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. âThere yâare.â
Belara nodded briefly and dipped the scrubbing brush back into the bucket of water.
Dermot came closer and peered at her face. âYâlook like somethinâ a horse puked up. Whatâs the matter?â
Belara looked up. âNot feelinâ well.â
âUp late again with some man, were yer?â Dermot looked unimpressed. âWell donât think that means Iâm lettinâ yer go home. Hurry up and get them tables scrubbed.â
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.
âHowâs our Bell, then?â one man leered. âFeel like a little ringinâ tonight?â
Belara gave him another beer. âNot tonight. I got somethinâ else to deal with.â
âAw, câmon,â said the man.
âYou ainât got a chance,â one of his friends cackled. âOur Bellâs moved on to another temple by now.â
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. âHello. What are you doinâ over here at this time of night?â
Belara sat down on her old stool by the fireplace. âI wanted tâsee you.â
âWhat about?â Kella went back to her work. âItâs got tâbe somethinâ big for you tâcome here with it now.â
âThink Iâm pregnant,â Belara told her without ceremony.
Kella raised an eyebrow. âAgain?â
âYeah. Woke up sick this morninâ. Canât be anything else.â
Her mother sighed. âBetter go see the priest tomorrow. Whoâs the father this time?â
Belara folded her hands over her stomach. âI ainât gettinâ rid of this one.â
âBelara, you ainât married. Whatâs everyone gonna think?â
âI donât care what they think. This oneâs different.â
âItâs the griffinerâs baby,â said Belara.
Kella stared, and then gave a short, disbelieving laugh. âYou mean that griffiner what stayed in the tavern a month or so back?â
âYeah. Lord Rannagon.â She smiled dreamily. âHe was the best man I ever went with. So handsome, anâ so gentle.â
âBy Gryphusâ fires, you got yerself a griffiner. Whoâd have thought it?â
Belara frowned. âHe needed me,â she said. âHe was all sad anâ that, after the war. He wanted comfortinâ.â
Kella chuckled. âAnâ now youâve got yerself a griffinerâs bastard.â
âYeah, anâ I was thinking,â Belara went on excitedly, âI was thinkinâ, if I went over Eagleholm way anâ told him, maybe heâd marry me. Imagine me, a griffinerâs wife!â
âYâcould try, but itâd never work,â said Kella. âHeâs already married. Heard it from Artan. Some griffiner lady.â
Belaraâs face fell. âOh. But if he knew it was his he might still help.â She brightened up.
âMaybe, who knows? Are yâreally sure itâs his?â
âYeah, Iâm sure. Ainât been with anyone since he come here. Are yâgonna tell Dad?â
âYou tell him,â said Kella. âWhen yer ready, like.â
âSure, I will,â said Belara.
Months passed, and Belaraâs pregnancy advanced as it should. She stayed away from her old lovers â 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 didnât want to upset the father â whoever that was. Belara wasnât telling.
She didnât 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 wasnât pleased either. âI canât have a pregnant tavern girl,â he said. âLook at yer. I didnât like keepinâ yer on here as it was â yâwere sleepinâ with half the customers anâ flirtinâ with the rest. But I put up with it because it made âem come back. But now look at yer.â
Belara scowled at him. âI can keep this baby if I want.â
âNot if yâwant to keep yer job,â said Dermot. He folded his arms. âGo anâ see the priest. Get rid of it, anâ then come back. Until then, you ainât welcome.â
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 â 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 didnât have its own griffin. In Eagleholm, the high priest was a griffiner, and his partnerâs 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 â everyone in the village knew he was crazy, and he didnât like her besides.
Today, though, he greeted her warmly. âWelcome in Gryphusâ name, Belara Kellasen.â
Belara eyed him. âHullo. Can I come in?â
âOf course.â 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 werenât any chairs, so she plunked herself down on the altar. âI got a problem,â she said.
The priest looked at her swollen abdomen. âI know. And yet again youâve come to help me solve it for you.â
Belara said nothing.
The priest shook his head. âI canât keep doing this, Belara. I shouldnât have done it to begin with, but I took pity on you. Itâs an abomination to Gryphus. Destroying new life â itâs a sin.â
âBut thatâs it!â Belara burst out. âI donât want to do it!â she looked piteously at him. âI want tâkeep it. Thatâs why I didnât come before.â
âThen why have you come?â
âDermot doesnât like it that Iâm pregnant. He told me tâget rid of it or I canât work at the tavern no more.â Belara tried not to cry.
The priestâs voice sharpened. âWhatâs more important?â he said. âYour job, or a childâs life?â
âBut howâm I gonna live if I ainât got no job?â
âGryphus will provide. Have faith. The child is what matters. He must live.â
âI want a girl,â Belara mumbled.
âListen.â The priest put a hand on her shoulder. âIf you donât want to kill the child, then donât. If you decide that you do, Iâm not helping you.â
âWhoâs the father?â
âLord Rannagon,â said Belara.
The priestâs expression changed. âI knew it,â he said. âI knew it!â
Belara gave him a look. âWhatâre you talkinâ about?â
He fixed her with a stern, green-eyed gaze. âKeep it, Belara. Keep the child. If you need another job, you can come and work for me.â
âFor you?â she blinked. âHow? I mean, I didnât knowâŚâ
âI need someone to keep this place clean, and gather flowers for the altar. You can do that. Besides.â The priest smiled. âGryphus loves mothers.â
âWhatâll yâpay me?â Belara asked instantly.
âIn food and clothing.â
âIâm a priest,â he reminded her. âI donât have money.â
Belara bit her lip. âI dunnoâŚâ
âChoose. For the child.â
She thought of Rannagon. He was an honourable man â heâd help her if she asked for it. Heâd want to help the mother of his child. She could wait until the baby was born, and afterwards when she showed everyone the griffinerâs child everything would be different. She could work at the temple until the birth â why not? Itâd be enough until Rannagon came back and gave her his riches.
âAll right, then,â she said.
After that her new life began â 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 â 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 â everything Carrickâs farms had to offer. The priest didnât 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 hadnât told anyone else who the father was â she wanted to wait until after the birth. She wanted them to see the child when she told them. Her sweet Lord Rannagonâs child.
The anticipation made her smile.
As for the priest, he continued to show interest in her pregnancy â 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 â 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 sheâd 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. âIs something the matter?â
Belara grimaced and touched her stomach. âItâs nothinâ, just the little one kickinâ or somethinâ.â
âAre you sure?â
Another pain came. âYeah,â she said, but without much certainty. âDonât worry about me, Bev. Iâm f-,â she broke off, as another pain came â much stronger than the last. An instant later, she gasped as something wet soaked into her dress. âOh!â
The priest stood up. âWhat is itâŚâ he trailed off.
