The Death of a City

Roland remembered the last days of Eagleholm all too well, but if there was one day when it could be said that the once-great city died, he remembered that one most of all. It was the day that Arren Cardockson died.

On the night before that last, awful day, Roland could not sleep. He sat up in the little room at the back of the Hatchery that he called home, and brooded. He knew what had happened was his fault, but he didn’t know what to do. If only…

This was my fault, he thought bitterly. My fault from beginning to end.

After all, it was Roland who had chosen to train the young Northerner as a griffiner. It was Roland who helped him and his partner Eluna stay together. It was Roland who persuaded Lord Rannagon to support the pair of them and help them be accepted by the Eyrie. And when Eluna died and Arren descended into madness, it was Roland who did nothing, Roland who could not see the truth of Rannagon’s betrayal.

Roland who gave the half crazed Northerner a job. Roland who left him alone with the griffin chicks that day.

All his fault.

‘What have I done?’ he mumbled aloud. ‘Gryphus save me, what have I done?’

But the sun god didn’t seem inclined to answer. Roland wouldn’t have blamed him. Why would Gryphus want anything to do with him any more? After all, the legends said that the griffins had been sent to partner with Southerners alone, and if Roland had trained one of the Night God’s followers then he had betrayed Gryphus as well.

‘But I thought I could save him,’ he said now, staring blankly at the candle that burned on the table in front of him. ‘I thought I could make him one of us. I thought…’

The old man lapsed into silence after that, while the guilt and shame of everything that had happened soaked into his very bones. But how could he have predicted that this would happen? He had almost been a father to Arren, and he never in a hundred years would have believed that his former apprentice would go so far as to steal a griffin chick. But Arren had done exactly that, while Roland was away, and now he was going to die for it. Lord Rannagon, Master of Law, had sentenced him to death. Roland had been there to witness the trial, and he had seen the insanity that had taken hold of the young Northerner.

Arren had spat his accusations at Rannagon in front of everyone, and when Rannagon said what everyone thought – that Arren was mad – no-one believed that his claims could be true. And if they were true, who would care? Arren was a Northerner and a petty criminal, disliked by almost everyone in the city. Rannagon was a war hero, brother to Lady Riona the Eyrie Mistress herself.

Roland stood up and wandered distractedly out of the room, into the larger chamber where the griffin chicks slept in their pens.

Keth was there, dozing in the lantern light. She usually guarded the chicks at night, and after Arren had abducted one she had become even more vigilant – she woke up the instant she heard Roland’s footsteps.

The old griffin relaxed again at the sight of him. ‘Roland. Why are you not sleeping?’

‘Can’t,’ Roland mumbled.

‘You blame yourself for what has happened,’ said Keth.

‘I do,’ said Roland. ‘Keth, what am I to do? How can I face Cardock and tell him his son is dead because of me?’

‘It is not your fault,’ said Keth.

‘I left him with those chicks,’ said Roland.

‘We both did,’ said Keth. ‘We trusted him.’

‘But I should have known what he would do,’ said Roland. ‘He wanted to be a griffiner again so badly; it was only a matter of time before he did something stupid.’

‘Yes,’ said Keth. ‘But there was nothing you could have done.’

Roland said nothing.

‘You and I both knew that it was inevitable that those two youngsters would destroy themselves,’ said Keth. ‘It was madness to train them.’

‘I thought I could change him,’ Roland mumbled. ‘I really did. But I was wrong. Now Eluna’s dead, and soon Arren will be too.’ He shook his head. ‘I should try and get some sleep.’

But he got almost none at all, tossing and turning long after he had snuffed out the candle, and he woke up shortly before dawn.

He lay there in the semi-darkness for a long moment, before suddenly making up his mind. He felt lost, and alone, and he didn’t know what to do. There was only one place he could go.

He left the Hatchery alone, not even stopping to think of the chicks who would be needing their morning feed. His assistants could take care of it. For once, Roland would think of himself first.

The streets of the mountaintop city were almost completely silent. A few birds chirped here and there in the eaves, but nobody was stirring. The sun had not yet begun to rise.

Roland walked alone through the deserted streets, making for the centre of the city where the larger buildings stood on the stone of the mountain itself. At the very centre, the Eyrie rose into the sky – a great, round tower with a flat top built for griffins to land. Roland’s griffin partner had died when he was young, and he almost never went into the Eyrie any more. But that wasn’t where he was going. Not today.

Not far from the Eyrie, the city’s great Sun Temple stood. Roland often went there, and he knew that its front doors were never shut.

They were open now, even this early in the day, and he went in through them as the first rays of the sun started to pale the sky. The last of the stars had begun to go out.

The Temple was a round building with a domed roof, and the inside of that dome was one huge round space. At the very centre, the altar stood beneath a rounded window in the ceiling designed to let the sunlight in. Just now there was no sunlight, but the Temple was never dark. Gold lanterns burned on the walls and hung from the ceiling, keeping it lit all night long.

On the altar were the remains of some incense, long since burned to powder, and some withered flowers that had been left as offerings.

Roland went to it, and stopped to look up at the ceiling. It had been covered in gold leaf, as if the inside of the Temple were the inside of the sun.

He sighed to himself and knelt at the altar, silently bowing his head. For a long time he stayed there like that, saying nothing, and only waiting.

After a while, the light brightened in the Temple as the sun rose outside. But still Roland waited, arthritic knees aching. He waited until the light finally touched the altar, and then he began his prayer at last.

‘Gryphus,’ he murmured. ‘Please help me. Forgive me for what I did. I never meant to hurt anyone. I swear to you, I meant it for the best. I’ve only ever tried to help others. Please, Gryphus, I don’t know what to do. Help me. Guide me. Forgive me.’

