My childhood ended that morning, with my betrothal to a man twenty years my senior. Before the sun rose again, I would be a widow in all but name, and accused of my husband-to-be's murder. Small wonder I remember too well the day The Griffin's Boy fell from the skies…
The sound of distant thunderclaps increased, but no storm threatened. The noise swelled to fill the air and a troop of Griffin Riders winged their way overhead. The branch under Samara's feet trembled, indeed the entire tree swayed. She wrapped one arm around the tree's trunk, raised the other high into the air, and strained upwards to wave and shout at the riders. On the other side of the tree trunk, her friend Lillian's face grew puce as she too tried to attract the Griffin Riders' attention. But their cries of 'HELP!' were smothered by the rush of wings beating against the air. As the sound lessened and the riders became mere smudges in the sky, Samara slumped back against the tree trunk. She peered through the tree's greenery at Lillian. Her chubby face seemed to crumple. Then, the younger girl tried to smile and said: 'I think a couple of them waved back – do you think they saw us?'
Had any of the high flying Griffin Riders spotted a couple of youngsters waving from a lonely tree on a hilltop? Samara chewed her lip, thinking it was doubtful. Even if they had, they'd probably seen a couple of mud splattered urchins. But Lillian was a Chieftain's daughter, and his son, her little brother, was clinging to life in the middle of a raging river. If help didn't arrive soon, Luke would die. This morning the river had disappeared, leaving only a gloopy mess littered with stranded fish. The villagers' faced starvation … unless the fish could be salted and stored for winter. The village miser, Vander, had agreed to give his gold to purchase salt, in exchange for Samara's hand in marriage. After the bargain had been struck, the Chieftain's wife spoke calmly. 'Of course, the marriage cannot take place until Samara reaches her eighteenth birthday.'
No man, not even Vander, dared argue with Lady Lydia. She was the sister of Lords, and had thrown Samara a life-line. A lot can happen in five years, were the unspoken words exchanged between the woman and girl. As they were soon to discover, a lot can happen in five hours…
Every man, woman, and child helped collect the dead and dying fish that morning. Then without warning, as suddenly as it had disappeared, the river returned. Taking Luke with it. By heavens' grace, the boy had managed to clamber onto a fallen tree-trunk. But it was lodged against the rivers' banks, any attempt at rescue could result in a mudslide, or the trunk becoming dislodged.
Bellowing for his horse, Chief Wulfstan had immediately galloped off to seek help from the nearest Griffin Riders' camp. Lady Lydia had been left to deal with hysterical women and children, while firmly over-riding the 'have-a-go heroes' and refocusing efforts to salvage the village's winter fish stock. So when Samara suggested she and Lillian keep a watch out from a nearby hilltop, Lady Lydia agreed with a brief smile of thanks.
We should have brought a beacon, or something, Samara thought, just as Lillian shouted. 'Samara! Look! There's still hope!' and she laughed out-loud. Clutching the tree trunk again, Samara swivelled and then strained to look in the direction of Lillian's pointing finger. She tilted her head way back, and hope unfurled again. A lone griffin, flying higher and faster than any of the previous griffins, appeared like a silver arrow speeding across the sky. It seemed to have dropped from the heavens above. It plummeted earthwards, gathering mass as it swooped towards the girls and their tree. Samara shrunk back against the tree trunk and shuddered as the massive creature swept past, so close, she could have touched its feathers … had its wings been outstretched. Joy danced in the griffin's emerald green eyes, and its rider, who had startlingly blond hair, also shouted. Samara smothered a scream, Lillian's screech of warning pierced through the torrent of air that raged in the griffin's wake.
'Look out, look out, look out!' she shouted. Samara buried her forehead against the tree's bark; she couldn't watch. Any moment now, the griffin's beakish snout would plough into the hill's brow, and the majestic beast and its rider would be mangled flesh. But her eyes were still glued on the impending disaster and in any case, she couldn't shut out the sounds of flesh smacking against iron hard ground, or bones splintering. Then, from the corner of her vision, Samara witnessed a miracle. The griffin's forelegs swiped through the long meadow grass, then tucked neatly against its belly, its wings catapulted out, and it soared upwards, defying gravity.
'Such skill,' Lillian gasped. Samara still clung to the tree, breathless. She gazed upwards. The griffin was now just a grey blot bobbing against the blue sky, like a child's kite freed from its string.
Just as Samara remembered to breath, Lillian gasped again. 'Oh!'
Samara tilted her head upwards again, straining to see … a speck had detached itself from the griffin. As it hurtled towards the ground, it grew legs, then arms, and Samara saw from the mass of blond hair that it was the griffin's rider, falling, falling. A rough shout reached her ears 'Balkind! CATCH!' and the rider flung his arms outwards at right angles to his plummeting body.
'He's practising "fall and catch,"' Lillian breathed, amazement in her voice.
'No he isn't,' Samara replied, but her voice was muffled by the tree bark, as she once again tried to shield her gaze. She tensed, waiting for the impact. None came. Instead, Lillian shouted: 'well caught!' and Samara opened her eyes in time to see the rider dangling from his griffin's front talons. The griffin seemed to have heard Lillian: it hooted, ducked its head as though taking a bow, and then soared upwards once more.