Belara touched the wet patch, and stared in horror at the blood on her hand. âOh Gryphus, Iâm dying!â
âNo you arenât.â He hurried to her side. âYouâre going into labour â quick, come with me. We have to take you somewhere safe.â
They had been sitting in the temple, on the floor â 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 didnât 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. âItâs all right,â he said. âBreathe deeply. Pray.â
âIt hurts,â Belara wailed.
âDonât worry. The pain is natural.â He glanced over his shoulder. âIâm going to fetch the midwife. Stay here and keep calm. Donât try and get up. Youâll be fine.â
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 Belaraâs parents as well. They came straight to her side, and her mother held her hand while the midwife set to work. âHere,â she said brusquely, pressing a sprig of some herb into her mouth. âChew it. For the pain.â
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. âBreathe. Just concentrate on breathinâ. In, out, in, out. Thatâs right. Kella, rub her stomach there, would you? Thatâs right.â
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. âMyâŚ mineâŚâ
Someone caressed her cheek. âJust take it easy, Bell. Everythingâs all right.â
âLet me hold it,â she insisted. âI wantâŚâ
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 childâs 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. âHow dâyou feel?â
âGood,â Belara mumbled.
Her father, Camlin, reached down to touch the child. âMy first grandson.â
Belara blinked. âItâs a boy?â
âYes. Look at that hair!â Camlin chuckled.
It was pale and wispy, but it already had the faintest tinge of yellow. Belara stroked it and smiled. âHeâs gonna be blond, just like his daddy.â
âYâpromised to tell me who his father was after he was born,â her father reminded her.
âNever mind about that,â Kella interrupted. âHave yâgot a name for him yet, Bell? I know you was hopinâ for a girl.â
Belara didnât care. She looked up at her parents, radiant with joy. âHis name is Erian,â she said. âErian Rannagonson.â
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 âthe little lordâ.
Kella smiled to herself. She didnât care that so far Lord Rannagon hadnât shown his face in Carrick again. She loved little Erian dearly, and anything that might come out of his parentage didnât 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 Erianâs birth, and was enjoying a fair amount of admiration from her old acquaintances â 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 â his mother certainly hadnât given him his blue eyes, or his gradually thickening blond hair.
Belara was less happy about Rannagon. For some reason sheâd 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 didnât mind too much. It was good to have a child to care for again.
On the little patch of grass where he and a neighbourâs daughter were pawing at the wooden toys theyâd been given, Erian suddenly started to cry.
Kella got up and hurried to lift him into her arms. âThere, there, itâs all right. Grammaâs here.â He was damp under her hand, and she tutted. âCâmon, letâs go anâ clean yer up, then.â
That evening, while she was feeding him some mashed potatoes, Camlin stumped in. âSee weâre still babysittinâ,â he grunted. âWhereâs that daughter of ours?â
âStill at work, most like,â said Kella, coaxing the sulking Erian into eating another spoonful. âItâs no trouble.â
Camlin slumped into his chair. âGryphusâ talons, what a day. And it is trouble. She ought tâbe lookinâ after him herself; heâs her son, ainât he?â
âCome, now, yâknow she has tâwork late,â said Kella. âGirlâs got tâmake a livinâ.â
âGirlâs got tâget married,â said Camlin. âBut try tellinâ her that. Lettinâ her son grow up without a father â itâs a disgrace.â
âAh,â Kella said knowingly, âSheâs still pininâ after her handsome Lord, Iâd say.â
âPine nothinâ. Sheâs spendinâ her nights with that trader up at the tavern. The whole village knows it.â Camlin pulled his boots off and put them by the fire. âThat girlâs never cared about nothinâ but her own pleasure.â
Erian thrust his little hands toward Kella. âMama,â he gurgled.
Camlin looked rather sadly at him. âSheâs the only mother yer like tâhave, boy.â
Kella scowled. âDonât talk like that about our Bell. She loves her son as much as we do, I know that.â
Camlin muttered something and sat back in his chair to rest.
Belara didnât 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.
âThere yâare,â Kella smiled. âErianâs been missinâ yer somethinâ fierce.â
Belara was plainly dressed and looked rather flushed. âI ainât stayinâ long.â
Kella had already gone to fetch Erian, and put him into his motherâs arms. He murmured sleepily in protest, but cuddled up to her happily enough.
Belara held him rather awkwardly. âI got somethinâ tâtell yer.â
Camlin appeared in the doorway of his home. âAnâ whatâs that, then?â he asked, with narrowed eyes.
âWhat? Why? Where to?â Kellaâs eyes went to Erian. âYâainâtâŚ goinâ off anâ takinâ him, are yer? Howâm I gonna see him again? Anâ you, too?â
Belara giggled. âItâs not like that, silly! Iâm not going away forever! Itâs just a little trip!â
Camlin gave her a suspicious look. âWhere are yâgoinâ, then?â
Belara put Erian back into his grandmotherâs arms. âBenâs takinâ me with him when he goes.â
âYeah. Heâs goinâ up Eagleholm way, anâ he says as I can go with him.â
Kella clutched the boy. âWhat about Erian?â
âOh, well, heâs too young for travellinâ. âSides, Ben doesnât want him with us. He can just stay here with you while Iâm gone. Itâs no trouble, right?â
Camlin glared. âYou ainât goinâ nowhere. Leavinâ yer own son beyond while yâgo gallivantinâ âround the countryside with some scumbag trader?â
âHe ainât no scumbag,â Belara said hotly. âBenâs a good man, anâ he can get me tâEagleholm safe. Iâll get tâsee the big city! Anâ â anâ while Iâm there, Iâm gonna find Lord Rannagon. Iâll tell him âbout Erian, anâ maybe heâll come back with me.â
âAnâ yâjust expect us tâlook after yer son in the meantime?â said Camlin, obviously not buying it. âYâdidnât even bother tâask about it before yer went anâ made all them grand plans.â
âYou been lookinâ after him this long, ainât yer?â said Belara. She was beginning to go red in the face. âHeâs your grandson, donât yâcare?â
âHeâs your son, donât you care?â Camlin hurled back.
âYeah, I do care, anâ Iâm doinâ this for him,â Belara retorted. âHis fatherâs got the right tâknow about him, anâ once he does Erianâll get everythinâ a griffinerâs son should. Anyway, I ainât a child no more. You ainât got the right tâtell me what I can do.â
Kella glanced at her husband, and clutched Erian more tightly. âWeâll look after him if thatâs what you want, Bell.â
âGood!â Belara came closer and kissed her son on the forehead. âYou be good now, Erian.â
âHe ainât gonna come,â Camlin called, as his daughter began to walk away. He took a step nearer to her as she stopped and turned. âThis lord of yours ainât gonna come here, anâ he ainât gonna see yer if yer ever get tâEagleholm. Heâs married now. Whatâs he gonna want tâdo with you? He wonât even remember yer face by now.â
âHe will,â Belara snapped.