Saying it aloud made him feel a little better, but the answers he wanted didn’t come to him.

He looked up at the window in the ceiling, where the dawn sun shone. ‘Gryphus, what shall I do? How can I repair the damage I’ve done? I don’t know, I just don’t.’

Still the answer did not come, and Roland sighed and went to sit on one of the cushions that ringed the altar. Maybe if he rested a while, he would be able to see a way forward.

After a while, he dozed.

Footsteps on the floor woke him up. Unmoving, he opened his eyes and stared at the altar.

Someone else was coming to it. He carried a bundle under his arm, and as he moved Roland heard the faint creak of leather armour.

Not wanting to interrupt, Roland stayed where he was, and went unnoticed while the newcomer knelt at the altar. But he couldn’t help but hear the muttered prayer.

‘Gryphus forgive me, what’ve I done? It’s all my fault. Why didn’t I do somethin’?’

And the young guardsman put his head in his hands and shuddered.

Roland watched him for a time, but his heart wouldn’t let him leave the man alone. He got up slowly, wincing as his knees straightened, and limped over. ‘Is there something I can do to help?’ he asked softly.

The man looked up. He was indeed a guard – he wore the red tunic and leather breastplate of Eagleholm’s finest. He looked young, but very strong, burly and bearded. His eyes were brown, and red-rimmed. ‘Who’re you?’ he said, obviously embarrassed by being seen.

‘My name’s Roland,’ said Roland. ‘I’m sorry to interrupt you, but you’re obviously upset, so if there’s anything an old man can do to help…’

‘Roland?’ the man stood up and squinted at him. ‘Wait, I know you. You’re the old man what runs the Hatchery, right?’

‘So I am, lad,’ said Roland. ‘And who might you be?’

The man rubbed his eyes. ‘Captain Branton Redguard.’ He looked up at Roland. ‘You’re the one, right?’ he said. ‘You’re the one what trained Arren t’be a griffiner.’

‘I am,’ Roland said sadly. ‘And I know your name. You’re Bran. Arren’s friend.’

Bran shuddered again. ‘I was. Wouldn’t want t’go puttin’ it about nowadays, though. But what’s it matter any more?’

‘Why?’ asked Roland. ‘He’s still your friend even if he’s in prison, isn’t he?’

Bran looked away. ‘He’s dead.’

Roland froze. ‘What?’

‘Arren’s dead,’ said Bran, shuddering as he suppressed a sob. ‘He died last night, an’… an’ it was my fault.’

Roland put a hand on his shoulder. ‘What happened? Tell me everything. Please.’

So Bran did, in short, terse sentences, as if he were reporting to his superiors. ‘He got out of his cell. Dunno how. Got out of the whole prison. We don’t know how he did that either. He just vanished. Like a ghost. But after that he went to the Arena. He let Darkheart out. The black griffin. Let him out of his cage. He went on a rampage. Killed half a dozen men an’ then flew away. We was investigatin’, an’ we found Arren. Saw him tryin’ to escape. We chased him. Got him to the edge of the city. I… I told him to surrender, an’ he did. I was just gonna arrest him, but Sergeant Danthirk an’ young Toman shot him. He fell off the edge of the city. I tried t’catch him, but it was too late…’ Bran shuddered again. ‘He’s gone. Dead. If I’d just…’

‘What are you going to do?’ Roland asked gently.

Bran held up the bundle of cloth he’d been carrying. It was a black robe with silver fastenings. ‘Arren left this in his cell. I gotta… I gotta go tell his parents what happened. Give ’em this back. It’s the least I can do.’

‘You should,’ said Roland. ‘And I’m sure they’ll forgive you.’

I ain’t gonna forgive me,’ said Bran. ‘I should’ve… he was my best mate. Why didn’t I do somethin’, before it was too late?’

‘Because there was nothing you could do,’ said Roland. ‘There was nothing anyone could do. After Eluna died, it was all over. If it’s any comfort… I think Arren wanted to die.’

Bran shook his head. ‘I didn’t listen to him. None of us did. He told us what Rannagon did, but… I gotta go.’

He turned and shuffled out, head bowed.

Roland watched him go, and felt the same guilt that Bran must have been feeling, and for the same reasons.

Why didn’t we listen?

But if they had, was there anything any of them could have done? Maybe Arren would have been doomed no matter what.

After that, Roland stayed in the Temple, sensing that there might be something else he could do there.

He was right. Not long after Bran had left, another visitor came to the Temple. This one was a woman, and one Roland knew.

‘Flell!’ he called as she entered.

Flell saw him, and ran to him. ‘Oh, Roland,’ she sobbed, throwing herself into his arms.

Roland held her close. ‘Are you all right, Flell?’

‘No.’ Flell let go of him, and fought down her tears. ‘I’ve seen Bran. He said that Arren’s…’

‘Yes,’ said Roland. ‘I know. He told me too.’

‘I should have listened to him,’ said Flell. ‘I should have…’

‘We all should have,’ said Roland. ‘But we didn’t, and now there’s nothing we can do.’

‘I should have saved him,’ said Flell.

When he heard that, Roland finally felt certain. ‘No,’ he said. ‘There was nothing anyone could do. Arren didn’t want to be saved. You saw it. He wouldn’t let anyone help him. He wanted to die.’

‘But I loved him,’ Flell whispered. ‘I thought I did. Oh gods, what have I done?’

‘Did you come here to ask for forgiveness too?’ asked Roland.

‘Yes. I loved Arren, and I abandoned him.’

