try and soften the blow.

‘What about Finna?’ he asked instead.

‘She ain’t been the same since yer father died,’ Dan said sadly. ‘She blames you for it; reckons he died of grief. But it ain’t true. Try an’ forgive her, Bran; she’s been through a lot. I’m just glad I got Kakree. Now I’m a griffiner I can do a bit more to take care of Finna. I’m hopin’ we can start a family here. Children might help her get better. Don’t forget, she lost a father too.’

‘I know,’ said Bran. ‘Look, Dan, what’m I gonna do? I gotta clear my name somehow, but I dunno what to do. What’s goin’ on? Why did all those people lie? You know they were lyin’ right?’

‘I do,’ Dan nodded. ‘I know you never would’ve done any of that stuff. An’ anyway, I know for certain they’re lyin’.’

‘How?’ asked Bran.

‘Someone paid ’em off,’ said Dan. ‘Or threatened ’em. I know because he tried it on with me too. But I said no. I already reckoned you was innocent, an’ then when he came an’ offered me money to lie for him I knew yer were.’

‘Who?’ Bran demanded. ‘Who’s behind this? Who wants me dead? Dammit, Dan, tell me!’

Dan leant closer and lowered his voice. ‘It was Anyon.’

‘Anyon…’ Bran repeated.

‘Yeah,’ said Dan. ‘You saw him. He got burned half to death in the fire, an’ lost his griffin as well. An’ he lost his master Rannagon too. He could’ve been Master of Law one day, with a place on the Council, but when the Eyrie burned he lost everything. I dunno if he really thinks it’s yer fault, or if he knows it’s a lie. But I think he’s just plain lookin’ for someone to punish. Can’t get to Arren any more, so who else is there but Arren’s best friend?’

‘Can’t yeh tell them?’ Bran asked. ‘Go tell the Master of Law about Anyon tryin’ to bribe yeh. If we can prove he’s behind it, they’ll have to tell me go.’

Dan shook his head. ‘I tried. But nobody wants to listen. Everyone here’s the same as him, see. There’s a lot of Eagleholm survivors here. That’s who was up there in the gallery today, mostly. You heard ’em shouting. Nobody’s gonna listen to me. They’ll say I’m the one lyin’, since yer my friend.’

‘But you gotta try!’ said Bran.

‘I did. I said I did. Nobody listened. Anyon looks so frail now no-one believes he’d be up to somethin’ like this. He spends most of his time in bed nowadays.’

‘Then what’m I gonna do?’ said Bran. ‘I gotta get out of here. It can’t end like this, mate, it just can’t, dammit!’ His voice rose, betraying his desperation. Over on the bed, Laela whimpered.

Dan finally noticed her. ‘What the-?’ he said. ‘Why’s there a baby in there?’

Bran picked her up. ‘My daughter,’ he said. ‘Laela Redguard.’

‘Oh,’ said Dan. ‘Yer wife Flell was pregnant when you got married, wasn’t she?’

‘Yeah,’ said Bran.

‘What happened to her, anyhow?’ asked Dan.

‘She died,’ said Bran. ‘In the war. I’m all Laela’s got now.’

Dan eyed the child for a long moment. ‘She’s not yer child,’ he said softly. ‘Is she?’

‘She is,’ Bran lied, as he’d lied every day since his marriage to Flell.

Dan’s brow furrowed as he frowned. ‘Them eyebrows look real dark,’ he said.

‘Maybe, but she’s my daughter,’ Bran insisted.

‘No she ain’t,’ Dan said matter-of-factly. ‘She’s his. Isn’t she? That’s Arren’s child.’

Bran said nothing.

‘You’re a good man, Bran,’ said Dan. ‘Better than me. Better’n anyone in this whole gods-forsaken city. You don’t deserve t’be in that cell. I do.’

‘No yeh don’t,’ said Bran. ‘Stop it.’

‘I do,’ said Dan. He looked miserable. ‘An’ it’s time you stopped blamin’ yerself for what happened in Eagleholm. You did yer duty. I didn’t. It was me who turned his back on the city an’ did what he shouldn’t. It was me who committed a crime. If there was any justice in the world, I’d be the one facin’ the death penalty.’

‘Dan, what’re yeh talkin’ about?’ said Bran.

‘I’m a murderer,’ said Dan. ‘You were right, Bran. I murdered Arren Cardockson. I should’ve arrested him, not killed him. If I’d done my duty, then the Dark Lord wouldn’t have come. But nobody ever cared about what I did, because he was just a Northerner.’ He shook his head. ‘Murder’s murder. Bran, listen. If I could trade places with yer, I would. That’d make us even. But I can’t. So I’ll do the only thing I can do.’

‘What’s that?’ asked Bran.

‘You can’t prove yer innocent,’ said Dan. ‘We both know that. Only Gryphus can help yer now. Ask for trial by combat. It’s yer only chance.’

Bran frowned. ‘Fight for my freedom,’ he said aloud. ‘Hadn’t thought of that.’

‘Do it!’ said Dan. ‘You got the strength for it. Here in Withypool, they’d have yer fight a wild griffin.’

‘Could Kraeya help me?’ asked Bran.

‘No. I asked around before I came here, see – found out the rules. Griffins are Gryphus’ creatures, so if you go up against one an’ live, that means Gryphus wants you t’go free.’

Bran hesitated. ‘Me, fight a griffin?’

‘You can do it,’ said Dan. ‘You got the fightin’ skills. Besides, Gryphus knows yer innocent, right? He wants you to win.’

‘I’ll think about it, then,’ said Bran. ‘Thanks, Dan. For bein’ here.’ He reached out through the bars.

Dan clasped his friend’s big rough hand. ‘It’ll be all right, mate. You’ll see.’

‘I’m just glad I still got one friend left in the world,’ said Bran.

‘You deserve more,’ said Dan. ‘Well… I gotta go. Good luck, mate. I’ll be there tomorrow. An’ if anything happens to you, I… I’ll do what I can for Laela.’

Laela.

In the end, she was what made Bran’s mind up. After Dan had left he sat for a long while, doing his best to keep her amused while he thought about what to do. But Dan was right: with the whole city out for his blood, and nobody else taking his side, there was nothing he could do. If he didn’t come up with some proof in his favour tomorrow, they might well sentence him to death on the spot. Demanding to fight for his freedom would be his only alternative.

He looked at Laela and she looked back with her big, innocent blue eyes – eyes that reminded him so much of Flell, but just a little of poor, doomed Arren as well. That was when he knew for certain. For her he would do anything – even fight a wild griffin, if it came to that.

He hugged her. ‘Don’t worry, girl. I got it under control. I’ll do whatever it takes. I’ll rip that griffin’s guts out if I have to. I can’t make Dan care for yeh; it’s too much to ask. It’ll be all right. I’ll fight even harder knowin’ I’m fightin’ for you.’

Laela smiled at him. ‘Dada,’ she said.

 

*

 

Bran’s trial resumed the next day. Once again, he was taken to the dock while the crowd hurled its insults from above. Della and her partner stood patiently on the Master’s platform. This time, though, when Bran looked up, he could see Dan and Kakree up with the spectators. Dan waved encouragingly at him.

Bran nodded back, and waited patiently while Della declared the proceedings open again.

‘Now,’ she said, turning to him. ‘Today you have the opportunity to offer any evidence you might have to prove that you are innocent.’

Bran hesitated.

Della gave him an expectant look. ‘Well?’

Finally, Bran spoke – loudly and strongly, so everyone there could hear him. His voice was deep and stern – a Captain’s voice.

