Rannagonâ€™s sword felt so heavy he could barely lift it. His hands and arms ached, and his palms were slick with sweat. He hastily wiped them on his clothes, aware all the time of the danger around him.
Shoa was a huge breathing presence beside him, smelling of blood and griffish musk. She had her eyes on the plain below them, and when he glanced at her he saw her flanks trembling slightly in anticipation. â€˜They are here,â€™ she said softly.
Rannagon slid his sword back into its sheath on his back, and stepped forward. â€˜Are you sure?â€™
â€˜See there,â€™ she said, pointing her beak skyward.
On the plain, the ragged ranks of the enemy had gathered. They werenâ€™t even in ranks, but sprawled untidily in all directions â€“ more like a crowd of people gathered for a celebration than a true army. Further back Rannagonâ€™s own side were drawn up â€“ row upon row of armoured soldiers. Above them, dozens of griffins circled.
It looked like a ridiculously uneven contest, but Rannagon knew better. And if they were hereâ€¦
He followed Shoaâ€™s pointing beak, and sure enough, there it was â€“ the black shape of a griffin flying high above.
â€˜They have come to protect their followers,â€™ said Shoa. â€˜This will be more dangerous than you thought.â€™
Rannagonâ€™s fists clenched. After so many long months of hunting, their prey had come to them. This time, he vowed, they would not escape. He thumped himself in the chest, where a gold sunwheel had been painted onto his leather breastplate. â€˜By Gryphusâ€™ might, I promise that today is the last day,â€™ he swore. â€˜Today we finish it.â€™
Shoa nudged him with her head. â€˜Kill the woman,â€™ she said. â€˜And I will kill the griffin. Come.â€™
Rannagon walked back toward the Southern army by her side.
Lord Hemant came to meet them. â€˜What did you see?â€™
â€˜Theyâ€™re here,â€™ said Rannagon. â€˜This is it.â€™
Hemant tensed. â€˜You meanâ€¦?â€™
â€˜Yes. We saw Hyrenna circling over their army. Very high up.â€™
â€˜And the woman?â€™
â€˜Iâ€™m not sureâ€¦â€™
â€˜She will be with her partner,â€™ Shoa interrupted. â€˜Hyrenna flew slowly; she is burdened.â€™
â€˜Are you sure?â€™ said Hemant.
The yellow griffin flicked her tail. â€˜Yes.â€™
â€˜Perfect!â€™ said Hemant. â€˜She wonâ€™t be able to manoeuvre properly in the air with her human on her back. If we attack them nowâ€¦â€™
â€˜No,â€™ said Rannagon. â€˜We should attack her when sheâ€™s on the ground. You know what her magic can do. Anyone who takes a hit from it in midair is done for.â€™
â€˜My human is right,â€™ said Shoa. â€˜Hyrenna must die upon the ground. That is when she will be most vulnerable.â€™
Hemantâ€™s eyes narrowed. â€˜Maybe-,â€™
â€˜Griffin shall fight griffin,â€™ Shoa told him. â€˜Leave her to me. She will not defeat me this time.â€™
â€˜Look, theyâ€™ll be weaker when theyâ€™re apart,â€™ Rannagon said quickly. â€˜Wait until they land. Hyrenna wonâ€™t want to fight with her human on her back. When she lands to let her off, thatâ€™ll be our moment.â€™
â€˜That is when I shall strike,â€™ said Shoa. â€˜Go now, Rannagon. Do not waste time.â€™ She moved closer to him, and rubbed her cheek against his head. â€˜Brave human. Make me proud.â€™ With that she turned away and took off with a powerful flap of her wings.
Hemant watched her rise, and then turned to look at Rannagon. â€˜You two are far too overconfident for your own good,â€™ he growled. â€˜I told Anech he shouldnâ€™t let your lot come up here.â€™
Rannagon ran a hand through his straw-coloured hair. â€˜Shoaâ€™s self-willed; I canâ€™t help it.â€™
â€˜Donâ€™t play the boy with me, Rannagon. Youâ€™ve been acting like this was your own little quest since the moment you flew into Malvern.â€™ Hemant waved him away. â€˜Get on with it, then. Go on, play the hero. Iâ€™ve got an army to organise.â€™
Rannagon squared his shoulders. â€˜Good luck, then, my Lord. Iâ€™ll see you afterwards.â€™ He strode off.
Once he was a respectable distance away, he slowed and stopped to watch Shoa. He had no intention of going further just now â€“ the striding off had been mostly for effect. There was every chance that he wouldnâ€™t live to see the sunset, and Hemant was far too annoying to spend his last day talking to.
Rannagon looked down on the enemy, blue eyes narrow. The jibe about treating this like some sort of game had irritated him more than he was going to admit; whatever heâ€™d thought it was all about at first didnâ€™t matter now. This was war, and despite his show of bravado he could feel his heart fluttering.
So far the rebels had used underhanded tactics â€“ attacking in places far away from the Eyrie, and never gathering together in large numbers like this. Rannagon had seen plenty of action since coming North, but this was the first true battle of his life, and he knew he was afraid.
He rubbed his hands together. â€˜Now then, Ran, donâ€™t let it get the better of you,â€™ he told himself. â€˜You can do this. Shoaâ€™s not afraid, now is she?â€™
The thought of her made him feel braver, and he looked upward again to see where she was now. He spotted her eventually, soaring high over the Southern army, away from the other griffins. Further Westward he could see Hyrenna, flying lower now â€“ close enough for him to see the autumn-brown of her wings.
Hatred rose in his chest. The vicious leader of the rebels had earned her death over and over again, and he swore to himself that he would be the one to see that she got it.
Without any warning, Hyrenna folded her wings and flew downward.
Rannagonâ€™s heart leapt into his mouth. â€˜CHARGE!â€™ he roared, and ran forward without another thought, wrenching at his sword. It stuck for a moment, but he leant forward and tugged harder and it slid out and into his hand. The moment he had it in his grasp, the familiar rage took hold of him. As he ran down the slope toward the enemy, he kissed the hilt and muttered, â€˜Gryphus bless this blade. Give me courage.â€™
He heard a rumbling behind him. Above, griffins screeched. They were coming. Forgetting everything, he broke into a sprint, screaming his own battle-cry. â€˜EAGLEHOLM!â€™
Ahead the Northerners had seen him coming. They were no soldiers. Peasants, tradesmen, escaped slaves â€“ there wasnâ€™t one trained fighter among them. But when they saw the young noble running at them with his sword in his hands, not one of them ran away. They readied their own weapons and came at him, howling like wolves.
Rannagon brought his sword back without slowing his pace, and brought it around in a powerful blow.
The first of them ran straight onto it without pausing. The sword hit him in the midriff, and bright blood spurted out onto his rough farmerâ€™s tunic. He fell, and Rannagon didnâ€™t stop to finish him off. He pressed on, under attack from half a dozen enemies already, and the battle closed over him.
He barely remembered anything he did. There was no time, no spaceâ€¦ nothing but blood and snarling faces, and the thump and thud of weapons. Something hit him in the arm; he never knew what, but the pain barely reached him anyway.
Around him Hemantâ€™s soldiers had joined the fray; he saw one take a nail-studded club to the face, only to stumble onward, trying to save himself while the ruins of his eyes wept blood.
The Northerners were everywhere. Many of them wore the black robes of slaves, but they all looked the same to Rannagon. Black eyes, animal eyes, wide and mad with bloodlust, the teeth bared, black hair matted with blood and decorated with bones. And no matter how many of them he killed, there were always more.
A flash of light came from somewhere to his left, and he threw himself flat instinctively. A moment later, as he dragged himself upright again, he smelled the smoke and saw it, rising into the sky. People were running away, Northerner and Southerner alike, and when Rannagon stumbled closer he saw the blackened hole in the earth, surrounded by charred bodies. Above, a red griffin wheeled and flew away.