âHe wonât. You were nothinâ tâhim, Bell â face it. Yâthink heâs gonna remember every peasant girl heâs been tâbed with over the years? He ainât. Heâs out of your hands. Your son ainât.â Camlin pointed at the boy, who was staring innocently at his mother. âHeâs yours, Bell. He loves yer. Youâre his mother whether yâwant tâbe or not, anâ he needs yer.â
Belara gaped at him, as if he had just slapped her in the face. But she quickly pulled herself together. She lifted her chin. âYouâre wrong. Goodbye, Dad.â With that, she tossed her hair and strode away from the home where sheâd grown up, and the son who began to whimper in his grandmotherâs 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. âIâm tired. Wanna sleep.â
Kella pulled the tunic over his head. âNow then, donât be cranky. Yâwant them new shoes, donât yer?â
âYâwanted them yesterday anâ the day before.â
âDonât want them now.â Erian pouted.
âYouâll want âem again tomorrow,â said Kella. âAnâ maybe we can get a sugar apple on the way.â
He brightened up at that. âI want two.â
She chuckled. âWeâll see.â
Once she had him dressed and fed, they left the farm and walked into the village. Erian held his grandmotherâs 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 Kellaâs hand â trying to get free. She held on firmly, and he kept trying and then sulked when her grip held. âWanna go!â
Kella would have told him off, but she had already spotted what had excited him. Her eyes narrowed. âWhatâs goinâ on?â
A crowd had gathered in the village square. The people in it chattered loudly, all gathered around something she couldnât 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.
The beastâs huge head rose over the bobbing ones of the people, beaked and noble, its dark yellow eyes full of dangerous intelligence.
Kellaâs skin tingled at the sight. âOh holy GryphusâŚâ
Erian chirped in her arms. âBirdie! Birdie!â
Kella held him closer. âNo,â she said. âThat ainât no bird.â
âOh, hey!â someone yelled. âHereâs the little lord anâ his handmaiden, come tâhave a look.â
Several people laughed.
âHere, câmon, let âem through,â 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 â 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 beastâs 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. âSacred one,â 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. âPlease, bless the child,â she said. âGive him Gryphusâ grace.â
The griffin stared at her, then at the giggling Erian. âKaa kee ach,â Â it rasped.
âHe said no,â a voice translated helpfully.
Kella took a step back. âOh…â
The speaker was a woman. She wore simple but well-made clothes â 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. âMy Lady.â
The woman smiled indulgently. âNo need for that. Can I help you with anything?â
âNo, IâŚ uhâŚ Iâm sorryâŚâ Kella fought to stop Erian from escaping, and pulled herself together. âHave you come from Eagleholm, my Lady?â
âI have. Donât worry; weâre just here on a routine visit. Now, if youâll excuse me-,â
âDo yâknow Lord Rannagon?â Kella dared to interrupt.
The griffiner stared at her. âWhat?â
âDâyer know Lord Rannagon, my Lady?â
âI do. What of it?â
Kellaâs heart fluttered, as she held Erian forward. âThis is his son.â
The griffiner started, stared again, and then glared. âWhat? What are you talking about?â
âPlease, Iâm telling the truth, my Lady,â said Kella. âMy daughter, BelaraâŚ she was a tavern maid here at Carrick. Lord Rannagon stayed here on his way home from the war, andâŚ Belara had his son after heâd left.â
The griffinerâs eyes had narrowed, and she folded her arms. âWhy are you telling me this?â
Kella backed off a step. âIâm sorry, I onlyâŚ thought if maybe yâknew him, that heâd like tâknow.â She made herself smile. âHe looks just like his daddy, they say.â
âThankyou,â the griffiner snapped. âIâll be certain to pass that on when I get back.â
The anger in the womanâs voice scared Kella. âThanks, my Lady. IâllâŚ uhâŚâ 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.
âKaelyn!â he smiled. âYouâll never guess whatâŚâ he trailed off, as he saw the look on her face. âIs something wrong?â
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. âUhâŚ how was Carrick?â
âVery nice,â she said, through clenched teeth. âThe villagers were pleased to see us.â
âWhatâs wrong, then?â
âOh, nothing.â She paused, and gritted her teeth. âBut I was a little surprised when I was in the square and some old woman came over to show me her grandson.â
Rannagon frowned. âWanted Laakee to bless him, did she?â
âYes, but she wanted to talk to me too. Asked me if I knew you. She wanted me to bring you a message.â
âWhat? What about?â Rannagon felt the familiar old stirring of guilt in his chest.
âAbout her grandson,â said Kaelyn. âAnd why he just so happens to look exactly like you.â
âWhat?â Rannagonâs jaw dropped.
His wife folded her arms. âDoesnât ring a bell? Having trouble remembering? Carrick? After the war? A certain barmaid who caught your fancy?â
At that, Kaelynâs faĂ§ade cracked and she let out a sob. âRannagon, how could you?â
He came toward her. âKaelyn, Iâm so sorryâŚ I didnât thinkâŚâ
âDidnât think what? Didnât think Iâd ever find out?â
âKaelyn, listen. Please just listen. Youâre scaring Flell.â
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. âFine. Talk.â
Rannagon sat down beside her, his head in his hands. âAfter the war, I was exhausted. I couldnât 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 afraidâŚâ
âOf what?â said Kaelyn, softening very slightly.
âThat you wouldnât be here,â said Rannagon. âOr that youâd be here, but it wouldnât be me who came home to you. After what happened I thought Iâd never be able toâŚ I donât know, to live again.â He tugged at his beard, and grimaced. âI 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 girlâŚ a serving girl. She kept bringing me more drinkâŚ I know I had too much of it. I was so desperate to escape. And when she showed me up to my room, she justâŚâ
Kaelyn bit back another sob, that shuddered through her. But her voice was harsh. âJust what? Fell for your lordly charms?â
âNo,â said Rannagon, too sharply. âShe came after me. Threw herself at me. I couldnât help it.â
âHah.â Kaelyn spat the word.
He reached out to touch her, and stopped. âI needed to be comforted. That was all.â
âBut I was there to comfort you.â Her voice broke. âI was there, Rannagon. Why didnât you let me?â
âI did.â Rannagon put his arm around her, and held her tight. âI came home and you were there waiting for me, and I knew what happened in Carrick was never what Iâd needed. What I needed was you. It still is. It always will be.â
She resisted, but gave in and leaned against him. âYou still have a son, Rannagon. A little blond-haired bastard in Carrick.â
âI made a mistake.â
âYes, a mistake thatâs made you a father. What are you going to do about it?â
âDo I have to do anything?â
âYou tell me,â Kaelyn said frostily. âHeâs your son.â
Rannagon put a hand on Flellâs head. âOur daughter is my only child,â he said, but it didnât sound as firm as he meant it to.
