The Creature

The creature sat in his cage in the Withypool fighting pits, and peered out at the world. Outside, a dozen faces stared back. Human faces, they were, and he could understand the expressions on them. They looked at him the way every human did – with shock, with bewilderment, with fear and disgust.

The creature stared back silently. He could hear them speaking, and he understood them.

‘What is it?’

‘Where did it come from?’

‘It’s so… awful. I’ve never seen anything like it before.’

‘It scares me. Look at it just staring at us. Who knows what it could be thinking?’

The creature could not answer them. He wanted to, but the words wouldn’t come to him. So he just stared and listened, and thought about nothing in particular. Thinking wasn’t easy for him, but feeling was. He felt many different things. Sometimes he felt angry, and sometimes he felt sad. Sometimes he felt happy, and he tried to smile like they did, but it was hard, and it seemed to frighten them when he did.

He knew he didn’t look like them. He had arms and legs and a head like them, and eyes as well, but in other ways he was different. He had two things on his back which they called wings, and he had a tail as well. None of them seemed to do anything; he couldn’t move them. He had some fur as well, and feathers on some parts of his body. Sometimes he would feel as if he was supposed to clean them, and he did as well as he could, nibbling at them with his teeth and licking with his tongue.

He knew he hadn’t always been in the cage. He had some vague memories of another time, a time when there had been people who looked after him. But then they had gone away and he had been in the cage instead.

People would come and clean it sometimes, and they gave him food to eat. Meat, mostly. He liked meat. The people who came to look at him gave him food as well; poking it through the bars to see if he would take it. He did, and they would watch him eat it as if that were fascinating. He wasn’t sure why.

He did know why they liked to look at him, though. He’d heard them talk. They said he was ugly and horrible, and fascinating. They said there was nothing else like him anywhere. He was the only one.

That was all his life was. Crouching in his cage, eating and sleeping and watching the faces that stared at him. Listening to their voices. He had no real memory of anything different.

But things changed. He changed, and in time the cage changed as well.

He grew larger, and his fur and feathers thickened. The tiny talons on his forepaws lengthened and grew sharp. When he flexed his hind paws, little claws sprouted from them. They, too, grew sharp and strong.

And his mind – that changed too. He thought more, and understood more. The meanings of words became clearer to him. His feelings grew and became clearer as well. Around that time he started to look more closely at the humans outside the cage. He watched them walk past and stop to stare at him, and he watched how they talked and touched each other. He wondered why they did that, and what it meant.

He wished that someone would touch him, too.

Sometimes, he saw griffins as well. He knew what they were, most definitely. He could smell them. They had fur and feathers, too, but all over them – not in patches like his own. They walked on four legs.

The creature couldn’t walk at all. Sometimes he tried to stand up on two legs like the humans did, but his own legs were the wrong shape, and there was no room in his cage. He couldn’t stand properly on four legs either. He crawled and shuffled along the ground instead.

But he continued to grow, and grow fast. Eventually the day came when he could no longer fit in his cage. His keepers moved him to another one, a larger one, where there was space above his head. They propped up some thick tree-branches there. He soon grew to like those. Following some inner urge that he didn’t understand, he sharpened his claws on them.

One day, he tried to climb them – and found that he could! He dug his talons in and pulled himself up, and discovered that he could lie along one of the flat branches with his back legs dangling. He liked it up there, and took to lying there most days. The people seemed to like it when he climbed for them. Sometimes they laughed or cooed. He liked it when they did that.

But mostly they still looked at him with horror, and that made him sad. They didn’t look at each other like that. He watched them, and saw how they smiled at each other, and looked at each other without fear. Sometimes parents would bring their children to see him, and he saw how the children would hold hands with their mothers and fathers, or come carried in their protective arms. Sometimes, if he came too close to the other side of the bars, the children would be afraid of him and their parents would hug them to make them feel better.

The creature watched all that with fascination, and then with sadness. He wanted to know what it felt like when someone smiled at him. He wanted someone to hold him, to hug him. But nobody ever did.

When his keepers came to clean his cage and give him food, he tried to hug them. But they would push him away with their sticks, and if he kept trying they would hit him. They never wanted him to come too close.

Now that the creature could think more clearly, he spent time thinking about what he might do to make his dream come true. His keepers wouldn’t touch him. Therefore, he reasoned, he should get to someone who would. Someone outside the cage; one of those people who did give smiles and hugs.

But he couldn’t leave the cage, because the bars were in the way. And if he did get out, he wouldn’t be able to go very far because he couldn’t walk. Therefore, he had to learn how to walk.

That became his new goal from then on. He stopped lying on his tree-branch, and spent his time trying to stand up. The branches were a help there; he would pull on one to get onto his back legs, and then hold on to steady himself.

It was hard. He did have feet, of a sort, but they were so small that there wasn’t much to balance on, and he didn’t have proper heels or ankles.

But he kept trying. He would stand upright for as long as he could, forcing his legs to bend in new ways so his feet would sit flat on the ground. After he had done that for a few days he started trying to take steps. That was hard as well, very hard. It took him a while to understand how he should do it, but in the end he discovered that if he leaned forward he could balance.

Once he understood that, it got easier. He started to take his first steps and then, carefully, he made his first short walk. He moved slowly and awkwardly, swaying dangerously with every step, but he could do it. And the more he practised, the easier it got.

After that, very patiently, he practised walking until he could do it much more easily. Then, he began trying to run. That was harder, but he wouldn’t give up.

Finally, once he could walk well enough to go around his cage without holding anything to stop himself falling, he was ready to try and get out.

He waited for the right time to come, but that part at least wasn’t too hard. He’d never tried to escape before, so they didn’t expect him to do it.

He waited near the spot where the keepers came in, and when they opened the door he simply slipped through their legs and out into the world outside at last.

He heard a shout of alarm come from behind him, but he didn’t turn around to look. He darted away, awkward on his deformed legs, and went toward the people nearby. They wouldn’t have noticed him because he was small, but they saw the keepers coming after him. Then they saw him coming toward them.

Several of them screamed and backed off. Others came forward and kicked out at him to try and make him go away.

The creature was ready for that. He ducked under their legs and kept on going. He had already spotted a female human – a woman, that was what they were called – who looked kind. She had pressed herself up against the wall behind her.

Determinedly, the creature made straight for her and finally carried out his plan. He couldn’t reach very high, so he put his arms around her leg and hugged it the way he had seen others do.

It was the first time he remembered touching anyone, and he had never been able to imagine what it would be like. He had hoped that it would feel good, and it did. The woman felt warm and soft to hold, and he clung on more tightly and cheeped softly in delight.

The woman screamed and kicked out. Alarmed, the creature clung on instinctively. His little talons scratched her leg, and she screamed again. The creature shrieked too, frightened now, not knowing what to do. This was supposed to be a good thing; it wasn’t meant to make people afraid.

In a moment, before he had the chance to think of what to do next, his adventure was over. Someone pulled him off the woman’s leg and threw him aside. He landed hard and tried to scrabble away with a cry of fright, but the keepers had caught up with him. They picked him up and put him back in his cage. The door slammed behind him.

Frightened, the creature retreated into the back corner of his prison and huddled down there, hiding his face under his paws. He could hear himself calling out; little squarks of alarm that he thought sounded like calls for help. But no help came, and he could hear the fear and anger in the voices outside.

He didn’t understand it. Why would they be angry? He hadn’t meant to hurt anyone. He’d only wanted someone to hold him, or to hold someone.

After a while his fear subsided. He was safe in the cage. But he could feel the throbbing pain in his back where he’d fallen, and he watched as the keepers put a lock on the cage door so he wouldn’t get out again.

That was when he started to see the truth – the truth about the people, and the cage, and himself.

They are afraid of me, he thought – his first truly clear thought. While he was in the cage they were a little afraid, but if he came out, then they were properly frightened. That must be why he was in the cage; so he couldn’t scare anyone. But he didn’t want to scare anyone. He hadn’t meant to. But somehow he had scared them anyway.

That was something he still couldn’t understand properly, and it made him sad. He hid away in that corner for the rest of that day, and felt that sadness, and confusion as well.

Why? he thought.




After his escape, the keepers were much more careful. They made sure he stayed away from the door when it was open, and took more care around him, as if afraid that he might try and hurt them.

He never did, and he didn’t try and leave the cage again either. If he did he would only scare people, and he might get hurt again too; maybe even worse than last time.

But though his cage kept him safe, it didn’t feel like a home any more. He peered out of it now and saw people giving love to each other – love that nobody had ever given to him, or ever would. But he longed to have it; wanted it more than anything, and as his longing grew, his cage stopped feeling safe. Now, for the first time, it felt like a prison.

That was when he cried for the first time.

He had seen the people outside do that, sometimes, but he hadn’t thought of doing it himself. Nor did he have to. It happened without his meaning for it to happen, and once it started happening he couldn’t make it stop. One night, when the people had all gone, and he was utterly alone, he started to make the same distress call that he had on the day of his escape, while tears wet his deformed face.

He didn’t know why he was crying. All he knew was that all his loneliness had risen up inside him all at once, so that his chest hurt and his throat ached, and his eyes stung as the tears came out of them. His desperate wish to be held grew even stronger then, until, once the tears finally stopped, it was all he could think of. He wanted to be touched, hugged, comforted. He wanted to be loved.

But there was nobody there to grant that wish. He had no way of showing others what it was that he wanted. If he had been able to speak, he wouldn’t have known how to put it into words.

So he shed his tears alone, and as the lonely years passed they finally ran out. But they were still there inside him, and they were all the more painful for being unexpressed and unrecognised.

Still, he grew, and changed. His shoulders broadened, and the shape of his legs changed, so that walking became more natural. His front paws changed, too, becoming more like human hands – but clawed ones. Now he was more than half the height of the humans outside, and he felt stronger.

He was too large to sit on his branch now, so he took to pacing around in the bottom of the cage instead. Other times he would hunch down somewhere, with his back to the bars. He was tired of being stared at.

But then, one day, something happened that had never happened before.

The creature, still nameless, was sitting in the front corner of the cage one afternoon. It was cold, so he was hugging his knees for warmth. His sparse fur had puffed itself out. He was ignoring the onlookers again, as had become his habit.

Someone spoke, close by. His first instinct was to ignore that, too, but as the voice spoke on something about it made him look up. It wasn’t a frightened voice, or a disgusted one. It sounded cautious, but…

‘Hello?’ it said. ‘Hello, little one. Can you hear me?’

The creature turned his head, and saw a human coming closer to his cage. A woman. She was looking at him as she spoke, and there was no-one else with her.

‘Hello?’ she said again. ‘Can you understand me?’

She was speaking to him. Not about him, but to him. Speaking softly and without fear.

The creature scrabbled upright and peered at her, not knowing what to do.

The woman frowned. She looked puzzled and curious. ‘Can you understand me, little one?’ she asked.

The creature froze. Nothing like this had ever happened before, and now that it had, he had no idea how to react.

The woman crouched just outside his cage, looking him in the face. ‘Hello,’ she said again. ‘My name’s Toula. Do you have a name?’

The creature only stared. He understood the words she was saying, but he didn’t know how to react to them.

‘Can you talk?’ the woman asked.

Still the creature didn’t move. His head was suddenly full of words, hundreds of words, all the words he knew. They confused him.

‘Can you talk?’ the woman asked again, as if she could tell what he was thinking.

‘Yes,’ said the creature.

It was the first word he’d ever said in his life.

Now it was Toula’s turn to freeze. ‘Did you talk?’ she said. ‘Did you just say…?’

The creature hesitated, not quite able to believe what had happened. He’d just used one of the words in his head. Cautiously, he tried again.

‘Yes,’ he said.

Toula smiled. ‘I don’t believe it! You can talk!’

‘Talk?’ the creature said uncertainly. It wasn’t meant to be a question for her; it was a question he was asking himself, but Toula couldn’t know that.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Talking. You talked!’

The creature tried to smile. ‘I talk,’ he said. He could talk! The more he did it, the easier it became.

‘That’s amazing!’ said Toula. ‘I thought… you look partly human, so I thought maybe you might be intelligent. Has anyone else ever tried to talk to you?’

‘No talking,’ said the creature. He smiled.

‘You’re not allowed to talk?’ asked Toula.

‘No talking,’ the creature said again.

Toula frowned. ‘What are you?’ she asked.

The creature paused to think it over. ‘Ugly,’ it said.

Toula stifled a laugh. ‘I meant what kind of… animal… person you are!’ she said. ‘I can’t tell. No-one can. Are you a human?’

The creature said nothing.

‘You don’t know?’ Toula suggested.

‘Ugly,’ the creature said again. ‘Scary.’

‘You’re not scary,’ said Toula. ‘I’m not scared of you. How did you come to be in that cage, anyway?’

The creature shook his head.

‘Do you have a family?’

‘Family?’ the creature repeated.

‘You know, parents,’ said Toula. ‘Brothers and sisters.’

The creature just stared at her.

‘Did you ever have a home?’ Toula persisted.

‘Home,’ the creature mumbled, and touched the bars between them.

‘You’ve never had any of those things, have you?’ said Toula. ‘You’re all alone, aren’t you?’

The creature nodded silently.

‘Do you even have a name?’ she asked.

The creature shook his head.

‘They call you the Griffin-Boy,’ said Toula. ‘It’s written on the sign outside your cage. You have wings and a tail, and you have some fur and feathers like a griffin. But you look more human to me.’ She smiled at him. ‘I’ll call you Griffy. Do you like it?’

The creature nodded.

Toula glanced away from him. ‘I have to go now,’ she said. ‘But I’ll come back. I promise.’

The creature said nothing, but he stood up to watch her go. It made his heart hurt to see her walk away.

Later on, alone again, he tried to speak again. He tried to say the name she had given him.

‘Griffy,’ he said.

The word felt good in his mouth.

‘Griffy!’ he said again.

Outside the cage, people stared in astonishment.