Rannagonâ€™s mind cleared, and he looked frantically for Shoa. He couldnâ€™t see her anywhere. But a moment later he saw Hyrenna. She was on the ground, feathers bristling, wings raised â€“ a monstrous, screaming beast, hurling herself at any Southerner who came near. Above, a griffin came down in a swoop straight at her. Instantly she raised her head and her beak opened wide. Rannagon couldnâ€™t see anything come out, but he felt it. The air thumped, as if something enormous had hit. Above, the swooping griffin was hurled away like a leaf in a gale and then dashed onto the ground with an audible crunch.
A vision flashed across his mind, of Shoa being flung to her death like that. Rannagonâ€™s vision turned red. â€˜Damn you,â€™ he snarled, and ran.
But not at Hyrenna. Despite his rage, he had noticed something important. Hyrennaâ€™s wings looked uninjured, but she wasnâ€™t trying to take off â€“ wasnâ€™t trying to fight from the air where she would be more effective. She was staying where she was, and refusing to leave the patch of ground where she had landed.
A griffin would only do that if they had something important to stay close to.
Rannagon turned, keeping a knot of soldiers between himself and the mad griffin. A pack of Northerners saw him, but he killed two and avoided the rest, and as they moved out of his field of vision, she appeared.
His stomach twisted hideously. Her.
For months he had dreamed of finding her, and there she was, real and alive. She wore a brown tunic and leggings, like a man, but her black hair was long and decorated with silver. She turned, nimble in her fur boots, and for a moment as he first caught a glimpse of her face a strange thought crossed his mind. Sheâ€™s beautiful.
The moment was broken an instant later, when a voice bellowed from behind him. Rannagon turned his head and saw Hemant, his own sword in his hand.
â€˜The leader!â€™ he was shouting. â€˜Go for the leader!â€™
The woman saw him. She hunched forward, like a wolf about to spring, and a horrible, savage smile spread over her face. She flicked the weapon in her hand, and Rannagon almost laughed like a madman when he saw it. It wasnâ€™tÂ a sword, but a sickle. A sickle! She was stupid enough to go into battle armed with a farming tool!
His moment of respite ended, as a rebel took advantage of his distraction and grabbed him by the neck from behind. Rannagon struck backward, with the hilt of his sword, catching them in the stomach and knocking them loose. He turned, and started briefly in surprise â€“ it was a woman whoâ€™d attacked him. He moved to kill her, but she rolled away and vaulted upright, snarling. Before he could attack her again she had dodged around him and run.
Her fellows were already there to take her place. They pressed in on him, all shouting the same thing. â€˜Arddryn! Arddryn! Arddryn!â€™
â€˜Eagleholm!â€™ Rannagon roared back. He cut the head off a spear, then killed its owner. Two others came at him together; he lowered his sword and threw himself at them sideways, knocking them both over. He stamped on the throat of one and kicked the other in the head hard enough to knock him unconscious. A third one stabbed him in the back with a dagger, but the blade bounced off his leather armour and he turned quickly and hit the startled rebel in the side so hard his blade reached his spine. Rannagon wrenched his sword free, and started in revulsion as the man fell, clutching desperately at his own intestines as they slid out of him.
Safe for the moment, he turned and saw something that made his stomach lurch once again. She was there, right there by her griffinâ€™s side. Her. Arddryn. Her sickle was wet with blood, and there was a man lying dead at her feet.
Hemant, his eyes wide open with shock. His throat had been slit from ear to ear.
Arddryn had seen Rannagon, and her awful wolfâ€™s smile widened. â€˜Who are ye, sun-worshipper?â€™
Bile rose in his throat at the sight of her. â€˜Rannagon,â€™ he said.
â€˜Speak up, boy,â€™ she sneered. â€˜We donâ€™t have all day.â€™
Rannagonâ€™s grip tightened on his sword. â€˜My name is Rannagon,â€™ he said, strength coming back into his voice. â€˜Lord Rannagon Raegonson of Eagleholm.â€™
Arddryn shrugged. â€˜Ye all look the same tâ€™me.â€™ She glanced at Hyrenna, and casually broke into griffish. â€˜Do ye want this one?â€™
Rannagon felt sick with anger. â€˜How dare you? Who taught you that?â€™
â€˜Dear old Lord Anech sent his friends tâ€™show me how,â€™ said Arddryn. â€˜Anâ€™ if only he hadnâ€™t decided tâ€™put a collar on my brother, I mightâ€™ve said thanks.â€™
Hyrenna began to advance on him. Her eyes were orange, wide and mad. â€˜We are done with this one,â€™ she said, and charged.
Rannagon dodged away, panic-stricken. He barely escaped. As he tried to run free, the brown griffin turned and ran at him again. This time, he was too slow. Her talons hit him full in the chest, hurling him away and into the mud. He landed with a thud and a burst of pain, his sword flying out of his hand.
As he struggled to get up, terror froze his mind. He had no chance against the mad griffin. He knew he was going to die.
He found his feet, and groped around desperately for his sword, expecting the death-blow to come at any moment.
It didnâ€™t. He found his sword in the mud and snatched it up, turning this way and that to look for Hyrenna, expecting to see her charging at him again with her talons outstretched. She was there, but she wasnâ€™t coming. She was a short distance away, screeching, lying on her side, trying to get upâ€¦
Rannagonâ€™s heart leapt. Shoa! Itâ€™s Shoa!
The yellow griffin had appeared as if out of nowhere, and now she was standing between him and Hyrenna, wings raised to make herself look bigger.
Rannagon ran to her. â€˜Shoa-!â€™
â€˜Go!â€™ she snapped back. â€˜Kill her! Kill her now!â€™
The words galvanised him into action, and the single, vital thought took hold: Arddryn had to die.
He spotted her a moment later. She was nearby, her pale face anxious â€“ wanting to help her partner, but hanging back for fear of her own safety.
Rannagon strode toward her. â€˜Traitor!â€™ he shouted. â€˜Face me!â€™
She saw him, and her face instantly snapped back into its mask of hatred. â€˜Arenâ€™t ye dead yet, Southerner?â€™
Rannagon came on, sword raised. â€˜Fight me, coward,â€™ he said. â€˜Fight me.â€™
Arddryn said nothing. She stalked forward, shoulders raised, baring her teeth. â€˜For Padrig,â€™ she said. â€˜For Saeddryn. For Skandar.â€™
Rannagonâ€™s hatred made him smile. â€˜I knew Skandar,â€™ he said. â€˜Did you know that?â€™
She faltered at that, just briefly. â€˜What?â€™
â€˜They sold him to Eagleholm,â€™ said Rannagon. â€˜My home.â€™
â€˜Iâ€™ll bring him back,â€™ she vowed.
â€˜No you wonâ€™t,â€™ Rannagon spat, hating her, wanting to hurt her. â€˜Heâ€™s dead. They fed him to the wild griffins.â€™
At that, the first hint of true humanity showed in her face. â€˜Heâ€™s-?â€™
â€˜I watched him die,â€™ Rannagon said, hurling the words at her. â€˜I laughed.â€™ That part was a lie, but he said it anyway.
It worked. Arddryn screamed and ran at him.
Rannagon was ready for her. He brought his sword up in time to block her sickle. He let go of the hilt with one hand and grabbed her by the arm, pulling her off-balance. She recovered quickly and darted in under his arm. It took him by surprise, and he had no time to move away. An instant later, pain flashed through his body.
Arddryn hadnâ€™t finished yet. Taking advantage of his shock, she grabbed him by the wrist and twisted, trying to make him drop his sword. She was stronger than she looked, but Rannagon was stronger. He lashed out with his free hand, punching her in the throat, and she staggered away.
