Erian the Bastard

 

Belara knew she was pregnant a month or so after Lord Rannagon had left. She stumbled into the tavern one morning, feeling sick, and listlessly began scrubbing the tables.

Dermot, the owner, emerged from the kitchen. ‘There y’are.’

Belara nodded briefly and dipped the scrubbing brush back into the bucket of water.

Dermot came closer and peered at her face. ‘Y’look like somethin’ a horse puked up. What’s the matter?’

Belara looked up. ‘Not feelin’ well.’

‘Up late again with some man, were yer?’ Dermot looked unimpressed. ‘Well don’t think that means I’m lettin’ yer go home. Hurry up and get them tables scrubbed.’

Belara muttered to herself and worked faster. Fortunately the feeling of sickness went away by noon, and she kept to her work, serving beer and cider to thirsty farmers, cooking stew and cleaning the floors. A travelling peddler was staying in one of the upstairs rooms, and she made him his dinner and put fresh linen on his bed before returning to the main room.

The regular customers all knew her, and several of the men called out to her as she passed. Belara smiled at them, pausing to caress a face or an arm.

‘How’s our Bell, then?’ one man leered. ‘Feel like a little ringin’ tonight?’

Belara gave him another beer. ‘Not tonight. I got somethin’ else to deal with.’

‘Aw, c’mon,’ said the man.

‘You ain’t got a chance,’ one of his friends cackled. ‘Our Bell’s moved on to another temple by now.’

Belara giggled and slipped away into the kitchen while they were still ribbing each other.

That night, when the tavern had finally closed, she left for the farm where her parents lived. Her mother, Kella, was still awake, sitting up by the fire and fixing a bucket.

She greeted her daughter with a smile. ‘Hello. What are you doin’ over here at this time of night?’

Belara sat down on her old stool by the fireplace. ‘I wanted t’see you.’

‘What about?’ Kella went back to her work. ‘It’s got t’be somethin’ big for you t’come here with it now.’

‘Think I’m pregnant,’ Belara told her without ceremony.

Kella raised an eyebrow. ‘Again?’

‘Yeah. Woke up sick this mornin’. Can’t be anything else.’

Her mother sighed. ‘Better go see the priest tomorrow. Who’s the father this time?’

Belara folded her hands over her stomach. ‘I ain’t gettin’ rid of this one.’

‘Belara, you ain’t married. What’s everyone gonna think?’

‘I don’t care what they think. This one’s different.’

‘How?’

‘It’s the griffiner’s baby,’ said Belara.

Kella stared, and then gave a short, disbelieving laugh. ‘You mean that griffiner what stayed in the tavern a month or so back?’

‘Yeah. Lord Rannagon.’ She smiled dreamily. ‘He was the best man I ever went with. So handsome, an’ so gentle.’

‘By Gryphus’ fires, you got yerself a griffiner. Who’d have thought it?’

Belara frowned. ‘He needed me,’ she said. ‘He was all sad an’ that, after the war. He wanted comfortin’.’

Kella chuckled. ‘An’ now you’ve got yerself a griffiner’s bastard.’

‘Yeah, an’ I was thinking,’ Belara went on excitedly, ‘I was thinkin’, if I went over Eagleholm way an’ told him, maybe he’d marry me. Imagine me, a griffiner’s wife!’

‘Y’could try, but it’d never work,’ said Kella. ‘He’s already married. Heard it from Artan. Some griffiner lady.’

Belara’s face fell. ‘Oh. But if he knew it was his he might still help.’ She brightened up.

‘Maybe, who knows? Are y’really sure it’s his?’

‘Yeah, I’m sure. Ain’t been with anyone since he come here. Are y’gonna tell Dad?’

‘You tell him,’ said Kella. ‘When yer ready, like.’

‘Sure, I will,’ said Belara.

 

*

 

Months passed, and Belara’s pregnancy advanced as it should. She stayed away from her old lovers – or rather they stayed away from her, once they realised she was pregnant. None of them wanted to touch a pregnant woman, and they certainly didn’t want to upset the father – whoever that was. Belara wasn’t telling.

She didn’t like being pregnant. She hated the way her once-slim body swelled and bloated, she hated being sick in the mornings. She hated feeling so clumsy, when before she could make men stare just by walking past. She hated the different way they looked at her now, and she hated the mutterings that followed her wherever she went. She was unmarried and pregnant, and everyone knew it.

Dermot wasn’t pleased either. ‘I can’t have a pregnant tavern girl,’ he said. ‘Look at yer. I didn’t like keepin’ yer on here as it was – y’were sleepin’ with half the customers an’ flirtin’ with the rest. But I put up with it because it made ’em come back. But now look at yer.’

Belara scowled at him. ‘I can keep this baby if I want.’

‘Not if y’want to keep yer job,’ said Dermot. He folded his arms. ‘Go an’ see the priest. Get rid of it, an’ then come back. Until then, you ain’t welcome.’

She stared at him in disbelief. He stared back, unmoving.

Finally, Belara stalked out of the tavern.

 

*

 

The village of Carrick was a large one, and prosperous – large and prosperous enough to have its own small temple to the sun god, Gryphus. The temple was wooden and only had one room, and unlike the ones built in the great griffiner cities it didn’t have its own griffin. In Eagleholm, the high priest was a griffiner, and his partner’s screech would signal the dawn every day. But in Carrick the only signal was a large bronze bell, and the priest who rang it worked there alone. Belara preferred to avoid him – everyone in the village knew he was crazy, and he didn’t like her besides.

Today, though, he greeted her warmly. ‘Welcome in Gryphus’ name, Belara Kellasen.’

Belara eyed him. ‘Hullo. Can I come in?’

‘Of course.’ He ushered her into the wooden-beamed chamber.

Belara looked around. The place was old and smelled of wood and incense. At the far end was a simple altar painted with a golden sunwheel.

The priest gestured at her to sit down. There weren’t any chairs, so she plunked herself down on the altar. ‘I got a problem,’ she said.

The priest looked at her swollen abdomen. ‘I know. And yet again you’ve come to help me solve it for you.’

Belara said nothing.

The priest shook his head. ‘I can’t keep doing this, Belara. I shouldn’t have done it to begin with, but I took pity on you. It’s an abomination to Gryphus. Destroying new life – it’s a sin.’

‘But that’s it!’ Belara burst out. ‘I don’t want to do it!’ she looked piteously at him. ‘I want t’keep it. That’s why I didn’t come before.’

‘Then why have you come?’

‘Dermot doesn’t like it that I’m pregnant. He told me t’get rid of it or I can’t work at the tavern no more.’ Belara tried not to cry.

The priest’s voice sharpened. ‘What’s more important?’ he said. ‘Your job, or a child’s life?’

‘But how’m I gonna live if I ain’t got no job?’

‘Gryphus will provide. Have faith. The child is what matters. He must live.’

‘I want a girl,’ Belara mumbled.

‘Listen.’ The priest put a hand on her shoulder. ‘If you don’t want to kill the child, then don’t. If you decide that you do, I’m not helping you.’

Silence.

‘Who’s the father?’

‘Lord Rannagon,’ said Belara.

The priest’s expression changed. ‘I knew it,’ he said. ‘I knew it!’

Belara gave him a look. ‘What’re you talkin’ about?’

He fixed her with a stern, green-eyed gaze. ‘Keep it, Belara. Keep the child. If you need another job, you can come and work for me.’

‘For you?’ she blinked. ‘How? I mean, I didn’t know…’

‘I need someone to keep this place clean, and gather flowers for the altar. You can do that. Besides.’ The priest smiled. ‘Gryphus loves mothers.’

‘What’ll y’pay me?’ Belara asked instantly.

‘In food and clothing.’

‘No money?’

‘I’m a priest,’ he reminded her. ‘I don’t have money.’

Belara bit her lip. ‘I dunno…’

‘Choose. For the child.’

She thought of Rannagon. He was an honourable man – he’d help her if she asked for it. He’d want to help the mother of his child. She could wait until the baby was born, and afterwards when she showed everyone the griffiner’s child everything would be different. She could work at the temple until the birth – why not? It’d be enough until Rannagon came back and gave her his riches.

‘All right, then,’ she said.

 

*

 

After that her new life began – and if the village had been surprised over her pregnancy, they were a hundred times more surprised when they discovered that Belara the tavern maid was now a priestess in all but name.

As for Belara, she tossed her hair and went to her work at the temple without embarrassment. It was much easier than her old job, and her new employer was kinder than Dermot. She kept the temple clean, as promised, and walked into the woods every day to collect flowers to put on the altar. She cooked for herself and the priest – the villagers donated food when they came to pray or ask for advice, and she was surprised by how much of it there was. Fresh bread, meat, apples, milk and honey – everything Carrick’s farms had to offer. The priest didn’t have a huge appetite, which was lucky since her own increased as her pregnancy advanced.

The child grew well, and eventually she felt it kick for the first time. It made her smile. She still hadn’t told anyone else who the father was – she wanted to wait until after the birth. She wanted them to see the child when she told them. Her sweet Lord Rannagon’s child.

The anticipation made her smile.