‘I didn’t do it,’ he said. ‘I didn’t help Arren get out of prison, an’ I didn’t help him break into the Eyrie. I chose duty over friendship. I shouldn’t have. I should’ve put my friend first an’ given him the help he needed before any of it happened. If I had, I would’ve saved him, an’ Eagleholm, an’ myself. But I didn’t, an’ that’s why I’m here. Because I did what I was told an’ not what my heart told me. Now all of yeh here can see how I’m rewarded for that.’

‘But can you prove you’re innocent?’ Della pressed.

‘No,’ said Bran. ‘I can’t. But Gryphus knows I’m innocent. Let me fight to prove it.’

‘You want trial by combat?’ said Della.

‘Yeah,’ said Bran. ‘I do. I’ll fight the wild griffin. Gryphus will show yeh I ain’t guilty.’

‘Is that your final word?’ asked Della.

‘Yeah,’ said Bran.

‘Very well, then. You can go back to your cell while the arrangements are made. Your guilt or innocence is out of my hands now. The wild griffin will decide.’

Above, the audience jeered.

‘Feed him to the wild griffins!’ one man shouted. ‘Let Gryphus punish him!’

‘Kill the traitor!’ others yelled.

‘Burn the lot of yeh!’ Bran roared back suddenly. ‘You’re a load of cowards. How brave of yeh, throwin’ insults at a man who can’t fight back. I tell yeh, if Arren was here you’d be runnin’ like sheep the moment yeh laid eyes on him. It was the likes of you what turned him into a monster. Hate a man long enough an’ he’ll start hatin’ back. Well you ain’t gonna do the same thing to me.’ He spat.

Outraged shouts rose from the crowd. A few people even started to throw things, and the guards up there had to step in and start hustling them out.

Bran had said his piece. He walked out with his own guards, muttering and grim-faced. As he left he saw Dan again, and his old friend nodded sternly. Agreeing with him, maybe, or wishing him luck. Bran nodded back, unsmiling, and began the walk back to his cell.

 

*

 

When Bran returned to his cell he found Laela crying – almost as if she knew what was going to happen. She had made a mess in her clothes, so Bran changed them and cleaned her up as well as he could before giving her a reassurring cuddle. But she kept on crying, refused to eat, and stayed unsettled through most of the night.

Bran probably wouldn’t have slept well anyway. He spent that night alternately dozing and trying to calm Laela down, and finally woke up properly at what he guessed might be dawn. There was no natural light down here.

Bran got up. Laela was finally asleep, and during what could be his last quiet moment for a while, he decided to pray.

Normally, a Southern sun-worshipper like himself would pray in a Temple, or failing that would sit somewhere sunlit. Down here he could do neither, but there was a flame burning, at least – a torch inside a protective bracket up on his cell wall. He fixed his eyes on the fire, and murmured his prayer, keeping his voice low so he wouldn’t disturb Laela. And anyway, these words were for him and Gryphus, and no-one else.

‘Gryphus,’ he said. ‘I never did much right by yeh. Consortin’ with a Northerner – I know that ain’t what you’d want. Arren belonged to the Night God, not you. But I did my best t’stand by people an’ do right by my family an’ by Kraeya as well. I did the best I could, always have, even if I ain’t strong enough. An’ I ain’t. I can’t save Laela an’ myself without help now. So I’m askin’ yeh, Gryphus – protect me. Help me get out of this. Now Finna’s married out of the family I’m the last Redguard. Me an’ Laela. Don’t let us end like this. Let me win back my honour an’ my freedom. Please.’

If Gryphus heard, he didn’t feel the need to reply. But Bran felt better once he had prayed. And if he survived today, then surely that would mean Gryphus had forgiven him.

After he had prayed a while longer, he went back to his bed and slept. This time it was proper sleep, and just as well – he would need it.

 

*

 

Some time later, a voice calling from outside his cell door woke him up. He sat up hastily, and blinked away the last of his sleep as he saw someone standing outside. It was Della’s other assistant – a short, pudgy young man with a squint.

‘Yeah, what is it?’ asked Bran, standing up and stifling a yawn.

The man looked timid. ‘Er,’ he said. ‘Er, I’ve been asked to inform you that your fight with the griffin will happen today, at noon, in the fighting pits. You’ll be given back your sword, and you will be allowed to choose any other weapon you want before you go into the pit.’

‘Right,’ said Bran. ‘Then tell them guards I want some fresh water an’ somethin’ to eat for me an’ the baby.’

‘Baby?’ The man peered past him at the sleeping Laela.

‘Yeah,’ said Bran. ‘My daughter. Hop to it.’

‘All right.’ The nervous young griffiner hesitated. ‘You’re… you’re very brave, you know,’ he said quickly. ‘I wish I was brave like you.’

‘Well, feel free to come sit in this cell instead of me,’ Bran grunted. ‘It’s a real treat.’

The man flushed. ‘That’s not what I- sorry. Yes. I should go now. My name’s Alaric, by the way. And, er, good luck.’

He stumbled off, and Bran watched him go with bemusement. Someone that weak-willed wouldn’t last long as an apprentice to a Master as powerful as the Master of Law. He must have very wealthy parents to have been given the job in the first place.

A short while later food and water arrived. Laela was still asleep, so Bran ate and washed himself before strapping on his old guard armour which he had been allowed to keep with him.

When Laela woke up he washed and fed her too, and then settled down to wait. Eventually Isleen arrived with a pair of guards in tow.

‘Are you ready?’ she asked brusquely.

‘Yeah,’ Bran nodded.

‘Good. Come with us.’

Bran stood up, took Laela in his arms and gave her a last hug and a kiss on the forehead. ‘You wait here for me, girl,’ he said. ‘I’ll be back. Don’t you worry. I won’t let yeh down. Promise. You just sit tight an’ wait for me.’

He put her down on the bed and gave her the little stuffed griffin she loved so much, before he turned to the guard outside and said sternly; ‘You keep an eye on her, understand?’

The guard nodded reluctantly. ‘She won’t go anywhere, milord. Don’t worry.’

‘Good.’ Bran gave Laela a worried look, and left the cell. ‘All right,’ he said to Isleen and her escort. ‘Let’s get this over with.’

He let her two guards shackle his wrists behind his back again, and walked between them as before – up the corridor and out of the Eyrie, and into the city. As they left the Eyrie, Isleen’s grey partner Arak joined them and walked beside his human, leading Bran and his guards onward.

Bran watched the two of them, and found himself thinking of Kraeya. She must still be locked up in the fighting pits, where he himself was going. He wondered if she knew what was going on.

‘I want to see Kraeya,’ he said as they walked through the streets.

Isleen glanced back at him. ‘Your partner?’

‘Yeah,’ said Bran. ‘She’s still at the pits, right?’

‘She is,’ said Isleen.

‘I want t’visit her before the fight,’ said Bran. ‘So she knows what’s goin’ on.’

‘Very well,’ said Isleen. ‘There should be time. But she won’t be allowed to help you in the fight. If she were accused of helping you commit your crimes she would be, but she’s above suspicion.’

Bran sighed to himself. Kraeya’s help would make all the difference in this fight, but Isleen was right, and besides, it wouldn’t be fair to his partner to drag her into this.

Above, the sky was clear and bright. Withypool’s streets were busy. Plenty of people stopped to watch curiously as the prisoner and his escort went past – the fact that he was being guarded by a griffiner as well as two ordinary guards meant that he must be a griffiner himself, or be accused of a particularly heinous crime. Or both.

Bran ignored them.

Fortunately the fighting pits weren’t far from the Eyrie. In Eagleholm there had been the Arena – one huge round building, where wild griffins had fought criminals for the amusement of the crowd. That was where Arren had gone, and where he had nearly died at the talons of the black griffin. In Withypool, though, there were several different fighting pits sunk into the ground – miniature Arenas, more or less. Bran had seen them from the sky on his way into the city. All of them had nets of steel chains over them, to stop anyone inside from escaping, and the spectators stood above and looked down on the carnage below. A second, much larger chain net covered the entire area, so that when Bran first entered he felt as if he were being caught in layers of spider web.