The creature stared back. ‘Griffy!’ he said, loudly and defiantly. The more he said it, the happier he felt. He had a name! He wasn’t just a creature; he was Griffy.

More than that, he thought later on. More than that, he had a friend.




Toula came back, just as she’d promised. The next day she returned, and talked to him some more. She asked him questions about where he was and where he’d come from, and what he was. He couldn’t answer them.

‘You tell me,’ he said instead. ‘Tell me!’

‘Tell you what?’ Toula asked.

‘Tell!’ Griffy insisted. ‘Tell me!’

So she told him.

‘I’m nobody much,’ she said. ‘Just an old woman without much to do with her time. My husband worked in the Eyrie. In the library. He’s dead now, but I still work there. I’m something of a scholar myself. I like to read, anyway.’

Griffy said nothing. He sat very still, and listened intently.

That encouraged Toula, and she kept on talking. ‘This is the city of Withypool,’ she said. ‘Where you and I live. I don’t think you knew that. You’re at the fighting pits. People and griffins come here to watch the fights. Griffins killing criminals, griffins fighting griffins… it’s horrible.’

‘Why?’ the creature asked. ‘Why here?’

‘Why are you here?’ said Toula.

‘Why Griffy here?’

Toula looked uncomfortable. ‘Well… this is where they put things people might want to just look at. There’s a two-headed calf in the cage next to yours.’

Griffy put his own head on one side, and stared at her.

‘You’re interesting,’ Toula explained. ‘Nobody’s ever seen anything like you before. They pay money to look at you. I paid to get in here myself.’

By now other people had finally noticed what was going on.

‘Are you talking to that thing?’ one man asked.

Toula looked up at him. ‘He can talk,’ she said sharply.

‘No it can’t,’ said the man. ‘Are you daft?’

Toula straightened up to look at the small group of people who were staring at her. ‘He can talk,’ she said loudly. ‘He’s intelligent.’

The people murmured with interest.

‘Prove it!’ said the man who’d spoken first.

‘He can,’ said Toula, casting a glance at Griffy.

The man who had challengd her came forward, looking at the creature. ‘Can you talk, then?’ he asked.

‘Talk!’ Griffy said helpfully.

Gasps came from the onlookers.

Griffy smiled proudly. ‘I talk!’ he said. ‘I Griffy.’

‘You see?’ said Toula.

All of them rushed at the cage, all talking at once.

Griffy backed off nervously.

‘Say something!’ someone shouted.

‘Yeah, do that again!’

‘What are you?’

‘Where’d you come from?’

Griffy chirped in fright and tried to hide behind his claws.

Toula shouted over the top of them. ‘Stop that! Can’t you see you’re scaring him?’

They ignored her, and when she tried to intervene a woman shoved her aside.

Griffy stiffened. He saw his friend stumble and clutch at her ribs where she’d been elbowed. The shouts rose higher.

Griffy took his claws away from his face. He crouched low, and bared his teeth. He could hear a hiss coming from his throat.

The overexcited people backed off slightly.

Griffy advanced on them, stiff-legged and hissing. He crouched on all fours, turning sideways and arching his back so that his featherless wings pointed upward and made him look bigger. When someone took a step closer his hiss became a snarl, and he swatted at the bars with his claws.

Then they backed off.

‘Holy Gryphus!’ one man said in surprise. ‘The thing’s vicious!’

‘You scared him,’ Toula snapped.

Seeing that they weren’t coming any closer, Griffy calmed down and rose back onto his hind legs.

‘There,’ said Toula. ‘Now that’s enough of that. You should apologise to him.’

‘Er,’ said a woman. ‘Er, sorry? Griffin-Boy?’

‘His name is Griffy,’ said Toula.

Griffy smiled and relaxed. ‘Griffy!’ he said.

‘What is he?’ asked the woman who’d apologised. ‘Do you know?’

‘No, I don’t,’ said Toula. ‘But he’s obviously intelligent, so I’m going to go and tell his keepers.’

‘What’ll they do about it?’ asked a man.

‘I’m going to tell them to let him out,’ said Toula. ‘He’s not an animal.’

‘Are you mad?’ said the man. ‘The thing wouldn’t last a day. Anyway, it might be dangerous.’

‘He’s half your size,’ said Toula. ‘D’you really think you couldn’t handle him?’

Several people laughed, and she walked off with a determined look on her face.

‘She could be right,’ the man who’d spoken first said a little while later. ‘If he’s intelligent, maybe it’s not right to keep him locked up. Anyway… he’s got wings. What if he’s…?’

‘Don’t be ridiculous, Eng,’ said the woman beside him. ‘It’s obviously a deformed griffin. The winged man wouldn’t look like that.’

Eng shifted nervously. ‘I dunno, I ain’t so sure.’

Griffy peered at him in puzzlement.

Eng glanced at the others, and then spoke up in a cautious voice. ‘You,’ he said. ‘I mean… Griffy?’

Griffy cocked his head.

‘Are you, uh…’ Eng rubbed the back of his neck. ‘Are you… were you sent here?’

Griffy stared.

‘You know, sent?’ Eng persisted. ‘You know, by… by Gryphus.’

‘Griff-us?’ Griffy repeated clumsily.

Before anyone else could speak, Toula suddenly returned. She had the keepers with her – there were two of those, both men, and both of them looked puzzled and suspicious. They went straight to Griffy’s cage, ushering the onlookers out of the way.

One of them crouched to look at him. ‘Can you talk?’ he asked bluntly.

‘Talk,’ said Griffy.

The man started. ‘It talked!’

‘I talk,’ said Griffy. He frowned and spoke on, stumbling over the words. ‘I talk. My… name… Griffy.’

The keeper looked at his friend, who had gone pale. ‘It talks!’ he said.

He talks,’ Toula interrupted. ‘I did tell you. Well? What are you going to do about it?’

‘Double the price of admission?’ the furthest keeper suggested with a weak laugh.

‘Very funny,’ said Toula.

‘You can’t keep it locked up,’ Eng stepped in. ‘If it talks, it must be intelligent. Anyway, I think it might be… y’know…’

‘What if it’s the winged man?’ said another onlooker. ‘You know, like in the stories. The messenger from Gryphus.’

‘Don’t be stupid,’ said the keeper. ‘The winged man is human.’

‘Well, it kind of looks human,’ said Eng. ‘And how do we know what the winged man really looks like? What if that’s him? What if Gryphus sent the winged man to us, and we locked him up in a cage? I mean, what’s that gonna look like?’

‘That’s just silly,’ said Toula. ‘The winged man is just an old story. It doesn’t matter anyway. He’s intelligent. It’s wrong to keep him in there.’

‘We can’t just let him out,’ said the keeper crouched by Griffy’s cage. ‘He’s the property of the fighting pits. You’d have to take it up with the owners. Anyway, where’d he go? He’s got a home here. Out there he’d starve.’

‘I’ll look after him,’ said Toula.

The keeper half-laughed. ‘You’ll never get them to agree to it.’

Toula scowled. ‘Oh I will,’ she said. ‘I’ve got friends. Believe me, I’ve got friends.’

Griffy listened to all this in silence. Most of it didn’t make much sense to him, but one word did. He looked at Toula, and repeated it to himself.





Toula did it. One way or another, she did it. Days passed, and one day she came back again. This time the keepers were with her, and another human who looked into Griffy’s cage and said; ‘He’s all yours. But I’m giving him to you on the understanding that I’m not responsible for anything he does. If he bites you or runs away, that’s your concern.’

Toula nodded. ‘Let him out.’

The keepers opened the cage door, and Griffy cautiously stepped toward it. He could walk quite well on two legs now.

Toula crouched and held out her arms to him. ‘Come on!’ she said. ‘Come here, it’s all right. You’re free.’

Griffy saw the smile on her face, and walked slowly toward her. The keepers and the other man with them tensed, but he ignored them. He went to Toula, and hesitated for just a moment before he reached out to her with his spindly, scaly arms.

His heart beat faster with excitement, as his dream returned to him.

And then, that day, it came true. Toula reached out and put her arms around him, and he clung to her as she lifted him into a hug. She was warm and soft, and he could feel her heart beating against him.

‘There there,’ she said as she held him. ‘It’s all right; I’ve got you. You’re safe.’

Griffy snuffled happily, and snuggled into her arms.

Toula turned to the keepers, and nodded. ‘Thankyou. I’ll take care of him. Now come on,’ she added to Griffy. ‘We’re going home now.’

Home, Griffy thought.

‘Home,’ he said.




Toula took him away from the fighting pits with her that day, away to the first home he would ever really have. She had a house out in the city, not far from the Eyrie. It was small and made of wood, but there was a fireplace and a bed, and a shelf with books on it.

‘I rescued them from the library,’ she explained. ‘They were going to be thrown away.’

She put Griffy down, and he wandered around the single room of the house, sniffing at things and poking his claws into nooks and crannies.

While he explored, Toula opened up a small chest at the end of her bed.

‘Now,’ she said. ‘I have some things you might have a use for. My children grew up and left home long ago, but… ah, here we go!’ She had unearthed a small pair of pants. ‘These are for you,’ she said. ‘If you’re going to be treated like a human being now, then you have to start dressing like one.’

It took a lot of persuasion and coaxing, but she managed to get them on him. There was nowhere for his tail to go, so she stuffed that down one leg and out of sight.

Griffy didn’t like wearing the pants much. They clung to him and made him feel trapped, and he couldn’t balance so well without his tail. But it seemed to make Toula happy, so he wore them anyway.

She gave him a little tunic to wear as well, which hid his wings, and showed him the cushion that sat in a basket by the fireplace.

‘I can’t afford a bed for you,’ she said. ‘So you can sleep there for now.’

Griffy inspected the cushion. It was soft and comfortable, and he nipped at it and curled up on top of it.

Toula smiled. ‘You look happy enough there. Now I’ll get you something to eat, and maybe tomorrow I’ll take you to see the library.’

Griffy yawned and stretched, draping himself over the cushion. The warmth of the firelight felt good on his skin.

Later on Toula gave him food. Bread, cheese and boiled sausage. He ate it all and went to sleep lying on his belly, happier than he had ever been in his life before.




That was how Griffy’s new life began, and that was how it continued. Toula took him to the library where she worked every day, and they returned every night to the house they now shared. When he had lived with her a while she started taking him with her when she went out into the city, and he got to see the marketplace where she did her shopping.

People still stared, of course, but he didn’t care. Toula didn’t stare, and that was all that mattered to him. She cared for him now, and she taught him too. She taught him how to keep himself clean, how to eat with a knife and a spoon and drink out of a cup. She talked to him, too, all the time, and he talked back, learning new words and ideas. Mostly, though, he listened and learned the things that she told him.

She taught him about the people of Cymria, the country where they lived, and about the griffins as well. She told him about the wars, and the gods, and everything.

When they went to the library she had to work, but Griffy didn’t mind. He helped her carry books – he could climb to the highest shelves with his claws to help him, and even learned how to find books and bring them down for her.

After a time, Toula started teaching him how to read. She showed him what was written in those books, and used a piece of slate and some charcoal to teach him how to draw the words for himself.

It was hard; his fingers weren’t very flexible and his growing talons got in the way, but he tried anyhow, and he learned.

That was when he started to learn that he wasn’t a creature at all. He was a person; Toula said so. He could talk, and he was learning how to read.

But he wasn’t human, and in time Toula asked him about that again.

‘Do you know what you are?’ she asked one day in the library, when it was quiet.

‘No,’ said Griffy. He grinned. ‘Ugly!’

‘You’re not ugly,’ Toula said sternly. ‘But… you really don’t remember anything? Where you came from? Who your parents were?’

Griffy scratched himself. ‘No. I don’t remember anything. I was always in the cage, until you came.’

‘I asked the owners,’ said Toula. ‘They said you were found in an inn somewhere outside Withypool. That’s all they knew.’

Griffy frowned. ‘I don’t remember that.’

‘Well, you wouldn’t,’ said Toula. ‘You were only a baby when you came here. But maybe one day when you’re older you should go back there and see if the people there can tell you anything. It’s not good to live not knowing these things.’

‘It doesn’t matter,’ said Griffy.

Toula smiled. ‘But you’re not the winged man, are you?’

‘No,’ said Griffy. ‘That’s silly!’

‘Yes, it is,’ said Toula.

After that they didn’t talk about it again, and Griffy barely thought of it. He concentrated on learning how to read, instead, and on helping in the library. It was his favourite place to go.

As the months passed by and he learned more about reading, he started to learn about many things in the books Toula showed him. People. Griffins, and griffiners. He saw plenty of them – the Eyrie library was for their use, and some of them would come in looking for books. He would help Toula find whatever they were after, but he didn’t speak to them. He never spoke to anyone except Toula.

From his readings in the library, though, he came to learn about slaves. Once not so long ago, the books said, Withypool and every other city in the South had had slaves. Northerners, sent South to work for their Southern masters.

But now there were no slaves any more, and Griffy had never seen a Northerner. The books of recent history that he read said that the slaves had rebelled. They had gone back to their homeland to fight in the wars against the Southerners, under the leadership of a man called Arenadd Taranisäii, and a griffin called Skandar.

‘Oh, I remember that,’ Toula said when he mentioned it. ‘But it wasn’t Arenadd who took the slaves away from here. It was her.

‘Who’s her?’ Griffy asked.

‘Ah.’ Toula sat back in her chair. ‘It’s quite a story. You see, she was from here.’

‘Who was?’ Griffy said, grinning. Toula liked to drag her stories out like this, to make sure he was really listening.

‘There was a woman called Skade,’ said Toula. ‘She was very strange. You see, some years ago, there was a griffin who lived here in Withypool. She chose a Northerner as her human, and when he was killed she went mad. She went on a rampage through the city, and killed dozens of people. In the end she was caught, and Arakae – the Eyrie Master’s partner – punished her by using his magic on her.’