As for the priest, he continued to show interest in her pregnancy – asking how she was feeling and advising her to avoid certain things that would be bad for her child. Toward the end of her eighth month, he made her a special tea that he said would help the final stages of pregnancy. Belara accepted it gratefully, and found it eased the pains in her back and her sickness in the mornings.

When the day of the birth finally came, she was in the temple – busy cleaning the soot off the wall where one of the wall-torches had blackened it. All of a sudden, a sharp pain rippled through her body. She flinched and shifted her position before wetting the rag again.

More pains came at intervals, not unlike the ordinary pains she’d had earlier in her pregnancy. She ignored them as well as she could, but she had no appetite for lunch.

The priest noticed her wincing. ‘Is something the matter?’

Belara grimaced and touched her stomach. ‘It’s nothin’, just the little one kickin’ or somethin’.’

‘Are you sure?’

Another pain came. ‘Yeah,’ she said, but without much certainty. ‘Don’t worry about me, Bev. I’m f-,’ she broke off, as another pain came – much stronger than the last. An instant later, she gasped as something wet soaked into her dress. ‘Oh!’

The priest stood up. ‘What is it…’ he trailed off.

Belara touched the wet patch, and stared in horror at the blood on her hand. ‘Oh Gryphus, I’m dying!’

‘No you aren’t.’ He hurried to her side. ‘You’re going into labour – quick, come with me. We have to take you somewhere safe.’

They had been sitting in the temple, on the floor – there were no chairs here. The priest, Bevan, tried to help her out through the back door to his own house, but the contractions began to come now, thick and fast, and he didn’t have the strength to carry her. In desperation, he swept everything off the altar and laid her down on it. She moaned and lay on her back, her hands clutching at his.

Bevan touched her forehead. ‘It’s all right,’ he said. ‘Breathe deeply. Pray.’

‘It hurts,’ Belara wailed.

‘Don’t worry. The pain is natural.’ He glanced over his shoulder. ‘I’m going to fetch the midwife. Stay here and keep calm. Don’t try and get up. You’ll be fine.’

Belara watched helplessly as he ran out of the temple. A moment later another mighty pain gripped her. She groaned and rested her head on the stone altar, staring straight upward. High in the roof there was a single round window, set with expensive glass donated by the Eyrie. It glittered in the sun from outside.

She kept her eyes on it, as the pain took her once more.

When Bevan returned, he brought not just the midwife, but Belara’s parents as well. They came straight to her side, and her mother held her hand while the midwife set to work. ‘Here,’ she said brusquely, pressing a sprig of some herb into her mouth. ‘Chew it. For the pain.’

Belara chewed almost frantically, while her mother helped to lay a blanket over her and prop up her head and shoulders with cusions. The midwife, meanwhile, pulled her skirts back over her legs with a practised movement, and removed the blood-soaked underclothes beneath, all the while talking to her. ‘Breathe. Just concentrate on breathin’. In, out, in, out. That’s right. Kella, rub her stomach there, would you? That’s right.’

Belara let it all wash over her. She breathed the way she was told, but kept her eyes on the roof, forcing herself to concentrate on the window. It distracted her from the pain.

Meanwhile her body seemed to have a mind of its own. It squeezed, pressing in on itself harder and faster all the time, until-

High above the temple, the sun reached its zenith. In that instant, light poured through the window. It came into the temple, bathing Belara in its radiance and turning her world to gold.

She threw her head back, and screamed.

 

*

 

Belara came back to her senses, and her ears were already full of something that made her snap back into wakefulness at once. It was the sound of a baby crying.

She stirred and reached upward. ‘My… mine…’

Someone caressed her cheek. ‘Just take it easy, Bell. Everything’s all right.’

‘Let me hold it,’ she insisted. ‘I want…’

Gentle hands lifted her into a sitting position, and a moment later the child was in her arms. She cradled it weakly, whispering to try and comfort it. The child’s cries quietened after a little while, and she instinctively offered it her breast.

While the child suckled, Belara looked around blearily. She was still in the temple, sitting with her back against the altar. The midwife was nearby, helping Bevan to clean up, and her parents were beside her.

Kella smiled at her. ‘How d’you feel?’

‘Good,’ Belara mumbled.

Her father, Camlin, reached down to touch the child. ‘My first grandson.’

Belara blinked. ‘It’s a boy?’

‘Yes. Look at that hair!’ Camlin chuckled.

It was pale and wispy, but it already had the faintest tinge of yellow. Belara stroked it and smiled. ‘He’s gonna be blond, just like his daddy.’

‘Y’promised to tell me who his father was after he was born,’ her father reminded her.

‘Never mind about that,’ Kella interrupted. ‘Have y’got a name for him yet, Bell? I know you was hopin’ for a girl.’

Belara didn’t care. She looked up at her parents, radiant with joy. ‘His name is Erian,’ she said. ‘Erian Rannagonson.’

 

*

 

The following summer, Kella sat in the sun and watched her grandson at play. He was less than a year old, but he was louder and bossier than even the older children. With his big blue eyes and chubby face, he was sweet-looking and had endeared himself to the villagers, who called him “the little lord”.

Kella smiled to herself. She didn’t care that so far Lord Rannagon hadn’t shown his face in Carrick again. She loved little Erian dearly, and anything that might come out of his parentage didn’t interest her much. For now, she was content to watch him grow, and to look after him when his mother was elsewhere.

Belara had taken back her job at the tavern not long after Erian’s birth, and was enjoying a fair amount of admiration from her old acquaintances – after all, she was the only woman in Carrick who could boast to having bedded a griffiner and bourne his child. Everyone who had seen Lord Rannagon during his brief visit agreed that little Erian already looked like him – his mother certainly hadn’t given him his blue eyes, or his gradually thickening blond hair.

Belara was less happy about Rannagon. For some reason she’d seemed convinced that he would come back to Carrick one day, so she could show him his son. But he never did, and as time had passed she grew less and less interested in motherhood, spending all her time at the tavern with her friends. She left watching over Erian to her own parents, but Kella at least didn’t mind too much. It was good to have a child to care for again.

On the little patch of grass where he and a neighbour’s daughter were pawing at the wooden toys they’d been given, Erian suddenly started to cry.

Kella got up and hurried to lift him into her arms. ‘There, there, it’s all right. Gramma’s here.’ He was damp under her hand, and she tutted. ‘C’mon, let’s go an’ clean yer up, then.’

That evening, while she was feeding him some mashed potatoes, Camlin stumped in. ‘See we’re still babysittin’,’ he grunted. ‘Where’s that daughter of ours?’

‘Still at work, most like,’ said Kella, coaxing the sulking Erian into eating another spoonful. ‘It’s no trouble.’

Camlin slumped into his chair. ‘Gryphus’ talons, what a day. And it is trouble. She ought t’be lookin’ after him herself; he’s her son, ain’t he?’

‘Come, now, y’know she has t’work late,’ said Kella. ‘Girl’s got t’make a livin’.’

‘Girl’s got t’get married,’ said Camlin. ‘But try tellin’ her that. Lettin’ her son grow up without a father – it’s a disgrace.’

‘Ah,’ Kella said knowingly, ‘She’s still pinin’ after her handsome Lord, I’d say.’

‘Pine nothin’. She’s spendin’ her nights with that trader up at the tavern. The whole village knows it.’ Camlin pulled his boots off and put them by the fire. ‘That girl’s never cared about nothin’ but her own pleasure.’

Erian thrust his little hands toward Kella. ‘Mama,’ he gurgled.

Camlin looked rather sadly at him. ‘She’s the only mother yer like t’have, boy.’

Kella scowled. ‘Don’t talk like that about our Bell. She loves her son as much as we do, I know that.’

Camlin muttered something and sat back in his chair to rest.

 

*

 

Belara didn’t come back that night, once again. When she did reappear it was early the following morning, not long after her parents had got out of bed.

‘There y’are,’ Kella smiled. ‘Erian’s been missin’ yer somethin’ fierce.’

Belara was plainly dressed and looked rather flushed. ‘I ain’t stayin’ long.’

Kella had already gone to fetch Erian, and put him into his mother’s arms. He murmured sleepily in protest, but cuddled up to her happily enough.

Belara held him rather awkwardly. ‘I got somethin’ t’tell yer.’

Camlin appeared in the doorway of his home. ‘An’ what’s that, then?’ he asked, with narrowed eyes.

‘I’m leavin’.’

‘What? Why? Where to?’ Kella’s eyes went to Erian. ‘Y’ain’t… goin’ off an’ takin’ him, are yer? How’m I gonna see him again? An’ you, too?’

Belara giggled. ‘It’s not like that, silly! I’m not going away forever! It’s just a little trip!’

Camlin gave her a suspicious look. ‘Where are y’goin’, then?’

Belara put Erian back into his grandmother’s arms. ‘Ben’s takin’ me with him when he goes.’

‘The trader?’

‘Yeah. He’s goin’ up Eagleholm way, an’ he says as I can go with him.’

Kella clutched the boy. ‘What about Erian?’

‘Oh, well, he’s too young for travellin’. ’Sides, Ben doesn’t want him with us. He can just stay here with you while I’m gone. It’s no trouble, right?’