âYour barmaid would say something different,â 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 â and Flell, too. His daughter was the greatest joy in his life â how could he embarrass her in her future life by admitting to this other childâŚ this bastard in Carrick? No. He couldnât 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 couldnât 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 sheâd seduced a drunken griffiner? Or had she pretended that her former lover was someone elseâŚ her husband, perhaps?
Rannagon tried to picture the boyâs 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 â he didnât need his philandering father to show up and interfere.
But what if he needs me?
No matter what he did, Rannagon couldnât 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 wifeâs 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 Kaelynâs 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 heâd 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 ifâŚ?
When morning finally came, Rannagon got out of bed with the certainty hard in his mind. Iâll go to Carrick, he told himself as he pulled on his boots. Just a quick visit. Just to see him. Just to make sure heâs all right. I made him fatherless; this is the least I can do for him. I donât 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. âWhat shall you do today?â Shoa found his work boring, and spent most of her time flying about the city with the other griffins â only staying close to him when he presided over a case.
Rannagon did his best to look casual. âI thought we might do something together today. Just for a change.â
Shoa cocked her head. âYes?â
She sounded interested, and Rannagon took heart. âItâs been such a long time since weâve gone anywhere together.â
âA flight would be a pleasure,â Shoa admitted. âWhere would you like to go?â
âI was thinking of going to Carrick,â said Rannagon. âWe can say weâre just visiting the reeve there. Itâs a nice place, and we havenât been there since the war.â
âShreeeeeeâŚâ Shoa trilled throughtfully. âI remember it. I would enjoy going among common humans again. Their reverence is amusing.â
âAnd itâs not too far away â we could go there and back in less than a day.â
She considered it. âVery well then. I have been bored and shall enjoy a change.â
âPerfect.â Rannagon smiled his relief. âWeâll just have to stop at the Eyrie to let our underlings know where weâre going, and then we can be off.â
Shoa yawned. âYes. Get my harness and we shall go.â
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 villageâs 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 couldnât enjoy the idyll around them. His chest was tight with anxiety, and the moment he saw the reeve he strode toward him.
The reeveâs 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.
Rannagon nodded to him. âHow are things going here, Artan? Anything to report?â
âNot really, my Lord. We had a theft last week, but I dealt with it myself.â
âGood. Is that all?â
Artan looked doubtful. âI think so, but if you want to come to my office and look over the papersâŚâ
âIâm sure that wonât be necessary. Shoa and I are just here for pleasure.â
âFelt like getting out of the city, eh?â Artan smiled knowingly.
Rannagon shrugged. âIt gets hectic. Donât let me keep you.â
âI had some things I was going to send over your way,â Artan added, âIf you donât mind I can go and get them now â you can take them with you.â
âOf course. Meet me back here later â weâre not in a hurry.â
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. âGryphus!â
Rannagon didnât smile. âNo, just another man. Youâre the tavern owner?â
âYeah, I am, my Lord. Dermotâs me name. Iâm sorry IâŚ just seeinâ yer againâŚâ
âYou remember me, then.â
âYouâd be Lord Rannagon, milord,â said Dermot. âYâwere here a few years back.â
âI was.â Rannagon steeled himself. âIâm looking for someone. The girl who was working at your tavern.â
âOh, her, milord? Sheâs long gone.â
Rannagon blinked. âGone? What, dead?â
âNo, milord. Ran off with a peddler, milord. Moreân a year back.â
âBut she had a son, didnât she?â said Rannagon.
There was a knowing gleam in Dermotâs eye. âThat she did, milord.â
âWhere is he?â said Rannagon, feeling sick.
âLeft him with his grandparents, milord.â
âWhere are they? Do they live here?â
Dermot pointed. âOver that way, milord â just on the edge of the village. Old Camlin anâ his wife Kella. Theyâve got the farm with the two cows thethered out front. Easy tâfind, milord.â
âThankyou.â Rannagon nodded curtly and turned away.
Heâd hoped to find the boy out of Shoaâs sight, but she came to meet him as he walked through the village. âThere you are. You were not thinking of leaving without me?â
âNot at all. I just didnât want to interrupt. You looked like you were having so much fun.â
She chirped. âI did not want to stay long when the priest came. His kind irritate me.â
âWhat did he want?â
âMy blessing, for his little nest,â Shoa tossed her head dismissively. âLittle words in the name of this human vanity called Gryphus.â
âIt would have made people happy,â Rannagon said. âIf you just played along with it.â
âI have no time for such nonsense,â said Shoa. She flicked her wing. âThere is no being in this world more mighty and powerful than a griffin.â
Rannagon couldnât help but argue. âMaybe, but in the next world-,â
âThere is no other world.â Shoa hissed. âFoolery! Where are you going?â
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. âThereâs a farm just outside the village I want to visit.â
âArtan told me about some problem there,â said Rannagon. âIt shouldnât take long.â
âIs that all?â she sounded bored already.
âYou donât have to come,â Rannagon added. âIf youâd rather go backâŚâ
She put her head down. âI shall come.â
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 heâd 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. âMy Lord!â
âYouâre Camlin?â Rannagon said shortly.
The man glanced up. âYes, my Lord. Itâs such an honour tâhave yer here, mighty griffin,â he added, to Shoa, looking at her with real reverence.
âA worthy man,â she remarked at once. âTell him to bring me food.â
âGet up,â Rannagon told him. âPlease.â
âWhatever yâwant, milord, itâs yours,â Camlin said as he straightened up.
âShoa wants food, if you have anything,â said Rannagon. âI wouldnât mind a bite of something myself, actually.â
âAt once, milord. Iâll go anâ fetch the wife.â Camlin almost ran into the house.
Rannagon and Shoa trailed after him â 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. âFor you, mighty griffin. I hope itâs all rightâŚâ
Shoa snatched it out of his hands and tore it to shreds in a moment, not bothering to say anything at all.
âI think she likes it.â Rannagon chuckled.
Camlin relaxed. âThe wifeâs just gettinâ somethinâ for you, milord, if yâdonât mind waitinâ.â
âNot at all. My nameâs Rannagon, by the way.â
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 childâs head â 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.
âMy Lord.â The woman pulled up short, eyeing him carefully.
Rannagon sized her up. She was her husbandâs age, kind-looking but rather bland, and her manner toward the child was warm and protective. She gave him a cautious smile. âLord Rannagon?â
Rannagonâs eyes were on the child. âYes. I heardâŚâ
âMy daughter said you were the father, milord,â the woman said.
Rannagon didnât know what heâd been planning to do, or if heâd planned anything at all. But anything and everything he had thought was certain before stopped being certain when he looked at the childâŚ this son he hadnât known he had.
Maybe if the boy had looked different, it wouldnât have been like this. If heâd 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 Rannagonâs own already that it made his his heart ache.
Unable to stop himself â ignoring the looming Shoa altogether â Rannagon knelt and held out a hand. âHello.â
The boy drew back.