‘But there’s something else too, isn’t there?’ said Roland.

Flell tensed. ‘I can’t tell you.’

‘Yes you can,’ said Roland. ‘You know you can trust me. If something’s hurting you, then let it go. Or it’ll stay with you and keep hurting you forever.’

Flell sat down by the altar, resting her back against it. ‘I’ve committed a sin. I came here to ask Gryphus to forgive me.’

‘So did I,’ said Roland. ‘So did Bran. If you’d rather not tell me, tell Gryphus.’

And Flell did, softly. So softly that Roland couldn’t make out the words – but he didn’t try to. It was her secret to confess.

But once she had prayed for a little while, Flell began to look a little stronger. She faced Roland again, and told him.

‘I’m pregnant.’

Roland froze. ‘You are?’

‘Yes. I found out a few days ago.’

‘Is it…?’

‘Yes,’ said Flell. ‘It’s Arren’s. But I never told him.’

Roland felt sick. So this was why Flell was in tears. She was carrying a half breed child, and if she ever gave birth to it she would be disgraced forever.

‘Don’t tell anyone,’ he said urgently. ‘Take something to empty your womb, and quickly, before you start showing.’

‘No,’ said Flell. ‘I can’t. You know I can’t.’

‘Flell, you know what will happen if-,’

‘Killing an infant is a worse sin than bedding a Northerner,’ Flell said harshly. ‘I don’t care what happens to me. I’m keeping the child. I’ll find a way to take care of it. If I have to, I’ll leave.’

‘It’s your choice, lass,’ Roland said gravely. ‘But never tell anyone the truth.’

‘I won’t,’ said Flell. She smiled weakly. ‘If it’s a girl, I’ll call her Laela.’

‘And if it’s a boy?’ said Roland.

Flell smiled again, more strongly. ‘I hadn’t thought of that yet. Maybe I’ll call him Roland.’

Roland chuckled. ‘It’s a fine strong name, I’ll give you that.’

Flell hugged him again. ‘Thankyou, Roland. For being here. I…’ She broke off midsentence, and Roland felt her tense.

‘Flell?’ a voice called.

It was Lord Rannagon. He came into the Temple alone, frowning, still wearing the clothes he had had on the day before.

‘Father,’ Flell said coldly. ‘What are you doing here?’

Rannagon came on toward the altar. He wasn’t much younger than Roland, and his once blond hair and beard had gone to grey, but he was still as solid and stocky as his bastard son, Erian, who had come to the Hatchery to introduce himself to the griffins only a day or so ago.

‘Hello Roland,’ he said stiffly. ‘What are you two doing here?’

‘Praying,’ said Roland. ‘What are you doing here, my lord?’

‘I-,’ Rannagon hesitated. ‘I was looking for you, Flell.’

‘I’m fine,’ she said, and stalked out of the Temple.

Roland watched her go. ‘She’s angry with you, Rannagon, and I don’t blame her.’

Rannagon hesitated, but the moment Flell was out of sight he seemed to age ten years. His shoulders sagged. ‘I don’t blame her either.’

Roland shook his head. ‘Why did you do it, old friend? Why? He was no threat to you.’

‘I know,’ Rannagon muttered. ‘I just… found out what happened. He’s dead. I should have seen to it long ago. If I weren’t such a coward, I would have had him assassinated, not… not this.’

‘But why?’ said Roland. ‘What did he ever do to deserve it? Because he was a Northerner? That never bothered you before. You supported him as much as I did.’

‘He was becoming a danger,’ said Rannagon. ‘Getting too ambitious. I’m certain he poisoned old Lord Cyric to become Master of Trade. Not that it’s unheard of for apprentice griffiners to dispose of their Masters for promotion. But Riona was going to put him on the Council, and what then? What then? You tell me, Roland; you’re so wise, aren’t you?’

‘So Riona wanted to put him on the Council,’ said Roland. ‘Why not let her do it?’

‘And have a Northerner in the Eyrie?’ said Rannagon. ‘Half the other Eyries would have seen it as an act of war. Especially Malvern. We should never have let him become a griffiner. You should never have let it happen. I warned you back then, but you wouldn’t listen.’

‘I just don’t understand it,’ said Roland. ‘This isn’t like you, Rannagon. What happened to you? You were the most honourable man I knew. You watched Arren grow up. He looked up to you as a father.’

Rannagon closed his eyes for a moment. ‘I know. But times change, don’t they? People change, and I…’

‘Yes?’ Roland said it as kindly as he could, sensing that Rannagon desperately wanted to tell him the truth.

Rannagon wandered over to the altar. The Temple was still deserted, but soon enough a priest would come in to light fresh incense and replace the flowers.

‘You remember the war, don’t you?’ he said.

‘Against the Northerners,’ said Roland. ‘Of course.’

‘You know, after I killed their leader, our friends in Malvern, they…’ Rannagon rubbed an old scar on his arm. ‘They wanted to make me their new Eyrie Master. I said no. I was tired, I hated the cold, and I wanted to go home. Shoa never forgave me.’

Roland thought of his friend’s yellow feathered partner. She had never been the sort to forgive anything.

‘I promised her that sooner or later I would become Eyrie Master here instead,’ said Rannagon. ‘She believed me, but you and I both know how that turned out. Riona, she-,’

‘What?’ Roland tensed. ‘What happened? Is it because of Erian?’

‘My son?’ said Rannagon. ‘No. She put about that it was the reason – said that because I’d fathered a bastard that meant I couldn’t be trusted. But no. The truth was… she’s mad, Roland.’

‘Her and Arren both, apparently,’ Roland said coldly. ‘How so in her case?’

