For those who won't be able to join us, "The Griffin's Fool" is reproduced below.
"The Griffin's Fool" extracted from "The Griffin's Boy".
Neb and Eric reached the village's outskirts, when the thunderous beating of griffin wings pounding the air announced the return of Romulus and Chief Wulfstan.
Oh my heavens, have I got some explaining to do; I wonder what the punishment is for stealing a griffin?
Neb gulped, then squared his shoulders and lifted his chin, and went to meet his fate.
Excited shouts rang out from the path behind and led by Luke, a stream of children barged past Neb and Eric. Balkind landed first, followed by Fletcher. The children surged back into a respectful circle, Fletcher slumped into a crouch to allow Chief Wulfstan to dismount. Balkind also crouched, but before the Griffin Master's feet touched terra firma, the griffin spotted his boy. Balkind clapped his wings, and bounded forwards; Romulus toppled to the ground in a heap. Neb placed a hand over his eyes and moaned. The hairs on his scalp stood up as Balkind first wuffled at his head and then inserted his snout into Neb's hand with an insistent demand to be stroked, petted, and told what a good griffin he was.
'You! Boy! Get over here – and bring that disobedient griffin with you!' Romulus roared.
Neb sensed Eric's unspoken sympathy, and his cheeks burned hotter. With every eye in the village on him, he walked towards the Griffin Master, conscious of Balkind meekly following. Women called to their children and suddenly every villager recalled a task requiring their immediate attention. It seemed they shared Eric's sympathy, but sympathy wouldn't save him from Romulus' rage. What was the punishment for stealing a griffin?
'Explain yourself.' Romulus said, in an ominously quiet voice.
'Sir, you choose Balkind, but he was left behind. I was … I thought …' Neb's mouth dried up, and his mind refused to deliver any further instructions to his tongue. At least Samara wasn't here, she would either be smiling at his discomfort or spitting with rage at this injustice. That last image gave him the courage to say:
'Balkind's not disobedient. He's clever, too clever for his own good, but he can learn. And he deserves his chance.'
'Deserves his chance?' Romulus repeated, sounding amazed that anyone would dare question his judgement.
'You chose him, it isn't his fault that Padrick failed to ride him. Balkind behaved when you rode him.' This was a hope rather than a certainty, based on Romulus' return to the village in one piece.
'Just about,' Romulus muttered, with a baleful glance at Balkind, now sitting to attention, though he looked longingly over to the pile of fish bones scattered around the barn. Following the griffin's gaze, Neb watched as the barn door's opened, and Blain emerged. He slapped his hands together, chivvied the men closest to him to get back to work and then spotting Romulus, ambled over.
Meanwhile, Chief Wulfstan, who had been murmuring with Lady Lydia, now turned to Romulus.
'Griffin Master, my wife has suggested, and I agree, that if the young griffin and his rider are not suited to your recruitment, we would welcome their services.'
Inwardly, Neb cringed. He flashed a glance at Chief Wulfstan, beneath the chief's broad brow, brown eyes gazed serenely at the Griffin Master. He's just lit the fuse to a barrel of explosives, and he's either very brave or …
'Chief Wulfstan, with respect, what you ask is impossible!' Blain's arm crashed down around Romulus's shoulders. 'Since time began, it has been the Griffin Masters' role to train young griffins and their riders. It is for the Griffin Master to say …'
'Enough Blain,' Romulus interrupted mildly. Neb risked glancing upwards, and then quickly stared at the ground again when Blain winked at him. A tingle of excitement spread through him though, starting with his toes and working its way up to his chest, where it lodged and began to flutter. A heavy silence hung over the three men, yet somehow they appeared to communicate. Sitting beside Neb, Balkind resembled a statue, as though he knew his future was in the balance and being weighed.
Perhaps they're waiting for me to leave, so Romulus can explain to Chief Wulfstan just how disobedient Balkind – and his lad – have been, Neb thought, and the hope in his chest fluttered even more frantically. He twisted the strand of beads around his wrist nervously. Should I try again to explain why Balkind deserves a second chance? He risked another glance upwards. Wulfstan and Blain's eyes were on Romulus, whose milky eye remained on Neb, as though it could see into his mind; but the one working eye flickered from Neb to Balkind and back again. Neb chewed at his lip, if Romulus dismissed Balkind entirely, would he still be accepted as a griffin lad? Would he want to be a griffin lad, knowing that Balkind, who loved people, had been turned away into the wild? Neb looked up yet again. Blain still smiled, the Griffin Master's colour had returned to normal and Neb realised only a few seconds, not eons had passed. Both Romulus's eyes were on him now. Neb swallowed hard, and emulated Balkind, standing to attention.
'If you want that – bull headed griffin to join my troop, there's one condition. You keep Balkind out of trouble. Think you can do that?'
Neb's lips curled into a smile, he nodded his head up and down, and then managed to speak.
'Yes sir – of course sir! I can do that, and thank you!' He patted Balkind, who continued to sit quietly, with his eyes still trained on the pile of discarded fish guts.
Neb turned to grin at Blain and then nodded politely towards Chief Wulfstan. Both men smiled back and Blain reached out a hand to pat Neb's shoulder.
'I gather you're pleased then?' Blain asked, raising his eyebrows.
'Very pleased, Balkind's going to be the best behaved griffin,' at this Romulus grunted and turned to stomp away. Wulfstan stroked his chin, and gazed after the Griffin Master. 'Not out to win too many friends, is he? He made his opinion about my flying skills very clear.'
'He's tired and hungry. He's agreed to stay until Lord Massant arrives,' Lady Lydia looked thoughtful. 'Apparently there's something he wants to discuss with my cousin.'
The adults' conversation flowed over Neb's head; he continued to gloat over his good fortune.
He became aware of Blain's rumbling voice, and tuned back in:
'Chief Luthan – refusing to demolish his dam– unthinkable! Does he really believe he can get away with this – tampering?'
Lady Lydia spoke firmly. 'When my cousin's levy marches on him, Luthan will soon see sense – if he wants to remain as chieftain of Penwryn that is!'
She bustled off to oversee preparations for her cousin's arrival. Blain and Chief Wulfstan wandered off towards the fields where Lord Massant's levy would make camp. Neb stared after them, feeling as though he'd just woken from a dream. He re-ran Romulus's words through his mind again. 'Keep that bull headed griffin out of trouble!' he whispered to himself – easy!
Balkind nuzzled at his hair and Neb reached up to scratch behind the griffin's ear.
Romulus' voice rang out across the courtyard, 'Balkind and Balkind's Boy, stop preening each other and get over here now!'
Reaching up, Neb patted Balkind's snout, 'Did you hear that? The Griffin Master summoned Balkind, that's you – and Balkind's Boy – that's me!' He twisted the bead bracelet around his wrist, and grinned. He decided that when they next met, he'd ignore her insult and thank Samara for her gift. Then he dismissed her from his mind and hurried to obey the Griffin Master.