Rannagon glanced up at the woman. âWhatâs his name?â
âWe call him Erian, milord.â
Rannagonâs face creased in a smile, and he put his hand on the childâs shoulder. âHello, Erian. Iâm your father.â
Erian hid behind his foster-mother.
Rannagon stood up. âHeâs my son. I can already see it. Why didnât anyone tell me?â
Kella shifted. âBell â his mother always believed as youâd come back, milord. When she left she said she was goinâ tâEagleholm. Said she was gonna find yer â tell yer the truth.â
Rannagonâs mind raced. âI never saw her.â
Kellaâs face fell. âThat was moreân two years ago. We never saw her again. The boy thinks Iâm his mother now â I donât mind.â
âYouâre raising him, then?â
âYes, milord. Heâs a sweet boy. We all love him.â
âGood.â Rannagon glanced at the bewildered Shoa. âIâllâŚ I wanted to see him. Just to make sure he was all right. Here.â He fumbled with his belt, and handed over a small bag of oblong. âMake sure he doesnât want for anything.â
Kella accepted it, wide-eyed. âOf course, milord.â
Rannagon glanced at Shoa. âIâll come back every so often. To keep an eye on him.â
Shoa lumbered closer, clearly upset now. âWhat is this?â she peered at the boy. âWhat is this little one?â
Rannagon moved, subtly putting himself between Shoa and the boy. âItâs not important. Iâm finished here â we can leave when youâre ready.â
The yellow griffin huffed and loped away. Rannagon paused to cast one last glance at his son. âIâll come back, Erian,â he called. âI promise. Donât forget me.â
âWhat business was that?â Shoa demanded as they left. âWhy did you give gold to that female? Why so interested in the little one?â
Rannagon saw no point in lying about it. âThat was my son.â
Shoa stopped. âYour son?â
âYes. His nameâs Erian.â
âI did not know you had a son.â Her blue eyes narrowed. âHe had your coat, and something of your smell. I was confused.â
âI didnât know I had a son either,â said Rannagon. âNot until recently. You remember when we came here last, donât you?â
âYes.â Shoa resumed walking. âAnd you fathered this one then?â
âYes.â Rannagon closed his eyes briefly, fighting the shame.
Shoa appeared to consider it for a while. âThat is no surprise,â she said at length. âYou were a returning hero â a great fighter. Female humans would have been chirping to mate with you.â
Rannagon looked at her in surprise. âYou donât mind?â
âTo fertilise many eggs is good for a male,â said Shoa. âThe strongest take many females â it is a sign of great strength.â
Rannagon had to laugh. âI didnât think youâd be like this. I thought youâd be angry.â
âWhy should I be angry? You have done nothing wrong.â
âKaelyn was angry,â Rannagon said softly. âTo her, I did do something wrong.â
âYou were not mated to her then,â said Shoa. âWhat does it matter?â
âI was promised to her. I betrayed her. I fathered aâŚ a bastard.â
Shoa knew about this particular human belief. âSuch nonsense! What is one more chick?â
âItâs complicated. And Riona wonât be pleased either. If she finds out.â
Shoa stopped at that. âRiona?â
âNobody at the Eyrie would be pleased. Itâs an embarrassment, Shoa. A noble like me â a high official â is supposed to be honourable.â
âThat would hurt our chance to rule the Eyrie,â Shoa surmised at once.
âYes, it would.â
They walked in silence for a while.
âYou must not let them know,â Shoa said eventually. âThis one â this bastard â must be a secret from them. If he is here and they are there, it would not be hard.â
âI agreed. But I want to keep on visiting him. Just every so often.â
âWhy?â said Shoa.
âHeâs my responsibility,â said Rannagon. âI canât just leave my son here and let his grandparents carry the load. I fathered him â I made him. I have to do something, at least.â He gave Shoa an appealing look.
She huffed. âI 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.â
âAll right.â Rannagon breathed a sigh. âThankyou, Shoa.â
And we wonât tell Kaelyn about it, he added silently. She wouldnât 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 didnât quite understand why he came. The visitor would look at him and ask him questions â 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 â Erian liked those visits best. A wooden griffin. A new tunic to match his eyes. A shiny medal.
The small boy didnât 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 didnât get visitors like he did. Especially not visitors who had a griffin for a friend.
Shoa fascinated Erian, though he wasnât quite brave enough to go close to her. She wouldnât 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 didnât know what it meant, but it sounded mysterious and powerful.
One day, when he was six, he asked Mama. âWhere does the beardy man come from?â
She smiled at him. âFrom the big city, Erian. Thatâs where all the griffiners live.â
Erianâs small forehead wrinkled. âWhatâs a griffin-ar?â
âGriffiner. Theyâre the rulers of Cymria. The griffins choose them to lead us.â
âItâs Gryphusâ will,â she told him â which was what she always said when she didnât know the answer to something.
âWhat do griffiners do?â Erian persisted.
She hesitated. âLead. Tell common folk what tâdo. Fight whenever thereâs enemies about.â
Erianâs eyes gleamed â he loved stories about fighting. âDoes he ever fight, Mama?â
Kella sat down and wiped her forehead. âHe did once. Before yâwere born.â
âWhen? Was there monsters?â
âTell me!â Erian demanded.
âNot now; Iâm busy. Later.â
âNow! I donât wanna wait.â He pouted.
Kella stood up. âIâll tell yer while I work, how about that?â
âYeah!â Erian followed her while she went back to folding some clothes.
âThereâs somethinâ you got tâknow, Erian,â Kella began. âNot all men are good.â
âI know. Thereâs bad men who steal things anâ kill people.â
âExactly. Anâ the North is where men like that come from.â
âWhatâs the North?â
âItâs that way.â Kella pointed vaguely. âIn a different part of the country. Itâs cold there. Ice anâ snow, all year âround. Men are different there too. The men of the North are ugly anâ wicked, with black eyes anâ black hair like coal.â
âBad men?â Erian shivered excitedly.
âVery.â Kella put another tunic on the pile. âThey donât live in houses like us; theyâre stupid anâ uncivilised anâ live out in the wild like beasts. They love fightinâ anâ they kill each other all the time, whenever they feel like it. They never bathe anâ they wear nothinâ but furs anâ paint on their skins. They donât have temples; they build big stone circles instead, anâ they take babies into them at night anâ kill them.â
Erian looked shocked. âDoesnât Gryphus tell âem not to? He makes people good.â
Kella shook her head grimly. âThey canât hear Gryphusâ voice. They donât worship him â theyâre not his chosen people like we are.â
âWhat do they worship, then?â
âThey belong to the evil Night God.â
Erianâs face lit up. âI know about her. Sheâs Scathach. The priest told me. He said sheâs only got one eye anâ sheâs Gryphusâ emâŚ emiâŚ emninny.â
âEnemy. Thatâs right.â Kellaâs eyes creased. âThey say she and Gryphus fought, way back in the beginning of the world. Anâ she chose the evillest humans tâbe her followers. The Northerners.â
âThey wonât ever come here, will they?â Erian asked.