‘She-,’ Rannagon hesitated. ‘She said that… she wanted to put Arren on the council, and she said that if he proved himself there, she would make him her successor.’

Roland choked. ‘She said that?’

‘Yes,’ said Rannagon. ‘It was insanity. I don’t know if she meant it, or if it was just to taunt me, but Shoa believed her. She believed that Arren would become Eyrie Master instead of me. And from then on, Arren had to die.’

‘But you didn’t believe it, did you?’ said Roland.

‘No,’ said Rannagon. ‘But what did it matter what I thought? She forced me to do what I did. She used her magic on Arren. Cursed him to die. Forced me to send him away, to disgrace him. I had to threaten him when he came back, to keep him quiet about what I’d done. I had to protect myself, didn’t I?’

Roland couldn’t believe what he was hearing. ‘How did she force you? She couldn’t kill you.’

‘No,’ Rannagon said bitterly. ‘She said that if I didn’t do what she wanted, she would kill my son instead. After all, he’s only a bastard peasant – who would care?’

‘So you did what she wanted,’ said Roland. ‘And now Arren and Eluna are both dead.’

‘Yes,’ said Rannagon. ‘And it’s my fault. I should never have let Erian stay here. I should have sent him back to Carrick. I was weak, Roland. I’ve always been weak, just as Shoa says. All I had left was my honour, and now I’ve lost that as well.’

The two of them stood there in silence for a while, Rannagon brooding while Roland tried to digest what he had just heard.

‘It goes without saying that you’ll never mention this to anyone,’ Rannagon said eventually. ‘If you do, Shoa will kill you – or force me to have you arrested. I’ve lost control of her, Roland. A griffiner should be able to stand up to his partner, but I can’t. I’ve grown old and tired, and I wish…’

‘What do you wish, Rannagon?’ Roland asked.

‘I wish I’d never come to the Hatchery,’ said Rannagon. ‘I wish I’d never met Shoa, or become a griffiner. I wish for a thousand things I can’t have, just as Arren did. He’s lucky to be dead – he’s well out of it now.’

Roland touched his old friend on the arm. ‘Is there anything I can do?’

‘No, Roland. There’s nothing anyone can do. Now, I should go. I have to order an enquiry into Arren’s death. As if that will save him now.’

And Rannagon left the Temple as well, head bowed as if the weight of the world were on his shoulders.

Roland watched him go with a heart full of sadness. Later on, when he thought of his old friend, it was that image of him that returned to his mind. It was the first time that it ever occurred to him to see the Master of Law as an old man like himself. But perhaps that was because, before that moment, he had never looked like one.

He left the Temple himself shortly afterward, when the priest arrived to clean the altar. The Hatchery needed him, and there was nothing more he could do for any of those suffering people he had seen.

 

*

 

But Eagleholm’s last day was not over yet, and the strangest and the worst part of it was still to come.

Roland went about his work that day in a kind of trance, brought on by tiredness and gloom. He paid particular attention to the griffin chick Arren had stolen, which had been brought back by the adult griffins who had hunted him down. The little creature didn’t seem to be any worse for wear. Arren might have abducted it, but he hadn’t hurt it. In fact, the story went, it had hurt him.

Roland crouched by the chick’s pen, noting the small bloodstain on its feathers. ‘I’m so sorry, little one,’ he told it. ‘But you’re all right, aren’t you?’

The chick eyed him. ‘Food!’ it chirped. Most chicks couldn’t say much more than that.

Roland smiled ruefully and stood up with a shake of his head. At least the chick was all right.

And then, chaos erupted.

All at once, as if they had been given some kind of signal, every single chick in the room went mad. They began to screech loudly – the panic screech that Roland had only heard a few times before, once when a large stray dog had wandered into the Hatchery. Too young to fly, the chicks started to run around inside their pens. Some of them threw themselves at the gates or burrowed in the corners, trying desperately to escape. The more timid ones cowered in their nests, calling pathetically for help.

Roland turned around sharply, expecting to see some sign of danger, but there was nothing. But still the chicks panicked. Over in one corner, in their hanging cage, the live rats kept for feed ran about in terror, making their prison swing gently back and forth.

The hair on the back of Roland’s neck prickled, and an irrational fear started to sting at him as well.

‘Who’s there?’ he called stupidly. ‘What’s going on?’

Without warning, the door that led into his room at the back slammed. Roland started in fright, but ran over to investigate.

As he drew closer to the door, the fear grew in him. Very cautious now, he reached for the handle and inched it open. He couldn’t hear anything coming from inside.

Roland peered around the door, and once again he sensed a presence. ‘Is someone in here?’ he called.

‘Shh,’ a voice whispered back.

Roland jerked backward. ‘What the-? Who is that?’

‘Nobody,’ a melancholy voice replied as he pushed open the door.

But there was someone there. A thin, hunched someone sitting at the table and staring at the candle that burned on it, just as Roland had done the night before.

Roland relaxed slightly. ‘You’re tresspassing, you know.’

‘I do,’ said the voice. It sounded low and hopeless.

Roland entered the room. ‘Is there something I can do for you?’

‘No,’ said the stranger. ‘Not any more.’

That was when Roland finally realised the truth, and that was when he froze. ‘I know that voice,’ he said aloud. ‘I know that… but… but that’s not possible.’

‘I wish it weren’t,’ said the stranger, finally looking up at him.

Roland’s breath caught and twisted in his throat. ‘You,’ he rasped. ‘It is you.’

Arren Cardockson stood up. ‘I suppose so,’ he said.

‘But you’re-,’ Roland began. ‘Bran said you were dead.’