Blood ran down his arm. He groaned softly.
Arddrynâ€™s swollen throat made her voice harsh and guttural. â€˜Hurts, doesnâ€™t it? Iâ€™ll see ye feel more before Iâ€™m done.â€™
His arm wouldnâ€™t move properly any more. He struggled, trying to raise his sword again, but his hand was wet with blood and the hilt kept sliding through his palm. He gritted his teeth and tightened his grip.
Arddryn laughed humourlessly. â€˜The North is mine, Rannagon. Anâ€™ once I rule here, I promise every griffiner left will die slow. But ye wonâ€™t live to see it.â€™ She raised her sickle again and brought it down, straight at his throat.
Rannagonâ€™s sword came up, hard and fast.
It hit the sickle straight on. With a soft clang, the curved blade snapped clean in half.
Arddryn backed away. â€˜No-,â€™
Rannagon struck. There was no thought behind it, and no grace. There was only one hard, furious attack.
He would never forget the awful sound the blade made, when it cut her face in half.
Two days later, in the great Council Chamber at Malvern, Rannagon walked up to the sun-shaped platform where Lord Anech stood and placed the broken sickle at his feet.
â€˜The rebel leader is dead,â€™ he intoned. â€˜Her followers were slaughtered around her.â€™
The Eyrie Master picked up the sickle, matching the two halves of the blade together. â€˜And Hyrenna?â€™
â€˜She escaped,â€™ Shoa rasped. â€˜But this Eyrie has no more to fear from her. No-one will follow her without her human, and if she chooses another there will be none to train that one in our language and ways.â€™
On the platform beside Anech, the hulking Reean shifted his weight. â€˜Even so, she will be hunted down. I will not allow her to live.â€™
â€˜I agree,â€™ said Shoa, â€˜But that is something you must do, Reean. My part in this is done.â€™
Anech cleared his throat. â€˜Iâ€™ve heard everything about the part you two played. The soldiers who fought beside you on Tor Plain are calling you a hero.â€™
â€˜We all did what we had to,â€™ Rannagon said modestly, though underneath he couldnâ€™t help but feel proud.
Anech looked up at the gallery, where hundreds of griffins and griffiners were watching. â€˜Youâ€™ve done us a great service here at Malvern. All of us know it, and weâ€™re grateful.â€™
Reean raised his wings. â€˜Name your reward,â€™ he said, loudly enough for the whole chamber to hear.â€™
â€˜Eyrie Master!â€™ a voice yelled, from somewhere high above. â€˜Master Rannagon!â€™
Anech paled, but said nothing.
Others took up the cry. â€˜Make him Master!â€™
Rannagonâ€™s mouth fell open.
â€˜Yes,â€™ Shoa hissed. â€˜Yes.â€™
â€˜Master Rannagon!â€™ people shouted.
Reeanâ€™s feathers bristled. â€˜This is not-,â€™
Shoa glanced at Rannagon, but he hadnâ€™t moved. She stepped forward. â€˜We shall-,â€™
â€˜No.â€™ Rannagon came forward too, putting his hand on her shoulder. â€˜No,â€™ he said again, shouting the word and cutting across the excited voices.
Anech hid his relief well. â€˜Are you refusing, Rannagon?â€™
â€˜No-,â€™ Shoa began.
Rannagon put himself in front of her. â€˜Weâ€™re grateful for the offer, but I wasnâ€™t meant to be an Eyrie Master. All I want to do is go home.â€™
â€˜Agreed,â€™ Reean said instantly. â€˜Go, with our gratitude.â€™
â€˜We will,â€™ said Rannagon, turning to glance nervously at Shoa.
She said nothing, but the look she gave him was one of pure fury.
Anech stepped down off the platform, and held out a hand. Rannagon linked fingers with him and they tugged briefly before letting go. It was the traditional griffinerâ€™s gesture of friendship, and Rannagon knew how much it meant that the Eyrie Master had chosen to step down and offer it in front of his entire council.
â€˜Iâ€™m sorry for this,â€™ he said quietly, while they were close.
Anech inclined his head. â€˜You didnâ€™t mean for it to happen. Butâ€¦ thankyou.â€™
Rannagon bowed. â€˜Iâ€™m proud to have taken part, my Lord. Now, I should go and rest.â€™
Anech returned to his platform. â€˜Go, and may Gryphus bless you, Rannagon Raegonson.â€™
Shoa said nothing while they walked up through the passages and up the ramps that led to their temporary quarters. When they reached the oversized door that led into it, she hung back and let Rannagon go in first.
Rannagon took his sword off his back and put it down on a table with the straps that had held it in place. His wound still hurt horribly, and he winced as he straightened up.
Behind him, Shoa clumsily pushed the door shut with her head. Standing in front of it, she turned to face him. She looked completely calm, but her tail flicked rapidly from side to side like a headless snake.
Rannagon took a step backward. â€˜Shoa-,â€™
As if his voice were a signal, she raised her wings and sprang.
The table fell over with a crash. For an instant Rannagonâ€™s entire world was a vision of yellow feathers and blazing eyes, and then something hit him so hard in the stomach that it lifted him off his feet. The room turned sideways and hit him in the head and shoulder. Lights flashed in his eyes, and there was pain, awful painâ€¦
Above it all was Shoaâ€™s voice, screaming. â€˜How dare you?â€™
Rannagon realised he was lying upside-down with one leg thrust painfully against a wall. He bent his limbs, trying to right himself. Agony flared in his wound, and he groaned and slumped onto the floor.
Shoaâ€™s talons appeared in his vision, resting on the floor by his face. He studied the pitted, dark grey surface of them with a kind of dull fascination.
â€˜You fool!â€™ Shoa was screeching. â€˜We had everything! Everything! It was in our grasp, and you â€“ you!â€™
Her talons were digging into the wooden planks as easily as if they were made out of cheese. Rannagon knew that if she wanted to, she could break his skull open without any effort at all. He struggled, trying to make himself speak. â€˜Iâ€¦â€™
â€˜Eyrie Master,â€™ said Shoa, more quietly. â€˜You could have been Eyrie Master. I could have ruled this land.â€™ She was breathing heavily. â€˜It was so close to meâ€¦ I could nearly smell itâ€¦ and you snatched it away.â€™
â€˜I didnâ€™t want it,â€™ Rannagon croaked. â€˜Itâ€™s notâ€¦ right forâ€¦â€™
Shoaâ€™s talons flexed and lifted away, and a moment later she had shoved him onto his back so that he was staring straight up into her face. Her beak was open, showing the fleshy redness inside. Her breath smelled of dead things. â€˜I should kill you,â€™ she said.
Rannagon closed his eyes. â€˜Iâ€™m sorryâ€¦â€™
â€˜You have betrayed me,â€™ said Shoa, in the same awful, icy calm voice. â€˜I chose you so that I could have the power I deserve. I believed you were the one who could help me. I was wrong.â€™
He could feel his mind coming back in bits and pieces. It brought new strength with it, and he managed to drag himself to his knees. â€˜Shoa, this isnâ€™tâ€¦ this isnâ€™t our placeâ€¦â€™
â€˜You are no further use to me,â€™ she intoned.