âNo. Donât worry, Erian â they canât come here. Weâve got the griffiners tâprotect us here.â
âIs that what the beardy man does?â Erian sounded excited.
âHe did once. Like I said.â
âHe doesnât any more?â
âThere was a war,â Kella explained. âBefore yâwere born. The Northerners tried tâtake over. Lord Rannagon anâ the other griffiners went to the North tâstop âem gettinâ through the mountains.â
âWas there fighting?â
âLots. Went on for years, it did. Anâ it ended thanks tâLord Rannagon.â
âDid he kill them all?â said Erian.
âThe Northerners had a leader,â said Kella. âA woman even more vicious than the rest of âem. She had an evil griffin, helpinâ her. Well Lord Rannagon fought them both. He killed the leader,Â anâ the other Northerners didnât want tâfight after that.â
Erianâs eyes shone. âReally?â
âReally. Lord Rannagonâs a hero, little lord. He saved us all from those scum, anâ donât you ever forget that.â
Erian didnât, and from that moment on the beardy man became an even more mystical figure in his mind.
Rannagon didnât visit again until shortly after Erianâs 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. âItâs a sword!â
Rannagon smiled as he offered it up. âHappy Birthday.â
Erian took it, almost reverentially, and ran his fingers over the wooden blade. âWhyâs it not made out of metal?â
âItâs a training sword,â said Rannagon. âThereâs metal inside to make it heavier. Be careful with it; itâs not a toy. Donât go playing with it.â
âWhatâs it for, then?â Erian asked, with a touch of resentment.
âTraining,â said Rannagon. âIâve spoken to Artan and heâs promised to start teaching you.â
âI donât like teaching,â Erian scowled.
Rannagon smiled. âBut what if you were being taught how to fight?â
Erian blinked at him. âLike with a sword?â
âLike a griffiner?â
âYes.â Rannagon stood up. âLike me.â 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. âI want a sword like that. Please can I have one?â
Rannagon chuckled and put it away. âOne day, maybe. First you have to learn.â
Erian gripped his own wooden sword tightly. âI will.â
âSee you do what Artan tells you, then. You have to work hard, and he can help you.â
âI promise,â said Erian.
âHeâs going to teach you other things as well,â said Rannagon. âSome of them will be hard, but I know youâre clever enough to learn them.â
âI can do it,â Erian said at once.
âThatâs my boy. I know you can do it. Youâre special.â
Erian beamed. âIs that why you come see me? âcause Iâm special?â
âYes. I want you to know everything I know, Erian, because-,â
Rannagon hesitated. âHas yourâŚ mother told you who I am?â
âShe says as youâre a griffiner,â said Erian. âShe says youâre a hero anâ you fought evil Northerners.â
âIâm your father, Erian. I thought you knew.â
Erian looked confused. âBut Daâs my fatherâŚâ
âHeâs your grandfather,â Rannagon corrected. âIâm your father.â
âNo youâre not. I donât believe you.â
Rannagon smiled and ruffled Erianâs hair. âLook into the water one day, or on anything shiny. You look more like me every day. Now, I should go.â
Erian dropped the wooden sword. âYouâre not my father,â he said. âFathers live with their sons.â
Rannagon was already leaving, backing away toward Shoa. âIâm sorry, I want to stay, but-,â
Erian went after him, red-faced. âYou donât live with me!â he yelled. âYouâre not my father! Youâre not!â
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.
âWhatâs this?â Camlin called. âWhatâre yâdoinâ up here, boy?â
Camlin sighed and hauled himself up into the hayloft, crouching to fit. âAre yâupset that Lord Rannagon left?â
âNo,â Erian snapped. âGo away.â
âWhat is it, then? Câmon, tell me.â
âDid he give yer that?â said Camlin, indicating the sword. âThatâs lucky! He said heâs got old Artan tâteach yer how to use it, too.â
âThatâs very special, yâknow,â Camlin went on. âOnly noblemensâ sons get tâlearn swords. He did that just for you.â
Erian looked up at last. There were tears on his face. âI hate him! Heâs a liar!â
Camlin took him by the shoulder. âWhat dâyer mean? Whatâd he lie about?â
âHe said he was my dad!â
âHeâs not!â Erian said fiercely. âYou are. Everyone lives with their Da. I live with you.â
âStop that,â said Camlin. âErian, stop it now.â
âHeâs not my father.â
âHe is,â said Camlin.
Erian stared, and then scowled. âNo heâs not.â
âHeâs yer father, Erian. Thatâs why he comes to see you. Iâm yer grandfather, anâ Kellaâs yer grandmother.â
âThen whereâs my mother?â Erian demanded.
âShe died,â Camlin lied. âYouâd be too young târemember.â
Erian looked blank, as if he couldnât take this in. âIs that why I donât live with him?â
âNo.â Camlin decided to try a different tack. âWhatâs the matter, Erian? Donât yâwant him tâbe yer father? You oughta be proud. Not everyone has a griffiner for a father, especially not a great hero like Lord Rannagon. Anâ he cares about yer so much heâs made it so yâcan learn swordplay anâ that. Arenât yer happy about that?â
âBut why donât I live with him? Why am I here? Why doesnât he stay?â
Camlin didnât know what to say, and the hesitation only upset the boy even further.
Erianâs blue eyes filled with tears. âIs there something wrong with me?â
âNo. No, Erian. Stop that. Câmon.â Camlin lifted him into his arms. âThatâs enough of that. Letâs go inside anâ see if the wife has anythinâ nice for dinner.â
Erian clung to him on the way back, still shuddering with small sobs every so often.
Kella was all concern when they arrived. âOh no, whatâs happened? Here, let Mama help.â
When Erian found himself on her lap, he took that as a cue and cried harder. âYouâre not my Mama. Sheâs dead! Anâ my real Da doesnât even like me.â
âHush.â Kella stroked his hair. âDonât cry. Come now, itâs all right.â
âHe went away! Why doesnât he like me?â
âHe does like you, Erian. He brings you presents, doesnât he?â
Erian quietened eventually, but he still looked miserable. âIf he liked me heâd stay,â he mumbled into his grandmotherâs 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 grandmotherâs side to Artanâs home in the middle of the village. The wooden sword came too, clutched in its ownerâs hand.
Artan was in his fifties, and his reddish hair was shot through with grey. He greeted Erian rather stiffly. âSo hereâs the little lord, come for his first lesson.â
The previous dayâs upset apparently forgotten, Erian nodded enthusiastically and waved the wooden sword.
âPut that down before you poke someoneâs eye out. Itâs not a toy.â
âI know that,â Erian scowled.
âYou can go,â Artan said aside to Kella. âLeave him with me.â
She looked a little uncertain, but let go of Erianâs hand and began to walk away. He looked anxiously after her, but turned back to the sound of Artanâs voice.
