The griffin's wings stroked through the skies as a swimmer strokes through water; pushing each new wingful of air behind them, then reaching for the next, steadily climbing higher and higher. The boy clinging to its back gulped and peered over the griffin's right wing. Far far below, Lake Opus appeared like a puddle. Its surrounding craggy volcanic rocks were smears of black, with a red cluster of pinpricks on the Southern Shore barely visible, but he knew his fellow recruits watched. He looked to his left. Also just about visible, but shadowing the inexperienced rider and his griffin, the golden outline of Fletcher, the legendary mount of Griffin Master Romulus.
He'd never flown this high before, but was he high enough? His heart hammered inside his chest and he gulped again, screwing up his courage. His future depended on the next few moments and the reactions of his griffin. His heart hammered harder, painfully, and it took all his conscious will to drag his right leg over the griffin's back and perch sideways. His right hand still clutched at wing feathers, but under his left hand, the griffin's velvet pelt was slick with sweat. He moaned. The thermal they'd been riding on vanished without warning, as thermals do, and the griffin lurched to its left. The boy caught his breath and knowing it was now or never, before he could think again, pushed himself from the griffin's back.
He was falling – shooting towards the ground – which rose up faster than he could have imagined. His stomach also rose and he gasped, desperate to inhale, but he was dropping too fast – much too fast – the words formed in his mind: Catch me, catch me, oh for heavens' sakes – with a tremendous effort of will he forced the words from his mouth 'Catch mmeeeeeee!' but the wind snatched the thin treble scream away as though he hadn't spoken. The ground was so close now. Barely seconds until he crashed and every bone in his body would shatter. I'm going to die! he thought. He wanted desperately to call out to his griffin again, but his stomach merged with his ribcage, filling his chest with bile. A blast of chilly air struck and the lake's waters filled his vision. Drown! I'm going to drown! At least death won't be painful. Accepting his fate, his mind cleared and he screeched out the first word he had ever spoken. 'Maaammaaaaa!'
Seconds later, iron bands gripped at his upper arms and he screamed again.
A voice from above spoke. 'Stop screaming, boy. I've got you.' The boy's feet rippled the lake's surface as Fletcher flew him towards the rocks and safety. His stomach's contents lurched upwards again, this time burning their way up through the sensitive tissues of his throat and the boy's breakfast splattered over the lake.
'Good catch, Fletcher!' The smallest of the recruits, Perry called, as the Griffin Master guided Fletcher, with Euwan still dangling from his talons, towards the shore and safety. Fletcher's talons uncurled and Euwan tumbled into a heap on a nearby boulder. He immediately curled into a ball and began sobbing. Puzzled, Perry glanced towards his fellow recruits. The six would be griffin riders were spread out over a cluster of broad smooth boulders, jutting up from the earth to rise about twenty feet above the lake, like a pod of beached whales. This was officially their first "Fall and Catch" lesson. Unofficially – even unintentionally – at least three of the six recruits that made up Romulus's Secondary Squad had experienced the terror – and exhilaration of being snatched from a free fall by their griffin's talons.
On a neighbouring boulder, Perry's best friend, Solly, shivered as he listened intently to Balkind's Rider, Neb. The other two recruits laughed openly at Euwan, and Perry frowned at them. As the first to practise "fall and catch", Perry had also felt a hot shameful flush on being snatched to safety at the last moment by Fletcher. The other recruits, including Euwan, had laughed at him too, but Perry had dusted himself off, and as Solly was doing now, paid close attention to Neb's advice, and made a second, successful attempt. Perry's blood still thrilled from the excitement of being snatched from the air by his griffin, Moonshine. Smiling faintly at the memory, he ran a hand along Moonshine's black and white feathers until he reached the griffin's velveteen pelt, and scratched at Moonshine's sweet spot. Moonshine closed his eyes and clucked with pleasure. Balkind hung his grey snout-like beak over Moonshine's shoulder, hoping to be petted too. Perry obliged, then before any of the other griffins could nudge him with demands to be petted and scratched too, he hopped skipped and jumped across to Solly and Neb's boulder.
Still shivering, although only the lightest of breezes blew from the lake, Solly continued to listen to Neb's last minute instructions.
'Remember, keep talking to Thunder-Child, don't fly too high, just high enough. When you jump, make your call loud and clear,' Neb finished up, petting Thunder-Child's dark blue flank, just as Fletcher swooped overhead. Without bothering to land, the Griffin Master shouted. 'You! Thunder-Child's Rider! Up you go!'
'Fall well,' Perry advised his friend. Too excited to speak, Solly nodded, and grinned. After readjusting his red cloak over his shoulders, he leaned over to tuck his trousers into his boots, causing tendrils of light brown hair to fall over his face. He smoothed his hair back behind his ears, then had to readjust his cloak again.
'Thunder-Child's Rider! Stop preening yourself and mount-up!' Romulus bellowed, and although Fletcher was already fathoms high and half way across the lake, Solly cringed as though the Griffin Master had shouted into his ear. With a wry smile, Neb patted Thunder-Child's flank again and stood back, allowing Solly to mount. 'Catch well,' he said, and Thunder-Child hooted, as though acknowledging Balkind's Rider.
