As promised, here's chapter two of "The Griffin's Fall" from our next Griffin Riders adventure - happily (in my view anyway) it works as a stand alone short story too, so however you're celebrating your Monday, find five minutes to put your feet up and enjoy this mini-flight of fantasy!
The Griffin's Fall - Chapter Two:
Perry would describe again and again how Alaska had squawked, then plummeted into the lake. Griffins detested being wet at the best of times. During heavy rainstorms, some even refused to fly. And of course, waterlogged feathers made flying impossible. Neb thought they probably had seconds to somehow wrench Alaska from the water. Balkind's wings scythed through the air, shooting towards the stricken griffin and Neb's heart sunk.
They were too late. Alaska's wings beat against the water, but though they were fully outstretched, only a third was visible. The griffin's head was also mainly underwater, with only Alaska's pink hairless snout poking from the surface. His nostrils flared, trying to suck in much needed air. But without help, his lungs would never inflate again.
Balkind hooted with distress, Fletcher's wing beats filled Neb's ears. Turning his head to the left, he saw the Griffin Master's mount swooping down on Alaska. Grim faced, the Griffin Master was reaching behind his back to draw his sword.
'No!' Neb shouted, and shifted his weight to the left. Balkind immediately responded, dropping his left shoulder and almost swiping Fletcher's head with his wing. Fletcher bellowed and veered to the left. The Griffin Master was forced to grab at Fletcher's wings. 'Damn you, boy!' he cursed, as Fletcher scribed a semi-circle, preparing to bear down Alaska again, for the Griffin Master to end his suffering. A lead weight settled in Neb's stomach and he signalled Balkind to follow on Fletcher's tail.
'Please, Griffin Master Romulus, sir, please – is there nothing to be done?'
In answer Romulus roared. 'Keep those griffins under control. Heed me, or be sorry! Bid them stay!' After a second of confusion, Neb realised Romulus addressed the watchers on the shore. The young griffins flapped their wings and hooted anxiously, a red cloaked recruit stood at each one's head, trying to calm their mounts. Romulus signalled Fletcher to fly higher and widen his circle of approach. He shouted back over his shoulder, to Neb. 'Will Balkind glide on command?' Neb's mind scrambled over the question, what did Romulus mean to do? Whatever, so long as the old man's sword remained sheathed, Neb would glide his heart out – as would Balkind. He nodded vigorously, then shouted 'Yes!'
Romulus waved his right arm in a wide arc. 'Circle to the right. Turn in on my signal. Watch Fletcher. Mirror Fletcher – glide towards Alaska – only grab the right wing. You understand me, boy?'
With a last determined nod, Neb swiped at his face and sobbed out-loud. They had a chance: Alaska had a chance.
Romulus was the Griffin Master for a reason. Fletcher seemed to hover mid-air, waiting for Balkind to circle and then straighten, for a dual approach towards the stricken griffin. 'Don't mess this up, there's no second chance,' Neb muttered to himself, running a hand along Balkind's fluffy neck feathers. He glanced over towards Alaska. The animal had stopped struggling, which was good, but only someone who knew what they were looking at would recognise the broad margin of white, seemingly froth drifting on the water's surface, as being the outer edge of a griffin's wing span. Neb had to steel himself not to cut across too soon. Forcing himself to breath evenly, he imagined his left leg as an iron rod, around which Balkind had to pivot.
The pink hues of the lake's water turned Balkind's reflection a pinkish silver. As they swept past the band of fisher-girls, their faces too were brushed with an unnatural pink. A few of the surrounding boulders were almost blood red, maybe their colour leaked into the lake … or perhaps the lake has washed over them … Balkind flew past the other recruits, still turning, turning, and Fletcher came into view again. Neb jammed his knees against Balkind's flanks; The Griffin Master pushed Fletcher into a smaller tighter circle and as though they'd rehearsed this a thousand times, Fletcher and Balkind peeled out of their circles and as one, shot towards the broad line of white flotsam, which was all that showed of Alaska.
'Glide, Balkind, glide,' Neb ordered, pressing his legs forwards and ramming his knees under Balkind's wings. A sudden stillness pinged at Neb's ears; Balkind's wings seemed somehow to enlarge, at the same time they flattened, and Balkind glided noiselessly, with barely any loss of speed.
'Watch Fletcher, mirror Fletcher,' Romulus's voice came from far away. Yet when Neb looked to his left, Fletcher's golden wingtips butted against Balkind's silver grey. Then Neb's eyes widened. Fletcher folded his right wing, moving in closer to Balkind. Romulus noticed Neb's surprise. He grunted, and repeated a sweeping movement of his hand along an imaginary wing. "Can Balkind glide on command?" The Griffin Master had asked, never mentioning it was possible for a griffin to glide on one wing. If Neb hadn't seen it with his own eyes, he wouldn't have believed it possible. He glanced forwards, mere minutes now before their one and only attempt at grabbing the sunken griffin by its wing edges. If Balkind folds his wing, we're in with a real chance – this could work! Neb thought, and with nothing to lose, swept his hand along Balkind's left wing.