âSheâll come back, boy. In the meantime, letâs get started.â
Erian brightened. âAre you gonna show me swords now?â
âNo. Come inside.â
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. âKeep your hands off that!â
Erian reached for it. âI just wanna see!â
âItâs a book,â Artan huffed, putting it back on the shelf. âNo use to you since you canât read.â
âYouâll find out. Now come over here and sit down.â
Remembering his promises to do as he was told, Erian wandered over to the fireplace, dragging his sword on the ground. When heâd 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. âThatâs mine!â
âYou donât need it now. Sit down.â
âGive it back! Itâs mine!â
âI said you donât need it.â
âSit down.â Artan said it in a hard, sharp way, like Camlin did when he was angry.
Erian sat, resentfully. âI just wanna hold itâŚâ
âBe quiet and listen. You have to remember what Iâm about to tell you. Today Iâm going to teach you some special words, and you have to learn how to say them. Are you listening?â
âGood. Listen, and repeat.â Artan cleared his throat. ââKran ae.ââ
âCranny,â Erian tried.
ââKran aeâ. Try again.â
Erian tried, repeating the strange sounds until Artan seemed satisfied.
âVery good. Kran ae means âmanâ.â
ââKran ae means âmanââ,â Erian said dutifully.
âExactly. Now for the next word. Repeat after me. âEe ka yeeâ.â
This time Erian got it right a little faster. âWhat does that one mean?â
âIt means âeye of the dayâ,â said Artan.
âThe sun, of course.â
âThe sun is Gryphusâ eye,â said Erian, and grinned proudly.
âSo it is. Now the next wordâŚâ
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 âtreeâ, and âswordâ, and âskyâ, each one harsh and odd.
âYouâre picking this up faster than I thought you would,â Artan said eventually. âWell done. Now I want you to keep repeating those words when you go home. Say them in your head. When you come tomorrow, Iâm going to ask you to say them all to me, and if you get them right Iâll give you a present.â
âI can do it,â Erian said at once.
âGood. Now thatâs done, we can move on.â 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. âPlaying at swords with Rannagonâs bastard. What a joke.â
The start of the lessons with Artan marked a change in Erianâs life â and in Erian himself. He threw himself into the work, particularly the swordplay; practisicing diligently every evening as instructed. He didnât enjoy the new words he had to learn as much, but he memorised them faithfully anyway, and even began using them around the house.
âThatâs a kran ran kan,â he announced one day, pointing at one of his grandfatherâs cows.
Camlin gave him a bemused look. âHowâs that again?â
âItâs a kran ran kan,â Erian repeated.
âWhatâs that mean?â
âBig hoof beast,â Erian said proudly.
âIs that so? Made that up, did yer?â
âNo, Artan taught me.â
Camlin looked interested. âWhat language is that?â
âYeah. Them words ainât Cymrian, thatâs for sure.â
âI dunno,â said Erian. âHe just said I had to know them.â
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, âArtan, whatâre these words for? Da said they was a language.â
âAre a language,â Artan corrected.
âAre a language. What language?â
Artan raised an eyebrow. âItâs griffish, boy. Didnât you know that?â
âGriffâŚish? Like griffin?â
âYes. Griffish is what griffins speak, and if you know it you can talk to them. Your father wanted you to learn it.â
âWhy?â said Erian.
The old man gave him a rather unfriendly look. âBecause all griffiners teach their children how to speak griffish.â
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. âGuess what?â
She laughed to see him so excited. âWhat is it?â
Erian lifted his chin. âIâm learninââŚ learning griffish. Artan says my father wanted me to âcause Iâm his son. Everyone whoâs a griffinerâs son learns griffish. Iâm learning.â
Kella gave him a kiss on the forehead. âWell done, Erian. Iâm proud of yer. Anâ yâfather will be too when he comes again. Yâcan say hello to him like a griffiner!â
âI will, anââŚ and heâll see how clever I am,â Erian announced.
Months passed without any sign of Rannagonâs return, but Erian didnât 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 didnât made him special â how being Rannagonâs son made him special. They all knew who his father was, too; even if they hadnât known it before he talked about it all the time now.
âMy fatherâs a hero,â he said, more than once. âHe fought the wicked darkmen in the wars anâ killed a thousand of them all by himself. He can snap trees with just his hands. Heâs got a magic sword, too!â
The other children listened, with fascination.
âAnââŚ and heâs got a griffin that he rides,â Erian added. âSheâs got golden feathers anââŚ and sheâs calledâŚ uhâŚ Sunlight.â
âMy ma says sheâs called Shoa,â one boy said.
âSheâs not. Sheâs called Sunlight, anâ youâre stupid. When my father comes back heâll tell you.â
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 Shoaâs 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 â promising a strong and stocky man to come. The hair had thickened and darkened, until the shade nearly matched Rannagonâs own, and in the strengthening jaw and flared nostrils Rannagon saw his sonâs face begin to mirror that of his father.
âErian?â 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.
âYee a ka-ee kree,â Erian said, breaking the silence.
Rannagon gaped, and then smiled. âYouâre learning.â
âI am, Father.â
âIs Artan a good teacher for you?â
âYes. He says Iâm nearly as good with a sword as you are.â
He was losing the rough accents of a peasant, Rannagon noticed. âSwordfighting runs in our family, Erian. Iâm not surprised. And youâre learning griffish well, I see.â
âIâm good at that, too.â There was a hint of desperation in Erianâs voice. âPlease donât go, Father.â
âI can stay for a little while,â said Rannagon. âShall we go for a walk?â
âYes please. I want to show you where I practise.â
âShow me, then. Iâd like to see.â
They walked away side-by-side. Shoa, looking up from the cowsâ 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 couldnât help but notice the marks on some of the trees.
âThis is where I practise,â Erian said, eagerly running ahead to show him. âSee? Sometimes I use a stick instead, but yesterday I hit that branch so hard it broke off! I come here all the time, âcause I want to get good.â
âYes, I see.â Rannagon chuckled indulgently. âWell done.â
Erian turned to give him a reproachful look. âYou were gone a long, long time.â
âI was waiting for you.â
âIâm sorry, Erian. But I have very important work that I have to do back at Eagleholm. Itâs getting harder to find time, and my wifeâŚâ
âI want to go back with you.â
The boyâs fists clenched. âIâm your son. I should be with you.â
âThis is your home,â Rannagon said firmly.
âMy home is with you! Itâs not fair! Why canât I go there?â
âBecauseâŚâ Rannagon trailed off.