Camlin glared. ‘You ain’t goin’ nowhere. Leavin’ yer own son beyond while y’go gallivantin’ ’round the countryside with some scumbag trader?’

‘He ain’t no scumbag,’ Belara said hotly. ‘Ben’s a good man, an’ he can get me t’Eagleholm safe. I’ll get t’see the big city! An’ – an’ while I’m there, I’m gonna find Lord Rannagon. I’ll tell him ’bout Erian, an’ maybe he’ll come back with me.’

‘An’ y’just expect us t’look after yer son in the meantime?’ said Camlin, obviously not buying it. ‘Y’didn’t even bother t’ask about it before yer went an’ made all them grand plans.’

‘You been lookin’ after him this long, ain’t yer?’ said Belara. She was beginning to go red in the face. ‘He’s your grandson, don’t y’care?’

‘He’s your son, don’t you care?’ Camlin hurled back.

‘Yeah, I do care, an’ I’m doin’ this for him,’ Belara retorted. ‘His father’s got the right t’know about him, an’ once he does Erian’ll get everythin’ a griffiner’s son should. Anyway, I ain’t a child no more. You ain’t got the right t’tell me what I can do.’

Kella glanced at her husband, and clutched Erian more tightly. ‘We’ll look after him if that’s what you want, Bell.’

‘Good!’ Belara came closer and kissed her son on the forehead. ‘You be good now, Erian.’

‘He ain’t gonna come,’ Camlin called, as his daughter began to walk away. He took a step nearer to her as she stopped and turned. ‘This lord of yours ain’t gonna come here, an’ he ain’t gonna see yer if yer ever get t’Eagleholm. He’s married now. What’s he gonna want t’do with you? He won’t even remember yer face by now.’

‘He will,’ Belara snapped.

‘He won’t. You were nothin’ t’him, Bell – face it. Y’think he’s gonna remember every peasant girl he’s been t’bed with over the years? He ain’t. He’s out of your hands. Your son ain’t.’ Camlin pointed at the boy, who was staring innocently at his mother. ‘He’s yours, Bell. He loves yer. You’re his mother whether y’want t’be or not, an’ he needs yer.’

Belara gaped at him, as if he had just slapped her in the face. But she quickly pulled herself together. She lifted her chin. ‘You’re wrong. Goodbye, Dad.’ With that, she tossed her hair and strode away from the home where she’d grown up, and the son who began to whimper in his grandmother’s arms to see her go.

None of them ever saw Belara again.

 

*

 

Two years later, Kella took her grandson into the village to buy him a pair of shoes.

He fussed as she dressed him. ‘I’m tired. Wanna sleep.’

Kella pulled the tunic over his head. ‘Now then, don’t be cranky. Y’want them new shoes, don’t yer?’

‘No.’

‘Y’wanted them yesterday an’ the day before.’

‘Don’t want them now.’ Erian pouted.

‘You’ll want ’em again tomorrow,’ said Kella. ‘An’ maybe we can get a sugar apple on the way.’

He brightened up at that. ‘I want two.’

She chuckled. ‘We’ll see.’

Once she had him dressed and fed, they left the farm and walked into the village. Erian held his grandmother’s hand, frowning fiercely as he toddled along. He was a sturdy child, whose wide shoulders promised a powerful adult to come, and his hair had grown thick and yellow as straw.

As they neared the village, he started to tug at Kella’s hand – trying to get free. She held on firmly, and he kept trying and then sulked when her grip held. ‘Wanna go!’

Kella would have told him off, but she had already spotted what had excited him. Her eyes narrowed. ‘What’s goin’ on?’

A crowd had gathered in the village square. The people in it chattered loudly, all gathered around something she couldn’t quite see at this distance. Interested now, she lifted Erian into her arms and hurried in closer. He clung on, yelling encouragement.

When they were in the square, Kella looked through the crowd and saw something that made her heart leap into her mouth.

A griffin!

The beast’s huge head rose over the bobbing ones of the people, beaked and noble, its dark yellow eyes full of dangerous intelligence.

Kella’s skin tingled at the sight. ‘Oh holy Gryphus…’

Erian chirped in her arms. ‘Birdie! Birdie!’

Kella held him closer. ‘No,’ she said. ‘That ain’t no bird.’

‘Oh, hey!’ someone yelled. ‘Here’s the little lord an’ his handmaiden, come t’have a look.’

Several people laughed.

‘Here, c’mon, let ’em through,’ the same person added, ushering people out of the way.

The crowd thinned a little, and Kella moved in, wanting to see the griffin up close.

Close to it looked even bigger than before – taller at the shoulder than a full-grown man. Its beak could easily have pecked the roof of any of the houses in the village. The beast’s feathers were dark grey, and Kella could see the massive, pitted talons resting on the ground in front of it. Each one was longer than a knife, and much more dangerous.

Awestruck, Kella bowed to it. ‘Sacred one,’ she breathed.

The griffin eyed her briefly and then looked away in a dignified fashion. Obviously, it was used to this sort of thing from the lowly humans around it.

Kella stood, and held Erian up toward it. ‘Please, bless the child,’ she said. ‘Give him Gryphus’ grace.’

The griffin stared at her, then at the giggling Erian. ‘Kaa kee ach,’  it rasped.

‘He said no,’ a voice translated helpfully.

Kella took a step back. ‘Oh…’

The speaker was a woman. She wore simple but well-made clothes – including, of all things, a pair of leather leggings. Kella might have taken her for a commoner, but when she stepped closer to the griffin and murmured to it in a strange, hissing language she knew who she was.

She bowed low. ‘My Lady.’

The woman smiled indulgently. ‘No need for that. Can I help you with anything?’

‘No, I… uh… I’m sorry…’ Kella fought to stop Erian from escaping, and pulled herself together. ‘Have you come from Eagleholm, my Lady?’

‘I have. Don’t worry; we’re just here on a routine visit. Now, if you’ll excuse me-,’

‘Do y’know Lord Rannagon?’ Kella dared to interrupt.

The griffiner stared at her. ‘What?’

‘D’yer know Lord Rannagon, my Lady?’

‘I do. What of it?’

Kella’s heart fluttered, as she held Erian forward. ‘This is his son.’

The griffiner started, stared again, and then glared. ‘What? What are you talking about?’

‘Please, I’m telling the truth, my Lady,’ said Kella. ‘My daughter, Belara… she was a tavern maid here at Carrick. Lord Rannagon stayed here on his way home from the war, and… Belara had his son after he’d left.’

The griffiner’s eyes had narrowed, and she folded her arms. ‘Why are you telling me this?’

Kella backed off a step. ‘I’m sorry, I only… thought if maybe y’knew him, that he’d like t’know.’ She made herself smile. ‘He looks just like his daddy, they say.’

‘Thankyou,’ the griffiner snapped. ‘I’ll be certain to pass that on when I get back.’

The anger in the woman’s voice scared Kella. ‘Thanks, my Lady. I’ll… uh…’ she clutched Erian.

The griffiner had already turned her back. Kella took her opportunity and beat a hasty retreat.

 

*

 

Rannagon was at home in the herb garden, playing with Flell when his wife came home. He heard her and her partner outside, and got up as Kaelyn strode into the garden alone.

‘Kaelyn!’ he smiled. ‘You’ll never guess what…’ he trailed off, as he saw the look on her face. ‘Is something wrong?’

Kaelyn was breathing raggedly, obviously trying to control herself. She said nothing, and only fixed her eyes on his face.

Rannagon began to feel uncomfortable. ‘Uh… how was Carrick?’

‘Very nice,’ she said, through clenched teeth. ‘The villagers were pleased to see us.’

‘What’s wrong, then?’

‘Oh, nothing.’ She paused, and gritted her teeth. ‘But I was a little surprised when I was in the square and some old woman came over to show me her grandson.’

Rannagon frowned. ‘Wanted Laakee to bless him, did she?’

‘Yes, but she wanted to talk to me too. Asked me if I knew you. She wanted me to bring you a message.’

‘What? What about?’ Rannagon felt the familiar old stirring of guilt in his chest.

‘About her grandson,’ said Kaelyn. ‘And why he just so happens to look exactly like you.’

‘What?’ Rannagon’s jaw dropped.

His wife folded her arms. ‘Doesn’t ring a bell? Having trouble remembering? Carrick? After the war? A certain barmaid who caught your fancy?’

‘Oh no…’

At that, Kaelyn’s façade cracked and she let out a sob. ‘Rannagon, how could you?’

He came toward her. ‘Kaelyn, I’m so sorry… I didn’t think…’

‘Didn’t think what? Didn’t think I’d ever find out?’

‘Kaelyn, listen. Please just listen. You’re scaring Flell.’

She noticed their small daughter, who was staring nervously at them both, and strode over to pick her up. Sitting down with the child on her knee, she shot another glare at her husband. ‘Fine. Talk.’

Rannagon sat down beside her, his head in his hands. ‘After the war, I was exhausted. I couldn’t sleep at night. Every time I closed my eyes, all I saw was death. Blood. Heard metal on bone. When I reached Carrick, I was a wreck. I wanted to see you again, but I was so afraid…’

‘Of what?’ said Kaelyn, softening very slightly.