Griffy already knew very well that griffins had magic, and he nodded eagerly.

‘He transformed her into a human,’ said Toula. ‘That’s something I heard from one of our griffiners who was there, so I know it’s true. She was changed into a human as punishment, because she had decided that all humans were her enemies. Why they didn’t just kill her I don’t know. Anyway, once she’d been transformed she was banished. But she came back a long time later, and she wasn’t alone.’

‘And she took the slaves away?’ said Griffy.

‘Yes. She came with an army of Northerners she’d already bought or stolen, and they took Withypool’s slaves. Some of them had already run away to join her, and when she appeared at our gates almost all the rest went as well. Some of them killed their masters first. They joined up with that woman and her followers, and she took them North.’

‘What did she look like?’ Griffy asked, fascinated.

‘I never saw her myself,’ said Toula. ‘But it’s said that when she changed her eyes stayed the same. Big, yellow griffin eyes. Like yours.’

‘Mine?’ Griffy started. He’d never seen his own eyes before, or thought of trying.

Toula smiled. ‘Yes, you’ve got yellow eyes too. Look into still water if you want to see for yourself.’

Griffy said nothing, but he remembered, and that was when he first started to wonder what he looked like to other people.

And so, one day, he took a bowl and filled it with water. When he put it somewhere that light could shine on it, its surface showed him a picture of the world above it.

Alone, he leaned over the bowl and stared down into it.

His own face looked back. Faint, wavering, but visible.

For a moment, he felt paralysed.

His face was hideous, horrible and deformed. It was inhuman.

The eyes were indeed yellow; slanted, too big for the face they sat in. There were no whites to them at all; they were just yellow from lid to lid, with black pupils hanging in the centre.

The face itself was nearly noseless, the head flattened, the mouth a lipless slit. Tiny feathers covered the forehead, but above them he had a head of sparse, wiry black hair that lay in all directions.

Griffy looked at that face for a long moment, and during that moment the truth finally dawned on him. This was why people stared. This was what ugly looked like.

Unable to make himself look at it any longer, he shoved the bowl of water aside.

He didn’t say anything about it at all, but after that he didn’t want to go out in public any more. The stares he had lived with all his life started to hurt.

The next day, when it was time to go to the library, he didn’t go.

‘I don’t feel well,’ he lied to Toula. ‘I want to stay here.’

‘All right,’ she told him. ‘You take care of yourself. Come to the library later if you feel up to it.’

Griffy nodded. But when she had left and he was alone, he didn’t feel any better. He stayed in the house for a while, but all he could think about was the horrible thing he had seen in the bowl of water.

What looks like that? he thought. What am I?

Toula didn’t know, and he didn’t know, but maybe someone did, someone out there.

On an impulse, he left the house and set out through the city by himself. He wore clothes all the time now, but his feet were the wrong shape for shoes, so he went barefoot.

People stared at him, as usual, but this time it made him angry. He hissed warningly at anyone who came too close, and went on his way. He knew where he was going – the fighting pits.

The pits were set into the ground, but covered by a great net of chains that stopped griffins from flying in or out. There were buildings under the net as well. One of those was the building where the freaks were put on display.

Griffy went straight to it, completely ignoring the man who tried to ask for money, and his nostrils filled with the old familiar stench of the cages. He smelled dung and bad food, and the sweat of dying animals.

He saw them, too. The two-headed calf, all bony and suffering, one head clearly close to death. The griffin youngster with four wings, all useless. A chicken born without limbs.

His own cage was still there, and still empty. He stared into it, hardly able to believe that it had once been his home. By now he was almost as large as a full-grown human, and would never have fitted into it.

‘Hey,’ a voice said to his left. ‘Hey, you.’

Griffy turned and saw a man looking at him.

‘Aren’t you the freak who used to live in there?’ the man asked.

Griffy’s eyes narrowed, and he started to hiss.

The man backed off. ‘You are, though, aren’t you? You’re that weird creature-,’

Griffy took a step forward. His shoulders started to hunch, and the hiss grew louder. ‘I am not a creature!’

Dead silence fell. Griffy looked up, and realised that everyone was staring at him in shock. The man he had shouted at was nearly cowering.

Griffy hissed to himself and stalked away.



© K.J.Taylor


Griffy left the fighting pits, but his anger didn’t last. Soon enough it drained away, and left him feeling lonely and afraid. He wanted to be with Toula again, to talk to her, or just ask her to hug him and remind him that he still had her to care for him. She knew the answers to everything, so maybe she could answer the question that had come to him now. He wanted to ask her why she wasn’t afraid of him. Why she didn’t look at him as if he were disgusting.

He had never thought about it before, but now he did, he knew that she never had. But how could she not?

He made for the Eyrie as quickly as he could, gripped by a sense of urgency that hadn’t been there before. He needed Toula, and she needed him.

The guards on the door knew him by now, and they let him in without asking any questions. Griffy ignored them and loped up the inside of the tower, up and up toward the library.

The library was a big room, round like the tower, and lined with shelves that went all the way to the roof. Griffy went in, and the comforting smell of ageing pages filled his nostrils.

‘Toula?’ he called. ‘Where are you?’

The library looked deserted, and for a moment he thought of going back to the house to see if she was there. But instinct made him hesitate. He stood still and breathed in deeply, scenting the air. He knew all the smells of the library. Books, wood, a faint whiff off griffin, himself… and Toula.

Her scent was there, and it wasn’t old. It was fresh. But it had a different edge to it, an edge that made his fur bristle.

Griffy ran forward, gripped by sudden fear, and there, behind a desk, he found her. The ladder she used to reach the higher shelves was there, leaning to one side like a broken leg.

Toula lay underneath it, face down.

Griffy crouched beside her, and gently turned her over. She felt cold under his hands. He touched her face, and found blood on her forehead. The smell of it made his spine tingle.

‘You’re hurt,’ he said. ‘You fell. Toula?’

The old woman didn’t reply. Her skin had turned white. Griffy could smell a scent on her that he had never smelled before, but his instincts told him what it was. It was a cold, metallic scent. A scent that terrified him.

‘No,’ he said. ‘No, you can’t… no!’

But he knew she was dead; knew it in some deep way that went beyond thought.

‘I should have been here,’ he whispered. ‘I should have helped you. I should…!’

His words ran out. He lifted Toula onto his lap and held her close, cradling her as she had once cradled him, and felt tears burn at his eyes.

But tears weren’t enough. He lifted his head to the ceiling, and screamed.

It was not a human scream. It was a sound unlike any he had ever made before, louder than an ordinary human would ever be able to make. It burst out of his chest and throat, a mixture of lion roar and eagle screech; high and deep and piercing.

It was the scream of a griffin.

It burst out of him in a single breath, and he followed it with another before he slumped over her, exhausted. But the sound had already attracted attention.

He heard the door open, but didn’t look up, even when he heard footsteps hurrying toward him.

‘What’s going on here?’ a voice called.

More footsteps followed, louder and heavier, mixed with the clicking of claws. A second voice came with them, loud and harsh. It spoke a language he didn’t know… but as he listened to it, it formed a kind of sense in his mind. It sounded like a question.

He said nothing, even though he knew it was the voice of a griffin.

The first voice, the human one, spoke again, and a hand touched him on the shoulder.

Griffy’s head jerked upward, and he hissed.

The hand let go, and its owner took a step backward. ‘Holy Gryphus!’

Griffy’s hiss died down, and he glared at the intruder. ‘Leave us alone!’

The intruder was a man, and obviously a griffiner. He glanced at his partner, a large female, and then spoke cautiously to Griffy.

‘What… are you?’

‘Ugly,’ Griffy snapped back. He looked down at Toula again. ‘She’s dead…’

‘How did she die?’ It was the griffin who asked this, and Griffy paused in surprise when he realised that he understood her.

He pointed at the broken ladder without looking at it. ‘She fell,’ he rasped back.

The human started. ‘You speak griffish?’

Griffy said nothing.

The man hesitated. ‘I’ll… I’ll go and get help.’ He hurried out.

Griffy stayed where he was, holding Toula’s body in silence, and when more people came to investigate that was how they found him.

Questions filled the air.

‘Who is he?’

‘What is he?’

‘What happened? Did he-?’

Griffy ignored all of them. A terrible tiredness and despair had gripped him. So many questions, so much mystery, and he was tired of it, so tired.

He gently laid Toula’s body down, and stood up.

One of the people who had come looked him in the face. ‘You’re the… boy who helps old Toula in the library, aren’t you?’

Griffy nodded.

The woman hesitated. ‘Are you… human?’

‘I’m leaving,’ said Griffy, and walked away.




In the days that followed, Griffy didn’t return to the library. He stayed in Toula’s house, for as long as he could, and ate the food still left there. But after a week or so people came, saying that the house belonged to her children now and he couldn’t stay.

He didn’t argue. He barely even spoke to them.

But there was no anger in him; only a kind of sad, distant longing. Toula had loved him, and now she was gone. Therefore, it seemed, he would have to find a way to live without love. But he would live – he promised himself that. He would live on, even if nobody cared whether he lived or died, and if there was no home for him then he would make one for himself.

Thinking that, he went back to the only other home he had ever known: the fighting pits. There, he slowly limped back to the one place he had never wanted to return to: the freak’s cages. He walked along the corridor between them with scarcely a glance, and went straight to the man at the entrance who sold entry.

Griffy confronted him, arms folded. ‘I want to talk to the man you work for.’

The ticket seller pulled back nervously. ‘Aren’t you-?’

‘Yes I am,’ Griffy hissed back. ‘Now tell me where to find him.’

‘Er, he works in the office over by the main entrance,’ said the ticket seller. ‘That way.’ He pointed.

‘Thankyou.’ Griffy nodded and walked away.

The fighting pits were owned by the Eyrie, but their main manager worked on the premises, with a group of underlings who were separately in charge of different areas. The man in charge of the freaks had a small office of his own among the others, and that was where Griffy found him.

When the former freak saw the man sitting behind the desk, both of them paused. They had seen each other before, on the day Toula took Griffy away.

‘It’s you,’ said the man, a little blankly. ‘What-?’

Griffy stalked closer. ‘I have an offer for you,’ he said.

The man froze. ‘You talk?’

‘I talked the day I left,’ Griffy reminded him. ‘Now I just know more words. And I have an offer.’

‘Er,’ said the man. ‘Yes?’

‘You can put me on show again,’ said Griffy. ‘With the other freaks.’

The man stared at him in bewildered silence.

‘I need a home,’ said Griffy. ‘The other one’s gone, so I’ve come back to this one. Put me back. I’ll let you do it. But this time, it’s going to be different.’

‘Different how?’ the man asked cautiously.

‘No cage this time,’ said Griffy. ‘I won’t be locked up again. If you try, I’ll bite you. Give me a room, or a tent. Somewhere I can live. People can come and look at me there. And this time, I want money. You’re going to give me some of it.’

‘You want pay?’ the man exclaimed.

‘Yes,’ said Griffy. ‘I need to buy clothes and food.’

‘I didn’t pay you before,’ said the man. ‘You’re a freak; you’re supposed to sit in a cage.’ He sounded as if he were saying it because he was too bewildered to come up with anything more intelligent.

‘I was a baby,’ Griffy growled. ‘And you don’t have any cages big enough any more. Is it a deal?’

‘I can’t pay you,’ said the man. ‘Even if I wanted to, the freak show doesn’t make enough money for that.’

‘Then pay me in food and clothes,’ said Griffy. ‘Just give me what I need.’

‘I’m serious,’ said the man. ‘We’re barely scraping up enough to get by.’

‘I’ll make more money for you,’ said Griffy.

‘I’m sorry, but I just can’t take that promise.’

‘Well then… well then tell them I’m the winged man,’ Griffy said at last. ‘Tell them I know the meaning of life or something.’

The man gaped at him. ‘You’d- but that’s blasphemy! You’d lie about being a holy man for the sake of money?’

‘I don’t care,’ said Griffy. ‘Do you?’

The man drummed his fingers on the desk. ‘I suppose… what’s your name, anyway? Do you have one?’

‘It’s Griffy.’

The man shook his head. ‘If we’re going to do this, then you can’t call yourself that. What sort of name is that for the winged man to have? Don’t you have a proper name?’

‘No,’ Griffy said a little sadly. ‘No-one ever gave me one.’

‘Well then make something up,’ said the man. ‘Or I’ll come up with something. Make it sound grand and important.’

Griffy hesitated. ‘I’ll try.’

‘Good.’ The man nodded to him. ‘Go on. I’ll start making arrangements. In the meantime, find a name! A real name. Something that sounds right for a holy man.’ He grinned.

Griffy didn’t smile back. He turned and left without another word.




He spent the rest of that day around the fighting pits, watching people go about their business. Some he talked to, ignoring their nervousness at the sight of him.

‘Tell me a name,’ he said to some of them. ‘Tell me all the names you know.’

And people did, often with some bemusement. He heard dozens of names that day, some Southern, some griffish, even some from Amoran or the North, or the islands of Maijan. None of them, though, felt right for him. They were names that already had owners, and some of them had stories attached to them as well.

Eventually, tired and hungry, he went to watch one of the griffin fights down in a pit.

The fights held in Withypool’s fighting pits varied. Sometimes it would be a human fighting a griffin – as a trial to prove they were innocent of some crime, or very occasionally because they were mad enough to make a bid for fame. Sometimes it would be griffin against griffin; the city’s unpartnered griffins liked to go to the fighting pits to prove their strength and work out their natural aggression. And, sometimes, it was human against human, or a spectacle when unarmed prisoners would be thrown in with captured wild griffins to be killed.

The fight that Griffy ended up watching was griffin against griffin. He stood up at the edge of the pit, with the other spectators, and watched as a pair of angry male griffins ripped and tore at each other. He could smell their anger from this distance – it made the hair stand up on his back.

A kind of sadness filled him as he watched. What was the point of all this?