There was no earthly reason for Balkind to obey, but with a smoother action than Neb had hoped for, Balkind tucked his left wing to his flank, shifting closer to Fletcher, so close, they really were one griffin, a griffin blessed with four strong front legs and talons. Neb had a moment of dizzy delight – then quickly sobered. They were almost upon Alaska. His pure white body shimmered beneath the water in a grotesque parody of a griffin in flight. Though Neb's heart beat galloped, actions seemed to slow. He watched Fletcher's front legs unfurl and stretch, talons hooked and open ready to snag at Alaska's left wing. Neb kicked forwards, indicating to Balkind to do the same. Please, Romulus, please get this right. Because if the Griffin Master fouled up, at best Alaska's rescue would fail; at worse, they were all doomed. Too high, they would miss their target. Too low, and the metallic pink waters flashing by inches beneath Balkind's undercarriage would claim them all … only seconds to go now. He sensed Balkind's fore legs stretching, stretching. Balkind's head and neck also stretched; straight, perfectly aligned with his body and wings. The usually mischievous griffin gave off an air of determination. Neb glanced left, at the Griffin Master, and Romulus grimaced. 'If this doesn't work, get Balkind out of here – fast,' he ordered. Giving a sharp nod to show he understood, Neb turned to face front again. Gliding silently was unsettling, but all he could do now was sit still, and pray the contact Balkind and Fletcher made with Alaska's wing edges would be enough. Pray too Alaska isn't already dead.
Neb sat very still, poised to shift his weight in harmony with Balkind's movements. There was a soft jolt, followed by a loud slurping of water. Fletcher and Balkind grunted at the same time and their flight stuttered. Automatically, Neb's hands curled around the furl of Balkind's wings; placing a firmer pressure on the left, keeping it still, at the same time, he shifted his pelvis forwards, pushing his heels against Balkind's flanks. 'Steady, steady,' he murmured. Sensing movement, he looked to his right. The very rear of Balkind's wing seemed to ripple. The griffin's shoulders hunched and his neck dipped as he strained with all his might to keep momentum going. The slurping sound increased. Looking between the triangle of Fletcher's and Balkind's outstretched necks, Neb saw fountains of water cascade upwards as Alaska's wings, lifted by two pairs of steel like talons, emerged from the water. His head lolled onto his neck, but his snout was free of the water. They'd made contact! But they still had over two hundreds yards before making shore. Two hundred yards of flying in perfect symmetry; two hundred yards of not knowing if Alaska lived, or was already dead.
'Breathe, please breathe,' Neb whispered. Romulus glared over at him, then looked straight ahead again, his sight fixed on the horizon. But Neb knew that Romulus also willed Fletcher on, willed Balkind on, and most of all, willed Alaska to breathe.
Neb's body ached with tension; poor Balkind, struggling to drag the equivalent of waterlogged mattress using only one wing, while keeping perfect time with Fletcher, must be exhausted. A chilly cloak of condensation covered Neb's skin, Balkind's feathers also glistened with damp. But moment by moment, inch by inch, the shore line drew nearer. Barely fifty feet from shore, Alaska regained consciousness and immediately began to struggle, throwing his head from side to side, thrashing water into his rescuers' faces and drenching them.
'Pack it in!' Romulus ordered, but without his usual force. Obviously, the old warrior felt even more bone weary than Neb.
'Hush now, hush now, Alaska, nearly there, nearly home,' Neb soothed in a sing-song voice. Both Romulus and Fletcher grunted, but Neb continued to croon, and thankfully, Alaska stopped struggling. The lake's heavy stench of rotting vegetables and bad drains coated Neb's throat; not all the soap back at camp would be enough to wash the smell away. Still Balkind's muscles quivered under the strain of his burden, made double by the constricted movement of his solo wing, and Neb's own muscles ached in sympathy.
Finally, they made land. Alaska's forelegs scrabbled and he shook his upper body, with his rear legs and tail still in water. With an untidy flap of his right wing, Balkind toppled onto his side, and Neb rolled from his back. In time to see Fletcher stretch his wings and make a more dignified hop over Alaska's head, and crouch for the Griffin Master to dismount. Alaska dragged himself from the water and pushed himself into a more natural looking crouch. All three griffins panted heavily, in between shaking their feathers and twisting their heads this way and that to preen. Neb slapped water from his own clothes, then buried his face in his hands, before dragging them through his hair. He glanced over to Romulus, squatting with his hands between his knees, carefully examining Alaska. Neb walked over on unsteady legs, and collapsing to his knees, said. 'Thank you, sir.'
Romulus's head turned; he studied Neb as though seeing him for the first time. Then one side of his face lifted in a lopsided grin, and he laid a hand on Neb's shoulder. 'Nay, lad. Thank you.' Still with a hand on Neb's shoulder, he sat down. Neb half sat, half tumbled, to sit beside Romulus on the gravelly shore. With the old warrior's hand still draped over his shoulder, Neb watched in wonder as the griffins continued grooming and preening their feathers back into place. His gaze returned to Balkind: I don't care how difficult Balkind is to ride; because he's also the cleverest, fastest, and bravest griffin on Ella-Earth.
As though reading his thoughts and agreeing with him, Romulus slapped at Neb's shoulder, grunted and stood.
'Time to go and tear the skin off of that fool Euwan. You stay here. When Alaska's fully recovered, I want you to walk those two griffins back to camp. Understand me, boy?'
Neb also stood, and bowed his head. 'Understood, sir.'
Camp was a good two hours' march from here, but if Romulus so desired, Neb would walk to the ends of Ella-Earth for the Griffin Master.
© Julia Hughes 2014.
Taken from "The Griffin's Flight" to be published 25th September 2014. Book #1 "The Griffin's Boy" is free to download from Amazon, Smashwords and all good virtual booksites.