Around the edge of the open area that housed the fighting pits, other more ordinary buildings stood. Many of them had signs on them, which Bran couldn’t read beyond a few words here and there – he’d never learned much of reading and writing, even after becoming a griffiner.

‘What’s in there?’ he asked, pointing at one of them.

‘Griffins are caged in that one,’ Isleen said briefly. ‘The building next to it is where the curiosities are kept for people to see. We will pass through it on our way and you can see for yourself.’

‘Curiousities?’ Bran repeated to himself. He wondered what that meant.

When they walked through that building, he soon found out. It was an open structure with a passage straight through the middle of it, and the five of them took a shortcut through it, forcing the crowd to move away. Bran looked around, and quickly realised what they had come to see. On either side of the passage, cages of different sizes had been set into the walls. Creatures sat inside them – the kinds of bizarre things that could usually be seen at a fair. Bran saw a two-headed calf, and a griffin youngster with four wings, all of which were stunted and useless. People gawped at the wretched creatures, most of which lay pathetically in their own filth, dead-eyed and scrawny. He guessed that a lot of them were already close to death, unable to live with their deformities.

Bran tried not to look at them, but he couldn’t help himself. Like the crowd he stared in fascinated horror at each new grotesque beast – and then he saw something that made him stop so suddenly that his guards stumbled to a halt as well. Normally they would have urged him on, but once they saw what he was looking at they too hesitated. One of them swore softly.

The creature sat in a smaller cage, set higher up in the wall. It was also small – about the same size as Laela, in fact. And it was the most bizarre and horrible thing Bran had ever seen.

What made it worse was that, while the other creatures there were deformed, it was at least possible to tell what animal they were. But this thing didn’t look like any animal that could possibly exist. It crouched awkwardly, unable to stand on its twisted back legs, which merged into its clawed hind paws. Its front legs were scaled, but the front paws… they had tiny talons on them, but they were pink and soft, and shaped more like human hands. The head was flattened, and the face had only the barest stump of a nose, and a few wisps of hair on the head.

The creature’s skin was mottled pink and grey, with patches of fur and feather sprouting seemingly at random. A stumpy tail hung over its backside. And, twitching on its back, there were…

‘Wings,’ Bran muttered. ‘It’s got wings.’

They were wings; they had to be. They were long and spindly, and covered in fluffy feathers, like the wings of a baby bird. The creature was like a baby, he thought, in some ways. But if it was a baby then it was the most hideous one he had ever seen.

Apparently realising it was being watched, the creature looked up, and fear shot through the disgust in Bran’s mind.

The creature’s eyes were large and yellow, slanted in its ugly face. They weren’t human coloured, or human shaped, but… but somehow Bran could see an expression in them. They were full of a terrible sadness.

Help me, those eyes said.

The creature made a feeble bleating, squarking sound, and Isleen stepped in. ‘Come along, all of you,’ she said impatiently. ‘We aren’t here to gawp at the freaks.’

Bran found his voice. ‘What in Gryphus’ name is that thing?’

Isleen looked past him at the bizarre creature. ‘Nobody knows,’ she said. ‘They found it abandoned in an inn somewhere outside the city. Now, hurry up. Noon is coming, and we can’t be late.’

The creature bleated again.

Bran forced himself to look away from it, and followed Isleen away. He felt sickened by what he had seen. But soon enough his own troubles returned to occupy his mind. Once this was over he’d have time to worry about other things. For now, he had to see Kraeya.

The building that housed the griffins lay just beyond the one where the freaks lived. Out of necessity it was much bigger, but it too was filled with cages – huge ones, but still not big enough to give their occupants much room. Most of them were occupied by what had to be wild griffins. They were scarred, and hampered by chains attached to collars around their necks, and they snarled threats at the small group of humans as they passed.

Kraeya was at the far end in a cage of her own, but she wore no chains. She lay on her belly, looking bored, but stood up at once when she saw Bran.

She came over to the bars. ‘Bran, my human. Why have you come? Is the trial over? Have you come to free me so that we may leave this place?’

Bran’s guards let him go up to the bars by himself. ‘No, Kraeya,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry. They got me nailed.’

‘What is it?’ Kraeya demanded. ‘What has happened?’

Bran gave her a brief description of the trial.

She hissed. ‘No! This is an outrage!’

‘Yeah,’ said Bran. ‘I got no way of showin’ I’m innocent, so I’ve asked for trial by combat. I gotta fight a wild griffin in one of the fightin’ pits. Today. If I win, we go free.’

‘No,’ Kraeya rasped. ‘I will not allow you to do that. You will die.’

‘I got no other choice,’ said Bran. ‘If I don’t fight I’m dead anyway.’

‘Then I must help you,’ said Kraeya. ‘Let me out of this cage and I shall fight beside you.’

‘That is not allowed,’ Isleen’s partner Arak interrupted. ‘You had no involvement in your human’s crime. You cannot fight this battle for him.’

‘He is my human and it is my right to defend him,’ said Kraeya. ‘If you force him to fight this wild griffin alone, he will die.’

‘Kraeya, it’s all right,’ said Bran. ‘I can do this. I’ll be all right. I promise.’

‘Come,’ said Arak. ‘You have spoken now and it is time to go to the fighting pit.’

Kraeya slammed her beak against the bars. ‘No! You cannot do this!’

Bran felt himself being pulled away. ‘It’s all right, Kraeya. It’s all right. Everything’s gonna be fine.’

Kraeya did not listen. She continued to bite and snarl at her prison, trying to break free and go to her human’s side. A pair of guards came running from elsewhere in the building and did their best to subdue her, prodding her with long spears to make her move back from the bars.

Bran tried to stay and calm her down, but his own guards wouldn’t allow it. They turned him around and forced him to walk back out between them, with Arak and Isleen bringing up the rear this time.

‘What’ll happen to her if I die?’ he asked once they were out of earshot.

‘She will be set free,’ said Isleen. ‘She would be free now, but we can’t risk her trying to interfere.’

‘Right,’ Bran muttered. Kraeya might be set free, but without him she would be lost. A griffin who lost her human was disgraced; little better than one of the wild griffins, who had no rights at all. It could well be that Isleen was lying, and that Kraeya would instead be kept here and used in the fighting pits like the other captive griffins.

Bran gritted his teeth. He wouldn’t let that happen. He’d fight for her as well as Laela.

Now his guards took him back to the fighting pits, through a large locked trapdoor and into an underground passage which led to a room lined with racks full of weapons. In the far side of it, a barred metal gate led into the largest of the fighting pits.

Here, at last, the guards removed Bran’s shackles. Isleen stepped forward, and gave him back his sword.

‘Here,’ she said. ‘As promised. As you were told earlier, you may choose any other weapons you want from this room. These two men will stay with you and wait in here until after the fight. Arak and I will watch from above. If you survive, we will be ready to set your partner free immediately and I will give you this.’ She held up a roll of paper. ‘A pardon, signed by Eyrie Master Ruel and the Master of Law. It will lift all crimes from you.’

‘Got it,’ said Bran. ‘Thanks.’

Isleen gave him the briefest of smiles. ‘Goodbye and good luck, Branton Redguard.’

Bran tucked his sword into his belt, and went to inspect the weapons on offer. There was quite a range – swords of various lengths, spears and axes, clubs, and nets. He soon decided to take a spear – as a guard he had been trained in the short sword and the spear, so with it and his sword he would be armed with the weapons he was best with. After some thought he also took a small axe and put that in the back of his belt just in case he lost his sword and needed something else he could use at close quarters.