But he could see from the faces of the other spectators that he was the only one thinking that. Some of them cheered, or shouted encouragement, and he could hear them making bets on which of the griffins would win.

The man next to him was talking to a friend, voice raised over the noise, and, only half meaning to, Griffy listened in.

‘…won so much on that fight I was drunk for a week! It was his last fight, too. Shame; I would’ve bet on him for every fight he went in for the rest of his life if I could!’

‘Why’d he quit?’ the man’s friend asked.

‘He won, but his leg got crippled,’ the original speaker explained. ‘Happens a lot, but this griffin won the fight after it’d happened. Legendary material, mate. I heard as he chose a human afterwards, ’cause crippled griffins don’t last long without one. Wound up living in the Temple, until he died last year.’

‘What was his name again?’ the friend asked.

Griffy listened to the reply, and then looked down at the fight again. Below, the smaller of the two griffins had gone down, blood gushing from a ghastly wound in his face. The victor finished him off with a brutal blow, and then raised his head to scream his triumph. Above, the crowd cheered or hissed depending on whether they’d won money or lost it. Some of them threw gifts into the pit – chunks of meat, which the winning griffin scooped up and swallowed before settling down to lick his wounds.

Griffy watched him, and found himself thinking that this griffin wasn’t much different from himself when all was said and done. He, and the dead griffin lying in the sand, lived and died to entertain people who came to see them, just as Griffy had and most likely would again. A whole life, turned into entertainment for a mindless crowd.

But, he thought as he walked away, there was glory of a kind in it, at least for the ones who had a choice.

He had nowhere to sleep, so he spent that night huddled in a doorway not far from the freaks’ cages. It was cold and exposed, and he barely slept at all. Instead he sat there, hugging his knees for warmth, and found himself thinking back over his life so far, and where it might go next. He hadn’t been lying when he’d said he didn’t care about pretending to be the legendary winged man. What did it matter? He was a winged man, and for all he knew he had been sent by Gryphus. How was he supposed to tell one way or the other?

All he did know was that he needed a way to live, and if this was what he had to do, then so be it.

He thought about what he had seen and heard at the fighting pit as well; the story about the crippled fighting pit champion who had ended his career in a blaze of glory. That griffin had lived to entertain the crowds of his own free will, and nearly died for it, but now he was remembered for it as well – remembered and admired. In the end, out of all the names he had heard that day, his was the one that Griffy remembered.

When morning finally came, he went to see his new employer and found him waiting outside his workplace.

‘There you are,’ he said without ceremony. ‘It’s all been arranged. You’ll have a tent outside the sideshow. You can live in there. At night you can have it to yourself, but you have to sit in there all day and be ready for whoever comes in. Let them look at you, talk to you… but they’re not allowed to touch you. I’ll have a bodyguard outside just in case.’

Griffy nodded. ‘Will you pay me?’

‘In food and fresh clothes when you need them. Have you got a proper name now?’

Griffy nodded again, and smiled. ‘My name is… Kullervo.’


© K.J.Taylor




So Kullervo got his name, and a new home as well.

The tent they gave him was small – it had room for an old straw mattress and a stool for him to sit on, and that was it. He didn’t mind. He’d never owned much in his life, and as long as he had a place to sleep that was good enough. His new employer gave him a new set of clothes as well. They weren’t anything special either; just an old woollen tunic and a pair of patched trousers. The tunic had slits in the back so his wings would show, and the trousers had a hole for his tail. There wasn’t much point, after all, in being on display if people couldn’t see his extra limbs.

In the daytime he had to sit on his stool, and wait for people to come in. They were only allowed in one at a time; he’d hear a clink of oblong outside and someone would shuffle in, usually nervous. Plenty of them would yelp or start when they saw him, and a good number of them didn’t really want to talk to him. They’d stand there awkwardly and stare for a while, and then leave. Kullervo hated it, but he put up with it. It had always been that way, after all. Nobody except Toula had ever looked at him as if he was normal, and now she was gone there would probably never be anyone else.

Some, though, wanted to talk to him.

The first one of those was a young woman, and she didn’t stare – but that was only because she was blind. She walked carefully, using a cane to prod the ground ahead of her, and stopped in front of him, staring blankly off to his left.

‘Are you the winged man?’ she asked.

‘Yes,’ said Kullervo.

The blind woman didn’t blink at all. Her eyes weren’t whitened, but they had a fixed look to them. That and the fact that she didn’t cringe, or react to the sight of him at all, told him all he needed to know.

‘Were you sent by Gryphus?’ she asked.

‘I don’t know,’ said Kullervo.

‘But will you lay your hands on me?’ the woman pleaded.

Kullervo frowned. ‘Why?’

‘To bless me,’ said the woman. ‘I thought maybe you…’ she trailed off.

Kullervo’s heart sank as he realised what she was getting at. ‘I can’t heal you,’ he said gently.

The woman sighed. ‘Will you lay hands on me anyway, then? Please?’

Nobody else except Toula had ever looked as if they wanted him anywhere near them, and he relented and stood up. ‘All right, then.’

He reached out and – impulsively – hugged her.

The blind woman started with surprise, but she didn’t pull away. After a moment’s hesitation, she hugged him back.

Kullervo smiled to himself as he let her go. ‘Sorry. That’s probably not what you meant.’

The woman smiled too, and reached out to feel his face. ‘It’s all right.’ Her hand stopped. ‘Are those… feathers?’

‘Yes,’ said Kullervo. He hesitated. ‘Can… can I hug you again?’

‘If you like,’ said the blind woman. ‘Why, though?’

Kullervo shuffled awkwardly. ‘Well… nobody… I mean… I’d just like to.’

She smiled again and hugged him. ‘Don’t people like to touch you? I’ve heard that the winged man is frightening because of the holy aura around him.’

Kullervo hugged her back, a little shyly. ‘I don’t have an aura,’ he said. ‘I’m just really ugly. That’s the only scary thing about me.’

‘Well you’re a good hugger,’ the blind woman laughed. ‘And I bet you’re not that ugly, but I wouldn’t know. Thankyou.’

Kullervo reluctantly let her go. ‘For what? I can’t fix your eyes.’

‘No,’ the woman said sadly. ‘I didn’t really think you would. I was born this way, so it must be Gryphus’ will. But I feel better now anyway. And how many people can say they’ve been hugged by the winged man?’

Kullervo thought of the woman whose leg he’d grabbed all those years ago. ‘None,’ he said.




That was how it went, day after day, month after month, year after year. Some people wanted to stare at him, some wanted to ask questions. Some came looking for healing, which he couldn’t give, but after a time some came looking for nothing but compassion. They came to tell him their troubles, their pain and sadness. And Kullervo listened. He listened to it all, and after some years had passed he came to understand things he had never known before. He listened to the stories people came to tell him, and realised how things really were.

His face was hideous, and would always be hideous, but even people who looked normal, people with happy lives and families – those normal faces, sometimes even beautiful faces – all of them had suffering behind them. Some had suffered in the past and couldn’t let it go. Some were suffering now, and they came to tell him, to ask him for answers, or just to share what they sometimes couldn’t share with anyone else. Most of the time all they needed was for someone to listen, and it opened Kullervo’s eyes to a world of hurt and sadness.

He wasn’t sure why they were so ready to talk to him. Maybe it was because they thought of him as, not another human being, but a creature – a creature from outside their world. Maybe it was because they had heard that he would listen and say nothing.

However it was, years passed that way – years where he lived alone and listened to people, and gave them whatever it was they seemed to take from him. The numbers who came to see him increased year by year – he had no idea how much money his employer made from them, and nor did he ever ask. It never really occurred to him to care.

He had no idea how old he was, but either way he reached the last stages of maturity in those years. He grew taller, but he was gangly and awkward and always would be; never quite at home in his own skin. The patches of fur and feathers on his body lost their fluffiness, and the scales on his arms thickened and darkened. The talons on his fingers grew as well – he took to cutting them so they wouldn’t get in the way, but his employer told him to stop. The talons were part of the show. So he let them stay, but they made him clumsy with his hands and sometimes he would accidentally cut himself on them.

Amazingly enough, he even started showing signs that he could grow a beard. The shape of his face had changed, so he had more chin than he had had before, and hairs sprouted on it – not fur, but proper hair, wiry and black like the stuff on his head.

His voice deepened in fits and starts, until he sounded like a man, more or less. He was a man, too, except in all those ways where he was like a griffin. Whatever he was he kept on with his work, doing what he had to survive, and he thought he was happy, more or less.

But sometimes those old longings would resurface, and memories of Toula as well. When that happened a deep, yearning sadness would come over him, and sometimes he stopped wanting to talk to anyone. Some of his visitors needed it, but he knew that he had needs as well, and wounds of his own that had never quite healed. And unlike them, he had no-one to confide in.

Still, he would tell himself sometimes, at least he was alive and had found a place.

And then, one day, people started dying.




Kullervo only heard rumours of it at first. News trickled into his tent with the people who came to see him, or he heard them talking outside. He heard rumours of a stallholder in the marketplace, whose employer had recently come back from a trip to Maijan. The stallholder had been ill at work, and had suddenly collapsed over her stall and died in front of dozens of customers. When people went to speak to her employer about it they found that he had died as well, along with most of his family.

Most people seemed to think it would end there, but it didn’t.

More people died – people who had been in the marketplace that day at first, but then their families as well, and their neighbours.

After a few days, the word began to be whispered in the marketplace and the fighting pits. People muttered it to each other outside Kullervo’s tent, and confessed their fear of it inside.


They said it started with feverish heat, and uncontrollable sweating. The eyes would redden and swell, and the throat would ache, until after two days, sometimes just one if the victim was already weak, death came with brutal suddenness.

After that the queue outside Kullervo’s tent grew, as people started coming to him, pleading with him to bless them and give them some kind of protection, or healing. But Kullervo couldn’t do anything for them, and the more they came the more his guilt grew. They had no hope except him – how could he go on lying to them like this? He knew he wasn’t the winged man they hoped he was; he had no powers, no special insight, no way of talking to Gryphus. He was a hybrid freak, and a fraud.

He went to his employer and said just that to him, but the man – whose name he had never bothered to ask – showed no sympathy.

‘You give them comfort,’ he argued. ‘Why take that away from them? They’ve got nothing else.’

Kullervo hesitated. ‘I suppose that’s true…’

‘Of course it’s true!’ the man snapped. ‘And you were quite happy to lie to them before, weren’t you? I don’t remember you complaining then. Now get back in your tent; you’re keeping people waiting.’

Kullervo couldn’t think of anything to do then but do as he was told. What else was there? He would starve without the work he had here, and people did need some kind of comfort, as the man had said…

But it wasn’t enough.

Most of the sick who came to see him died, but a small handful survived the disease, and that was enough to spread rumours that he did indeed have the power to heal some people – those who were the most devout, maybe. That was enough to bring more of them to his tent; enough of them that another guard had to be drafted in to stop them tearing it down to get at him.

An air of hysteria had begun to loom over Kullervo’s home, and hot, sick desperation. He himself never caught the sickness, but he started to feel sick. The stench of dying people filled his sensitive nose, day after day, until he felt so ill and frightened that he could barely sleep.

It had to come to a head eventually, and one day it did.

The nightmare ended when the inevitable happened: the two guards outside Kullervo’s tent quit and were never seen again. Quite possibly, it was already too late for both of them. But when no replacements appeared Kullervo knew he could be in danger. But then people stopped coming to see him as well.

He hung around anxiously in his tent for a while, until he finally decided to go and see his employer.

The man was in his office, and only opened the door once he saw who it was.

‘Hello,’ he mumbled. ‘Been meaning to come and talk to you.’

‘What’s going on?’ Kullervo asked, noting how pale the man looked.

‘The fighting pits have been closed down,’ said the man. ‘By order of the Master of Healing up at the Eyrie. They’ve closed all the public places in the city. Meeting other people is the fastest way to get sick.’

‘When will the pits be opened again?’ asked Kullervo.

‘I don’t know, never probably,’ the man muttered. ‘At this rate there won’t be anyone left to watch the fights anyway.’

Kullervo had already noticed that the man’s eyes were bloodshot and swollen. ‘What about me?’ he asked. ‘And the other freaks?’

‘What about you?’ said the man. ‘It’s over, Kullervo. Nobody’s coming to see you now. There’s no money to feed you.’

Kullervo stared. ‘What should I do?’

‘Leave, if you’ve got any sense,’ said the man. ‘Before they lock the city gates for good. Can’t let the disease get out.’

‘But where would I go?’ Kullervo asked, bewildered. ‘Withypool’s my home.’

The man coughed, a weak, wheezy cough. ‘I don’t know. Go back where you came from. There’s nothing for you here.’

‘All right,’ said Kullervo. ‘But what about the other freaks? What’ll happen to them?’

‘I don’t know,’ said the man. ‘We’ll most likely put them out of their misery. They’re already putting down the wild griffins they had in the pits. There’s no money left to feed them.’

Kullervo nodded slowly. ‘I understand. Goodbye.’

He hurried away, back to his tent.

There wasn’t much there in it – just a blanket one of his visitors had given him, and a spare shirt, and some food. He bundled it all up together in the blanket, and left his old home without a backward glance.

He knew he had to leave the city, and fast, but before he left the fighting pits for the last time there was one last place he had to go. The cages.


© K.J.Taylor




The freak sideshow wasn’t much different from how he remembered it. By now the limbless chicken had died, and its cage was occupied by a mangy cat with no ears or tail. By the looks of it, the missing appendages had just been cut off. Maybe the owners had been desperate for a new exhibit and decided to make their own.

The two-headed calf was still there, one head chewing listlessly at the filthy straw provided as bedding.

There was nobody there, and the water troughs were all dry. There was no food in any of the cages either.

Kullervo went from cage to cage, looking into each one. More than half the freaks were already dead, or close to it. How long had they been going without food and water?

Kullervo felt sick. But he knew what he had to do.