Rannagon held up a hand â€“ there was blood on it, he realised dully. â€˜Shoa, please. You wouldnâ€™t be happy living here. Itâ€™s too coldâ€¦ we donâ€™t have any alliesâ€¦â€™
â€˜I could have ruled this Eyrie!â€™
â€˜If we go home, weâ€™ll still be heroes,â€™ Rannagon babbled. â€˜Theyâ€™ll all know what we did. Riona promised us a position when we got back. A place on the council.â€™
Shoaâ€™s talons lashed out. â€˜A place on the council is nothing!â€™
Rannagon fell, hard. But terror made him drag himself up again. â€˜Iâ€™m Rionaâ€™s brother, Shoa!â€™ he said. â€˜Iâ€™m younger than her. Donâ€™t you see?â€™
Shoaâ€™s eyes narrowed. â€˜Speak quickly.â€™
â€˜If â€“ if weâ€™re on the council, and we do a good jobâ€¦ if everyone knows how powerful you are, after what you didâ€¦ and me tooâ€¦ weâ€™ll be next in line.â€™ Rannagon found his feet. â€˜We can do it, Shoa. We can rule. Eagleholm will be ours.â€™
The yellow griffin hissed softly, with a sound like escaping steam. â€˜If you are lyingâ€¦â€™
â€˜Iâ€™m not,â€™ said Rannagon. â€˜I always thought we could rule after Riona. She trusts us, and so does Shree.â€™
â€˜I am younger than him,â€™ Shoa admitted slowly. â€˜I could challenge him after Rionaâ€™s death. If I wonâ€¦â€™
â€˜When you won,â€™ Rannagon encouraged. â€˜Weâ€™d beâ€¦â€™
â€˜Then we would rule,â€™ said Shoa.
â€˜Yes, exactly,â€™ said Rannagon.
The yellow griffin stared at him for a long, painful moment, and then finally backed away. â€˜Very well then. I will not kill you. But do not think you are forgiven yet.â€™
Rannagon felt sick with relief. â€˜Youâ€™ve had a long day; you must be hungry now. Iâ€™ll bring you something.â€™
Shoa walked toward the arched entrance to her nest. â€˜Deer meat, freshly killed,â€™ she said, and went through with a swish of her tail.
Rannagon and Shoa stayed at at the Eyrie for several weeks after that, while they both recovered from their wounds. When they were stronger Anech asked them to lead a small group of griffiners to several villages suspected of harbouring surviving rebels. Rannagon would have said no, but Shoa wanted to go and he didnâ€™t dare do anything to upset her again.
The longer they stayed in the North, the more he hated it. All he could think of now was Eagleholm, with its huge old wood-plank streets and the wonderful views of the plains and mountains all around. There was no city like it anywhere in Cymria, and Rannagon knew he would never love any other as much as he loved it.
He missed his family, too â€“ his old father, and his sister. It felt like years since heâ€™d last seen them. Riona had come North too, but only for a short time. Sheâ€™d been quick to realise that Malvern didnâ€™t need her help as much as her own Eyrie did, and she and her partner Shree had turned tail and headed home, wishing her impetuous brother good luck.
Rannagon wondered how the city was faring now.
And he thought of Kaelyn, too. Kaelyn, who he loved. Kaelyn, who had begged him not to go. She was as fierce as her partner, but she couldnâ€™t stop him.
â€˜I want to prove myself,â€™ heâ€™d told her. â€˜And besidesâ€¦â€™
â€˜Besides what?â€™ sheâ€™d said.
And besides, Shoa had wanted to go. And Rannagon had already learned that she didnâ€™t like to be refused.
After their confrontation, the yellow griffin was cold and distant toward her partner. When they were at the Eyrie she spent her time either in her nest or flying out over the city with her fellow griffins, apparently unconcerned with whatever Rannagon was doing.
At first he was glad. He was still frightened, and being away from her let him relax and enjoy his time of rest.
But after their last assignment, when they returned to the Eyrie once again and Rannagon found himself alone in his room once more, he realised something that surprised him.
He lay on his bed, tired and sore, feeling the ache of his half-healed wound, and felt a matching ache in his chest. It depressed him.
He closed his eyes and thought, I miss Shoa.
It was true â€“ he realised it the moment the thought crossed his mind. He missed having her beside him â€“ missed the feeling of security it gave him. He missed her trust and pride in him â€“ rarely expressed, but always there. Now he wondered, miserably, if he would ever have it back.
Not soon, he thought. Not easily.
He sighed and sat up. Moping wouldnâ€™t help anything. He should get some fresh air.
His room was high up in the Eyrie tower, and it was a short walk to the buildingâ€™s flat top. He stepped out into the wintery sunlight, blinking when it hit his eyes.
The tower-top spread out around him, all dull grey stone damp with melted snow. Above the sky seemed endless â€“ icy blue with a scattering of pure white cloud. Rannagon hadnâ€™t been up here before, and he wandered around to have a look.
He neednâ€™t have bothered. The place was utterly featureless. At the edge there was only a low stone wall for protection, and he inched toward it and cautiously peered over.
The ground below seemed to leap up at him, and he winced. Thankfully he had a good head for heights â€“ flying on griffinback tended to help with that â€“ and he held on tightly and looked again.
The city lay below like a patchwork of brown roofs. He could see smoke drifting up from the chimneys, and beyond that the black line of the stone walls that protected the whole city.
All this could have been mine, he thought.
The memory brought the accustomed twinge of guilt, but he still knew that he felt the same now as he had then. He didnâ€™t want this city, or its lands. It would never be his home, no matter what Shoa said.
He moved away from the edge and stood up, shuddering involuntarily at the thought of how high up he was. He couldnâ€™t imagine how a griffin could hurl himself off the edge the way they did here. Not even a pair of wings would make him that careless.
As he walked back toward the centre, he glanced up and saw something that made him stop dead. Something huge had appeared, just above him, and he nearly panicked and ran before he realised it was just a griffin coming into land.
Rannagon moved back to get out of the way, but the blast of air from the beastâ€™s wings nearly knocked him off his feet. He recovered his balance and bowed his head, awestruck.
The griffin stood over him, huffing to itself. From where he was, Rannagon thought its chest looked like a white-feathered wall. Below that the great grey forelegs looked like a couple of stone pillars.
Very carefully, Rannagon backed away. â€˜Excuse me.â€™
The gigantic griffin lowered its head â€“ his head; a pair of iridescent ear-plumes gave that away. Â The eyes were huge, blazing pure gold. They studied Rannagon for a moment, and then their owner sat down on his haunches and continued to watch him calmly.
Rannagon bowed again. â€˜You scared me.â€™
The giant griffin put his head on one side. â€˜I often do that.â€™
â€˜Well, I wonâ€™t get in your way any more,â€™ said Rannagon.
He started to leave, but the griffin spoke again. â€˜Rannagon Raegonson.â€™
Rannagon stopped and turned back. â€˜You know my name?â€™
The griffin looked amused. â€˜Everyone in Malvern knows your name. As all of Cymria knows mine.â€™
Realisation dawned on him. â€˜Youâ€™re Kraal. Arenâ€™t you?â€™
â€˜Yes. The Mighty Kraal, some call me. Some even call me Gryphus, after the god of your people.â€™
Rannagon laughed. â€˜I can see why! By Gryphus, youâ€™reâ€¦â€™ he coughed. â€˜Youâ€™re the biggest griffin Iâ€™ve ever seen.â€™
Kraal regarded him with interest. â€˜So you are the one other humans are calling a hero and a great warrior.â€™
â€˜Well,â€™ Rannagon mumbled. â€˜I suppose so.â€™
â€˜You defeated the traitor, and that is heroism enough for most,â€™ said Kraal.
Rannagon wondered what the giant griffin was implying. Was he hinting that he himself wasnâ€™t overly impressed? â€˜I donâ€™t particularly care what they call it,â€™ he said finally. â€˜War is war.â€™
Kraal cocked his head. â€˜Interesting. I expected arrogance and swagger.â€™
â€˜I killed people,â€™ Rannagon said, more sharply than he meant to. â€˜Whatâ€™s heroic about that?â€™
â€˜Little,â€™ said Kraal. â€˜But I have never cared much for what names your kind chooses to give such things.â€™ He stood up. â€˜I must go now. I only wished to see you, and now that is enough.â€™
â€˜Thankyou-,â€™ Rannagon began, surprised.