His two guards watched in silence for a while, but while he walked back and forth along the racks, considering whether he should take anything else, one of them spoke for the first time.

‘You want my advice, take a net,’ he said. ‘Those griffins move fast. Get a net an’ tangle the bloody thing up in it. That’ll give you a chance.’

Bran eyed him, and then inspected one of the nets that hung from a hook on the wall. It was made of rope, and looked sturdy. He fingered it while he thought. The guard’s suggestion sounded sensible to him. If the griffin managed to pounce on him and knock him down, he’d be finished. Tangling it up with a net might save him.

He nodded and took the net down. He bundled it up and slung it over his shoulder before taking a second net just in case. Best be as prepared as possible.

‘Thanks for the advice, mate,’ he said.

The guard nodded respectfully to him. ‘It’s damned obvious you used t’be a guard. You sure don’t look much like a griffiner!’

Bran grinned. ‘Yeah, I ain’t much of one. I never wanted t’be a griffiner really. A guard’s all I ever was an’ that’s what I still am at heart. Always will be.’

‘Well, good luck out there,’ said the guard.

‘Yeah,’ said his fellow. ‘I reckon yer innocent. This whole trial thing’s a nonsense.’

‘Thanks,’ said Bran. ‘An’ it is.’

‘You’ll do fine,’ said the first guard. ‘Gryphus is on your side, right?’

‘Right,’ Bran nodded, and tried his best to believe it.

Outside, he could hear the crowd that had already gathered. Back in Eagleholm the Arena had been very popular entertainment, and here it was most likely the same. And the reason behind this particular fight would make it even more exciting to the onlookers. Bran reflected sourly that someone was probably already up there selling bags of toasted nuts.

‘What griffin am I fightin’?’ he asked the guards, thinking that it couldn’t hurt to know.

‘The one called “Bloodtalons”,’ said one of them. ‘I seen him fight before. He’s big, but not too big.’

So they liked to give their captive wild griffins stupid melodramatic names here, too, Bran thought. Wild griffins didn’t have names so far as he knew, so when they were caught and used for entertainment in places like this their owners would give them stage names to put on the posters. He muttered something to himself, and gripped his spear while he mentally planned out what he would do once he was in the pit.

He didn’t get long. Moments later the gate in front of him jerkily lifted as someone moved it from above. Bran could see the ground of the fighting pit in front of him, covered in sand brought from the seashore that would soak up the blood.

He set his jaw and stepped out into the open, while above him the announcer bellowed an introduction to rile up the crowd.

Branton Redguard, former guardsman and destroyer of Eagleholm, who betrayed his Eyrie Mistress to Northerners! Come to fight for his freedom!

The crowd jeered and spat, and hurled rotten fruit into the pit. Bran made a rude gesture at them and returned his attention to his surroundings. It would be harder to manoeuvre in the sand, but hopefully it would hamper Bloodtalons as well.

The gate closed behind him. Ahead, on the other side of the pit, he saw a second gate. A huge shape lurked behind it, ready and waiting.

Today, for your pleasure,’ the announcer continued. ‘Bran the Betrayer will fight the mighty Bloodtalons. Only Gryphus can decide the outcome!

‘Kill him, Bloodtalons!’ someone shouted from the audience. ‘Rip his traitor head off!’

Bran spat, and took up a fighting stance with his spear in one hand and net in the other. ‘All right,’ he growled under his breath. ‘Come an’ get me. I’m ready.’

Ahead of him the other gate clanked and groaned as it moved upward, and he heard the announcer shout one last time.

Let the fight begin!

Before the gate had even finished opening, Bloodtalons forced his way through and rushed into the pit, wings opening to flail at the air. His beak was open wide, and a harsh and horrible scream split the air.

Bran didn’t move. He stood rooted to the spot, and quickly summed up his opponent as he’d been taught to do when he was only a boy. Bloodtalons was a big griffin – a little bigger than Kraeya – and he too had a red coat. His eyes looked odd; one was glaring yellow, but the other was paler, and the lid drooped. Bran took note of that, and guessed that the griffin was probably blind or partly blind in that eye. That would be the best side to attack from, then.

At least flight would be out of the question. There wasn’t any room for it here, and anyway, Bloodtalons’ wings had been chained together at the base just as in Eagleholm.

Bran picked up on all this in just a few moments, while Bloodtalons stopped and looked back at him as well. But the griffin probably wasn’t summing him up in return; he looked incapable of thought. His eyes, even the blind one, were full of mindless animal ferocity as he lowered his head and raised his scarred shoulders. His hissed a threat.

‘Come an’ get me, then,’ Bran said again. ‘Come on, yeh great chicken, come an’ see what a Redguard can do.’

The hiss rose into a snarl, and Bloodtalons charged. Bran was ready for him. He waited as long as he dared, and at the last possible moment he twisted out of the way and hurled the net under the beast’s talons.

Bloodtalons’ front paws caught in the weave and he stumbled. Bran had already gripped his spear in both hands, and now he stabbed it into the griffin’s body as hard as he could. He had been aiming for the throat, but Bloodtalons moved at the wrong moment and instead the spearpoint embedded itself in the griffin’s shoulder. Bloodtalons snarled and whirled around to attack, but he was hampered by the net and Bran managed to pull the spear out of him and move out of the way again. He knew the net wouldn’t help him for long before Bloodtalons managed to tear it off, so he took full advantage and speared him again, this time in the chest.

Bloodtalons must have been used to enemies armed with spears. He lashed out with his beak – not at Bran, but at the spear-haft. It shattered under the blow, and Bran fell back as the impact ripped the remains out of his hands.

He didn’t waste time trying to get it back; he pulled the second net down off his shoulder and made a sudden rush forward, hoping to tangle his opponent up further while he still had the chance. But Bloodtalons ignored the spear head still stuck in him and lashed out again with his beak. Instinctively Bran threw his hands up to protect himself, and Bloodtalons’ beak hit the net instead and hooked through the weave. Bran kept hold of the other end of the net and pulled hard.

Bloodtalons pulled too, dragging Bran toward him. Too late Bran realised his mistake, and as he stumbled forward his foot caught in the sand and he fell over, right under the griffin’s beak.

He rolled over faster than he would ever have thought possible, and as Bloodtalons struck at him he rolled aside, first one way and then the other. But Bloodtalons wasn’t just any griffin; he was a fighting pit griffin, and had spent most of his adult life fighting and killing humans just like Bran. He reared up onto his hind legs and slammed his front paws down, net and all. Bran moved just in time, and the talons ripped down his chest, leaving deep lines in his leather breastplate.

The force of the blow slammed through Bran’s body, but before the pain had hit him he instinctively grabbed the net and pulled again, unbalancing the griffin. Bloodtalons stumbled sideways, and Bran took the opportunity to get away from him and stand up.

As he did, the pain suddenly stabbed into his chest in several places. He groaned and touched the most painful spot, but there was no time to worry about how badly he might be hurt. Bloodtalons had lost patience, and begun to tear at the net caught around his talons. His beak was more than strong enough to snap the rope weave, and in moments he would be free and able to chase down the puny human who dared try and go up against him.

Bran knew he couldn’t give him that chance. He drew his sword and charged in, roaring his family name in defiance to the baying crowd above.

Redguaaaaaard!’

Bloodtalons let go of the net and raised his head, opening his beak wide to strike. Bran had expected that, and at the last moment he dived, ducking in under the griffin’s beak, and threw his whole weight behind the sword as he thrust.

Bloodtalons struck. The point of his great, pitted beak hit Bran in the back and ripped the back clean off his breastplate. It ripped into Bran as well, but by then it was already too late.

Bran’s short guard sword punched straight through the wild griffin’s breastbone and embedded itself in his body up to the hilt. With one final burst of strength, Bran wrenched the sword sideways and then pulled it out. A gush of blood followed, splattering over his back as he stumbled away.