The bitter lines on Arren’s face deepened. ‘Of course he did.’

‘He lied?’ said Roland. ‘To help you escape?’

‘No,’ said Arren. ‘He let his friends kill me.’

Roland went silent for a moment, regarding his one time apprentice. The last time he had seen him, Arren had been a shadow of his old self – ragged and dirty, full of bitterness and self pity. Now, if anything, he looked worse.

He had trimmed his grubby beard into a small, neat pointed chin-beard, and now his curly hair, grown long over his shoulders, had been washed and combed. The wound that the griffin chick had torn on his face had been cleaned and had already begun forming into a scar. He wore a robe now – the traditional black robe of a slave. The same one Bran had been carrying in the Temple.

But it was the eyes that had changed the most, and the eyes that put terror into Roland’s heart. They were black, and full of hatred and despair. There was no soul left in them.

‘Arren,’ Roland said. He could feel himself trembling lightly. ‘What are you talking about?’

Arren laughed a laugh that had no humour in it whatsoever. ‘I’m not Arren,’ he said. ‘There is no Arren. Arren died. He fell thousands of feet and broke every bone in his body. It’s over, Roland.’

He’s mad, Roland thought. ‘Why have you come back here?’ he asked. ‘You’ll be caught.’

‘I came back to say goodbye,’ said Arren, sounding a little more normal. ‘Tonight I’m going to leave Eagleholm, and I’m never coming back.’ His shoulders hunched, and for a moment he looked as guilt-stricken as Rannagon had done. ‘I’m so sorry. For everything. I’m sorry for what I did, and I’m sorry for what I am.’

‘It’s all right.’ Roland came closer, holding out a hand. ‘Arren, it’s all right.’

‘Don’t touch me!’ Arren jerked away. ‘You don’t want to touch me. I’m cold.’ He relaxed and smiled weakly. ‘So damned cold. You know what I wish, Roland?’

‘What is it, lad?’ Roland asked.

Arren turned to look around the room. ‘I wish I’d never come into this Hatchery. I wish I’d never become a griffiner. I wish I’d never been born.’

In a moment of insanity, Roland almost wanted to laugh. ‘And I’m sorry too, Arren.’

Arren turned back. ‘For what?’

‘I should never have left you alone here. I should have done something to help you before it was too late. I should-,’

Now it was Arren who came closer. He reached out and touched Roland’s face. His hand was cold and lifeless. ‘It’s all right, Roland,’ he said. ‘It’s over. I don’t blame you for anything, and if you ever did anything to hurt me, then I forgive you. I shouldn’t have done what I did, and I’m sorry. Thankyou for everything you ever did for me.’ He took his hand away. ‘And now I should go.’

Roland let him pass. ‘Where will you go?’ he asked. ‘What are you going to do?’

‘I’m going to end this,’ said Arren. ‘The gods have given me a chance to do what I should have done when I was alive, and I’m not letting that chance go. Goodbye, Roland, and good luck.’

And then he was gone.

 

*

 

That night, the Eyrie burned.

Roland heard the news of the fire, and like many others he came running to see for himself. But there was very little that he or anyone else could do.

He stood in the semi-darkness, watching the flames billow out of every window. The fire had already consumed most of the building, and it was now too dangerous to go inside. But a gang of guards were still trying. Roland saw two of them emerge from the Eyrie’s ground-floor entrance, dragging a couple of bodies. Others had formed a line, keeping the onlookers from getting any closer. Roland could hear the screams as people struggled to get past them.

‘Let me go!’ one man yelled. ‘For gods’ sakes, she’s still in there…!’

Roland kept back. All he could do in that moment was stare at the burning Eyrie, while Arren’s face appeared in his mind and intoned those last words again.

I’m going to end this… do what I should have done when I was alive.

‘Oh gods,’ Roland whispered.

An almighty crack split the night air, and a portion of the Eyrie’s outer wall crumbled inward. Screams rose from the crowd.

I’m going to end this.

‘Arren, what have you done?’ Roland said to the invisible presence. ‘What have you done?’

He knew that Arren had done it. Who else would have, or could have? The people of Eagleholm had destroyed his life, and now he had destroyed Eagleholm.

Roland stared dully at the flames, and wondered if Arren was in there somewhere. Had he lit the fire and stayed there so he could finally die – properly this time? Surely if he’d escaped he wouldn’t have gotten far. After all, he was the only Northerner in the city.

Whatever had happened, that was the night that Eagleholm died. The Eyrie burned, the Eyrie Mistress and the members of her council perished in the flames, and after that there would be nothing left to bind the city together. Arren Cardockson had taken his revenge.

Some time later, while Roland watched helplessly from the crowd, a little group of survivors came over to him. He heard one of them calling his name, and sighed in relief when he recognised the voice.

‘Flell!’ he called, pushing his way toward her. ‘Thank Gryphus you weren’t in there.’

Flell’s pretty face was deathly white with shock, and tears and soot had stained her cheeks. Her young partner, Thrain, perched on her shoulder, cheeping in fright.

‘Roland,’ Flell said hoarsely.

Roland put a comforting arm around her shoulders, and looked at the young man who had come with her. He had never seen him before, but nevertheless he looked familiar. He was stocky and broad-shouldered, with a strong jawline and tousled blond hair. His eyes were bright blue, and red-rimmed from the smoke.

A griffin walked beside him. She was as young as her partner, and she too was blue-eyed, with sandy brown feathers.

‘Senneck,’ Roland said, nodding to her. ‘And you-,’ he looked at the boy. ‘I know who you must be. You look just like your father.’

‘Thankyou,’ the boy said grimly. ‘You’re Lord Roland the Hatchery owner, yes?’