‘That you wouldn’t be here,’ said Rannagon. ‘Or that you’d be here, but it wouldn’t be me who came home to you. After what happened I thought I’d never be able to… I don’t know, to live again.’ He tugged at his beard, and grimaced. ‘I arrived in Carrick. The villagers welcomed us, and I was offered a room at the inn. I took it, of course, and there was a girl… a serving girl. She kept bringing me more drink… I know I had too much of it. I was so desperate to escape. And when she showed me up to my room, she just…’

Kaelyn bit back another sob, that shuddered through her. But her voice was harsh. ‘Just what? Fell for your lordly charms?’

‘No,’ said Rannagon, too sharply. ‘She came after me. Threw herself at me. I couldn’t help it.’

‘Hah.’ Kaelyn spat the word.

He reached out to touch her, and stopped. ‘I needed to be comforted. That was all.’

‘But I was there to comfort you.’ Her voice broke. ‘I was there, Rannagon. Why didn’t you let me?’

‘I did.’ Rannagon put his arm around her, and held her tight. ‘I came home and you were there waiting for me, and I knew what happened in Carrick was never what I’d needed. What I needed was you. It still is. It always will be.’

She resisted, but gave in and leaned against him. ‘You still have a son, Rannagon. A little blond-haired bastard in Carrick.’

‘I made a mistake.’

‘Yes, a mistake that’s made you a father. What are you going to do about it?’

‘Do I have to do anything?’

‘You tell me,’ Kaelyn said frostily. ‘He’s your son.’

Rannagon put a hand on Flell’s head. ‘Our daughter is my only child,’ he said, but it didn’t sound as firm as he meant it to.

‘Your barmaid would say something different,’ Kaelyn said, and walked off with Flell in her arms.

Alone, Rannagon slumped on his seat and covered his face with his hands. What was he going to do?

His mind was full of Kaelyn and her anger and hurt – and Flell, too. His daughter was the greatest joy in his life – how could he embarrass her in her future life by admitting to this other child… this bastard in Carrick? No. He couldn’t do that. Telling Kaelyn the truth had been painful enough. The best thing to do would be to forget all about it, and pretend nothing had ever happened.

But despite himself, he couldn’t help but think of the child in Carrick. This boy whose conception he had been trying to push out of his memory ever since it had happened. Did he know who his father had been? Had his mother told him the tale of how she’d seduced a drunken griffiner? Or had she pretended that her former lover was someone else… her husband, perhaps?

Rannagon tried to picture the boy’s face in his mind. What did he even look like?

Like me, he thought. A little blond-haired bastard.

He got up and paced around the garden, trying desperately to thrust the image away. The boy was nothing. An accident. He had a home – he didn’t need his philandering father to show up and interfere.

But what if he needs me?

No matter what he did, Rannagon couldn’t make that thought go away.

 

*

 

Several painful days passed. Rannagon spent most of his time at the Eyrie, throwing himself into his work to avoid his wife’s lingering resentment. Their meals together were awkward affairs, full of cold silences and conversations that tried to avoid the subject of Carrick, only to sputter away into silence again.

Rannagon tried not to notice Kaelyn’s icy stares, talking about anything and everything to try and make her happy again. But nothing worked, and no matter what he did when they were together, the question hung between them all the while. What are you going to do about it?

He lay awake at night, unable to stop worrying. His mind was full of Kaelyn. Kaelyn, glaring at him while she hurt inside, betrayed by him. Kaelyn, wanting to trust him again but unable to let herself. And how could she? When she knew what he’d done, how could she?

But in between those visions, tinged just as powerfully with guilt, were visions of his son. Nameless, but still his son, and what if something bad were happening to him? What if he was starving, or ill? What if he were living with a foster-father who hit him for not being his own blood? What if…?

When morning finally came, Rannagon got out of bed with the certainty hard in his mind. I’ll go to Carrick, he told himself as he pulled on his boots. Just a quick visit. Just to see him. Just to make sure he’s all right. I made him fatherless; this is the least I can do for him. I don’t have to tell Kaelyn.

As it happened Kaelyn was already up and had gone somewhere, and Rannagon went into the roost to find Shoa on his own.

The yellow griffin had already been fed by a servant, and she eyed him indulgently. ‘What shall you do today?’ Shoa found his work boring, and spent most of her time flying about the city with the other griffins – only staying close to him when he presided over a case.

Rannagon did his best to look casual. ‘I thought we might do something together today. Just for a change.’

Shoa cocked her head. ‘Yes?’

She sounded interested, and Rannagon took heart. ‘It’s been such a long time since we’ve gone anywhere together.’

‘A flight would be a pleasure,’ Shoa admitted. ‘Where would you like to go?’

‘I was thinking of going to Carrick,’ said Rannagon. ‘We can say we’re just visiting the reeve there. It’s a nice place, and we haven’t been there since the war.’

‘Shreeeeee…’ Shoa trilled throughtfully. ‘I remember it. I would enjoy going among common humans again. Their reverence is amusing.’

‘And it’s not too far away – we could go there and back in less than a day.’

She considered it. ‘Very well then. I have been bored and shall enjoy a change.’

‘Perfect.’ Rannagon smiled his relief. ‘We’ll just have to stop at the Eyrie to let our underlings know where we’re going, and then we can be off.’

Shoa yawned. ‘Yes. Get my harness and we shall go.’

 

*

It was a beautiful spring day when Rannagon and Shoa arrived in Carrick. Grass grew thick and green among the houses and men were hard at work in the orchards and the beehives that provided most of the village’s income. The air was full of pollen that made it sparkle gold and yellow, and bees hummed among the apple blossom.

When Shoa landed in the square the villagers flocked around to see her, and she gravely accepted their adoration as her due. Beside her, Rannagon couldn’t enjoy the idyll around them. His chest was tight with anxiety, and the moment he saw the reeve he strode toward him.

The reeve’s name was Artan. He was middle-aged, and slightly better dressed than the rest of the villagers. When he saw Rannagon he bowed his head briefly and held out a hand. The two of them hooked fingers, tugged once and let go.

‘My Lord.’

Rannagon nodded to him. ‘How are things going here, Artan? Anything to report?’

‘Not really, my Lord. We had a theft last week, but I dealt with it myself.’

‘Good. Is that all?’

Artan looked doubtful. ‘I think so, but if you want to come to my office and look over the papers…’

‘I’m sure that won’t be necessary. Shoa and I are just here for pleasure.’

‘Felt like getting out of the city, eh?’ Artan smiled knowingly.

Rannagon shrugged. ‘It gets hectic. Don’t let me keep you.’

‘I had some things I was going to send over your way,’ Artan added, ‘If you don’t mind I can go and get them now – you can take them with you.’

‘Of course. Meet me back here later – we’re not in a hurry.’

Once Artan had left, Rannagon took the chance and went to look for the tavern. It was easy enough to find, and the tightness in his chest intensified when he saw it. It looked just the same as he remembered.

As he approached, a man came hurrying out. He did a double-take when he saw Rannagon. ‘Gryphus!’

Rannagon didn’t smile. ‘No, just another man. You’re the tavern owner?’

‘Yeah, I am, my Lord. Dermot’s me name. I’m sorry I… just seein’ yer again…’

‘You remember me, then.’

‘You’d be Lord Rannagon, milord,’ said Dermot. ‘Y’were here a few years back.’

‘I was.’ Rannagon steeled himself. ‘I’m looking for someone. The girl who was working at your tavern.’

‘Oh, her, milord? She’s long gone.’

Rannagon blinked. ‘Gone? What, dead?’

‘No, milord. Ran off with a peddler, milord. More’n a year back.’

‘But she had a son, didn’t she?’ said Rannagon.

There was a knowing gleam in Dermot’s eye. ‘That she did, milord.’

‘Where is he?’ said Rannagon, feeling sick.

‘Left him with his grandparents, milord.’

‘Where are they? Do they live here?’

Dermot pointed. ‘Over that way, milord – just on the edge of the village. Old Camlin an’ his wife Kella. They’ve got the farm with the two cows thethered out front. Easy t’find, milord.’

‘Thankyou.’ Rannagon nodded curtly and turned away.

He’d hoped to find the boy out of Shoa’s sight, but she came to meet him as he walked through the village. ‘There you are. You were not thinking of leaving without me?’

‘Not at all. I just didn’t want to interrupt. You looked like you were having so much fun.’

She chirped. ‘I did not want to stay long when the priest came. His kind irritate me.’

‘What did he want?’

‘My blessing, for his little nest,’ Shoa tossed her head dismissively. ‘Little words in the name of this human vanity called Gryphus.’

‘It would have made people happy,’ Rannagon said. ‘If you just played along with it.’

‘I have no time for such nonsense,’ said Shoa. She flicked her wing. ‘There is no being in this world more mighty and powerful than a griffin.’

Rannagon couldn’t help but argue. ‘Maybe, but in the next world-,’

‘There is no other world.’ Shoa hissed. ‘Foolery! Where are you going?’

