Does the Griffin Master expect his recruits to cut loose when he's not there?
Is Samara Neb's girl? ... read on & decide for yourself ... At griffin riders' training camp, Neb's fellow recruits Trelan and Raul are trying to convince Neb, aka Balkind's Rider, to take full advantage of Romulus's absence.
Neb shrugged and continued feathering arrow shafts, keeping half an eye on Balkind, who currently cruised the thermals of this dark lush ravine.
'No, he's scared!' Raul crouched to poke his face into Neb's.
'Scared of Romulus. Scardey cat, meow, meow! Don't be scared of the big bad wolf, puss,' he danced away before Neb could give him the good hard shove he deserved.
'I don't have a complex. I am better than you, and yes – I'm scared of Romulus.'
'Oooh, I knew it! Meow, meow, meow!'
Neb scowled and shied a handy pebble towards Raul's grinning face. He dodged, caught it, and chucked it back at Neb. It clattered harmlessly onto the boulder Neb was using as a perch.
'Our little scardey cat throws like a girl!'
'And you don't?' Neb jeered, selecting another feather.
Crouching beside Neb, Trelan tried a pleading approach. 'Neb, come on. Please? There's three of them – you can have the ugly one, so even if your girl Samara finds out, she won't mind.'
'Samara isn't my girl, and it isn't her finding out that worries me. Besides, what were we told about treating young maidens with the respect they deserve?'
Raul grinned 'Oh, I intend to – these girls are no maidens, and I respect that!'
He sauntered over to the cobble-stoned area outside the griffins' sanctuary, where first year recruits trundled carts and pushed brooms. With the flat of his hand, Raul swiped the shoulders of a youngster engaged in preening and grooming a pale golden griffin. 'Hurry, boy. I've got a date and can't be late!' The youngster redoubled his efforts, while Raul headed for the waterfall which served the recruits as a shower.
'Neb, cut loose for once! Romulus expects us to act like knaves when he's not here. Anyway, he's only truly happy when he's shouting at us.'
Neb laughed out-loud at Trelan's reasoning.
'I don't mind him shouting. It's being sent away in disgrace that worries me. And playing truant will get you two expelled.'
'Don't talk rot. Look around you. Everyone's taken off. We're the only ones left.'
Neb raised his eyebrows and turned to stare pointedly at the hapless first years, all stripped to their underwear and engaged in grooming, preening or mucking out. Those not engaged in sanctuary duties were stuck with the even worse chore of cleaning the recruits' living quarters: Modified caves that extended into the hillside. In winter, they froze. Hot sunny days, like today, with all windows and doors open, the dormitory sized rooms were cool and welcoming. From the lack of activity inside, Neb suspected that many first years were taking advantage of Romulus's absence by laying on their cots.
Seeing his friend's attention wandering, Trelan punched Neb's shoulder.
'First year's don't count. If Romulus expels us, he has to expel the entire Premier and Secondary Squads. Besides, he's already used up half his quota by expelling Euwan.' Trelan's eyes lit up and he moved a stack of completed arrows from the rock to the grass lapping around it and settled next to Neb, preparing to gossip.
'Did you hear about Euwan's father?'
'He died,' Neb said, rescuing the arrow stack from the shaggy unkempt grass and shoe-horning them into a leather quiver.
'He's dead all right, died of shame, if you ask me. But did you hear what Euwan and his mother are up to now?'
Drawing his lips into a thin line, Neb titled his chin to his chest, shielding his burning face with a fall of white blond hair. He couldn't bear to hear Euwan's name mentioned, and as for his mother … arriving at camp to collect a shamed Euwan, Seren had spotted Neb, whom she obviously considered to be the cause of all her son's misfortunes … Neb's ears burned at the memory of the name she'd called him.
Sensing Neb's unease, Trelan changed the subject. He drew an arrow from the quiver and examined it.
'These aren't bad. If you're staying here, make yourself useful and make me some?'
Since once they were fully fledged, griffin riders were unlikely ever to use a bow and arrow, most recruits despised archery practice, telling each other (though never Romulus) that it was a peasant's sport.
Neb frowned and glanced sideways. 'Do your own dirty work,' he said.
Trelan stroked his nude upper lip again, and grinned. 'I intend to. That's why me and Raul shaved. Girls don't like stubble rash on their soft pretty cheeks.'
He jumped to his feet just as Raul called out: 'Hey, Trelan, forget about the scardey cat. Perry's coming with us. He don't mind having the ugly one!'
At Raul's side, Perry grinned good naturedly.
Behind them, three griffins crouched, wings already inflated, hooting with impatience to be off on an unexpected adventure.
'Make sure Balkind doesn't follow you,' Neb called, bending back to his self-imposed chore.
'Why should we? Why should Balkind be stuck here, when this day was made for flying?' Raul called over his shoulder, then whooped as all three griffins trundled down the steep slope, Calliban's wing sweeping within a hair's breadth of Neb's head, before launching into the air. Their golden, blue and dark brown wings seemed jewel like against the ravine's dark green, then they soared upwards. Neb watched until they were mere blots against the bluest sky.