The Mighty Kraal stepped closer. The sun, behind him, surrounded him with light â€“ almost creating an aura around his huge white head. â€˜Brave human,â€™ he rumbled, â€˜Go and be blessed. Walk in sunlight all your days. But beware. The North does not forget, and nor does its guardian.â€™
â€˜Iâ€¦ uhâ€¦ Iâ€™ll be careful,â€™ Rannagon promised.
â€˜Beware of the shadows,â€™ said Kraal. â€˜Beware the night. Farewell.â€™ With that, he walked away.
Rannagon watched him go. He scratched his head. â€˜What was that all about?â€™
Never mind. It was getting late, and Shoa would be wanting her food.
When he entered her nest some time later, with a shoulder of beef slung on his back, he found her waiting. Late afternoon sun was coming in through the archway that led to the balcony outside, and she was basking in it with her eyes blissfully half-shut.
Rannagon quietly put the meat down on the silver dish by her trough.
â€˜I have news from Reean,â€™ said Shoa without moving or opening her eyes.
Rannagon paused. â€˜What did he say?â€™
The yellow griffin yawned and stretched her talons out in front of her. â€˜We are wanted in the Council Chamber tonight. The Eyrie Masterâ€™s human has gifts to present to us.â€™
â€˜Oh.â€™ Rannagon cheered up slightly. â€˜Thatâ€™s good.â€™
â€˜Yes.â€™ Shoa rested her head on her talons, and he thought the conversation was over before she said, â€˜There is no need to leave yet. Stay with me a while.â€™
Surprised, Rannagon came to sit down on the floor â€“ not too close to her. He kept quiet, and waited for her to speak.
Shoa said nothing for so long it began to look like she was asleep. But then she stirred and said, â€˜Do you know why I chose you?â€™
Rannagon stared at his boots. â€˜Because I was Lord Raegonâ€™s son.â€™
â€˜It was for your eyes.â€™
He blinked. â€˜My eyes?â€™
â€˜Yes.â€™ Shoa opened her own. â€˜Your eyes,â€™ she said, almost warmly. â€˜I saw them that day and was fascinated. Such a colour, like two pieces of the sky. I had never seen such a thing before, but it pleased me very much. I knew then that I would have no other human but you.â€™
Rannagon rubbed his eyes without thinking. â€˜I had no ideaâ€¦ I thoughtâ€¦ well. I liked your eyes too,â€™ he said bashfully. â€˜Theyâ€™re almost exactly the same colour as mine.â€™
Shoa raised her head and put it on one side. â€˜They are?â€™
â€˜Yes,â€™ said Rannagon, surprised. â€˜Didnâ€™t you know?â€™
â€˜I have never seen them.â€™
â€˜Oh!â€™ Rannagon paused. â€˜Would you like to?â€™
Shoa stared blankly at him.
â€˜Look,â€™ he said. â€˜Iâ€™ll show you.â€™ He got up and fetched the silver platter, lifting it with the meat still on it. Shoa hooked the food off once it was within reach, and began to eat.
Rannagon wiped the platter clean with a handful of straw, and gave it a quick polish with his sleeve. It was scratched and dinted, but it still reflected well enough, and he held it up to Shoaâ€™s face. â€˜See?â€™ he said.
She looked up, and caught sight of her reflection. She stared, blinked, and stood up. â€˜What is this?â€™
â€˜Itâ€™s you,â€™ said Rannagon. â€˜Your reflection.â€™
Shoa circled carefully around the platter, pecking at it and hissing uncertainly. Finally she seemed to accept that the griffin she could see in it was indeed herself, and she sat down and examined it from every angle. She cooed softly. â€˜What a beautiful one I am!â€™
â€˜Of course,â€™ Rannagon grinned. â€˜And see your eyes there? Blue, just like I said.â€™
She lay down, still staring with fascination at her reflection. â€˜What cunning you humans possess, to make metal show us ourselves this way.â€™
â€˜I knew you kept me around for a reason,â€™ Rannagon murmured, mostly to himself.
Shoa sighed. â€˜Leave it so that I may look again. I must eat now.â€™
Rannagon propped it up against the trough. â€˜I should go and get some food too. And then I should put my ceremonial outfit on. Donâ€™t want to be late, now do we?â€™
Shoa had already pulled the meat toward herself. â€˜Go,â€™ she said briefly, and began to eat.
Rannagon hummed to himself as he went back into his own room. He had a proper mirror carefully stowed away, and he brought it out now to check his appearance.
The face that peered back at him looked thinner than he remembered, half-obscured by the thick yellow beard heâ€™d grown during his time in the North. A fresh scar on his forehead made him look rather stern, but the eyes that had impressed Shoa all those years ago hadnâ€™t changed, at least.
â€˜A boy came North, and a warrior goes home,â€™ he said aloud. â€˜Or so Iâ€™d like to hope.â€™
He pulled himself together and started to hunt for a comb.
That night in the Council Chamber, Rannagon and Shoa found themselves facing the Eyrie Master once again â€“ and most of the crowd that had been there last time as well.
Lord Anech wore his ceremonial outfit and looked cheerful. â€˜Welcome back, Rannagon.â€™
Rannagon bowed. â€˜My Lord.â€™
â€˜Today you asked for my permission to go home tomorrow,â€™ the Eyrie Master said, for the benefit of the crowd. â€˜Reean and I have given it. But in recognition of your help, we have gifts here for you and Shoa.â€™
Reean stepped forward to Shoa, who bowed her head to him. â€˜Shoa, for your help, I have commanded my human to present you these gifts.â€™
Shoa kept her head bowed. â€˜I accept them humbly, great Reean.â€™
Lord Anech stepped down to present the gifts. They were huge metal bands, made from precious metals and studded with semiprecious stones, and he snapped them closed around Shoaâ€™s forelegs â€“ three on each leg.
The yellow griffin accepted these treasures with obvious delight, chirping and pecking at the stones.
Anech returned to his platform and picked up a long cloth-wrapped bundle. â€˜And for you, Lord Rannagon, I have another gift. It was made especially for you by the finest craftsman in Malvern.â€™
The sword gleamed, as the wrappings came away. It was a double-handed blade, made for war. The blade was made from the finest steel, polished and tapered to a broad point. At the base where it met the hilt, the words Rannagon Raegonson had been engraved.
The hilt was yellow bronze, the crosspiece shaped like two griffins lying tail to tail.
Rannagon felt unworthy to hold it. â€˜Itâ€™s magnificentâ€¦â€™
Anech smiled and bowed his head briefly. â€˜You earned it.â€™
â€˜Iâ€™ll take good care of it,â€™ said Rannagon. He raised his voice, so the crowd could hear him. â€˜Iâ€™ll carry this sword with pride all my life, and pass it on to my children. I swear.â€™
Cheers rose to the roof.
After the ceremony there was a feast to celebrate the departure of Rannagon and some of the other visiting griffiners who were going home. It was held on the top of the Council Tower, where there was enough space for the griffins as well.
Rannagon ate sparingly, not really in the mood, but he did enjoy chatting to some of the other guests. Some of the other visiting griffiners had come from as far away as Canran or Withypool, and most of them were happy to tell him about their homelands. More than one went so far as to invite him to visit.
Midway through the evening, a woman came to speak to him. â€˜My Lord.â€™
She was small and slight, but had a steely look that her grey eyes helped to enhance. Rannagon realised he knew her. â€˜My Lady,â€™ he bowed.