One by one, he went to the cages and opened them.

‘Go,’ he told the occupants. ‘You’re free.’

A tiny handful of the freaks, including the earless cat, stumbled out to freedom. But most of them were either too disabled, or too far gone, to take their chance.

Kullervo had expected that, and he knew he should do something for them too, but he hesitated.

‘Kill them,’ a voice said behind him. ‘They deserve to die.’

The voice was low and rasping, and it spoke a language he shouldn’t have known, but which formed itself into sense in his mind.

He turned, and saw a griffin. It was tiny – it barely came up to his knee – but it didn’t look like a youngster. Rather, it looked stunted and twisted, with stumpy legs and a humped back. It had four wings, all small, deformed and useless. Its eyes, one blue and one yellow, stared at him with dull malice.

‘You,’ said Kullervo, instinctively speaking griffish. ‘I remember you.’

The griffin wheezed feebly. Its legs were trembling with weakness, and its raspy voice was just as puny as its body. ‘Kill them,’ it said again. ‘The deformed do not deserve to live.’

‘And what about you?’ asked Kullervo. ‘What about me? We’re deformed too.’

The tiny griffin collapsed onto its chest and lay there, gasping for breath. ‘When you have killed them… kill me. I do not deserve to live either. And then if you have any pride, kill yourself. The weak must die.’

Kullervo took a step closer. ‘Do you have a name?’ he asked. ‘I’m Kullervo.’

The griffin’s flanks heaved. ‘I am Ya-khek oo ee krak,’ it wheezed. ‘Hatched from a soft-shelled egg. My mother wished for me to die, and I wish it too. It is shameful that I have lived this long, and it is shameful that they have lived as well. Kill them.’

‘I should,’ Kullervo admitted. ‘They’re suffering.’

‘They were not meant to live,’ said the griffin. It heaved itself to its paws. ‘If you will not kill them, I will.’

Kullervo moved closer again. ‘Do you need my help?’ he asked.

The griffin hissed at him. ‘No! I am pathetic and must die, but I have pride enough to do this myself.’

Kullervo stopped obediently, and, following his usual instinct, sniffed the air. The dwarf griffin smelled of illness and hunger. But below that, he picked up something else. The griffin wasn’t an it, but a she. She had no ear-tufts, as a male would, but more importantly, her smell told him her gender.

He watched her drag herself upright, and waddle slowly into the nearest cage. There was a sheep inside, with one ghastly eye set in the middle of its face. Maybe the sheep was weak – it was certainly thin – most likely it was blind. Either way, it barely reacted to the presence of the deformed griffin. It didn’t even stand up, which was just as well for the griffin, who wouldn’t have been able to reach it otherwise.

Without any hesitation, she struck the sheep across the throat with her beak. That, at least, was properly formed, and sharp, and the sheep dropped dead in moments.

The dwarf griffin pinned the sheep’s corpse down with one front paw, and ripped into it, gulping down the beast’s stringy flesh with a savagery born of starvation.

‘You said you want to die,’ Kullervo said at last. ‘But it looks to me like you want to live.’

The griffin only snorted at him and left the cage for the one next to it, whose occupant she slaughtered just as quickly. Maybe she had spent even more of her life in a cage than he had, but she had a griffin’s killer instinct. In very little time she had killed every one of the remaining freaks, and eaten parts of some.

Then, when she was finished, she stepped back into the open and confronted Kullervo. ‘It is almost done,’ she said. ‘To finish it, you must kill me.’

Kullervo watched her for a long moment. ‘You’re serious,’ he said at last. ‘Aren’t you?’

‘Yes!’ the ugly griffin hissed. ‘You are like me, and you would honour me by killing me.’

‘But-,’ Kullervo began.

The little creature took a furious step toward him. ‘Kill me!’ she screamed. ‘You must kill me. All my life I have longed for it. I have lain in that foul cage and dreamed of death. I must die, and you must do it.’

Kullervo reached out to touch her. ‘Please,’ he said. ‘Don’t. It’s all right.’

‘Nothing will be right,’ said the griffin. She avoided his hand. ‘Not until you and I are both dead. Do not touch me!’

‘But you want me to kill you,’ said Kullervo.

‘Do not touch me except to kill me,’ she snapped back. ‘I warn you one last time, Kullervo. Kill me, or we will both live to regret it.’

‘Do you have a name?’ Kullervo asked gently.

‘No,’ she hissed. ‘I do not deserve one. Kill me.

‘Then I’ll call you Skarrat,’ said Kullervo. ‘Do you like it?’

The ugly griffin only snarled at him.

‘I’m leaving Withypool, Skarrat,’ said Kullervo. ‘Do you want to come with me?’

Skarrat stood up. ‘I will follow you,’ she said. ‘I will not leave you until you have killed me, or until I have found a way to make you suffer for forcing me to live.’

Kullervo only shook his head. ‘I understand why you’re angry,’ he said. ‘Once or twice I’ve wanted to be dead, too. But that’s cowardly. It’s better to live. It’s just that you haven’t had the chance to find out. Come with me, and maybe you will.’

‘You are a fool, Kullervo,’ said Skarrat. But she followed him away out of the fighting pits without argument, waddling and clumsy on her stumpy legs.

Outside in the city, things were even worse than Kullervo had imagined. The streets were almost deserted, but he saw someone lying in the gutter not far away. He didn’t go to investigate – the smell told him all he needed to know.

‘Everyone must be hiding inside,’ he murmured.

But not everyone.

The two freaks made their way toward the city’s main gates, and along the way they started to see other people going the same way, most of them carrying bundles or pushing small handcarts. They walked with their heads down, many with cloths tied over their mouths and noses, so afraid or depressed that they barely even glanced at the bizarre duo.

At the gates, though, a group of guards were waiting. They too had cloths tied over the lower halves of their faces, and as people passed them they had to stop and be examined for signs of sickness. Kullervo saw several people roughly turned away and told to go back home.

‘Can’t let it spread to the farms,’ one guard explained to someone who protested.

Kullervo hesitated, but then shook his head and continued. He didn’t have the sickness. Maybe he couldn’t catch it at all.

But, of course, he didn’t pass unremarked.

‘What in the gods’ names are you?’ the guard nearest to him exclaimed.

‘I’m Kullervo,’ said Kullervo. ‘I don’t have the sickness, and I’m leaving.’

The man cringed. ‘But what are you?’

‘I don’t know,’ Kullervo said honestly. ‘Can we go?’

Another guard nearby glanced over. ‘Great Gryphus, even the freaks are leaving,’ he said. ‘Let ’em go, mate. They’re from the fighting pits.’

‘We are,’ Kullervo nodded. ‘The fighting pits have been closed down; we’ve got nowhere else to go.’

The first guard didn’t seem to know what do say. He mumbled something and let them pass.

Kullervo felt his heart thumping as he stepped into the world outside the city for the first time in his life. The road outside was nothing special; it was dirt, wide and dusty, and crowded with refugees like himself. But the land beyond it was big and open, seemingly endless, full of possibilities. In that one moment, he realised that for the first time in his life he was free – truly free. He could go wherever he wanted, and do whatever he chose.

‘Whatever I choose,’ he said aloud – to Skarrat, since there was nobody else there to talk to.

The deformed griffin only glared. ‘There is nowhere for you to go.’

‘Yes there is!’ said Kullervo, almost surprised by his own enthusiasm. ‘We can go wherever we like.’

‘And where will you go?’ asked Skarrat.

Kullervo started following the road, but at a slow pace, frowning to himself. He had already had time to think it over, but now he shared his decision for the first time.

‘I’m going to the place where I was born,’ he said. ‘I should have gone there a long time ago.’

‘Why?’ said Skarrat. ‘Your parents will not welcome you. They abandoned you for a reason.’

‘But I want to know who they were,’ said Kullervo. ‘I want to know what I am. Anyway… I don’t think they’re there. I don’t think my father was ever there, definitely. I was born in an inn. My mother was staying there when she gave birth; that’s what the man who kept us said. The innkeepers found me. That’s who I should talk to, if I can find them. All I know is the inn is a few day’s walk from the city. That’s where I’m going. After that… I’ll decide what to do next. Will you come with me, Skarrat?’

But Skarrat said nothing.

She followed Kullervo, though, all that day. And that night, when he stopped to sleep curled up under a tree, she climbed into the branches and waited there until morning. When he offered her some of his food she ate it, and as the next few days of slow travelling passed she was always there, mostly silent, following Kullervo like a twisted shadow.

There were other travellers still on the road, but less of them as time went by. Some took different turnings in the road, or simply moved faster than the two freaks, who were both given a wide berth. Nobody seemed inclined to talk to Kullervo now, but he had made his blanket into a makeshift cape to cover his wings, with a hood to conceal his ugly noseless face. Out here it was better not to be noticed, though the people they passed couldn’t help but notice the stunted griffin following at his heels.

Along the way Kullervo stopped several times to ask for directions – quizzing people on whether they knew anything about an inn. The first few weren’t much help, but one or two confirmed that there was an inn somewhere along the main road, and that was enough to keep him going.

‘Tomorrow, maybe,’ he started saying in the evenings. ‘Maybe we’ll find it tomorrow.’

Skarrat would only stare at him in reply, her odd-coloured eyes slits in the gloom.

‘You know, if you told me about what was making you unhappy, maybe you’d feel better,’ Kullervo suggested once. ‘Other people did back in the city.’

Still, Skarrat said nothing and only the stare showed she was even alive, and the occasional twitch of a useless wing.

After that Kullervo decided she was happier saying nothing, and he stopped trying to talk to her.

The silence stayed between them, until the day finally came when they found the inn.

Kullervo had spotted it some time ago on the flat landscape, and had been heading toward it ever since, faint hope leading him on despite his hunger and tiredness. When he finally got close enough to see the building properly, he quickly saw the sign hanging over the front door.

He couldn’t read very well, but he could do it well enough to make out the word “INN”.

His heart leapt. ‘We found it!’ he said, breaking the silence at last. ‘Finally! Come on, Skarrat!’

He ran toward it without waiting for an answer, and only slowed when he reached the door. Once there he hesitated, and felt his heart fluttering like a trapped butterfly.

But he would never know the truth, he thought, unless he opened that door. And without it, he wouldn’t know how to go on with the rest of his life; he was certain of that.

It all came down to one small action.

He took a deep breath, and opened the door.

Inside it was crowded; the inn had a main room to serve as a bar, and all the tables in it were full. The customers chattered amongst themselves; he could hear them talking, mostly about the plague in Withypool, and how they were going to make new lives for themselves in the places they were headed for. Most of them didn’t even glance up when Kullervo entered.

Something nudged against his leg, and he looked down and saw Skarrat. She was trying to squeeze in through the door after him. Kullervo kindly opened it a little wider to make it easier for her, and then turned his attention back to the room. He needed to find the owners.

They weren’t difficult to locate; a man and woman, both hard at work serving food and drinks. Kullervo stood there and watched them for a while, wondering if he should try and talk to them. But it seemed rude to interrupt them while they were working.

Before he could make his mind up, though, the woman spotted him and came over.

‘Sorry, but we’re full,’ she said.

‘That’s all right; I’ve got no money,’ said Kullervo.

The woman had already noticed his face, and stopped to stare in confusion.

Kullervo pulled the cloth away from his mouth. ‘I came to see you,’ he said.

The woman breathed in sharply, but didn’t cry out as he’d expected. She glanced over her shoulder, and then reached past him to open the door and hustle him outside.

Once the door had closed behind them, Kullervo turned to her and took the hood off.

The woman said nothing. She only stood there and stared at him.

‘You know me,’ said Kullervo. ‘Don’t you? You recognise me.’

‘Oh my gods,’ the woman whispered at last. ‘Oh holy Gryphus. It’s you.’

Kullervo put a gentle hand on her shoulder. ‘You were the one who found me, weren’t you?’ he said. ‘I was born here, wasn’t I?’

‘You can talk!’ said the woman. ‘Oh Gryphus, you’re talking. I thought…’

‘It’s all right,’ said Kullervo.

But the woman didn’t look reassured at all. She had gone pale. ‘Oh gods. Oh gods.’

‘Look, it’s all right,’ Kullervo said again. ‘I’m not going to hurt you. I’ve never hurt anyone.’

‘Then why did you come back?’ the woman asked. ‘You didn’t come back here to-?’

‘To what?’ asked Kullervo, puzzled. Why was she so afraid of him? Some people were nervous when they saw him, but outright fear seemed a little odd.

‘I told him!’ the woman exclaimed. ‘I told Uran you were the winged man, but he said…’

‘Said what?’ said Kullervo. ‘What’s your name?’

‘Uh… Rena,’ said the woman. To his surprise, she reached out to touch his arm. ‘I’m so sorry,’ she said. ‘I never wanted to sell you.’

Sell me?’ said Kullervo.

Rena flinched. ‘I wanted to raise you myself. I said it was our sacred duty; I knew you had to be the winged man. But Uran was afraid of you, and money was short… we were meant to take you to the city so scholars could look at you, and maybe work out what you were. But then that man at the fighting pits offered us a hundred oblong for you, and… I swear I said no! I argued, I said it was obscene and we’d be punished, but he wouldn’t listen.’ She stared at the ground. ‘Uran said if I wanted a child then we’d have one of our own. But I never did. I knew that was Gryphus’ punishment for what I did to you.’

‘No,’ Kullervo said softly. ‘No. It’s not like that. I’m not here to punish you for anything. I never knew about any of it.’

Rena calmed down a little, but she looked slightly teary. ‘Then why did you come back? Do you have a name? I never…’

‘It’s Kullervo,’ he smiled cautiously. ‘I came back here because I wanted to ask you about what happened. I want to know where I came from. What I am.’

‘I don’t know what you are,’ said Rena. ‘None of us did. But I can tell you what I do know.’

‘Yes?’ Kullervo said eagerly.