Bloodtalons screamed. Finally kicking away the ruins of the net, he bounded after Bran. Stumbling as the pain rose in his back and chest, Bran was too slow to get away, and the griffin’s huge forepaw slammed into him and sent him flying. He landed in a shower of sand, and skidded away until he hit the wall of the fighting pit.

Only half conscious, his eyes full of sand, he looked up and saw Bloodtalons limping toward him. Coming in for the kill.

Laela, he thought.

Slowly, painfully, he dragged himself back up out of the sand. Bloodtalons was still coming at him. He had lost his sword, so he reached around to the back of his belt and freed the axe – the only weapon he had left. He grasped it in one hand, and braced himself for a final assault.

‘Come on!’ he wheezed. ‘I ain’t dead yet!’

But Bloodtalons didn’t look about to charge again. He moved slowly now, limping badly in one foreleg. On his chest, the deep wound Bran’s sword had left poured blood onto the sand.

‘C’mon!’ Bran yelled again. ‘What kinda wild griffin are yeh?’

Bloodtalons snarled, and made a clumsy run at him.

Bran knew he himself was hurt, but his legs were fine. He raised the axe and prepared to sidestep the charge, as he had before.

But before Bloodtalons reached him, he stumbled. His run slowed, and he staggered sideways with a hiss and a groan. His weak foreleg buckled, and he half fell.

Bran charged. Bloodtalons lashed out at him with his beak again, but weakly and slowly this time. Bran grabbed the beak with his free hand and wrenched it sideways. Before Bloodtalons could pull free, he hit him hard with the axe, in the neck just behind the jaw. Bloodtalons screamed again and fell sideways, exposing the spot even further, and Bran took his opportunity and struck again and again, hacking at the griffin’s neck right where the great throat vein waited.

He knew he had succeeded when blood spurted out with so much force that it sprayed over his face like hot rain. Bloodtalons convulsed, tried to make one last feeble strike at him, and then collapsed onto his side, twitching as his life’s blood pulsed out of him.

Bran dropped the axe and nearly fell on top of the dying griffin. He could feel himself shaking.

Above the crowd roared again. He couldn’t tell if they sounded triumphant, or disappointed. He didn’t care.

He limped away and found his sword lying half buried in the sand. The hilt was sticky with blood, but he picked it up and slowly walked back to where Bloodtalons lay. The griffin was still alive, barely. Bran knelt on his neck, and finished him off with a brutal stab through the eye and into his brain.

Bloodtalons jerked once, and finally stilled.

Bran stood up, over the griffin’s body, pointed his sword to the sky, and bellowed his victory.

The crowd bellowed back, and to his amazement he heard some of them begin a chant.

Bran! Bran! Bran!

Bran the Betrayer!’ some shouted, but they sounded almost admiring.

Yeah, Bran thought suddenly. I am a traitor. I stayed loyal to the city, and I betrayed Arren.

‘Bran the Betrayer!’ he shouted back defiantly.

Bran the Betrayer wins!’ came the voice of the announcer.

Bran grinned wildly. He’d won. Gryphus had given his protection. He could go free, and Kraeya as well. What did it matter that he was Bran the Betrayer? He would live.

The gate that had let him into the pit opened again, and he thrust his sword back into his belt and limped off toward it. The pain had really begun now, but it wasn’t so bad that it meant his injuries would kill him.

As he entered the weapons room he pulled off his breastplate. The talon cuts in it were so deep they had almost gone straight through. Any deeper and it would have been him. As it was, he could see dark red and purple bruising already forming under his tunic. He carefully felt his chest, and soon detected several broken ribs. Bloodtalons’ beak had left a deep cut on his back as well, and there were other cuts and bruises on his arms. But none of it was very serious. He’d be a while recovering, but he’d survive. And now that he was free, the first thing he’d do was deal with Anyon. See to it that he got arrested, one way or the other. Then maybe Bran would testify at his trial. Serve him right.

‘Betrayer my arse,’ he muttered to himself. ‘Nobody spits on a Redguard’s honour an’ gets away with it.’

The two guards who had brought him to the pit were waiting, with looks of open admiration on their faces.

‘That was amazin’!’ one exclaimed. ‘I don’t believe it!’

‘Hardly anyone ever goes up against a wild griffin an’ lives,’ said the second.

Bran grinned, and then winced. ‘I told yeh I was innocent,’ he said. ‘Gryphus says so too.’

‘Now they all knows it,’ the first guard said stoutly. ‘I saw Isleen a moment ago; she’s gone t’let yer partner free. They’ll be here any moment.’

‘Good.’ Bran winced again, and went to sit down on the bench. Just doing that made his ribs flare up, and he groaned. ‘Argh. Feels like I got a handful of rusty daggers in there.’

‘I ain’t surprised,’ said the first guard. ‘Just rest up a bit until Isleen calls us, all right?’

‘Sure,’ said Bran. He rubbed his chest very carefully, but even that made it hurt. He cringed. ‘What’s yer name, by the way?’ he asked.

‘Me, I’m Talmon,’ said the first guard.

‘Nerris,’ said the other. ‘Here.’ He offered Bran a water bottle.

Bran drank deeply, and waited until, sure enough, Isleen arrived. She came down into the weapons room by herself, looking a little flushed.

‘There you are,’ she said. ‘Congratulations.’

Bran stood up. ‘Is Kraeya there?’

‘Yes. Arak and I set her free. She’s waiting for you outside.’ Isleen cleared her throat. ‘Lord Branton Redguard,’ she said formally. ‘You have won your trial by combat, and are therefore innocent in the eyes of Gryphus. I am hereby empowered to present you with this.’ She offered him the scroll that declared his pardoning. ‘You are hereby cleared of all charges, and are allowed to go free with immediate effect.’

Bran took the scroll, and tucked it into his tunic. ‘Thanks, Isleen.’

He stood up, nodded to Talmon and Nerris, and went up the passageway and into daylight.

Kraeya was waiting there, and she rushed straight to him. ‘Bran!’

Bran hugged her around the neck. ‘Kraeya! Thank gods!’

She nibbled gently at his hair, grooming him as if he were her chick. ‘I knew that you would survive, my Bran. I trusted you to have the strength to save us.’

‘An’ I did,’ said Bran. Her feathers were warm and soft on his blood-spotted face. ‘I did. We’re all right now, Kraeya. We’re gonna be fine.’

‘Yes,’ said Kraeya. ‘And I am proud that you are my human.’

Bran let go of her. ‘C’mon,’ he said, eyeing the crowd all about. ‘Let’s get back to the Eyrie an’ get Laela out of that cell.’

Kraeya looked up at the chains that covered the pits. ‘We cannot fly from here. Come, we will walk out to where it is clear.’

Bran nodded and limped beside her away from the pit where he had nearly died, trying to ignore the shouts from the crowd. Some shouted accusations, others congratulations. It seemed that a few of them, at least, now believed he was innocent.

Bran didn’t even look at them. He didn’t care what they thought, not any more.

Some of them, though, moved around in front of him, standing in his and Kraeya’s path.

‘Get outta the way,’ Bran growled at them.

‘They will not stand in our way for long,’ said Kraeya. She hissed at them, sending several of them scurrying.

But one of them didn’t run. He shuffled forward, detaching himself from the throng, and came toward Bran.

Bran’s eyes narrowed. ‘Anyon.’

Here in the daylight Anyon looked even worse than he had in the Eyrie. His burned face looked half melted, the eyes glazed. But his voice sounded surprisingly strong when he spoke.

‘Traitor,’ he said. ‘Murderer.’

‘I’m innocent, an’ you know it,’ Bran snapped back. ‘If I was guilty, yeh wouldn’t have had to bribe them people to make ’em lie for yeh.’