She smiled slightly, and hugged the bundle she carried. â€˜I wanted to thank you again, for bringing Hemantâ€™s sword back.â€™
â€˜My duty,â€™ Rannagon said gravely. â€˜Iâ€™m only sorry that I couldnâ€™t save him.â€™
â€˜I donâ€™t blame you.â€™ She held out the bundle. â€˜My daughter.â€™
Rannagon looked down into a tiny, pale face. â€˜Well, hello there. Arenâ€™t you a sweet little thing?â€™
The childâ€™s mother smiled more warmly. â€˜Her name is Elkin. Hemantâ€™s sword will go to her when sheâ€™s older. I wanted you to see her, so I could thank you on her behalf.â€™
Rannagon kissed his thumb and touched it to the childâ€™s forehead. â€˜May Gryphus bless you, Elkin.â€™
â€˜May Gryphus bless you, Rannagon, for what you did,â€™ the mother said sharply. â€˜You avenged her father, and brought peace back to the North. We wonâ€™t ever forget that.â€™
Unexpectedly, the memory of what the Mighty Kraal had said rose up in his mind. The North does not forget.
Perhaps it was that which did it, but whatever caused it, Rannagon had bad dreams that night.
Normally his dreams were full of light â€“ all of them were set in daylight. But this dream was full of darkness. There was snow underfoot, and an endless starry sky above. The air smelt of ice and blood. Around him, pale shapes formed. Faces, eyeless but staring. They made no sound, but no matter where he turned they were always there in front of him, white as snow, black holes for eyes, red lines for mouths.
The faces, he thought. The faces. The ones I killed. The faces! They wonâ€™t forget.
The mouths began to move, shaping words, but he couldnâ€™t hear them. All he heard was a thud and a wet sliding, a grating that ran up his arm. The sound of Arddrynâ€™s face breaking under his sword, repeating over and over.
One by one the faces shattered. They were full of blood. Blood, splashing onto him, hot, metallic blood. His ears were full of screams. His? Theirs? Arddrynâ€™s?
Then the blood wasnâ€™t hot any more. It was cold, ice-cold, smothering, awfulâ€¦ the blood of the North, his mind screamed. The North never forgets, the Northâ€¦
The dream twisted and changed, sliding into another. He saw the battlefield, at Tor Plain, but it was night here now. The fighting was over and only the bodies were left. Dead darkmen, scattered where they had fallen, their blood all frozen into the earth.
Above the moon glowed, but it wasnâ€™t the moon, it was an eye, a staring eye. Its light became a white spectre, drifting over the earth and whispering. Revenge, most terrible revenge. He thought he heard it weeping.
Then it saw him. A curse on you! it screamed, rising up and changing into a woman. Arddryn, her face split in half and gushing blood. She had the teeth of a wolf, and her eyes burned with white light. A curse on you, she howled. The North does not forget!
Her teeth met in his throat.
Rannagon and Shoa left the next day, at dawn. Rannagon had put on his warmest clothes and strapped his new sword on his back â€“ everything else would be sent by courier. He had left his old sword on his bed. Deep down he knew he probably shouldnâ€™t leave it behind like this, but the truth was that he didnâ€™t want to see it any more. It brought back too many memories he would rather bury.
Shoa wore the simple leather harness that would give him something to hold onto in the air. She hadnâ€™t eaten that morning, so as to make herself lighter in the air. â€˜Come,â€™ she said impatiently. â€˜With luck we shall reach Guardâ€™s Post before dark.â€™
Rannagon climbed onto her back. â€˜Talk to you later, then, I suppose.â€™
She said nothing, and only waited until he was secure before making a short run out onto the balcony outside. It had no railings or wall, and for a good reason. When Shoa reached the edge she launched herself into the air.
The journey home began.
Travelling with a griffin was nowhere near as romantic or exciting as most people thought. In reality, it was slow, dull, cold and painful. Griffins werenâ€™t made to fly long distances at all, let alone with a burden, and Shoa had to stop every so often to rest.
For his part, Rannagon couldnâ€™t just doze on her back. He had to stay alert, ready to lean with her, or to drop when her head did. The rest of the time he had to make sure he stayed balanced, or he risked falling off sideways or even throwing Shoa off.
Despite his thick clothing it was extremely cold this high in the air, and the wind constantly pulling at him made holding on exhausting.
He was every bit as tired as Shoa was, when they reached the mountains and entered them to land at Guardâ€™s Post.
The old fort had been built over the great gates that blocked the pass through the mountains, and had a permanent garrison of soldiers. Anyone entering or leaving Malvernâ€™s lands had to pass through Guardâ€™s Post, often paying a hefty fee along the way. It also acted as a convenient stopoff point for griffiners, and had often been home to one or two of them at some stage.
Right now though there were none, and the griffiner quarters in the fortâ€™s two towers were all free. Rannagon and Shoa chose one at random, and gladly accepted the hospitality of the fort commander, who provided food for both of them.
That night Rannagon dreamed of darkness again, and the sound of Arddrynâ€™s death.
The dreams continued to haunt him for the rest of the journey. As they travelled back into the warmer lands of the South they stayed in many different places â€“ small griffiner outposts, towns, villagers â€“ even the occasional forest where they were forced to camp. Commoners, of course, were always quick to welcome a griffiner. They believed a griffin was good luck â€“ a messenger of Gryphus, able to heal sickness and make crops grow. They offered both Shoa and Rannagon the best they had to offer, no matter how humble that might be.
But no matter where he slept, on a straw pallet, in a hammock or on bare earth, Rannagon always dreamed. Strangely enough, the further away from the North he was the more vivid the memories in the dreams became. He relived old fights and confrontations, seeing the same men and women die over and over again. And every death was the same. Always his doing. Even if in reality he hadnâ€™t been the one to do it, every death he dreamt of happened at his own hands. He slit Hemantâ€™s throat with his sword, night after night.
Arddryn, though, was always the worst. Her skull, breaking again and again. The way she thrashed on the ground at his feet, the life draining out of her.
Oh Gryphus, help me, he would pray even in his dreams. But it seemed Gryphus didnâ€™t want to help him.
Despite the dreams, his heart lifted when he realised that he had begun to recognise the countryside they were passing through again, and knew they were in Eagleholmâ€™s lands. Soon, very soon, he would be home.
The biggest moment of excitement came when Shoa landed in a large village one evening. The instant he was in among the buildings, Rannagon knew the name of the place. â€˜Carrick!â€™ he said. â€˜Weâ€™re in Carrick! Eagleholmâ€™s less than a day away!â€™
Shoa lay down on her belly. â€˜Yes,â€™ she panted. â€˜Tomorrow we shall be home.â€™
The villagers were already hurrying to meet them. â€˜My Lord!â€™
Rannagon looked benignly at them. â€˜Hello. Which one of you is in charge here?â€™
A tough-looking middle-aged man came forward. â€˜I am the local administrator, my Lord. My name is Artan.â€™
â€˜Pleased to meet you. My name is Lord Rannagon, and this is Shoa. We need a place to stay tonight.â€™
Several people there instantly shouted their offers, all wanting the griffin â€“ and therefore, the luck â€“ at their own homes. Artan waved them into silence. â€˜The tavern has the best quarters for the both of you, my Lord.â€™
A bony man, obviously the tavern owner, tried and failed to hide his pleasure. â€˜Itâ€™d be an honour, milord. Please, come this way.â€™
Rannagon followed him wearily to the tavern â€“ a large two-storied building with a thatched roof. There was a disused stable for Shoa, which she accepted and instantly went to sleep in. As for Rannagon, he found himself being ushered into the tavernâ€™s main room and offered the best seat by the fire. He slumped into it and sat there yawning while the owner blathered on, saying something about roast goose with honey and the finest mead and cider. Eventually the man seemed to realise he was annoying his guest, and beat a hasty retreat.