Rena glanced back over her shoulder at the door. ‘I want to… it’ll take some time, though, and I need to get back to work. Listen – go around the back and you’ll find a red door. That leads into our rooms. Wait there and we’ll meet you there later, once the customers have gone to bed. We’ll eat and I’ll tell you what I know. I don’t know what Uran will say, but he owes you this.’ Her face darkened. ‘He owes you a childhood. We both do.’

‘It’s all right,’ said Kullervo. ‘Thankyou. I’ll go there and wait.’ He looked over at Skarrat. ‘Can she come too?’

Rena noticed the ugly griffin for the first time. She cringed. ‘What is that?’

‘An old friend,’ Kullervo smiled. ‘From the cages. Her name’s Skarrat.’

‘Yes, well, by all means,’ said Rena. ‘We give lodgings to griffins here too; I’ll find some food for her.’

‘Thankyou,’ said Kullervo. ‘We haven’t eaten very well the last few days.’

‘I’m not surprised,’ said Rena. ‘But listen… I’ll see you later, yes?’

‘Yes,’ said Kullervo, and though he had forced himself to calm down before, now his heart had started to thump so hard he thought it might burst.




That night, after the last of the guests at the inn had retired, Kullervo met with Rena and her husband Uran in their small but comfortable rooms at the back of the building. The three of them sat at a small table and shared a simple meal. Skarrat crouched in a corner where she had dragged the haunch given to her, and ate, apparently paying no attention at all to the two humans and the bizarre creature.

Kullervo and the couple who had been parents to him for such a short time ate mostly in silence, and he could feel their stares on him all the while, even though he had grown so used to the sensation. He could tell that Rena in particular wanted to talk, but she waited until he had finished eating before she began.

‘I’m so sorry for what we did,’ she said, with a glance at her husband.

‘I am as well,’ Uran said gruffly. ‘I mean… I… we couldn’t tell if you were intelligent or not, and we…’ he trailed off.

‘It’s fine,’ said Kullervo. ‘What’s done is done. I didn’t come here for apologies. I came here to ask for the truth. How did I get here? Tell me what you know.’

So Rena told him.

‘Your mother stayed here,’ she said simply. ‘She was pregnant. She gave birth to you here, and afterwards she left and never came back. I found you in her room.’

‘Why?’ asked Kullervo. ‘Why did she leave me? Did she think I was dead?’

‘I remember,’ said Rena. ‘I remember it exactly, the day she left. She said she was leaving and I asked her – “what about your child?” And she looked me in the eye and said “I have no child”. That was all she said. We never saw her again.’

Kullervo shivered. It was true, just as Skarrat had said. His own mother had left him to die.

‘Who was she?’ he asked. ‘What was her name? Where did she come from? Was she… human?’

‘Oh, we knew that,’ Uran put in. ‘We knew that very well.’

‘Her name was Skade,’ said Rena.

Kullervo’s heart seemed to go silent for one frozen instant.

‘Skade?’ he repeated. ‘You mean Skade of Withypool? That Skade?’

‘I’m not sure where she was from,’ said Rena. ‘I only ever heard of one Skade, though.’

Kullervo leaned over the table. ‘What did she look like?’ he asked urgently.

‘She had big, yellow eyes,’ said Rena. ‘Like yours. But her hair was grey. She had the oddest fingernails, I remember. Black and pointy, almost like claws. We all thought they were fake.’

‘Oh my gods,’ Kullervo whispered. ‘Oh holy Gryphus.’

Uran looked intently at him. ‘What is it, son?’

But Kullervo was already looking down at the small talons on his fingertips, and feeling the knowledge in his mind connect, joining what he had known with what he knew now. He remembered Toula and her stories.

A griffin who went on a rampage… changed into a human as punishment. Skade of Withypool.

My mother.

‘Oh my gods,’ Kullervo whispered again. ‘It was her…’

‘What do you mean?’ asked Rena. ‘Do you know her? Or something about her?’

‘I know what I am,’ Kullervo said at last. ‘I know what I came here to find out.’ He ran a hand down his arm, scratching at the patchy scales with his talons. ‘I’m a hybrid,’ he said. ‘Half human, half griffin. That’s what I am. That’s why I have feathers…’

‘That’s nonsense!’ Uran exclaimed. ‘Humans can’t breed with griffins.’

‘They can if the griffin is transformed,’ said Kullervo. ‘Skade was. My mother was. She was a human on the outside, and a griffin on the inside. And my father – he must have been human.’ He looked sharply at the pair of them. ‘Do you know who he was?’

‘No,’ said Rena. ‘No, we don’t. It could have been anyone; she wasn’t married as far as we know. She had people with her, but…’

But Kullervo was looking at Uran. By now, after so much time spent listening to people, he had learned to recognise something being held back when he saw it.

‘Uran,’ he said in his softest, gentlest voice. ‘What do you know that you’re not saying? You know something. Don’t you?’

Rena looked at her husband. ‘Uran?’ she said. ‘What is it?’

He shifted uncomfortably. ‘Well… we say Skade didn’t have a husband with her. But she wasn’t alone.’

‘No, she came with an army, just about,’ said Rena. ‘An army of slaves. That was back when there still were slaves, you see. There were hundreds, all travelling together. They dug the well outside as payment for the food we gave them.’

‘Why?’ asked Kullervo. ‘Was she rich?’

‘No,’ said Uran. ‘She was working for someone. She told us almost nothing, but some of the slaves talked, and the friends she had with her. Northerners, all of them. She’d been sent South, to bring those slaves back. By Arenadd himself. I heard them saying how she was his most trusted follower.’

‘But she wasn’t a Northerner,’ said Kullervo. ‘I thought all his followers were.’

‘Not her,’ said Uran. ‘And…’ he fidgeted again. ‘I never wanted to say anything about it, but I have to, don’t I? I owe you, like Rena said.’

What do you know?’ Kullervo almost shouted. ‘Just tell me!’

‘I heard them, you see,’ said Uran. ‘Some of her friends, talking. They didn’t know I was there. I heard one say something like “I don’t understand; why send her? She’s not one of us. Why does he trust her so much?”. And then his friend says, “Don’t you know? Everyone knows. Why d’you think he won’t touch Saeddryn? That Skade’s his mistress. She’s got him by the balls; he’d do anything she wanted”. That’s what they said.’

Rena swore under her breath. ‘No!’

‘It’s true,’ said Uran. ‘That’s what they said, every word of it.’

Kullervo reached up to his head, and wrenched out a twist of hair. He rolled the strands between his fingers, and he and the two innkeepers stared at it in silence for a time.

It was as black as ever.

‘Do you see now?’ Uran asked wretchedly. ‘That’s why I was willing to sell you, Kullervo. I thought, if you were his son, you couldn’t possibly be the real winged man. I thought you must just be some freak deformity, like that griffin of yours.’

‘Don’t say that, Uran!’ Rena cut in.

But Kullervo only shook his head. ‘No,’ he said. ‘That’s all I needed to know. If everything’s true, then I know who my parents are now, and that’s what matters. And if Skade went back to the North to be with him, now I know where to find both of them.’

‘No!’ said Rena. ‘Kullervo, don’t! You can’t go there; you’ll die.’

‘It doesn’t matter,’ said Kullervo, and then he actually smiled – a real, wide, joyful smile. ‘Don’t you see? I have parents! Real parents, and they’re alive out there, waiting for me. All I have to do is go to them. It’s all I’ve ever wanted.’

‘Are you mad?’ said Uran. ‘Your mother left you to die, and your father’s the Dark Lord Arenadd! Neither of them care a damn about you, son, and that’s the cold hard truth of it. If you showed your face there they might both decide to kill you on the spot.’

‘It doesn’t matter!’ Kullervo snapped back. ‘They’re my parents. And if they don’t love me, then… then I’ll make them love me.’

Rena smiled sadly. ‘You’ll never get to them,’ she said. ‘You won’t be able to get through the Northgates. The guards there might kill you as well.’

‘I’ll find a way,’ Kullervo said stubbornly. ‘I will. One way or another I’ll get to them.’



He and Skarrat left the inn that night, after Kullervo had refused an offer of a place to sleep. Rena and Uran had given him some food, though, and he set out again with it bundled up on his back, almost running now.

Skarrat scrabbled to keep up. ‘Why do you run?’ she rasped. ‘There is nothing to run to!’

Kullervo slowed a little to let her keep up, but he spoke vigorously. ‘I’m sorry; it’s just that now I know where I’m going at last.’

He settled into a fast walk, which was enough for Skarrat to draw level with him.

‘No,’ said the ugly griffin. ‘You have nowhere to go. If you go North you will die, and that will be a good thing. But do not go to your parents.’

Kullervo put his head down and sped up again. ‘I have to,’ he said fiercely. ‘I have to go to them.’

Skarrat darted past him, and stopped directly in front of him. ‘Why?’ she demanded. ‘Why must you go to search for them? They do not want you, and the sight of you will only bring shame on them.’

Kullervo stopped too. ‘Why do you care?’ he asked. ‘Why try and stop me?’

‘You are a fool!’ said Skarrat. ‘And you must stop pretending that your deformities do not exist. You have not done what had to be done. You have not killed me, and nor have you had the dignity to kill yourself. We are abominations, both of us.’

‘No we aren’t!’ Kullervo roared. ‘We can’t help the way we were born, understand; it’s not our fault! And if you can’t see past what’s on the outside, then you’re the fool here, not me.’

‘And your parents?’ said Skarrat. ‘What about them? What do you hope to gain by finding them?’

‘I want love!’ Kullervo shouted back. ‘Don’t you see? All I’ve ever wanted is for someone, anyone, to love me. I want a family. They’re my family.’

Skarrat looked bewildered for a moment. ‘Love?’ she said. Then her eyes narrowed again and she hissed. ‘That word means nothing to me, and should mean nothing to you, Kullervo Taranisäii. Griffins do not know love. All I hear are the ravings of a mad deformity.’

Kullervo softened. ‘Skarrat, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t-,’

Skarrat crouched forward, stumpy tail raised and lashing. ‘No,’ she hissed. ‘No. You are not sorry. Not yet. But you will be.’

Kullervo regarded her without fear – there was only pity for her in him. Everything she had suffered in those cages had filled her with hate. It was all she had left.

‘Skarrat,’ he said. ‘It’s going to be all right.’

She ignored that.

‘Every griffin has a power,’ she said. ‘Even twisted deformities like myself. I have never used mine, but I use it now.’

She stood there a moment longer, and then a strange rigidity came over her, as if she had frozen solid to the spot. But then her beak opened, and Kullervo saw something come out.

A faint light drifted out of the ugly griffin’s beak, and came straight toward him. He raised a hand to try and bat it away, but it passed straight through. It spread out and became a mist – sickly, yellowy mist. Kullervo tried to back away, but the mist reached him and soaked in through his skin. Its touch put ice into his heart.

Skarrat began to speak, her voice a low, relentless chant.

‘I curse you,’ she snarled. ‘For your failure, for your hideousness, I curse you now, Kullervo Taranisäii, with all of my power and all of my hate.’ Her voice rose to a scream. ‘I curse you! My magic will stay in you, all the days of your life, and see that my curse is fulfilled. You will lose everything that you have, Kullervo, everything. And then you will die young, and in pain. I promise it.’

The mist filled Kullervo, weaving itself into his body. It burned and froze him all at once, and he groaned and fell to his knees. ‘No. Skarrat, no…’

Yes,’ she hissed. ‘You are cursed. I told you that you would regret that you did not kill me. Now, you do. You shall.’

Terror gripped Kullervo, and then… then the pain started.

He groaned again and tried to get up, but then fell back. A terrible force had taken hold of him, somewhere inside his body, and as he tried desperately to break away it doubled in power. It filled him, took control of him, and began to do what it wanted with his body.

He felt his insides begin to wrench and tear, ripping themselves apart. Something spiked through his skin, all over his body. His forearms cracked and bled, his teeth started to thrust themselves out of his mouth.

He fell onto his side, screaming in agony, barely able to spit out a few words. ‘What did you do-?’

But as the pain rose unbearably, he caught one brief glimpse of Skarrat, and she looked bewildered. ‘I did not-,’ she began, but if she said anything more than that he missed it, as blood roared in his ears.

His body felt as if it were being taken apart. Muscles twisted and wrenched, snapping and tearing. Tendons shrank and pulled at their moorings. Something had to give sooner or later, and before long, it did.

A sickening crack split the air, as Kullervo’s hip bone snapped clean in half. He gave a strangled scream through his twisting teeth, but it cut off as the bones of his very skull broke apart and the plates shifted about under his scalp. His vision blacked out as his eyes moved, dragged away by their drifting sockets.

Surely, he thought through the agony…. Surely he would be dead soon. Surely it couldn’t go on much longer before he died.

But it did. His body warped and broke, endlessly, nightmarishly, until his mind couldn’t take it any more and simply shut down.

He fainted.


© K.J.Taylor




When Kullervo woke up, everything felt different.

His body ached, but the searing pain of before had gone. A powerful tiredness had taken hold of him; he felt almost peaceful.

He opened his eyes, and found that he could see again. But now the world looked different. Sharper. Clearer. The slightest movement caught his attention immediately.

He breathed in, and a dozen different scents filled his nostrils, powerful in a way no smell had ever been before. He could smell Skarrat nearby, her odour mingling with the scents of earth and dry grass, and distant rain.

Kullervo tried to move, but his body wasn’t the same as he remembered. Surely, he thought quite matter-of-factly, he must have a dozen broken bones. But his limbs all moved easily – they were a little sore, true, but they still worked.

He tried to get up, and found that he stood differently now, but in a way that felt quite natural. The ground looked much closer to his face, but there was some kind of grey blob in the way when he tried to look forward at it.