With a look of determination on his young face, Solly signalled to his griffin and Thunder-Child inflated his wings. Stretching his wings to full span, Thunder-Child gambolled forwards and launched himself from the boulder's edge to soar over the lake's waters. Perry's head tilted upwards to watch his friend. Neb clambered across the neighbouring boulder to join Trelan and Raul. Having grown bored with jeering at Euwan, the two older recruits were now skimming stones across the lake, hoping for some attention from a group of village girls, who in turn were casting fishing lines into the lake. Neb prodded Raul with his toe. 'Alaska's still fooling around up there,' he pointed towards a patch of white that could have been mistaken for a cloud, only it moved too fast, and seemed to be circling the lake. Raul shrugged, and skimmed another stone. It sank after four bounces and a faint jeer floated across the lake from the girls.
'It's Solly's first "fall and catch", he needs to concentrate on his own griffin, not Euwan's,' Neb explained, ignoring Raul's scowl.
'You really do have a one track mind,' Raul said, but he got up, dusted his hands together, and ran his finger tips across his upper lip, as if checking that his wisp of newly emerged facial hair hadn't disappeared. Then he jumped over to the boulder where Euwan huddled. Over the past year, Neb had gained a grudging acceptance from his fellow recruits, at least those in his own squad. Apart from Euwan, who refused to speak to him.
'Neb says you should cry your griffin down,' Raul said. Whether he'd planned to annoy, or he'd genuinely forgotten Euwan hated Neb's guts, the result was the same.
'Tell the nameless one I don't take orders from bast… him!' Euwan jumped to his feet and glared towards Neb. Ignoring him, Neb tipped his head back and shielded his eyes. Like a white shadow, Alaska hovered around fifty feet above his sanctuary mate, Thunder-Child. What happened next would haunt Neb's dreams for weeks to come. Afterwards, some of Romulus's recruits argued that Alaska somehow reasoned that catching Solly would make up for the griffin's failure to catch his own rider, Euwan.
Others argued that it was a griffin's instinct to snatch at a falling rider – any falling rider, and Solly had just been horribly unfortunate. Whenever these arguments started up, Neb's lips would tighten, and he'd refuse to comment. Euwan had been sent home in disgrace.
If it had been up to Neb, the punishment would have been far greater.
But on that breezy Spring afternoon, Euwan's disgrace and Neb's nightmares were all in the future. Solly and Thunder-Child had made a half circuit of the lake. They weren't too high, close enough for Neb to see Thunder-Child's talons stretch and contract: it seemed Solly was following Neb's advice, readying Thunder-Child to be prepared to catch. But they flew high enough for Fletcher to provide a safety net, should the young griffin fail in his first attempt to catch his rider. Thunder-Child swept around the far side of the lake, picking up speed and height as he rounded the lake's furthest point and caught sight of his sanctuary mates. Neb watched as a bundle fell from Thunder-Child's back and heard Solly's voice carry clearly across the waters.
The griffin angled its snout like beak ground-wards, folded its wings and swooped down, down, down. A huge smile spread over Neb's face. Although from here, it seemed Thunder-Child's undercarriage was about to collide with Solly, Neb knew differently. At the last moment, the griffin's wings unfolded, its fore legs angled forwards, and its talons gripped around the padded leather armlets of Solly's tunic. With a victory hoot, the young griffin soared upwards. Neb, Raul and Trelan laughed out-loud at Solly's squeak of 'Down, Thunder-Child, down!' Being dangled inches above the lake's surface was far preferable to dangling from a griffin's talons fathoms high in the sky.
'Hooray! They did it!' Perry cheered, jigging from one foot to another, and an echoing cheer rose from the village girls. One even waved.
'See that? She waved at me!' Raul clutched at Trelan and waved back vigorously, before draping an arm around Neb and Trelan's shoulders. Screwing up his eyelids, Raul pretended to peer closer at the group of girls. Their brightly coloured dresses fluttered in the breeze and were entirely unsuitable for fishing, but marked the group as young and definitely female, although from here, no individual features were visible. That didn't stop Raul's high spirits. 'Don't think much of your two,' he said, punching first Neb then Trelan.
Trelan stroked his own wispy moustache, and glanced sideways at Neb. 'Our young friend already has a girl, isn't that right, Neb?' he smirked, then put his tongue in his cheek.
If Neb denied this outrageous statement too hotly, he'd be teased. Deny too coolly, he'd be teased. A sudden vision of Samara didn't help. Even in his imagination, her eyes held a mocking laughter. The soft skin behind Neb's ears prickled as he struggled for the right tone of careless denial, and he almost felt relief when a scream rang out.
Neb glanced towards Perry, who tottered on the boulder's edge and pointed urgently into the sky. Following his panic stricken gaze, Neb also looked up and across the lake. With one voice, Neb, Trelan and Raul shouted:
'Solly! Look out for Alaska!'
From "The Griffin's Flight" (working title only) to be published Autumn 2014.
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