This left Rannagon with the tavernâ€™s serving girl, who warmed up a large earthenware mug of cider and spiced it with cloves. He took it and drank deeply, pleased to find that it was indeed very good â€“ and just the right temperature too.
After that came some beer, and the honey-roasted goose. That was very tasty too. In a very good mood now, Rannagon gestured at the serving girl. â€˜Here, sit with me why donâ€™t you? I canâ€™t eat all this on my own.â€™
She took a chair beside him, and boldly helped herself to a leg. â€˜Thankyou, my Lord.â€™
Rannagon took another swig of beer. â€˜This is excellent. Was it brewed here in Carrick?â€™
â€˜No, my Lord, but we do make the cider and the mead,â€™ said the girl. She smiled at him and rearranged her skirt. â€˜Your nameâ€™s Rannagon, ainâ€™t it?â€™
He eyed her with renewed interest. She looked about sixteen, and her eyes were brown and appealingly innocent. â€˜It is indeed,â€™ he told her. â€˜And whatâ€™s yours, may I ask?â€™
â€˜Belara.â€™ She smiled sweetly. â€˜They call me Bell, though.â€™
â€˜Very nice.â€™ Rannagon raised his cup to her. â€˜A pretty name for a pretty girl.â€™ He drained the beer.
Bell quickly refilled his cup for him. â€˜Have you come back from the war, my Lord?â€™
â€˜Yes,â€™ he said, rather shortly. He didnâ€™t want to talk about it now, when he was enjoying himself so much.
She edged closer to him, leaning forward to show her breasts. â€˜Were the blackrobes very vicious?â€™ she asked, in a childish voice.
Rannagon grinned despite himself. â€˜Very! Theyâ€™re nasty people. Violent and dangerous.â€™
Bell nodded. â€˜They drink blood, my dad says. Some of them can turn themselves into wolves anâ€™ that, too.â€™
He thought of the dark warriors charging at him, howling. â€˜Maybe they can.â€™
She put her hand on his arm. â€˜Weâ€™re lucky to have strong men like you tâ€™keep us safe.â€™
Rannagon pulled his arm away and poured some more beer down his throat. â€˜The darkmen are useful, but they have to be kept in check,â€™ he said. â€˜The war showed us why they have to be watched.â€™
â€˜Theyâ€™re good slaves, Artan says,â€™ said Bell. â€˜He says we shouldnâ€™t have sold them all away.â€™
Rannagon finished his beer. â€˜Well donâ€™t worry, Iâ€™m sure when the Eyrie treasury is full again my sister will buy them back.â€™
Bellâ€™s eyes widened. â€˜The Eyrie Mistress is your sister?â€™
â€˜Yes. And tomorrow Iâ€™ll see her again at last. Do you know how she is?â€™
The girl shook her head. â€˜She never come down here, my Lord.â€™
Rannagon nodded to himself. â€˜Never mind. Iâ€™ll see for myself.â€™
â€˜â€™course you will.â€™ Bell poured him another drink.
Rannagon finished it. â€˜Well,â€™ he yawned. â€˜I should probably be getting to bedâ€¦â€™
Bell stood up, placing herself in his way. â€˜Would you like tâ€™try some of our mead first, my Lord? We make the best here in Carrick. Even the Eyrie buys it.â€™
Rannagon hesitated. â€˜I donâ€™t see why notâ€¦â€™
She nodded and hurried away.
The mead came hot and spicy, and very potent. After a mug or two of it Rannagon found himself chatting away to Belara as if she were an old friend.
He was fully aware that he was drunk, and he didnâ€™t particularly care. Maybe this way he would have a peaceful nightâ€™s sleep. He accepted another mugful.
Bell playfully sat herself on his lap, with her arm around his neck. â€˜You are a strong man, ainâ€™tcha? I must look like a little girl next tâ€™you.â€™
You are just a girl, Rannagon thought, but he didnâ€™t say it. It occurred to him to feel embarrassed at having her draping herself over him like this, but he turned the idea over in his head a few times and then promptly forgot it. It was nice to be close to someone again. â€˜Iâ€™m a hero, you know,â€™ he found himself telling her.
She fluttered and giggled. â€˜Really?â€™
â€˜The rebels had a leader. The darkmen, I mean. Blackrobes. Their leader.â€™
â€˜Did you fight him?â€™
â€˜Her,â€™ said Rannagon. â€˜Herâ€¦ she was a woman.â€™
â€˜A woman!â€™ Bell looked innocently astonished.
â€˜Her name was Arddryn. I fought her. I killed her.â€™
Bell gasped. â€˜You killed her?â€™
â€˜I hit her in the face with my sword,â€™ said Rannagon, suddenly proud of the fact. â€˜Cutâ€¦ nearly cut her head in half.â€™
Bellâ€™s look of revulsion was genuine. â€˜Thatâ€™s horrible!â€™
â€˜I know.â€™ Rannagonâ€™s voice became grimmer. â€˜I dream about it. Dreamâ€¦ every night. Awful dreams. Canâ€™t sleep. Donâ€™t want to sleep. I keep thinking Iâ€™llâ€¦ Iâ€™ll be punished. The North never forgets,â€™ he added, mostly to himself.
Bell sighed and put her hand inside his shirt, caressing his chest. â€˜I could give you good dreams, my Lord. If you want.â€™
Rannagon rested his head on her shoulder. â€˜Iâ€™m so tiredâ€¦â€™
â€˜Come, then.â€™ Bell got up off his lap and offered him her hand. â€˜Let me show you your room.â€™
He followed her upstairs, stumbling a little.
His room was modest but comfortable. Someone had brought his sword up for him and left it leaning against the wall.
Rannagon slumped onto the bed while Bell lit the lamp. â€˜Look at that,â€™ he mumbled, waving a hand toward the sword. â€˜Isnâ€™t it beautiful?â€™
She examined it, careful not to touch it. â€˜Is that the one you fought the leader with?â€™
â€˜No. Itâ€™s new. They gave it to me whenâ€¦â€™ the room seemed to be spinning. â€˜â€¦when I was leaving. They made it for me. Reward.â€™
â€˜Itâ€™s very beautiful,â€™ Bell admitted. â€˜I never saw a sword before. Can I touch it?â€™
â€˜Yes. Careful though.â€™
She brushed the hilt with her fingertips, and grinned in wonder before turning to look at him. â€˜Moment you got here I was thinking how Iâ€™d like to get my hands on your sword, my Lord,â€™ she said, with the hint of a smirk.
Rannagon waved vaguely at her. â€˜Go on. I needâ€¦â€™
She closed the door. â€˜I know what you need,â€™ she said, and with those words a new tone came through in her voice. It was low and intent, almost calculating.
Rannagon rolled onto his side. â€˜I wantâ€¦â€™
Bell pulled her dress down, exposing most of her breasts. â€˜Hush,â€™ she said. â€˜Itâ€™s all right, my Lord.â€™ She blew out the lamp, and in the darkness that followed she slid onto the bed and wrapped herself around him.
She was warm and soft, and smelled of flour and spices. When she touched him, Rannagonâ€™s hands seemed to take on a life of their own. They wanted to touch her back, and they did, and a wave of pleasure deadened his senses. Kaelyn, he thought, but his hands found Belaraâ€™s breasts and he brought his face down to hers.
â€˜Love me, my Lord,â€™ she breathed. â€˜My great warrior.â€™
He wanted her, he realised. Needed her. Needed to be loved. Kaelyn, he thought, and lost himself in her.
Belara was gone the next morning, leaving Rannagon with a hangover and an ache of guilt in his chest. He skipped breakfast and left quietly before anyone noticed.
Shoa was already waiting for him outside. â€˜I am tired of this place,â€™ she said. â€˜We shall leave now.â€™
Rannagon adjusted his sword. â€˜Letâ€™s go home,â€™ he said quietly.