'Drop, Balkind, drop!' At this command, the griffin dipped slightly and the rider dropped from its talons, tumbling safely to the ground.
Samara felt weak with relief. Then with a flash of wonderment, realised that their prayers had been answered. Luke's salvation had arrived.
Samara scrambled down the tree and straddled the lowest branch, preparing to swing herself to the ground. A sudden blast of warm air swept past her and she hiccupped in surprise, teetering on the edge of gravity. When she regained her balance, she pivoted her head to scan the vastness of green meadow. The griffin and its rider had vanished. Then a bellow flooded the meadow. Samara shrunk back against the fork of the branch, trying to meld into the tree's trunk. The rawness of the sound came from the meadow's basin, so she stared in that direction in time to see the griffin flying straight towards her. Its nostrils flared, its neck arched, and long grass rippled under its outstretched wingspan. In the late afternoon sunshine, its feathers shone like metal: the blue grey colour of pewter. Samara's eyes were drawn to its talons, they reached out towards her; just one would be enough to grasp her head and crush her skull. From somewhere above, she heard Lillian's whimper. Samara swallowed her own moan of fear, hiccupped again, and screwed her eyes closed. She heard a soft whump, then the rustle of something large moving through the long grass. Her eyelids sprung open of their own accord. She clasped her hands over her mouth and stifled an hysterical giggle. The griffin was shuffling around its rider, letting out small hoots of joy, and generally behaving as any small dog or cat does on the return of its owner. Its rider, whose legs were way longer than any legs should be, petted and fussed the griffin back. Beneath the rider's long blond hair, his grimy tunic was rumpled and striped with rips from the griffin's talons. The griffin continued to hoot, the man continued to pat and stroke him.
'Good boy, good griffin, clever, clever griffin,' he shouted above the griffin's two tone hoots of joy.
Samara's hands curled into fists and she choked back tears of rage – how dare they! She had been frightened almost witless, but for those two, it was just a game. Well, time to stop their fun!
Summoning up an image of Lady Lydia, she rehearsed the words in her mind, and then stated loudly: 'It didn't look that clever to me.'
Both griffin and rider stilled. The man spun around to look in her direction. He swayed, through dizziness perhaps, and called out. 'Who's there?' Samara saw that he wasn't much older than her. She slipped down from the tree and landed lightly on her feet. The youth blinked, his eyes wide and staring. One hand clutched at his griffin, and he crossed the fingers of his other hand. Samara read his mind and curled her lips into a smile.
I remember the sweet meadow grass skimming my thighs as I waded towards him. He clung onto his griffin as though scared I might steal it, and made a sign against evil. I have that effect on strangers; there's Pict blood on my mother's side, and I've heard the word 'Pictsie', and even 'pixie' muttered by the ignorant. But then his griffin gave a welcoming cluck and nuzzled at my hair. Lillian came skipping over to join us, we explained about Luke, and begged for his help. Now that I know him better, I know he'd risk his life for others.
But that day, he seemed to look down on me and Lillian, and seemed about to refuse. Until Vander rode up on a white mule and taunted him: 'A boy and a gryffant, when we need a Griffin Rider,' he sneered. The griffin's boy flushed, and suddenly it was the three of us against one adult.
'The girl will show me will show me the way,' he said abruptly, throwing me astride the griffin's back. Lillian protested – she wanted to ride too – but we were already gambolling up the hill. If you've ever sat astride a see-saw, you'll know how it felt to bounce around on a gambolling griffin's back. It has a curious upsie-downsie movement. With one last bounce, the rollicking motion stopped, the griffin – Balkind – spread its wings and we soared over everything. I felt my stomach twist and my heart seemed to lodge in my throat. The sensation of freedom intoxicated me and peels of laughter, unbidden, rang from my lips. Lillian and Vander shrunk to doll size, then we were flying over the village. Again the huts, barns and Main Hall appeared like child's toys. I pointed and shouted directions. We flew over a huddle of drab looking men and women and I felt a stab of pity that they were earthbound: I was a goddess, skimming through the skies. The rider's body twisted slightly, the griffin tilted his right wing, and we were flying over the raging river. The muscles in the rider's shoulders and back tensed, and I knew he signalled to the griffin to fly lower. Beneath me, I felt the griffin's skin twitch and realised the beast was skittish; it didn't want to fly along this river, and it certainly wasn't going to fly any lower. Reluctance in every wing beat, the griffin followed the bend of the river. Its course narrowed slightly, and became even more raucous, if that was possible. There was a patch of shingle either side of the river, and flotsam frothed against an outcrop of rocks. Jammed against these rocks was a tree trunk, and heavens be praised, by some miracle, Luke still clung to this lifeline. Beneath my hands, the griffin's boy's shoulders hunched, and his griffin snorted loudly. I sensed the griffin's boy's despair, but before he could tell me we were on a fool's errand, I cupped my hands around my mouth and called out to Luke:
'Hang on Luke, hang on! The griffin and his rider are here. You're going to be saved.'
False or not, I purposely gave hope. Luke's only chance of salvation was this griffin and his young rider: He would later become my salvation, as I would be his, but that then was all in the future. From the moment he fell from the sky, the fates of the griffin's boy and mine were entwined.
For better or worse.