She had been walking beside him all this while, too caught up in her own complaining to pay attention to the direction.

Rannagon sped up slightly. ‘There’s a farm just outside the village I want to visit.’

‘Why?’

‘Artan told me about some problem there,’ said Rannagon. ‘It shouldn’t take long.’

‘Is that all?’ she sounded bored already.

‘You don’t have to come,’ Rannagon added. ‘If you’d rather go back…’

She put her head down. ‘I shall come.’

Rannagon felt his heart sinking as they reached the farm. Sure enough, there were a couple of brown-spotted cows browsing in a field in front of the house. The place looked fairly large, and not as shabby as he’d expected. Simple, but solid and comfortable. A good home.

A man in his forties was out the front, mending the fence that penned in the cows. He gaped at Rannagon and Shoa, and bowed low. ‘My Lord!’

‘You’re Camlin?’ Rannagon said shortly.

The man glanced up. ‘Yes, my Lord. It’s such an honour t’have yer here, mighty griffin,’ he added, to Shoa, looking at her with real reverence.

‘A worthy man,’ she remarked at once. ‘Tell him to bring me food.’

‘Get up,’ Rannagon told him. ‘Please.’

‘Whatever y’want, milord, it’s yours,’ Camlin said as he straightened up.

‘Shoa wants food, if you have anything,’ said Rannagon. ‘I wouldn’t mind a bite of something myself, actually.’

‘At once, milord. I’ll go an’ fetch the wife.’ Camlin almost ran into the house.

Rannagon and Shoa trailed after him – Shoa casting interested glances at the cows on her way past. They shied away, eyes rolling in fright.

Camlin reappeared with what looked like a freshly slaughtered chicken. ‘For you, mighty griffin. I hope it’s all right…’

Shoa snatched it out of his hands and tore it to shreds in a moment, not bothering to say anything at all.

‘I think she likes it.’ Rannagon chuckled.

Camlin relaxed. ‘The wife’s just gettin’ somethin’ for you, milord, if y’don’t mind waitin’.’

‘Not at all. My name’s Rannagon, by the way.’

The effect on Camlin was astonishing. He stared at Rannagon, wide-eyed, and sprinted into his home. A few moments later, Rannagon heard raised voices from inside.

Then they went quiet.

As Rannagon watched, his heart in his mouth, a woman emerged. She walked slowly, leading a small child by the hand. As they stepped into the open, the sunlight shone on the child’s head – turning his hair bright gold.

Rannagon knew in that instant that he was looking at his own son.

Without thinking, he walked closer, holding out a hand.

‘My Lord.’ The woman pulled up short, eyeing him carefully.

Rannagon sized her up. She was her husband’s age, kind-looking but rather bland, and her manner toward the child was warm and protective. She gave him a cautious smile. ‘Lord Rannagon?’

Rannagon’s eyes were on the child. ‘Yes. I heard…’

‘My daughter said you were the father, milord,’ the woman said.

Rannagon didn’t know what he’d been planning to do, or if he’d planned anything at all. But anything and everything he had thought was certain before stopped being certain when he looked at the child… this son he hadn’t known he had.

Maybe if the boy had looked different, it wouldn’t have been like this. If he’d been like Flell, and taken after his mother, it would have been easier.

But the little face looking up at him was so much like Rannagon’s own already that it made his his heart ache.

My son.

Unable to stop himself – ignoring the looming Shoa altogether – Rannagon knelt and held out a hand. ‘Hello.’

The boy drew back.

Rannagon glanced up at the woman. ‘What’s his name?’

‘We call him Erian, milord.’

Rannagon’s face creased in a smile, and he put his hand on the child’s shoulder. ‘Hello, Erian. I’m your father.’

Erian hid behind his foster-mother.

Rannagon stood up. ‘He’s my son. I can already see it. Why didn’t anyone tell me?’

Kella shifted. ‘Bell – his mother always believed as you’d come back, milord. When she left she said she was goin’ t’Eagleholm. Said she was gonna find yer – tell yer the truth.’

Rannagon’s mind raced. ‘I never saw her.’

Kella’s face fell. ‘That was more’n two years ago. We never saw her again. The boy thinks I’m his mother now – I don’t mind.’

‘You’re raising him, then?’

‘Yes, milord. He’s a sweet boy. We all love him.’

‘Good.’ Rannagon glanced at the bewildered Shoa. ‘I’ll… I wanted to see him. Just to make sure he was all right. Here.’ He fumbled with his belt, and handed over a small bag of oblong. ‘Make sure he doesn’t want for anything.’

Kella accepted it, wide-eyed. ‘Of course, milord.’

Rannagon glanced at Shoa. ‘I’ll come back every so often. To keep an eye on him.’

‘Yes, milord.’

Shoa lumbered closer, clearly upset now. ‘What is this?’ she peered at the boy. ‘What is this little one?’

Rannagon moved, subtly putting himself between Shoa and the boy. ‘It’s not important. I’m finished here – we can leave when you’re ready.’

The yellow griffin huffed and loped away. Rannagon paused to cast one last glance at his son. ‘I’ll come back, Erian,’ he called. ‘I promise. Don’t forget me.’

 

*

 

‘What business was that?’ Shoa demanded as they left. ‘Why did you give gold to that female? Why so interested in the little one?’

Rannagon saw no point in lying about it. ‘That was my son.’

Shoa stopped. ‘Your son?’

‘Yes. His name’s Erian.’

‘I did not know you had a son.’ Her blue eyes narrowed. ‘He had your coat, and something of your smell. I was confused.’

‘I didn’t know I had a son either,’ said Rannagon. ‘Not until recently. You remember when we came here last, don’t you?’

‘Yes.’ Shoa resumed walking. ‘And you fathered this one then?’

‘Yes.’ Rannagon closed his eyes briefly, fighting the shame.

Shoa appeared to consider it for a while. ‘That is no surprise,’ she said at length. ‘You were a returning hero – a great fighter. Female humans would have been chirping to mate with you.’

Rannagon looked at her in surprise. ‘You don’t mind?’

‘To fertilise many eggs is good for a male,’ said Shoa. ‘The strongest take many females – it is a sign of great strength.’

Rannagon had to laugh. ‘I didn’t think you’d be like this. I thought you’d be angry.’

‘Why should I be angry? You have done nothing wrong.’

‘Kaelyn was angry,’ Rannagon said softly. ‘To her, I did do something wrong.’

‘You were not mated to her then,’ said Shoa. ‘What does it matter?’

‘I was promised to her. I betrayed her. I fathered a… a bastard.’

Shoa knew about this particular human belief. ‘Such nonsense! What is one more chick?’

‘It’s complicated. And Riona won’t be pleased either. If she finds out.’

Shoa stopped at that. ‘Riona?’

‘Nobody at the Eyrie would be pleased. It’s an embarrassment, Shoa. A noble like me – a high official – is supposed to be honourable.’

‘That would hurt our chance to rule the Eyrie,’ Shoa surmised at once.

‘Yes, it would.’

They walked in silence for a while.

‘You must not let them know,’ Shoa said eventually. ‘This one – this bastard – must be a secret from them. If he is here and they are there, it would not be hard.’

‘I agreed. But I want to keep on visiting him. Just every so often.’

‘Why?’ said Shoa.

‘He’s my responsibility,’ said Rannagon. ‘I can’t just leave my son here and let his grandparents carry the load. I fathered him – I made him. I have to do something, at least.’ He gave Shoa an appealing look.

She huffed. ‘I like this place. They have good birds to eat. I shall agree to bring you here again. Sometimes when you ask, and sometimes when I choose.’

‘All right.’ Rannagon breathed a sigh. ‘Thankyou, Shoa.’

And we won’t tell Kaelyn about it, he added silently. She wouldn’t want to know anyway. Let her forget about it.

 

*

 

Rannagon was as good as his word. As Erian grew up, he began to expect visits from the strange bearded man with the blue eyes, even if he didn’t quite understand why he came. The visitor would look at him and ask him questions – how was he, was there anything he needed, did he have good friends? Erian would stumble over his replies, and the visitor would smile and ruffle his hair and then talk to Mama and Da about grown-up things. Sometimes he brought presents – Erian liked those visits best. A wooden griffin. A new tunic to match his eyes. A shiny medal.

The small boy didn’t question any of this. To him the strange bearded man was a part of his life. Not quite a friend, but an ally. The other children were jealous that Erian had a special grown-up friend who gave him presents. They didn’t get visitors like he did. Especially not visitors who had a griffin for a friend.

Shoa fascinated Erian, though he wasn’t quite brave enough to go close to her. She wouldn’t let anyone touch her except the bearded man, and she carried him on her back sometimes too. When Erian asked about this he learned a new word: griffiner. He didn’t know what it meant, but it sounded mysterious and powerful.

One day, when he was six, he asked Mama. ‘Where does the beardy man come from?’

She smiled at him. ‘From the big city, Erian. That’s where all the griffiners live.’

Erian’s small forehead wrinkled. ‘What’s a griffin-ar?’

Griffiner. They’re the rulers of Cymria. The griffins choose them to lead us.’

‘Why?’