The old fear rose up in Erian again. âIs there something wrong with me? Did I do something wrong? Is that why I canât be with you?â
âNo!â Rannagon spoke sharply. âThereâs nothing wrong with you at all. Donât be like that.â
âWhy, then? Why? Tell me!â
âCome on,â said Rannagon. âWalk with me. Itâs time I told you this.â
Erian stuck close to his fatherâs side. His heart was pounding. To be so close to him again after so long, when heâd begun to think he might never come backâŚ
âIâm married, Erian,â Rannagon said. âAnd I love my wife very much. We have a daughter together, and I love her too.â
Erianâs heart sank. âYouâve got a daughter?â
âYes.â Rannagon smiled. âHer nameâs Flell. Sheâs your sister, Erian.â
âIâve got a sister?â Erianâs surprised delight quickly turned to anger. âShe gets to live with you.â
âBecause Iâm married to her mother,â said Rannagon, putting emphasis on each word.
âNo. I wasnât 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 didnât even know you existed until you were three years old.â
Erian looked bewildered. âBut fathers are married to mothers.â
âNot always, Erian. A man can be a father without being married.â
Rannagonâs shoulders hunched, and he stared at his boots as they walked. âMy wife doesnât like me coming here to see you. She doesnât like it that I had you with another woman. It makes her sad and angry.â
âYouâll understand when youâre older. She doesnât like me coming here, but she forgives me for it. But only while youâre here. If I took you back to Eagleholm with me, it would break her heart. Sheâd hate me forever.â
Erian looked about to cry. âThen there is something wrong with me.â
âItâs not your fault, Erian. Itâs my fault, so blame me. Iâve done all I could do for you, but nothing will ever take away what I did wrong.â
âI canât blame you,â said Erian, his voice high with emotion. âYouâre a hero. Iâm just aâŚâ
Rannagon put a hand on his shoulder. âEven heroes do the wrong thing sometimes.â
âNo they donât!â Erian almost yelled. âYouâll never do anything wrong. Never ever ever.â
ââcause youâre my father.â Erian angrily wiped his tears away.
âI really am sorry,â Rannagon said eventually. âIf I could, Iâd take you to Eagleholm. But I canât. But I promise Iâll visit you much more often.â
That seemed to cheer the boy up a little. âIâm gonna keep practising,â he said. âWhile youâre gone. Iâll be the best swordsman there ever was, youâll see. Iâll show you.â
âI believe you,â Rannagon said solemnly. âYou can do it.â
âIâm gonna be a hero one day,â said Erian. He pulled a fierce expression. âThen I can live wherever I want.â
Rannagon nodded vaguely.
âIâm gonna be a hero one day,â Erian repeated. âLike you.â
For some reason, the words gave Rannagon a chill.
The rest of Erianâs childhood passed into a dream of swords and heroism, and his fatherâs 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 â as Rannagon noticed during his continuing visits. He grew to have this fatherâs 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 âLord Bastardâ, and some of his peers â now young adults themselves â 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 Erianâs seventeenth birthday, he went to see his mentor for their customary morning lesson.
Artan greeted him with a smile. âHappy Birthday, lad.â
Erian grinned and rubbed a hand through his hair. âSeventeen. That means I mustâve been coming here for exactly ten years. We started on my seventh birthday, didnât we?â
âClose enough. So, get any presents?â
âJust a new tunic. The old one had practically had it. And my grandfather made me a belt. See?â
âOoh, very nice. So, ready to begin?â
âAs always,â said Erian, using griffish.
âWell done. That pronounciationâs getting better.â
Erian worked hard during the lesson, as he usually did, but he seemed distracted â sometimes sighing and staring at his hands.
âI think thatâs about enough,â Artan said when they were done. âReady to move on?â
Erian fixed him with a stare. âArtan,â he said, in griffish, âThereâs something Iâve always wanted to know.â
âHow do you know all this? I mean, youâre just the local reeveâŚ youâre not a Lord or anything as far as I know. How did you learn griffish?â
âBecause Iâm a griffiner, of course.â
âWait, youâre a griffiner? But-,â
âOr I was a griffiner,â Artan said gruffly.
âIâŚ oh.â Erian looked embarrassed. âCan I ask what happened?â
âI used to live up at Eagleholm,â said Artan. âI 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 â Rannagonâs father.â
âMy griffin died,â said Artan, matter-of-factly. âThe sneezing sickness went through the whole city one winter, and some griffins just didnât survive.â
âArtan, Iâm so sorry.â
The old man shrugged. âIt was before you were even born. Anyway, you canât be a griffiner without a griffin, and I didnât 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.â
âSo thatâs how my father knew you could teach me,â Erian concluded.
âExactly. Youâve been a good student, Erian. You remind me of your father all the time.â
Erian preened. âEveryone says that. He says it too. The last time he was here he said âby Gryphus, Iâm looking at my old selfâ.â
Artan cackled. âHe was. Trust me. AnywayâŚâ he stood up. âReady to make a start on swordplay?â
Erian stood too. âThat was our last lesson, Artan.â
The old manâs face fell. âWhy quit now? Did something happen?â
âLeaving what? Leaving here?â
âYes.â Erian smoothed down his tunic. âIâm leaving home today.â
âWhy? Where are you going?â
âEagleholm. To my father.â
âNo.â Artan shook his head. âNo, no, no. Donât do it, Erian.â
Erian set his jaw. âIâve made up my mind, Artan. Iâve been planning this all my life and no-oneâs going to stop me now.â
âBut why? Whatâs the point? What dâyou expect to find there?â
âMy father hasnât come to see me in nearly six months,â said Erian. âThe last time he were here, he said he wasnât coming back again. Now itâs time for me to go to him.â
âHe wonât welcome you.â
âI donât care.â Erian put his hands on his hips. âIâm not staying here. Carrick wasnât meant to be my home. It was just a place to grow up. I was meant for greater things than a farmerâs life.â
âWhat greater things?â
Erianâs eyes gleamed. âI was born to be a griffiner.â
âI was trained for it,â Erian interrupted. âThis is what my father always meant to happen. This is why he asked you to teach me. He knew.â He spoke in the low voice of a fanatic.
âThis is ridiculous,â Artan said quietly. âYou canât expect-,â
âI can.â Erian drew himself up. âIâm Lord Rannagonâs son.â
âYouâre Lord Rannagonâs bastard.â
âThat doesnât matter!â Erian snapped.
âYes it does! Griffins donât choose just anyone, boy. They demand the best humans they can find.â
âAnd I am the best,â said Erian. âIâm Lord Rannagonâs son. I know griffish, I know how to fight.â
âIt wonât be enough.â
âYes it will.â Erian folded his arms. âSomewhere in Eagleholm thereâs a griffin waiting for me, and thatâs where Iâm going.â
Artan threw up his hands. âFine! Do what you want to do, but donât blame me when it goes wrong.â
âI wonât.â Erian bowed stiffly and walked out of the house.
Artan watched him go. From behind, he could have been Lord Rannagon himself.
âGo on, then, you idiot,â the old man muttered. âBut thereâs only one griffin in Eagleholm mad enough to choose you, and sheâs already chosen someone even lower than you.â