‘I am,’ said Roland. ‘You’re Erian, aren’t you? Rannagon’s son.’

Erian’s shoulders hunched, and a terrible sadness showed on his face. ‘Yes,’ he said softly. ‘Yes, I am.’

Senneck hissed bitterly. ‘What a cruel night this has been. At last I choose a human, and in one night the Eyrie we would have lived in has been destroyed. If only I had known, I would have killed the Northern pup the moment I saw him.’

‘So Arren did do this?’ asked Roland.

‘Yes he did,’ Erian growled. ‘We saw it.’

‘Were you in there?’

‘Yes. We’ve been helping other people get out, but it’s too dangerous to go back in now.’

‘Who got out?’ Roland asked urgently. ‘Did Rannagon-?’

Flell started to sob.

‘He’s dead,’ said Erian.

‘The fire-?’

‘No,’ said Erian. ‘The blackrobe murdered him. We saw it. He broke into the Eyrie and killed him and Shoa. Then he lit the fire and ran away.’

Roland closed his eyes for a moment. ‘What happened to Arren? Dead as well?’

‘Escaped,’ said Senneck. ‘But he will not get far.’

‘How did he get away?’ asked Roland. ‘Surely, with the fire, he would have run straight into the arms of the crowd here.’

‘He had help,’ said Senneck. ‘The black griffin. They fought together, and it was the black griffin that killed Shoa. They are partnered now.’

Roland gaped. ‘Arren… with the black griffin? That’s not possible! Why would Arren want to be with him? He killed Eluna. Arren hated him so much he wanted to kill him; he told me so himself.’

‘Don’t ask us,’ Erian snapped. ‘They’re savage beasts, the pair of them. They were made for each other.’

Roland shook his head sadly. Once he would have argued, but not after this. ‘So they flew away together.’

‘Yes, and in the morning, Senneck and I will go after them,’ said Erian. ‘We’ll catch them, and I’ll kill that murdering scum myself.’

Roland looked sternly at him. ‘Revenge won’t bring you peace, lad. Do you imagine that Arren feels better having done this?’

‘Justice must be done,’ Erian said stonily. ‘My father taught me that.’

‘Yes…’ Roland turned away wearily to look at the burning Eyrie. The fire was starting to die down now, and the building looked close to collapse. He hoped that Erian would never find Arren, for both their sakes.

 

*

 

That night most of the Eyrie’s gutted remains did collapse, and in the months that followed Roland watched the city collapse as well. With the city’s government gone, the unpartnered griffins from the Hatchery left. Young and old left their former home and soon afterward most left the city, choosing humans to take with them. Normally, to be chosen, a would-be griffiner had to present him or herself to the griffins and only the noble or wealthy would be chosen. But with the city falling apart, the griffins threw their standards aside and seized whatever partners they could find. Away from the city, an unpartnered griffin would not survive.

Some of those new griffiners tried to take over the city and found a new Eyrie, but none of them lasted long. Roland watched at a distance as assassination followed coup, and bickering devolved into a series of fights that left dozens of people dead. More of the city burned, and the commoners formed gangs. With nobody left to run it and raids and thefts becoming a daily threat, the marketplace quickly fell apart. Shops were looted, and as many of their number joined the ranks of the new griffiners or turned to crime, the city guard could do very little to keep order. Most of their original administration had been lost anyway.

But people left Roland alone. He was only an old man, not a true griffiner, and he had no money or power to offer anyone. Many of the new griffiners came to him to be trained, or at least to learn griffish, but only one stayed long enough to learn much at all. Captain Branton Redguard, the only guard Captain left still trying to do his job.

Before long the few remaining guards had rallied to work under Bran, and he survived only by refusing to try and make himself Eyrie Master, or ally with anyone else who did.

‘You’re a fine leader, lad,’ Roland told him one day. ‘But you’re being wasted here.’

‘The city needs me,’ Bran said stolidly.

But beside him, his new partner Kraeya said; ‘You are right, Roland. This city is falling to pieces and will soon collapse. Already the wooden parts of the street have begun to break apart. My human and I were made for better things than this ruin.’

‘What’d she say?’ asked Bran.

Roland translated. ‘And she’s right. Get out of here, Bran, before you’re hurt. It’s only a matter of time before someone decides that you should be removed.’

‘But what about Flell? She’s pregnant, an’ nobody’s gonna take care of her.’

‘Take her with you,’ Roland suggested.

Bran hestitated. ‘I dunno…’

Roland smiled. ‘Come now, lad. I’ve seen the way you look at her. And besides, she needs you.’

Bran frowned. ‘I’ll think about it. But yer right; I oughtta leave. But what’ll you do?’

Roland shrugged. ‘There’s nowhere for me to go. I’ll stay here and do what I can for these people. I’m too old to go gallivanting across the country, that’s for certain! But you’re young and strong, and there’s a dozen different things you could do together. Think about it.’

Bran did think about it, and in the end he chose to follow Roland’s advice. He and Flell were married some weeks later, in the Temple. There weren’t many people at the ceremony, but Roland went with Keth to watch. By now Flell’s baby was showing very clearly. It would be born in another month or so by Roland’s guess.

A few days later she and Bran left with their partners. Roland was there to see them off.

‘Good luck, all of you,’ he said. ‘Take care of each other, and the baby especially.’

He looked warmly at Bran. He hadn’t shown any hint that he knew who the true father of Flell’s child was, but surely Bran must know, and it had been a brave and good-hearted thing for him to marry Flell and claim the child as his own.

‘Have you decided where to go?’ Roland asked.