‘It’s Gryphus’ will,’ she told him – which was what she always said when she didn’t know the answer to something.

‘What do griffiners do?’ Erian persisted.

She hesitated. ‘Lead. Tell common folk what t’do. Fight whenever there’s enemies about.’

Erian’s eyes gleamed – he loved stories about fighting. ‘Does he ever fight, Mama?’

Kella sat down and wiped her forehead. ‘He did once. Before y’were born.’

‘When? Was there monsters?’

‘Just about.’

‘Tell me!’ Erian demanded.

‘Not now; I’m busy. Later.’

‘Now! I don’t wanna wait.’ He pouted.

Kella stood up. ‘I’ll tell yer while I work, how about that?’

‘Yeah!’ Erian followed her while she went back to folding some clothes.

‘There’s somethin’ you got t’know, Erian,’ Kella began. ‘Not all men are good.’

‘I know. There’s bad men who steal things an’ kill people.’

‘Exactly. An’ the North is where men like that come from.’

‘What’s the North?’

‘It’s that way.’ Kella pointed vaguely. ‘In a different part of the country. It’s cold there. Ice an’ snow, all year ’round. Men are different there too. The men of the North are ugly an’ wicked, with black eyes an’ black hair like coal.’

‘Bad men?’ Erian shivered excitedly.

‘Very.’ Kella put another tunic on the pile. ‘They don’t live in houses like us; they’re stupid an’ uncivilised an’ live out in the wild like beasts. They love fightin’ an’ they kill each other all the time, whenever they feel like it. They never bathe an’ they wear nothin’ but furs an’ paint on their skins. They don’t have temples; they build big stone circles instead, an’ they take babies into them at night an’ kill them.’

Erian looked shocked. ‘Doesn’t Gryphus tell ’em not to? He makes people good.’

Kella shook her head grimly. ‘They can’t hear Gryphus’ voice. They don’t worship him – they’re not his chosen people like we are.’

‘What do they worship, then?’

‘They belong to the evil Night God.’

Erian’s face lit up. ‘I know about her. She’s Scathach. The priest told me. He said she’s only got one eye an’ she’s Gryphus’ em… emi… emninny.’

‘Enemy. That’s right.’ Kella’s eyes creased. ‘They say she and Gryphus fought, way back in the beginning of the world. An’ she chose the evillest humans t’be her followers. The Northerners.’

‘They won’t ever come here, will they?’ Erian asked.

‘No. Don’t worry, Erian – they can’t come here. We’ve got the griffiners t’protect us here.’

‘Is that what the beardy man does?’ Erian sounded excited.

‘He did once. Like I said.’

‘He doesn’t any more?’

‘There was a war,’ Kella explained. ‘Before y’were born. The Northerners tried t’take over. Lord Rannagon an’ the other griffiners went to the North t’stop ’em gettin’ through the mountains.’

‘Was there fighting?’

‘Lots. Went on for years, it did. An’ it ended thanks t’Lord Rannagon.’

‘Did he kill them all?’ said Erian.

‘The Northerners had a leader,’ said Kella. ‘A woman even more vicious than the rest of ’em. She had an evil griffin, helpin’ her. Well Lord Rannagon fought them both. He killed the leader,  an’ the other Northerners didn’t want t’fight after that.’

Erian’s eyes shone. ‘Really?’

‘Really. Lord Rannagon’s a hero, little lord. He saved us all from those scum, an’ don’t you ever forget that.’

Erian didn’t, and from that moment on the beardy man became an even more mystical figure in his mind.

 

*

 

Rannagon didn’t visit again until shortly after Erian’s seventh birthday, but this time he had brought a gift that was a hundred times better than anything that had come before.

Erian stared at it, wide-eyed. ‘It’s a sword!’

Rannagon smiled as he offered it up. ‘Happy Birthday.’

Erian took it, almost reverentially, and ran his fingers over the wooden blade. ‘Why’s it not made out of metal?’

‘It’s a training sword,’ said Rannagon. ‘There’s metal inside to make it heavier. Be careful with it; it’s not a toy. Don’t go playing with it.’

‘What’s it for, then?’ Erian asked, with a touch of resentment.

‘Training,’ said Rannagon. ‘I’ve spoken to Artan and he’s promised to start teaching you.’

‘I don’t like teaching,’ Erian scowled.

Rannagon smiled. ‘But what if you were being taught how to fight?’

Erian blinked at him. ‘Like with a sword?’

‘Yes.’

‘Like a griffiner?’

‘Yes.’ Rannagon stood up. ‘Like me.’ There was a sword strapped across his back, and he unsheathed it and flourished it impressively. The blade flashed in the sun, turning its entire length into a beam of light.

Erian could have been looking at the manifestation of a god, judging by his expression. ‘I want a sword like that. Please can I have one?’

Rannagon chuckled and put it away. ‘One day, maybe. First you have to learn.’

Erian gripped his own wooden sword tightly. ‘I will.’

‘See you do what Artan tells you, then. You have to work hard, and he can help you.’

‘I promise,’ said Erian.

‘He’s going to teach you other things as well,’ said Rannagon. ‘Some of them will be hard, but I know you’re clever enough to learn them.’

‘I can do it,’ Erian said at once.

‘That’s my boy. I know you can do it. You’re special.’

Erian beamed. ‘Is that why you come see me? ’cause I’m special?’

‘Yes. I want you to know everything I know, Erian, because-,’

‘Because why?’

Rannagon hesitated. ‘Has your… mother told you who I am?’

‘She says as you’re a griffiner,’ said Erian. ‘She says you’re a hero an’ you fought evil Northerners.’

‘I’m your father, Erian. I thought you knew.’

Erian looked confused. ‘But Da’s my father…’

‘He’s your grandfather,’ Rannagon corrected. ‘I’m your father.’

‘No you’re not. I don’t believe you.’

Rannagon smiled and ruffled Erian’s hair. ‘Look into the water one day, or on anything shiny. You look more like me every day. Now, I should go.’

Erian dropped the wooden sword. ‘You’re not my father,’ he said. ‘Fathers live with their sons.’

Rannagon was already leaving, backing away toward Shoa. ‘I’m sorry, I want to stay, but-,’

Erian went after him, red-faced. ‘You don’t live with me!’ he yelled. ‘You’re not my father! You’re not!’

 

*

 

After Rannagon had left, Camlin found his grandson hiding in the barn. He was up in the hayloft, where he always went when he was angry or upset.

Camlin climbed the ladder, and looked around to the other side of a heap of mouldering straw. Erian was there, hunched up in the corner. The wooden sword was lying in front of him.

‘What’s this?’ Camlin called. ‘What’re y’doin’ up here, boy?’

‘Go ’way.’

Camlin sighed and hauled himself up into the hayloft, crouching to fit. ‘Are y’upset that Lord Rannagon left?’

‘No,’ Erian snapped. ‘Go away.’

‘What is it, then? C’mon, tell me.’

Silence.

‘Did he give yer that?’ said Camlin, indicating the sword. ‘That’s lucky! He said he’s got old Artan t’teach yer how to use it, too.’

More silence.

‘That’s very special, y’know,’ Camlin went on. ‘Only noblemens’ sons get t’learn swords. He did that just for you.’

Erian looked up at last. There were tears on his face. ‘I hate him! He’s a liar!’

Camlin took him by the shoulder. ‘What d’yer mean? What’d he lie about?’

‘He said he was my dad!’

‘Erian-,’

‘He’s not!’ Erian said fiercely. ‘You are. Everyone lives with their Da. I live with you.’

‘Stop that,’ said Camlin. ‘Erian, stop it now.’

‘He’s not my father.’

‘He is,’ said Camlin.

Erian stared, and then scowled. ‘No he’s not.’

‘He’s yer father, Erian. That’s why he comes to see you. I’m yer grandfather, an’ Kella’s yer grandmother.’

‘Then where’s my mother?’ Erian demanded.

‘She died,’ Camlin lied. ‘You’d be too young t’remember.’

Erian looked blank, as if he couldn’t take this in. ‘Is that why I don’t live with him?’

‘No.’ Camlin decided to try a different tack. ‘What’s the matter, Erian? Don’t y’want him t’be yer father? You oughta be proud. Not everyone has a griffiner for a father, especially not a great hero like Lord Rannagon. An’ he cares about yer so much he’s made it so y’can learn swordplay an’ that. Aren’t yer happy about that?’

‘But why don’t I live with him? Why am I here? Why doesn’t he stay?’

Camlin didn’t know what to say, and the hesitation only upset the boy even further.

Erian’s blue eyes filled with tears. ‘Is there something wrong with me?’

‘No. No, Erian. Stop that. C’mon.’ Camlin lifted him into his arms. ‘That’s enough of that. Let’s go inside an’ see if the wife has anythin’ nice for dinner.’

Erian clung to him on the way back, still shuddering with small sobs every so often.

Kella was all concern when they arrived. ‘Oh no, what’s happened? Here, let Mama help.’

When Erian found himself on her lap, he took that as a cue and cried harder. ‘You’re not my Mama. She’s dead! An’ my real Da doesn’t even like me.’