‘Murderer!’ Anyon shouted suddenly. ‘You killed my master!’

‘I didn’t,’ said Bran. ‘Get outta my way. I’ll see yeh thrown in prison for what you did.’

Anyon didn’t seem to hear him. He stepped forward, drawing a long dagger. ‘Gryphus burn thee, Arren Cardockson,’ he said, and stabbed Bran in the chest.

Too late, Kraeya reared up. Too late, she lashed out with her talons. Too late, she hurled Anyon to the ground where he jerked and died.

Bran fell to his knees, both hands clutching at the dagger still stuck in him. ‘No-,’

‘Bran!’ Kraeya stood over him, trying to support him. ‘Bran, no!’

Bran could feel blood welling up around the dagger. His vision began to darken around the edges. ‘Laela,’ he mumbled, and fell.

 

*

 

Far away in the cell under the Eyrie, as if sensing what had happened, Laela started to cry.

 

*

 

Talmon and Nerris tried to care for Bran. Talmon held the crowd at bay with Kraeya’s help, while Nerris ran to find a healer. Luckily there were several working at the fighting pits, and one soon came running.

She rolled Bran onto his back. He flopped down, his arms falling limply away from where they had clutched at the dagger. His eyes had slid closed.

The healer touched his neck. ‘His heart’s still beating. Quickly, get him back to the Eyrie. He needs a better healer than me.’

‘Ain’t you gonna take that dagger out of him?’ Nerris asked.

‘No. If I did, he’d bleed to death. Help me.’

The healer had brought a stretcher, and with Talomon and Nerris’ help she slid Bran onto it. Together, she and Nerris lifted the stretcher and carried it out of the fighting pits. Kraeya went ahead, and Isleen and Arak took up the rear. The crowd moved out of the way, quiet now.

Together, they took Bran back to the Eyrie and up the ramps inside to the infirmary where griffiners were cared for. There they put him on a bed, and made him as comfortable as they could.

‘He’ll get the best treatment Withypool has to offer here,’ said the healer, while her fellow healers gathered around. ‘The Master of Healing herself will treat him.’

Isleen nodded briefly. ‘I’ll go and fetch the child. She should be up here with him.’

She left, along with her partner. Talmon and Nerris went with her. Only Kraeya stayed. The infirmary had been built big enough for griffins to keep watch over their partners, and the red griffin lay down quietly by Bran’s bedside and waited.

Bran didn’t notice any of it. He lay still on his back, scarcely breathing.

‘Do not die,’ Kraeya said softly. ‘Please, Bran. You cannot die…’

A short time later, the Master of Healing arrived. She swore softly in griffish when she saw the dagger.

Kraeya stood up. ‘Save him,’ she commanded. ‘You must heal him.’

The Master of Healing looked up at her. ‘I’ll do my best, but I can’t make any promises. If that dagger has pierced his heart, then he has no chance. Even if it hasn’t, he may well still die.’

‘Save him,’ Kraeya repeated.

The Master of Healing nodded silently, and went to work. She poured a medicine of some kind down Bran’s throat, and once she had prepared a strong-smelling paste she removed the dagger and quickly covered the wound with it. The paste hardened in moments, sealing the blood away inside Bran’s body, and once it had the Master of Healing covered it with bandages.

‘That’s all I can do for now,’ she said. ‘Now all we can do is hope the paste holds, and see if he wakes up.’

Kraeya huffed softly.

‘Don’t worry,’ the Master of Healing smiled to reassure her. ‘He survived the fight today, didn’t he? I think it’s clear that Gryphus wants him to live.’

‘He must live,’ was all Kraeya said.

Not long afterward, Isleen returned. She had a crying Laela in her arms. ‘How is he?’ she asked.

The Master of Healing shook her head. ‘Still holding on, but it’s too early to be certain of anything. Whose child is that?’

‘His,’ said Isleen. ‘I brought her up to be with him; he insisted that she stay with him at all times.’ She rocked Laela gently, and patted her on the back. ‘There, there, little one; it’s all right. I’ve brought you to your father now.’

Laela, though, kept on crying.

‘I’m not sure what’s wrong,’ Isleen said uncomfortably. ‘She’s not hungry and she doesn’t need changing, but she won’t stop crying.’

‘Perhaps she’s overheated,’ the Master of Healing suggested. ‘With that hood on.’

‘Are you too hot?’ Isleen touched Laela’s cheeks. ‘You feel hot. Here, let me help you-,’

‘No!’ Kraeya said sharply.

But Isleen ignored her. She untied the hood and pulled it away. ‘There, is that better-?’ she began.

The hood came off, and Laela’s thin, curly black hair puffed up, finally free of its prison.

Isleen and the Master of Healing froze.

‘No,’ Kraeya said again. ‘Put the hood back on. You must not remove it.’

It was already far too late.

Isleen touched Laela’s wispy hair. ‘It’s black,’ she said. ‘Holy Gryphus, is she…?’

‘That’s a half-breed,’ said the Master of Healing.

‘A half-breed!’ Isleen held Laela away from herself, staring at her in bewilderment and then, soon afterward, disgust. She looked at Bran. ‘So that’s why he wouldn’t let anyone take her away from him. That’s why he kept her head covered. He fathered a half-breed.’

The Master of Healing looked at the whimpering Laela. ‘Poor little thing. How could he do this to her?’ She glanced sharply at Isleen. ‘Put the hood back on her. We can’t let this get out.’

‘What does it matter?’ asked Isleen. ‘We had nothing to do with it.’

‘She’s only a child, Isleen,’ said the Master of Healing. ‘It’s not her fault that her father bedded a Northerner. If he ever recovers, we’ll confront him about it and leave it to him to deal with. If not… we’ll decide then.’

‘All right.’ Isleen put Laela down by Bran’s side, and put the hood back on her. ‘You look after her, then, if you care so much. As for me, I shall go back and report to my master. But I’ll say nothing about the child. Let him decide. Or, if not him, you.’

The Master of Healing nodded. ‘Thankyou. I’ll send word once I have it.’

Isleen left with a curt nod of her own, and the Master of Healing turned to Kraeya.

‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘I’ll keep this to myself.’

‘You should not have done that,’ Kraeya hissed. ‘My human’s secrets are his own.’

‘Yes.’ The Master of Healing looked down at the silent Bran. ‘And if he ever wakes up, he’ll have to face the consequences. Whatever they might be.’

 

*

 

Bran was not dead, but he was in darkness. At first there was pain – horrible pain. But he drifted away from it and into the darkness, and the further he went from it, the less he felt the pain. He felt cold instead. So damned cold.

Vague memories spiralled around him, or fragments of them. Pieces of himself and his past. His father, Haig Redguard – young then, speaking sternly to him. Our family code is honour an’ loyalty. Never forget it, son. Kraeya, rearing over him to screech, frightening him on purpose to test his courage. Flell’s sweet smile. Laela reaching up to touch his arm and call him Dada. The cold touch of Arren’s lifeless hands as they escaped from Warwick together. Danthirk’s nod as he had left the Council Chamber. Bloodtalons, screaming at him in the ring.

He thought he saw Arren again, one last time, watching him with deep sadness. I’m so sorry, his voice whispered from out of the void where he lived.

Laela, Bran thought. Kraeya.

After a time he started to drift back. Back toward the light. Back toward the pain. Back where Laela was.

He woke briefly just once, then drifted back into darkness. But he woke again, and again, sliding back and forth out of the peace of oblivion, where there was no pain, no fear, no danger, and the dead beckoned for him to join them. Arren was there, because Arren was dead. And Flell, her too.

But Laela was alive, and so was he, just barely. And, bit by bit, he left the void behind and decided to live.