Bran nodded. ‘We’re goin’ North. To Malvern.’

Roland looked to Flell. ‘Why Malvern?’

Flell gave him a steady, determined look in return. It made her look very much like her father. ‘That’s where Erian is now. And if he’s still alive, that’s where Arren went as well.’

Roland took her hands in his. ‘Don’t go looking for him, Flell, if that’s what you’re thinking of. No good will come of it. Not for anyone.’

‘I won’t,’ said Flell.

‘Good,’ Roland smiled and gave her a hug. ‘Goodbye and good luck.’

He farewelled Bran with a griffiner’s handshake.

‘Don’t worry,’ said Bran. ‘Kraeya an’ me’ll take care of this lot. Yeh can count on us.’

‘I know I can,’ Roland said proudly. ‘Take care of yourself too, my lad.’

‘Count on it.’ Bran winked.

Kraeya carried him and Flell down from the mountaintop, with Thrain fluttering along after her. Roland watched them go, and never saw any of them again.

 

*

 

Everyone left, Roland reflected later. Left, or died. Erian and Senneck left, never to return. Flell, Bran, Thrain and Kraeya, they left. His second longest-staying apprentice, the former Segeant Danthirk, left with his wife Finna and his new partner, Gerak. Before long all the griffins had gone from the Hatchery, even the chicks. One of Roland’s assistants left, and the other died in a fight. Not long after that, Keth sickened. Roland did his best to care for her with the medicines he had left, but she was old, and he knew that it wouldn’t be long before she too was gone.

Nobody visited the Hatchery any more, except to take the food that he gave away to those who were desperate. More and more people were fleeing the city altogether.

The few griffiners who visited Eagleholm from the outside reported that its lands were being seized by its neighbours on either side – Wylam and Withypool. Canran to the north had begun sending armies in as well to take what they could. But nobody wanted Eagleholm itself, not any more. It was a ruin now, its wooden outer streets rotting or scavenged for firewood.

Soon, Roland knew, he would be all alone. His family was gone, and when Keth died the last of his friends would be gone too. He felt as if his life was over. He had done everything that was ever asked of him, and now there was nothing left to do at all but wait until old age took him just as it would do to Keth.

‘Did I ever do any good?’ he wondered aloud one day. ‘Did I ever help anyone?’

He didn’t know, and as Keth grew weaker, a deep weariness came over him. The stiffness in his knees got worse, and sometimes he didn’t have the energy to get up in the mornings.

Around him the city descended into anarchy. Within a year or so most of the larger buildings had been destroyed or occupied by squatters. Outside, war tore the last of Eagleholm’s lands to pieces, until nothing was left of them but a patch of lawless no-man’s-land around the city and further to the South where the Coppertop Mountains stood.

Every so often, travelling griffiners would come to see the ruins of Eagleholm, but they soon found that it wasn’t worth the visit. Only Roland was left to greet them, and to hear their news.

From them he heard about the civil wars that had broken out elsewhere in the South, as Eyrie fought Eyrie. Word reached him about the war in the North as well.

‘The Northerners have risen up,’ one man told him. ‘Rebelled just as they did all those years ago. They’ve found a new leader, and they’re destroying everything. They’ve assassinated half of Malvern’s council. Lady Elkin sent messages begging the other Eyries for help, but nobody’s answering. Nobody can spare the troops, not with all that’s going on.’

‘Have you heard anything about Erian?’ Roland asked. ‘Or Senneck?’

‘Oh, you mean the new Master of Farms?’ said the traveller. ‘Yes, he was in Malvern for a while. He left, though, and nobody seems to know where he’s gone.’

He hadn’t heard anything about Bran or Flell.

Months later, another traveller told Roland the outcome of the war.

‘It’s over,’ she said. ‘The North is lost. Malvern’s been overrun by the rebels – only a few of our people escaped.’

‘What about Bran and Flell?’ Roland asked urgently. ‘And Erian? And Senneck?’

The woman shook her head grimly. ‘Erian’s dead, I know that much. The Dark Lord killed him in Malvern.’

‘Dark Lord?’ Roland repeated, puzzled.

‘The leader of the rebels,’ the traveller said darkly. ‘A Northerner, of course. It’s said he sold his soul to the Night God, and no man can kill him.’

For some reason, those words sent a chill down Roland’s spine. ‘The Dark Lord…’ he murmured to himself.

‘Yes, the Dark Lord Arenadd,’ said the traveller. ‘He rides a black griffin.’

The coldness gripped Roland’s heart. ‘Arren,’ he half-whispered. ‘What have you become?’

Only one other traveller came after that, and it was from this one that Roland heard about the death of Flell at the hands of the man all Southerners now called the Dark Lord Arenadd. He heard nothing about Bran at all, or the child.
He heard, too, about how the Northerners had captured all of the North and had built a new nation there, with Arenadd as its King. But nearly all the tales everyone told about the place were tales of burning and slaughter, torture and murder.

Roland knew who Arenadd was – who he had to be. But he didn’t want to believe it, and a part of him simply refused to.

Shortly after this Keth finally passed away, and Roland was left alone to think of the past and regret so many things that had happened. Surely, he thought every day, surely it was over now. Surely life had nothing more left for him.

But it wasn’t over. Not yet. Not quite.

One day in a moment of nostalgia, Roland decided to visit the remains of the Eyrie. He walked to it through the old streets, which were now strewn with garbage and rubble. A few ragged, scrawny people stared dully at him as he passed, or called out pleas for food or money.

He reached the Eyrie before long. There wasn’t much left of it. By now the ruins had collapsed into a heap of rubble, with only a portion of one wall left standing as a reminder of what it had once been. Survivors had long since looted whatever scraps had been left behind.