‘Hush.’ Kella stroked his hair. ‘Don’t cry. Come now, it’s all right.’

‘He went away! Why doesn’t he like me?’

‘He does like you, Erian. He brings you presents, doesn’t he?’

Erian quietened eventually, but he still looked miserable. ‘If he liked me he’d stay,’ he mumbled into his grandmother’s bosom.

Even so, after dinner he still insisted on keeping the wooden sword with him. He went to bed clutching the hilt, determined not to let it out of his sight for a moment.

 

*

 

The next day came. Erian put on the tunic Rannagon had given him, and walked by his grandmother’s side to Artan’s home in the middle of the village. The wooden sword came too, clutched in its owner’s hand.

Artan was in his fifties, and his reddish hair was shot through with grey. He greeted Erian rather stiffly. ‘So here’s the little lord, come for his first lesson.’

The previous day’s upset apparently forgotten, Erian nodded enthusiastically and waved the wooden sword.

‘Put that down before you poke someone’s eye out. It’s not a toy.’

‘I know that,’ Erian scowled.

‘You can go,’ Artan said aside to Kella. ‘Leave him with me.’

She looked a little uncertain, but let go of Erian’s hand and began to walk away. He looked anxiously after her, but turned back to the sound of Artan’s voice.

‘She’ll come back, boy. In the meantime, let’s get started.’

Erian brightened. ‘Are you gonna show me swords now?’

‘No. Come inside.’

Erian trailed after him and into the house. Inside it was much neater than his own home, and the walls were made of rock instead of wood. There was a fire in the fireplace, and a shelf with some strange things on them. He wandered over and pulled one off. It was shaped a bit like a block of wood, but he found he could peel the top part off partway.

Artan dashed over and snatched it out of his hands. ‘Keep your hands off that!’

Erian reached for it. ‘I just wanna see!’

‘It’s a book,’ Artan huffed, putting it back on the shelf. ‘No use to you since you can’t read.’

‘What’s that?’

‘You’ll find out. Now come over here and sit down.’

Remembering his promises to do as he was told, Erian wandered over to the fireplace, dragging his sword on the ground. When he’d sat down on the hearthrug, Artan promptly took the wooden weapon out of his hands and put it out of reach.

Erian stood up at once. ‘That’s mine!’

‘You don’t need it now. Sit down.’

‘Give it back! It’s mine!’

‘I said you don’t need it.’

‘But it’s-,’

‘Sit down.’ Artan said it in a hard, sharp way, like Camlin did when he was angry.

Erian sat, resentfully. ‘I just wanna hold it…’

‘Be quiet and listen. You have to remember what I’m about to tell you. Today I’m going to teach you some special words, and you have to learn how to say them. Are you listening?’

‘Yes.’

‘Good. Listen, and repeat.’ Artan cleared his throat. ‘“Kran ae.”’

‘Cranny,’ Erian tried.

‘“Kran ae”. Try again.’

Erian tried, repeating the strange sounds until Artan seemed satisfied.

‘Very good. Kran ae means “man”.’

‘“Kran ae means ‘man’”,’ Erian said dutifully.

‘Exactly. Now for the next word. Repeat after me. “Ee ka yee”.’

This time Erian got it right a little faster. ‘What does that one mean?’

‘It means “eye of the day”,’ said Artan.

‘What’s that?’

‘The sun, of course.’

‘The sun is Gryphus’ eye,’ said Erian, and grinned proudly.

‘So it is. Now the next word…’

They spent some time doing this, with Erian repeating the words Artan gave him until he knew them by heart. He learnt words that meant “tree”, and “sword”, and “sky”, each one harsh and odd.

‘You’re picking this up faster than I thought you would,’ Artan said eventually. ‘Well done. Now I want you to keep repeating those words when you go home. Say them in your head. When you come tomorrow, I’m going to ask you to say them all to me, and if you get them right I’ll give you a present.’

‘I can do it,’ Erian said at once.

‘Good. Now that’s done, we can move on.’ Artan stood up, and lifted the sword down.

Erian snatched the wooden weapon as soon as it was offered to him, and ran outside to begin the lesson.

Artan followed at a more sedate pace, muttering to himself. ‘Playing at swords with Rannagon’s bastard. What a joke.’

 

*

 

The start of the lessons with Artan marked a change in Erian’s life – and in Erian himself. He threw himself into the work, particularly the swordplay; practisicing diligently every evening as instructed. He didn’t enjoy the new words he had to learn as much, but he memorised them faithfully anyway, and even began using them around the house.

‘That’s a kran ran kan,’ he announced one day, pointing at one of his grandfather’s cows.

Camlin gave him a bemused look. ‘How’s that again?’

‘It’s a kran ran kan,’ Erian repeated.

‘What’s that mean?’

‘Big hoof beast,’ Erian said proudly.

‘Is that so? Made that up, did yer?’

‘No, Artan taught me.’

Camlin looked interested. ‘What language is that?’

‘Language?’

‘Yeah. Them words ain’t Cymrian, that’s for sure.’

‘I dunno,’ said Erian. ‘He just said I had to know them.’

The question stayed with him until the following day, and when he went to visit Artan again and they sat down together to learn more words he interrupted with, ‘Artan, what’re these words for? Da said they was a language.’

Are a language,’ Artan corrected.

‘Are a language. What language?’

Artan raised an eyebrow. ‘It’s griffish, boy. Didn’t you know that?’

‘Griff…ish? Like griffin?’

‘Yes. Griffish is what griffins speak, and if you know it you can talk to them. Your father wanted you to learn it.’

‘Why?’ said Erian.

The old man gave him a rather unfriendly look. ‘Because all griffiners teach their children how to speak griffish.’

Erian fairly swelled with pride at that, and paid much closer attention to the rest of the lesson.

That afternoon, when he got home, he ran straight to Kella. ‘Guess what?’

She laughed to see him so excited. ‘What is it?’

Erian lifted his chin. ‘I’m learnin’… learning griffish. Artan says my father wanted me to ’cause I’m his son. Everyone who’s a griffiner’s son learns griffish. I’m learning.’

Kella gave him a kiss on the forehead. ‘Well done, Erian. I’m proud of yer. An’ y’father will be too when he comes again. Y’can say hello to him like a griffiner!’

‘I will, an’… and he’ll see how clever I am,’ Erian announced.

 

*

 

Months passed without any sign of Rannagon’s return, but Erian didn’t forget his promise. The other children in the village were soon in awe of him, when they saw him practising with his wooden sword and heard him recite the scraps of griffish he was learning.

Erian enjoyed showing off to them. He liked the way knowing things they didn’t made him special – how being Rannagon’s son made him special. They all knew who his father was, too; even if they hadn’t known it before he talked about it all the time now.

‘My father’s a hero,’ he said, more than once. ‘He fought the wicked darkmen in the wars an’ killed a thousand of them all by himself. He can snap trees with just his hands. He’s got a magic sword, too!’

The other children listened, with fascination.

‘An’… and he’s got a griffin that he rides,’ Erian added. ‘She’s got golden feathers an’… and she’s called… uh… Sunlight.’

‘My ma says she’s called Shoa,’ one boy said.

‘She’s not. She’s called Sunlight, an’ you’re stupid. When my father comes back he’ll tell you.’

But Rannagon did not come.

And three years went by.

 

*

 

When Rannagon finally did return to Carrick, it was to find a very different son than the one he had left behind. When he had got off Shoa’s back and left her to seek out water, he saw the boy coming out of the farmhouse to meet him and stared in amazement.

The sturdy, tousle-haired child had grown and thickened. He was taller now, and broader in the shoulders – promising a strong and stocky man to come. The hair had thickened and darkened, until the shade nearly matched Rannagon’s own, and in the strengthening jaw and flared nostrils Rannagon saw his son’s face begin to mirror that of his father.

‘Erian?’ he said, almost uncertainly.

Unsmiling, Erian held out a hand. Rannagon returned the gesture, and to his amazement the boy linked fingers with him and tugged before letting go.

Yee a ka-ee kree,’ Erian said, breaking the silence.

Rannagon gaped, and then smiled. ‘You’re learning.’

‘I am, Father.’

‘Is Artan a good teacher for you?’

‘Yes. He says I’m nearly as good with a sword as you are.’

He was losing the rough accents of a peasant, Rannagon noticed. ‘Swordfighting runs in our family, Erian. I’m not surprised. And you’re learning griffish well, I see.’

‘I’m good at that, too.’ There was a hint of desperation in Erian’s voice. ‘Please don’t go, Father.’

‘I can stay for a little while,’ said Rannagon. ‘Shall we go for a walk?’

‘Yes please. I want to show you where I practise.’

‘Show me, then. I’d like to see.’

They walked away side-by-side. Shoa, looking up from the cows’ trough, shook her feathers out and wandered disinterestedly after them.

Erian showed the way to an orchard just outside the farm. The ground was strewn with rotting apples, and Rannagon couldn’t help but notice the marks on some of the trees.

‘This is where I practise,’ Erian said, eagerly running ahead to show him. ‘See? Sometimes I use a stick instead, but yesterday I hit that branch so hard it broke off! I come here all the time, ’cause I want to get good.’