Slowly, he raised a hand and tried to touch his face. But now his hand was big and clumsy; the fingers had become stiff and he couldn’t reach as high as he used to. He managed to touch his face, but his sense of touch wasn’t as sensitive as before; it was as if his hand were covered in a layer of stiff leather. Besides that, he didn’t seem to have a face any more – his rigid new fingers bumped into some hard, smooth obstruction, and his talons scraped down it when he tried to feel over it.

‘What’s going on?’ he mumbled.

He spoke differently too. It was clearly griffish, but not the same way he had spoken it before. His voice had gone lower, rougher, less expressive.

Ahead of him he saw Skarrat. The little griffin looked even smaller now, and she was staring at him with utter astonishment.

Kullervo took a step toward her. ‘What did you do to me?’ he rasped.

‘I did not do this!’ Skarrat exclaimed. ‘I cannot. I do not have the power.’ She sniffed at the air, and hissed. ‘It is you who have done this, Kullervo. It seems you have a power of your own.’

‘“Power”?’ Kullervo repeated. ‘What do you mean, Skarrat; what’s happened?’

‘Look at yourself and you will know.’ As Skarrat said this, she took another cautious step back away from him.

Obediently, Kullervo started to examine himself; turning his head as far as he could to see his own body.

What he saw were feathers, scales, fur, a tail. Wings. Not useless flaps of skin and bone, but real wings. Long, feathered and powerful. He could move them now; flap them up and down. His arms had become thick scaled forelegs, and his legs had twisted into furred hindquarters.

He was a griffin.

Not a half-griffin, but a true griffin. Small, most likely. Ugly, for sure. But a griffin all the same.

‘I transformed,’ he said in wonder. ‘I changed shape!’

‘So you did,’ said Skarrat. ‘I watched it happen.’

The sound of her voice brought Kullervo back to reality. He glared at her as memory returned, and his voice lowered to a hiss.

‘You cursed me,’ he said.

‘Yes,’ said Skarrat, completely unrepentant. ‘You have changed your shape now, but my curse has not left you, and never will. It will stay with you until it has been fulfilled.’

Kullervo took a step toward her. ‘Take it back,’ he said. ‘Take the curse away.’

‘No,’ said Skarrat.

Take it back!’ Kullervo screeched. ‘Take it back now, or tell me how to lift it myself!’

‘I cannot, and I will not,’ said Skarrat.

Kullervo advanced on her, head low and tail raised and lashing. His feathers puffed out and he half-opened his wings, making himself look bigger. ‘Take it back,’ he snarled.

‘There is no power in the world that can lift my curse,’ said Skarrat. ‘It will be gone from you when you are dead, and not before.’

A new emotion came to Kullervo, unlike anything he had felt before. His reshaped body brought heightened instincts with it, and he started to hiss and snarl and show his talons. ‘Take the curse back, or I’ll kill you,’ he said.

Skarrat snarled back. ‘I only wish to die,’ she said. ‘Kill me and do me a service.’

Driven by griffish instinct, Kullervo raised his talons to kill her – but forced himself to stop.

‘No,’ he growled. ‘I won’t kill you. Go, Skarrat. Get out of here. If being alive makes you suffer, then stay alive. But that wasn’t why I wouldn’t kill you before.’

Skarrat, though, had had enough. She hurled herself at him, talons first, screaming all the while. ‘Kill me! Kill me, you cursed monster!’

Kullervo lashed out and smacked her into the ground with one taloned forepaw. The dwarf griffin tumbled backward, head over paws, and landed awkwardly on her side in the dust. She wasn’t seriously hurt, but she didn’t try and get up. She lay there, breathing harshly, waiting for him to finish her off.

But Kullervo turned away from her with a dismissive snort, and slowly loped away, picking up the bundle of food in his beak but leaving the shreds of his clothes behind.

Skarrat got up and followed him for a short distance, but he kicked her away without even looking at her and after that she gave up. She sat there for a moment in the dust, just staring at Kullervo’s retreating back, before she turned and slunk away into the darkness.

Kullervo never saw her again.

He kept walking into the night, even though he was tired and his reshaped body felt shaky. But, to his amazement, before long he saw a glow of dawn start to appear on the horizon. Surely it couldn’t be morning already?

How long has he been unconscious? All night?

Either way, it didn’t matter so much to him. Despite everything – the curse, and the pain he had gone through – he started to feel good. His new body felt strong and graceful. And, more importantly, he felt as if he were finally whole. His body wasn’t distorted and trapped between two shapes any more. Now he wasn’t a freak, but a griffin. A small, ugly griffin, but a griffin all the same, whole and complete. Maybe he could even fly now.

While he walked, Kullervo opened his new wings and gave them an experimental flap. At first they wouldn’t move properly – they felt stiff and they hurt. But when he flexed them he felt them crack and click as the joints settled into place and, with a last little shock of pain, they started to work. He could flap them now, up and down, and fold them neatly on his back just like a real griffin. He raised them, one after the other, and peered at them in the grey dawn light. They felt strong, and they looked right. Once he worked out how to do it, he would fly. He was certain of it. And why not? Wasn’t he a griffin, like his mother had been once?

The thought was so exciting that he almost forgot about what Skarrat had done to him.

If he could fly, then it wouldn’t matter that nobody was allowed to go into the North any more. He could fly straight over the mountains and go straight to Malvern, where his parents must be. And then… then his dream would come true at last.

Kullervo thought about this plan while he plodded steadily on, and it excited him so much that he decided then and there that he would go through with it. He would wait a while, and take the time he needed to master flight, and when he was ready he would go.

For now, he needed to find a place to go. Some sort of temporary home. He would stay there until he felt ready to go North, and hopefully he would be able to learn more about how his power worked, if that was what it was. Because there was still one question left to answer.

Can I change back?




Kullervo found himself a home of sorts, further North where there were still forests. It took weeks to reach the spot, but he managed it – at first just by walking. But along the way he started testing his wings, experimenting, trying them out. At first he had assumed it would be simple enough, but it was one thing to see other animals in flight and another to actually try it himself, and he quickly discovered that learning how to fly wouldn’t be as easy as he might have hoped.

But his new griffin’s body wasn’t just a new shape: it had made his mind different as well. His old animal instincts had risen and become much stronger than before. Now he felt some things more sharply, like anger and hunger, and other things less, like fear. Other emotions, like worry and love, were almost gone. He never felt guilty at all, ever. That part was nice.

Besides that, though, he had also developed new instincts which gave him some idea of how to use his new body. It helped him work out what to do with his wings much faster than he might have done on his own, and after several days of testing them he felt ready to try them out properly for the first time.

He tried a short run, flapping his wings hard, and then leapt as he had seen other griffins do. For one electrifying instant he felt himself starting to rise – but then he fell back to the ground. But not, he thought later, because he couldn’t do it. He just wasn’t ready yet, or wasn’t used to the sensation.

So he tried again, and again, without much thought – his new mind made him feel disinclined to think much, and more interested in action. He quickly learned to push away the more cautious human side, and trust the flying instinct, which told him not to be afraid. Don’t think. Do. And so, while he walked, he would sometimes break into a run and a leap; trying to take off. And the more he tried it the more natural it felt, until one day he flew for the first time.

He leapt and let his wings lift him, higher and higher with big rough flaps, while the ground got smaller and smaller below him. He looked down and saw how high up he was already, and had to fight off the human side, which made panic shoot through him.

Don’t panic! he told himself.

Don’t think.


Kullervo narrowed his eyes and beat his wings harder, riding the wind and following the griffish side. Instinctively he levelled out, feeling his wings stiffen and his tail lock into a straight line, twisting gently from side to side every so often to steady him in the air as he settled into a glide.

Slowly, cautiously, Kullervo let himself relax and just feel his body the way he had taught himself to do. He felt the muscles in his wings and back stretch and flex, and noticed how his legs automatically folded themselves up under his body, front paws curled like human fists.

The wind ruffled his fur and feathers and touched his skin with its icy fingers. He could feel it on his eyes too, but they didn’t water or flinch at all. They stayed open and strong, unbothered, scarcely even blinking.

He looked down again, and found that he could see the ground – see it all perfectly, laid out below him. He saw the trees, all rough and greenish grey, clumped together like lichen. The earth was all brown; not one brown but many browns all mingled, with a silvery river twining through it somewhere off to his left.

Warm air currents drifted up toward him, and they brought the scents of soil and grass and leaves.

His senses were perfectly tuned, sharp and strong, and his griffish mind knew how to interpret what they brought to him. He knew it was summer, but that autumn was on its way. And everywhere he looked he found himself searching for movement. The slightest ruffling of the grass below, the turn of a branch – all of it caught his attention almost before it happened. When a solitary animal moved down there, his eyes snapped to it instantly.

He followed it without thinking, observing its every motion. The animal… he didn’t even bother to identify exactly what it was. It was a ground-bound animal and therefore it was food. He watched it stumble along, so heavy, so clumsy, too weak and stupid to know that death’s eyes were on it.

His talons flexed, reaching out as if they could snatch the beast up from this distance. All he had to do was fly lower, silent and deadly, and then drop. He would strike the prey in the spine, talons first, and it would be dead before it knew anything. Then he would carry its corpse away to some high place where he could perch and satisfy his hunger, and the warm blood would be in his beak and on his talons, its flesh in his stomach…

It all went through his mind in moments, not as thought but as something far more simple. It wasn’t even instinct. It was just… seeing how it was, how it would be and how it should be. That was what it meant to be a predator.

And why not, he thought, as the vision ended. Wasn’t he a griffin? He’d already eaten all the food he had been carrying, and now he was hungry.

Kullervo’s griffish instincts, spurred on by the sensation of flight, quickly rose up and smothered humanlike thought. He flew lower, circling, angling his wings upward, eyes fixed on the prey. The animal didn’t seem to notice him, or not until the last moment, when his shadow went over it and made it glance up. It saw him and ran.

But by now it was already too late. Kullervo pointed his wings back and dived, talons outstretched. They hit the animal square in the back and sent it smashing into the ground.

He landed on top of it, stumbling a little, but darted in with his beak and finished the writhing prey off with a quick blow that sent delicious, hot blood spurting into his mouth. He swallowed it eagerly and took off, awkwardly clutching the prey to his chest.

It as difficult, but he managed it, flying away Northward with the dead animal dangling beneath him.

After some time, growing tired, he came across a stand of trees that looked strong enough. He landed there, paws clutching onto the top boughs of the largest one. Fortunately, as a small griffin, it wasn’t so hard to find a perch as it would have been for a full sized adult.

He sat there on a thick branch, back claws hooked into the bark, and pinned the prey down with one forepaw while he tore at it with his beak.

Of all the food he had ever eaten in his life, nothing had ever tasted as good as this. The flesh was soft and rich, still warm, and sticky with blood. His pointed beak tore through the animal’s hide without any effort at all, and he swallowed that along with the meat. His newly heightened senses rose up higher than ever, overwhelming him, and he started to growl and hiss as he ripped the food apart and ate it, gulping down large chunks of bone in the process. Savage joy and excitement filled him as the meat filled his stomach – how could he have ever eaten any other way?

But he hadn’t, had he? He was a griffin, wasn’t he? Griffins never ate anything else, never had any food except what they caught.

Kullervo’s eating slowed, and the vicious hunger in him dulled a little as confusion rose in his mind.

He was a griffin, but he’d never eaten like this before. He’d never torn up a corpse like this, never hunted… he’d never killed anything before in his life. But what kind of sense did that make?

Kullervo looked down at his meal, and saw it properly as the instincts faded again. He’d been eating a goat.

Raw. Whole.

The animal lay under his bloodied front paws, already ripped to pieces. Somewhere along the way he’d smashed the skull open to get at the brains, and he’d already eaten most of the other organs. He’d tossed the intestines aside, though; they weren’t good to eat. Full of foul liquids.

But more importantly than all that was the thought that he had killed the goat. Viciously and thoughtlessly, like an animal would. He had even enjoyed it.

He could still taste the blood and raw meat.

Kullervo retched.

What have I done? he thought.

The thought only made his nausea increase. He couldn’t possibly be eating a dead goat, not like this, not…

Kullervo lifted his front paws, and made to throw the remains away. But the scent hit his nostrils again, and the griffish instinct rose in response.

Food, it said.

Kullervo hesitated. For one paralysing instant he just stood there, while two sides battled in his mind. The human was revolted, but the griffin… the griffin was hungry, and angry at the thought of losing the food it had caught.

I can’t do this; it’s foul, it’s wrong, the human thought.

EAT! the griffin screamed.

The griffin won. Kullervo forgot his objections, and went back to his meal – careful to scoop the brains out of the shattered skull as thoroughly as he could. They were a delicacy. So tender. Oh yes.

Once he had finished eating his instincts told him he should rest, so he did – moving on to another tree some way off and curling up in its branches to sleep. It was bad to stay near the remains of a kill; the smell might bring other griffins.

He slept through that afternoon and through the night as well, and left in the morning. By now he had forgotten about Withypool, about Rena and Uran, and even about the curse. Nothing mattered but to survive. But some part of him still vaguely remembered that he had been going North, and that it was important for some reason.

He kept on flying, day by day, until he reached the Northgate mountains. He stopped there, at their base, and made a home for himself among the trees there. It would be a good territory; he could hunt here.

He settled in there; finding a den for himself on a mountainside, where he set out from every day until he had discovered where the good places for hunting were. There were no other griffins about.

And that was where he stayed for a long, long time, memory fading with every season until there was nothing left. He wasn’t Kullervo, or anyone. He just was. Nothing else mattered.




Kullervo was never quite certain how long he stayed in his territory, lost inside his griffish self. Years were a human thing, and so were months. He saw the seasons come and go, but never remembered how many or even what they were called. What did it matter?

Later on he sometimes thought that he had deliberately let himself forget. Life as a human has been painful; so full of confusion and fear, guilt, doubts and worries. Here, in his new mind, he never thought of anything but food and good places to sleep. Everything was so simple and easy.

But it wasn’t always like that.