Hooting anxiously, Balkind circled Neb's rock, then landed a little too close for comfort. He gambolled over to Neb, thrusting his beak-like snout into Neb's stomach and hooted again.
Neb knuckled Balkind's sweet spot, between his ears. 'Poor Balkind, some griffins have all the fun!' he said, smiling when Balkind hooted in agreement. "Fun" was one of the many words he understood, though apparently, he'd yet to master sarcasm … though sometimes Neb wondered.
Pushing Balkind away, he scooped up feathers and arrow shafts, wrapping them in a cotton rag. Then he retrieved the quiver, pleased to see it was almost full, thinking the arrows looked top flight. If I don't make it as a griffin rider, I can always become a fletcher, then, only half jesting, admonished himself, Griffin Rider, or death! He stood, stretched and petted Balkind's snout.
'Dinner time,' he said. Hearing his favourite words, Balkind nipped at his favourite human's hair, then gambolled ahead of Neb, scattering first years in his haste to bury his snout in his dinner bowl.
Neb followed at a slower pace, knowing the first years would ply him with questions and beg him to help with their studies. As expected, four of the boldest new recruits ganged up on Neb, piping questions. Absently, he measured fodder into Balkind's dinner bowl, while telling the recruits to clear off or he would find more chores for them. They giggled, suspecting he was bluffing, but just in case, they made a run for the great outdoors.
The griffins' sanctuary jutted out over the valley like a stubby wooden pier built over air. Honeysuckle, dog roses and even grape vines twined around the structure, creating an oasis surrounded by plant growth under the wooden boarded roof. Weighed down with Balkind's water bowl handle in one hand, and an even heavier food bowl in the other, Neb headed for the rear of the sanctuary, where the fresher smell of meadow hay overpowered the more delicate floral scents. Balkind followed, snuffling happily. His sanctuary mates hooted greetings, Neb settled Balkind's food and water next to Alaska, then leaned back against a sturdy vine to watch Balkind eat with a critical eye. Turning his back on Neb, Balkind ruffled his feathers.
Balkind's dinner. Griffins only. Not for humans. Taking the hint, Neb sauntered back to the Sanctuary's mouth and propped himself against a wooden strut.
He yawned, covering his mouth, then seconds later yawned again. But he wasn't tired and surely he couldn't be bored – could he?
Hearing screams of laughter bouncing off the ravine walls, Neb peered to his left. Thirty feet above, tributaries of the River Argent tumbled over the ravine's edge, creating a myriad of waterfalls and waterslides as they cascaded towards the valley floor and the main river. The First Years slipped, slid and plunged along the waterfalls sometimes vertical course way, screeching with delighted fear.
Would it be undignified to join them?
'Ask yourself that question again, only slower,' Neb chided himself out-loud, then sighed heavily. Straw rustled, then Balkind stood behind him, resting his chin on Neb's shoulder and dribbling a mouthful of half chewed fodder down his tunic.
'Balkind!' Neb scolded. But Balkind only nibbled his ear, as if to say, yes, it's me. Aren't I wonderful? And when Neb sat down to dangle his legs over the Sanctuary's edge, Balkind grunted and sat beside him, thrusting his head into Neb's lap, demanding to be petted and stroked. Without turning, Neb knew the other griffins would be dozing, or preening each other. Balkind simply loved people and seemed more aware than other griffins of the role he was born to play. He also had a low boredom threshold, so Neb decided to stop moping and go ride on the thermals with Balkind.
'Why should we be stuck here, when this day was made for flying?' he whispered into Balkind's ear.
But they'd left their escape too late.
Master Shannon's voice called. 'I'm glad you think so, recruit. I need someone to run an errand, and since you're the only half decent rider around, you're the lucky one!'
While Neb gloated over this back handed compliment, Master Shannon, who had nursed Alaska back to health over the last few months, explained that he and Romulus agreed that some time spent at Cherub Conventus would heal the griffin's mental scars.
'… and don't forget, you're representing the griffin riders' camp. No shenanigans with the students!' Under thick grey eyebrows, his eyes gleamed with amusement. Neb stiffened to attention, but before he could protest, Master Shannon clapped him on the arm.
'I jest, young Balkind's Rider. Everyone knows you never get into trouble!' still smirking, he walked off, heading toward the kitchens.
A trip to Cherub Clifftops meant an afternoon's flight, followed by an overnight stay. He should hurry to shower and prepare for the journey, but he hesitated, lost in thought. Would Chantress Anderra have forgiven him yet for disobeying orders and stealing Balkind? Sensing his rider's unease, Balkind nuzzled his snout into Neb's hand, crooning with pleasure when Neb got the hint and scratched between the griffin's ears.
'It'll be good to see the old place again,' he told Balkind with more confidence than he felt, adding. 'And if I see Samara, well – she's not my girl. She's just a friend, who happens to be a girl.'
At the mention of Samara, Balkind put his head on one side, regarded his rider with a large emerald eye, then slowly lowered his eyelid in a wink.
© Julia Hughes, 2014.