Roland picked his way through the blackened pieces of stone and broken wood, and felt a deep sadness press down on him. So many memories still lingered here. So many lost lives. Rannagon, Flell, Erian and Senneck. His old father Elrick, long since dead. Riona, lost in the flames with her partner Shree.

Slow tears wet the old man’s face.

‘Why me?’ he asked, looking up at the sun. ‘Why me, Gryphus? So many people dead, so much destroyed. Why leave me? What use is one old man in a dead city?’

He sat down on a piece of rubble, and put his head in his hands. His father had once told him that everything happened for a reason, but he could see no reason in this, none at all.

‘Go away,’ a voice called, interrupting his thoughts.

‘Eh?’ Roland looked up.

A small girl had wandered over to him and stood glaring at him. ‘Go away,’ she said again. ‘This is my place.’

Roland eyed her. She looked about ten years old, and she was gaunt and grubby. Her clothes were in rags. But her expression was fierce as she stared challengingly at him.

Roland stood up. ‘Who are you, lass?’ he asked in his gentlest voice. ‘Do you live here?’

‘Yes. I’m Liantha and this is my house.’

‘Hello, Liantha.’ Roland smiled and wiped his eyes on his sleeve. ‘My name’s Roland Elrickson.’

Liantha frowned. ‘From the Hatchery?’

‘Yes. Why are you living here? It’s a ruin.’

‘I was born here,’ Liantha said defiantly.

Roland had already noticed her refined speech. ‘You lived in the Eyrie before it burned, then? Were your parents griffiners?’

‘Yes,’ said Liantha. ‘My grandma was Lady Evlyn.’

‘Are your parents somewhere about?’ asked Roland.

‘No.’ Liantha’s ferocity faded somewhat. ‘They’re dead from the fire. So’s Granma Evlyn. I’m the only one who lives here now.’

‘Nobody looks after you?’ Roland pressed.

‘No, I look after myself,’ said Liantha.

‘I see. Well… I’m going back to the Hatchery now. If you’d like to come with me, I could give you something to eat.’

Liantha brightened up. ‘You’ve got food?’

‘Yes. The griffins left, but I still have the goats I used to feed them, and people trade me things for the milk and meat.’

‘You’ve got milk?’

‘Yes. Would you like some?’

Liantha looked close to tears. ‘Yes I would!’

And she followed Roland home, all her protectiveness toward the Eyrie ruins forgotten.

Roland was as good as his word. He gave the child a hearty meal, and scrounged around for some new clothes for her as well. Liantha ate ravenously, and chattered on about her parents and how she lived by stealing what she could from the other survivors who clung on in the rubble.

Once she had eaten and talked and grown sleepy, Roland gave her a blanket and let her snuggle down by the fire in the Hatchery’s back room.

‘Why are you here?’ she asked drowsily.

‘This is my home,’ said Roland. ‘It always has been, since I was just a boy.’

‘But why?’ Liantha persisted.

‘Well…’ Roland began. Liantha was watching him curiously, and before long he was telling her everything. He told her about his own childhood, and about his adulthood caring for the griffins. He told her about all the new griffiners he had trained – even Arren.

‘He burned the Eyrie,’ Liantha interrupted. ‘He killed everyone. He killed Mummy and Daddy.’

‘Yes,’ Roland said sadly. ‘I think he did. But not all my apprentices did things like that. Now they’re all gone, and I don’t know what to do next. I’ve got no-one left to teach.’

‘Teach me!’ Liantha said suddenly.

Roland looked at her in surprise.

‘My parents were griffiners,’ said Liantha. ‘One day I’ll be one too. You should teach me how.’

‘But-,’ Roland began.

But there were no griffins in Eagleholm any more.

‘Please?’ said Liantha. ‘I’ll be really good and I’ll listen to everything and do what you tell me.’

‘I suppose I could,’ said Roland. ‘But you’d have to live here with me. The Eyrie’s no good to live in any more.’

Can I live with you?’ Liantha asked.

‘Certainly,’ said Roland. ‘There’s plenty of room.’

‘And I can take care of you,’ said Liantha.

Roland looked at her, and smiled for the first time in days. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I think you can, Liantha.’

‘Then I’ll be your apprentice and live here with you,’ said Liantha. ‘And one day I’ll get a griffin and be a griffiner.’

Roland found himself thinking of Arren, and Erian as well. ‘Perhaps you will,’ he said.

But Liantha had already settled down to sleep.

Roland watched her drift off, peaceful in the firelight, and dared to let himself feel hopeful in a way he hadn’t done for years. It made him feel lighter, and younger.

‘It’s not over yet,’ he murmured to himself. ‘Not yet.’

Eagleholm was dead, it was true. Everything came to an end. But everything had a beginning as well. And here, today, something had begun and who knew where it would end?

Roland remembered Arren’s last words to him, more than two long years ago.

The gods have given me a chance to do what I should have done when I was alive.

And perhaps they had. Arren had been given another chance. Now, another chance had come to Roland as well.
He looked down at Liantha again, and made a silent vow. He would train her, as he had trained Arren once upon a time. And this time, he would not let her story end in tragedy. Liantha would have the future that Arren never could, and maybe something of Eagleholm would live on through her.

He could only hope.

‘Thankyou, Gryphus,’ he said softly, knowing that his prayer had finally been answered. ‘I know what I have to do now, and I won’t let you or this city down again.’

He left Liantha to her rest, and went to his own bed, where he slept peacefully. Forgiven, at last. And finally able to begin again.

 

*

Neato text ornament here