 

*

 

It was a long time before Bran woke up and could stay awake long enough to be properly alert. There were healers there to take care of him and give him some water. Kraeya was there, keeping watch over him. And Laela. She was there too, in a crib near his bed. She was safe.

Knowing that helped Bran stay calm and sleep through his weakness – proper sleep now, not unconsciousness. Eventually, after days of doing not much but rest and feel the dull pain in his chest, the Master of Healing spoke to him.

‘You’re a lucky man,’ she said.

‘Oh… really?’ Bran gasped. It was the first thing he’d said since leaving the void.

‘Yes. That dagger could have killed you in so many ways. It could have punctured a lung, or hit your heart. It could have given you an infection. But it didn’t. You’re going to live.’

Bran listened to her, and believed her. But he could feel a pain deep in his chest that told him more. ‘Gonna… be all right?’ he asked. Every word took a huge effort.

‘Yes, of course,’ she said smoothly. ‘You just rest. You’ll be well taken care of, until you’re ready to leave.’

But Bran knew he wasn’t going to be all right. He felt it in his bones. ‘Anyon?’ he mumbled.

‘Dead,’ said the Master of Healing. ‘Otherwise he would have been executed for attempted murder. But Kraeya killed him.’

‘Yes.’ Kraeya looked down on him. ‘I am only sorry that I did not kill him sooner. But you must rest now, Bran. I will keep you safe.’

Bran didn’t try and talk any more. He guessed that it would be a long time before he had the strength to do anything other than lie here. But at least he was alive. For now.

 

*

 

Bran’s recovery did take a long time; longer than even he had guessed. Weeks passed before he had the strength to sit up and feed himself, and it was another month after that before he could start trying to walk again. He could only be grateful that the Master of Healing instructed her underlings to take care of Laela, and that none of them tried to remove her hood. She looked healthy to him, and she was still growing. She had all of her teeth now, and had started to feed herself.

Bran felt like a baby himself, taking his first weak, shuffling steps.

His only visitor during that time was Danthirk, who looked shocked by the sight of him.

‘Great Gryphus, you look awful,’ he said frankly.

Bran grinned. ‘Yeah, I know. It’s better’n bein’ dead, though.’ His friend had come in while he was doing a practise walk around the room with the help of a crutch.

‘I heard about the fight,’ said Dan. ‘The whole city’s talkin’ about it.’

‘I wasn’t much fun, but I won, so that’s the main thing, eh?’ Bran winced. ‘Thanks for the advice, mate. I know it don’t look much like it, but yeh saved my life.’

‘It’s all right,’ said Dan. ‘I owed it to yer.’

Bran slowly limped back to his bed, and sat down on it. ‘They’re still callin’ me Bran the Betrayer, though. Right?’

‘Yeah,’ Dan looked unhappy. ‘I asked Finna t’come see yer, but she wouldn’t. That woman’s hopeless.’

‘Well you tell her I don’t want t’see her,’ Bran said harshly. ‘She’s turned her back on me, so if that’s what she wants she can go right ahead an’ say I ain’t her brother no more.’ Speaking loudly made the pain flare up again, and he stopped and grimaced.

Dan took a step closer. ‘You all right, mate?’

Bran coughed and groaned. ‘No. They won’t tell me, but I can feel it. I’m gonna live, but I’ll never be the same again.’

‘C’mon, it’s too early t’be sayin’ that,’ said Dan. ‘Just you stay calm an’ get plenty of rest an’ you’ll come right in the end – you’ll see.’

‘Yeah,’ said Bran, not believing him. ‘It’ll be fine.’

But it wouldn’t be, and he already knew it.

 

*

 

Another month and a half later, when Bran had finally healed enough to walk properly and go back to some semblance of normal living, he was allowed to move into a private set of chambers in the Eyrie, with Kraeya and Laela. He spent a few nights there, getting used to taking care of himself again. By now his broken ribs and the cut from Bloodtalons’ beak had healed, and the stab-wound had begun to form into a deep pit of a scar. It still gave him pain, and he knew it always would. The arm on that side felt weak, too, and sometimes at night the wound itself would flare up. It would keep him awake at night, sweating and gritting his teeth to stop himself from crying out.

He wondered how long he would be allowed to live in the Eyrie for free, before someone forced him to find a job or leave. But so far they seemed content to look after him.

Finally, one day when he felt he had recovered as much as he ever would, a summons arrived for him to go and see the Eyrie Master.

‘Guess it’s about a job,’ said Bran. ‘Eh, Kraeya?’

She shifted uneasily. ‘Yes… we should go at once.’

‘Right.’ Bran picked up Laela. ‘All right, girl, you gotta wait here a bit. We’ll be back soon.’

But Laela clung to his arm and whimpered, and he found he couldn’t bring himself to put her into her crib.

‘All right, then,’ he said. ‘You come with us. I’m sure Ruel won’t mind.’ Since he was still considered a traitor by many people in the Eyrie, maybe the sight of Laela’s sweet face would soften the Eyrie Master’s attitude.

‘Oh yes, he wants you to bring her,’ said the servant who’d brought the summons.

Bran looked up in surprise. ‘He does?’

‘Yes. Come on now. Don’t keep him waiting.’

Bran shrugged, and left the room. His wound was hurting again and Laela was heavy, so he put her down and let her walk beside him. She toddled along, by now fairly steady on her feet, and held his hand.

Kraeya followed. ‘I do not like this,’ she said quietly.

‘It’s all right,’ said Bran. ‘I ain’t a prisoner no more. It’s over. We’re all right.’

Kraeya said nothing, but her tail twitched as she followed her human and the servant up through the Eyrie. The Eyrie Master’s quarters were at the very top. They took up the entire top level of the building, although most of that was taken up by the audience chamber that adjoined his private quarters.

Eyrie Master Ruel was there waiting, with his partner Arakae.

When Bran arrived, Kraeya went ahead and Arakae came down to meet her. The two griffins sniffed at each other, and Kraeya bowed her head politely.

Once the two of them had relaxed and stood aside, Bran could approach the Eyrie Master.

‘Yeh wanted to see me, milord?’ he said.

Lord Ruel eyed him with some interest. He was a thin man in his sixties, but his hair was still mostly brown. ‘So you’re the famous Branton Redguard?’ he said.

‘I am,’ said Bran. ‘An’ this is Kraeya, an’ this is my daughter Laela.’

‘Yes…’ Ruel looked at Laela, who was staring back at him with interest. ‘I have heard of her as well. That’s why I summoned you here today.’

Bran paused. ‘Uh… really? Why?’

Ruel pointed at Laela. ‘Remove that hood. Now.’

Bran took a step back. ‘No. I mean, why should I?’

‘Because I am your Eyrie Master and I order you to,’ Ruel said sharply.

Bran knew there was nothing he could do. If he argued he would only make the man suspicious, and it was obvious that he already knew something anyway. Reluctantly, he knelt and gently untied the strings under Laela’s chin. She looked back solemnly as he took the hood off to reveal her secret.

Ruel looked grimly at her. ‘So the report I heard was true. She is a half-breed.’

‘No she ain’t,’ said Bran. ‘She’s just got real dark hair, so I keep it covered up. Don’t want anyone makin’ that mistake, see?’ He’d prepared the lie a long time ago, in case this ever happened.

‘Her hair is black,’ said Ruel, unmoved. ‘Who was her mother?’

‘My wife,’ said Bran. ‘Lady Flell.’ That was true, at least.

‘I know of her,’ said Ruel. ‘It’s said she had pale brown hair, yes?’

‘She did,’ said Bran.

‘And your own hair is not that dark,’ said Ruel. ‘So where did your daughter inherit it?’

‘I dunno,’ Bran said lamely. ‘But she’s my daughter.’

‘She is a half-breed,’ said Ruel. ‘Is she not?’