At night, in dreams, it would come back sometimes. He would dream of another life, and of memories where he did things a griffin could never do. He dreamed of an old woman with a kind face, and a cage… a cage that terrified even him, a griffin!

When he was awake his mind rebelled at that idea. Griffins weren’t supposed to be afraid of anything. When there was danger, the only proper reaction was anger.

But in his dreams he was afraid, and that bothered him more and more as the days went by. But what could he possibly do about it?

And then, one day, it all changed.

It was winter, and hunting had been bad for some time. Kullervo, the nameless grey griffin now, went to the ground to search around among the trees for smaller prey. Perhaps he could dig something out of its burrow. And, for some reason, he felt he wanted to be on the ground today. There was something about flying that bothered him; some vague notion that he had lost something up there in the sky.

He loped along over the ground, which had been covered by a thin layer of snow. His paws left tracks in it. He didn’t bother to hide those; there were no other griffins here, not anywhere, and nothing hunted a griffin.

Ahead, toward the edge of the trees, a scent drifted back toward him. He moved toward it, head up to sniff. Something smelled good. It smelled of food – live food.

Kullervo sped up, hoping easily over the branches and rocks in his way, until he found the food. It was a rabbit, and it stank of panic.

Kullervo paused, staring in puzzlement. The rabbit wasn’t on the ground, but hanging in the air, dangling by a back leg from what looked like a vine. It kicked pathetically, head-down, and squealed the way it would when his beak closed on its little body.

The sound was enough to make Kullervo forget everything except his empty stomach, and he padded forward eagerly and snatched the food. The rabbit squealed again as he tore it down, ripping its leg clean off in the process, but before he could swallow it, pain snapped shut around his front leg.

He reared up, screeching in surprise and anger, but when he pulled away the pain only pulled back. Kullervo flapped and darted around, wrenching at his leg, but it was caught.

He forced himself to stop, and looked down at his leg. A set of jaws made from shining metal had closed around it, just above the paw, and its teeth had bitten into him. He could see and smell his own blood on them.

He pulled again, more carefully this time, but the jaws were attached to a chain with a thick metal stake hammered through it.

A trap, he thought.

Furious now, he hopped over to the stake and started trying to pull it out. But it was smooth and his beak couldn’t get a grip on it. He tried hitting it instead, but it wouldn’t come loose.

Instead, he tried to pull the trap off himself. He hooked his beak through it and pulled, but that only made it hurt worse. He gripped it with his free paw on one side and pulled the other side with his beak – that made it come open, but not far, and the moment it slipped out of his grip the jaws snapped shut hard enough to make him screech again.

He kept trying, though. All day he tried, and into the night, until his leg was mangled and sweat ran down his back. And still he couldn’t get free.

Eventually, utterly exhausted, he flopped down on his side and rested. The dead rabbit lay not far away – he snapped it up and swallowed it without enthusiasm, and then drifted into a sleep that was closer to a faint.




He woke up when a smell hit his nostrils – a strange, complex smell, but one he remembered.

Human, he thought, and jerked away as something wrapped itself around his back legs. But too late. They had crept up on him, and though he kicked out blindly they tied his hind legs together with rope, and then his wings and front legs as well.

There were several of them, all talking at once. He could hear their excitement. And he… understood them?

He listened, frightened and in pain, and heard the babble of their voices start to twist and warp into meaning in his ears.

‘…got it!’

‘Lucky it’s so small or we would’ve had more trouble! Take the trap off.’

One of them did something to the trap, which sprang open and finally let go of his leg. But by now he was tied up, and he could only thrash hopelessly as his captors dragged him away.

They had a cage ready – a crude thing made of tree branches tied together. But it was big enough for him to fit inside, and that was where they put him. They bundled him through the open side and then tied some branches in place to close it behind him.

He lay on the bottom of the cage, helplessly looking out at his captors, who gathered around to inspect what they had caught.

‘Nice work!’ one said. ‘I can’t believe we really found one!’

‘It doesn’t look like much,’ said another. ‘It’s undersized and ugly. Lucky they’re so desperate; the fighting pits’ll pay through the nose for any griffin they can get!’

Fighting pits…!

The words shot through his mind like an arrow, and he started to struggle. The fighting pits, and a cage… the cage!

‘Well, I’ll go an’ get the cart,’ said one of the men. ‘Stay here and keep an eye on him – I should get here by morning. It’s a long way after that to Withypool, though.’

No, the griffin thought. Withypool, no…!

And then he started to say it, or screech it, as he fought against his bonds.

‘No! No! No!

He said it in griffish, but as his terror grew the words sounded less and less griffin-like. The cage seemed to press in on him, the ropes bit him. He felt as if he were being crushed, smothered… he couldn’t breathe.

‘No!’ he screamed. ‘Not cages, not the fighting pits, no! No!

He slammed his beak against the bars and pulled at the ropes, harder and harder, until they cut him and made him bleed. His heart fluttered, and his head span.

Fear rose; unaccustomed, weak, human.

The griffish side didn’t like it, and didn’t want it. It tried to push it away and take control again. But the fear was too powerful, because it wasn’t a fear of something happening now, but a fear of something that had happened, and of what might happen in the future, and it was smothering.

It couldn’t keep going like that. Something had to break, and it did.

Kullervo broke.

He felt a burn begin in his throat, and his beak opened wide to try and spit it out. But the power didn’t go out of his body, but in, and through it, more and more of it in a single, uncontrollable burst.

He screamed again, in pain this time, as it began again.

Muscles tore. Bones broke. His body warped and twisted and changed. His fur and feathers fell out in a single puff. He heard the men outside the cage exclaiming in horror, before the pain made him black out again.


© K.J.Taylor




He woke up in a great wave of confusion. A dozen different thoughts and feelings jostled for space, but one of the clearest was the sensation of cold. Freezing cold.

He shivered and opened his eyes. They ached, and his vision was blurry.

Was he going blind?

No… after a little while his vision cleared and he could see. But now his vision was much weaker than before. All his senses felt blunted.

He did feel the cold much more powerfully, though. He could feel himself shivering.

He tried to get up. His body felt different. Clumsy.

After a few attempts he managed to sit up on his haunches. It was harder now; his back legs bent differently. What had happened to him?

He looked down at himself, and froze.

His fur was gone. So were his feathers. His body was covered in nothing but thin, pale pink skin, with an ineffectual coating of coarse black hair here and there that covered almost nothing. His talons had stayed, and his hind claws, but everything else had gone.

He looked at himself for a long moment, before memory came back, slowly and almost cautiously, as if it were trying not to scare him by being too sudden.

I’m human, he thought.

Not a mutated half-human, but a real human, with proper feet and legs. There were no scales on his arms now; just hair. The talons on his fingers made his hands clumsy, but he reached up and felt his face, and a kind of wild joy filled him. He had a nose! Not a tiny stump, but a real, proper, human nose! It even felt like a rather large one.

Other things had changed, too. He had hair on his head like before, but also…

He ran his talons through the rough hair on his chin, and muttered to himself.

‘…a beard?’

He didn’t remember ever having one of those.

But it didn’t matter. He remembered everything, all the things the griffin had swallowed up. He was Kullervo, and he was a man.

He had become so caught up in realising it that he hadn’t paid the slightest bit of attention to his surroundings. But then a noise made him look up, and he tensed.

He was still in the cage, and his captors were there outside it.

All of them were staring at him in absolute silence. Most of them had gone pale.

The ropes had fallen off Kullervo some time during his transformation. He shrugged off the last bits and peered out at the men.

‘Hello,’ he said.

Two of them jerked slightly in fright.

One of the others managed to speak – very quietly, as if he was afraid that talking too loudly would make some other horrible thing happen.

‘What… are you?’

‘Uh, well, my name’s Kullervo,’ he answered rather lamely. He pulled on the rough wooden bars. ‘Can I come out now?’

The hunters exchanged glances. None of them looked ready to go anywhere near him.

Kullervo sighed, and tried to put his head through the bars. It fitted, and he hissed triumphantly and squeezed the rest of himself through. It was hard; his wings stuck partway through, and the bark left on the bars scraped the soft skin on them. Kullervo winced and pulled extra hard, and they came free.

He rubbed one wing tenderly. They’d stayed, apparently, along with the tail, but they were featherless now; bald and ugly like the wings on a plucked chicken.

The hunters backed off, too nervous to even reach for their weapons.

‘What are you?’ the one who’d spoken demanded again.

‘I’m Kullervo,’ Kullervo said again. ‘Kullervo the man-griffin. I can change my shape.’ It seemed like a sensible enough answer to him.

‘We saw it,’ said the man. ‘We thought… are you the Winged Man?’

Kullervo sighed. ‘I don’t think so.’ He looked down at his naked body. ‘Um, can I have some clothes? It’s cold.’

That finally got them to move. The little group shook off their fright and movement ruffled through them as they chose bits of excess clothing to take off.

Kullervo was too cold to care much about the niceties, and he barged forward and took whatever they offered him, which they handed over hesitantly but without any argument.

Kullervo wound up with a pair of thick overpants, a fur tunic, and a scarf. He pulled them on as fast as he could, and shivered gratefully once they were on.

‘Thankyou,’ he said.

They were still staring at him, but a little more openly now.

‘What’s a man-griffin?’ one asked.

‘I don’t really know,’ said Kullervo. He rubbed his wrist, which was still torn and bloodied from the trap. ‘But I should thank you.’

‘For what?’ one man exclaimed. ‘We… holy Gryphus, I’m so sorry. If we’d had any idea…’

‘No, it’s all right,’ said Kullervo. ‘If you hadn’t scared me so much I might never have changed back. I think I got lost, you see. Lost in the griffin,’ he added, mostly to himself. ‘I’ll have to be very careful.’ He glanced at the hunters, and found he didn’t feel like talking to them. It would take too long to explain, and would they really understand?

‘I should go now,’ he said. He dabbed at his wrist again. ‘Don’t use those traps any more,’ he added. ‘They’re cruel. Goodbye.’

He walked away through the snow.




Kullervo stayed in his territory after that, this time in a rough shelter he built out of wood. He found a knife in the pocket of the tunic he’d been given, and used that with a piece of flint he found to light a fire.

The warmth of it felt good on his face.

Luckily the wound on his wrist wasn’t too bad; the scales that had been there when it happened must have protected his flesh from being too badly damaged. If he had been caught in that trap as a human, it would probably have broken his arm.

He wondered how long he had been a griffin. Months? Years, even?

Whatever it was, it must have been a while. He had changed, even as a human. He had grown a beard, for one thing, which he had never been able to do before. His voice sounded deeper as well. Somewhere in his time as a griffin, he had become a man.

Well, he thought calmly, now it was just a question of working out what to do next.

He remembered his plan to go North, but he couldn’t do it just yet. Maybe he could figure out how to change into a griffin again, but if he did there was no certainty that he wouldn’t get lost again and forget his human concerns. And if that happened there would be no point in going North at all.

But the answer seemed obvious enough to him, and he reasoned it out to himself while he sat there and nursed his bleeding wrist.

He had the power to shape shift, just as Skarrat had said. He could become a human or a griffin, and maybe he would never have to be a freak stuck between two shapes again.

With his power, he knew that he would be able to do what he knew he had to. If he could change into a griffin and fly North, then he could become human again when he got there. It sounded simple enough, but he knew he wasn’t ready for that. So far he had only changed by accident, and the changes had been triggered in some way.

He had to master his power before he could use it properly. It would be painful, and probably dangerous as well, but he had to do it; he knew he had to. He barely even had a choice in the matter.

He thought through all this, before the memory of the curse came back as well.

Kullervo felt cold and sick, as Skarrat’s hateful words chased themselves around inside his head like a relentless chant.

I curse you. You will lose everything, and die young. Lose everything… die young, and in pain. I curse you!

He knew that the curse was real. He had seen her magic, and felt it weave itself into him. She had cursed him with it, and it would never leave him – not until it had been fulfilled. Not until he was dead. Skarrat had said that there was no way to lift the curse, and he believed her. He knew, no matter what he did, that sooner or later the curse would kill him.

But when? There was no way of knowing. He guessed that he had been a griffin for a long time; probably years. The curse hadn’t killed him yet. It could take years more.

But what had Skarrat said? She hadn’t just said that he would die. She had said he would die after he had lost everything.

Maybe that was why he was still alive – because here and now, he had nothing to lose. In a sense he’d already lost everything, well before he’d met her. Toula, who had cared for him, the home he had made for himself… he’d been alone, with no home, no money, no possessions other than the clothes on his back.

Maybe, then, the curse wouldn’t do anything unless he made a proper life for himself, and found things that he cared about, things it would hurt him to lose. Could that be it? Could it be that living here with nothing was keeping him alive?

If he stayed here like this forever, maybe the curse would never do anything to him at all.

But Kullervo knew he couldn’t do that. Here he would starve, but more than that – here he would never have a life that was worth living. Here he would never find the one thing he wanted more than anything else. No, he had to leave. He had to find his parents, and the love he had never had.

Kullervo stared into the guttering fire, and felt his wrist throb. His bones throbbed much more powerfully. His whole body ached from the change. But he didn’t care, and barely noticed. His mind was elsewhere.

He made a promise to himself, eyes on the fire, murmuring the words under his breath.

‘It doesn’t matter. The curse doesn’t matter. I don’t care if I die young. I’ll go North; I’ll find them, no matter what it takes. I’ll find a family. I swear… if I can find someone… if I can be loved, truly, just for one day, just for one moment… then I’ll die happy, and I won’t care that I never get to be old.’

He made that promise to himself and clung to it, holding it in his heart like a great secret. It made him feel stronger, and took the fear of Skarrat’s curse away. It didn’t matter if he died young as she had said he would. Everyone died sooner or later, didn’t they? Time didn’t matter. What you did with the time you got – that was what mattered in the end, and Kullervo would use his time to find the one thing he wanted, and had always wanted more than anything.

A family.


© K.J.Taylor





Neato text ornament here