‘Yes, I see.’ Rannagon chuckled indulgently. ‘Well done.’

Erian turned to give him a reproachful look. ‘You were gone a long, long time.’

‘I know.’

‘I was waiting for you.’

‘I’m sorry, Erian. But I have very important work that I have to do back at Eagleholm. It’s getting harder to find time, and my wife…’

‘I want to go back with you.’

‘No, Erian.’

The boy’s fists clenched. ‘I’m your son. I should be with you.’

‘This is your home,’ Rannagon said firmly.

‘My home is with you! It’s not fair! Why can’t I go there?’

‘Because…’ Rannagon trailed off.

The old fear rose up in Erian again. ‘Is there something wrong with me? Did I do something wrong? Is that why I can’t be with you?’

‘No!’ Rannagon spoke sharply. ‘There’s nothing wrong with you at all. Don’t be like that.’

‘Why, then? Why? Tell me!’

‘Come on,’ said Rannagon. ‘Walk with me. It’s time I told you this.’

Erian stuck close to his father’s side. His heart was pounding. To be so close to him again after so long, when he’d begun to think he might never come back…

‘I’m married, Erian,’ Rannagon said. ‘And I love my wife very much. We have a daughter together, and I love her too.’

Erian’s heart sank. ‘You’ve got a daughter?’

‘Yes.’ Rannagon smiled. ‘Her name’s Flell. She’s your sister, Erian.’

‘I’ve got a sister?’ Erian’s surprised delight quickly turned to anger. ‘She gets to live with you.’

‘Because I’m married to her mother,’ said Rannagon, putting emphasis on each word.

My mother?’

‘No. I wasn’t married to your mother, Erian. After I met her here and fathered you, I went back to Eagleholm and married my wife. After that we had Flell. I didn’t even know you existed until you were three years old.’

Erian looked bewildered. ‘But fathers are married to mothers.’

‘Not always, Erian. A man can be a father without being married.’

Silence.

Rannagon’s shoulders hunched, and he stared at his boots as they walked. ‘My wife doesn’t like me coming here to see you. She doesn’t like it that I had you with another woman. It makes her sad and angry.’

‘Why?’

‘You’ll understand when you’re older. She doesn’t like me coming here, but she forgives me for it. But only while you’re here. If I took you back to Eagleholm with me, it would break her heart. She’d hate me forever.’

Erian looked about to cry. ‘Then there is something wrong with me.’

‘It’s not your fault, Erian. It’s my fault, so blame me. I’ve done all I could do for you, but nothing will ever take away what I did wrong.’

‘I can’t blame you,’ said Erian, his voice high with emotion. ‘You’re a hero. I’m just a…’

Rannagon put a hand on his shoulder. ‘Even heroes do the wrong thing sometimes.’

‘No they don’t!’ Erian almost yelled. ‘You’ll never do anything wrong. Never ever ever.’

‘Why?’

‘’cause you’re my father.’ Erian angrily wiped his tears away.

‘I really am sorry,’ Rannagon said eventually. ‘If I could, I’d take you to Eagleholm. But I can’t. But I promise I’ll visit you much more often.’

That seemed to cheer the boy up a little. ‘I’m gonna keep practising,’ he said. ‘While you’re gone. I’ll be the best swordsman there ever was, you’ll see. I’ll show you.’

‘I believe you,’ Rannagon said solemnly. ‘You can do it.’

‘I’m gonna be a hero one day,’ said Erian. He pulled a fierce expression. ‘Then I can live wherever I want.’

Rannagon nodded vaguely.

‘I’m gonna be a hero one day,’ Erian repeated. ‘Like you.’

For some reason, the words gave Rannagon a chill.

 

*

 

The rest of Erian’s childhood passed into a dream of swords and heroism, and his father’s reflected glory. He spent his days studying with Artan or working on the farm, and as the years passed he grew and was shaped by the world around him – as Rannagon noticed during his continuing visits. He grew to have this father’s cleft chin and big hands. Constant sword-training and hard work on the farm thickened his broadening shoulders with muscle, and his face was freckled from the sun.

He was much-loved in the village, despite his nickname of “Lord Bastard”, and some of his peers – now young adults themselves – would ask him to teach them some of the swordplay that everyone knew he had learned. Some asked him to teach them griffish as well. He would happily agree to the first, and always refused the second. Griffish was only for him and his father to know. And Artan, of course.

On the day of Erian’s seventeenth birthday, he went to see his mentor for their customary morning lesson.

Artan greeted him with a smile. ‘Happy Birthday, lad.’

Erian grinned and rubbed a hand through his hair. ‘Seventeen. That means I must’ve been coming here for exactly ten years. We started on my seventh birthday, didn’t we?’

‘Close enough. So, get any presents?’

‘Just a new tunic. The old one had practically had it. And my grandfather made me a belt. See?’

‘Ooh, very nice. So, ready to begin?’

‘As always,’ said Erian, using griffish.

‘Well done. That pronounciation’s getting better.’

Erian worked hard during the lesson, as he usually did, but he seemed distracted – sometimes sighing and staring at his hands.

‘I think that’s about enough,’ Artan said when they were done. ‘Ready to move on?’

Erian fixed him with a stare. ‘Artan,’ he said, in griffish, ‘There’s something I’ve always wanted to know.’

‘Yes?’

‘How do you know all this? I mean, you’re just the local reeve… you’re not a Lord or anything as far as I know. How did you learn griffish?’

‘Because I’m a griffiner, of course.’

‘Wait, you’re a griffiner? But-,’

‘Or I was a griffiner,’ Artan said gruffly.

‘I… oh.’ Erian looked embarrassed. ‘Can I ask what happened?’

‘I used to live up at Eagleholm,’ said Artan. ‘I knew your father. Knew his father, too. We were trained around the same time. I was apprenticed to old Lord Raegon, the Master of Law – Rannagon’s father.’

‘What happened?’

‘My griffin died,’ said Artan, matter-of-factly. ‘The sneezing sickness went through the whole city one winter, and some griffins just didn’t survive.’

‘Artan, I’m so sorry.’

The old man shrugged. ‘It was before you were even born. Anyway, you can’t be a griffiner without a griffin, and I didn’t want to have to live in the city any more after that. I still had all my knowledge of the law, so I took the job of reeve here.’

‘So that’s how my father knew you could teach me,’ Erian concluded.

‘Exactly. You’ve been a good student, Erian. You remind me of your father all the time.’

Erian preened. ‘Everyone says that. He says it too. The last time he was here he said “by Gryphus, I’m looking at my old self”.’

Artan cackled. ‘He was. Trust me. Anyway…’ he stood up. ‘Ready to make a start on swordplay?’

‘No.’

‘Oh, why?’

Erian stood too. ‘That was our last lesson, Artan.’

The old man’s face fell. ‘Why quit now? Did something happen?’

‘I’m leaving.’

‘Leaving what? Leaving here?’

‘Yes.’ Erian smoothed down his tunic. ‘I’m leaving home today.’

‘Why? Where are you going?’

‘Eagleholm. To my father.’

‘No.’ Artan shook his head. ‘No, no, no. Don’t do it, Erian.’

Erian set his jaw. ‘I’ve made up my mind, Artan. I’ve been planning this all my life and no-one’s going to stop me now.’

‘But why? What’s the point? What d’you expect to find there?’

‘My father hasn’t come to see me in nearly six months,’ said Erian. ‘The last time he were here, he said he wasn’t coming back again. Now it’s time for me to go to him.’

‘He won’t welcome you.’

‘I don’t care.’ Erian put his hands on his hips. ‘I’m not staying here. Carrick wasn’t meant to be my home. It was just a place to grow up. I was meant for greater things than a farmer’s life.’

What greater things?’

Erian’s eyes gleamed. ‘I was born to be a griffiner.’

‘You w-,’

‘I was trained for it,’ Erian interrupted. ‘This is what my father always meant to happen. This is why he asked you to teach me. He knew.’ He spoke in the low voice of a fanatic.

‘This is ridiculous,’ Artan said quietly. ‘You can’t expect-,’

‘I can.’ Erian drew himself up. ‘I’m Lord Rannagon’s son.’

‘You’re Lord Rannagon’s bastard.’

‘That doesn’t matter!’ Erian snapped.

‘Yes it does! Griffins don’t choose just anyone, boy. They demand the best humans they can find.’

‘And I am the best,’ said Erian. ‘I’m Lord Rannagon’s son. I know griffish, I know how to fight.’

‘It won’t be enough.’

‘Yes it will.’ Erian folded his arms. ‘Somewhere in Eagleholm there’s a griffin waiting for me, and that’s where I’m going.’

Artan threw up his hands. ‘Fine! Do what you want to do, but don’t blame me when it goes wrong.’

‘I won’t.’ Erian bowed stiffly and walked out of the house.

Artan watched him go. From behind, he could have been Lord Rannagon himself.

‘Go on, then, you idiot,’ the old man muttered. ‘But there’s only one griffin in Eagleholm mad enough to choose you, and she’s already chosen someone even lower than you.’

*

Neato text ornament here