In the end, their return to Eagleholm was far away from how he had imagined it would be. They reached the mountaintop city at around midday, and Rannagon was almost disappointed to see how little it had changed. The huge platforms, spreading out from the mountaintop, looked just how he remembered. There was the Hatchery, a little run-down but otherwise unchanged. The Eyrie, right at the centre, still flying the sunwheel and the eagle banner. He could have left it yesterday.
No-one was waiting for him. There was no great celebration. No-one seemed to have noticed them at all. Some of the griffins circling over the city took a brief interest in them, but they left them alone after that and Shoa landed without incident.
Rannagon dismounted and looked around. There was no-one about. â€˜I suppose we may as well go back to our old quarters.â€™
Those were still there too, but they looked different. Everything was covered in dust, and from the condition of Shoaâ€™s nest it looked like some vagrant griffin had decided to settle in. Shoa angrily swept the soiled nesting material out through the archway and off the balcony into the air. â€˜That one had better be prepared if he returns,â€™ she vowed. â€˜I will show him what happens to nest-thieves.â€™
Rannagon hung his sword on the pegs over the fireplace where the old one had rested. His clothes were all where heâ€™d left them, and he took out his favourite blue tunic and put it on. It felt rather loose around the middle.
Shoa came in. â€˜I need new nesting,â€™ she said. â€˜And my water is dry.â€™
â€˜I was going to go and find Riona. I can send for the nesting while Iâ€™m on the way.â€™
The yellow griffin shook out her feathers. â€˜I shall come with you.â€™
They found Riona in the large room that served her as an office. Shree was with her. When they came in, the Eyrie Mistress looked up. Confusion flashed across her face, quickly followed by astonishment. â€˜Rannagon? Is that you?â€™
He smiled at her. â€˜Riona! Thank Gryphus youâ€™re still here. And you donâ€™t look even a day older.â€™
Riona folded her arms. â€˜And youâ€™re still a terrible liar, little brother.â€™
He shrugged. â€˜Lying is for Northerners, and you look old enough to be our mother.â€™
They stared at each other for a moment, and then Riona ran across the room and hugged him tightly. â€˜Rannagon! Oh I missed youâ€¦â€™
He hugged her back, full of relief. â€˜I thought Iâ€™d never see you again.â€™
â€˜So did I,â€™ said Riona. She let go of him and touched his face. â€˜You look so different.â€™
â€˜I know. I must look old tooâ€¦â€™
â€˜I was going to say that you look like our father,â€™ said Riona. â€˜Thatâ€™s why Iâ€¦ I thought you were him when you came in.â€™
Rannagon grinned. â€˜I bet he wonâ€™t be pleased about that. Where is he?â€™
His sister looked away. â€˜He died.â€™
â€˜Iâ€™m sorry, Rannagon,â€™ said Riona. â€˜It was months ago, while you were gone. I had no way of telling you.â€™
Rannagon slumped into a chair. â€˜Oh noâ€¦ no. Oh, Gryphus. Not Dad.â€™
She hugged him again, around the neck. â€˜He died in his sleep. It was painless.â€™
Rannagon felt cold. â€˜He didnâ€™t want me to go,â€™ he mumbled. â€˜He told me I shouldâ€¦â€™
â€˜He was proud of you,â€™ said Riona.
â€˜Donâ€™t say that.â€™
â€˜He was,â€™ she insisted. â€˜He told me so.â€™
â€˜Yes. He said he knew you would be brave enough to do what you had to do, and he always believed that.â€™
Rannagon managed a smile. â€˜Well. I had no idea.â€™
â€˜Is the war over?â€™ Riona asked softly. â€˜If youâ€™re homeâ€¦â€™
â€˜Yes, itâ€™s over. And Iâ€™m glad.â€™
â€˜Did you see much fighting?â€™
â€˜Yes. I donâ€™t really want to talk about it just now.â€™
â€˜Dad left you something,â€™ said Riona. â€˜For you to have when you came home.â€™
â€˜He did? What is it?â€™
â€˜His office,â€™ said Riona. â€˜I never chose a replacement. His assistants have been doing his old duties, but now youâ€™re back you can take over as soon as youâ€™re ready.â€™
Rannagon stared. â€˜Me? Master of Law?â€™
Riona nodded. â€˜Dad believed you could do it. And so do I.â€™
Rannagon tried to think. The Master of Law was one of the most powerful officials in Eagleholm â€“ nearly as powerful as the Eyrie Mistress herself. He had indeed been promised a position, as he had reminded Shoa, but he had never expected that position to be Master of Law.
There was no question of refusing this time. It wasnâ€™t just Shoa who would want him to accept, it was his father as well, and Riona.
He stood up. â€˜I accept,â€™ he said. The moment the words were out of his mouth he felt much older.
Shoa appeared behind him, where she had been listening the whole time. â€˜We both accept,â€™ she said. â€˜And with much pride.â€™
Riona smiled sadly. â€˜Thankyou. Youâ€™ll be officially given the title as soon as youâ€™re ready. But for now I think you have something more important to do, Rannagon.â€™
He blinked. â€˜What do you mean?â€™
Rionaâ€™s smile became warmer. â€˜I think thereâ€™s someone else waiting for you, little brother.â€™
Kaelyn was in her house down in the city, where she preferred to live. Rannagon knew where to find her, and went through the building and out into the little courtyard where his belovedâ€™s cherished herb-garden grew.
And there she was, standing among the griffin-tail that was in bloom. Waiting for him.
The sun shone on her fine brown hair.
She put her hands on her hips. â€˜Rannagon Raegonson, where have you been?â€™
Rannagonâ€™s face creased in a smile as he stepped toward her. â€˜Thatâ€™s Lord Rannagon, Iâ€™ll have you know.â€™
Kaelyn laughed. â€˜Is that so?â€™
â€˜It is now,â€™ said Rannagon. â€˜Iâ€™ve just been made Master of Law.â€™
â€˜Well, isnâ€™t that special?â€™ Kaelyn shook her head. â€˜When did you get back, anyway?â€™
â€˜Just a short time ago. I wanted to surprise you.â€™
â€˜Iâ€™ve been waiting a long time,â€™ she said more quietly. â€˜Too long.â€™
â€˜I know.â€™ Rannagon reached out to touch her face. â€˜But itâ€™s over now. Iâ€™m home. And Iâ€™ll never leave again.â€™
â€˜Is that a promise?â€™ she asked.
Kaelyn touched his shoulder. â€˜Then thatâ€™s good enough for me.â€™
â€˜I brought something for you,â€™ said Rannagon.
â€˜Oh?â€™ she raised an eyebrow. â€˜Something good, I hope.â€™
â€˜I hope so too.â€™ Rannagon steeled himself, and put it into her hand.
The sapphire sparkled, when she uncurled her fingers. It was the size of an eye, and beautifully star-cut.
Kaelynâ€™s mockery disappeared at once. â€˜Gryphusâ€™ talonsâ€¦ Rannagon, you donâ€™t meanâ€¦?â€™
â€˜I do.â€™ He looked her in the eye. â€˜Marry me, Kaelyn.â€™
Her hand closed around the gem. â€˜Rannagonâ€¦ of course I will.â€™
â€˜You need someone to take care of you, donâ€™t you?â€™ said Kaelyn. â€˜And Iâ€™m not going to let someone else do it. Iâ€™ve had all the practise, havenâ€™t I?â€™
â€˜Shoaâ€™s had plenty by now,â€™ Rannagon admitted.
â€˜Shoa doesnâ€™t love you,â€™ said Kaelyn. â€˜And I do.â€™
The sun looked down as they kissed, and Rannagon felt joy turn him warm from end to end.
Walk in sunlight all your days, his memory whispered.
And he would. He knew he would.