‘She-,’ Bran began.

‘I trust you know that it is a crime to lie to your Eyrie Master?’ Ruel interrupted harshly. ‘Yes? Think of that, and then reply.’

Bran caved in. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘She’s a half-breed.’

‘And you are her father?’ said Ruel. ‘By blood?’

‘Yeah, I am,’ said Bran. That was one lie he wasn’t going to admit.

‘Then you fathered her on a Northerner,’ said Ruel. ‘Lady Flell was not her mother.’

Bran hesitated, and then stared stubbornly at the floor.

‘Very well, then,’ said Ruel. ‘I brought you here to discover whether the Master of Law’s report was true. Now I have, and I can inform you of the decision that she and I reached together.’

‘Which is?’ said Bran.

‘You’ve won your freedom and a pardon for all your crimes,’ said Ruel. ‘Therefore, you have won the right to stay here if you wish. I will give you a place in my Eyrie in return for an oath of loyalty.’

‘Thankyou, milord,’ said Bran.

‘However,’ said Ruel, ‘If you choose to stay here, you may not keep the child.’

Bran scowled. ‘No.’

‘I cannot have a half-breed living in my Eyrie,’ said Ruel. ‘And nor will it be good for you if word gets out that you fathered one. Find another home for the child, and you can stay.’

‘What home?’ Bran demanded. ‘She’s got no other family.’

‘That’s none of my concern,’ said Ruel. ‘It’s your business. Find a family that will take her, leave her at Guard’s Post for the Northerners to find – you can smother her with a pillow for all I care. But you cannot keep her and live here.’

‘Fine,’ Bran spat. ‘Then I’m leavin’.’

‘You cannot live in any Eyrie with that child,’ said Ruel. ‘If you keep her, I will legally exile you. Wylam will not want you, and Eagleholm is destroyed.’

‘Then I’ll go back to Canran,’ said Bran.

‘Canran is gone,’ said Ruel. ‘Lord Holm’s last followers decided not to accept our peace offer, and they suffered the consequences. Their Eyrie has been destroyed. Branton Redguard, I warn you one last time-,’ he pointed straight at Laela. ‘Rid the Eyrie of that child, or leave and never return.’

Bran picked her up. ‘She’s my daughter. I can’t…’

‘Bran!’ Kraeya spoke up. ‘Bran, see reason. I have stood by you for as long as I can, but now it has come to this. You and I cannot survive without an Eyrie; there is no other place for us.’

Bran stared at her. ‘You too, Kraeya?’

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I am a partnered griffin. I must live in an Eyrie. Find another home for the child and we may keep our rightful place here.’

Bran couldn’t believe what was happening. He looked at Ruel, who stared back, stone faced. He looked at Kraeya, but she too was unmoved.

‘Get rid of the child,’ Ruel repeated. ‘This is your only chance.’

‘She cannot stay with us any longer,’ said Kraeya.

Laela was too young to understand any of it. She hung onto her foster father’s tunic. ‘Dada?’ she said.

A lump formed in Bran’s throat. ‘I can’t,’ he said softly. ‘I can’t just throw her away.’

‘You must,’ said Kraeya.

But Bran stood up straighter and said it again. ‘I can’t,’ he said. ‘I won’t.’

‘You will be banished,’ Ruel reminded him. ‘You can never return.’

‘An’ I don’t want to!’ Bran snapped back.

‘I will leave you,’ said Kraeya.

Bran backed away from them both. ‘Then leave!’ he stormed. ‘I’ve had enough of all this anyhow. I’ve seen what Eyries are like, an’ I’ve seen what griffiners are like. You call me a traitor, but I’ve seen how much you lot care about loyalty an’ honour. You don’t know the meanin’ of it.’ He spat at Ruel. ‘You can keep yer money an’ yer fancy titles. It’s all worthless. I’ll take Laela an’ go into exile rather’n have anything more t’do with the likes of you.’

‘Go, then,’ Ruel said coldly. ‘You could do so much, but if you’re willing to throw it all away for the sake of some half-breed brat, do so.’

Bran said nothing more. He turned and limped out of the audience chamber.

Kraeya followed him. ‘Bran, please! Come back!’

Bran ignored her. He kept going back down through the Eyrie toward his own rooms, clutching Laela to his chest. She gurgled and reached back toward Kraeya, who kept following her human until he reached their temporary home. She cornered him inside it.

‘Bran, you must not do this,’ she said.

Bran put Laela down, and grabbed a bag. He started to stuff his few belongings into it. ‘Yeah I do,’ he snapped. ‘You heard the man. I gotta dump my own daughter out in the street before he’ll let me stay in this bloody city? This city where everyone thinks I’m a traitor? Burn that. Burn him. Burn the lot of ’em. An’ burn you,’ he added, turning on the griffin. ‘I thought you were on my side, but you ain’t. Yer just like the rest of them.’

‘Bran, I cannot live outside of an Eyrie,’ said Kraeya. ‘I need food, I need a place to nest. I am a partnered griffin, an I am entitled to an Eyrie home.’

‘Well you ain’t gonna get it,’ said Bran. ‘Not with me. Go find another human.’

‘I cannot,’ said Kraeya. ‘You are my human.’

Bran finished packing. ‘Not any more.’ He put his old guard sword into his belt, and picked up Laela. ‘Goodbye.’

Kraeya followed him as he left the room. ‘Bran!’

Bran finally stopped. ‘What?’ he snapped.

Kraeya hesitated. ‘Bran, I… where will you go?’

Bran didn’t know. He hadn’t even thought about it. ‘Anywhere that ain’t here,’ he said. ‘Somewhere quiet, somewhere out of the way. Somewhere I can raise Laela without nobody botherin’ us. Somewhere where no-one knows the name of Bran the Betrayer.’

‘Then I will follow,’ said Kraeya. ‘I will not leave you, but I cannot live with you. If I do, we will be recognised. Other griffins may kill us.’

‘Then what are yeh gonna do?’ asked Bran.

‘I will keep watch over you,’ said Kraeya. ‘I will live wild, but I will return sometimes to see that you are well. And when the human pup is old enough to leave you herself, I will come back to you. Once she is gone, you will be a griffiner again. Perhaps by then our story will be forgotten.’

‘Yeah,’ Bran muttered. ‘Maybe.’

‘Then come with me,’ said Kraeya. ‘We will fly away from this cursed city.’

It was better than trying to walk it. Bran was still weak, and he couldn’t bear the thought of having to go through those streets with everyone knowing who he was, watched by people who would shout that name that had become a curse to him.

He let Kraeya carry him away instead, him and Laela.

Deep down, though, as they flew together, Bran knew it would be the last time they ever did. Kraeya had said she would come back to him one day, but only because she wanted to hold onto the idea that one day she would be a partnered griffin again. But even when Laela was old enough to care for herself, Bran would stay with her. She would need his protection for as long as he could give it to her. If need be, he would stay with her until he died.

He didn’t want to go back to Withypool anyway, or any other Eyrie. Let the griffiners do their scheming and backstabbing; he wanted no more part of it. He wanted nothing more to do with anyone. Not his sister, who had turned on him, not those people who had jeered and hated him. Not Eyrie Masters like Ruel, who cared for nothing but their power and privileges.

Let them call me what they want, he thought. I don’t care no more.

With that last, bitter thought, Bran clutched his daughter to his chest and left Withypool, and his old name, far behind. He would not be Branton Redguard any more; that name would be a secret from whoever he came to live near after this. Not Lord Redguard, not Captain Redguard either. He would be just plain Bran.

But in his heart he knew that he had already been given a new name, one that would stay with him for the rest of his life, and be remembered by all those who heard his story.

Bran the Betrayer.

 

*

 

© K.J.Taylor, 2011

Neato text ornament here